#REVIEW: YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN, by Leah Johnson

Ye Gods, but I do love that cover.

I started off yesterday shit-talking 2020’s books, so naturally I’ve got two in a row I’m super enthusiastic about. The interesting thing is You Should See Me in a Crown and I kind of got off on the wrong foot. The main character, Liz Lighty (and that name really ought to lead to her having superpowers of some sort, but this isn’t that book) is a high school senior in an Indianapolis suburb. As the book begins, she discovers that she’s been turned down for a scholarship to Pennington College, her dream school, where she intends to go pre-med and play in their world-famous orchestra. Missing the scholarship basically means she can’t afford to attend, and eventually her friends will hatch a plan for her to be named Prom Queen, which will come with a scholarship fund in the same amount of money, because apparently schools in Campbell, IN are just that rich.

There is a bit of “roll with it” in the premise, I suppose.

Where the book hopped on my nerves was a super-brief reference to Indiana University, my alma mater, when Liz muses that if her plan doesn’t work she can just go there as her safety school. And, okay, IU’s a state school, I get it, but– dude! You want to play in the orchestra and become a doctor? IU might literally be the best school in the country if you want to do both of those things. Their music school and their pre-med program are stellar.

And then I found out that Leah Johnson, the author, actually grew up in Indiana and went to IU herself, so all was forgiven, because it was kind of a silly thing to get irritated about in the first place anyway. Incidentally, both Pennington College and Campbell, IN are fictional. So maybe the not-real school is better than IU at both music and medicine, I dunno.

So, yeah– this book and I didn’t start off great, and I was probably six or seven chapters in before the main character’s voice clicked for me, and I gobbled up the rest of the book in two big bites before bed last night and after getting up this morning. I have a rule about book reviews; if I don’t want to put a book down so I can go to sleep, that’s generally a book I’m going to talk about here, and YSSMIAC’s combination of a fun MC, a sweet love story, and story-based complications where the characters actually talk to each other to work them out makes for a great read. I recognize this kid– maybe not in her gestalt, but she kept reminding me of other kids I’ve had as I read the book, and while the book does traffic in some standard tropey high-school story stuff it subverts it just enough to keep things interesting. The single thing that’s hardest to buy is that there really might be a school that takes prom and the Prom court this seriously, but … yeah, there probably is. Mine didn’t, but they’re probably out there somewhere.

So, yeah: once you’re done with that da Vinci biography, which is 500+ pages so it’s gonna take a minute, You Should See Me in a Crown makes for a nice little palate cleanser. Give it a look.


10:42 AM, Thursday June 18: 2,164,071 confirmed cases and 117,728 Americans dead, and confirmed cases are undeniably trending upward nationwide again.

#REVIEW: CHILDREN OF VIRTUE AND VENGEANCE, by Tomi Adeyemi

I liked, but did not quite love, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone when I read it a couple of years ago. I am pleased and a little bit surprised to note that I stayed up much later than I wanted to last night to finish Children of Virtue and Vengeance, the sequel, and that in general I found it a much more satisfying read than the first book in the series. The first book suffered from what felt like (to me) too much recapping and too much YA-ness, for lack of a better word, and …

…well, this book is basically entirely about genocide, so, uh, it doesn’t feel nearly as YA as the previous book did. It follows the same characters, not all of whom are on the same side, and the general plot throughline of the book is you and all your friends and everyone like you should be dead vs no we shouldn’t vs a couple of people who think “you should all be dead” and “no we shouldn’t” are merely differences of opinion that can be sorted out through peace talks.

Hint: nah. And here’s the interesting thing, right? I read through some of the Goodreads reviews of this book, and there are some folks out there complaining about how some of the characters are occasionally not making the smartest of decisions, or sometimes they trust when they shouldn’t, or sometimes they’re inconsistent in how they handle things from one chapter to the next. And what’s weird about this is that those are strengths of the book for me.

These characters— every single POV character— are in enormously over their heads, and not a one of them has the slightest idea how to navigate the world they’ve found themselves in, and most of them are terrified through basically the entirety of the book, although they’re not always scared of the same things. And Children of Blood and Bone spent enough time setting up the relationships between the main characters that the fact that they’re reluctant to kill each other (while at the same time very much feeling like they might need to kill each other, to stop or win the war, depending on which character we’re talking about) that when they’re not always perfectly consistent from chapter to chapter it makes them feel like people, not like a list of character traits that the author didn’t bother to check before writing that particular chapter.

And if someone told me they didn’t like the book for precisely those reasons, I don’t know that I’d argue with them about it, but it definitely made the read more compelling for me. So adjust your expectations accordingly for how often my recommendations are in line with your own ideas about reading.

And then there’s the ending, which left me precisely suspended between “Oh, shit, that was awesome” and “Oh, fuck you, book” and I’m still kind of there? So we’ll see how Adeyemi pulls out of what she wrote herself into in the final book of the trilogy. I was looking forward to reading this, definitely, but my anticipation for the as-yet-untitled Book 3 is considerably higher than my anticipation for this one was. Check it out.

