Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet – Laekan Zea Kemp

It is quite rare I read a story that features 1) a whole lot of food discussions that made me very hungry and 2) a soft and sensitive male main protagonist that was so loveable that he made me question why there aren’t more characters like him in the Young Adult Romance book world.

This author does romance pretty well, because she understands that it’s not realistic to make her lovey-dovey characters spend all of their energy either thinking about each other or being with each other. Both Penelope (Pen) and Xander have stuff going on in their lives: Pen is trying to make it on her own in the adult world, without the financial support of her family, and Xander is trying to find his father who left him when he was a kid without having his grandfather know about it.

But of course, the closer these sweethearts get, the more involved they are in each other’s lives, and the more they help each other with their respective goals and support one another. Props to the author for managing to make Penelope both soft and hard, lost and determined, loving and guarded. And props for normalizing having the girl make the first move, asking the guy out and encouraging him to get closer to her. It was quite empowering to read those scenes.

Where this story fell short for me was when it came to Pen’s father. He was far more one-dimensional than three-dimensional. Even though I kept hearing from so many characters that he’s an incredible man, with a big heart, and all, what I cared about was how he treated Pen and his treatment of her did not seem quite fair, so my feelings are rather mixed when it comes to him. The other thing is the neighbourhood’s ‘‘villain,’’ who just took advantage of a lot of people in the neighbourhood and was after Pen’s family’s restaurant itself. Here once again there is a one-dimensional character. It’s okay in the sense that not all villains need to be understood by the reader, but it did add a significant cliché aspect to the story.

Overall, though, it is a story with main characters worth getting to know and a lovely, evocative writing.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the book in exchange for a review.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House – Cherie Jones

I did not finish this book. It is one of a few titles that I have no regret about not finishing and, on top of that, kind of wish I never started it to begin with.

It is, quite frankly, a depressing read, so my review will be short because I do not want to spend too much time thinking about it. It is not exactly a ‘‘bad’’ book, unless your definition of a ‘‘bad’’ book is a book that sucks all of your energy and leaves you feeling a little hopeless about the world.

In that case, yes, it is a pretty bad book. I have read before quite a few stories with heavy themes and hard scenes, so I’m not one to shy away from those kinds of tales. But I am one to stay away from stories that are not balanced. HOW THE ONE-ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE is not one of those balanced books. There are five times as many bad, negative, unfortunate scenes than there are positive, good, uplifting ones, and I think I am being a bit generous here.

Lala is part of a multi-generational cycle of violence and abuse and even worse within her own family. Sadly, she did not break this cycle herself because she married an abusive and manipulative man, who blames her for everything, especially the death of their child.

These stories are tough. There are so many moments of violence and disrespect and unfairness that it not only drove me crazy and made me sad, but it also made me quite anxious. It is not one of those books that made me want to turn the next page. Actually, I was really eager to get it done and over with, but alas I could not take more violence as it was affecting my mood quite a bit.

So goodbye, farewell.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the book in exchange for a review.

Troublemaker – John Cho

This little troublemaker who goes by the name of Jordan is the reason why, at the age of 24, I still read Middle Grade Fiction, and can enjoy every second of my experience.

I used to fear growing up as a bookworm, because when I was a preteen, I loved reading ‘‘up’’ about sixteen and seventeen-year-old characters who woke up one morning to discover that they’re so much more special than they thought. I would lie if I said I didn’t hope to wake up one morning and feel the same way. But the closer I’d get to outgrow these characters, the more I’d worry that I wouldn’t be able to connect.

But that’s before I realized that there are a multitude of connections possible in this universe – physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, to name a few common ones – so it doesn’t take me being Jordan’s age or growing up in his neighbourhood to feel invested in him and the people he cares about. All it takes is me being open to knowing more about him and trying to see things from his point of view.

