Everyone in the broken-down town of Chelsea, Massachussetts, has a story too worn to repeat—from the girls who play the pass-out game just to feel like they’re somewhere else, to the packs of aimless teenage boys, to the old women from far away who left everything behind. But there’s one story they all still tell: the oldest and saddest but most hopeful story, the one about the girl who will be able to take their twisted world and straighten it out. The girl who will bring the magic.
Could Sophie Swankowski be that girl? With her tangled hair and grubby clothes, her weird habits and her visions of a filthy, swearing mermaid who comes to her when she’s unconscious, Sophie could be the one to uncover the power flowing beneath Chelsea’s potholed streets and sludge-filled rivers, and the one to fight the evil that flows there, too. Sophie might discover her destiny, and maybe even in time to save them all.
I feel like if you’re a queer person in New England, you’ve heard of this book. A magical realism read featuring queer characters and a diverse cast set not in Boston but in the nearby town of Chelsea. Its art is gorgeous, and I’ve spotted print versions of it in every single local bookstore. The locals are proud of this book, that’s for sure. With everything I’d heard and the pictures I’d seen when flipping through print copies, I was expecting something a bit different from what I got. Maybe more queer content? Maybe magical rules based in the here rather than in the “old world”? Regardless, I enjoyed it. It just wasn’t what I was expecting.
First, let’s talk about my favorite thing which was how much the author evokes the reality of the place of run-down New England towns in spite (or because of?) the magical content. My skin prickled when I read about Sophie and her best friend going to Revere Beach in the summer. It was just so damn accurate. I had a similar sensation when she talked about the feeling of being in a town that was once booming and now is struggling. There’s no doubt about it, the New England towns that were once booming from manufacturing and are now struggling simply feel dirty, and the author really evokes that. (I should know; I grew up in one). Oddly enough, this magical realism book brings out the feeling of small town struggling New England life more than a lot of realistic fiction I’ve read. If you want to know what it feels like to grow up in one of those towns, read this book.
Second, there’s the magical content. I was expecting something steeped in the local as well, but instead the magic was based entirely in countries parents and grandparents emigrated from. There’s nothing bad about that, it just wasn’t what I was expecting from a book so steeped in place. I also must admit that I found the whole vibe of “magic can only come from other places” to be a bit disappointing. America may be a young nation, but we have our own magic. I’d have liked to have seen a mix of both, rather than the magic be exlusively the domain of immigration.
Third, there’s the queer content. I think I was expecting it to take a more central role, particularly since this is ya (and was talked about a lot in the LGBTQ book reading community) but actually I found it to be more like how the local PCP just so happens to be Asian-American. It’s a thing some people just happen to be and not much is made of that. That’s not a bad thing, again, it just wasn’t what I was expecting.
Overall, this is a fun read steeped in local flavor that I recommend to anyone seeking a fantastical twist on struggling New England town life. That said, the second book in the series promises a journey to Europe, and personally what I liked best about this book was the local flavor, so I don’t think I’ll be continuing along.
4 out of 5 stars
Twenty-one-year-old front girl Emmylou knows that getting her band noticed in the ‘90s indie rock scene will be no easy task. She definitely knows better than to break the number one rule of the band: Don’t sleep with your bandmates! But after she ends up having the best sex of her life with her guitarist, Travis, she finds following that rule is a lot harder than it sounds.
When the band gets the gig of their dreams, making it big seems just within reach. But Emmy’s inability to keep her hands off Travis threatens everything they’ve worked for. Can Emmy find a way to break the rules and not blow the chance of a lifetime?
It took me a moment to get past the fact that 90s now count as historic fiction. *pours one out for the 90s* But then again Fresh Off the Boat is set entirely in the 90s, much like That 70s Show, so it appears the time has come. I was not a “new adult” (refers to those post high school but pre having your shit together) in the 90s (I was solidly a kid coveting a tamagotchi) but I vaguely knew about all the fads the older kids were into like….flannel and grunge. This book oozes that, and the characters get to have the problems that arise from not having a cell phone or YouTube to promo your band. That was fun.
For those who don’t know, New Adult means to expect more sex. And oh man. The sex scenes in this book. There are a lot of them. They are explicit. I like that sort of thing, and even though I rolled my eyes occasionally at some of their more interesting bedroom pursuits (like “tattooing” with permanent marker), I still thought they were hot, well-written, within character, and, most importantly, made sense within the plot.
