Swallowtail – review

Author: Brenna Twohy
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Genre: poetry
My rating: 4.5/5

There is no love poem here.

I know
because I looked for it.

from “It Has Been Too Long Since Anyone Has Seen Me Naked”

Surprise, surprise, another collection from Button Poetry that I absolutely adore. As many of you know, I’m a poetry geek, especially about spoken word poetry, and when it comes to spoken word, Button Poetry has some of the best talent out there. Frankly, if there’s a Button book on NetGalley, the odds are pretty high that I’m going to insist on reading it, and Swallowtail certainly did not disappoint. In her debut collection, Brenna Twohy examines topics including abusive relationships, trauma, suicide, femininity, love (or lack thereof), and healing, using metaphors ranging from the traditional (e.g. fruit) to the incredibly contemporary (e.g. Harry Potter). Her language is highly readable–seriously, I finished this entire collection in one sitting, on my lunch break–which makes me think that (a) these pieces would all be fantastic as spoken word/performance pieces, and (b) this collection will appeal to fans of contemporary poetry in general, as well as those who generally don’t like poetry because they find it “too stuffy” or “not relatable.”

As is often the case with collections, be they of short stories, poems, or some other third thing, there will be some weak links. Though the majority of her poems are incisive, with lyrical precision, especially those about her brother’s suicide, and some are brilliantly clever in their links between pop culture and deep personal reality, such as the discussion of trauma in “Draco Malfoy Looks Into the Mirror of Erised,” there are a few that veer too far into the realm of cliches and generalities. Most of these weaker ones are those that are specifically linked to a traumatic past relationship of hers, and this is understandable–grappling with a hard topic is sometimes easier in the abstract, but in this case, that meant gravitating toward less-than-original imagery or poems that seek to capture too many thoughts at once and end up less impactful.

That said, this was overall a fantastic chapbook, one I would like to reread sometime soon just to more fully absorb its contents. It is unafraid of confronting difficult subjects, and it does so with just the right mix of fragile delicacy and blunt intensity. If you are not big on non-classical poetry (and I know there are plenty of you out there), this is not likely to change your mind, but for those of you who do enjoy poetry of a more contemporary variety–especially if you are interested in the topics this collection deals with–I would definitely recommend giving this one a read. I can’t wait to read–and watch–what Twohy writes in the future.

I would like to conclude this review–as, is often the case with poetry, it is a tad brief–with some of my favorite quotes from the collection, because Twohy really does have some dope lines. Maybe these will further entice you to take a look at this one…

On being a woman:

I have practice in the art
of being cold on purpose.

how else
to keep the inside from spoiling?
to keep the rot from creeping in?

from “Today I Am Tired of Being a Woman”

peach pits are poisonous.
this is not a mistake.
girlhood is growing fruit
around cyanide.

from “The Peaches Shrivel on the Counter”

Sometimes I call this healing.
Sometimes I twist my hair up,

cross my legs, & watch them
learn the difference

between a smile
& the baring of teeth

from “Consider This Your Only Warning”

On anxiety and mental health:

There is a reason panic attacks
are not called panic fair fights.

from “In Which I Do Not Fear Harvey Dent”

To love me
Is to love a haunted house.
It’s fun to visit once a year,
but no one wants to live there.

from “Anxiety: A Ghost Story”

I have not almost-killed-myself
in two years and three months,

but

I look at old poems and think,


someone should do something
about this bleeding body.

from “I Am Not Clinically Crazy Anymore”

On love and relationships:

A cage of gentle
hands is still a cage,
and I know this now.

from “Swallowtail”

I lied
(before)
when I said it was easier to love someone from a distance.

It isn’t easier.
It is just smaller.

from “The Problem with First Dates, Or How to Really Really Really Not Get Laid”

TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNINGS: suicide, abuse, anxiety/panic attacks

Thank you to Button Poetry for providing me with a digital copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!

A Very Scalzi Christmas – ARC review

Author: John Scalzi
Publication date: December 1, 2019
Genre: short stories, humor
My rating: 4/5 stars

If you want a stocking-stuffer guaranteed to produce roughly an hour or two of amusement and giggles for any of your family members, this book is for you. At just 144 pages, this is a quick read that will feel even quicker because you’re just enjoying it so much. Because this is a mini book, I think it’s fitting to give it just a mini-review, so here’s what you need to know:

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Reverie – ARC review

Author: Ryan La Sala
Publication date: December 3, 2019
Genre: young adult, fantasy, LGBTQ+
My rating: 2.5/5

“Kane shoved down his curiosity, knowing it was useless to expect a drag queen to do anything other than exactly what she wanted.”

When I heard that a book existed where the “evil queen” trope has been transfigured into “drag queen sorceress,” I just knew I had to read it. And it’s a YA fantasy being compared to Inception and full of fabulously queer characters? It sounded like such an exciting idea. But you know those books that you have so hyped up in your mind because they sound so fresh and original, but then you find out that “fresh” is just a euphemism for “unpolished and awkward”? Yeah, that’s how this one ended up.

