Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett

Like a Sister is an engrossing novel that will definitely appeal to fans of Rachel Howzell Hall. Solid pacing, a likeable and engaging narrator, plenty of compelling dialogues, and a well-rendered suspenseful atmosphere. I won’t lie, the main reason why I picked this one up was because I came across the audiobook version while perusing Bahni Turpin’s audios . As per usual, she gives a brilliant performance which no doubt enhanced my reading/listening experience with Like a Sister.

Our main character is Lena Scott, a graduate student at Columbia who is in her late twenties. After her grandmother passes away she inherits her house in the Bronx, which she now shares with her aunt. Her mother is dead, and Mel, her father, a big shot music producer with a don’t-mess-with-me reputation, has shown little interest in Lena. After their ‘messy’ separation he went on to marry and have a child with a former close friend of her mother. Despite the animosity between their parents, Lena and Desiree were ‘like sisters’. Despite their different home environments, with Desiree enjoying Mel’s wealth, Lena leads a more sheltered existence, focusing on her studies. Eventually, Desiree gains certain popularity, having taken part in a reality show and hanging out with ‘it’ crowds. Her partying lifestyle becomes a wedge in the sisters’ relationship, as Lena can’t condone Desiree’s careless ‘misdemeanours’. After years of not talking to each other Lena learns that Desiree has been found dead the morning after her 25th birthday. The media and police are quick to dismiss her death as an accidental ‘overdose’, but Lena is more x. Why was her sister found in the Bronx? Was she on her way to see her? Mel and Lena’s stepmother do not seem as troubled as she is by the inconsistencies of Desiree’s death. Lena feels guilty over her fallout with Desiree and is determined to find the truth. As she reaches out to Desiree’s ex and her friends she begins to suspect that her death may have something to do with the ‘event’ that led to their fallout. Reluctantly Lena is aided by Desiree’s bff, a white rich girl who serves as a source of humor for much of the early narrative.

I liked the dynamic between Lena and the people she interacts with. I think the story would have benefited from giving her more of a backstory. She seems to have only one acquaintance and 0 friends. I kept forgetting what her profession/subject of study was because her character is very much all about Desiree and Mel. That is not to say that she doesn’t have a clear-cut personality. She is loyal, sensible, and funny. Some of the jokes she makes did come across as more in line with someone older than her (rather than 29, someone closer to if not over 40). Still, that didn’t ruin her narration, and I found her old-fashioned quaint and endearing. Her voice is certainly engaging as I was thoroughly absorbed by her narration.
I would have liked for one of the side characters to be less of an ‘Inventing Anna’ type of figure as it was fairly predictable and the misdirection takes up a lot of the story for no reason. The mystery was interesting but the resolution was painfully anticlimactic. The culprit was painfully obvious and I really hoped that the author would subvert my expectations by not making them the killer. Their motivations are…kind of missing? I didn’t buy into their ‘reasons’, as it seemed a huge leap to go from ‘that’ to murder. The ending did feel rushed to the point that it lessened my overall enjoyment of the novel. We also get chapters that are the equivalent of insta posts or lives about Desiree and they did absolutely 0 for the story. I wish we could have had chapters giving us glimpses into the sisters’ childhoods as that would have added depth and nuance to their relationship.
Still, I did have a fairly fun time with this as it was a quick and gripping read/listen. I would definitely read more by this author!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes by Alexa Martin

Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes is an exceedingly average chick-lit novel. While I appreciated that it was very much a novel about friendship, as opposed to romance, and that the author does incorporate more serious issues within her otherwise light-hearted story, I found many scenes to be cringey (unintentionally so) and towards the end, things take a soap-opera turn.
This book follows best friends Jude and Lauren. Jude is an influencer who is all about pilates and clean eating. Jude’s mother is a narcissistic former reality-tv star who habitually guilt trips Jude into giving her money and taking part in publicity stunts she’s not keen on doing.

Lauren, who wanted to be a surgeon, works at and has a 5-year-old daughter. After splitting with the father she’s more or less had to raise her daughter on her own. When her ex starts acting like more of a parent, Lauren is initially happy for her daughter. Things change when he decides to file for custody.
Due to their finances, these two bffs decide to move in together, eventually starting a podcast on motherhood.
For the most part, the tone of this novel is cheesy/silly. Our leads have their troubles but the drama affecting their lives never struck me as heavy-going (even when it should have been). Lauren has to deal with her ex trying to get full custody of her daughter, while Jude is trying her hardest to pretend that everything is hunky-dory and that her mother isn’t toxic af.
It just so happens that I found their jargon, hobbies, and interests to be…low-key annoying. We have an overuse of the word mansplaining and feminism as well as a lot of scenes going on about the ‘mommy’ life or wine dates or exercise classes. I just felt wholly disconnected from Jude and Lauren. They were meant to be 28 but boy they could have been in their late thirties and I would have believed it. This novel is very much intended for an American millennial audience, not moi. Scenes that were meant to be cute were in fact cringe. Alexa Martin doesn’t offer any new insights into the realities of being an influencer nor do her mother-daughter relationship feel particularly complex. The ‘mommy culture’ also just…nope. I do not care for it one bit (i also hated reading about it in Such a Fun Age and Big Little Lies).

Anyway, while I did find much of the story to be somewhat grating (tone-wise), it still managed to be now and again mildly entertaining…and then we near the end and the melodrama commences. I found the author’s portrayal of alcoholism to be surface-level. And it annoyed me that because Jude likes to party and isn’t as straight-laced as Lauren she has to be ‘punished’. I swear that last plot point would have been more suited to a soap-opera. Here it just left a bad taste in my mouth. The author just throws this in and goes over it quite superficially so that things are more or less resolved within a couple of pages. There was something moralistic about this last portion of the story that didn’t sit right with me (not that things like this ever happen…but really? it just had to happen in this story?).
My overall verdict is ‘meh’. I liked the focus on friendship and that the story highlights how the American healthcare system treats Black mothers and just how insidious toxic relationships are. However, as I said above, its attempts at pandering to a millennial audience resulted in some very cringey scenes and the author treats serious issues, such as alcoholism, in a theatrical way. I guess if you are a fan of authors such as Emily Henry you might find this novel more enjoyable than I did.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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If This Gets Out by Sophie Gonzales & Cale Dietrich

“It’s been so hard for me to believe that being adored doesn’t mean I’m one mistake away from being despised.”

If you are looking for an escapist read, look on further. If This Gets Out is a cute and ultimately uplifting YA romance. It does have the sort of tropes and scenarios that you would get from fanfic but I happened to be in the mood for something cheesy and fun.
I have never been a fan of boybands nor am I into ‘shipping’ real-life people so I read If This Gets Out on its own merit (ie without drawing comparison to that boyband). Our dual narrators, Ruben Montez and Zach Knight, are members of a famous American boyband, Saturday. While Ruben, Zach, Angel, and Jon all love being in a band together and enjoy the perks that come with their job, they have little freedom (creative or otherwise). Their management has forced them into adopting a certain personality (for example Angel and Jon’s ‘personas’ are shaped by racial stereotypes) and the boys are beginning to resent this. Ruben is gay and is tired of being forced to keep his sexuality a secret. Zach is not too happy with his lyrics always being turned down for not being ‘pop’ enough. Angel, who is very energetic and loud, turns do drugs and partying. Jon, who happens to be the son of their manager, is clearly not comfortable with being the band’s ‘sex’ symbol.
On a tour to Britain and Europe, things get worse. Their management controls their every move and the boys feel increasingly under pressure. They aren’t allowed to do any of the touristy things and their management are constantly monitoring them (often criticising them). Ruben and Zach become particularly close during this time and their feelings are definitely less than platonic. Zach, however, is unsure of his sexuality or what he wants and briefly, things between them don’t go too well. Thankfully the story doesn’t dwell on their disagreement for too long and the two get together. But as you might guess their management isn’t too keen on their romance (given that their audience consists mostly of young girls they have to remain ‘available’).

The story is certainly entertaining. While most of the adult characters are rather one-dimensional I did like the dynamics within the band. Some of the disagreements between Ruben and Zach did not make much sense (especially towards the end, it seemed like the plotline needed an argument so an argument happened). The narrative mostly focuses on showing how controlling, manipulative, and downright shitty the adults around the boys are (Ruben’s mother being the worst of the lot, even if she was not entirely convincing) and the downsides of fame (creepy/stalkery fans etc.). The story is clearly about the freedom to be yourself and being allowed to figure yourself out without others pressuring you into being someone you are not. I appreciated these messages and I did find the novel to be engaging. The writing was decent, but I did find myself preferring Ruben’s chapters. At times Ruben and Zach seemed a bit undefined but I didn’t really go into this expecting nuanced character studies. If you are looking for an easy read (kind of silly, lil bit angsty) that manages to lightly touch upon some important issues, If This Gets Out may be the right read for you.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is a engaging, if ultimately frustrating, read. The premise brought to mind two favorites of mine (Lucy and Luster, both focus on young black women living with white middle-class couples and taking ‘care’ of their child). Given the buzz around Such a Fun Age I had rather high expectations and when I first picked it up I found that opening chapter, in which Emira is stopped by the security guard, to be deeply compelling. The ones that followed however were less so. The story switches its focus on Alix, her husband remains an outlier in the narrative so that he is little other than a name on a page, and her career/mummy drama. Aaaand I just did not care for it. It felt a lot like reading Liane Moriarty but with far less humor. If anything, Alix and her circle of friends just reinforced my preconceptions about Americans (which is not something I necessarily was looking for). She’s white, wealthy, influential (she runs a blog that I never entirely understood), and spends most of the narrative trying to prove to herself and others that she is not racist (often resorting to the classic, ‘well, one of my friends is Black so clearly I cannot possibly be racist’). While I am not saying that I do not believe that people like Alix exist (I have come across a fair share of clips and news starring people like her) I just did not want to have pages and pages dedicated to her.
I have similar feelings towards Kelley who I did not like from the get-go and his first date with Emira just confirmed my suspicions about him.

Much of the narrative is not about the so-called ‘inciting incident’ in which Emira, a young Black babysitter is stopped by a security guard while she is with her three-year-old white charge, Briar. While this episode does obviously have an impact on Emira, the story is more about her deciding whether she wants to continue to work for Alix and Peter. At twenty-five, she feels left behind by her friends, all of who seem to be actively doing the job they want or working towards a certain goal. Emira’s directionless life was understandable if a bit wearisome. I wished that more of her personality could have shone through a little more, as she at times seemed a passive passenger who merely responds to Alix and Kelley’s behavior. Because of Emira’s not-so-strong characterization, Alix’s obsession with her did not ring entirely true. Still, I really loved those scenes in which Emira is hanging out with her three close friends or when she is looking after Briar (finally, a fictional child I liked!). The interactions between Emira and her friends rang particularly true to life, and I found their energy, banter, and group dynamics to be really captivating. Sadly, the story does not center around Emira (I so wanted more of her relationship with her family) but it actually gave Alix way too much backstory which did not make me sympathize with her one bit. While she was not by no means evil incarnate I found her boring and vapid. It was also frustrating that a lot of her behavior is never actually called out, she repeatedly crosses the line with Emira and gets away with it. During that final act, Emira does stand up for herself but it still seemed to me that Alix gets away with a lot of shit. Which, is realistic enough, yet another white wealthy woman getting away with all sorts of things but why dedicate so much of the narrative to her and not Emira?

I also found it a bit annoying that the story proves Emira wrong as with the exception of her the other characters do not change (looking at Kelley in particular).
I don’t know…I guess I am just not interested in characters like Alix and felt that the story could have been executed differently and in a way that could have actually elevated Emira’s voice. Still, Reid’s dialogues came across as authentic, and I appreciated her commentary on race, class, and gender. Her prose at times felt a bit superficial, as it tended to move from character to character within the same scene without really delving beneath their surface, but it also had a nice flow to it.

In spite of my reservations, I do think that Reid is a good writer and I look forward to what she will write next.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