What I think could make people love or hate this book is the main character, Emmy. She narrates it in the first person and she is, well, she’s a 21-year-old. She makes problems where there shouldn’t be any problems. She gets all up in her head. She thinks in black and white. She is, basically, young and acts and talks like a young person. Yeah, sometimes it’s infuriating to see her fucking her own life up, but that’s realistic, especially for a character who’s supposed to be a passionate artistic type in a band. I was able to appreciate her for who she is and have faith that she’d grow and get past her issues, but I do think that not everyone would be able to see past that and enjoy it in the same way.
The series will follow other people involved in the indie rock scene, and so we’ve already met them in this book as secondary characters. I’m excited to see what hot shenanigans they get up to and hear a new voice’s take on everything going on for the various bands.
Recommended to those who want to take a visit to the 90s through the eyes of a passionate new adult.
4 out of 5 stars
Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture……
Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.
I wanted to say “I’m sure this was super progressive when it was first published” but actually it was first published in 1989 so….actually not so much. I think if I read this in print I might have flown through it faster and not noticed how kind of all-over-the-place it was but actually…it’s kind of all-over-the-place.
First there’s the weird backwards planet that for some reason has decided to revert to medieval European ways of being in spite of being settled at some point in the future when people figured out how to travel through space and colonize planets. Then we jump back to planet Earth which has been taken over by both Catholicism and some weird new religion that I still haven’t figured out but that seems to believe in saving the soul to computers? But also has forced monk servitude?
So some Catholics go to Grass (the medieval planet) because some evil flesh-eating plague is spreading all over the galaxy and Grass is the only place that doesn’t have it. Somehow Grass is blissfully unaware of the impending plague. The Catholic family consists of the mom who used to work helping people who didn’t obey the two child mandate, the father and his mistress, and their two teenagers (one boy and one girl and the girl is of course super sullen).
Then we have a long diatribe about this weird Fox Hunt the Grassians do using entirely alien species. Riding the aliens gives the women orgasms, and this is dangerous. I couldn’t help but feel like the author had some huge problem with horseback riding, and what is with that in scifi? HORSES ARE GREAT, SCIFI WRITERS. STOP WRITING THIS PLOT. Anyway so then somehow this plot of maybe the alien Fox Hunt is saving the Grassians from the plague takes a super weird religious turn involving morals and ethics and what are the aliens actually and the Catholic lady has some weird religious dream after she whacks her head and the aliens start attacking the humans and somehow they find a scientist/doctor person in the midst of all this who can help them with the cure yadda yadda. See? All over the place.
Ultimately it’s realized that this whole thing was basically Catholic lady’s mid-life crisis, and she finally comes into her own as a result of the whole thing and wow. I just kept thinking….who is so out-of-touch with themselves that it takes this whole huge interplanetary incident to sort your shit out? In the end I sort of felt like this is the book version of that random old lady you meet on the bus who talks to you through your headphones to tell you her “tragic” life story and you sit there nodding because you think she might be just a bit coo-coo and well her story is all-over-the-place but at least it’s moderately interesting and then at the end you realize her life has been awful because she is awful.
So…..if you’re a person who didn’t sort your shit out until mid-life and you have a lot of empathy for people who claim to be trapped by their own damn choices then you’ll probably enjoy this book. Also if you have some weird problem with horseback riding you’ll probably enjoy this book.
Why three stars? Because while I found it annoying and disappointing the plot was at least interesting, it was well-written on the readability level, and it was an audiobook but I read the whole thing, so I think that’s saying something.
3 out of 5 stars
River “Styx” Nash was born into the Hades Hangmen motorcycle club. He always knew he was set to inherit running it, in spite of his speech impediment, but he never expected to be running it at the young age of twenty-six. When a young woman shows up at their doorstep, bleeding and unconscious, he’s reminded of a girl he met at a fence in the woods when he was a boy….a girl who has haunted him ever since.
Salome grew up under Prophet David’s rule in the commune that’s the only home she’s ever known. When her sister dies, she finds the strength to run and somehow ends up in the arms of the man who was once a boy she met at the fence of the commune.
