ARC review: Faithful by Alice Hoffman

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One snowy night, in their senior year of high school, best friends Shelby and Helene are involved in a terrible car accident. Shelby escapes physically unscathed and emotionally scarred, but Helene’s injuries have put her into a permanent vegetative state.  Helene’s parents keep her in her bedroom and word spreads far and wide of Helene’s supposed “healing” powers. As a line of faithful followers forms outside of Helene’s house every day, Shelby is admitted to an inpatient psychiatric ward where she falls deeper into depression and self-destructive behaviors.

some spoilers below.

I loved Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven and was unimpressed with The Museum of Extraordinary Things, so I was really hoping that I would enjoy this book.  I was so excited to see this available as a “Read Now” on Netgalley, but it’s been more than six months since I downloaded my copy. I’ve finally read it, and I don’t really know what to think. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either. I really just didn’t see the point.

As always, Hoffman’s writing is beautiful.  Unfortunately, beautiful writing doesn’t stand in for the absence of plot. Although this book follows Shelby for a good decade or so of her life, very little actually happens.

At the outset of the book, and I want to mention this because I am quite sure it will turn off some readers, Shelby is regularly raped by one of the orderlies in the inpatient psych ward. This understandably undoes any progress that she might have made while hospitalized, and it carries over to how she views relationships for the next several years.

Out of the program, Shelby shaves her head and wears shapeless black clothes and combat boots that she knows make her look unattractive and scary.  She’s trying to look bad because she doesn’t deserve to look good. Her best friend is in a coma because of her, and why should she be enjoying her life when Helene can’t?

Shelby abandons all hope for a good life.  Although she’d been accepted to NYU, she never moves into her dorm. She moves down to her parents’ basement, where she sleeps on the couch and smokes a lot of weed. Her only semi-meaningful relationship is with her dealer, Ben, who she eventually begins dating.  Shelby doesn’t actually like Ben, but she feels that she doesn’t deserve to be in love because Helene is in a coma. Eventually, Shelby and Ben move to New York City together.

Shelby is awful to Ben.  She feels that he deserves better than her, and maybe if she yells enough, if she’s crazy enough, if she treats him poorly enough, he’ll leave. But Ben loves Shelby, and it’s not until she cheats on him with a handsome, charismatic veterinarian that he snaps. It’s not even the cheating that bothers Ben, it’s the fact that Shelby is going to leave him for this smarmy doctor.  When things don’t work out with the vet, Shelby realizes what a good person Ben was.  At this point, it’s too late.  Ben wants nothing to do with her.

At some point, Shelby realizes that she needs to get a job. She begins stocking shelves at a pet store, a dead-end job she picked so that she wouldn’t have to talk to people. Shelby is quickly promoted to manager for no real reason and becomes best friends with one of her coworkers. Although Shelby is a self-professed child-hater, her coworker tells Shelby that she will be babysitting her three children for several days while she goes out of town. (Why you would leave your three children with someone who doesn’t know the first thing about kids and admittedly hates them is beyond me, but this made for a really good couple chapters.) It turns out that Shelby is amazing with children. She knows exactly what to say to all of them so that they will become better versions of themselves. She calms fears and tames wild teenagers, all while letting them eat forbidden food and stay up past their bedtimes.

While working at the pet store, Shelby also learns that she loves animals. I guess she didn’t know this before. When she sees an animal being mistreated, she liberates it from its current owner and takes it home with her. By the end of the book, she has a motley crew of four dogs, ranging from a teacup poodle to a Great Pyrenees. Shelby is amazing with these dogs and can turn the worst-behaved animal into an angel almost instantly.  I’m glad that she saved these dogs because I, too, have a very big soft spot for animals, but I don’t know how she kept getting away with stealing them!

Shelby also goes to college at some point, where she’s admitted without much effort on her part. I suppose it’s possible that her old SAT scores and high school grades helped, but it seems like it should have taken a bit more work given that she hadn’t been in school for so long.  Of course, Shelby turns out to be absolutely brilliant and she gets great grades without even trying. Shelby is so brilliant that the state of New York actually pays her to go to school. Everything comes naturally to her and she ends up applying to (and being accepted at) UC-Davis for vet school. As the book ends, Shelby moves to California with the love of her life as Ben begs her to take him back.

I guess I didn’t really understand the point to this book. Shelby tries so hard to have a horrible life, but good things just keep happening to her. She tries to have a terrible, low-paying job and is promoted to manager. She tries not to have any friends, but good people insert themselves into her life. She tries to hate children, but ends up playing the part of the cool aunt. She tries not to succeed and ends up with a pretty perfect life.  I was happy for her, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t understand what the reasoning for all of this was.

The book is very emotional, and I often wanted to cry while reading it. But, as I’ve said with other books like this, what’s the point in making me cry? You haven’t made me realize anything new. You haven’t made me see things from a new perspective. You haven’t shed light on any underrepresented topics. You just want me to cry.  Congratulations, chunks of this book felt like punches to the chest. But why?