Because, see, Jordan really is a troublemaker. He’s cheating in school, being disrespectful to family members, lying, hiding, getting into trouble, not listening to adults, and more—way more. But here’s the thing: Jordan is someone who can think for himself, and stand on his own, or at least be brave enough to try. He also may not always do what he is told, but the truth is that the world needs a few rebels. People who dare to think differently and take risks. I’m not even a little bit recommending readers hide a gun inside their backpacks and run around town, trying to deliver that gun to someone, but intentions count a lot in any type of situation, and it’s not realistic to expect someone to stay put when their heart tells them they have to act.

It was a beautiful and thrilling read that I recommend to all ages!

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

Mirror Girls – Kelly McWilliams

This book was my introduction to the concept of ‘‘white passing,’’ when a person of colour with light skin passes as a white person. And what a beautiful, emotional introduction it was! I felt for these girls, these sisters—and I fell with them as they stumbled on their way to trying to connect with one another after being separated their whole lives.

After reading a story containing magical realism (The Chosen One by Echo Brown) that seemed to take away from the story more than it added, it was quite a different experience to read a tale that was ‘‘one’’ with its fantasy elements, more notably the curse that befell one of the two sisters, Magnolia Heathwood, for passing as white for the longest time without even realizing it and shunning her own race.

I’m not typically a fan of Historical Fiction as a general rule, but in Young Adult Fiction I’ve found myself enjoying them more and more over the years. It can be very hard for me to connect with past events that happened while I wasn’t even born, especially if I don’t know anyone who lived through them, but as long as there are strong feelings shown through these events, I will be able to care quite a bit.

And I certainly did care for Charlie Yates and Magnolia Heathwood, the two twins who were never meant to cross paths again. Never meant to realize how much they actually have in common. Not meant to become each other’s family again.

The one thing they were meant for, though, is to be known by you.  

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

The Chosen One: A First Generation Ivy League Odyssey – Echo Brown

This is not an easy read. I’d rather warn you sooner than later, so you know what you’re getting into and can decide for yourself if you’re ready for Echo Brown right now.

Part of the reason why this isn’t an easy read is because it’s not easy to be Echo Brown right now. She has past trauma that still haunts her today and keeps her from living life to its fullest. She’s just started university at an Ivy League, and doesn’t feel like she belongs, or like people really want her there. On top of all that, she’s crushing hard on a white boy who she doesn’t think shares her feelings.

Despite the heaviness of the topics and tone, most of the time, I still enjoyed reading about Echo Brown’s new journey. The seriousness of the tone actually made it easier for me to take this character seriously and really believe (and feel) that she is going through a lot and that these issues she is facing are quite serious for her. Whereas some people might say, ‘‘damn, just hire that tutor, Echo, come on!’’, if you really try to understand Echo and where she is coming from, you will have an easier time being patient with her and giving her the time she needs to figure things out and let herself be helped.

At the end of the day, as important as I think the themes discussed here are, I don’t think the magical realism was needed, so I cannot say I loved this story. Magical realism, as a general rule, is a subgenre that spikes my curiosity, and I don’t normally wish to erase it from a story. Unless it’s bad. Unless it distracts from the realism of the storyline quite a bit. Unless it’s not that creative to begin with, just… weird.

I also wish the author or publisher, or anyone, really, had made it clearer that this is a continuation to the author’s BLACK GIRL UNLIMITED, as I had no idea, and perhaps reading that one would have helped understand Echo Brown even better, and the magical realism also.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

Author Interview: Beth Morgan (A Touch of Jen)

The Book

A young couple’s toxic Instagram crush spins out of control and unleashes a sinister creature in this twisted, viciously funny, “bananas good” debut. (Carmen Maria Machado)

“Um, holy shit…This novel will be the most fun you’ll have this summer.” —Emily Temple, Literary Hub

Remy and Alicia, a couple of insecure  service workers, are not particularly happy together. But they are bound by a shared obsession with Jen, a beautiful former co-worker of Remy’s who now seems to be following her bliss as a globe-trotting jewelry designer. In and outside the bedroom, Remy and Alicia’s entire relationship revolves around fantasies of Jen, whose every Instagram caption, outfit, and new age mantra they know by heart.

