Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll Review


Title: Unclaimed Baggage
Author: Jen Doll
Age Group: Teen/Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Series: Standalone
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

                I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

                I have a confession to make: Unclaimed Baggage was my young adult book club pick for September, and I just finished it last night. The first time I tried to read it, I only made it eighty or so pages and was bored, so I dropped it. But when I went to book club a few weeks ago, everyone had read it and begged me to, in order to participate in the discussion. So, as soon as I was finished with Wonderbook, I dove in, excited to read the story and compare my thoughts to those of my friends. I’m so happy to report that this time around, after being convinced to give it a chance, I liked it a lot more! Unclaimed Baggage is one of those books that makes me fall in love with the contemporary genre all over again. Hilarious, heartfelt, timely and thought-provoking, I really enjoyed it, but there were a couple of snags that I just couldn’t get past. Nonetheless, Jen Doll’s first novel was a great debut, and I’m so happy that I actually read it in full this time.

                Doris, Nell, and Grant all have two things in common: living in small-town Alabama, and working for the resale store, aptly named Unclaimed Baggage. Doris doesn’t believe in God and isn’t shy about expressing that opinion, Nell is a reluctant transplant from Chicago, her friends, and most important of all, her boyfriend, Ashton. She misses her old life, but soon discovers that she can start a new one, with new friends and meaningful bonds. And lastly, there’s Grant, the town golden boy fallen from grace after a tragic accident, trying desperately to redeem himself and become a better person. All three kids find out secrets, about the town, their families, and themselves in the process.

                I really enjoyed this book the second time around. I was laughing, crying, and cheering the whole time; the pacing was good, and the transition between the kids’ voices were smooth. The small town setting was one that felt all too familiar: everyone knowing everyone, old prejudices and petty feuds. It was claustrophobic, to say the least. I loved Doris, Nell, and Grant the most; their characterization was absolutely incredible. But I also adored Stella, Nell’s parents and brother, and Grant’s mother and siblings; this felt realistic. But there were quite a few snags that really ended up bothering me. I wish that more had been fleshed out, particularly in Doris’s and Grant’s families; it felt like there was just too much that ended up unresolved. Nonetheless, Jen Doll has penned a fantastic debut, and I can’t wait for what she does next! The bottom line: Funny and heartfelt but lacking in detail in some spots, I really enjoyed Unclaimed Baggage! Next on deck: Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer Review


Title: Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction
Author: Jeff Vandermeer, et. al
Age Group: Adult
Genre: Nonfiction
Series: Standalone
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

                I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

                I’ll be honest: I only discovered Jeff Vandermeer and his works a few weeks ago, when I decided to read the first book in his Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation. I’ve been trying to circulate between fiction, nonfiction, and texts that will help me improve my writing skills. As soon as I was finished with The Babysitters Coven, I dove in, not sure what to expect. But this text was informative, entertaining, hilarious and unique. It provided such an in-depth look at the minds of creative people, and I learned so much! I cannot wait to have a copy of this essential text for my own collection, because I have a feeling this is a book that I will return to again and again! Vandermeer has established himself as one of my favorite authors with this wonderful, strange book!

                Wonderbook is an illustrated text that shows a writer how to tap into their imagination and many other tools in order to write creatively and effectively. It offers many helpful tricks and hints throughout to help a creative, not just a writer, find their voice and style and use that to their greatest effect. But what was really cool about this was even though Jeff Vandermeer was the main author, he asked many different authors and artists to contribute. This monster of an anthology was incredibly insightful and informative. It contained pictures, interviews, diagrams, and other helpful resources. I got so much inspiration from reading this book, so much so that I’m hoping to add it to my own collection so I can refer back to it whenever the well is threatening to run dry. I loved every moment of it. I was learning, but in a way that was so dynamic that it made all of the knowledge it packed into the book easily absorbed. This book might be my very favorite of Vandermeer’s body of work; it was wonderful! I just wish that I’d found it a lot sooner, because it is a valuable resource for people who are creative, for their main vocation or a hobby. An absolutely indispensable resource for all creatives! The bottom line: Rich with research and knowledge in the creative field, Vandermeer teams up with many other creatives for in-depth interviews, diagrams, and drawings to help make his points; I loved it so much! Next on deck: Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll!