Now, this book has a fairly high average rating on Goodreads. It’s a book that many thousands of people have absolutely loved. Personally, it didn’t do it for me, but please don’t let that stop you from reading it.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC!

#mmdreading: a book you were excited to buy or borrow but haven’t read yet

Book review: Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

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In Queens of Geek, three high school seniors from Australia jet off to America for SupaCon.  Charlie is a YouTuber who got her big break in a popular indie film and has been invited to SupaCon for publicity.  She’s accompanied by her two best friends, Taylor and Jamie. Over the course of the con, the three of them find love and learn some important life lessons.

Okay, so here’s the thing. I was super excited about this book ever since I first saw that hair. (Honestly, I wish I had the confidence to pull off hair like that.) I was browsing upcoming 2017 releases on Edelweiss and I just had to have this book. I didn’t get an ARC, but I did convince my library to buy it, which I’d call a win.

Did this book live up to my expectations? Unfortunately, not really.  And I feel like a jerk for thinking it, but this book was really mediocre.

It’s important, that’s for sure. There’s a heavy focus on representation, which is awesome. Charlie is Chinese-Australian and Jamie is Latino. Charlie’s love interest is a black woman, and she’s an out and proud bisexual who is actually shown to have dated both genders. Taylor is overweight, autistic, and suffers from some serious anxiety. There are side characters of various nationalities that all have their own problems to overcome. I don’t think it’s even possible to have a more diverse book than this.

And in addition to the representation, the characters tackle some big issues. Taylor has to deal with body-shaming when she signs up for a costume contest:

“To the girl who hid in the shadows and tried to body-shame me, I’m sorry you thought that was a good use of your time and energy. I hope you find happiness within yourself. You deserve that. We all do.”

She also tackles her anxiety head-on.

My bottom lip starts to quiver, but I keep going. “I fight every day, and too many times it’s just not enough and the fear wins. I’m so fucking weak and everything is so fucking intense and sometimes I really hate it.” I gasp, covering my mouth with my hands as the tears pour out of me. I didn’t mean to say all that.

Charlie and Taylor both deal with sexism, Charlie in the way that she’s presented in the media and Taylor in dealing with society’s expectations for how a girl “should” act:

Besides, there’s no one way to be a girl, Tay. You don’t need to fit yourself into what society tells us a girl should be. Girls can be whoever they want. Whether that’s an ass-kicking, sarcastic, crime-solving FBI Agent or a funny, gorgeous, witty beauty queen–or both at the same time.“ She swings an arm around me and pulls me in.

“Are you happy the way you are? Are you comfortable? Do you feel like yourself?”

Charlie even has to defend her sexuality to her ex-boyfriend, who “doesn’t believe” in bisexuality. This guy – who happen to be her costar – doesn’t understand how she could possibly be attracted to women if she dated him. The studio pushes them to start dating again (the fans loved that their on-screen love turned into an off-screen relationship) and neither Reese or the studio want to take no for an answer. Charlie is consistently pushed to do events with Reese that cross the line of normal publicity, and when she expresses her displeasure, she’s brushed off.  Add to this the fact that Reese is asked reasonable questions about his acting and Charlie is only ever asked about her diet and exercise, and Hollywood’s double standards become very clear.

So, yes, there are a lot of issues tackled, and the representation is great, but aside from that, there isn’t really much plot. I mean, what actually happens over the course of these ~300 pages? A costume contest? A trivia session? Some fluffy romance?  I mean, not a lot.

You might have noticed a distinct lack of mention of Jamie above. He was a great character, but he existed solely as a love interest.  He never does anything for himself. Charlie and Taylor both grow as people, but Jamie’s just sort of quietly there in the background, being perfect and saying the exact right thing at the exact right time. It’s so disappointing.

Also disappointing, and this is probably just me as an adult talking here, is that we have two supposedly lasting relationships develop over the course of about three days. It’s easy to get swept away by somebody you’ve just met. Believe me, I’ve been there. When the mood is just right and you have similar interests and you think that person is just so cool, but then when you meet up with them a few weeks later, you wonder what the heck you were thinking.

I also want to mention the one thing that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief of – the fact that these teenagers are flying across the world to hang out unsupervised at a convention. Who paid for this? Charlie’s studio? How did she convince them to foot the bill for her two best friends? Or are their parents just all very rich? And speaking of the parents, they really allowed these kids to all stay in a hotel room together? I mean, my mom was pretty cool when I was growing up. My male friends could sleep over. She didn’t have any problems with me going out of town with a guy for the day. But I highly doubt that she would have let me fly to another country, unsupervised, and sleep in a hotel room with one of my male friends. Maybe parents in Australia are more relaxed about that sort of thing?

