Friday Bookbag, 6.7.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I missed Friday Bookbag last week so this is an extra-super-duper stuffed version, full of some of the most exciting books I’ve bought in awhile. I’ve been enjoying the nice weather we’ve been having here in the Twin Cities, so I’m ready to get some serious summer reading done. (In fact, I might grab my Kindle and head down to the patio as soon as I’m finished writing this.)

Let’s dive in!


Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Tampa Cover
cover description: A closeup of a buttonhole on a pink shirt. It’s deliberately styled to look like labia/a vagina.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She’s undeniably attractive. She drives a red Corvette with tinted windows. Her husband, Ford, is rich, square-jawed, and devoted to her.

But Celeste’s devotion lies elsewhere. She has a singular sexual obsession—fourteen-year-old boys. Celeste pursues her craving with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought; her sole purpose in becoming a teacher is to fulfill her passion and provide her access to her compulsion. As the novel opens, fall semester at Jefferson Jr. High is beginning.

In mere weeks, Celeste has chosen and lured the lusciously naive Jack Patrick into her web. Jack is enthralled and in awe of his teacher, and, most important, willing to accept Celeste’s terms for a secret relationship—car rides after school; rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works late; body-slamming encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom between periods.

Ever mindful of the danger—the perpetual risk of exposure, Jack’s father’s own attraction to her, and the ticking clock as Jack leaves innocent boyhood behind—the hyperbolically insatiable Celeste bypasses each hurdle with swift thinking and shameless determination, even when the solutions involve greater misdeeds than the affair itself. In slaking her sexual thirst, Celeste Price is remorseless and deviously free of hesitation, a monstress driven by pure motivation. She deceives everyone, and cares nothing for anyone or anything but her own pleasure.”

why I’m excited: This is a satire, a sort of gender-swapped Lolita that examines the way we view the vulnerability of young boys and young girls differently. It looks like it’s going to be a very challenging read, but I’ve been intrigued by it ever since it came out in 2013, so when the ebook came on sale, I finally decided to take the chance. Not sure if I’ll like it, but “like” might not be the right metric to use here anyway, since this novel is so deliberately inflammatory.

The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Wangs vs The World Cover
cover description: a gold background with red circles of varying shades forming an irregular shape in the middle.

the premise: From IndieBound:

“The Wangs vs. the World is an outrageously funny tale about a wealthy Chinese-American family that “loses it all, then takes a healing, uproarious road trip across the United States” (Entertainment Weekly). Their spectacular fall from riches to rags brings the Wangs together in a way money never could. It’s an epic family saga and an entirely fresh look at what it means to belong in America.”

why I’m excited: This is being marketed as similar to Crazy Rich Asians, a book I didn’t always love but was definitely always entertained by. A road trip story, family story, rags to riches story, healing story, funny story? That all sounds pretty great to me, and I’m really happy to see this recent crop of humorous (or at minimum, bittersweet rather than just plain tragic) novels about Asian American families getting traction in publishing. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong had a somewhat similar vibe and I really dug it.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

All Grown Up Cover
cover description: a stylized drawing of a woman’s face, with skyscrapers reflected in her sunglasses.

the premise: From Barnes & Noble’s site:

“Who is Andrea Bern? When her therapist asks the question, Andrea knows the right things to say: she’s a designer, a friend, a daughter, a sister. But it’s what she leaves unsaid—she’s alone, a drinker, a former artist, a shrieker in bed, captain of the sinking ship that is her flesh—that feels the most true. Everyone around her seems to have an entirely different idea of what it means to be an adult: her best friend, Indigo, is getting married; her brother—who miraculously seems unscathed by their shared tumultuous childhood—and sister-in-law are having a hoped-for baby; and her friend Matthew continues to wholly devote himself to making dark paintings at the cost of being flat broke.

But when Andrea’s niece finally arrives, born with a heartbreaking ailment, the Bern family is forced to reexamine what really matters. Will this drive them together or tear them apart? Told in gut-wrenchingly honest, mordantly comic vignettes, All Grown Up is a breathtaking display of Jami Attenberg’s power as a storyteller, a whip-smart examination of one woman’s life, lived entirely on her own terms.”

why I’m excited: I love this kind of personal/family drama. Reading about other people’s baggage makes my own a little more tolerable. Plus, this one looks funny as well as poignant, which is always a nice quality.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue Cover
cover description: An old fashioned portrait of a young white man in fancy clothes. The title is in a modern cartoonish font and there are tiny illustrations of cards, a ship, a violin, and more.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.”

why I’m excited: If you’re not excited about that description, then I don’t know what to tell you. Check your wrist for a pulse? This looks FANTASTIC, with a legion of glowing reviews to back it up. I can’t wait to dig in.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things Cover
cover description: A field of wheat under a starry sky.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible “adult” around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.”

why I’m excited: This looks like it will either be very satisfying or absolutely terrible. I decided to take a chance because I like reading about characters who need to take care of their younger siblings. I lived in an area torn up by meth for years so I’m always interested in reading stories about that, too. Describing the boyfriend as having a “heart of gold” is the biggest red flag here, but hopefully that’s just the description. Fingers crossed that the actual book is much more nuanced.

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

The Poppy War Cover
cover description: A woman firing a bow. The illustrations and font on the cover have a smoky, ashy look.

“When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.”

why I’m excited: Holy shit, this looks amazing! I don’t have much to say about it except that. I’m a sucker for “warrior school” fantasy novels (ditto “finishing school” types) and the special powers in this novel sound original and fascinating. This just leapt to the top of my TBR list.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead Cover
cover description: A stylized illustration of a green parrot over a bright yellow background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“This knock-out start to a bracingly original new series features Claire DeWitt, the world’s greatest PI—at least, that’s what she calls herself. A one-time teen detective in Brooklyn, she is a follower of the esoteric French detective Jacques Silette, whose mysterious handbook Détection inspired Claire’s unusual practices. Claire also has deep roots in New Orleans, where she was mentored by Silette’s student the brilliant Constance Darling—until Darling was murdered. When a respected DA goes missing she returns to the hurricane-ravaged city to find out why.”

why I’m excited: I’m intrigued by the idea of a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-style series that seems to take much better care of its central female characters. I love books set in New Orleans, and I love the idea of a teenaged detective prodigy. (I started rewatching Veronica Mars for the fifth or sixth time this week, so I must really have a craving for this sort of thing). I’m excited for this one.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • 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. ★★★★★

Books and reviews you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Alif the Unseen 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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

Books and reviews you might also enjoy:


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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • 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.

Friday Bookbag, 5.10.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I didn’t think I’d get a chance to write a Friday Bookbag at all this week, after spending all day Wednesday and yesterday packing, and all of this morning (and most of the afternoon) moving stuff into our new place. Luckily everything went way faster than I thought it would. I’m unbelievably sore and tired, and more than a little cranky, but we’re in! I’ve got internet, a comfy couch, snacks, and my laptop. That’s all this blogger really needs.

Let’s dive in!


A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

A Tale for the Time Being cover
cover description: The cover is made up of horizontal stripes with different images, including a forest, a book, waves, and what looks like the face of a child or a doll.

the premise: From Goodreads:

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying, but before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future. 

why I’m excited: I first picked this up at the library a year or so ago, but never got around to reading it, so this week I snapped it up while its e-book version was on sale for $1.99 (as of this writing, it’s still on sale at Amazon). The premise of this novel reminds me a bit of Life of Pi by Yann Martel: the novelist-named-Ruth part is meta, and Nao’s life sounds like a sort of coming-of-age story smashed together with a disaster story. This sounds lovely and unusual and sad. I can’t wait.

I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

I Believe in a Thing Called Love Cover
cover description: A Korean American teen girl is smiling. To her right, a teen boy stands mostly out of the frame. The image is black and white with pink and yellow accents.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Desi Lee believes anything is possible if you have a plan. That’s how she became student body president. Varsity soccer star. And it’s how she’ll get into Stanford. But—she’s never had a boyfriend. In fact, she’s a disaster in romance, a clumsy, stammering humiliation magnet whose botched attempts at flirting have become legendary with her friends. So when the hottest human specimen to have ever lived walks into her life one day, Desi decides to tackle her flirting failures with the same zest she’s applied to everything else in her life. She finds guidance in the Korean dramas her father has been obsessively watching for years—where the hapless heroine always seems to end up in the arms of her true love by episode ten. It’s a simple formula, and Desi is a quick study. Armed with her “K Drama Steps to True Love,” Desi goes after the moody, elusive artist Luca Drakos—and boat rescues, love triangles, and staged car crashes ensue. But when the fun and games turn to true feels, Desi finds out that real love is about way more than just drama.”

why I’m excited: I’ve been loving romances and romantic comedies lately, so I thought I’d give a YA one a spin. This got great reviews when it came out in 2017, and that cover is too darn cute!

Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Everything Here is Beautiful Cover
cover description: The lower half of a woman’s face is visible. She looks serious. The rest of the cover is made up of multicolored silhouettes of butterflies.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Two Chinese-American sisters—Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the headstrong, unpredictable one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing. When Lucia starts hearing voices, it is Miranda who must find a way to reach her sister. Lucia impetuously plows ahead, but the bitter constant is that she is, in fact, mentally ill. Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until, inevitably, she crashes to earth. 

Miranda leaves her own self-contained life in Switzerland to rescue her sister again—but only Lucia can decide whether she wants to be saved. The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans—but what does it take to break them?”

why I’m excited: I don’t normally pay a ton of attention to author blurbs–I like to read reviews instead–but a glowing recommendation from Celeste Ng did sell me on this one. (Ng wrote Little Fires Everywhere, one of my favorite books of recent years.) This looks like a sensitive, complex, and loving portrait of mental illness and the ways it can strain already-complicated family relationships. This is something Celeste Ng is also really good at, hence why I gave her blurb so much weight! I’m really looking forward to reading this.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • 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. ★★☆

Books and reviews you might also enjoy:


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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • 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.) ★★★★★

Books you might also enjoy:


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