Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe

44463274._SY475_In the 1940s, a bored heiress began creating dollhouse crime scenes depicting murders, suicides, and accidental deaths.  In the aftermath of the Manson Family murders, a young woman moved into Sharon Tate’s guesthouse and entwined herself with the Tate family. In the mid-nineties, a landscape architect in Brooklyn fell in love with a convicted murderer through an intense series of letters. And in 2015, a teenager deeply involved in the online fandom for the Columbine killers planned a mass shooting of her own.

Each woman, Monroe argues, represents and identifies with a particular archetype that provides an entryway into true crime. Through these four cases, she traces the history of American crime through the growth of forensic science, the evolving role of victims, the Satanic Panic, the rise of online detectives, and the long shadow of the Columbine shooting.

Review:

This was my last read for the opening round of the Booktube Prize and it followed No Visible Bruises, a harrowing look at domestic violence. It feels weird to say, but the tone of this book was downright breezy in comparison.

It’s not a knock on the book. Monroe introduces us to women who identify with one of four archetypal roles – the killer, the victim, the attorney, and the detective. Tales from the author’s life, such as her stint volunteering at a law office and attending a true crime convention, are scattered throughout.

Overall I found the book was scattershot, examining bits and pieces without coalescing around a central narrative. I remember lovely lines and thoughts, but it failed to hold together as a whole for me. Not a bad read by any means – I both learned things and enjoyed myself – but it didn’t quite stack up to some of the other books this round.

Just Like That by Cole McCade (Albin Academy #1)

49875508._SY475_Summer Hemlock never meant to come back to Omen, Massachusetts. But with his mother in need of help, Summer has no choice but to return to his hometown, take up a teaching residency at the Albin Academy boarding school—and work directly under the man who made his teenage years miserable.

Forbidding, aloof, commanding: psychology instructor Iseya is a cipher who’s always fascinated and intimidated shy, anxious Summer. But that fascination turns into something more when the older man challenges Summer to be brave. What starts as a daily game to reward Summer with a kiss for every obstacle overcome turns passionate, and a professional relationship turns quickly personal.

Yet Iseya’s walls of grief may be too high for someone like Summer to climb…until Summer’s infectious warmth shows Fox everything he’s been missing in life.

Review:

Just Like That is this month’s addition to the Carina Adores line, huzzah! I’ve been meaning to read McCade and this is a fine introduction.

Before I go any further I want to point out that there are tropes with squick potential including age gap (24/pushing 50) and the fact that this is a teacher/former student romance. The content warnings are detailed at the front, but I especially want to point out anxiety (including a panic attack on the page) and suicidal ideation.

The romance is hurt/comfort in both directions – Summer has a bright, soft personality and is continuing a lifetime struggle with anxiety, while Fox has built up prickly armor around a traumatic event from his past. Both are psychology teachers, so it should be no surprise that the conflict is entirely internal. Expect lots of talking and ruminating with a fair side of angst.

Let’s start with the good, at least for me. McCade’s writing is descriptive and flowery, and it won’t be for everyone. It was just what I wanted right now, though – flowing and lyrical in a way that felt comforting.

Fox is half-Japanese/half-Western and grew up in Japan to age 14. I found one small bobble in the Japanese culture references, which is pretty good considering how much authors usually get wrong.

As for the not-so-good, the believability isn’t quite there for me. Fox and Summer have make out sessions in their classroom on the regular, the assistant principal doesn’t even blink an eye when he walks in on them. There’s a side character that shares living space with Summer, but he disappears as soon as he’s not needed for the plot. And while I get the romance, I’m not completely sold on Summer and Fox as a couple.

Speaking of, to the reviewers saying that a formerly straight guy goes gay for his student – stop. Fox never said he was straight. There is something called bisexuality, let’s not forget it.

Between the squick potential and the writing style it’s hard to recommend Just Like That to everyone, but I’m sure it will have its fans. I’m looking forward to reading another book by McCade to get a better feel for what he can do.