Like I said, I really do appreciate what Wilde was trying to do here, and I feel like a jerk for not loving this book. But I just didn’t. Although it’s not nearly as heavy on the representation, a book about friends at a con that I absolutely loved was Danica Stone’s All the Feels.  If Queens of Geek wasn’t your favorite but you’re into fandom culture, maybe give that one a shot.  On the other hand, you, like hundreds of others, might really love this book!

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

ARC review: The Wrong Kind of Compatible by Kadie Scott

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Cassie Howard is a brilliant data analyst that undercover FBI agent Drew Kerrigan has been ordered to watch. A hacker like Drew doesn’t often go undercover, so he can’t screw up this mission. Nerdy, beautiful Cassie doesn’t make it easy for Drew – she has a habit of saying the first thing that pops into her head, even when that thought is inappropriate.  Drew, though, isn’t much better. He’s so awkward that he’s constantly dropping innuendo without realizing it. A relationship built on secrets obviously isn’t ideal, but maybe these two can work it out.

The Wrong Kind of Compatible is a quick, fluffy book that’s chock full of awkwardness.  Don’t get me wrong – I love some awkwardness.  Honestly, if a hot, nerdy FBI agent started accidentally babbling out sexual innuendoes at every turn, I’d probably fall for him, too. The problem I had was that Cassie’s awkwardness seemed overdone. In my 27 years, I’ve never met a woman that literally could not keep her mouth shut.  I’ve never met someone who didn’t have even a semblance of a filter. Cassie blurts out every awkward thought she has, but only the awkward ones. She doesn’t go around blurting out what she thinks she’ll make for dinner or that she has to use the bathroom or how she’s going to tackle her latest data set. (Probably because that wouldn’t make for an exciting plot.) Instead, she blurts out all of her sexual thoughts. It just didn’t quite seem realistic to me.

Although I can’t say that I loved this book, I did enjoy it. Drew was a great love interest, and although Cassie wasn’t my favorite protagonist, she was still pretty great. There were enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, and at only around 200 pages, it’s fast-paced, but never rushed.

There are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours than in the presence of these characters.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC!

ARC review: I’m Not in the Band by Amber Garza

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Kassidy Milton is just trying to move on with her life after a tragedy rocked her world last year. To start her senior year off right, her older sister takes her to a Playlisters concert.  They’re only the biggest band in the world right now, but Kassidy knows nothing about them. She doesn’t know their songs or even what they look like, but being a huge music fan, she doesn’t turn down the opportunity for a concert.

While searching for some snacks that haven’t been deep-fried, Kassidy runs into a very cute, very friendly boy who offers to show her around at her new school. Little does Kassidy know, he’s the twin brother of the Playlisters’ lead singer, and he just can’t believe that this girl has no idea who his famous brother is.

Archer and Kassidy click instantly, but will insecurities get the best of them as Kassidy can’t believe that this cute boy wants her and Archer can’t believe that this perfect girl isn’t just using him for his twin?

This was my first book by Amber Garza, and it was very cute. It’s exactly the kind of book I would have loved as a teenager, and I’m sure that the actual demographic it’s targeting will rave about it.

Like in many romances, we have alternating POV’s here.  Unlike many other books I’ve read, the POV’s are in different formats. While Kassidy’s chapters are more inside her head, Archer’s side of the story is told through social media posts and text messages. When reading books with alternating POV’s, it often becomes difficult to tell who’s talking if both characters have the exact same voice. This was such an interesting and unique way to tackle that problem and really clarify what was going on. I loved this aspect of the book.

I also thought that Archer and Kassidy were super cute together, and I really appreciated that Archer didn’t listen to the stupid advice he got from his friends about making Kassidy wait or not texting her first. I liked that Kassidy became friends with Archer’s famous twin, Ross, through their shared interests and never once swooned over him or thought about what it would be like to date the famous one. Especially since Archer experienced this in the past with (seemingly) every girl he’s ever dated, it was nice that Kassidy didn’t have any ulterior motives.

However, there’s a reason that this book didn’t give five stars from me.

The biggest reason that I didn’t love this book is the sheer amount of teenage drama.  I hated it when I was a teenager and I cannot stand it as an adult. There’s jealousy that doesn’t really make a ton of sense (who gets that upset over a Facebook friend request?!) and both characters react like children (not teenagers) when things don’t go their way.

I also thought that Kassidy’s “tragedy” or “trauma” or whatever you want to call it was handled poorly. There are constant hints that something awful happened to her, but the actual event isn’t revealed until nearly the end of the book. By that point, I thought it had been built up a lot more than necessary and was almost disappointed about what had happened. I was also concerned for Kassidy’s health because she seemed to have some serious issues with anxiety and food/exercise that were never really addressed.

Overall, this was a cute, quick read, but not one that I’d go back to. I’m sure that the target demographic will enjoy it more than I did.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC!