review · three stars

Review: Notes from My Captivity by Kathy Parks

Title: Notes from My Captivity
Author: Kathy Parks
Rating: ★★★
Summary: Adrienne cares about three things: getting into a great college, becoming a revered journalist, and making her late father proud. So when she’s offered the chance to write an article that will get her into her dream school and debunk her stepfather’s belief in a legendary family of hermits, there’s no question that she’s going to fly across the world to investigate. But the Russian terrain is unforgiving and, when disaster strikes, none of the extensive preparations seem to matter. Now Adrienne’s being held captive by the family she was convinced didn’t exist, and her best hope for escape is to act like she cares about them, even if it means wooing the youngest son.


Notes from My Captivity is a strange novel, and flew way, way under the radar when it was published this past summer. (TBH, the only reason I read it was because a patron donated her ARC and I was like why not.) Kathy Parks divides her book into three-ish parts, but each one kind of blends together that the story moves forward before you stop to question whether any of it even makes sense. There’s a river-rafting adventure, then some conspiracy-theory fueled mystery, and then straight-up magical realism. (I mean, Parks includes these so-subtle-you-miss-them hints that not everything is as it seems, but they’re basically no less magical than a teenager stranded in Siberia so, you know, whatever.)

I didn’t not like the book, but rather felt like the supernatural elements weren’t introduced in such a way to satisfyingly get me to the ending that Parks wrote. (Like, does she classify this book as magical realism or just simply magical or as an allegory for faith?) I liked the mystery aspects (and their debunking) way more than the literal trek it took to get to that point in the story, and a part of me wishes Park could have written a little less literal action to more quickly focus on the emotional action.

With that said, however, Adrienne felt like an authentic teen completely thrown out of her element, written with pathos and an emotional arc that I could follow and root for. Her motivations were clear, her behavior genuine, and her grief palpable. And the book itself is filled with such great sarcasm and a swoon-worthy first-love that the good parts successfully tuck the bad ones out of sight.

four stars · review

Review: The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

Title: The Proposal
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Rating: ★★★★½
Summary: When freelance writer Nikole goes to a Dodgers game with her actor boyfriend, his man bun, and his bros, the last thing she expects is a scoreboard proposal. Saying no isn’t the hard part, though – it’s having to face a stadium full of disappointed fans. When Carlos comes to Nik’s rescue and rushes her away from a camera crew, they form an easy camaraderie. Nik knows that in the wilds of LA, a handsome doctor like Carlos can’t be looking for anything serious, so she’s okay embarking on an epic rebound with him, filled with food, fun, and fantastic sex. But when their glorified hookups start breaking the rules, one of them has to be smart enough to put on the brakes.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

Y’ALL.

Let me just preface this by saying that I absolutely adored The Proposal. Jasmine Guillory is a fantastic writer, full-stop, and her sophomore novel was a fun contemporary romance that treated its characters (and readers) like competent adults. There was dramatic tension, but it didn’t feel like the characters made stupid, dumb choices JUST to move the plot forward. They communicated with one another the way people do in real life and disagreements happened because of what each character SAID to one another, not because they didn’t talk to begin with. (Such gasp. Much shock. So horror.)

Both the two leads and everyone else were diverse in some way, but no one’s backstory or motivations felt contrived or there to only serve a narrative purpose. Like, this novel was just so refreshing and makes you question the romance genre as a whole. Why can’t other novels have functioning adults as their protagonists? Why can’t there be more than just straight white people falling in love?? Why can’t more intersectional stories cross over into the mainstream???

I was definitely aware of Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date, earlier this year (an #OwnVoices contemporary romance raved by Roxane Gay!), so I really wanted to read The Proposal as soon as it was published. (Because duh that cover and that summary.) AND LET ME TELL YOU. It delivered. The Proposal could have been any other romance, but because Guillory is so precise in her characterizations, it made sense that THESE characters in THIS setting had THESE things happen to them. The sex scenes weren’t gratuitous but they didn’t feel safe for work, either. And I know the timeline in which her protagonists fall in love is, in theory, very short, but it’s also like why is this taking so long?? 👏HUR👏RY👏UP👏

Honestly, the only thing that I disliked was that the damn book ended. I could see that the pages left were getting smaller and smaller, but I was also like no??? maybe don’t?? And then when Nik and Carlos FINALLY get their Happily Ever After, I turned the page and there was a biography of Guillory instead of more story. (How dare she.)

I know that both The Wedding Date and next summer’s The Wedding Party take place in the same universe, but that’s kind of not the same thing and I am very, very sad I can no longer read this book for the first time.

review · three stars

Review: Call Them by Their True Names by Rebecca Solnit

Title: Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Rating: ★★★½
Summary: In this powerful and wide-ranging collection of essays, Solnit turns her attention to battles over meaning, place, language, and belonging at the heart of the defining crises of our time. She explores the way emotions shape political life, electoral politics, police shootings and gentrification, the life of an extraordinary man on death row, the pipeline protest at Standing Rock, and the existential threat posed by climate change. To get to the root of these American crises, she counters the despair of our age with a dose of solidarity, creativity, and hope.


I always go into Rebecca Solnit essays expecting so much, mostly because it takes all of my brain power to focus on both the subject of her words and the particular way she writes them. In the foreword to her newest collection, Solnit writes that “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, [and] obliviousness.” Naming something means acknowledgment, and acknowledgment inspires action. This theme runs through each essay, and Solnit encourages us to explore with her. How do our reactions to events help define both them and ourselves? In what ways can we make connections between experiences and history?

Although Solnit included essays written years ago, they still feel pertinent, book-ended by injustices that happened only months prior. And I think that’s why I enjoy her writing so much: she’s able to react to something in the moment as well as from a historical perspective. She’s published collections consistently every few years, and her commentary always brings a breath of fresh air to what otherwise is a shitty situation.

(Solnit is a regular contributor to Lit Hub should you desire more of her writing.)

one star · review

Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

Title: One Day in December
Author: Josie Silver
Rating: ★½
Summary: Laurie is pretty sure that love at first sight doesn’t exist anywhere except the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there’s a moment of pure magic… and then her bus drives away. Despite searching for the next year, they don’t “meet” until Laurie’s best friend giddily introduces him as her new boyfriend. What follows is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into, and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

One Day in December has SO many things going for it: a Christmas-themed holiday meet-cute, a friends-to-lovers arc, and that super-adorable cover art (which I know isn’t that important, but still, it’s super adorable). Instead, Josie Silver’s novel feels like fanfiction of something else, where we KNOW that a certain couple is endgame, but we have to suffer through all of this pointless bullshit before they get their happy ending. (Especially when she puts our OTP in the freaking summary. If I know where the story is going – that basically, Silver’s going to purposefully put her characters into pointlessly dramatic situations – the entire story becomes drama for drama’s sake. Stupid, pointless drama.)

I found myself reading in binges while on vacation, one half of me hoping the novel would get better and then the other immediately regretting it. Like, I would actually roll my eyes and yell at my iPad. Will this book get better? I hope it gets better. But do I hope it gets better? Why do I hope it gets better? Ugh this book is such trash! I never really bought the initial premise of the meet-cute and so always kind of felt like there was no real motivation to want Jack and Laurie to get together. (And their actions never convinced me, either.) Then Silver finally gives them their Moment and it’s like, meh, I’m more happy that this book is finally over.

On top of all that, Silver uses dual narration as a crutch, which is one of my absolute biggest fictional pet peeves. When an author chooses to use dual narration, there better be a good fricking reason for it. If the only way to know which character I’m following is by the name that’s written at the start of the chapter, an author has failed. Most of the POV switches happened at pivotal scenes, too, when knowing how Jack felt about Laurie would “tug at our heartstrings”. No! It annoyed me! Who the f*ck cares what Jack thinks!

