For fans of: The Handmaid’s Tale, Maria Haskins’ “Six Dreams About the Train,” Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician,” Alyssa Wong’s “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” eco sci-fi, poetic literary speculative fiction
In a science-fiction world where only the very wealthy have funerals and everyone else is dumped into the ubiquitous filthy canals when they die, a high end courtesan comes back to life to take vengeance on her wealthy client/murderer. Jewel, the protagonist of And What Can We Offer You Tonight, is the dead girl’s friend. Having not been reanimated with a terrible purpose, Jewel’s concerns are more quotidian: meeting clients, looking after her fellow courtesans, and trying to keep from losing her job as a known associate of the vigilante dead girl haunting the city’s rich.
This is a tough novella to summarize and an even tougher one to review. It’s beautifully written. Despite being 75% run-on sentences, it never feels dense, just poetic. Jewel’s helpless, often directionless ruminating turns her world into an anxious kaleidoscope. The imagery of the courtesans’ elegant House contrasts with the crumbling city outside in a way that makes both of them seem equally alien and lovely, and Mohamed has a way of describing familiar objects like perfume that seems stranger than her futuristic technology. I wanted to highlight entire chapters.
It’s also, objectively, something that should really connect with me. I love class conflict stories and I love female characters that other reviewers call too passive or too violent or too morally impure and I love a run-on sentence. But it didn’t hook me behind the belly button the way I wanted it to, and I can’t really say why.
If I had to guess, I’d say it was probably that Jewel is very Hamlet. She wants everything and nothing. She can’t make up her mind. She acts only when her hand is forced by other, stronger willed characters. Her definite trait is her compulsion to smother her unpretty emotions in order to keep her job and her life (which is saying the same thing twice).
I don’t think this is a flaw in the writing. I mean, Hamlet. If anything, Jewel is too relatable. Her dystopian future world is too real. Like, I am living through real climate disasters and class warfare, I do not have any spare energy for lightly fictionalized versions of them.
On the other hand, reading lightly fictionalized versions of the traumas you’re surviving can be healing. I think that will be the case for a lot of people who read And What Can We Offer You Tonight. After the murders in Atlanta and this summer’s heat wave, a lot of readers are going to find catharsis in the story of a murdered sex worker who traverses a flooded city to kill her killer.
I think this novella will also appeal to a lot of readers who don’t typically like SFF. If Margaret Atwood can say The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t science fiction, then I think I’m justified in saying neither is And What Can We Offer You Tonight. Buy this book for your snobby aunt and tell her it’s Literature that happens to have some lightly futuristic technology and exactly one un-dead girl.
I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
For fans of: A Taste of Honey, Pet, Cemetery Boys, Ana Mardoll, Shakespeare AUs, childhood friends to lovers, hurt/comfort, cat boys, … I want to say fantasy trans and queer cultures but I’ve never read them like this
Note: I’m going to discuss abuse dynamics both in the context of The Calyx Charm and in real life.
Often, when a powerful person (employer, mentor, parent, or partner) hurts someone they are supposed to protect, their victim takes on the responsibility for covering up that harm. The dynamics of power and survival prioritize avoiding conflict and maintaining appearances over victims’ abilities to even name what has happened to us: We weren’t sexually harassed, we “were just joking around.” We weren’t abused, we were “taught the importance of discipline.” We weren’t raped, we “have regrets.”
There’s a lot to love about The Calyx Charm, May Peterson’s third entry in her dark fantasy romance series The Sacred Dark, but what I love most is that it rejects this responsibility on two levels. First, the book itself is explicit and specific in naming the abuse and oppression its characters experience. Second, both its leads are learning to say, “Yes, I used to protect you from what you’ve done to me, but no more.”
Violetta Benedetti was the Honored Child. With her twin abilities to predict the future and make anyone she focuses on invincible, she was the weapon that won her parents’ revolution and made her cruel father prince elector. Now, at seventeen, she’s escaped her abusive father’s household to try to make a life for herself, supported by a community of trans people who live on the margins of society:
The secret heartbeat of the city, the artists and crafters and storytellers and smugglers, flowed from places full of mollyqueens and androgynes and tomkings, and with queer lovers of all kinds.