Imagine their confused excitement when they run into Jen, in the flesh, and she invites them on a surfing trip to the Hamptons with her wealthy boyfriend and their group. Once there, Remy and Alicia try (a little too hard) to fit into Jen’s exalted social circle, but violent desire and class resentment bubble beneath the surface of this beachside paradise, threatening to erupt. As small disturbances escalate into outright horror, we find ourselves tumbling with Remy and Alicia into an uncanny alternate reality, one shaped by their most unspeakable, deviant, and intoxicating fantasies.  Is this what “self-actualization” looks like?

Part millennial social comedy, part psychedelic horror, and all wildly entertaining, A Touch of Jen is a sly, unflinching examination of the hidden drives that lurk just outside the frame of our carefully curated selves.

The Author

Beth Morgan grew up outside Sherman, Texas and studied writing as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently completing an MFA at Brooklyn College. Her work has been published in The Iowa Review and The Kenyon Review Online.

The Interview

What was the most difficult part of writing A Touch of Jen?

Writing the ending was definitely challenging. The last scene was in place fairly early on, but the big challenge was figuring out how to arrive at that point in a way that felt intuitive even as the story entered this fantastical register. I had to make sure all of the cosmological and logistical elements were hanging together, but more importantly I also had to make sure that these elements were serving the story’s emotional core. David Lynch’s movies were definitely a big inspiration for me here–even when they break with the rules of reality as we know it, the emotional arc is 100% convincing. 

Your characters are pretty flawed and insincere, but who do you love to hate the most? 

I think that as an author my job is to love all of my characters because that’s what makes them feel convincing to readers. Remy, for example, is someone who I might find myself irritated by in real life but I wanted to portray him in a way that made readers feel close to him and even empathize with him. I think the discomfort that a lot of readers feel with this book comes from the fact that they see some of these unlikable characters in themselves. And my hope is that in processing that discomfort, in recognizing the ways that we can all be shallow or insincere or malicious, we can locate compassion for ourselves and for others as we’re trying to become better, kinder people. 

What inspired the creation of the strange dark creature from your book?

I think the creature ultimately came from the way I was thinking about how to represent violence. We have this impulse to process violence by categorizing it–by determining when it’s justified or not justified, when it’s supposed to be read as fun or exciting or heroic and when it’s supposed to be read as horrifying. In introducing this camp or supernatural element in what is otherwise a fairly realistic narrative I was hoping to complicate some of these distinctions and get at the way in which the fantastical way that violence appears to the perpetrator and the real way that violence is acted out on the victim are too sides of the same coin.

Have you ever been very envious of someone on social media to the point of behaving irrationally at times with regards to them?

I hope not! I think the experience of envy is pretty universal and social media does create this sense of intimacy with people we’re not interacting with in real life. And there are plenty of moments in my life that I feel shame or embarrassment about. So the book does correspond to some extent with my experiences. But this particular scenario and the social media aspect of it grew more out of the characters Jen and Remy and the kind of relationship I wanted to create between them. I wanted to create this simultaneous closeness and distance between them and the simultaneous closeness and distance of watching someone on social media felt like a perfect way to realize that relationship. 

What is the main message you would like your readers to take from your story, if there is one?

I don’t think the book has a main message. I was thinking about a lot of things as I wrote it–for example, the hero’s journey and the American appropriation of Eastern spirituality. But the book is also interested in violence and gender and class as well. As a fiction writer, I don’t want my books to be arguments for a thesis, though I hope that my treatment of these topics feels textured enough that it helps readers to think more deeply about them. 

Is Remy and Alicia’s relationship toxic or do they basically deserve one another?