So, I don’t know… should you read this book? Maybe. A lot of other reviews are giving it high marks – but maybe those same people think Andrew Lincoln’s character in Love Actually was romantic. (I didn’t.) There are so many good holiday-themed romance novels out there; you owe it to yourself to find one.

review · two stars

Review: Dead Girls by Alice Bolin

Title: Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession
Author: Alice Bolin
Rating: ★★
Summary: In this poignant collection, Alice Bolin examines the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead or alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories — investigating the implications of our cultural fixations and her own role as a consumer and creator. Reminiscent of the piercing insight of Rebecca Solnit and the critical skill of Hilton Als, Bolin constructs a sharp, incisive, and revelatory dialogue on the portrayal of women in media and their roles in our culture.


To me, the subtitle of Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession advertises itself as a cohesive essay collection emphasizing both dead girls and the men and women who obsess over them. But this kind of reflection only happens in the prologue and first section. Otherwise, the book focuses mainly on Bolin’s first few years in Los Angeles – the public transportation she takes to her job, the various (and often nightmarish) roommates she meets while subletting, her first real relationship with a man she later dumps – while peppering in numerous reflections on Joan Didion and her father’s own obsession with Swedish procedurals.

Which I suppose is all fine and good – except, this is not what I wanted out of an essay collected entitled Dead Girls.

I wanted a book-length exploration of the Dead Girl Trope, not Bolin’s singular cultural awakening to her own obsession. The summary even states that the book “begins by exploring the trope of dead women in fiction and ends by interrogating…the persistent injustices [living women] suffer.” But only a couple of essays “explore the trope of dead women in fiction” while none even touch on the Dead Girl Trope in real life. (Because here’s a handful of women off the top of my head that weren’t mentioned once: Kitty Genovese, Natalie Holloway, Jon-Benet Ramsey, Nicole Brown Simpson.) Then the whole middle is a forgettable ride through LA before Bolin and her summary cross paths again, and she “ends” on the “persistent injustices” advertised. (I mean… a book explicitly about dead girls needs more dead girls, right?)

And it’s not that Bolin doesn’t touch on Dead Girls elsewhere; she’s actually written some really great pieces about the trope, listed on her website, as well as a piece for Vulture regarding the ethical dilemma true crime fans (should) face as they consume their obsession. She even mentions this absence in the final essay of Dead Girls, writing, “That day was when I slowly began to realize that my book was maybe not about the noir but about those forces of which the noir was a symptom.”

Cool?

I enjoyed Bolin’s writing, but her essay collection ultimately failed in its intended purpose. If only the rest of the book had lived up to this one particular quote from the prologue: “Violent men’s grievances are born out of a conviction of their personal righteousness and innocence: they are never the instigators; they are only righting what has been done to them.” That is what I’d hoped for; instead, I read about a twenty-something moving to LA and “finding herself.”

four stars · review

Review: The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox

Title: The Witch of Willow Hall
Author: Hester Fox
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic, but a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to both Lydia and Emeline. All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

Do you ever read the summary of a book and think, “yeah, that sounds like something I would like”? That’s how I felt about The Witch of Willow Hall. Normally, though, books like this languish on my TBR list, something I can never quite find the time (or interest) to read once it’s been published. Months pass. Newer, more interesting books take precedence. I might eventually forget what the book was even about, only to re-read the summary years down the road and think, “meh.” And maybe (just maybe), I’ll take it off my TBR altogether.

Do not make this mistake. This book cleared my skin. It watered my crops. It set up a 401K and then invested in a robust stock portfolio.

I mean, yes, Hester Fox’s novel has its faults. Her characters can come off as overwrought and trope-y as hell: Catherine, the eldest sister, is not merely looking for marriage but scheming, using her hyper-sexuality to ‘trap’ an eligible bachelor. And Lydia – poor, good Lydia – is the naïve ingenue who is ‘blinded’ to reality and compares their sororal relationship as a catty no-holds-barred competition for the affections of the mysterious and dashing John Barrett. Then there’s the plot, which falls somewhere between historical romance and gothic horror but doesn’t convincingly meld the two until more than half-way through. We think Lydia is the witch referenced in the title but is there someone else? Does Willow Hall itself hold supernatural power? (So ~spooky, y’all.)

