Book Review: Chaotic Good

Chaotic Good Comps14.inddChaotic Good
by Whitney Gardner
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
249 pages
Published 2018

Hoooooooo boy do I have some mixed feelings about this one!

First, the good:

The writing is great. The action flows, the dialogue is suitably nerdy, the affection between Cameron and her twin brother is evident. There are a few jumps from one scene to another, but I think they’re intended to be abrupt. The troll messages and online abuse Cameron gets simply for being a girl into cosplay are spot on. The descriptions of Eugene, Oregon – my hometown! – are also spot on. I am not sure which of the comics shops in Eugene inspired the one in the book, but I have definitely had Cameron’s experiences walking into more than one of the shops in town when I was younger. (I moved away over a decade ago.)

Really the only bad thing I have to say about this book is – Cameron dresses as a boy as an experiment, then finds she passes well enough to do it in a weekly D&D game – and when she’s eventually found out, it’s either “NO WAY” or “I knew it!” I would have liked one of the boys to shrug and say “I just thought he was trans” or something. SOME. MENTION. Of transgender or nonbinary as a possibility would have made this book so much better. I’m always slightly uncomfortable with a cross-dressing character and ABSOLUTELY NO MENTION of nonbinary gender identities.

Alright, no, there’s another bad point. The only other girl her age that Cameron has any contact with is Brina, dudebro-from-the-comic-shop’s crush, and Cameron honestly doesn’t treat her well. The first time they meet, Cameron is dressed as Boy Cameron, and doesn’t defend Brina when Brody pulls his dudebro shit. Which, okay, she was still getting used to being perceived as a dude, and instinct as a girl is to let that sort of thing slide off so as to not make it worse. I can give her a pass there. But near the end of the book, they run into each other again, as Girl Cameron this time, and when Brina extends a hand in friendship, Cameron brushes her off. Sure, she had a bad day, she’s stuck in her own head, but – GIRL. You’ve been dealing with toxic dudes on the internet the entire book, and dudebros you’re – trying to be friends with, for some reason, and you brush off a girl that loves your cosplay and wants to be friends? What the heck!

So – I don’t know. I honestly really enjoyed this book. The nerdy parts were glorious, even if their DM is a little railroad-y. The comic pages sprinkled into the text, showing the D&D adventure, was an inspired touch. But I just don’t like Cameron very much.

Her twin brother is gay, and there’s some drama with his ex, which is why I’ve tagged this GLBT. His storyline being treated just like a heterosexual storyline makes me wonder more why no mention is made of gender identities. IDK. It’s cute, but it’s problematic for what it omits.

From the cover of Chaotic Good:

Soon-to-be senior Cameron hopes to complete her costume portfolio away from the online abuse she has endured since winning a cosplay contest dressed as a character from a game she’s never played. Unfortunately, the only comic shop in her new town – her main destination for character reference – is staffed by a dudebro who challenges every girl who comes into the shop.

At her twin brother’s suggestion, Cameron borrows a set of his clothes and uses her costuming expertise to waltz into the shop as Boy Cameron, where she’s shocked at how easily she’s accepted into the nerd inner sanctum. Before she can say “Demogorgon,” Cameron finds herself drafted into a D&D campaign alongside the dudebro, a friendly (almost flirtatiously so) clerk, a handsome Dungeon Master, and her brother Cooper, dragged along for good measure.

But as her “secret identity” gets more and more entrenched, Cameron’s portfolio falls by the wayside – and her feelings for her DM threaten to make a complicated situation even more precarious. Cosplay, comic shops, and college applications collide in this geek-girl anthem from You’re Welcome, Universe author Whitney Gardner, complete with fully illustrated comic pages by Gardner herself.

