Fantasy

Review: Ruin of Stars

Cover of "Ruin of Stars," featuring an ornate golden brooch with two arrows crossed in front of it
Image from Linsey Miller

Title: Ruin of Stars

Series: Mask of Shadows #2

Author: Linsey Miller

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore, mentions of war, child abuse, fire

Spoiler Warning: This book is second in a series, so this review contains spoilers of the first book, Mask of Shadows.

Back Cover

As one of the Queen’s elite assassins, Sal finally has the power, prestige, and permission to hunt down the lords who killed their family. But Sal still has to figure out who the culprits are. They must enlist the help of some old friends and enemies while ignoring a growing distaste for the queen and that the charming Elise is being held prisoner by her father.

But there’s something terribly wrong in the north. Talk of the return of shadows, missing children, and magic abounds. As Sal takes out the people responsible for their ruined homeland, they learn secrets and truths that can’t be forgotten.

Review

This book was excellent. I absolutely loved the first book in the series, and Ruin of Stars was the perfect follow-up.

Let’s start with Sal. Sal is having an identity crisis – Erlend pushes a strict gender binary that they don’t fit into at all, and also how Nacean are they if they lost their home so young and don’t remember much of it? And they’re wrestling with the guilt of having killed so many people. They’re the same determined, angry, full-of-complicated-emotions Sal from Mask of Shadows, just with a lot more of the complicated emotions part. And even though they’re dealing with so much darkness, you just root for them.

Other people have said Sal’s talking about their gender identity gets boring, and I can see how it could, but as a nonbinary person I loved it because I have a lot of the same feelings.

You also get a lot more of some of the great minor characters in this book. Rath comes back, Maud gets a bigger role and so does Elise. All have distinct personalities and are generally fun to read (especially Maud’s boldness and smart mouth). The downside is you get almost nothing of the other Left Hand.

There is a lot more to the plot than you get from the back cover. North Star and Winter have retreated to Erlend and are working hard to not only reestablish Erlend, but take over Igna too. And they’re using some dark and brutal stuff to do that. Sal’s job is to stop them. And that’s really all I can say without spoilers. There’s a lot that happens. Political stuff takes a back burner as Sal’s solutions usually involve murder. (Which, admittedly, is probably the best way to solve these things because the Erlenians are perfectly fine with killing excessively to get what they want.) And there’s some huge twists at the end …

… which are actually my only real problem with the book. All of Sal’s motivation has been revenge for Nacea being destroyed, and in the last quarter of the book Sal learns some surprising things about Nacea. And then the book takes a sharp left turn. It goes from focusing on stopping a war/the evil magic the Erlenians are using and getting revenge to focusing on new information Sal’s learning about Nacea. On one hand, it makes sense, since grief for their country and a desire to avenge it are their main motivation. On the other hand, it’s done abruptly, and so much information is thrown at you at once that it’s hard to process it all – I found it harder to care about all the new stuff.

Besides that, though, the book was great, and it actually had a reasonably happy ending. It’s dark, definitely – I’d even say darker than the first book – but I tend to enjoy those kinds of books, and if you can handle darkness and murder I highly recommend you give both of these books a read.

The Mask of Shadows duology:

  1. Mask of Shadows
  2. Ruin of Stars
Advertisements
Personal Development

Review: The Lunatic Gene

Cover of "The Lunatic Gene," featuring the title in green text above a multi-colored double helix DNA strand
Image from Adam Shaw

Title: The Lunatic Gene: How to Make Sense of Your Life (alternatively subtitled The Reason Your Life will Never Make Sense)

Author: Adam Shaw

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Mentions of death, mentions of injuries

Back Cover:

Are you fed up with reading self-help books and not getting results? If so, this book is a hard-hitting, yet light-hearted voyage of discovery as to why your life will never make sense, because you live in a lunatic asylum. If you are feeling stuck, trapped, sleepless, anxious, depressed, or at a cross-roads in life, this book will help explain why, and what you can do to reduce the effects. It will also explain that all of these symptoms are messages from your body to enable you to change your life in very positive ways. This book is your guide to the trait which leads 99% of people into chaos and illness, and 1% to incredible, purposeful lives. If you are fed up with being part of the 99%, this book is for you.