#Review: ON THE COME UP, by Angie Thomas

I shouldn’t write this tonight. I am tired, y’all; there was no school on Monday because of Presidents’ Day and this week has still been at least six years long. I don’t even have to go to work on Friday because I have a training all day and I still don’t know how the hell I’m going to make it through the rest of the week. It’s just been bullshit on top of bullshit on top of bullshit on top of bullshit, and that’s just been within the walls of my building. It’s not like there hasn’t been substantial bullshit going on in the real world, too. There’s been plenty. I am as tired of white men and our bullshit as I have ever been in my life and the notion that I am almost by definition guaranteed to be less tired of white men than damn near every person of color and damn near every woman on earth is practically incomprehensible. I don’t know how any of y’all make it through a day without killing any of us. I really don’t.

You may remember that I liked Angie Thomas’ debut novel The Hate U Give quite a lot. In fact, it was my second favorite book of the year. I ordered her follow-up novel On the Come Up a few weeks before it released and was up far too late last night because I couldn’t put it down. (Note: “follow-up” is a decent way to describe the book, which alludes to the events of THUG and is set a year later and in the same neighborhood, but does not share any major characters. There are a couple of shop owners and neighborhood figures and the like who I think appear in both, but I’d need to reread THUG to be sure.)

On the Come Up is not as important a book as THUG, but I think I might have liked it more anyway. Bri, the main character, is a neophyte rapper and the daughter of a local hiphop legend who was shot and killed when she was very young. Hiphop was a big part of THUG, but this book is utterly drenched in it, and honestly I’d love to hear some of the raps she performs in this book actually recorded. My understanding is that Angie Thomas at least dabbled in rap herself, and I can absolutely hear this kid performing the lyrics she writes throughout the book. Let’s be real here; given my previous experience with this author and the subject matter, there was no chance I was going to dislike this book. The only question was how much I was going to love it. Will it end up at #2 on my year-end list? Perhaps not, because, again, this book doesn’t feel as important as THUG— which is less a criticism of Come Up and more of a statement that if you haven’t goddamned read THUG yet you should get off your ass and do it.

I look back over this and realize I haven’t really discussed the plot of the damn book at all; chalk that up to being tired. In lieu of me rewriting it, let me just post the blurb from the back of the book, which is a perfectly fair description:

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least win her first battle. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill.

But it’s hard to get your come up when you’re labeled a hoodlum at school, and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. So Bri pours her anger and frustration into her first song, which goes viral…for all the wrong reasons. 

Bri soon finds herself at the center of a controversy, portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. But with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri doesn’t just want to make it—she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.  

Insightful, unflinching, and full of heart, On the Come Up is an ode to hip hop from one of the most influential literary voices of a generation. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; and about how, especially for young black people, freedom of speech isn’t always free.

Give it a read, y’all. Angie Thomas is a goddamn national treasure; you should be appreciating her while we’ve got her.

Double book review!

I read these back to back, and they are very similar books, right down to my actual opinions of them, so let’s do a dual review sort of thingie here. I ordered Kill the Queen a month or so ago after reading an article that recommended a bunch of epic fantasy by women, and Throne of Glass is the first book in a series whose final book just came out and which apparently a lot of my friends enjoyed, because I saw alllll sorts of tweets and Instagrams and all sorts of stuff when it came out. So I jumped in. Throne of Glass has six or seven sequels out and the series is complete; Kill the Queen’s second book comes out in June or July and I’m not certain how long it’s planned to run.

tl;dr: neither book is perfect but both have a lot of potential and you should check them both out.

Somewhat more detailed: both books feature young, orphaned women as the main protagonist (I’ll admit to rolling my eyes when KtQ’s protagonist first mentioned her parents were dead; I read that book second) although KtQ’s Evie is ten years older than seventeen-year-old Celaena in ToG. Both books spend the majority of their time in or around castles and dealing with the problem of royalty, although in different ways; Celaena, an actual assassin, is freed from jail by the crown prince at the beginning of the book and offered her freedom in exchange for serving as the king’s assassin for four years, and Evie is seventeenth in line for the throne at the beginning of KtQ, although … well, some stuff happens that sorta moves her up in the line of succession a bit. Spoiler alert, I guess. Celaena is uber-competent from the jump– if anything, a bit too competent for a seventeen-year-old; Evie starts off kinda useless but gets over it quickly.

ToG is Young Adults, although it’s the kind of YA that bitchy old men like myself can read without complaint. It’s real YA, as in the publisher markets it that way and that’s where you find it at bookstores, not the sexist “fantasy written by a woman, starring a woman, so it must be YA” YA. KtQ might fool you for about fifty pages and then the shit hits the fan and it definitely ain’t YA no more.

As I said, both books have some weaknesses, although ToG’s are less weaknesses of the book and more consequences of being YA: Celaena is an impressive badass, but I was never really sold on the idea that this seventeen-year-old who has been in jail for a couple of years working the salt mines was a world-renowned assassin. She doesn’t really ever come off as super assassiny, I guess? I mean, she’s a bitchy asshole, and I mean that as a compliment– I like her personality– but there’s a bit too much tell and not enough show, and I want much more backstory on her. But there’s six more books coming, so I’ll probably get it. In KtQ’s corner, the book begins with (spoiler) a Red Wedding-esque massacre that Evie is one of a very small number of survivors of, and I kinda feel like PTSD should have played a bit more of a role in her story? There’s also not as much societal upheaval as I’d guess from a book that starts with the utter destruction of damn near the entire (spoiler) ruling family. Like, nobody really seems to notice much other than a day of mourning.