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Duology Review: The Girl From The Well / The Suffering

girl from the wellThe Girl From The Well
The Suffering
by Rin Chupeco
Young Adult / Horror
255 pages / 313 pages
Published 2014 / 2015

This duology claimed a spot in my Spooky October Reads because I ADORE this author’s later work, The Bone Witch trilogy. I’d heard great things about this set, and I’m so glad I finally read it. I don’t care for much horror, generally, and this was just the right amount of iffy morality and spooky ghost stuff.

The books are told from the viewpoint of Okiku, a 300-year-old ghost who drowned in a well but came back to take vengeance on her killer before continuing to hunt down killers of children. The other main characters are Tarquin, a half-Japanese boy with strange, unnerving tattoos, and his older cousin Callie. The mystery of who Tarquin’s mother really is, what happened when he was a toddler, and why she’s tried to kill him every time she’s seen him since, is at the heart of the first book. The pacing and reveals are expertly done, so I won’t say much more about the plot.

the sufferingOkiku is appropriately terrifying, and her backstory is equally tragic. We learn much more about what happened to her in the second half of the first book, and it’s fleshed out even further in the second book. The second book is largely Okiku and Tark having an adventure in Japan, and less about their individual histories. I think it was a great sequel, though, and definitely needed to finish Okiku and Tark’s story. It takes place almost entirely in Aokigahara, Japan’s “suicide forest.” The Suffering is also told from Tark’s point of view instead of Okiku’s, and definitely suffers for that.

Overall, the first book is better than the second, but the second is still good, and finishes the story. Terrifying ghosts, creepy dolls, ancient rituals, and secret societies abound in these two books, and they’re the perfect amount of spooky for a scaredy-cat like me. These definitely cement Rin Chupeco as a must-read author for me. She’s fantastic.

From the cover of The Girl From The Well:

The dead do not always rest . . . 

Okiku knows anger and pain. They are what she last felt before her life was brutally taken from her more than 300 years ago. Now a restless spirit, she wanders, seeking out those who viciously take the lives of children. Okiku always gets her vengeance. She has no remorse for the wicked.

Until she meets seventeen-year-old Tark . . . 

From the cover of The Suffering:

The darkness will find you.

Seventeen-year-old Tark knows what it is to be powerless. But Okiku changed that. A restless spirit who ended life as a victim and started death as an avenger, she’s groomed Tark to destroy the wicked. But when darkness pulls them deep into Aokigahara, known as Japan’s suicide forest, Okiku’s justice becomes blurred, and Tark is the one who will pay the price . . . 

Book Review: There’s Something About Sweetie

there's something about sweetieThere’s Something About Sweetie
by Sandhya Menon
Young Adult Romance
378 pages
Published May 2019

There is so much to love about this book. I read When Dimple Met Rishi a while back, and fell in love with Rishi like I VERY rarely do with fictional characters. This book is about Rishi’s brother, Ashish. I don’t care for Ashish as much as I liked Rishi, but Sweetie – oh, girl.

See, Sweetie is fat. But despite how all the traditionalists around her would have her feel, she’s okay with that. She’s still the fastest runner on the track team, an amazing singer, and has a close group of loyal friends.

So when she’s approached by Ashish’s mother to arrange dating him, and it’s turned down flatly by her own mother because she’s “not at his level” – she makes the decision to show her mother she CAN be happy, and have the things her mother wants for her, WHILE BEING FAT. And so is born the “Sassy Sweetie Project,” which is adorable.

I love Sweetie, and being a fat person myself (who also snagged a hottie, not gonna lie) I identify SO MUCH with her struggles here. Snide remarks from family friends, the constant “if you’d just lose weight” from the people close to you, the expectation that you can’t be happy while fat – Sweetie faces all of that, tells it to sod off, and proves you can be fat and healthy and happy.

One thing I really like about the Menon’s arranged relationships – the Patels, at least, treat it as “we’ll arrange this, but it’s up to you to follow through. If you don’t like each other, we won’t force you to go through with this.” Which is a nice thing to see. It’s probably just an American stereotype that says arranged marriages are forced relationships; not knowing the culture first hand, I can’t say which one is closer to the truth. BUT it challenges American assumptions about arranged marriages, and that’s a great thing, and another reason to read diversely. (I’m willing to bet Menon’s version of it is closer to the modern norm for arranged marriages, at least.)

I love that even in a sweet, lighthearted romance such as this one, reading diversely challenges American assumptions about other cultures. I feel like this is especially important in Young Adult lit – presenting other cultures to teens before opinions about them are fully formed. Because I’ll admit, I have a instinctual “ACK!” reaction to the thought of an arranged marriage – in my mind that infringes on all the independence and free will I’ve clawed so hard for – but it’s worthwhile to be reminded that sometimes it looks like this, and not “Hey, my 14-year-old daughter, you’re going to marry a 40-year-old man tomorrow, deal with it” (though that does certainly happen, but it happens in the US, too! Don’t believe me? Read here).

Both of Sandhya Menon’s books that I’ve read present arranged relationships in a much more positive light than typical American media. It’s important representation, and the characters and relationships are a joy to read to boot.

(Tagged LGBT for an adorable gay couple who are friends of Ashish’s and show up throughout the book.)

From the cover of There’s Something About Sweetie:

ASHISH PATEL didn’t know love could be so . . . sucky. After he’s dumped by his ex-girlfriend, his mojo goes AWOL. Even worse, his parents are annoyingly, smugly confident they can find him a better match. So, in a moment of weakness, Ash challenges them to set him up.

The Patels insist that Ashish date an Indian-American girl – under contract. Per subclause 1(a), he’ll be taking his date on “fun” excursions like visiting the Hindu temple and his eccentric Gita Auntie. Kill him now. How is this ever going to work?

SWEETIE NAIR is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat. To Sweetie’s traditional parents, this last detail is the kiss of death. 

Sweetie loves her parents, but she’s so tired of being told she’s lacking because she’s fat. She decides it’s time to kick off the Sassy Sweetie Project, where she’ll show the world (and herself) what she’s really made of.

Ashish and Sweetie both have something to prove. But with each date they realize there’s an unexpected magic growing between them. Can they find their true selves without losing each other?

Book Review: If I’m Being Honest

if i'm being honestIf I’m Being Honest
by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka
Young Adult / Shakespeare Retelling / Romance
359 pages
Published April 2019

So I either forgot or failed to notice that this book was written by the same pair of authors that wrote Always Never Yours, a book revolving around a stage production of Romeo and Juliet with a main character based on Rosaline. I LOVED that book, and I don’t think this one would have languished on my shelves as long as it did if I’d realized the connection! (They have two more books coming out, Time of Our Lives in 2020 and an unnamed book in 2021!) The plots of the books are completely unconnected, but the two main characters in Always Never Yours did make a cameo in the end of If I’m Being Honest!

So. This book! I got STRONG 10 Things I Hate About You vibes off this book, and I loved that movie, so that alone should tell you what I thought of this book! I’m just a sucker for Shakespeare in any form, though. What I like about these authors is they don’t really retell the plays – they take one character out of the play and tell a story about HER. In Always Never Yours, it was Rosaline. In If I’m Being Honest, it’s Katherine/Kate. I’m eager to see who Time of Our Lives will be based on!

heinous bitch
So Cameron, our heroine, is a bitch, but as the reader we see her home life and the things she’s struggling with and WHY she is the way she is, so I was rooting for her the whole way. Her otherwise absentee father pays for an expensive private school, so there’s a lot of student politics and status-waving going on. When Cameron yells at another student at a party, her crush sees and is turned off by it, so Cameron decides that in order to win him back, she needs to make him see that she’s a good person. How to do that? Fix the things she’s broken. She starts with apologies, but has to up her game to actual ACTIONS when the apologies aren’t enough.

Through the course of the book, she finds herself actually making friends with the people she’d wronged, and falling for Brendan, who reminds me strongly of – well:

10things
(oh man, I REALLY need to watch this movie again.)

Oh! And Brendan has Celiac’s Disease, which doesn’t play a big part in the present-day plotline of the book, but is a HUGE part of why he’s an outcast.

I like Cameron and Brendan a lot, and this book was another great read from this pair of authors.

From the cover of If I’m Being Honest:

Cameron Bright is gorgeous, popular, and – according to 99% of Beaumont Prep’s student body – a bitch. That doesn’t bother Cameron, who knows how important it is to be honest. But when her crush, Andrew, sees Cameron’s cruelty up close, it’s a major turn-off, and suddenly Cameron’s consumed with winning him back. So she devises a plan: she’ll “tame” herself like Shakespeare’s illustrious shrew, Katherine, and make amends with everyone she’s wronged. If she can reverse her reputation as a mean girl, Andrew will have to take notice.

Cameron’s apology tour begins with Brendan Rosenfeld, the guy whose social life she single-handedly destroyed in the sixth grade. But earning his forgiveness requires befriending the school’s geeky crowd – which isn’t as easy as it looks. Soon, though, Cameron begins to see that her new friends bring out the best in her, especially Brendan, who views her honesty as an asset. Now Cameron’s left wondering if maybe she doesn’t have to compromise who she is for the kind of love she deserves.

Book Review: Of Ice And Shadows

of ice and shadowsOf Ice And Shadows
by Audrey Coulthurst
Young Adult / Fantasy
452 pages
Published August 2019

Of Ice And Shadows is actually the third book in this series; Of Fire And Stars is technically the first book but second chronologically, with Inkmistress being a prequel, so first chronologically. It’s a little confusing. I strongly recommend reading Inkmistress first; it builds the world in a way that makes Of Fire And Stars make a lot more sense.

Of Ice And Shadows takes the main characters from Of Fire And Stars and brings them to the country from Inkmistress. (Zumorda). It’s something like two hundred years after the events of Inkmistress, but the queen is still the same. Binding to a dragon seems to have increased her lifespan by a lot.

My only big complaint about this book is the Queen of Zumorda, actually. In my review of Inkmistress, I mentioned I found her to be kind of a bitch. She was portrayed as slightly evil, but in this book she’s a lot more gray. She’s ruthless, and can be cruel, but her motivations towards Denna are….hazy and not resolved by the end of the book. I feel like the Queen and Denna’s plotline is yet to be concluded, which makes me think (and hope) there will be another book. The author has stated on Goodreads that she knows what happens to Denna and Mare after this book, but sales will determine if there is another book in the series. Here’s hoping!

My second, and much more minor, complaint is the chapter headings. The book alternates between Denna and Mare’s viewpoints, but the chapters are headed by their full names – Dennaleia and Amaranthine. With Amaranthine always going by Mare, and Dennaleia alternating between Denna and Lia, I didn’t always connect their full names to the characters, so it pulled me out of the story for a few seconds when I saw their full names.

The book left a lot of mysteries still unexplained – Why is Sonnenborne, the third country in this setting, such a wasteland? What happened to the gods in Zumorda since the events of Inkmistress? One of Denna’s friends mentions his adoptive demigod mother – is that the same as the demigod from Inkmistress? It sounds right, location and ability wise. Does she still have a part to play in all of this? I really hope we get one last book tying up all the loose threads, because there are so many of them!

To sum up, I quite enjoyed this book, but you definitely need to read the other two books first, and be prepared to not get answers to all of your questions. I really, really need one last book in this series!

From the cover of Of Ice And Shadows:

Princesses Denna and Mare are in love and together at last – only to face a new set of dangers.

Mare just wants to settle down with the girl she loves, which would be easier if Denna weren’t gifted with forbidden and volatile fire magic. Denna must learn to control her powers, which means traveling in secret to the kingdom of Zumorda, where she can seek training without fear of persecution. Determined to help, Mare has agreed to serve as an ambassador as a cover for their journey.

