Book Review: ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

I adored this novel. It’s an intricate fantasy set in the modern day–no small feat to write believably–but G. Willow Wilson seamlessly integrates the magic and mysteries of this world with more familiar real-world elements, like computer hacking and ethnic tensions between Arabs and other groups. It’s funny and profound by turns, and also chock-full of mind-blowing ideas about how Muslim theology and computer programming intersect. This story will linger with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


Alif the Unseen Cover

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 2, 2013
  • length: 456 pages

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif—a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

–from Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

It disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion. I’m not talking vague incense burning or references to moon time rituals; I mean well-thought-out, believably drawn fantasy religions, or meaningful grappling with the real-life religions of our own world.

Some of my favorite fantasy novels do this to great effect. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is one. Carey’s latest novel, Starless, also handles its religious themes exceptionally wellThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is infamous for its potent atheist themes, which have caused it to be banned over and over again; I’m a Christian and very much not an atheist, but I still find The Golden Compass‘s vision of religion compelling.

Like it or not, religion is one of the most compelling and important parts of humanity’s past and present. So I say again: it disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion.

Luckily, Alif the Unseen doesn’t have that problem. It’s a heady fantasy that sucked me in more than any other book I’ve read lately, drawing on Middle Eastern history, present-day conflicts, and Muslim theology in order to create a rich, textured, and thoroughly believable world.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to summarize this book more concisely than I did in my mini-review, above, so I’m just going to go ahead and copy-paste that summary again here:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

Alif–a pseudonym, and we don’t find out his real name until the very end–is a terrific protagonist. He’s kind of an asshole: bitter and angry and unable to see the forest for the trees, hurting the people who love him at every turn. But he’s vulnerable, too. We see how his computer hacking prowess makes him arrogant in some ways and leaves him lonely in others; he’s convinced he has all the answers, but fears deep down that his biggest questions might not have answers.

He’s madly in love with Intisar, a college girl from his city’s upper crust. The novel opens with her rejecting him because her parents have matched her with someone else, sending Alif’s world spinning on its axis. At that point, his encounter with a mischievous, magical jinn (a.k.a. genie) named Vikram the Vampire hardly seems that weird.

When the Hand of God finds finds evidence of Alif’s subversive hacking activity, he’s forced to go on the run with his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina (whose decision to wear the niqab, a full-face veil, bewilders and annoys him).

From there the novel unspools into an incredibly profound exploration of the nature of divinity and evil, and how the power of modern technology can unleash both. G. Willow Wilson (who is a convert to Islam, and who includes a sort of American convert self-insert character here) paints a highly textured portrait of Islam, showing the ways it can be misinterpreted and perverted but also the ways it helps people, brings them love and joy, and guides them to be their best selves.

I’m racking my brain trying to think of any other novel that’s as bold and ambitious and empathetic towards any real-world religion as Alif the Unseen is–much less one that extends that empathy towards Islam, which has been so deeply demonized in Western culture.

All that adds immeasurably to this book’s worldbuilding, stakes, and character development. I particularly loved the way Dina’s faith shapes her moral backbone and her decision to help Alif, even when Alif is being a total jerk towards her.

Most of all, it’s hard to believe Alif the Unseen was written before the Arab Spring. (It was, though it wasn’t released till after.) Its vision of how technology can uproot whole societies, for better or worse, is prescient and urgent and kept me racing till the final page.

I feel like I’m talking a lot about this book’s big themes, and not a lot about the plot–but that’s because Wilson integrates the book’s themes into its plot so seamlessly that it’s difficult to separate them.

This book races along at a breakneck pace, never once feeling heavy or dry despite its weighty source material and implications. It’s an adventure novel, one that’s perfectly situated between a YA audience and an adult one. (I recommend it heartily for teens and adults alike.) The magical world of the jinn is beautiful and intoxicating; the romance(s) are compelling and impossible not to root for; the final battle had me quivering with anticipation.

Alif the Unseen is an impressive balancing act: a novel that’s as thrilling and entertaining as it is studied and thought-provoking. Don’t miss it. I especially can’t wait to get my hands on its recently released companion novel, The Bird King. ★★★★★

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I purchased my own copy of Alif the Unseen and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: DEAD GIRLS: ESSAYS ON SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION by Alice Bolin

Laura Palmer. Lilly Kane. Harriet Vanger. “Amazing Amy” Dunne. We’re obsessed with dead girls and maybe-dead girls, both fictional and real. Alice Bolin’s essay collection, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, explores that premise through cultural criticism of true crime coverage, books, movies, and TV shows like Gone Girl, Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars, Joan Didion’s writings on the Manson murders, and more. There are also many essays about non-crime and crime fiction related topics.

Its title lets it down, since you’ll likely be disappointed if you go into this book expecting more “dead girl” content than it delivers. (That part makes up about a third of the book, with the more general essays making up the rest.) Alice Bolin is an excellent writer and I enjoyed the essays on their own merits, but as an essay collection, this book doesn’t hang together all that well.

You can read my full review below.


Dead Girls Cover

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

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  • publisher: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: June 26, 2018
  • length: 288 pages

“I didn’t hate and fear all women,” Nick says defensively in Gone Girl. “I was a one-woman misogynist. If I despised only Amy, if I focused all my fury and rage and venom on the one woman who deserved it, that didn’t make me my father.” Aren’t they all one-woman misogynists?

–from Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

My experience of reading Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession was a frustrating one. I signed onto this book expecting what it says right there on the tin: essays about the American (probably global?) obsession with “dead girls,” and what that means for the very-much-alive girls and women who live in a world full of that kind of laden, violent imagery.

The problem is that a good deal of this book isn’t about dead girls at all. It’s also full of more personal essays about Bolin’s experience in the American West, her move to L.A., her family, her experience navigating white womanhood, her favorite books, an incompatible boyfriend, and more.

These essays are beautifully written: poignant, sharp, elegant, neurotic in a self-aware and interesting way. They’re genuinely great! They just weren’t what I thought I was going to get, and because of that, the latter two-thirds of this book were a slog.

The first third had me jazzed. I zipped through it, highlighting what felt like every other paragraph. My favorite essay, “The Husband Did It,” is largely about Gone Girl and Gillian Flynn’s characterization of hapless, pathetic, misogynistic husband Nick Dunne, and it’s a straight banger: Bolin is witty, funny, and sharp as a tack, and here is where it shone the best. Gone Girl is one of my favorite books (I also love the movie adaptation), and it was a delight to see it through Bolin’s eyes.

But as soon as I hit the second third of the book, titled “Lost in Los Angeles,” all the zip left. Bolin turns her eye from more widely known cultural touchstones (True Detective, iconic true crime cases, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) towards more obscure texts, and she starts diving deeper into her own experiences. In particular, she writes seemingly endlessly about Joan Didion, and while I’m always up for reading about Joan Didion (truly!), it felt like a record scratch. I got why Didion’s work is important to Bolin–I just didn’t understand why that should be important to me.

Maybe I’m falling into the exact same trap Bolin is excoriating here–after all, I’m saying that I was far more interested in the “dead” part than the “surviving” part, which is exactly the problem with “dead girl” culture. And I do think Bolin is doing an interesting thing here: setting out a theory of dead girls and their effect on our culture, and then applying it to her own life.

But the flow is all wrong, and it bothered me tremendously. I don’t know if this discordance is Bolin’s “fault” (not the right word to use here, but the best fit I can think of) or her publisher’s. I know that it’s rare for authors to choose their titles. I know that editors have a say in organizing the order of a collection. They certainly have a say in how a book is marketed, and in setting readers’ expectations for what a book will be like, through everything from blurb choice to cover design.

And all the choices that the publisher made here left me feeling baited and switched.

The best fix I can think of would be to publish this as two books. Split the dead girl content from the more general content, add more essays to both to compensate, and then publish two collections whose promises line up with what they actually deliver.

Had I read each of these essays individually, I can practically guarantee I would have loved them unreservedly. Even the ones that I think work less well than the others are still very good. But as one book meant to be read altogether, Dead Girls falters. There’s just not enough connective tissue to keep you hooked from essay to essay.

Dead Girls is full of treasures, but they’re best enjoyed one by one instead of consecutively. Either read it in small doses or skip it–taken as a cohesive collection, I think this one’s a dud. ★★★☆☆

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I purchased my own copy of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession and was in no way compensated for this review.

