Skip to content

J. Z. Kelley's Blog Posts

Review: Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding (Out 6/20/21)

Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Adult
Series?: Standalone (?)

Rating: Not for me

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.

Ready?

Okay.

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.

Chapter 2

[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.

Chapter 6

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.

Chapter 11

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.

Disclaimer

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Self published
Hardback Page Count: 233

Annabel Fielding blogs about history and historical fiction at History Geek in Town. You can also find her on Twitter.

You can preorder Lying with Lions (out June 20th) on Amazon.

Review: Queerleaders by M. B. Guel

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Audience: YA
Series?: Standalone

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: But I’m a Cheerleader, Mean Girls, Glee, high school AU fanfiction, Dr. Pepper lip balm

This post contains minor spoilers for Queerleaders.

One quick aside before I never read another negative Goodreads review for a book I like ever again (ha): I wish readers showed as much grace to #OwnVoices writers as we do to (presumed) more privileged writers of similar stories.

Or maybe I just wish the readers with seemingly inexhaustible patience for privileged writers would pick up little indie queer books more often.

The Road To El Dorado gif where the characters say, "Both?" "Both?" "Both." "Both is good." (I don't know who these characters are, sorry!)

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.

Clea Duvall as Graham in But I'm a Cheerleader smokes a cigarette in an obnoxiously pink bed.

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.

More Info

Publisher: Bella Books
Paperback Page Count: 148

M. B. Guel posts pictures of their adorable pets on Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying Queerleaders on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon. Also make sure to preorder their forthcoming novel Internet Famous (December 2021).

Pride Month: My Favorite Bisexual* Characters (Book Recommendations)

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.

A waving pixel gif of a bi pride flag

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.

Gif of Nina looking down and biting her lip

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 from Jennifer R. Donohue’s Run with the Hunted series

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.

Gif of a Shiba Inu riding on the back of a tortoise
Hard on the outside, soft on the inside, just like Dolly!

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?

Gif of two cartoon aliens dancing

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.

Gif of Janelle Monae blowing a kiss at the camera

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:

A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney (Goodreads)

  • YA urban fantasy
  • Alice in Wonderland retelling featuring a cosplaying bi Black Alice who fights nightmares
  • McKinney also has a sapphic Jane Eyre retelling (!!!) called Escaping Mr. Rochester (!!!!!!) coming in 2022

One Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole (Goodreads)

  • Contemporary romance novella
  • Second-chance romance between two Black women, one of whom is the assistant to the prince of a fictional Wakanda-inspired country
  • The audiobook of A Princess in Theory, which precedes Once Ghosted, Twice Shy, has the best accents but also the sex scenes did almost kill me with their tonal dissonance

Seven Tears at High Tide by C. B. Lee (Goodreads)

  • YA fantasy
  • Bi Asian-American boy rescues a selkie boy on the Pacific coast
  • Rainbow Award Nominee for Bisexual Fantasy and Fantasy Romance (3rd place)

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust (Goodreads)

  • YA fantasy
  • Sapphic Persian-inspired Sleeping Beauty retelling featuring an Elsa-like princess whose touch is poisonous
  • I’ve seen it shelved as “creepy plants,” and I don’t know what that means yet but I’m excited

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (Goodreads)

  • Historical romance
  • Widow recruits aspiring astronomer to fulfill her husband’s legacy
  • I recently decided not to gift this to a friend because it’s long and reportedly a slow burn, but sometimes you just want to luxuriate

Let’s Call it a Doomsday by Katie Henry (Goodreads)

  • YA contemporary
  • “Ellis is scared about the end of the world; Hannah knows when it’s going to happen”
  • With an anxious LDS bi-questioning protag, probably more of a post-quarantine read

Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman (Goodreads)

  • Contemporary novella
  • Small-batch yarn dyer falls for wildlife painter
  • Supposed to be very fluffy and cute and Jewish

Who are your favorite bisexual characters?

Have you read any of the books on my TBR? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Spoiler-Free Review: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso

Cover of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Adult
Series?: Chronicles of the Bitch Queen

Rating: Liked it

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.

Asian Readathon

This is my final book for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 3 (favorite genre)

K. S. Villoso is Filipino Canadian.

Content Warnings

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.

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 496

K. S. Villoso is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying The Wolf of Oren-Yaro on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Asian Readathon 2021: Final Thoughts

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.

Or my updated plan.

In my defense, I’ll Be the One really sounds like it’s set in Korea. It’s about a girl competing to become a K-Pop star. Nothing in its blurb indicates it’s actually set in LA.

Ayesha at Last was my third and final attempt to find a book not set in the US.

It’s set in Canada.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Elmo.gif

Good enough.

What I Read

Challenge 1: Read any book written by an Asian author – Thorn by Intisar Khanani

  • Dark and often painful fairytale retelling
  • Big on the found family feelings
  • Light on the romance
  • Some nuanced and redeemable villains
  • Why does every book I touch have so much sexual violence?