Violetta’s childhood friend, Tibario Gianbellicci, is also his parents’ weapon. Shortly after Violetta’s escape, Tibario’s mother attempts to use him to kill Violetta’s father. He dies and is reborn (the way non-magical people sometimes are) as a moon-soul, an immortal teleporting shapeshifter. Also, he gets a cat tail.
After his second assassination attempt also fails, Tibario’s mother asks Violetta to prophecy what’s protecting her father. But reading the future is not a science. Instead, Violetta fortells the end of the world as they know it, in two weeks or less.
Violetta’s instinct is not to try to prevent the apocalypse, but rather to live well in the time she has left:
Mollyqueens so seldom had futures to claim. We had todays. We had the little time we could claim for ourselves.
Maybe these would be the last days of my life, and maybe they would matter the most.
What follows is partially sweet, second-chance romance between childhood friends who finally find the courage to admit they’ve always loved each other, and partially scarred, scared people convincing each other they’re allowed to ask for more. Not just an end to suffering but a long life full of love and respect and a community that shelters them.
The community that embraces Violetta and Tibario is really lovely. It’s rare for cishet women in romance novels to have genuine female friends. I can’t think of any novel in any genre where the trans woman lead has friends who are also trans women, let alone trans women who are as fleshed out and lovely as Rosalina, who runs a bar and tearoom that is a safe place for trans women and the people who love them, complete with guest rooms and medical assistance. Medical assistance made possible by her girlfriend, who smuggles tea, sugar, and hormones into the country for her.
Can the next Sacred Dark novel be about Rosalina, please?
Another thing I’ve never seen in a romance novel: Violetta is honest with Tibario about what dating is like for her as a trans woman and a rape survivor, and Tibario never once says, “Oh damn, that sucks. Fortunately, I, an unproblematic cis guy–” He actually listens to her. He admits his shortcomings. He checks in with her often.
Their relationship is just so tender and heartwarming. I don’t usually go for romances with so little conflict between the main characters, because I think they tend to lack tension, but Violetta and Tibario have so much else going that it’s hard to argue they don’t deserve one nice, safe thing in their lives.
My only qualm with The Calyx Charm is I think I should have read the previous books in The Sacred Dark prior to this one. In my defense, I didn’t look very closely at the book prior to submitting my NetGalley request. I didn’t realize it was part of a series until I started reading it.
However, most romance series I’ve encountered have been made up of interconnected standalones. That is sort of the case here, but I think the degree of world building involved made it usually hard to get into. Also, at one point, something important happens involving a side character who is a main character in a previous book, and it’s never made clear what exactly that is. I’m hoping this is also an event in the other book, and Peterson expected readers to already get it.
That clearly isn’t a huge problem, though, because I’ve already recommended the series to a friend, and I’m recommending it now to you. I intend to purchase the rest of the series as soon as I whittle down my pile of overdue library books.
I received a free ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This is exactly the kind of book that makes content warnings so hard. Putting “rape of a child by a parent” and “a trans woman lovingly and consensually penetrating her partner” in the same list implies a kind of equivalency that is way more harmful than any of the content in this book.
Yet I know that both of those things could be triggering to readers. If I just say, “There is a lot of transmisogyny and child abuse in this book,” am I responsible for people who encounter triggers that weren’t on my list? I don’t want that either.
I don’t know the right thing to do here. If you have any specific concerns, please feel free to ask in the comments or email me (jz at jzkelley dot com), and I’ll do my best to answer.
Publisher: Carina Press Paperback Page Count: 286
May Peterson is on Twitter. In addition to her books, she offers developmental, line, copy, and sensitivity editing via her website.
Preorder The Calyx Charm (available July 13) on Amazon..
I initially titled this post “2021 Summer Reading Demands,” but I think that’s bad SEO.
Tori Curtis (dear friend and author of Eelgrass, who shares my passion for starting projects we don’t even intend to finish) recently complained to our group chat that the local library didn’t actually have any information about the summer reading program they advertised. We decided to make and swap Summer Reading Bingo cards, the way we have previously swapped writing prompts.
Then, I decided to make 4 more and share the collection with you. Choose your own adventure!
Summer Reading Bingo Rules
No rules, just right.
Yes, you can count the same book for multiple squares (but see rules 3 and 4).
If you complete a row, column, or diagonal before September 22, tag me on Twitter (@jzkelleywrites) or email me (jz at jzkelley dot com) with the titles of the books you read (minimum 3), and I’ll shout you out in my wrap-up post. Include a (1) link to something you want to show off!