But listen. I started this book not expecting much, and I was so thoroughly surprised and delighted at the end result. Read during a week when the turning weather felt especially serendipitous, I felt literally and figuratively cozy – surrounded by the whistling wind and dreams of a crackling fire as Lydia and John got swept up in their own romance. At first pass, Fox writes everything so harshly that part of me wondered why a character’s behavior had to be taken to such extremes, why there was no gray between the black and white. But then, chapters later, an impulsive action would be re-evaluated or a character’s motivations would be explained and I would think, “oh, that’s why.” (Some readers will probably love the way the plot trundles forward but then others may roll their eyes at the heavy-handed foreshadowing. To each their own.)

I don’t think I can fully explain why I enjoyed The Witch of Willow Hall so much, not even to myself. Maybe it was the way the plot seduced me and I could think of no better activity than to keep reading. Or maybe that the stakes felt real, or that the characters were given agency, or simply that Willow Hall was so vividly realized I felt like I could drive there and visit. Maybe it was the tense, gothic elements or the acute remembrance of being eighteen and feeling everything so forcefully: the lows abysmal but the highs astronomical. Perhaps it was everything together, the sum greater than its parts.

Early in the novel, Lydia tries to articulate her feelings for John Barrett. “Suddenly sitting here beside him is not enough,” she narrates. “The empty place that I didn’t even know I contained is aching with want, trembling with fear that it may never be filled.” Same, sis. Same.

one star · review

Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Title: Artemis
Author: Andy Weir
Rating: ★½
Summary: Jazz Bashara is a criminal. Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent. Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself — and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.


Artemis was disappointing, to say the least. The Martian was a 5-star read for me, so I went into this book with high expectations. Unfortunately, there were just too many hang-ups and eye-rolling to make the novel more than a bleh for me.

The protagonist, Jazz, felt like a cardboard cutout of a female character, stripped of a multi-faceted personality and, instead, given what Weir thinks a female ought to possess in order to fit her surroundings. (Or perhaps he just transplanted his thirty-something, white, cis, heterosexual fictional stand-in, Mark Watney, into the body of a twenty-something Arab. Who knows.) Her understanding of the world has stalled at puberty, and she comes off completely self-centered, her actions and motivations before we meet her cringy to read. (Her main impetus for taking over the heist is to repay her father for an accident she caused; Jazz has apparently completely ignored him for seven years among of a population of only a few thousand  and is certain his wants and needs have stayed static in the intervening half-decade. Hey Jazz, why don’t you just, I don’t know, talk to him??)

The plot itself is a jumble of a heist but also a murder mystery, with spots of romance thrown in for good measure. Except it’s also a science fiction novel… I guess? Weir has Jazz sarcastically overexplain her actions, but it’s not as quirky as Mark running through how he’s going to survive on an inhospitable planet; it’s just grating. I suppose that Weir wanted all of his science to be accurate, but I was already on board with humans living on the moon: I didn’t also need Weir to treat his lunar base as potential science fact. (As if, in the future, scientists would read this book and go, “ooh good idea”?) In the end, he never quite found a balance between underexplaining the economic, cultural, and social facets of Artemis’s social construction and then overexplaining the physical.

Artemis had a good outline but needed too many changes for me to actually enjoy it. Maybe if Jazz had been appropriately aged to match her personality, or she’d been explicitly written as a white male instead of a brown female. Maybe if there’d been one solid plot instead of two and a half meh ones, or if the book didn’t come off as a half-assed attempt to replicate The Martian‘s success without understanding why it succeeded in the first place. (Um, The Hangover 2??) Maybe if every character didn’t come off as a checkbox next to a diversity hire so that no one could fault Weir for only writing about able-bodied white people in space.

Or maybe it was all the welding.