It’s a very close, intense relationship. So I think it’s hard not to feel like it has some intrinsic value even if it’s unhealthy in many ways. Definitely these characters could have better lives in a whole variety of ways including in their relationship. And perhaps that would be better for them and make them happier and kinder people. But I don’t want to put myself in the position of judging them or deciding what they deserve or don’t deserve. 

Are you working on anything new?

I’m working on a book called The Shit Your Pants Button. Like A Touch of Jen, it has an absurd premise (the main character has a button on her thigh that she can push to make people shit their pants), but it’s also engaging with some of the subtle forms of violence in white Middle American culture.

***Spoiler question***

Did any of the characters not deserve their fate in your opinion? 

I don’t think any of them deserved their fate! There are very few people who I think deserve a violent or gruesome death and I don’t think any of the characters in A Touch of Jen fall into that category.

Thank you, Beth!

Lilla the Accidental Witch – Eleanor Crewes

It should not be legal for a graphic novel to be so dull. It should not be legal for them to take me such a long time to get through… and eventually discard them. It’s insane how this book has everything I love in fantasy stories: magical coming-of-ages, witches, family secrets, town mysteries and familiars.

And yet, and yet. Somehow, I don’t have the patience for more than 25 pages in one sitting and, somehow, I don’t have the energy it seems to require to finish it. I can probably count on my hand the amount of graphic novels I have DNF’d in all my life—that’s how rarely that happens—so I’m as shocked as you are with the outcome.

It’s possible part of it is me; part of it is probably always us, because I feel very indifferent about the illustrations. They don’t need to WOW me to make them worth looking at, but Eleanor Crewes’ very cartoonish style with soft shadows and lines and bright, unrealistic colours does not appeal to me. I’m not so superficial that the visuals alone could undo a whole entire book for me, but this ‘‘is’’ a graphic novel after all.

And the story is not original enough to add enough ‘‘personality’’ to this work to make it work despite its visual shortcomings. It’s the very usual tale of a young teen who discovers she has powers and tries to learn about them and right some wrongs at the same time. Maybe if it had been Halloween, the atmosphere of the day would have made reading this book more enjoyable, but it’s not and I’m writing this not only because it was sent to me for review, but also because I want to move on from it to another more interesting and engrossing work. Goodbye!

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

We Are Watching Eliza Bright – A. E. Osworth

This is 400 pages of bewilderment.

400 pages of suspense. Of sexism and feminism. Of continuity and contradictions. Of life and death and loss and gain. Of fiction and reality. Of Us.

Eliza Bright is minding her own smart business at work when some of her co-workers decide to play a bad joke that turns into harassment and verbal abuse and a huge load of sexism thrown her way. She doesn’t feel so safe anymore. The person who could change things—her boss—and stop this nonsense doesn’t think it’s a ‘‘big deal.’’ So she betrays her company’s loyalty (not like they haven’t betrayed her first) and speaks about what she is going through to the media. She’s fired and the consequences of her actions—her defending herself—put her safety even more at risk. She is threatened and watched and stalked and she’s about to lose it. Will she make it out alive?

If this seems quite dramatic to you, well keep in mind that I have barely even mentioned 25% of what happens. There is much, much more, but the most unique element included in this story is definitely its narration style. It’s in the 1st person plural—the famous We—and the ‘‘we’’ represents various people. It’s as intriguing as it is confusing. It’s for you to figure out who the author meant to watch Eliza Bright, as referred in the title. Men? Women? Non-gender conforming groups of people? People like me, you or us? It’s strange, unusual, and mysterious even, but it works. It adds to the overall surreal atmosphere of the story. While harassment and sexism are not rare occurrences, in this book they are the cataclysm that sets everything else into motion and nothing to be made light of.

