Did Not Finish, Fantasy

Review: The Victory Perspective

Cover of "The Victory Perspective," featuring the title in white text on top of an image of dark ground with red and gray storm clouds aboveTitle: The Victory Perspective

Author: E.J. Kellett

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Blood, death, misogyny, mind control, cannibalism

Back Cover:

Author E.J. Kellett is here to turn your world upside down. Asking questions so daring, not many before her have had the courage: Are we right to assume our “God” and creation were perfect and impeccable? If you are bold enough to follow this path, you can start a journey of discovery with a book that presents the Bible in the mirror. Turning the classic creation story on its head, this thrilling and thought-provoking dystopian novel pushes the boundaries of our preconceived notions.

“The Victory Perspective” is a controversial story that dares to confront the most fundamental beliefs that divide humanity. E.J. Kellett will leave you questioning everything.

Description: Five individuals find themselves in a wondrous paradise with the perfect climate and boundless resources. But when one develops remarkable powers, he hatches a plan to take control of his comrades and create his perfect world by any means necessary.

Read to: 47%

Review:

To start with, why did I pick up a book with such a self-important description? For two reasons: One is that I liked the idea of retelling the creation story from the Bible with a god who is not good. The other is that the ebook was cheap on Amazon.

Since that description doesn’t tell you anything about the book, I’m going to start with a short description before I move forward with the review. Five people wake up on a beach somewhere – Gabriel, Michael, Alpha, Raphael, and Lucifer. There is a fire on the beach, and they live off fruit from the jungle. When Lucifer accidentally catches a fish, Alpha tastes its blood and feels a strange power. He kills and eats more animals, and his power grows until he can create things at will. Lucifer is more concerned with his budding relationship with Raphael, but when Raphael disappears, he realizes cozying up to Alpha is the best way to find his lover – and he witnesses Alpha’s creation of an entire other world of creatures like them.

Based on the fact that I didn’t finish it, you’d probably assume it wasn’t a good book. And you’d be partially right. It was poorly written and you didn’t really get to know any of the characters. I rooted for Lucifer, but not because I particularly liked or related to Lucifer – I just hated Alpha and Lucifer opposed Alpha.

But on the other hand, the concept was great. Alpha was violent and bloodthirsty, and it was really cool to watch him grow in power and slowly become the God of the Old Testament as he strived for “perfection” with his creation. I kept reading because the story moved slowly, and I was excited for when Lucifer finally stood up to Alpha, got banished from the tropical paradise, and started working in the world Alpha created to foil Alpha’s plans. Plus there was an unexpected but cute relationship between Lucifer and the gentle, kind Raphael.

So what made me stop? Cannabilism. It was probably the most horrifying way cannibalism could have happened.

(Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers/gory details.)

Lucifer lived with Alpha for a little bit and gathered food and water for him while he was using his powers to create humans. After Alpha creates a woman out of a man’s rib, he offers Lucifer some dried meat. Lucifer eats some of it, and then it’s revealed that the meat was actually Raphael. Not only did Alpha kill Lucifer’s lover, but he also fed him to Lucifer. Which is simultaneously heartbreaking and stomach-turning.

(Read from here if you’re skipping spoilers/gory details.)

I honestly don’t have much of a stomach for cannibalism anyway, but that legitimately made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t read on after that. I’m sure the rest of the story is interesting (if poorly written) like the first 47%, but there’s no way I could finish the book after that horrifying turn of events.

Ignoring that bit, it was a solid 3- or 3.5-star book – not the best, but an interesting enough concept that I liked it nonetheless. But with that cannibalism bit … I just couldn’t. It was horrifying and stomach-turning and just tainted the whole book for me.

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High Fantasy

Review: The Second Mango

Cover of "The Second Mango," featuring art of a brown-skinned girl with dark hair and a light-skinned girl with long blond hair riding on a green dragon
Image from Goodreads

Title: The Second Mango

Series: Mangoverse #1

Author: Shira Glassman

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, kidnapping, f/f sex (barely described), m/f sex (implied)

Back Cover:

Queen Shulamit never expected to inherit the throne of the tropical land of Perach so young. At twenty, grief-stricken and fatherless, she’s also coping with being the only lesbian she knows after her sweetheart ran off for an unknown reason. Not to mention, she’s the victim of severe digestive problems that everybody thinks she’s faking. When she meets Rivka, an athletic and assertive warrior from the north who wears a mask and pretends to be a man, she finds the source of strength she needs so desperately.

Unfortunately for her, Rivka is straight, but that’s okay — Shulamit needs a surrogate big sister just as much as she needs a girlfriend. Especially if the warrior’s willing to take her around the kingdom on the back of her dragon in search of other women who might be open to same-sex romance. The real world outside the palace is full of adventure, however, and the search for a royal girlfriend quickly turns into a rescue mission when they discover a temple full of women turned to stone by an evil sorcerer.

Review:

I’ve had this book on my to-read book for a while after discovering Shira Glassman somewhere on Tumblr and picked it up because the ebook was cheap on Amazon. It’s short and it was a quick read, and I did enjoy the story. But I do have some reservations about it.

So let’s talk about what was good. The characters were great. Shulamit is a solid character, and even though she seemed a little too focused on sex (although that could just be me, since I’m asexual and don’t really think about sex at all), she had a lot of complicated feelings that made her really likable. She also has serious food allergies (celiac disease and a poultry allergy) that cause her a lot of problems, which added an interesting dimension.

The other major character, Rivka the warrior, was also well done – and interestingly, you actually get more of her backstory than Shulamit’s. Her history makes for a great dramatic story and she has some emotional pain she’s dealing with, which makes her especially enjoyable to read. She also has a great dynamic with Shulamit and I loved watching the two girls interact.

Information about the setting was sparse, but what there was was solid. I’m hoping future books in the series have more of it, because I’d love to learn more about Perach and how it works. The plot also wrapped up nicely and it had a great happy ending that I thoroughly loved.

Now let’s talk about the not-so-good stuff. Namely, the tension, or lack thereof. The plot is super straightforward (there’s only one twist, and it has more to do with Rivka’s emotional arc than the actual plot) and the tension never ramps up. They meet a problem, they solve it. They meet a problem, they solve it. They meet a problem, their lives are in danger for a few moments, they solve the problem. The tension is minimal, they never run into other problems while solving a different problem, and in a lot of ways it just feels too easy.

But even given that, did I enjoy it? Yes, thoroughly. It was light and fun, and though it was missing a lot of the complexity I was expecting from a fantasy novel, sometimes simplicity is good and I missed next to nothing reading it in bits and pieces. It was a fun romp and I just bought book two – I’m looking forward to continuing the simple, light adventure in the Mangoverse.

The Mangoverse Series:

  1. The Second Mango
  2. Climbing the Date Palm: A Labor Rights Love Story
  3. A Harvest of Ripe Figs
  4. The Olive Conspiracy
  5. Tales from Perach
Personal Development

Review: The Happiness Project

Cover of "The Happiness Project," featuring brown buildings with blue sky above them and the title in yellow text on the sky
Image from Gretchen Rubin

Title: The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun

Author: Gretchen Rubin

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Moralizing about food, discussion of serious illness

Back Cover:

Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. “The days are long, but the years are short,” she realized. “Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter.” In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project.

In this lively and compelling account, Rubin chronicles her adventures during the twelve months she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. Among other things, she found that novelty and challenge are powerful sources of happiness; that money can help buy happiness, when spent wisely; that outer order contributes to inner calm; and that the very smallest of changes can make the biggest difference.

Review:

I’m back to “reading” audiobooks since my morning commute is now 35 minutes. And I was super excited to find this as an audiobook, because I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I’ve heard about it. I’m all about making myself happier.

Gretchen Rubin planned for her happiness project by reading all the research she could get her hands on about happiness, both from scientists who study it and from less scientific works (like Aristotle, as she mentions in the title). Then she listed out a bunch of little things they said would make people happier, grouped them into categories, and set out to tackle one category each month. These “little things” included concrete things, like writing a novel, cleaning closets, and starting a collection, and intangible things like “be a treasure house of happy memories” and “be Gretchen.” Along the way, she discovered four “splendid truths” and one general maxim of happiness.

Overall, I liked this book. Gretchen is very open and honest about both times when things went well and times when she messed up (being human, she messed up a lot). She writes in a very engaging and relatable way, and (except for a few moments where I felt awkward for her as she described herself screwing up) I thoroughly enjoyed listening.

I also think some of her principles are good, too, especially her general happiness maxim – “To think about happiness, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right in an atmosphere of growth.” Basically, to increase happiness, you have to consider what makes you feel good, what makes you feel bad, what makes you feel right (in a moral sense), and ways for you to grow. Which sounds both completely doable and like great things to consider when you’re trying to be happier.

And then we come to the problems with this book. Namely, Gretchen isn’t facing anything unchangeable that would cause her to be unhappy. She’s white and rich enough to live comfortably in New York City. She has a good marriage to a good man. She’s college-educated, working at her dream job (full-time writer), has many friends, and has no mental or physical illnesses whatsoever. She’s not facing poverty, discrimination, illness, or anything else that might make a “happiness project” less effective. She focuses purely on individual actions and completely ignores societal and systemic problems that cause most unhappy people to be unhappy.

There’s a whole essay I could write here on the problems of the Western individualist approach to health and happiness, but this is a review and not the place for it. I enjoyed reading this book, but I have doubts about its general applicability. I’d be much more interested to see a happiness project from someone poor, marginalized, and/or ill to see if individual actions really make that much of a difference when society is stacked against you.

Also, Gretchen’s happiness project sounded exhausting. She had to constantly put in so much mental energy to change the way she acted, reacted, and thought. I might incorporate some of her principles, but I doubt I’ll be doing one of my own anytime soon.

Fairy Tale

Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

Cover of "Girls Made of Snow and Glass," featuring a black background with spikes of ice or glass sticking up from the bottom and the title in white text
Image from Melissa Bashardoust

Title: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

Author: Melissa Bashardoust

Genre: Fairy Tale

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, emotional abuse, mild body horror

Back Cover:

At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone – has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do and who to be to win back the only mother she’s ever known, or else defeat her once and for all.

Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything, unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

Review:

This may be the best fairytale retelling I’ve ever read. Girls Made of Snow and Glass is a retelling of Snow White, told from both “snow white” and the stepmother’s points of view, and it is fantastic.

First, there’s Lynet. The Snow White character in the story, she feels stifled by her overprotective father and would rather climb trees and scale the castle walls than be quiet and demure like her mother, the way her father wants her to be. She loves her father, but she also wants to be her own person, free from the shadow of the dead queen. She has an internal struggle between who she wants to be and who other people want her to be (which I found very relatable), and in the end she’s strong and courageous enough to make her own way in the world. I loved her.

Then there’s Mina, who, despite being the stepmother of the story, is far from evil. She was actually a very sympathetic character who knows she’s broken because she can’t love (and, she thinks, can’t be loved). I honestly didn’t root for Lynet to beat Mina because I cared about Mina, too. I wanted them both to win somehow.

If there’s a villain in this story at all, it’s Mina’s father, the magician Gregory. He’s cruel and cunning and selfish, and he has dark plans for Lynet that don’t get revealed until towards the end. He’s not even in most of the book, but his shadow hovers over Mina and she’s (rightfully) afraid of him.

The story alternates perspectives between Lynet and Mina. You get to see how Mina came to marry Lynet’s father and how having a glass heart incapable of love affected her life. You also get Lynet’s struggle between her love for her father and wanting to be who he wants her to be, and her desire to be her own independent person. Then circumstances cause the two women to clash. And while ostensibly the plot is about this clash between Mina and Lynet, with a little bit of politics and magic, it’s really more about the characters. How they’re feeling, how they think, how they react. Mina and Lynet are excellently written, and reading about their emotional journeys was fantastic.

And probably the best part – it has a happy ending!

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. Mainly when it came to the romance. I can’t even say that Lynet falls in love with someone, because the romance doesn’t get enough time or attention for that to really be shown. She likes this person and they kiss towards the end, so there’s definitely some romance going forward after the end of the book, but it was really sidelined during the main story and the love interest isn’t even in most of the book. I liked the romance, it was cute and I think it was a good way of showing Lynet growing up, but removing it would hardly have affected the story at all.

This book is amazing. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and probably one of the best fairytale retellings I’ve ever read. I loved how it was character-driven while still being a fantasy story and not neglecting either element. I enthusiastically recommend this book.

Current Issues/Society

Review: Deluxe

Cover of "Deluxe," featuring what looks like a McDonald's meal on a tray, but instead of McDonald's logo and colors, it is covered with Prada branding
Image from Penguin Random House

Title: Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster

Author: Dana Thomas

Genre: Current Issues/Society

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

There was a time when luxury was available only to the rarefied and aristocratic world of old money and royalty. Luxury wasn’t simply a product, it was a lifestyle, one that denoted a history of tradition, superior quality and offered a pampered buying experience.

Today’s luxury marketplace would be virtually unrecognizable to its founders. Gone are the family-owned businesses dedicated to integrity and quality; the industry is now run by multi-billion dollar global corporations focused on growth, visibility, brand-awareness, advertising and above all, profits. Handcrafted goods are practically extinct, and almost all manufacturing has been outsourced to large factories in such places as China, where your expensive brand-name handbag is being assembled right next to one from a mass-market label that will cost substantially less.

Dana Thomas, a journalist who has covered style and the luxury business for The Washington Post, Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine from Paris for the past fifteen years, digs deep into the dark side of the luxury industry to uncover all the secrets that Prada, Gucci and Burberry don’t want us to know.

Traveling from the laboratories in Grasse, where the ingredients for Christian Dior and Prada perfumes are produced, to the crowded factories in China, where workers glue together “Made in Italy” bags by the thousands, Thomas explores the whole of today’s high-end shopping experience to answer some pressing questions: What is the new definition of luxury when advertising for this lifestyle is targeted mainly toward the mass market? What are we paying for when quality has given way to quantity? Can integrity survive in a corporate culture driven to meet regular growth and profit projections? Is luxury still the best that money can buy?

Review:

This promised to be a book in the vein of Bobos in Paradise – i.e. a fascinating and in-depth look at a social phenomenon. Plus, I see the appeal of luxury items and thought it would be a good read to learn more about the luxury industry. And Deluxe delivered on all fronts.

Let’s talk about what it covers, because there is a lot. The book starts off with a history of the luxury industry – how companies like Louis Vuitton got started and how artisans transitioned from making custom items for the 1% to mass-produced items for the middle class. It spends some time on the global luxury market, especially how Japan is a huge luxury consumer and China and India are on the rise. It goes over how celebrities made designer brands popular for the middle class and how the luxury shopping experience works now for the average person. It talks about how the genuine items are made and how the counterfeit industry works. It touches briefly on luxury designers working for “fast fashion” companies like H&M. And it finishes by exploring how luxury is done for the 1% of today, which is remarkably different from the shopping experience most people encounter.

Going into the book as someone who knew next to nothing about luxury items (I knew some brand names from social media and Google has to help me spell Louboutin), this book was a really comprehensive education – see the last paragraph for all the things you’ll learn. Plus, it’s absolutely fascinating. If you’re interested at all in luxury items, you’ll find this book interesting. And also probably find yourself wanting to purchase some luxury items.

In some ways, this book reads like a long, albeit entertaining, advertisement for luxury goods. The quality, the sophistication, the elegance and refinement all ooze through the pages and surround the luxury products with an aura of being the best. I’m in need of a new purse anyway, and reading this book made me wish I could afford a nice Hermes bag. But then in the second-to-last chapter, the author talks about fast fashion and how you can get items by famous designers for under $100 at places like H&M, which somewhat reduced my desire for designer clothes. (I would still love a Hermes bag, though.)

I found this book thoroughly engrossing, and not only did I learn a lot about the luxury industry (including the terrible conditions that make it unethical to buy affordable fakes), it made me wish I had enough money to experience luxury for myself.

I’ve gone on quite a bit on how much this book made me want to buy luxury items, and that was a big aspect of the book for me. It inspired a desire and a dream to experience the things the book talked about. But besides that, it was informative, entertaining, and absolutely fascinating. I highly recommend it.

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
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)
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
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.