Review:

What is the Lunatic Gene? I don’t know! The book never explains it. It’s very clear that the Lunatic Gene is not scientific at all, and it states some of the effects of the gene (what are they? I don’t know! It’s not clear), but it doesn’t tell you what the gene is.

Adam Shaw spends the first half of the book sharing his experiences (how are they relevant? I don’t know! He tries to tie them in but doesn’t do it very well) and trying to convince you that the Lunatic Gene is a thing, despite stating that it’s not a scientific discovery or genealogical fact. Then he spends the other half talking about how your brain/logic and heart/emotions disagree and how that causes problems, saying next to nothing about this Lunatic Gene.

And then he tries to convince you that heart disease happens because you don’t love yourself enough. Yes, really.

Not all of the stuff in here is bad. There’s actually some good insight into how suppressing or “bottling up” emotions that were overruled but “logic” causes problems and outbursts. But his solution to that is to listen to your heart more. (How do you do that? I don’t know! He doesn’t say what to do about it more than “follow your heart.”)

Also, my copy had no margins, so the first letter of every line was cut off and it was a nightmare to read. It was also difficult to read because none of it made sense. It didn’t fit together, the examples didn’t clear anything up, and I think there might have been advice in there somewhere? It’s a mess.

This book is very much … not great. It’s poorly written, poorly organized, and poorly formatted, some of its assertions are just outlandish, and it gives exactly zero concrete solutions to the issues it brings up. I’d say something here about the main message being not unique, but there’s like six “main messages” here that the book tries to cover in 44 pages and doesn’t give any of them enough page time to call it the main message. I can tell it’s trying, and it thinks it has something new, mind-blowing, and revolutionary, but it doesn’t.

Urban Fantasy

Review: Bruja Born

Cover of "Bruja Born," featuring a line drawing of a golden moth on a dark background
Image from Zoraida Córdova

Title: Bruja Born

Series: Brooklyn Brujas #2

Author: Zoraida Córdova

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, traumatic injury, car crash, cannibalism, fire

Spoiler Warning: This book is second in a series, so this review may contain spoilers of the first book, Labyrinth Lost.

Back Cover:

Three sisters. One spell. Countless dead.

Lula Mortiz feels like an outsider. Her sister’s newfound Encantrix powers have wounded her in ways that Lula’s bruja healing powers can’t fix, and she longs for the comfort her family once brought her. Thank the Deos for Maks, her sweet, steady boyfriend who sees the beauty within her and brings light to her life.

Then a bus crash turns Lula’s world upside down. Her classmates are all dead, including Maks. But Lula was born to heal, to fix. She can bring Maks back, even if it means seeking help from her sisters and defying Death herself. But magic that defies the laws of the deos is dangerous. Unpredictable. And when the dust settles, Maks isn’t the only one who’s been brought back…

Review:

This book is intense. The emotions and the drama and the atmosphere and everything grab you from the second paragraph and none of it slows down until the epilogue. I actually had to take a break after the first two chapters because I was not expecting that many feelings (and that intense of feelings) at the very beginning.

This is Lula’s story. I thought before I picked it up that it was going to be a continuation of Alex’s story from Labyrinth Lost, but it actually follows Alex’s older sister Lula. It happens after the events of Labyrinth Lost and continues the story of the Mortiz sisters through a different set of eyes.

I didn’t expect to like it as much because I was already invested in Alex from the last book, but that really wasn’t an issue. I didn’t necessarily love Lula in the usual sense of “loving” characters, but I felt her pain and her emotional conflict and I got really invested in her. She’s a tragic heroine who tried to fix something bad and made things much worse, and I was rooting for her the whole way.

This book is dark and there’s a lot going on. I can’t even touch on the plot because the true state of things slowly gets revealed as Lula and her sisters discover things and they don’t even find out the sheer magnitude of what’s happening until near the end. The story is full of difficult decisions and emotional pain and it was thoroughly absorbing.