I’m being a bit charitable with my rating of this read because the juxtaposition of commune and motorcycle club (gang) is one I haven’t seen before, and I do think it’s interesting. Additionally, I do realize that these types of romances are basically fantasy so I try to cut them some leeway. That said, this book is not executed as well as it could have been for its genre. There are some jarring elements that take the reader out of the read, thus leading it to be less enjoyable.
First, it’s poorly edited. There are many clear mistakes such as saying things like “gotta to.” It reads like a first copy, not a final draft. Better editing would have really helped this book.
Second, you have to imagine that the reader who might pick up a romance featuring motorcycles might know a thing or two about them. While everything else surrounding the motorcycles can be pure fantasy, the motorcycles themselves should function like the real world (unless it’s scifi). Motorcycles, though, are treated in the book as basically cars with two wheels, and anyone who’s ridden one can tell you that’s not so, and a motorcycle gang definitely would know better than to treat them that way. One glaring instance of being unrealistic about bikes is when Salome first rides on one. The book sets it up that she has no idea what a motorcycle is. She’s never seen one before, she has zero idea how they work. In spite of this, the only riding instruction she’s given is to “hold on.” Even someone giving the most bare of instructions to a new passenger will tell them to follow the lead of the rider — to lean when they lean and not to counter-lean against the rider. This is basic safety and even a motorcycle gang would give those basic instructions because a passenger who is startled could easily cause the bike to crash and riders love their bikes. Similarly, in spite of Salome not knowing anything about motorcycles, she puts on the helmet with zero instructions. I have never seen anyone who’s never worn a motorcycle helmet before be able to put it on with zero instructions. The strap is complicated and almost always takes guidance. Additionally, we are to believe Salome is riding with someone who cares about her, yet he doesn’t check on her helmet at all. This is not something a rider who cares about his passenger would ever do.
The final thing I found jarring was descriptions of the abuse in the cult. I fully expected there to be cult abuse, but there are repeated flashbacks to the rape of 8 year olds whose legs are being held apart by bear traps. I personally find it extremely difficult to get into a romance that repeatedly flashes back to the graphic underage and violent rape of the main character. It made the book feel like it was at war with itself. Did it want to be a contemporary book about the horrors of cults or did it want to be a romance? You can be both, but that is a difficult book to write, and it’s important to either put all of the abuse in one area of the book (usually where the heroine informs the hero about it) or to make the abuse more minimal (ie maybe the heroine grew up in a cult that restricted her knowledge and movement but that didn’t rape her physically).
Ultimately, while I appreciate the interesting combination of main characters (leader of a motorcycle club and escapee from a cult), I found the execution to not live up to the unique premise. Primarily recommended to those interested in the fantasy of motorcycles with little personal knowledge of them. They will be more able to get fully into the fantasy.
3 out of 5 stars
‘Mancy (magic) is illegal in this parallel world where people find their obsessions turn into magical powers. Paul Tsabo has spent his life fighting to keep ‘mancers off the street and instead brainwashed into a military force. See, the universe hates magic, and if you use it too much, it will retaliate. By doing things like destroying Europe. So the brainwashing is safer. The only problem is that Paul has found himself obsessed with bureaucracy and has developed into a bureaucromancer. A series of unfortunate events leads him into agreeing to make Flex–magic distilled into crystal form for the non-magical to get high on. Paul has officially turned into what he once hunted.
This is a pretty cool concept. It sounds like it’ll be Breaking Bad: Urban Fantasy Style. Unfortunately, a lack of world building and a lack of focus in the plot made the book fall flat.
Let’s start with what I liked. The concept of how magic comes to be is pretty neat. I like the social commentary that magic is outlawed and the only magical people are the ones with an abnormal level of obsession with things. Using the urban fantasy magic element really highlights how different can be both beautiful and dangerous.
A key part of the plot revolves around Paul, who is recently divorced, and his wife trying to figure out how to co-parent. Paul is a majorly invested father. He doesn’t just walk away after the divorce. That’s nice to see. Also, it’s an inter-racial family. Paul is white, his ex-wife is black, and their daughter is obviously bi-racial.
Romance is really not a part of this plot. I thought at first it might be when a new character is introduced but it actually turns out that she’s introduced to develop a friendship with Paul. How often do we get to see genuine friendships between men and women in literature? Not often.