The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams Review


Title: The Babysitters Coven
Author: Kate Williams
Age Group: Teen/Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Series: The Babysitters Coven, book one
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

                I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

                When I first heard of this book, I put it on hold at my local library immediately, and when it came in, I pushed it to the top of my stack. As soon as I was finished with Annihilation, I dove in, not sure what to expect, as I’ve never read any of Williams previous work. But what I got was a dark, frothy and supernatural comedy of errors. This book was like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Babysitters Club had a baby, and I absolutely loved it; I’m so happy that it has a sequel coming out next fall! Babysitting, for Esme Pearl, has been something of a hidden talent. She loves kids, it’s a relatively easy way to make spending money, and it provides a distraction from her mother and the distance it’s created in her father. When she meets newcomer Cassandra Heaven, her life changes forever: She discovers that she has magical powers, like that of a witch. But things get even more complicated when the kids she watches reports strange sightings: the villain from Harry Potter, and David Bowie, dressed up as The Goblin King from the movie Labyrinth. Esme must decide whether to accept her powers, or if she wants to continue to be ‘normal’, whatever that means. A hilarious, rip-roaring and dark adventure perfect for fans of Buffy and Angel, I loved The Babysitters Coven, and it is definitely one of the best books of 2019 for me!

                This book was wonderful. There were times when the pacing dragged, and sometimes Esme’s voice got on my nerves, but it wasn’t so bad that I was put off the book entirely. I loved her narration, sharp and witty and hilarious. I was laughing throughout the novel, snorting and giggling as it went on. The pacing, for the most part, was really good, especially when it came to the action/fight scenes. I loved all of the characters: Esme, her parents, Cassandra and Dion, and Janis, in particular. I loved the overall tone of the book too; irreverent, tongue in cheek, and wry; that kind of humor is one of my favorites. And of course, one of the best parts of this was the magic! And I liked the way it referred to the old-school witchy ways of doing things; it reminded me of all the times as children that my siblings and I would create ‘witches brew’ in an old laundry basket. And that ending! Arrrgh, how am I supposed to wait until next fall for the sequel to this?! The bottom line: Kate Williams has penned a hilarious, dark, and magical girl-power series debut that I can’t wait for the sequel to! Next on deck: Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer!

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer Review


Title: Annihilation
Author: Jeff Vandermeer
Age Group: Adult
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: The Southern Reach, book one
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

                I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

                Jeff Vandermeer is an absolute titan in the science fiction genre, but before the Natalie Portman film inspired by this book, I hadn’t read any of his work. And honestly, I wish I’d discovered it long before now. Annihilation, the first book in a trilogy, tells the story of the nameless narrator: a biologist whose curiosity about Area X leads her to discover that literally, nothing is as it seems, and her companions: a surveyor, anthropologist, and psychologist, respectively, all have something to hide, perhaps something deadly. But the island itself holds terrible secrets, and the biologist must decide whether they should stay buried, or if she should force them out into the light. But her need for answers may be too great for her to survive.