If you complete the entire sheet before September 22, tag me on Twitter (@jzkelleywrites) or email me (jz at jzkelley dot com) with the titles of the books you read (minimum 10), and I will give you an actual, tangible prize in addition to a shoutout. Probably a gift card? TBD.
Resources and Recommendations (mostly alphabetical)
If you’re wondering, “Does X book fit Y category?” the answer is yes. Some books will fit the spirit of the category, and some books will only fit the category on a technicality. That’s fine. There are no grades. You cannot do summer reading wrong.
The goal is to expand your literary horizons and have fun. If you can only manage one of those things, let it be fun.
Here are some suggestions for the less common categories to get you started:
A 2020 debut
A debut is an author’s first published book.
Since so much of an author’s career hinges on their early book sales, and the pandemic messed up everything in publishing, I want to bring extra attention to debuts published in 2020.
I loved Beneath the Risingby Premee Mohamed and Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, but I really want to read Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas and One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London as well.
Here is a tip for shy readers: While librarians and booksellers are usually happy to offer recommendations, you can also walk around your library or bookstore and look for a display with staff recommendations.
Science fantasy adventure stories set on planets that are not earth
Think of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter, Kenneth Bulmer, etc.
Check the content warnings first, but Skyfall by Catherine Asaro is like a proto-feminist take on the genre, kind of … Anyway, it’s a wild ride, and I’d recommend it purely on the strength of its main character’s massive, constantly described, literally golden breasts.
If, for some reason, you don’t want a Big Titty Gold Girlfriend, there’s a Goodreads list with other suggestions.
Need suggestions for other categories? Ask me in the comments!
Also, let me know what you’re planning to read! I always need more books for the list of things I’m definitely, totally, 100% going to read eventually.
For fans of: Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, lyrical prose, Cersei Lannister, royal family special editions of US Weekly
Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the ending of Lying with Lions. Like, right now.
In the last 10% of Lying with Lions, the protagonist, Agnes Ashford, and her lover/patron, Lady Helen Bryant, are confronted with a terrible choice: either sacrifice Helen’s wealth and independence, or the crimes she and Agnes committed to protect it will be revealed to the public. Agnes feels torn between her survival instinct, her loyalty to Helen, and her conscience. Every scene raises the stakes until Agnes is driven into desperate action with real consequences.
It’s a satisfying ending to Annabel Fielding’s turn-of-the-century gothic drama. Unfortunately, it also seems to belong to a different draft than the previous 90% of the novel.
Fielding’s writing is sometimes confusing (with frequent tense shifts that I hope will be caught in a final edit before it’s released on the 20th), but it’s more often beautiful, even poetic. I frequently highlighted passages I found moving or insightful:
It was a careful labour of months, to insulate herself from the pain [of her father’s death]. The art of half-forgetting. She did it so thoroughly, drawing borders of cool sensibility from dawn to dusk.
[Helen’s daughter] has always been a swallow darting in and out of Agnes’ life, smiling the way every girl learns to smile if she wants to see some kindness from the world.
She, Agnes, had thought once that pain is something that happens. It is like a wave, she thought, to hit you and then recede back into the depths, and if one is steadfast enough, if one is serene and solid rock in the ocean, one could weather it.
But she was wrong. Pain seeps into our bones; it changes their shapes forever. It changes the colour of our blood.
Agnes and Helen are complex, often unlikable women with both agency and power. It’s clear that their lives and personalities are based on real Edwardian women. Even when they’re reckless or cruel, their actions are logical and grounded in a way I should have found compelling.
Best of all, every detail of their world is consistent and (as far as I can tell) accurate. Fielding is a history blogger, and she cites dozens of texts as sources for this novel alone. It’s clear that it was important for her to give readers a sense of what it was like to live in Edwardian England, from politics to social norms to infrastructure and even lighting.
So why didn’t this book work for me?
I think my problem was almost entirely structural. Though it’s a single novel, the plot of Lying with Lions is unusually episodic. Agnes and Helen will recognize they have a problem. Agnes will (briefly, without much emotion) contemplate the problem for a few pages, while Helen develops a solution offscreen. Agnes will execute the solution. Then, we get an equal number of pages of sightseeing or current events. Repeat for 200 pages.
This structure doesn’t allow the kind of tension that keeps me reading until 2 in the morning. Instead, I felt discouraged from worrying about the characters, because the repeated pattern of problem, contemplation, quick and tidy solution lulled me into thinking nothing truly bad could happen to Agnes or Helen. Neither Agnes nor Helen even seemed to suffer from guilt or anxiety at any point, even when their solutions have body counts.
Even the romance between Agnes and Helen suffers from this structure. There is no time for yearning. There are no tender, playful moments between the couple. There are some sex scenes, but these are really only settings for the conversations in which Helen gives Agnes instructions and Agnes reports her results.
It’s clear that Helen values Agnes’s loyalty and obedience, but that’s about it. Helen takes what she wants from Agnes, and Agnes gives it without conflict or self-doubt or even much prolonged joy, just the satisfaction of a job well done.
Again, the ending of this book is fantastic, but it’s also confusing. Agnes suddenly does mind their body count. She does care about the impact of her actions on other people. She does want to do the right thing. Not because anything happened or she had a change of heart; it’s just presented as though this is the character Agnes has been the entire time. I wish it were.
I think readers who are primarily interested in historical fiction for the details of the setting will love Lying with Lions. I also think it could be adapted into an incredible movie or mini-series. The right actors, with the right on-screen chemistry, could make the relationship between Agnes and Helen really compelling. However, readers seeking a historical lesbian romance are likely to be disappointed by the novel.
I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Self published Hardback Page Count: 233
Or maybe I just wish the readers with seemingly inexhaustible patience for privileged writers would pick up little indie queer books more often.
The only way I can describe this delightfully campy little novella is But I’m a Cheerleader meets Mean Girls meets Glee. If you like all of those properties, you will like this book. If the satirical homophobia of But I’m a Cheerleader and Mean Girls is too much for you, you will not like this book.
If you’re like, “That sounds great, but I’d literally rather die than listen to another Lea Michele cover,” good news! There is no audio component to this book. I don’t think any of the characters even mention a song in passing, though I could be mistaken about that.
The protagonist of Queerleaders, Mack, is a closeted lesbian in her senior year at a Catholic high school. She has a best friend who goes everywhere with her, the kind of supportive parents you really only see in teen comedies, and a crush on the head cheerleader, Veronica, who she believes is secretly much smarter and kinder than everyone gives her credit for. To prove to her friend that Veronica is a worthy love interest, Mack makes a list of Ronnie’s admirable traits.
Naturally, Veronica’s football player boyfriend finds the list and uses it to out Mack in front of everyone. Mack, who has never been kissed, vows to get revenge by stealing all of the football players’ cheerleader girlfriends.
This is the most fanficy premise I’ve encountered in a professionally published book since Fifty Shades of Grey. I messaged it to my friends. Then I sent them a copy. Then I, in the depths of my Asian Readathon selections and desperate for something simple and sweet, checked it out of the library and stared at it every day until June 1.
Keeping in mind Corey Alexander’s very good essay on what we call fluff, I need to clarify that this book was simple and sweet for me because I have been out of high school for almost 12 years. Some of the bullying Mack experiences—particularly a scene in which someone sets her up for public humiliation, and the fallout from that—comes close enough to what I went through that I might have found it difficult if it were fresher. Then again, these scenes are brief, and Mack gets a satisfying teen romantic comedy ending shortly thereafter. Maybe I would have found it cathartic.
Aside from the premise and the sweet ending, my favorite part of Queerleaders was the romance. So many sapphic romances in YA feel like friendships with extra tragedy. Where’s the tension? Where’s the yearning? Queerleaders delivers on both passion and desire, along with a love interest unlike any I’ve seen in sapphic or straight romance before.
Spoiler warning: Minor spoilers for Six of Crows, Crooked Kingdom, King of Scars and Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo. Major spoilers for Adaptation and Inheritance by Malinda Lo.
Happy Pride Month!
This would maybe be a contentious post if strangers read my blog. In the off chance you are a stranger reading my blog, please allow me to clarify: Some of these characters do not explicitly identify as any particular sexuality. It’s possible they would choose to identify as pansexual, queer, or something else entirely.
I’m choosing to call them bi because that’s the label I’ve chosen for myself, and like all bisexuals, I’m greedy.
Also, this isn’t a list of the best bisexual characters or characters I think provide the best representation. They’re just my favorites, in no particular order …
Nina from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse
Nina is a controversial fat character. Her initial character traits are basically: gorgeous, powerful, likes sweets, dislikes physical exertion. Listed out like that, I get why she feels like a stereotype to some readers. (The fact that she’s the only explicitly fat hero, and therefore has to stand in for all fat people doesn’t help.)
However, as a fat person who likes sweets and used to dislike physical exertion, I like her. It’s nice to see a fat character who’s allowed to enjoy food and isn’t made the butt of a joke for it. I didn’t read her as glutenous or lazy. I read her as spoiled.
I like that Nina’s confident in her size and her sexuality. I like that she remains fat over the course of two series, even when her appearance is magically altered so she can go undercover, which would have been a convenient excuse to make her thin. I like that she’s allowed to be complicated and even unpleasant at times, and she’s still seen as desirable.
Plus, her powers are cool as hell and she gets one of the best endings in the Grishaverse.
Dolly is my girlfriend and I love her. She’s a master thief in charge of weapons and vehicles for her found-family trio of lady criminals. On the outside, she’s so tough she doesn’t even have a favorite brand of cigarettes, because then she’d be disappointed in other cigarettes, and Dolly doesn’t have the patience for that kind of weakness. On the inside, she’s the marshmallow-sweet mom friend who carries her teammates when they’re too weak to walk.
I’m seriously head-over-heels for Dolly. When I write Run with the Hunted fanfiction, it’s going to be 90% loving descriptions of Dolly eating diner food, 10% descriptions of Dolly and her teammate Bristol kissing.
Reese from Adaptation by Malinda Lo
Hot take: Adaptation is superior to Ash in every way.
Am I just saying that because Reese gets to have a terrifying alien girlfriend and a sweet human boyfriend, and those are exactly my types?
ANYWAY, Reese is the opposite of Nina and Dolly, but just as controversial. A lot of readers complain she doesn’t have much of a personality. I think it’s more the case that Adaptation is a book about kissing nice human boys and scary alien girls, with a side of adventure, than a character-driven adventure novel.
I like Reese. Instead of a body count, she has a lot of normal teenage insecurities, which I found relatable as someone who was a painfully shy and insecure teenager. She isn’t insecure about her sexuality, though. When she realizes she’s attracted to both her debate partner, David, and her new friend Amber, she accepts it with the kind of nonchalance I wish were normal for more teenagers. And so do her parents! Wish fulfillment on top of wish fulfillment.
Danika Brown from Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
Talia Hibbert’s Brown sisters books are my favorite contemporary romance series. Get a Life, Chloe Brown is the first and my favorite book of the series, because a difficult cat plays a prominent role, but Dani is my favorite human character in the series.
She’s a graduate student and instructor in feminist literature who desperately wants to become a tenured professor as soon as possible. She’s also (and I can only imagine how many “forced diversity” reviews Hibbert gets for this) a fat, bisexual, probably autistic, Black witch (as in the religion). Although Dani has some deep-seated romantic insecurities stemming from a bad breakup, she’s confident in her intelligence, her sex appeal, and her fundamental worth in a way that feels really refreshing and cozy to read.
I do have some qualms about the way Dani’s bisexuality is portrayed, but not because it’s unrealistic. Her love interest initially believes she’s a lesbian because “she talked about banging Janelle Monáe kind of a lot,” and … uh, yep.
It’s also important to note that Talia Hibbert is a queer woman, and even though Dani’s romantic journey includes some bisexual stereotypes, the way Hibbert writes it is nuanced and compassionate. Not quite as nuanced as I’d like, maybe, but I think most bisexual readers will be satisfied.
Bi Books on My TBR
Okay, listen. Listen! I know that’s a short list and they’re all women, but I tried to come up with not-women bi characters, and everyone I could think of got buried or otherwise punished for their sexuality. Or they’re Jesper, and I already have one Leigh Bardugo character on my list.
Here, let me make it up to you. Here are eight bi books I plan to read … eventually:
For fans of: The Farseer Trilogy, The Unbroken, Ursula Le Guin, family dramas, political fantasy, strong female characters, slow burn romance, Suffering
Asian Readathon is over, and I am only reading cute, fluffy books with lots of kissing and minimal dead cats from now on. I deserve it after The Wolf of Oren-Yaro.
K. S. Villoso’s Filipino-inspired family drama-cum-epic fantasy is narrated by Queen Talyien, possibly the only Strong Female Character to say, “I can take care of myself, thanks,” and then do so. Talyien is the first female ruler of Oren-yaro. She was betrothed at first to the last end of a rival faction in order to end her country’s brutal civil war. Then her worthless garbage truck of a husband fled on their coronation day, abandoning her with their two-year-old son to rule alone.
Talyien believes (and Goodreads reviewers seem to agree) that her primary flaw is continuing to love her husband through the five years of his absence. There’s some textual evidence for this: When her husband asks Talyien to meet him in a hostile and much more powerful neighboring country, she does, and almost everyone she trusts either dies or betrays her as a result.
I disagree. I think Talyien is so strong people fail to notice what’s actually going on with her: She’s traumatized. She’s trying to live up to not only the expectations of an entire fractious nation but also the idealized image of her dead father. Yes, it would be better for her to put her hope and faith in someone (anyone) who deserves it more than her absent husband, but this is what traumatized people often do. We love people who don’t deserve it.
This isn’t a story about a dysfunctional marriage so much as it is about a dysfunctional family, all three generations of it.
It’s also a character study. Yes, there’s (so much) violence and politics and forbidden magic, but all of those things serve to propel Talyien’s journey from queen who’s always been surrounded by servants to beggar wandering the slums in a hostile country to the person she becomes at the end of the series.
I say “series” rather than book because The Wolf of Oren-Yaro feels very much like the beginning of a trilogy rather than a standalone novel. Which makes sense: It was originally self published. K. S. Villoso knew she didn’t need a publisher’s permission to continue.
However, it makes this a difficult book to review. The character arcs are incomplete. The good guys are still in danger, and even the bad guys who have died feel like they might make a comeback. Talyien has seen some of the world outside her (comparatively) sheltered life as a queen and gained some surprising insights about the people she thought she knew best, but it remains to be seen what she’ll do with those insights. There’s no resolution, merely a pause.
I wanted to hold off on writing this review at all until I finished the series, but I decided to push ahead for two reasons. One: It’s hard to post a full-series review on Goodreads and Amazon, where authors need reviews the most. Two: I don’t know when I’ll feel up to returning to Talyien’s world.
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is beautifully written, but it isn’t a pretty book. There’s very little hope or light. Even the settings are ugly: dank prison cells, barred windows, and slums filled with starving children and dead cats. Talyien is rarely free from threats of rape and murder. Even in her dreams, she’s reliving childhood traumas. She does get to spend a few sweet pages with a normal, loving family, but then she’s immediately back to fighting for her life.
Here’s what I can say at this point: K. S. Villoso is a strong, genre-savvy writer. Despite the sprawling world and the shifting politics, I never felt lost. There is no glossary or cast list at the end of the book because it’s unnecessary. I never needed to flip back to remind myself who a character was or what they wanted.
And they felt real. One of the reasons I’m so reluctant to read The Issekar Falcon right now is how much I cared for Talyien. She’s a flawed, fully developed, and deeply wounded character. I want someone to come along, prove they’re worthy of her trust, and give her a hot meal and a nice long bath. I want her to learn to set boundaries and get comfortable with disappointing her father’s memory. I want her to be okay–and because she’s a flawed, fully developed, and deeply wounded character, I know that won’t happen for at least another book and three quarters.
This book is heavy. I never want to try to provide a complete list of all triggers, for fear of missing one, but I didn’t see anyone else talking about the extent of sexual violence in this book. It’s a lot.
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro contains frequent and often detailed threats of rape, human trafficking, verbal descriptions of past rape, and rape on the page.
I love a reading challenge that introduces me to books I wouldn’t have found on my own. Usually, that means nonfiction outside the social sciences, poetry, and literary fiction, as well as science fiction and fantasy that none of my friends have read yet.
It feels like it’s good for me, even if I don’t always enjoy it. Like when my therapist makes me set a boundary.
Of the five books I read for Asian Readathon, only Thorn was originally on my TBR.The Collected Schizophrenias, A Crown of Wishes, Ayesha at Last, and The Wolf of Oren-Yaro were all new to me.
You may notice one of those books wasn’t part of my original plan.
For fans of: Graceling, The Library of Fates, Raybearer, enemies to lovers, high stakes fantasy games and tournaments, talking monster companions
A Crown of Wishes is lush, colorful, and delicious. It’s a fast-paced adventure with such rich sensory detail that I feel like I dreamed it, and I want to go back tonight. Plus, it manages to feel fresh and contemporary while also delivering heaps of my favorite tropes:
Enemies to lovers
Spooky animal companions
Monsters with hearts of gold
Soft boys who love prickly girls
Healing, um … kisses …
It’s the story of heirs to rival kingdoms, who have not yet met when are chosen by the Lord of Wealth to compete as partners in the Tournament of Wishes. If they can find a way into the Otherworld of magic and monsters and survive two challenges and a sacrifice, there’s still no guarantee they’ll both be allowed to leave with their lives. But for a chance at a Wish, they’ll have to risk it.
Princess Gauri is the angry girl of my dreams: “A beast. A monster. A myth. A girl. What was the difference?” She’s a princess without a country, desperate to return. To protect her people, she trained as a soldier to fight in her cruel brother’s armies, and eventually to overthrow him. However, her need to protect has made her paranoid and afraid of being vulnerable. Her coup failed, and her brother dropped her over the border in an enemy kingdom with orders for her execution.
On paper, Prince Vikram is the heir to that enemy kingdom, but his father’s council knows he is adopted and has no intention of letting him wield real power when he takes the throne. He’s a good match for Princess Gauri, first as a reluctant ally and eventually as a love interest. Despite her martial prowess, Gauri doesn’t frighten the comparatively peaceful Vikram, who accepts her initial distrust with cockiness that isn’t hiding anything.
Vikram is genuinely confident that their quest is going to make him into a true ruler. As a result, he is almost recklessly kind and trusting with the people they meet on their journey in a way Gauri can’t allow herself to be, yet.
Despite the protagonists’ tragic backstories and desperate circumstances, this is a cheerful book. It was such a relief after–you know, everything, that I almost wish it weren’t such a quick, breezy read. I’m definitely going to pick up the other books in this series as soon as I shrink my TBR pile a bit.
I have a migraine and no idea how to review a book like this, so I’m not going to, except to say that I liked it. A lot of disability memoirs read like the writer is an astronaut all alone in the dark void of Illness, which is probably why they appeal more to readers who don’t think of themselves as sick or disabled. The essays in The Collected Schizophrenias are all in conversation with people and communities. They feel like they were written for us.
Instead of a review, I’m going to give you a list of other personal essays I think you’d like if you liked The Collected Schizophrenias. Which is a sneaky way of saying that if you like these essays, you’ll probably like The Collected Schizophrenias.
Also, my favorite quote, which comes late enough in the book that it would probably be considered a spoiler if you could spoil people’s real lives:
Rebecca Solnit says in The Faraway Nearby, “There is a serenity in illness that takes away all the need to do and makes just being enough,” which has not been my experience. After all, prolonged and chronic illness stitches itself into life in a different way than acute illness does … The absolution from doing more and dreaming big that I experience during surgeries and hospitalization is absent during chronic illness.
After all, until then, my health had always made sense to me. It didn’t occur to me that might change—that my ability to move and work and be outdoors, to live the life I’d built, could dissolve in a week.
Then, as an adult, I actually read the text and discovered that woven into the recipes were tidbits of advice for the 1960s homemaker: The man you marry will know the way he likes his eggs. And chances are he’ll be fussy about them. So it behooves a good wife to know how to make an egg behave in six basic ways.
When life was hard, there was no luxury to wallow. Don’t nobody have time to be depressed! There were children to feed, bodies to bathe, houses to clean. I know there are black women not so strong, but I don’t remember seeing my mother cry.
As I wrote, my perception of the life I’d lived began to shift. I had long thought of myself as living a charmed life, and for the most part, I did. But that perception was contingent on continuing to ignore experiences that were the direct result of anti-fat bias.
We speak of it in whispers, though everyone’s been treated for it at some point, Prozac and Zoloft and Lexapro all the way down the family tree, and yet here I must also admit we’re all just as apt to believe in ghosts as to believe in something like brain chemistry. What is depression, anyway, when you’ve already passed through the fire and returned?