There’s also a lot more of the bruja world – there’s more than just brujas dealing with magical things, and this book reveals more of a complex and fascinating world hiding under the world we know. And the end hints that we might get more of it in the future.

Also, despite being such a dark book, it has a mostly happy ending.

I thought going in that the Brooklyn Brujas series was only two books, but I’m glad I was wrong. There’s a third book coming out in 2019. My guess is it’s going to be about Rose, the youngest Mortiz sister, but I’m okay with that. If it’s anything like the previous two books, I’m sure I’ll love it.

The Brooklyn Brujas series:

  1. Labyrinth Lost
  2. Bruja Born
  3. Currently Untitled (2019)
Self-Help

Review: Lost Connections

Cover of "Lost Connections," featuring several hands holding sparklers on a black background
Image from Johann Hari

Title: Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

Author: Johann Hari

Genre: Self-Help

Trigger Warnings: Starvation, fatphobia, sexual abuse mentions, suicide mentions, gendered slurs, psychedelic use

Back Cover:

Award-winning journalist Johann Hari suffered from depression since he was a child and started taking antidepressants when he was a teenager. He was told—like his entire generation—that his problem was caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain. As an adult, trained in the social sciences, he began to investigate this question—and he learned that almost everything we have been told about depression and anxiety is wrong.

Across the world, Hari discovered social scientists who were uncovering the real causes—and they are mostly not in our brains, but in the way we live today. Hari’s journey took him from the people living in the tunnels beneath Las Vegas, to an Amish community in Indiana, to an uprising in Berlin—all showing in vivid and dramatic detail these new insights. They lead to solutions radically different from the ones we have been offered up until now.

Just as Chasing the Scream transformed the global debate about addiction, with over twenty million views for his TED talk and the animation based on it, Lost Connections will lead us to a very different debate about depression and anxiety—one that shows how, together, we can end this epidemic.

Review:

I heard of this book because of a video on Facebook my fiance sent me where the author outlined the basic concepts of Lost Connections. He wanted me to laugh at the author with him, but what he was saying honestly didn’t seem that outlandish to me. So I put this book on my reading list to evaluate the claims in full.

That, and I have more than my fair share of mental health issues and I would love to improve them.

The basic premise of the book is that depression and anxiety, rather than being individual biological problems, are more influenced by society, especially how modern Western society has become disconnected – from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world, and from a secure future.

Johann gives quite a bit of anecdotal evidence – stories and interviews with people who felt depression and anxiety which improved when they reconnected with one (or more) of the things that he claims we’re disconnected from. But there is also a surprising about of hard evidence (experiments and published research) that environmental factors do strongly affect anxiety and depression. (There’s also quite a bit of research showing that antidepressants have little to no effect.)

I’m disconnected from pretty much everything listed, and some of the stories Johann writes about – with people feeling better by connecting to those things – actually made me tear up with how much I wanted a connection like that.

Lost Connections makes a compelling point, much of it backed up by actual research, and I’m sold. I have no idea how to change society to reflect that, but I’m definitely working towards changing my own environment to connect more.

You can get a free PDF copy of the book here!

Did Not Finish, Suspense/Thriller

Review: Gated

Cover of "Gated," featuring a person with blue eyes and long messy hair peeking out from behind a tree
Image from Amy Christine Parker

Title: Gated

Series: Gated #1

Author: Amy Christine Parker

Genre: Thriller

Trigger Warnings: Missing child, guns, religious abuse

Back Cover:

In the Community, life seems perfect. Lyla Hamilton believes she is one of the chosen. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pioneer invited her family to join the Community and escape the evil in the world. They have thrived under his strict, charismatic leadership. Now seventeen, Lyla knows certain facts are not to be questioned:

Pioneer is her leader.

Will is her Intended.

The end of the world is near.

Pioneer has visions of the imminent destruction of humanity. He says his chosen must prepare to fight off the unchosen, who will surely seek refuge in the Silo, the underground shelter where the Community will wait out the apocalypse.

Lyla loves her family and friends, but a chance encounter with an unchosen boy has her questioning Pioneer, the Community – everything. She needs time to figure out the truth. But with Pioneer’s deadline for the end of days fast approaching, time is the one thing she doesn’t have.

Read to: Page 95

Review:

I am rather annoyed with this book.

I picked it up because of the cult aspect. I’m personally trying to deal with leaving a cult-like religion, so I thought it would be interesting and relatable. That’s really the only reason. And it honestly wasn’t very heavy on the cult stuff. Sure, there’s information about how the Community works and how isolated and close-knit they are, but besides calling Pioneer their prophet, there really wasn’t any religious aspect to it. Which may or may not have been realistic, I don’t know, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for.

Most of the story (at least until where I read to) was about Lyla’s feelings about the Community and doomsday and their preparations for it. Which, unfortunately, were not very interesting because she wasn’t a very interesting character. She grew up in the Community, so it didn’t really occur to her to doubt the apocalypse or Pioneer – she mostly wasn’t happy about target practice and that she would probably have to shoot people to defend the Community when doomsday came. I understand that – I wouldn’t be too excited about shooting people either – but there really wasn’t anything else until Cody came along.

Cody is the outsider boy that comes to the Community by chance, and Lyla has to give him a (limited) tour. She likes him a lot because he’s … well, I guess because he’s handsome. She mentions his extreme handsomeness when she first sees him, before they even meet. They hardly talk (at least on-page), but she’s inexplicably drawn to him. I don’t want to say love at first sight, but it was definitely feelings at first sight. And apparently meeting one really handsome dude is enough to make her question everything she grew up with.

Honestly, though, I kept reading. I wasn’t all that invested and I wasn’t actually sure what I felt about the book, but I knew the apocalypse wasn’t coming and I wanted to see what happened when they found out Pioneer was wrong. What really made me stop was aliens.

Yes, aliens.

A lot of flashbacks are interspersed in this book, covering Lyla’s childhood both before and after the Community. And in one, a flashback to “school” with Pioneer, you learn more about this vision that Pioneer is peddling. The earth is going to start rotating backwards, causing all sorts of natural disasters that will wipe out everyone outside the Community (the Community built an underground bunker to survive it), and then after five months, the aliens will show up to take them to a new life across the galaxy.

I know Scientology exists and aliens in cults are not, like, a completely out of the blue thing, but it still annoyed me. It just seemed so absurd. It also probably doesn’t help that I was looking for a book with a more Christian-like religion and themes of religious abuse, and the aliens just kind of proved to me that this isn’t the book I wanted it to be.

That’s not to say other people won’t like it – it has 3.75 stars on Goodreads, obviously people do – and I can see how some people would really enjoy this. It just didn’t match my expectations, and that kind of ruined it for me.

The Gated series:

  1. Gated
  2. Astray
Fantasy

Review: Mask of Shadows

Cover of "Mask of Shadows," featuring two knives crossed in front of a circular metal crest
Image from Linsey Miller

Title: Mask of Shadows

Series: Mask of Shadows #1

Author: Linsey Miller

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger warnings: Death, blood, mentions of abuse and war – for more details, read this

Back Cover:

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

Review:

This is the book I’ve been looking for.

You may have noticed I haven’t been reading a lot of novels lately. The reason is that I haven’t been able to find a novel that engaged me enough that I actually wanted to read more. (I’m honestly not sure if that’s more a reflection on the books or on me.) But this book – this book was absorbing and I loved it.

Let’s start with Sal. Sal is genderfluid, but it’s not a Big Thing – everyone just accepts it. They’re driven by revenge against the nobles who let their people die, and they have no preparation for being an assassin other than having been a thief and getting in street fights. They were just so determined to succeed, and I love reading about characters that are unprepared but do well through pure determination.

I love books about assassins, but despite Sal being in a competition to become an assassin, there wasn’t a lot of assassin-ing. It was more about competition-ing. Sure, there was some killing of other competitors, but the story was more about the training and learning, the dynamics between characters, and Sal adjusting to their new life and not getting caught while working toward vengeance.

I tried to come up with a “basic plot” for this book, but it’s hard because the two major plots combine so thoroughly. Sal wants to kill the nobles who let her people die, and they are using the audition competition as a means to that end. Some of it is trying to scheme and find which nobles are at fault, a lot of it is trying to survive (and win) the audition. It’s all fantastic and sucks you into the story. There’s a lot of violence, quite a bit of assassin skills (both learning and used), and some great characters in the form of the three members of the Left Hand and in Sal’s maid.

Really though, even the characters the book doesn’t spend a lot of time with are well done. There isn’t much court intrigue but what there is is great, Sal’s love interest is adorable and sweet (although their relationship does develop a little quickly), and the competition is fantastic.

I don’t have enough good things to say about this book. If you can stomach some blood and violence, I highly recommend it, especially if you need something to get yourself out of a reading slump.

The Mask of Shadows duology:

  1. Mask of Shadows
  2. Ruin of Stars
Classic

Review: Tales from the Arabian Nights

Cover of "Tales from the Arabian Nights," featuring the golden silhouette of Arabic-looking buildings against a dark blue starry background
Image from Amazon

Title: Tales from the Arabian Nights

Translator: Sir Richard Francis Burton

Genre: Classic

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore, misogyny, racism, colorism, antisemitism

Back Cover:

These are the tales that saved the life of Scherehazade, whose husband, the king, executed each of his wives after a single night of marriage. Beginning an enchanting story each evening, Scherehazade always withheld the ending: a thousand and one nights later, her life was spared forever. Full of mischief, valor, ribaldry and romance, “The Arabian Nights” has enthralled readers for centuries. This volume contains the most famous and representative stories from Sir Richard F. Burton’s multi volume translation, and, unlike many editions, is complete unexpurgated. These tales, including “Aladdin or the Wonderful Lamp,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” have entered into the popular imagination.

Review:

When I picked this book up at my local Half Price Books, I thought it was the complete Arabian Nights. I was wrong – the complete version of Burton’s translation is 16 volumes. This version has only a sampling of the stories, but it’s still almost 1,000 pages long.

Some of these I’d heard before, some of them I hadn’t, and even the ones I had heard were missing a lot of details. For example, you’ve probably heard the story of the fisherman and the jinn – but have you heard the second half of it, where the fisherman catches magic fish and saves an entire city from a magic spell? I hadn’t.

This volume kept the original translation text from the 1800s, and sometimes I had to figure out what words meant from the context. I didn’t mind that, but I’m sure there are more modern translations you can get if that would bother you.

All the stories were fascinating. Some I enjoyed more than others – “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” was actually kind of a slog to get through, and “The Story of Two Sisters Who Were Jealous of Their Younger Sister” was probably my favorite – but they were all entertaining reads. Sometimes the plots meander a bit, and it tends to layer stories within stories, which can get confusing, but they’re interesting anyway.

You also get an interesting look at Arabic culture, especially the opulence of royalty/rich people and their views of certain groups of people. For example, there’s a lot of racism (black people are universally slaves and described as “ugly” and “repulsive”) and colorism (the most beautiful people are described as having pure white skin). Women are also portrayed as either being extremely beautiful objects to be won or irredeemably evil – the exceptions being a slave girl in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and a princess in “The Story of the Two Sisters Who Were Jealous of Their Younger Sister” (both of whom get married off in the end).

Some other random things I didn’t realize about the Arabian Nights:

  • Scherehazade actually asked to be married to the sultan, she wasn’t randomly picked.
  • Scherehazade’s sister was with her and the sultan every night.
  • The sultan didn’t decide to permanently not kill Scherehazade – she had to request it after 1001 nights of storytelling and bearing him three kids.
  • Aladdin was Chinese (and a total jerk).
  • There’s an Arabian version of the “Genghis Khan and his hawk” story (a story I wrote about in English class back in middle school).

Overall, this is a great collection of stories – a little dense, maybe, but highly entertaining (and a great look at Arabic culture if you’re into that). I highly recommend it. As for the complete 16-book collection … maybe I’ll read it someday. But for now, this is plenty.

Personal Development

Review: Just Tell Me What I Want

Cover of "Just Tell Me What I Want," featuring the title in a dark gray box on a background of palm trees and flamingos
Image from Sara Kravitz

Title: Just Tell Me What I Want: How to Find Your Purpose When You Have No Idea What It Is

Author: Sara Kravitz

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Gendered language, Christianity

Back Cover:

This book is for anyone who has ever been told to “follow their bliss” and then immediately wanted to punch that person in the face. Maybe you feel like you should have things figured out by now. Maybe you think things should be better, but you don’t know how to get started. Maybe you would love to work really hard toward something, but aren’t totally sure what that something is.

What if there was actually a way to get you pointed in the right direction? And what if it didn’t involve someone telling you to “follow your bliss”?

This book will:

  • give you concrete tools to figure out what you want
  • help you take steps toward a life that you actually want to be yours
  • help you understand that everyone feels this way at some point, but you don’t have to feel this way forever
  • not tell you to follow your bliss

Change can be scary. Change can feel risky. But taking a chance is always worth it. This book will help you take the right steps for you to figure out what you want.

Review:

This is going to be a short review, because this is a pretty short book.

I found a free copy somewhere, picked it up because I was bored at work, and was honestly unimpressed with chapter one. It was boring and unspectacular, and I almost stopped reading.

But I’m glad I continued, because the rest of the book was pretty good.

Let’s be clear – it doesn’t exactly tell you how to figure out what you want. But it does give you some techniques for figuring out what you don’t want, which is a step in the right direction. It talks a lot about feeling out what’s not right for you and understanding that you have options, which is a great thing to talk about. And it’s also pretty inspiring.

There were a couple things that bothered me about it, though. One was that there was a surprising amount of swearing. Most of the time swearing doesn’t bother me, but in this case it didn’t fit with the tone at all and I think it would have read better if there wasn’t swearing. The other thing that bothered me was a few mentions of God in a Christian context. This may not bother everyone, but I wasn’t expecting it and I wasn’t a fan.

I want to say more about it, but there’s not much more to say. It was good. It had some good tips. There also wasn’t a lot that I hadn’t already heard before. It was a lot better than I expected, but still not fantastic.

Current Issues/Society

Review: Bobos in Paradise

Cover of "Bobos in Paradise," featuring a long-haired woman holding a coffee cup and sitting next to a laptop and a man in a suit holding a gardening trowel surrounded by trees and large flowers
Image from Goodreads

Title: Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There

Author: David Brooks

Genre: Current Issues/Society

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

Do you believe that spending $15,000 on a media center is vulgar, but that spending $15,000 on a slate shower stall is a sign that you are at one with the Zenlike rhythms of nature? Do you work for one of those visionary software companies where people come to work wearing hiking boots and glacier glasses, as if a wall of ice were about to come sliding through the parking lot? If so, you might be a Bobo.

In his bestselling work of “comic sociology,” David Brooks coins a new word, Bobo, to describe today’s upper class–those who have wed the bourgeois world of capitalist enterprise to the hippie values of the bohemian counterculture. Their hybrid lifestyle is the atmosphere we breathe, and in this witty and serious look at the cultural consequences of the information age, Brooks has defined a new generation.

Review:

I read this book back in high school – it was one of the texts for my AP Sociology class. And I enjoyed it so much that I kept it after the class was over. Lately I’ve been wanting to reread it, so here we are.

This is mainly a sociological text examining the phenomenon of “bourgeois bohemians.” Brooks calls them “Bobos,” I explain them to people who ask what this book is about as “basically hipsters.” Because that’s pretty much what they are, with their “natural/rustic is better” aesthetic and their love of things that are new but look old and their willingness to pay lots of money for handmade/organic/artisan versions of normally cheap things. Brooks’ name for them comes from the way they developed as a blend of the bourgeois capitalist upper class and the artistic bohemian counterculture.

Brooks and I differ on what we consider “upper class,” though. What Brooks describes as upper class in this book is what I think of as upper middle class. Upper class is, to me, people like Jeff Bezos and the Koch brothers – people who have so much money they can’t think of anything better to do with it than buy politicians or research space travel. Whereas the people who Brooks describes are making $100,000+ per year and have debt from living beyond their means. Which sounds more upper middle class than middle class to me.