Challenge 2: Read any book featuring an Asian protagonist – A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

  • Hindu-inspired adventure
  • Angry girl x gentle boy
  • Yearning!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • So much beautiful, sparkling imagery
  • “Be careful what you wish for” but not frustrating

Challenge 3: Read any book written by an Asian author in your favorite genre – The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso

  • Filipino epic fantasy about toxic family relationships
  • “I can take care of myself” but she actually can
  • Meticulous and detailed world building
  • 0.5 seconds of found family before we return to our regularly scheduled suffering
  • Seriously, everything I touch turns to sexual violence

Challenge 4: Read any nonfiction book written by an Asian author – The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang

  • Disabled person, not person with a disability
  • Writing about writing about mental illness
  • Essays as conversations with dead sick people
  • Travelogue of hospitals, doctors offices, hotels, and internal landscapes
  • Shockingly, one of the lighter books I read this month

Challenge 5: Read any book written by an Asian author that’s not US-centric – Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

  • Contemporary Muslim Canadian Pride and Prejudice retelling
  • Main character’s poetry is actually good
  • Setting boundaries with difficult family members
  • Deliberately trying to make you hungry
  • Justice for Lydia

Spoiler-Free Review: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Young adult
Series?: The Star-Touched Queen Duology

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: GracelingThe Library of FatesRaybearer, 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
  • Found family
  • Capricious gods
  • 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.

Asian Readathon

This is the third book I finished for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 2.

Roshani Chokshi’s mother is Filipino and her father is Indian.

More Info

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Hardback Page Count: 384

Roshani Chokshi is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying A Crown of Wishes on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

5 Personal Essays to Read if You Liked The Collected Schizophrenias

Cover of The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang

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.

The Essays

“Lyme Disease Changed My Relationship with the Outdoors” by Blair Braverman (Outdoors)

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.

“What Did My Mother the Chemist See in Betty Crocker?” by Celeste Ng (The New York Times)

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.

“What It’s Like Having PPD As A Black Woman” by Tyrese Coleman (Buzzfeed)

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.

“After Years of Writing Anonymously About Fatness, I’m Telling the World Who I Am” by Your Fat Friend/Aubrey Gordon (Self)

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 Don’t Talk About Mental Illness In My Family” by Larissa Pham (Buzzfeed)

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?

Bonus

One of the essays in The Collected Schizophrenias, “Who Gets To Be The “Good Schizophrenic”?,” was originally published on Buzzfeed. Read it for a sample of Weijun Wang’s writing. Send it to your friends.

Then, if you haven’t already, buy the book on Bookshop.org or Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Early in Thorn, Intisar Khanani’s YA fantasy retelling of “Goose Girl,” the protagonist’s talking Horse advises her with the book’s central theme and conflict:

It is rare for someone who wants power to truly deserve it.

Princess Alyrra is patient, gentle, generous, curious, and honest to a fault. After years of abuse at the hands of her mother and brother, she’s almost relieved to have her identity stolen on the road to the neighboring kingdom, where she is to wed the prince. Alyrra has no desire to rule. If only she could be sure the imposter would not harm the prince, Alyrra would be content as a goose girl, trading hard physical labor for freedom from court politics.

Thorn is a deceptively heavy novel. Despite its colorful cover and accessible writing, themes of abuse, injustice, and revenge permeate almost every scene. Intisar Khanani handles these themes with consideration and respect not only for their weight but also for the reader. I particularly appreciated the nuanced discussion of defensive versus offensive violence. And amid the darkness, there are much-needed moments of humor and beauty, including stubborn horses, a sweet found family that loves Alyrra the way her family of origin couldn’t.

Of the retellings I’ve read, Thorn is among the most faithful to its original fairytale. The cast is broader and more developed, and there is a side plot about human trafficking and thieves guilds. However, the primary plot points largely mirror those of “Goose Girl.”

That isn’t necessarily a problem. Based on a quick skim of Goodreads, I’m one of many readers for whom this was our first exposure to “Goose Girl.” Khanani also worked in a few twists that would have surprised me even if I had been familiar with the inspiration. However, there is one event in the original fairytale that doesn’t make much sense to me in that context, and it made even less sense to me in Thorn. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say I kept waiting for something important to happen as Alyrra passed through the gates, and it never did.

I also wish Khanani had done more to develop Alyrra’s world and to push back against the fairytale trope of characters that are either all good or all evil. The primary villain, who orchestrates the theft of Alyrra’s identity, is complicated and sympathetic, but no other antagonist gets the same treatment. However, I enjoyed the quieter, more contemplative scenes immensely, and I’m eager to see what Khanani writes next.

Thorn is most likely to appeal to fans of trauma narratives that are light on romance, like Raybearer and Deerskin. However, it’s also a beautiful found family story, and I think people who prefer the parts of Disney movies where princesses cheerfully clean the house with the help of their animal sidekicks would enjoy it immensely.

Asian Readathon

This is the first book I finished for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 1, though it could also fulfill challenge 2 or 3, or all 3 if I only wanted to read 3 books.