But just as Mare and Denna arrive in Zumorda, an attack on a border town in Mynaria changes everything. Mare’s diplomatic mission is now urgent: She must quickly broker an alliance with the Zumordan queen to protect her homeland. However, the queen has no interest in allying with other kingdoms – it’s Denna’s untamed but powerful magic that catches her eye. The queen offers Denna a place among her elite trainees – an opportunity that would force her to choose between her magic and Mare.

As Denna’s powers grow stronger, Mare struggles to be the ambassador her kingdom needs. By making unconventional friends, she finds her knowledge of Zumorda and its people growing, along with her suspicions about who is truly behind the attacks on Zumorda and her homeland. As rising tensions and unexpected betrayals put Mare and Denna in jeopardy and dangerous enemies emerge on all sides, can they protect their love and save their kingdoms?

Book Review: I’m Not Dying With You Tonight

i'm not dying with you tonightI’m Not Dying With You Tonight
by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
247 pages
Published August 2019

I read this book with the intention of going to Barnes & Noble’s Young Adult Book Club last Thursday (and taking a break from my in-laws!) but the GOP decided to have their House GOP Retreat in the Hotel directly behind my local Barnes & Noble, and Trump came to town to speak at the dinner the SAME NIGHT AS BOOK CLUB. Between the extra security for that, and the protests surrounding it, I wasn’t setting foot in the area that day. So that was disappointing – but this book was not.

Content Warning: Racism, Anxiety, Violence

I’m Not Dying With You Tonight is told from two very different perspectives.

Campbell is a white girl whose father owns a hardware store downtown. To most people, she looks well off, but she knows the hardware store is only barely staying afloat. Her mother recently moved to South America, leaving her to switch schools and live with the father she barely knows, in a new town. She’s a fish out of water in more ways than one.

Lena, on the other hand, knows the town, and the people. She’s a black girl with a plan to make it big, between her fashion sense and her boyfriend’s musical talent. She’s one of the popular girls at school, and has the kind of easy confidence that can be intimidating.

The two girls are thrown together by chance when a high school football game sparks a riot that soon engulfs the town. Again and again, we see Lena’s knowledge make up for Campbell’s naiveté about the town and its issues, but then over and over we see Lena’s strengths become utterly useless because of her skin color, requiring Campbell to step up for them both. Campbell’s not a damsel in distress, but she is definitely the weaker of the two, and I think the point about all of Lena’s strengths being ignored by racist white people is well made.

I’ve never been in a riot, so I can’t say for sure, but the chaos and non-stop anxiety of Lena and Campbell’s journey through town seems like an accurate description. It’s a quick read partly because the action and danger drives you through the book, looking for safe harbor that isn’t found until the last few pages.

I understand why the book ended where it did, but I’m a little dissatisfied by it. I’d like to know how the experience shapes the two girls (and Lena’s boyfriend) going forward. Do they become friends after this? Does Lena’s boyfriend shape up his act? How does this change the three of them? The answers aren’t necessary for the story, but I’d still like to know!

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book. It follows my trend of diverse young adult books that teach hard topics. Really the only change I’d like to see was a little more denouement at the end!

From the cover of I’m Not Dying With You Tonight:

LENA AND CAMPBELL AREN’T FRIENDS.

Lena has her killer style, her awesome boyfriend, and a plan. She knows she’s going to make it big. Campbell, on the other hand, is just trying to keep her head down and get through the year at her new school.

When both girls attend the Friday-night football game, what neither expects is for everything to descend into sudden mass chaos. Chaos born from violence and hate. Chaos that unexpectedly throws them together.

They aren’t friends. They hardly understand the other’s point of view. But none of that matters when the city is up in flames, and they only have each other to rely on if they’re going to survive the night.