Both books have romance; in no case does the romance go quite where you think it’ll go, which is cool. Throne of Glass also has a great bit where it is made clear that the book was written by a woman, and one who has thought about the biological ramifications of her protagonist basically being enslaved in a salt mine for a couple of years.

Also! I like the worldbuilding and the magic in ToG quite a bit, and again, I like Celaena quite a bit despite not quite believing in her, and despite being fucking called Kill the Queen, Kill the Queen‘s story managed to surprise me twice. I mean, it’s called Kill the Queen. You might imagine there’s some queen-killing! And there is! And it’s surprising anyway. It’s weird, but it works.

So, yeah: these are both four-star-out-of-five reads, with KtQ’s excellent ending very nearly pushing it up another half-star or so, and they’re both definitely checking out. I’ve already ordered the next two books in the Throne of Glass series, and I’ll be buying the sequel to Kill the Queen, called Protect the Prince, when it comes out in a few months. Check ’em both out.

Two brief book #reviews

annihilationReviewlets, anyway.  I’ve had Jeff Vandermeer’s ANNIHILATION on my Kindle for what seems like forever– several months, at least, and I either got it at a scandalously low cost or actually for free.  One way or another, I don’t remember when I downloaded it, but I finally decided to start reading it the other day– mostly prompted by hearing some good things about the movie.

I don’t know what the hell I just read, guys.  On one hand, I blew through the thing in like two days, finishing the last 40% or so of it this morning while my son celebrated Spring Break by watching iPad videos and playing Mario Odyssey.  That’s actually a hell of a thing– reading, for me, is a very solitary activity, and the idea that I can get sucked into reading a book while there’s someone else in the room who is doing something that makes noise is pretty damned impressive.  And the weird thing is that most of the time while I was reading it I was vaguely annoyed by it.  I’m usually pretty quick to put down a book that annoys me, especially if I’m reading it on my Kindle and I don’t have to look at it staring at me from a shelf and mocking me with its unfinishedness.  There’s something just very offputting about the way this book is written that reminds me of a college lecture about Bertolt Brecht.  I know that sounds wankerish, and it probably is, but the prof (whose name I don’t remember) talking about how Brecht deliberately wrote his play (I don’t even remember the name of the play) to annoy and push away the audience really stuck with me for some reason.  I think Vandermeer wants you to feel a bit alienated by this book, which is both good and bad.  I mean, none of the characters have names, and they refer to each other only by their jobs, like “the biologist” and “the psychologist,” and if The Surveyor is talking to The Biologist, she’s going to call her that.

Also, and I feel like this is going to come off really weird, and I can’t explain it other than to hope that you’ve read the book and you understand, but all of the characters in the book are women, including the narrator, and there is nothing remotely feminine about any of them.  Which sounds like I think that Women Should Be Like This and Men Should Be Like That and isn’t the case.  It’s just … hell, the whole book is inexplicable.

Also: I watched the trailer for the movie after finishing the book and the two appear to have not a whole lot in common.  Part of me wonders if the movie is pulling in bits from the other two books in the series.  Which, despite having written this and not having much good to say about the book, I might buy anyway.

… someone, please tell me you’ve read this damn thing and know what I’m talking about.


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On the other end of things, I’ve been really excited to read Tomi Adeyemi’s CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE since I first heard about it, and I actually timed finishing the book before it to be able to start it as soon as possible once it got into my house.  I spent most of the book thinking it was supposed to be a one-shot (it’s not, it’s the first of a trilogy) and feeling simultaneously like it needed to be a bigger story and it needed to be pruned down a bit.  I like Adeyemi’s writing quite a lot and the broader story of BLOOD AND BONE, about a persecuted minority who used to have access to magic and for most of a generation has lost it, and the group of young people who are working to bring their magic back– is compelling as hell.  My problem with the book, and what made it a three-and-a-half-stars-rounded-up-to-four instead of the five-star I wanted, is that the book is just a touch too YA for my tastes. Which, y’know, it’s a YA novel, so that’s my reaction and not a flaw with the book, but the book employs four different POV narrators and has short chapters (five pages or fewer, most of the time) and so there’s an awful lot of recapping and restating and reminding the audience of the specific angst of this character as opposed to that character.  One character in particular discovers he has magical abilities he was unaware of and hates himself for it, which is great except that he has to hate himself anew for it in every one of his chapters, and it gets to be a bit much for me.

That said, the book’s unexpected ending and approach to the inevitable romantic entanglement of the characters wins it an extra star, Adeyemi’s wordcraft is solid throughout, and I want to know more about where this world is headed, so despite some reservations I’m definitely in for the second book.

tl;dr: I want you to have already read ANNIHILATION and tell me what you thought, and I want you to go read CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE despite the fact that it isn’t quite a home run for me.  The end.