“That’s the thing about a big imagination. It’s hard to belong anywhere when you can always imagine something better.”

I’m not even entirely sure I can properly summarize this book, because on the one hand, I don’t want to give too much away…but on the other hand, it’s really dang confusing for quite a while when it totally doesn’t need to be, so I don’t feel too bad. Kane Montgomery is your typical super gay, out-and-mostly-proud loner. Well, maybe not so normal. Recently, he crashed his car into the old mill near his town, causing a huge explosion. He was found in a river shortly thereafter, suddenly missing several months’ worth of memories, and sporting some nasty burns on the back of his head. He can’t help the nagging feeling that he’s missing something important. Enter the Others, a group of students with (relatively new) superpowers, who enter Reveries (daydreams-made-real) and safely unravel them so that those who are dreaming and partaking in them can return safely to their lives without any memory of the Reverie itself. Kane thinks he used to be one of the Others as well. If only he could remember what happened that summer…

What ensues is a whirlwind plot of magic, evil schemes, illusions, fights, lots of wiped memories, family, friendship, and a dash of love. It’s pretty wild. Unfortunately, “wild” doesn’t always equate to “good.”

But, as always, I’ll start with the positive. This book’s largest and most obvious strength is its unabashed queerness. By the end of the book, nearly every character, primary or secondary, is confirmed not-straight–seriously, there are like two straight people total. Though they do face some external homophobia, they are generally respected, which is nice to see. As mentioned before, the villain is a literal drag queen sorceress, who is fabulous and evil and a total manipulative bitch who also happens to have perfect nails and hair at all times. And, just in case the story wasn’t gay enough, the main character is a gay teen whose power involves shooting literal rainbows out of his hands. I am not making this up, I swear.

I also do have to give La Sala props for coming up with such a creative and ambitious premise. The idea of people needing daydreams to sustain themselves but having to contend with those dreams sometimes getting out of control–and/or fighting back–is interesting, to say the least. There’s the omnipresent dread of knowing that, like in a regular dream, most people aren’t aware that they’re actually in a Reverie, and that if too much deviates from expectation, the Reverie will warp and twist itself into something more akin to a nightmare. The contents of the Reveries themselves were sometimes astonishingly original, particularly one involving a romance novel and some bejeweled eggs that hatch horrifying-yet-beautiful creatures. Finally, with magic manifesting itself in dream journals and dogs, charm bracelets and teacups, La Sala infused the world with all sorts of delightful quirks, most of which tied up nicely by the book’s conclusion. And he manages to anchor this weirdness as well, with a very normal, down-to-earth sibling relationship between Kane and his sister Sophia, with all the usual sibling bickering and freeze-outs juxtaposed with fierce loyalty, especially when it comes to keeping secrets from their parents.

The thing is, when you have such a large concept to work with, you have to execute it flawlessly. If you’re using a familiar magic system, like wizards with wands, your audience can infer pretty easily how they work. But when you’re coming up with a whole new way of experiencing a daydream, there are questions you need to answer–about how and why they start, about what their limits are, about what people on the outside will see, and so on–and while we got a great idea of what it is like to be inside the Reverie or to unravel it, many of the foundational details were either ignored altogether or given a cursory-at-best explanation somewhere in the storyline. Furthermore, even when they were explained, it was almost always in the form of an info-dump from one of the secondary characters, either a monologue or what feels like a very poorly scripted conversation, rather than organically explored.

This leads me to my second major issue with the book, which was the weak writing overall, starting with incredibly stilted dialogue. The characters’ jokes weren’t very funny, their speech patterns didn’t seem natural, and their expressions of emotion didn’t feel particularly heartfelt. Despite the fact that there were technically four major couples (either established or clearly beginning) by the end of the book, I only really felt a legitimate connection in one of them–and this was just a side couple, not even one of the Others!–and maybe some hints of it in a second. In particular, Sophia’s romantic feelings for someone come seemingly out of nowhere, and they were just sort of dropped in there, mentioned a few times, and then promptly ignored again by the end of the book.

But the weak writing wasn’t just in the characters; it was also in the language overall. So many cringe-worthy phrases were used–in particular, an excess of similes (which so frequently read as juvenile; if you’re going to make creative comparisons, try to mix in some more metaphors…or, better yet, just show what’s happening, don’t tell us what it is and then follow with a further comparison!). Here are a couple examples of lines I found particularly egregious:

“Those emotions were flat now, like old soda.”

“Hmm. I don’t know, honey. I think you kind of look rock-and-roll, you know? Like, a tough guy. A tough, guy poodle.” She grinned. “Or should I say… a ruff guy.”

“That’s not funny, Mom.”

“Well, it certainly seemed to give you… paws.”

Kane tried not to laugh and failed.

“It cracked against the sorcerer, cutting into him like a wire through soft cheese.”