                This book was, in a word, unique. I haven’t encountered anything like it, to be honest, and it was great! The narrator was nameless, but not dull or bland, and the way that she describes Area X (and what drove her to it in the first place) was like sparks on the page. At times, it was hard to picture what was going on, because so much of the narrative relied on inference and implication, and it took some time for me to get used to it. Nonetheless, I loved this book; it was giving me distinct Princess Mononoke and Alien vibes. Strange, to be certain, but not in a bad way! Also, confession: I haven’t actually seen the Natalie Portman film, and I don’t want to; the book was enough of a crazy experience that I don’t want it to get muddled in any way. I also enjoyed the general feel of the novel: claustrophobic, forbidding, mysterious and frightening. I’m so happy that this is the first in a trilogy; I really want to know what happens next! With twists and secrets galore, I adored Annihilation, especially when I think about all of the different characters, their motives, and what is really wrong with Area X. And that ending! Authority cannot come soon enough! I can’t even put the exact plot into terms; it would be too hard. I’m just excited; I feel like I’ve found a brand-new, inspiring and stimulating author whose impact I will never forget! The bottom line: Strange, thought-provoking, and scary, I loved Annihilation, and I can’t wait to read the next two books in The Southern Reach series! Next on deck: The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams!

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Hungry Hearts by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond Review


Title: Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love
Editors: Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond
Age Group: Teen/Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Short Story Collection
Series:  Standalone
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

                I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

                I’ve had my eye on this anthology since before it came out, and so I ordered it as soon as I could from my local library. It’s been sitting at the top of my library stack for over a month now, and when I realized I couldn’t renew it anymore, I pushed it to the top of my library stack, once I realized that I wasn’t feeling The Evil Queen by Gena Showalter. And to be honest, Hungry Hearts might be one of my favorite books of 2019. There wasn’t a selection in this anthology that I didn’t love. With that being said, though, I will choose my favorites out of the collection, because I simply can’t do them all! I also adored every single author that contributed to this collection; this delectable anthology was worth waiting for! I only wish that the diverse, beautiful neighborhood of Hungry Hearts Row was real! Though this collection centered around food, it didn’t shy away from serious topics: gentrification, abuse, family, love in all of its forms, and many others; I loved it! So, without further ado, let’s get started!

                Rain by Sangu Mandanna: 5 out of 5 Stars. This story broke my heart and stitched it back together, showcasing grief. Anna is still reeling after the fatal car accident that took her mother’s life, and has moved from her beloved India to rainy, cold England, the bond with her father is broken, until they bond over a dish that her mother made, all with a secret ingredient. I cried, laughed, and rejoiced by the end. One of my favorite stories in the volume.

                Moments to Return by Adi Alsaid: 5 out of 5 Stars. This story spoke to me in particular, as one of my biggest fears is of death. A boy heads to Hungry Heart Row after hearing about the (maybe?) magical food, and goes to a dim sum restaurant in order to conquer his fear of dying, at any moment. Along with a delicious meal, he makes an unexpected new friend. Frank, funny, and honest, I loved this story!

                The Slender One by Caroline Tung Richmond: 5 out of 5 Stars. I loved this story! I’m such a sucker for ghost stories, and this was one of the best I’ve ever read! Charlie Ma just wants to be a normal kid; he already feels like his family is weird and doesn’t fit in. Add to that his grandma’s ability to literally talk to spirits, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. When an angry spirit begins wreaking havoc before the yearly food festival, Charlie must decide whether to be normal or to accept his grandmother’s legacy. I loved, loved, loved this story, and I can’t wait to check out Richmond’s other work!

                Gimme Some Sugar by Jay Coles: 5 out of 5 Stars. This story made me cry SO MUCH! Leo has a lot to think about: his mother is dying of cancer, and they don’t have the money to pay for her treatment. But when he hears about The Hungry Hearts Row Food Competition, he begins to hope that he has found the solution to his problems. Asking his famed, loving grandmother for help, Leo decides to go for the win, desperate to help his mother. I cried so hard for this story, and I loved it so much! The theme of family was fantastic! One of my favorite pieces of Coles’s work.

                The Missing Ingredient by Rebecca Roanhorse: 5 out of 5 Stars. This is the first piece of work I’ve read by Roanhorse, and I can promise that it will not be the last! Kelsie is a normal kid, or at least, she wants to be. Since the passing of her father, she wishes that her mother, a renowned chef, would give up on the family’s Native American restaurant after years of mediocre reviews. She meets a mysterious busboy named Seth, who encourages her to go for what she really wants and repair the fractured relationship with her mother. I loved this story; it had magic, pain, and love of all kinds; it’s one of my favorites of the whole volume! Fantastic!