Unfortunately these positives were hurt by other aspects of the book. The worst is that the book reads like it’s one book for the first half then completely changes course halfway through. Essentially, the first half of the book is about drugs and is basically Breaking Bad. The second half of the book that plot is totally dropped and instead the characters are pursuing a Big Bad Buffy the Vampire Slayer style. It’s jarring and makes it feel like you’re reading a draft rather than a final version of the book. Plus, the book is heavily marketed as the drug book, when in fact the drugs are just dropped in the middle of the book, which is disappointing if that’s what you were reading the book for.
The world also isn’t built enough. For instance, we know Europe disappeared but we don’t know precisely how or when. This is a parallel universe to our own. You’d think that something like Europe disappearing would lead to some major changes in the world, but no. It reads like New York City is precisely like how it is in our world just with added ‘mancers. This is illogical. It can’t be both ways. It can’t both be a world with major changes like no more Europe but also simultaneously exactly like our own.
The book reads like the author has an agenda that comes through too clearly at times. How much that will bother the reader will depend upon if the reader agrees with the agenda or not, I’d imagine. I didn’t so it bugged me more than it might bother others. I also felt that some of the descriptive writing was weak or lazy, leading to a two-dimensionality that veers dangerously toward being offensive.
Overall, this is a good idea that was poorly executed. There are some individually cool scenes, particularly if you like seeing an interplay between our world, magic, and videogames. Recommended, then, to readers who seek out scenes like that and don’t mind the other weaknesses laid out in this review.
3 out of 5 stars
Audiobook Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Brandon Espinoza and Phoebe Strole)
When a giant spaceship showed up above Earth that wasn’t ours, Cassie and everyone else expected contact. What they didn’t expect was waves of attacks, everything from EMP to disease. Now, she’s at a refugee camp with her father and little brother wondering what the 5th wave of the attack might be. When it comes, will they even know?
I really enjoyed Rick Yancey’s other series (The Monstrumologist, series review). I must admit to being surprised that this is the series that got picked up into a movie. I didn’t find the blurb nearly as intriguing as that of The Monstrumologist. But since I liked the other series so much, I figured I’d give it a shot. While I can see why it’s taken off, I don’t find it to be as well-constructed or nearly as unique as Yancey’s other series.
The beginning of the book is very slow-paced. Cassie is off hiding in the woods on her own and through her diary where she tries to deal with what has happened the reader learns about the waves of the alien invasion. I like a diary book, but the slow pacing just really didn’t work for a book about an alien invasion.
At a certain point, this narration switches for one chapter to that of the perspective of an alien. Then it switches to the perspective of a boy from Cassie’s high school she had a crush on and his experiences with the alien invasion. Later it flips back to Cassie, only it’s now no longer her diary. Her diary just sort of gets dropped. While I can enjoy multiple narrators, I don’t think these are handled as well as they could have been. The chapter from the alien’s perspective ruins any tension or mystery that had been building around a certain event, in particular. Often switching between Cassie and Ben just feels like it’s convenient for world building and not adding very much to the plot. That said, I do like that the “star” position of this YA action is shared between a boy and a girl fairly equally.
The plot, although slow-moving, starts out strong. There is a plot twist that made me roll my eyes and that I think makes this less unique in YA literature than it started out.
Initially it appears that there will be no love triangle but there ends up being one. I can’t go into the details without some big spoilers but I will say that you make it through most of the book without a love triangle, and then there ends up being one in the last bit. It was disappointing, as I thought something more unique was being done (something akin to a crush turning into a real friendship…but that’s not what happens).
Ultimately the book ends up feeling less about aliens and more about the horrors of child soldiers and war stealing childhood. I definitely think scifi can bring a current issue such as this to people’s attention, but I also think the narration and various irritating and/or confusing plot points ultimately weakens the point. I doubt when I was a teen that such a book would have made me think about child soldiers. Instead I would have felt misled by the title and blurb and been irritated about that, distracting from the point.
All of that said, if a YA reader is looking for an apocalyptic setting featuring dual leads instead of one hero, this is a book that will fit that bill. Just be sure the reader is ok with some surprisingly slow-moving portions for a book with an action-packed blurb. However, I would suggest that a YA reader looking for something truly different check out Yancey’s other YA series: The Monstrumologist.
3 out of 5 stars