Thanks to Carina Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Unvarnished by Eric Alperin and Deborah Stoll

48254184When it opened a decade ago, the acclaimed Los Angeles speakeasy The Varnish—owned, designed, and managed by award-winning cocktail aficionado Eric Alperin—quickly became the stylish standard bearer for modern bars.  Alperin and veteran bartender and writer Deborah Stoll push back against the prevailing conceit that working in the service industry is something people do because they failed at another career. They offer fascinating meditations on ice as the bartender’s flame; the good, the bad, and the sad parts of vice; one’s duty to their community as a local; the obsessive, compulsive deliberations of building a bar (size matters); lessons from Sasha Petraske—Eric’s late partner, mentor, and the forefather of the modern day classic cocktail renaissance—and the top ten reasons not to date a bartender. At the book’s center are the 100 recipes a young Jedi bartender must know before their first shift at The Varnish, along with examples of building drinks by the round, how to Mr. Potato Head cocktails, and what questions to ask when crafting a Bartender’s Choice.

Review:

It’s interesting to see how different people approach their craft. In Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain centers cooking as a physical act – I can’t separate my image of him from banging pans and frantic kitchens. Marcus Samuelsson comes across as a more cerebral chef, chasing flavors as he’s led by his taste buds in Yes, Chef. Alperin tends towards the latter by paying great attention to detail while making the perfect drink – the right ice, ordering ingredients just so, arranging the workspace for maximum efficiency.

I especially appreciate this detail in the chapter about ice. It’s fascinating how far bartenders will go to get perfectly clear ice in the shape best suited for the drink. Overall I like the chapters that are close the to the bar best as Alperin, with the help of Stoll, does a great job sharing his knowledge about the hows and whys of bartending and how he applies them at The Varnish. His insights on hospitality and what his mentor calls “offhand excellence” are especially memorable. I like that he doesn’t name drop – there’s a couple of mentions of “a celebrity” stopping by, but nothing else. The memoir-esque sections concentrating on his personal life and boozing it up in LA are hit and miss, though.

Speaking of things that are hit and miss, footnotes are used heavily throughout. Sometimes it’s to define a term, other times to add a funny anecdote or source. I wouldn’t mind if they were limited, but at one point there were three within a couple of lines of each other. I was sick of clicking through. At that point it’s better to gloss P&L as “profit and loss report” and leave it at that.

There’s 100 cocktail recipes smack dab in the middle when, at least in the ebook, it would feel more natural at the end. And when we do get to the end we’re met by an afterward full of essays by people who are in some way connected to The Varnish – regulars, the piano player, bartenders, and so on. Not a couple, not even a dozen, but 26 essays. Some are great, and I love that the barback writes his in Spanish, but the sheer number feels like padding.

All in all, Unvarnished is a quick read with interesting bits as well as flaws.

Thanks to Harper Wave and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Danika Brown knows what she wants: professional success, academic renown, and an occasional roll in the hay to relieve all that career-driven tension. But romance? Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. So Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom.

When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign: PhD student Dani and ex-rugby player Zaf are destined to sleep together. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity. Lying to help children? Who on earth would refuse?

Review:

3.5 stars

I love Hibbert’s novels. She does so many things right – rep of all sorts (as evidenced by own voices reviews), characters who use their words and treat each other with respect, and comedy. She also does angst well but alas, angst isn’t my thing. As a result I love her fun, rompy novels like the mega hit Get a Life, Chloe Brown and have complicated feelings about the rest.

I want to be clear, Take a Hint is a very good book. The first third is full of laugh out loud fun – Dani making entreaties to a sex goddess with her bestie, banter, a routine evacuation drill that goes wrong and leaves Dani stranded in an elevator. Zafir, former rugby player turned building security guard, carries her out of the building Cinderella style and #DrRugbae is born. Everyone thinks they’re a couple, and Zafir could use the publicity to promote a charity he runs, so would Dani continue the fake relationship for a good cause. Of course. It’s not like Zafir isn’t tall, dark, and handsome. And definitely not kind. Nope.

The good:

  • Again, all the rep including Black bisexual woman, Punjabi Muslim guy, anxiety including panic attacks.
  • Content warnings are front and center when you open the book, great for those who want them.
  • Hibbert makes my least favorite tropes bearable, and here it’s secrets. It’s not ‘if I tell him this he’ll hate me’. Instead it’s ‘I’m not ready to face this myself, and I’m sure as hell not ready to tell him’. But before long words are used because we are all adults here.
  • The funny parts are really funny and had me grinning.
  • There’s a great message about mental health, seeking help, and not going it alone.

Neither-here-nor-there:

  • I love me a gender flipped trope, and here stereotypical roles for men and women are reversed. Dani is a workaholic, is only looking for a fuck buddy (her words), and has given up on love and relationships. Zaf has been to therapy, is emotionally fluent, reads romance novels, and helps Dani come to realizations about her past and herself. I recently read another novel that tried to do this and failed, but Hibbert delivers. It works.