                Hearts a la Carte by Karuna Riazi: 5 out of 5 Stars. Again, this author was brand-new to me. But I loved this story. Telling the story of a young woman in need of direction, she meets a mysterious, always hungry boy, who eventually becomes her friend. But he is hiding a dangerous secret from her, and that decision could cost both of them everything. I loved this story! Food! Family! First love! Superheroes! I can’t wait to find more of Riazi’s work!

                And, last but certainly not least,

                Side Work by Sara Farizan: 5 out of 5 Stars. Leleh has been spending her time trying to prove to her parents that she can come back from an awful mistake, sure that they hate her. When a restaurant goes out of business in her neighborhood, they’re replaced by a chain, and she finds an unexpected friend (maybe something more?). When she brings the employees over to her uncle’s restaurant, where she works, she receives a blessing she never knew she needed. This story made me cry, both because of sadness and happiness! It was wonderful! The bottom line: A diverse and exciting collection of short stories, I loved Hungry Hearts! One of the best books of the year! Next on deck: Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer!

Broken Throne by Victoria Aveyard Review


Title: Broken Throne: A Red Queen Collection
Author: Victoria Aveyard
Age Group:  Teen/Young Adult
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Red Queen, 4.5
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

                I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

                Red Queen has been a series of recent years that has brought me a lot of joy; Victoria Aveyard is one of my favorite authors. So, when I found out several months ago that there would be a brand-new, repackaged short story collection, I was so excited; I would be able to return to the harsh, bitter world of Red Queen and the characters that I enjoyed. I had to return it to the library several times, and it’s been sitting at the top of my book stack for a while now. I finally bit the bullet and did it; I almost wanted to wait a bit longer. I’m still not ready to say goodbye to it entirely, but this was a great wrapup! Taking the form of a massive government dossier, Broken Throne contains five novellas, three of which were previously unpublished, interspersed with documents that gives the reader new knowledge on how Mare’s brutal world was created. I really enjoyed this collection, even though at times it was very hard to follow. Nonetheless, I was so happy to return to Mare’s world and see how all of my favorite characters were doing in the aftermath of the brutal war.

                Some of the stories took place before the series, some in the middle, and others, after. Nonetheless, there wasn’t a story that I didn’t like or wasn’t informative in some way. It’s so hard to pick a favorite, but they all provided such different facets of characters I thought I knew! In the first story, it focuses on Cal’s mother, the late Queen Coriane, and how she met Cal’s father, Tiberias VI, their resulting marriage, and Cal’s birth. This story in particular made me cry. In the second, it focuses on Diana Farley in her early days with The Scarlet Guard, particularly when she recruits newblood Mare Barrow to the cause. The third tells of an escaped refugee, a Silver princess, desperate to make a life away from the trappings of her House’s wealth. In order to make it to the Freelands, she is forced to put her life in the hands of a Red river runner, and the pair learn so much more about each other and their ways of life. The fourth story has Mare and Cal meeting face to face for the first time after the war, and trying to figure out whether they should rekindle their relationship; this was probably my favorite story of them all. And last, but certainly not least, we got a story from the point of view of the series villain, Maven Calore. Locked in a cell at the behest at his brother and smarting at his loss, he contemplates what his life would have been like if his own mother, Elara, hadn’t messed with head and emotions. It broke my heart, even as it enraged me. He is one of my favorite characters, so I was happy to receive something of a goodbye from him, however broken. I loved this short story collection, happy to receive one last trip into a world that was brutal, dangerous, and wonderful. The Red Queen is a series that has become a recent favorite, and I’m hoping that eventually, I’ll have it for my own personal collection. The bottom line: Informative, painful, and shocking, I loved Broken Throne, and I can’t wait to see what front runner Victoria Aveyard has in store next! The bottom line: Rich and nuanced even though it was hard to follow, I loved Broken Throne; I didn’t realize how much I missed The Red Queen’s world until I was plunged back into it. Next on deck: Hungry Hearts by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman Review


Title: Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders
Author: Neil Gaiman
Age Group: Adult
Genre: Anthology/Short Story Collection
Series: Standalone
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

                I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

                Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and I discovered him because of his short stories. Smoke and Mirrors is my favorite collection of his, but Fragile Things comes in at a close second. This volume of twenty-six stories, poems, and riddles was fantastic; Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite sources of inspiration. As this collection is so extensive, I’ll provide an overall rating for the whole book and highlighting the stories that I particularly enjoyed. So, without further ado, here we go!

                A Study in Emerald: 5 out of 5 Stars. This story was like The Wizard of Oz, Sherlock Holmes, and the stories of H.P. Lovecraft had a lovechild, and I adored it. A wicked retelling of a story I thought I knew, I followed the narrator through a Victorian London to solve a dangerous mystery, and that ending was incredible! Easily one of my favorite stories in the entire collection.

                October in the Chair: 5 out of 5 Stars. I loved this story, especially the format. The months of the year are personified, and are gathered in a cottage around a roaring fire, and they exchange stories of humanity. October takes the spotlight, and tells an unforgettable tale. One of my favorites, and I loved the way that it was told. Absolutely fantastic.

                Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire: 5 out of 5 Stars. I loved this story; it is quite possibly my favorite. Dark, chilling, and more than a little creepy and confusing, Gaiman transforms the familiar story of Wuthering Heights and amps up the supernatural aspect of it. A young woman finds a dark house in the middle of the woods, and discovers the dark remnants of a dangerous curse…

                Bitter Grounds: 5 out of 5 Stars. This story was confusing, in the best kind of way. I had to read it three or four times before it really sank in. Bitter Grounds is broken up into numbered sections, and tells the story of several zombies. My interpretation might be incorrect, but I loved it; the history of it didn’t mitigate the creeping sense of wrongness that I felt reading it. One of Gaiman’s strengths is that he uses all elements in a story to his disposal, and my favorite part of it was the setting and the time period.

                The Problem of Susan: 5 out of 5 Stars. I loved this story! The Narnia series is one of my favorites, and Susan just so happens to be my favorite character. This story imagined what happened to her after Narnia, and gives a much darker tone to the classic children’s series. I loved Susan, trying to forget about The Professor, Narnia, and the memories of the war that followed her home. And that ending! It blew my mind, even as I suspected what was going on.

                How to Talk to Girls at Parties: 5 out of 5 Stars. I loved this story, so much! It spoke to my teenage self so much; it took me right back to being sixteen and anxious over having a conversation with the opposite sex. But I loved Gaiman’s take on dating someone that is quite possibly from another world entirely. The chemistry between the narrator and the girl he speaks to crackled, and I was laughing throughout the whole story. Are the girls human? Or something else altogether?

                And last but certainly not least,

                The Monarch of the Glen: This novella takes place in the universe of one of Neil Gaiman’s older but classic novels: American Gods. It happens to be one of my favorites, so I was really excited to have the opportunity to walk beside Shadow again. He finds himself in Scotland, still reeling from the events of American Gods. Offered some easy money by a mysterious benefactor named Smith, Shadow jumps at the opportunity. After all, playing at being rich and famous isn’t exactly difficult. But these people aren’t entirely ordinary, and Shadow finds that no matter the price, some things just can’t be done. I loved this story a lot; it was really fun to catch up with Shadow. The bottom line: A wry, funny and dark collection of poems and stories, Fragile Things is one of my favorite short story collections by Neil Gaiman; his stories never disappoint and it’s the perfect dose of inspiration for this girl! Next on deck: Broken Throne: A Red Queen Collection by Victoria Aveyard!