I’m also not sure how accurate this book is anymore. It was published in 2000, and while I can still see some of the things Brooks points out (especially in the area of cultural values), some of the things he says don’t seem applicable these days. Notably the chapter on politics – Brooks’ point in that section is that Bobos are more moderate and shy away from any sort of radicalism or anything that’s too ideological or dogmatic. And looking at the current state of American politics and our hyperconservative, highly ideological, highly dogmatic current administration, it’s pretty easy to see that that is not true.

Accurate or not, though, Bobos in Paradise is still a highly interesting (and entertaining) read and gives a glimpse of a lifestyle that seems simultaneously hypocritical and desirable. If you’re looking for insight into today’s world, this might not be the best place for you to go, but if you want to learn about hipsters and where the upper middle class was headed in the early 2000s, this book will be an enjoyable place to get your information.

Dystopian

Review: Fight For You

Cover of "Fight For You," featuring a sunny picture of the Roman Coliseum with a girl holding a sword in one of the archways
Image from Kayla Bain-Vrba

Title: Fight For You

Author: Kayla Bain-Vrba

Genre: Dystopian

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/violence, sexual assault, whorephobia, sexualization of female characters

Back Cover:

Sold off to pay her father’s debts, Cherry spends her nights dancing and her days longing for freedom. Determined to break free of her life, she transfers from the dance halls to the stadiums, where all the real money is made.

The only problem with her plan is that she’s not a fighter. In order to learn, Cherry approaches Berlin, one of the best fighters in the stadium. Berlin, however, wants nothing to do with her, and Cherry realizes the hardest fights do not take place in the arena …

Review:

I was really excited about this book. It even made my Top 5 Want to Reads for this year. I guess the joke’s on me for getting so excited about the concept and not reading the reviews. This is the most disappointing book I’ve read this year.

So you know how based on the back cover, it seems like a lot of the story is going to be about Cherry convincing Berlin to teach her to fight? Yeah, Berlin agrees to train her on page 2. Right after their first kiss. Berlin gives Cherry an aggressive kiss after tackling her as a “show of dominance.”

Which leads me to my next problem with this book – Cherry and Berlin are both overly sexualized. At once point, Cherry says “I want people to see me as more than tits and ass,” and yet the author describes both girls mostly in terms of tits, ass, and how horny they make each other. There’s a lot of nudity. There’s a lot of random nipple sucking. There’s a lot of sexual situations that don’t fit the fact that these girls hardly know each other. And most of it reads like amateur erotica.

I don’t want to be That FeministTM, but this novella reads like it is by and for the male gaze. Cherry and Berlin are described in terms of sex appeal, their relationship develops through mutual horniness, and the level of physical intimacy they have as strangers is straight out of a random encounters erotica story. If there had been actual on-page sex when the girls had sex, I would call this amateur erotica with a veneer of gladiators slapped on top.

The pacing was also very bad. It moved much too fast and didn’t focus enough on anything to give either of the girls real emotions. The conflicts between Berlin and Cherry feel contrived and both girls get over them within a few paragraphs with no emotional growth shown, and you get no sense of the world (other than this is some sort of dystopian society where people or their family members are sold to work in The Zone if they can’t pay their debts).

A short list of other problems that I want to mention but not spend an entire paragraph on:

  • Both girls act like sex work is awful/shameful/makes you less of a person.
  • Two unnecessary sexual assault scenes.
  • It’s not really clear how one actually makes money off the fights. Maybe betting on them?
  • It’s mentioned offhandedly that the fights are mostly about the sex appeal – which is just, what???
  • The line “You’re going to be turned on when you’re fighting.”

This could have easily been expanded into a novel – and I think with time to flesh out the world and the characters of Cherry and Berlin, this could have been at least good. Berlin has an interesting past, and Cherry at least has some family history that could have been explored. The world could have been interesting. And I still love stories about fighting in arenas for money. I’m mostly upset about this novella because it could have been good, and I wanted it to be – it just wasn’t.