Finally, there was the issue of tone and pacing in this book. It tried to do a lot, and in doing so, it spread itself too thin and didn’t fully take advantage of any of its components. The start of the book was incredibly slow and meandering as Kane didn’t know what was going on. I have to confess, with the weak writing and the lack of plot development, I almost decided to DNF about 35% of the way through. Then, all of a sudden, Kane has powers–which he masters the use of way too quickly, and frankly are just way too strong to be fair–and there’s magic everywhere and all sorts of things are happening rapid-fire, one after the other, in a rush until the end of the book. It goes from a recovery of memory, with a dash of mystery, into something that feels closer to a child’s superhero TV show, complete with the super-strong-force-field person, the invisibility person, the shape-shifting person, and the person who messes with your mind. Some parts of the book felt like they were trying to be deep, to make statements about being yourself and the importance of dreaming, and to show the power of family and friendship–and, seriously, Kane cries a lot. That’s fine; he’s been through a lot, and it’s nice when characters get realistically emotional. But then you back up and look at how ridiculous the premise’s execution is, and how impossibly easily and cheesily the plot wraps itself up in the end, and you can’t take any of it seriously anymore. Things are just too simple, and too many coincidences work out too improbably well, and it feels like we’ve lurched back from serious-book to Saturday-morning-cartoon-world again. Instead of picking a direction, and maybe seasoning it with bits of the other–either a serious book with a couple funny bits, or a lighter book with a handful of emotions–it went about 50/50 and ended up discordant and less enjoyable.

One thing that might have resolved both the iffy-writing issue and the tonal-inconsistency issue would be a switch in narration style. Now, I can’t say this for sure, because obviously, it’s not like I can mentally rewrite the whole book, but this story is written in third-person, which feels weird. I think a lot of the aforementioned tonal inconsistencies are because we have an impartial third party trying to navigate a story that is split between two feelings. And a lot of the narration is just explaining what Kane is thinking anyway. A first-person narration by Kane himself could have gone a long way in terms of a) solidifying the tone, b) playing up the gaps in his memory and their emotional impact on him, and c) making his feelings more convincing. Again, though, this is just speculation; I’m not an expert, but the question of why this book wasn’t in first-person hit me within the first chapter or two, and it never left, so I thought I should mention it here as well.

Basically, this is a super-gay book that could have been super-fun or super-heartwarming but instead is mostly super-weird due to its super-strange execution. If you’re interested in the premise, by all means, go ahead and read it–the concept truly is original and captivating, if you can get past the gaps in the worldbuilding overall. But if you are hoping the characters will steal your heart, or if you’re imagining a world of lovely prose, you should probably seek it elsewhere.

Thank you to Sourcebooks Fire for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!

November 2019 Wrap-Up

Yeah, yeah, I’m technically a day late on this. I’m not apologizing; it’s been a chaotic weekend, what with the Thanksgiving holidays and family and friends coming in from out of town and general stress as I finish up my law school applications…eeeeeek. Is a personal statement about writing poetry too cliche?

And yet, amidst all this chaos, I actually managed to finish ten books in November (and was in the middle of three others at the month’s conclusion). Here’s a quick rundown of what I read, including links to my reviews:

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Audiobook/series review blitz – The Raven Cycle

Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Titles: The Raven Boys (#1), The Dream Thieves (#2), Blue Lily, Lily Blue (#3), The Raven King (#4)
Genre: young adult, fantasy
My rating: 5/5 for every single book. If I had more stars to give, I would.

Let’s get one thing clear straight out of the gate: I love this series. I love the magical, laid-back atmosphere of Henrietta, Virginia. I love the nuanced characters of Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah. I love the vibrant and multifaceted people they interact with, from the women at Fox Way to Henry Cheng to Mr. Gray. I love the Welsh mythology. I even love all the attention Maggie Stiefvater lavishes on the cars everyone drives (which is saying something, since I’m not even really a car person).

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November Book Haul – Part 2 (feat. pictures that are even MORE extra)

To my US friends: Happy Thanksgiving! To everyone else: happy Thursday! And to all of you: I’m so thankful for books and this community surrounding them, and especially for all of you who take time to write about books, read my ramblings about them, and leave likes and comments. Much love to you all 💜

Anyway, this is a continuation of my book haul for this month, which has been way larger than anticipated, courtesy of several giveaways I’ve managed to win (no clue how…). If you missed Part 1, you can check it out here. Otherwise, here are a few more pretty pictures. Enjoy!

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A Curse So Dark and Lonely – review

Author: Brigid Kemmerer
Publication date: January 29, 2019
Genre: young adult fantasy, fairytale retelling
My rating: 4/5 stars

With all the hype this book has gotten, I wasn’t sure I would love it–especially since apparently some Beauty and the Beast retellings these days (*cough* ACOTAR *cough*) have taken one of my favorite fairytales and turned it into a glorification of unhealthy relationships. Fortunately, A Curse So Dark and Lonely wasn’t that at all. Vividly imagined, if a bit predictable even in its “twists,” this book was nonetheless quite enjoyable, particularly because of its complex and compelling cast of characters.

So let’s start with those characters, because their identities set the plot up nicely and also cover a lot of my favorite things about this book:

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