I’m not reviewing MONDAY’S NOT COMING by Tiffany D. Jackson (but you should read it anyway)

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson is one of the best YA novels I’ve ever read. It’s up there for best novel of all time, too. It’s engrossing, pitch-perfect, and elegantly plotted, and its characters are so real it’s hard to remember that this is fiction, not fact.

Unfortunately, that intensity and reality made this an extremely triggering book for me, and I won’t be doing a normal review of it, even though I loved it.

Here’s the description, from Goodreads:

Monday Charles is missing, and only Claudia seems to notice. Claudia and Monday have always been inseparable—more sisters than friends. So when Monday doesn’t turn up for the first day of school, Claudia’s worried. When she doesn’t show for the second day, or second week, Claudia knows that something is wrong. Monday wouldn’t just leave her to endure tests and bullies alone. Not after last year’s rumors and not with her grades on the line. Now Claudia needs her best—and only—friend more than ever. But Monday’s mother refuses to give Claudia a straight answer, and Monday’s sister April is even less help.

As Claudia digs deeper into her friend’s disappearance, she discovers that no one seems to remember the last time they saw Monday. How can a teenage girl just vanish without anyone noticing that she’s gone?

Triggers in this book include graphic child abuse and general violence, as well as some references to sexual abuse and violence. To a lesser extent this book has triggers for racism and bullying, since a large component of the novel is that the main character, Claudia, who is Black, is not believed by the police or her peers in school.

Obviously, triggers are different for everyone, and sometimes I hesitate to include trigger warnings in my reviews because what throws up red flags for me might be perfectly fine for someone else, and what would bother someone else might not even register for me. But Monday’s Not Coming has so much difficult content that I wanted to give my readers a heads up.

On the brighter side, even if you do find this book traumatic, you might find it cathartic, too. Tiffany D. Jackson is so good at writing about how hard it is to be a teen girl. You can tell how much she cares about teens’ real-life experiences. Many teens have lived through things worse than some adults could ever imagine, and by writing about those things honestly, Tiffany D. Jackson is helping those teens (whether they’re still teens or now-adults, like me) feel seen.

That’s pretty special, especially for the Black girls out there who get much less good representation than white teens and adults like me do.

I really loved this book, despite everything it dredged up for me. As long as it’s safe for you to read, I highly recommend it. ★★★★★

Monday's Not Coming Cover

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

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  • publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: May 22, 2018
  • length: 448 pages

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I purchased my own copy of Monday’s Not Coming and was in no way compensated for this post.

Book Review: INCENDIARY GIRLS by Kodi Scheer

Incendiary Girls is a literary short story collection that stays firmly in the realm of magical realism. Kodi Scheer is excellent at incorporating the magical elements, but despite the magic, Incendiary Girls is boring. Its stories are gruesome and uncomfortable with little emotional payoff; characters are bitter and selfish without having the necessary quality of “interesting.” Some of the imagery comes off as blatantly bigoted, and it’s not clear to me if Kodi Scheer was intending to critique those images or if she’s just blandly perpetuating them.

I don’t mind difficult stories as long as I feel changed at the end, but all I felt at the end of Incendiary Girls was annoyed. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t like this collection at all, and at times I even actively loathed it.

You can read my full review below.


Incendiary Girls Cover
cover description: a white Arabian horse against a stark black background.

Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer

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  • publisher: New Harvest (an imprint of Amazon Publishing)
  • publication date: April 2014
  • length: 208 pages

Incendiary Girls is a tight spiral of a short story collection, eleven stories that all circle the same handful of themes and motifs: medicine, death, sex, motherhood, and intercultural and interracial relationships. None of the stories are technically linked, but all contain small nods to the others. All take place in a universe of magical realism: there’s always least one bizarre and impossible element always in play, and it’s always treated with complete seriousness.

It’s an intriguing structure that gives Incendiary Girls a cohesive, distinctive feel. The problem is that the stories themselves don’t work.

I found ten of the eleven stories here to be irredeemably gruesome, tacky, confusing, and often tone-deaf. Body horror abounds: dissection, graphically described tumors, and melting skin are all par for the course. It’s not something I would mind if there were meaning or at least entertainment in all the suffering, but I rarely found it. Character arcs barely budge. The dark humor doesn’t land. It comes off like a stodgy slasher film. (Is there anything worse than a stodgy slasher film?)

More disturbingly, the collection is steeped in creepy racism and other bigotry (in dialogue, first-person monologue, and even third-person narration), and it was unclear to me if Kodi Scheer was deliberately writing about bigots or if she simply didn’t realize it was bigotry at all.

There are are ways to write about racists without a whole story coming off as racist. Scheer just never pulls it off cleanly.

In “Transplant,” a blonde, pale woman gets a heart transplant, and her skin and hair literally get darker and thicker in the aftermath. She suddenly decides to convert to Islam and speculates about whether or not her donor heart came from someone Muslim. Then her body rejects the heart and she goes back to being blonde and sort of atheist. The whole thing is dripping with orientalism, and again, I can’t tell if it’s a critique of orientalism or the real deal. Hmm.

Tied for the two most bafflingly offensive stories were “When a Camel Breaks Your Heart,” about a white American woman dating an Arab Muslim man who’s embarrassed to bring her home–he then literally turns into a camel, whom she sends to a zoo–and “Primal Son,” about a couple struggling to conceive who try to adopt an infant from China and but then miraculously conceive and have a monkey for a baby. They end up moving to Tanzania after. You know, in Africa. Because they’re monkeys now?

HMMMMMMMMM.

I sincerely hope that I’m misreading all of this and that Scheer is actually trying to say something nuanced and complicated. I’m being sincere when I say that is my sincere hope! I’m desperate for more complicated and messy narratives around race and desire, and I absolutely don’t think there’s only one correct way to write about those topics.

But the optics here are…bad. There’s no challenge to characters’ bigotry, no pushback on unsavory ideas. It’s plausibly deniable Schrödinger’s racism that’s even more grating to me than an openly racist narrative would be. It’s all just ambiguous enough to make me feel like I’m overreacting by calling it racist.

But I’m officially going to come down on the side of calling this book racist. If your points about racism are so subtle that a racist reader might still enjoy your story comfortably, then I think you’ve failed both morally and technically as a writer.

I will allow that Scheer has an admirable grip on when to use magical realism: i.e., when real world imagery isn’t as effective at conveying an emotion or experience as magical imagery would be. I liked the use of magic in Incendiary Girls. That’s difficult to do and I admire that. It’s just the how part of using magical realism where I feel she’s slipped.

In “Primal Son,” for example, I’m not objecting wholesale to an allegory for infertility in which a woman gives birth to a monkey. I’m objecting to the total obliviousness involved in having a white-seeming couple give birth to a monkey and then slowly turn into monkeys themselves, culminating in them moving to Africa.

In the story “Ex-Utero,” which takes place in a hospital, a man with congenital adrenal hyperplasia–a very real intersex condition–discovers that he’s pregnant and begs for an emergency abortion. This is juxtaposed with rolling power blackouts and treated as a sign of the end of the world.

I don’t inherently object to a magical realist story about a “pregnant man”; I do object to a story that dehumanizes a character with a real life condition, treating him more like a freak show cadaver than a person. He’s not even a main character with agency or an inner life–the protagonist of “Ex-Utero” is instead a competitive, striving female doctor doing her residency, who delights in watching the man be cut open for the abortion.

Compounding the moral muddiness, a lot of the writing in Incendiary Girls is simply not good. Clichés abound. Dialogue thuds. Cheap twist endings come out of nowhere. There are a few beautiful sentences and emotional revelations here, but they’re buried by the crud.

The one story in Incendiary Girls that did fully work for me was called “No Monsters Here.” It’s about a woman with OCD who’s raising her daughter alone while her husband is working as a medic in the Middle East. She slowly discovers his body parts lying around the house and desperately tries to hide them in a linen closet so she doesn’t disturb her daughter; she realizes her husband must be missing or dead, and frantically tries to come to terms with that fact.

“No Monsters Here” is an urgent, palpable, desperate-feeling story about mental illness, loss, motherhood, and legacy. The imagery of the body parts fit the subject material perfectly. It didn’t wander off on strange and offensive tangents. It was well-written and haunting and I enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, it made up only one-eleventh of this book. ★☆


I purchased my own copy of Incendiary Girls and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE KISS QUOTIENT by Helen Hoang

What is it about fictional faked or arranged relationships that’s so darn charming? Is it the forbidden-ness of the feelings that inevitably pop up? The unbearable sexiness of the fake-but-not-fake kisses–and more? Whatever the root of that charm is, The Kiss Quotient has it in spades. Stella is autistic and a gifted econometrist. She’s not really interested in dating and sex, but decides she might like those things more if she were better at them–so she hires tortured, smoking hot professional escort Michael to teach her. They start falling for each other during their sexy “lessons,” but Stella’s fear of not being enough and Michael’s tragic past threaten to keep them apart.

The Kiss Quotient is fun, funny, adorable, and most importantly, extremely scorchingly sexy. Like…maybe don’t read it in public levels of sexy. It’s a little rough in places–in particular, I think its happily-ever-after wraps up way too fast–but its contagious charm and the awesome chemistry between the two leads more than make up for the few flaws. This is a fantastic romance.

You can read my full review below.


The Kiss Quotient Cover.jpg

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

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  • publisher: Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: June 5, 2018
  • length: 336 pages

Was Philip right? Did she dislike sex because she was bad at it? Would practice really make perfect? What a beguiling concept. Maybe sex was just another interpersonal thing she needed to exert extra efforts on–like casual conversation, eye contact, and etiquette.

But how exactly did you practice sex?

–from The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

If you’re blunt, anxious, shy, particular, and/or easily overwhelmed–whether or not you have an autism diagnosis–you’re going to find a lot to love in The Kiss Quotient’s protagonist, Stella Lane.

Stella is a competent, happy 30-something whose life is going swimmingly. She doesn’t need to be fixed and she definitely doesn’t need pity. She’s autistic and thriving, and very good at dealing with the challenges of living in a mostly-allistic world.

There’s just one thing missing: Stella has never really enjoyed dating, kissing, or sex, and she wonders if there’s some way to fix that. Maybe she just needs practice. Luckily, she has plenty of money to hire a male escort to teach her.

That escort is Michael, a secretive, movie-star-levels-of-hot Vietnamese-Swedish guy who practices kendo and dreams of starting his own fashion line. He hates escorting. It’s nothing but a way to turn the good looks he hates into a way to pay for his mother’s expensive medical care.

Until he meets Stella. That’s when Michael starts to actually enjoy sex. He agrees to keep seeing Stella until she’s an expert at sex and relationships. Then they’ll each move on, no strings attached…

Except that’s not how it works out! Of course that’s not how it works out. They develop feeeeeeelings! (And have amazing sex along the way.)

What I loved the most about The Kiss Quotient was its sexiness. It would have been very easy for a romance with an autistic protagonist to be overly chaste and sweet. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with chaste and sweet–it’s just that almost all pop culture about autistic people tends to treat them as childlike and childish, when that’s very much not the case for many autistic adults. I was glad it broke out of that box.

Instead, The Kiss Quotient uses Stella’s particular way of looking at the world to add sexy fuel to the fire. She’s hypersensitive to Michael’s scent, skin-on-skin sensations, and to the taste of mint chocolate chip ice cream shared through a kiss. Loud music at a club stresses her out, but she loves the piano, so she and Michael bond over a Heart and Soul duet. Stella is very particular about comfortable clothes, so Michael introduces her to yoga pants that make her butt look good, and he even sews her a soft new evening dress.

Each of those sensual and tender moments ratchets up the stakes–and the heat. Every single sex scene in The Kiss Quotient easily ranks as one of the best I’ve ever read. Easily. I won’t go into NSFW detail, but if you like steamy romance, you’ll love this.

I’m not autistic, but I do have OCD, and the way it manifests for me means I have a few of the classic characteristics of autism: hypersensitivity, social anxiety, and obsessive thinking in particular. Stella’s way of looking at the world was similar to mine in a way I hardly ever get to read about, and it made me feel seen and cherished as a romance reader.

In addition to Stella’s autism, Michael’s Vietnamese family is also a welcome addition to the romance formula. Michael feels a mixture of protectiveness and pride towards his family–he’s in a similar situation to Carlos in The Proposal to Jasmine Guillory–and like Carlos, he needs to learn to trust that they can take care of themselves, just like he needs to learn to trust his own feelings towards Stella.

The Vietnamese cultural elements of the novel don’t just feel like window-dressing. It’s not just about food, or clothes, or other details that are easy to “research” on Wikipedia. The Kiss Quotient uses Michael’s Vietnamese-ness more to talk about what it means to be part of a big immigrant family, and the benefits and pressures that can come with that. It forwards Michael’s character development in a fascinating way.

In this review so far I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the characters and not a whole lot talking about the writing, and I think that’s because Helen Hoang’s writing style in The Kiss Quotient is very basic. She captures sensory details eloquently, but the dialogue isn’t really anything special. The internal monologues are a little clunky, and the way the novel wraps up happens so quickly and matter-of-factly that I felt a tiny bit cheated. I wanted to roll around in the happily-ever-after, not move briskly on to the brief epilogue.

But those are truly minor quibbles in comparison to all the great stuff Hoang accomplishes here. I will absolutely be reading whatever she does next. (Her next novel, The Bride Testis linked to The Kiss Quotient through a supporting character, and I can’t wait to read it.)

If you’re looking for a romance that runs deep emotionally but is also fun, flirty, and sexy on the surface, it would be hard to do better than The Kiss Quotient. This book rocked. ★★☆

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I purchased my own copy of The Kiss Quotient and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE PROPOSAL by Jasmine Guillory

Whether you’re a longtime romance superfan or a relatively recent convert, like me, The Proposal has something for you. Loosely linked to Jasmine Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date (though you can read this one first without missing anything), this novel follows Nik, a journalist whose crummy boyfriend springs a disastrous Jumbotron proposal on her at a Dodgers game, and hot, sensitive pediatrician Carlos, who helps shepherd her out of the stadium unscathed. (You may recognize Carlos as Drew’s best friend from The Wedding Date.)

I adored this book. It’s fully a romance novel, happily-ever-after and all, but I think it’s an ideal choice for people who are hesitant about the genre, since it’s more on the realistic side than the pure escapism side. The Proposal is perfect for a bad day: bubbly and light enough to cheer you up, but with just enough bittersweetness and real-world problems to be believable when you’ve got a bad case of the blues.

You can read my full review below.


The Proposal Cover

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

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  • publisher: Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: October 30, 2018
  • length: 352 pages

Okay, this was getting way out of hand. Sure, her fingers were dying to run themselves through his thick dark hair, and her hand had lingered a little too long on his bicep tonight, and every time he curved those inviting lips of his into a smile, she wanted to pull him closer. But a rebound with Carlos was a terrible idea, remember? She neither wanted, nor needed, a rebound with anyone! That was why she’d hinted it was time for Carlos to go home. Men were trouble. She’d learned that over and over again.

–from The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

If a public proposal (especially without your private okay) is your worst nightmare, then you’ll cringe with sympathy at The Proposal‘s opening scene, when Nik’s crummy man-bunned boyfriend of five months, Fisher, springs a Jumbotron proposal on her at a Dodgers game. When she turns him down, Nik becomes a stadium pariah who needs to make a quick exit.

Enter Carlos and his sister Angela, who were sitting a few rows behind Nik and Fisher and watched the whole debacle go down. They help sneak Nik out of the stadium and into a bourbon-and-pizza dish sesh with her best friends.

Grateful to Carlos (and intrigued by his sizzling hotness, of course), Nik decides to take him out to dinner later that week as a thank you…

…and I bet you know where this one’s going.

What I loved most about The Proposal was Jasmine Guillory’s gift for weaving the real world into the romance. Romance haters always point to the way the genre, well, romanticizes life and what it’s like to fall in love, but that would be ignoring the way contemporary romances like Guillory’s tackle modern romantic problems head-on, like, say, the problems inherent in a public proposal.

Much of The Proposal is about power dynamics: what it means to have a controlling partner who views you as an accessory rather than a person, and conversely what it means to be so obsessed with “rebounds” or “keeping it casual” that you never actually tell someone how much they mean to you.

Other welcome real-world touches to the novel include the frank way Guillory writes about race (Nik is Black, as is Alexa from The Wedding Date who makes an appearance here, Carlos and his family are Latinx, and Nik’s two best friends are Black and Korean) and a subplot about Carlos’s cousin’s high-risk pregnancy.

In addition to what I loved about the content, Guillory’s writing style is also absolutely delightful. The Proposal basically starts in media res: you gradually learn about Nik’s backstory and previous abusive relationship as well as Carlos’s complex feelings about becoming the “man of the family” after losing his dad, but it’s all revealed through naturalistic conversations rather than big chunks of info dump. This makes The Proposal an extremely fast read–I blew through it in an afternoon.

Neither Nik nor Carlos are stereotypes. Nik is a striving writer, sure, and Carlos is a hot doctor–characters right out of the romance hero/heroine playbook–but there are enough unique details to both of them that they don’t feel rote.

The dialogue is extremely funny, even when it’s tackling the most emotional subjects, and Guillory has a knack for describing what makes for a great date: great food, great conversation, emotional vulnerability, and fiery chemistry.

Which leads me to maybe the best part: The Proposal is sexy as hell. One of my hesitations with romance for a long time was the fact that I’m a lesbian, and good lesbian romances are few and far between. Luckily I’ve been able to find a few hetero romances, like Guillory’s, where I’m just as invested in a straight central couple as I would be in a gay one.

The sexiness of romance, after all, is often less dependent on descriptions of the hero(es) or heroine(s) than it is on the effervescent feeling of being powerfully attracted to someone that good romance writing can capture. The attraction radiates off Nik and Carlos so powerfully that even though I wouldn’t be interested in Carlos because he’s a dude (hot, sweet, and sensitive as he may be), I still loved the flirting and sex scenes between him and Nik.

It helps that there are bi and lesbian supporting characters, too, which made me feel like a valued reader. Just like The Wedding Date, The Proposal is marvelously diverse in all kinds of ways.

The Proposal is a gem. Even if you’ve never read romance or never plan to again, it’s worth giving this one a shot. (And if you do love romance–well, get thee to a bookstore, post haste, though I suspect I’m preaching to the choir.) ★★★★★

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I purchased my own copy of The Proposal and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: AUTHORITY by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the second installment in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, after Annihilation and before Acceptance. Rather than clarifying the mysteries of the first novel, Authority only adds more: we get a new main character, more exposure to the mysterious (and dysfunctional) Southern Reach organization, and a bunch of freaky new imagery. I didn’t love everything about this book–in particular, I thought it was a little too inscrutable and dense–but I’m coming to believe that the Southern Reach trilogy is an experience more than it’s a story. In the same way a trip to an interesting place can be life-changing without being pleasant every minute, diving into Authority is vivid and unforgettable even when it’s also confusing and occasionally a slog. And if you can tolerate the leadenness (intriguingly leaden, mind you–it feels like a deliberate choice rather than a failure of craft), you’ll be rewarded with an absolutely electric ending that has me on tenterhooks till I can start Acceptance.

Spoiler note: If you haven’t read Annihilation yet and you care about spoilers, you should probably skip the body of this review. It’s difficult to talk about Authority without spoiling some details of Annihilation‘s ending.

You can read my full review below.


Authority Cover

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

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  • publisher: FSG Originals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: May 6, 2014
  • length: 352 pages

In Control’s dreams it is early morning, the sky deep blue with just a twinge of light. He is staring from a cliff down into an abyss, a bay, a cove. It always changes. He can see for miles into the still water. He can see ocean behemoths gliding there, like submarines or bell-shaped orchids or the wide hulls of ships, silent, ever moving, the size of them conveying such a sense of power that he can feel the havoc of their passage even from so far above.

–from Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

After Annihilation, you’ll likely notice immediately that something with Authority isn’t quite right. First, you were probably expecting Authority to be told from the perspective of the biologist, Annihilation‘s unforgettable central character whose alliance seemed to lie with the eerie natural world of Area X more than it did with her human companions: the surveyor, anthropologist, and psychologist.

Next, if you remember key plot details, you might be surprised that Authority re-introduces us to the surveyor and anthropologist at all, seeing as both died memorable, horrible deaths in Annihilation. But here they are in the first chapter of Authority, in a lineup right next to the biologist. Our new narrator, Control, is taking stock of them.

Most of all, you will be perturbed for the same reason Control is perturbed: despite the miraculous resurrection of the surveyor and anthropologist (a resurrection Control doesn’t even realize has occurred) and return of the biologist, the psychologist is still missing. Control is supposed to figure out why–and to get to the bottom of the deeper mysteries of Area X.

Despite his moniker, Control is never in control. Right away he’s established as a troubled man with an ocean of fear, anger, and resentment right under his surface. He’s following in the footsteps of his mother, a talented government agent. She’s the one who got him the director’s job at the Southern Reach, the job recently vacated by the psychologist. All is not well at the Southern Reach. In fact, the top-secret government organization is crumbling and demoralized, and Control’s staff is incompetent, hostile, and…not quite right, to put it lightly.

Then there is the biologist, the only returnee from the twelfth expedition who seems to remember it. Control quickly becomes fascinated. Their fates intertwine, as you suspect they will from the start.

In my review of Annihilation last July, I described it as a novel that works on many levels: woman-versus-wild, a deep meditation on selfhood and grief, and an inversion of the traditional sci-fi idea that humanity must be protected at all costs. Area X threatens to catastrophically disrupt humanity, and in the view of the biologist, that outcome doesn’t seem so bad.

Authority has a narrower focus than Annihilation, and it’s a good-bad thing. The diary conceit is dropped for a more traditional first-person narration. Control is less intriguingly cold and alienating than the biologist, though every bit as weird and idiosyncratic. And rather than being set in the wide-open wilderness of Area X, Authority takes place mostly at Control’s workplace, the Southern Reach.

Where Annihilation felt a little like Star Trek, an expedition boldly going somewhere (although not quite where no one had gone before), Authority is more like Alien, a claustrophobic haunted house of a workplace drama.

I both missed Annihilation‘s open ends and was grateful for a firmer place to land.

Jeff VanderMeer is enormously skilled, and one of his most interesting qualities as a writer (at least in this and Annihilation) is the way he plays with density and opacity of narrative. Large sections of Authority felt like banging my head against a wall. I was confused and frustrated and there seemed to be no end in sight.

And yet…it was good? Yeah. It was good. It added to the experience of reading in ways I’m struggling to put my finger on. Of course Area X and the Southern Reach are confusing! That’s the point. For the sake of the new territory VanderMeer is forging here, I’m willing to be confused.

In manipulating the ways the reader can absorb information, VanderMeer keeps us in the same foggy state of mind as the biologist or Control, meaning that as revelations are slowly doled out, they hit us with full force. (The ending in particular feels like a sudden, gorgeous parting of clouds.) We are never one step ahead of the characters; we’re right along with them, or even a little behind. Even though we know (or think we know) what happened to the biologist on the twelfth expedition, we can’t make the wider connections any better than Control can.

Or…maybe I’m overreading all of this. It could just be that I don’t jive with VanderMeer’s style, even though I appreciate the skill and craft behind it. Either way, I always felt that VanderMeer was fully empowered here, making choices about how to tell his story instead of being overwhelmed by it. You’ll either like it or you won’t, but you’ll know you’re in expert hands.

I’m so, so curious about what answers will ultimately lie in Acceptance. Either it’s going to be the mother of all payoffs, or it’s going to disappoint me, given the immense mental energy I’ve already invested in Annihilation and Authority. 

I would be remiss in finishing this review before I talked about Authority‘s character development, which is terrific. Despite the fuzziness of the plot, each character in the novel–from the protagonists to the periphery–was crystal clear and real. VanderMeer effortlessly commits to diverse characters, both in the sense of having characters from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, disability statuses, and sexual orientations, and in the sense of having characters with a variety of personalities.

In particular, Control was a fascinating character to spend time with. I loved his vulnerability mixed with bravado, his alternating anxiety and numbness, and I particularly loved the tension between the softer, more artistic side of his personality encouraged by his father and the harder, more militaristic side encouraged by his mother. VanderMeer writes about how it feels to grow up as a child of divorce better than maybe anyone else I’ve read. And a character twist we get late in the novel throws Control’s intense guilt over his status as a nepotism hire at the Southern Reach into sharp and fascinating relief.

Authority ultimately feels like anything but authority. It’s chaotic and overwhelming and frightening. That tension between name and reality is what makes Authority a true novel for the 21st century, a kind of Rorschach blot for anxieties about war, government malevolence and ineptitude, and climate change. Love it or hate it, you won’t leave feeling like it has nothing to say. ★★★★☆

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I purchased my own copy of Authority and was in no way compensated for this review.