In the end, it’s a powerful story. You can feel from the start that the impact this book will have on you will be great. It’s also an enjoyable reading experience, at times more serious and at other times lighter. The phone and G-chat conversations sure do help the reader advance through this story quicker, and serve as a temporary break from an otherwise more conventional type of storytelling, narration style excluded. If I had to change something about this overall written work it would certainly be the uncertainty created by the ‘‘we’’ pronoun. Because the we does not represent any of the main characters, the we does not know everything and there is one particular chapter that is repeated three or four times with slight alterations, seeing as the narrators couldn’t be sure of how the event unfolded. I could have done without the repetition. Otherwise, chapeau!

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

The Groom Will Keep His Name – Matt Ortile

I think Matt Ortile should meet Nicolas DiDomizio, author of Burn It All Down, or at least read his blog, and this interview I did with him. I’m saying this because I have a feeling he could learn from monsieur DiDomizio, especially in the relationships department, which is something this memoir does focus on, among other things.

Though I, of course, know little about being a Filipino gay adult male, I do know something about dating the wrong people and almost being attracted, at times, to things that wouldn’t work out or don’t seem to work or couldn’t work out. I also know what it’s like to get attached to someone who knows a lot about you, has listened to you open up about yourself—parts of yourself you’ve never shared with anyone before—and does not reject you for all that you are insecure about. It’s hard not to wish for a future with a person like that and it’s hard to let them go. Whatever your age, you can’t help but wonder, ‘‘Is anyone else going to ever care to know as much about me and accept me for who I am, good and bad?’’ I get you, Ortile.

It would be frivolous, and almost insulting, to not discuss the more political and cultural aspects of this book. Matt Ortile writes about struggling with some of his own Filipino customs, growing up among other Filipinos who bullied him for being different, and then coming to America and almost reinventing himself by trying to be the perfect immigrant student and simply not create tension of any kind. He pauses upon his university experience for quite a bit, as it has marked him profoundly and has made him realize some of his shortcomings, especially with regards to speaking out about what matters to him, regardless of whether he makes people uncomfortable or not.

Probably the best aspect of this book is its tone, which screams, ‘‘Here I am, this is who I am, I am imperfect and make mistakes, but I know that I must do better—choose better for myself and others—and while I am not there yet, I am on my way and this memoir is a testament of my promise to grow into the man that I know I can be and wish to be.’’ I think the journey will be long for Matt Ortile, but I don’t doubt that he’ll exact change within himself even further and perhaps beyond himself.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

The Particulars of Peter – Kelly Conaboy

Everyone thinks their own pet is amazing, or at least cute and worth cuddling with for hours. If you don’t, frankly you should spend more time with your pet and learn what makes them so worth keeping and caring for. So in that regard, Kelly Conaboy is not special. She is just another pet owner who loves her dog dearly and thinks very highly of him (way too highly, if you ask my opinion). She goes to the point of putting him on a pedestal. We shouldn’t put humans pedestals, let alone little creatures who are not beyond doing no wrong and disappointing us.

I don’t have a problem with pet memoirs, though I admit I prefer human memoirs, which are a hundred times more relatable and can teach you far beyond ‘‘how to play the right game with your pet’’ or ‘‘how to make your pet feel like the queen or king that they are.’’ Kelly Conaboy herself mentions at the beginning of this dogoir (dog memoir) that she was paid to write this book and so spend time with her pet to learn his quirks and thus have better content. It does not, in fact, feel like it evolved naturally. If Kelly hadn’t been paid to produce this work, would she have done some of the activities she mentions, would she have bought some of the dog produces she discusses? Maybe not.

In the end, this book’s birth story is not the problem, as I could have stopped reading after the prologue if that had caused too much of a problem for my established literally morals. It doesn’t, even if I prefer when people write books more out of a sense that their written words must be put into the world than in an Eat, Pray, Love sponsorship fashion. In the end, what I disliked the most, was Kelly’s disillusioned love for her dog, which to me had little foundation and came off so exaggerated at times that, combined with her usual sarcasm and arrogant tone, was a little doubtful some of the times. Does she actually believe the high praise she showers her dog with? Her ‘‘love’’ took so much space that, in the end, I felt like it was more about her than her dog.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.