The not-so-good-for-me:

  • After the first third we go deeper into the waters of internal conflict and angst. Not my thing, but I know a lot of people love it.

The not-so-good:

  • The plotting feels a little off. The conflict gets wishy washy in the middle, making the book easy to put down. And while the emotional work at the end is superb and the reason for the extra .5 star, the end feels a bit disjointed. It’s almost like we get an HEA, a black moment is thrown in, followed by another HEA.

If you like more angst in your romance you will love where Take a Hint, Dani Brown ends up. It’s not my thing so I didn’t like this one quite as much as Chloe’s installment, but it’s easy to recognize all that Hibbert is doing right and I love where she went at the end. I’m sad that there’s only one Brown sister left.

Thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for providing an advance copy.

Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner #1)

13274939The first book in C.J. Cherryh’s eponymous series, Foreigner begins an epic tale of the survivors of a lost spacecraft who crash-land on a planet inhabited by a hostile, sentient alien race.

From its beginnings as a human-alien story of first contact, the Foreigner series has become a true science fiction odyssey, following a civilization from the age of steam through early space flight to confrontations with other alien species in distant sectors of space.

Review:

Foreigner is my first foray into Cherryh’s work and the beginning sucked me in. A lost spaceship is stranded in orbit around a planet that supports life. They know they shouldn’t disrupt the native peoples but after years and years of sticking it out they send a few folks down, and then a few more.

First contact does not go as planned, but now Atevi and humans have an uneasy peace. The translator/ambassador between the two races is our main character Bren. It’s a stressful but quiet job spent attending meetings, filing reports, and trying to understand Atevi culture and language as best he can. One day his life is put in danger, though, and the story spirals from there.

The good:

  • Cherryh’s worldbuilding is wonderful. We learn tons of detail about Atevi language and history in passages that could feel like info dumps, but don’t. She’s thought things out in great detail, from how Atevi language influences their thought (there’s no word for “trust” or “friend”) to how such different cultures would exchange information over time.
  • Likewise, the characters are complex and the emotional beats ring true. Some people go through a heckuva lot over the course of the novel and they get just as mad and frustrated and sad as you would expect.
  • The beginning and the end of the book, especially, are exciting and kept me glued to the page.
  • I’m curious about and invested in this world.

The good-for-me:

  • I buddy read Foreigner with Rachel from Kalanadi which was amazing. She has read through much of the series before and provided context and encouragement when I needed it.

The not-so-good:

  • Once things get set into motion the reader is presented with a million things to puzzle over and wonder about but precious few answers. This, combined with Bren having next to no agency, made the middle third a little tough to get through. At the end of Book Three, Chapter Ten, though, things click into place and the meaning of many earlier events comes into focus. It was worth it for me, but may be annoying to some.
  • One way the Atevi are othered is that they have jet black skin, and that didn’t sit well with me, especially at first. Once we learn more of the history it’s obvious that the Atevi in no way correspond to people of color on Earth, but it’s not the best look. The book did come out in 1994, so keep that in mind, as well.
  • …it doesn’t help that the humans are all super duper white, though.

There are a lot of details to keep straight so I’ll be diving into book two, Invader, right away. Apparently Cherryh wrote the books of this series as trilogies, so I’m curious to see how the three book arc shakes out.

American Manifesto by Bob Garfield

9781640092808_e7adaAs is often observed, Trump is a symptom of a virus that has been incubating for at least fifty years. But not often observed is where the virus is embedded: in the psychic core of our identity. Garfield investigates how we’ve gotten to this moment when our identity is threatened by both the left and the right, when e pluribus unum is no longer a source of national pride, and why, when looking through this lens of identity, the rise of Trumpism is no surprise. Overlaying that crisis is the rise of the Facebook-Google duopoly and the filter-bubble archipelago where identity is tribal and immutable.

Review:

I was primed to like this book because I love On the Media, a public radio show Garfield co-hosts. He isn’t afraid to skewer received wisdom and group think, so I was curious to see what he thinks about the state of democracy in the United States.

Overall I agree with Garfield’s idea that we need to recognize that the internet has not been the democratization machine we’ve been hoping for (with some exceptions) and that Google and Facebook have an outsized influence on American society. I also agree that those in favor of democracy need to put aside some differences to work together for the common good.

The way these ideas are conveyed, though, is not my cup of tea. The first half of the book was hit or miss, with some chapters getting at interesting points and others feeling disconnected. It’s written in his voice, as he would write for radio, but some parts don’t work as well in print. The most glaring example is lists that are compelling when heard but easily skipped over on the page.

While the tone aims at irreverent it dips into coarse. Dick joke level coarse. I understand that he’s trying to get us mad, to funnel that anger into action, but I don’t think it works. At least not on me.

Near the end of his manifesto Garfield posits that America has split itself into too many “micro-identities”, casting themselves as a highly visible other. When you make yourself stick out, he implies, you shouldn’t be surprised that people backlash against you.

So that pissed me off.

And then he talks about a kind colleague that hinted that he shouldn’t start speeches with “ladies and gentlemen” because it’s subtly “oppressive”. You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m on the colleague’s side and think that we should try to use inclusive language that works for all people, not just those on the gender binary. His answer? It’s wasted effort when there are bigger fish to fry.

My response – it costs nothing to change a few words and as a result be kinder and more understanding of those around you. You say you want us to unite, so why are you clinging to a phrase that divides?

I was prepared to give American Manifesto a ho-hum three star review until these sections near the end of the book. There are decent points here and there, but I think they could have presented in a more engaging way, with less unnecessary coarseness.

Thanks to Counterpoint Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

40265832Ibram X. Kendi’s concept of antiracism reenergizes and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in America–but even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. In How to be an Antiracist, Kendi asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it.

In this book, Kendi weaves together an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science, bringing it all together with an engaging personal narrative of his own awakening to antiracism. How to Be an Antiracist is an essential work for anyone who wants to go beyond an awareness of racism to the next step: contributing to the formation of a truly just and equitable society.

Review:

I first heard Kendi on the WNYC show On the Media being interviewed by Brooke Gladstone. He blew my mind twice in ten minutes so I knew I had to pick up How to Be an Antiracist.

The core tenet is that there is no such thing as being “not racist”. You either support and/or abide policies and actions that further racial inequities, as a racist, or you confront them, as an antiracist. Doing nothing, saying you’re “not racist”, only furthers the racist status quo.

Kendi breaks down a bunch of big ideas such as dueling consciousness and race as a construct, while interweaving stories from his own life. We watch him grow up from a boy who parrots the questionable ideas the world has taught him, to holding anti-white racist views in college, to appreciating and later fighting for not just antiracism but for those who fall at intersectionalities between race and gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and more. He’s not afraid to share ugly thoughts he’s had and how he worked past them – this is a man who has done the work and has the receipts.

The first few chapters of the book cover big concepts and I went through them slowly to take everything in. Once these basic concepts are set he talks about subsets and nuances before widening back out to end on the ideas of success and survival.

My ereader is chock-a-block with highlights – Kendi says so many things that are thoughtful and get at the core of an issue. He argues that antiracism and anticapitalism go hand in hand. That the idea that Black people can’t be racist is absurd. That racist ideas are born not of ignorance and hate but self-interest, and that holding up a mirror can be much more effective than trying to persuade those who support racist policies. You may not agree with every point but they are all presented clearly and grounded in history.

The historical overviews in the middle of each chapter may have been my favorite sections. Kendi summarizes history and scholarship in a way that provides all the essential details without being didactic. Sometimes I wanted to know more but I’m more than happy to read other books about the movements and people he mentions.

<i>How to Be an Antiracist</i> is an in-depth examination that encourages all of us, regardless of race and level of knowledge, to do our part to stamp out racism. I am thankful to Kendi for writing about his life experience and scholarship so openly and honestly, and now I’m looking forward to reading his other book, Stamped from the Beginning. I feel a bit changed inside, for the better.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

42771901When the technologies we use every day collapse our experiences into 24/7 availability, platforms for personal branding, and products to be monetized, nothing can be quite so radical as… doing nothing. Here, Jenny Odell sends up a flare from the heart of Silicon Valley, delivering an action plan to resist capitalist narratives of productivity and techno-determinism, and to become more meaningfully connected in the process.

Review:

Reading How to Do Nothing was an odd experience, mostly because I was intensely interested in some sections and was utterly bored through others. It didn’t feel coherent, which is weird and unfortunate because Odell obviously put a lot of thought into each chapter.

She starts by pointing out that social media and apps that increasingly demand our attention have changed the way we think, work, and spend our time. We aim for productivity, work in a gig economy, and scroll through addictive feeds while simultaneously feeling more worried about and separate from the world around us. After explaining the impossibility of running away completely she touches on ways we can refuse the attention economy, how to open ourselves to new ways of seeing, and the importance of connecting with where we live – its history, ecology, and the fellow humans living there.

Odell discusses some amazing concepts, and some will stick with me. There’s the idea that we can different people in different real-life groups – a happy drunk with college friends, a hard-working professional with coworkers, an erudite conversationalist at a dinner party. Once you put yourself on social media, however, you’re the same person to everyone from childhood friends to potential employers. As a result you have to water yourself down to the most innocuous version, else risk offending someone today or years down the line. You go from many identities to just one.

There’s the thought that algorithms on Facebook and Spotify do such an amazing job of predicting what you’ll like that it’s unlikely you’ll try something new or find a favorite song in a genre you usually don’t listen to. That we’re constantly pressured to be more productive… but who does that productivity serve?

They’re fascinating ideas to think about. Some chapters, though, are duds for me. I did not need to read dozens of pages about why various communes failed in the 1960s. I also didn’t like the long descriptions of paintings and performance art. I flashed back to reading Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking, but this is nonfiction and the writing isn’t as strong.

As a result I’m a fan of the concepts but not of the telling, and the dead boring sections prevent me from giving it anything more than three stars.

Crux by H.E. Trent (Jekh Saga #2)

32335970._SY475_Erin McGarry fears she’s becoming the very thing she hates. She travelled to the planet Jekh to get her big sister, Courtney, out of a jam, and now Erin has become a colonist, too. To complicate her ordeal further, as one of very few women on a planet of desperate men, people expect Erin to pick a lover – or two – and settle down. With the Jekhan race having nearly been obliterated by Terran colonists, Erin refuses to help further dilute their culture. But at least two men think Erin’s objections don’t hold water….

Review:

This felt solid, largely because the heavy worldbuilding was taken care of in book one. I love the overarching plot, the themes of colonization and how best to rebuild a society that’s in trouble at a genetic level. The issues explored hark back to historical situations in the US but are completely different at the same time.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the romance, however. I wasn’t on board with Esteben because while he and Erin have a power exchange-esque dynamic it’s never discussed as such. As a result it feels creepy and kind of wrong, especially compared to her sweet relationship with swoon-worthy Headron.

There are a couple of elements that carried over from the first book that I wish didn’t, including native English speakers blithely using hard to understand idioms in front of people learning the language. I find it disingenuous that Erin and Courtney care so much about preserving Jekhan culture but don’t bother to learn their language, not even single words. They spend a lot of time reflecting on their position as colonizers, and at the same time expect all Jekhans to speak perfect English. GAH.

All that being said I’m excited to read the next book. I’m not sure the romance (m/f, not m/m/f) will be for me, but the large-scale story has me hooked.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Well Met #1)

43189874._SY475_Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

Review:

I was excited to read this book after hearing some wonderful reviews, but I have to admit, for the first 40% I was wondering what the fuss was about.

The beginning is all first book awkwardness, the scaffolding of an enemies-to-lovers romance bare and hanging in the wind. Simon is shown as an arse early and often, and other plot elements are predictable. The love triangle fake out dude, the reason Simon’s brother left – all incredibly obvious, at least to me.

But once the Ren Faire starts, look out! Simon’s character, a swashbuckling pirate, is out to woo Emily’s character, a tavern wrench. Sparks fly, but as soon as they get out of their costumes it’s back to the bickering status quo.

These two have plenty of stuff happening in their real lives – Emily was recently dumped in an ugly way by her near-fiancee, and Simon feels like his life has been set into motion for him with no choice but to go with the flow. The Faire lets them shed the baggage, but the real trick is working through that emotional load once the festival is over.

There’s a lot to like – competence porn, fun secondary characters, grand gestures, and good grovel when it’s required. Hot sex, dramatic human chess match scenes, and people talking through their problems? All here.

I wasn’t a fan of Emily’s thinking near the end, though. She’s suddenly riddled with misgivings, questioning and misinterpreting every little thing that’s said to her by both Simon and others. I’ve encountered this in several romances recently so I may be more sensitive to it, but I’m not a fan of driving conflict by having the heroine think, ‘he doesn’t love me after all’ after a single stray comment. The women are strong until they get buried in self-doubt. Gah.

Still, this is a strong showing for a debut. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series – several of the secondary characters are due their own Happily Ever Afters, methinks.

Thanks to Berkley and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.