Intisar Khanani’s family is Pakistani.

Content Warnings

I’m still conflicted about listing these, but apparently it’s a thing I’m doing now.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani contains physical, verbal, and emotional abuse; violence against animals; torture; human trafficking of children; onscreen threats of sexual violence; offscreen sexual violence; and torture.

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 528

Intisar Khanani is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying Thorn on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

Cover of The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

The Unbroken is the literary equivalent of being kicked in the ribs for 500 pages, and I loved it. Mostly.

Told in alternating perspectives, it’s the story of two women trying to quash an uprising in the Balladairan colony of Qazāl. Touraine is a soldier, Qazāli by birth but conscripted into the colonial army as a toddler, who trusts only her fellow conscripts and the strength of her body. Luca is the future Balladairan queen, an idealistic and book-smart but unproven leader, whose rank and disability estranges her from everyone but her personal guard. When Touraine saves Lucca from an assassination attempt, Lucca sees an opportunity to recruit an ambassador the Qazāli might trust enough to negotiate a peaceful end to the rebellion.

Clark’s world building is immaculate. Both French-inspired Balladaire and Arab-inspired Qazāl feel like real, living countries, with their own geography, culture, history, and approach to magic and religion. Their writing is intense and cinematic. Despite the violence and despair that permeates much of the book, I found myself staying up too late to finish “just one more” chapter and daydreaming about the characters when I was supposed to be working. And I loved the layered, flawed characters, even though most of them only make good decisions by accident.

I only have one critique, and it’s that I found the sexual violence subplot almost unbearable. If I were to describe exactly what happens, on paper, it would seem fairly unremarkable. It’s nowhere near what happens in an episode of Game of Thrones. There are hundreds of YA novels with more detailed depictions of sexual violence that go on for much longer than what happens in The Unbroken, and none of them have gotten under my skin in quite the same way.

To be clear, I don’t think Clark’s use of sexual violence is inappropriate. It’s a way of emphasizing how powerless even respectable, comparatively high ranking Qazāli are against Balladairans. It raises the stakes and underscores the novel’s themes, and it’s treated with the gravity it deserves. I just think there was probably a way to do all of that without exposing what I imagine is an audience of primarily queer women and/or women of color to yet more depictions of sexual violence against queer women of color.

That said, I have recommended The Unbroken to several friends and will continue to do so, with the necessary caveats.

I think it will especially appeal to fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series and N. K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology, but anyone who loves political fantasy with meticulous world building should give it a try. It’s ambitious and textured and spectacularly well written. I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to the sequel. I’m just going to make sure I have something fluffy to chase it with.

Content Warnings

I’m always torn on whether or not I want to provide detailed content warnings for the books I review. Some people consider them spoilers, some people consider them essential. More importantly, I don’t want anyone who depends on my list to come across an unexpected trigger because I failed to remember or mention it.

Fortunately, C. L. Clark has a list on their website, so I’m just going to quote that here:

depictions of colonial violence, gore, past attempted rape, threats of rape, threats of torture

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 544

C. L. Clark does a terrifying number of things all around the world. On top of writing novels and short stories, they’re the co-editor of Podcastle, an academic, an English teacher, and a personal trainer. Follow them on Twitter.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying The Unbroken on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

2021 Asian Readathon Progress Update

One problem with checking giant stacks of books out from the library at once is I never remember what those books are about when I get them home or why I checked them out.

After a pair of depressing adult fantasy books (Passing Strange and The Unbroken, review of the latter coming soon), I was craving some lighthearted YA adventure. So I picked up Thorn by Intisar Khanani. The cover’s so pretty! And it has such a nice coming-to-market story! Surely, I thought, this is a book that will cheer me up after reading 600-something pages of violence against women.

I was mistaken.

I did like Thorn. The writing is compulsively readable, and the major twist was both surprising and satisfying. If I decide to read it again in a different headspace, I might even come to love it. I just didn’t enjoy reading it when I did.

Another thing I was mistaken about: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is partially set in the U.S., so I’m not going to be using that book to fulfill the non-US centric category.

Instead, I’m reading I’ll be the One by Lyla Lee. Somehow, I wasn’t aware of this YA novel about a fat (!) bisexual (!!) girl trying to become a K-Pop star when I created my initial list, so this was a happy accident. I’m stoked.

After Thorn, I took a break to read Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo, because I needed something dependable. Also, my hold had come in and I didn’t want to wait to get to the front of the line again. It has mixed reviews on Goodreads, but I really liked it. Probably because one of the POV characters is a fat bisexual girl.

By then, I was craving something to bring down my average page count. I chose The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang. It’s a collection of personal essays about mental and physical illness, art, science, magic, and legacy.

Surprisingly, it’s also one of the lighter books I’ve read this year. It’s not inspiration porn by any stretch, but it’s also not trauma porn. It’s about how Weijun Wang has sought to make meaning out of her pain.

I’m currently reading A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, which I hope will turn out to be at least 2 parts Yearning for every 1 part Suffering. So far, so good.