Plain Bad Heroines was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases…maybe I should have ‘hyped’ it so much. This is certainly an ambitious novel, one that is a few hundred pages too long. There were elements that I liked, but these were ultimately outweighed by my frustration toward the tone of the narrative, the dual storylines, and the characters.
Plain Bad Heroines begins at Brookhants School in 1902 when two students, Clara and ‘Flo’, who happen to be lovers are swallowed by “a fog of wasps”. Another death soon rocks the school, and all of the girls shared a fascination for Mary MacLane’s work (The Story of Mary Maclane & I Await the Devil’s Coming). The narrator, who playfully reminds us of their presence with plenty of direct addresses, footnotes, and asides. We do not know the identity of the narrator, but they posses an almost omniscient knowledge of the events they are recounting.
In the present three young women—all in their twenties—work on a film adaptation on a book called ‘The Happenings at Brookhants’. The book was written by one of these girls, Merritt (a character whom I lowkey hated) who happens to know Elaine Brookhants. Then we have Harper Harper, an up and coming actress/influencer whose personality revolves around her celebrity status, who will play Flo, and Audrey Wells (I actually had to check out her name as I could not remember it on top of my head…that’s how memorable she was) the daughter of a ‘scream queen’ who so far has an acted in B movies and ads.
The section set in the present doesn’t involve these three girls bonding or finding more about what happened at Brookhants. We are never told very much about Merritt’s book, so we don’t know how much they know about the whole affair. This timeline is also not all that concerned with filmmaking. What this storyline cares about is famous people: how they are followed by journalists or fans, how their lives revolve around instagram, how little privacy they have, and of their self-fashioning ways. The three girls do not really along. Their meeting, which happens quite a good chunk into this slow burner of a novel, reads like something that belongs in the realms ofGossip Girl or Scream Queens. And here I was hoping for an actual horror or at least something in realms of American Horror Story (the first seasons of course).
Our not-as-half-as-amusing-as-they-think-they-are narrator never really delves into these characters. It mostly describes what they are saying or doing. It focuses more on their ‘role’ (Harper=celebrity, Audrey=daughter of an 80s horror actress, Merritt=not like other girls writer). Their personalities are…kind of not there. Merritt is the only one with a semblance of one, and it ain’t a good one. The narrative tries really hard to establish Merritt’s ‘prickly’ personality (in a few occasion Merritt says or asks something generic and we are told “Merrit said like Merritt would” or “Merrit asked like Merritt would”). She’s petty, cruel, and domineering. She’s given a Sad Backstory™, so Readers are meant to let her behaviour slide. Except that this Reader could and would not. She seems blissfully unaware of her own privilege (she’s in her early twenties and has published a book, her mother teaches at a university and she has access to the library there, they are adapting her book and want her to be part of the process). She’s also not ‘plain’ looking. Her hair is pink because she’s Not Like Other Girls™ (a random character tells her she has “great fucking hair”) and she is also called hot by Harper. Yet, throughout the course of the book, Merritt acts like a fifteen-year-old girl who is spending too much time on Tumblr. Her pettiness is unwarranted and uncalled for, her jealousy is also over the top (she’s only just met Harper and she already jealous at the possibility of Audrey working alongside her…yet she knows that Harper is already in an open relationship).
Harper is also not plain. She’s famous, beloved, and uber cool. She has short hair, tattoos, smokes, and rides a bike. And of course, she also has a Sad Backstory™. The story mentions some family-related drama, but this a thread that is never truly resolved. Her motivations, desires, fears…who knows? I sure don’t. Maybe she likes Merritt? Maybe not?
While Audrey may not be plain looking, her personality is definitely plain. She doesn’t seem to possess any discernible traits.
Anyway, these three ‘work’ together (there are actually very few scenes that take place while they are working on the film sadly) and weird things start happening (we have wasps, weird weather, and a general heebie jeebies atmosphere).

The storyline set in the past had much more potential. Sadly, it doesn’t focus on Clara or Flo (their lives prior to their peculiar deaths of course) or Brookhants but rather it follows the headmistress of the school who lives in a house nicknamed ‘Spite Manor’. She lives with her lover, who also teaches at Brookhants. This timeline was definitely more Gothic, and there were scenes that struck me as quite atmospheric and well-executed. Sadly however the relationship between the two women was a let down, as it never struck me as the complex love story I was hoping for. Creepy things begin to happen, and they begin to grow apart. The deaths of three of their pupils forces them to question whether the ‘supernatural’ is to be blamed.

I was hoping for a Gothic love story, with some horror undertones. What we actually get is a work that is extremely meta. Some may find the narrator to be amusing, I mostly didn’t. The mystery is the most disappointing aspect of the whole book. It was very anticlimactic, as we simply get a chapter in which our narrator explains things to us. Flo, Clara, and the other girl are unimportant, they function as the Dead Girl trope. We don’t learn anything more about them after the 20% mark or so nor do we learn more about the book Merritt has written about them.
The storyline set in the present never reaches its apotheosis. Nothing major happens, there is no overlapping between the two timelines.
While I loved to see so many queer women, the relationships they have with one another are…a let down. Mean Girls ahoy. We have Merritt who says things like “Significant eye roll” or scenes in which characters take selfies, duplies, even quadruplies (uuuugh). More attention is paid to their hair and clothes than their actual personalities. Harper and Merritt begin flirting as soon as they meet, and later on, when there are more scenes of them together, they mostly bicker. They are sort of physically attracted to each other, but there is no real connection between them (I craved longing, passion, LOVE).
The creepy elements…aren’t all that creepy? If you have spheksophobia you might find this book scary…I mean, wasps do not inspire any real fear in me (I don’t like them, they strike me as kind of mean, in fact, I love CalebCity’s sketch on them). Mary’s writing is extremely camp and I just found it silly. While I could see why the girls back in the 1900s could be enthralled by it…I had a harder time believing that Merritt or Harper could find it as compelling.

Perhaps I approached this book with the wrong expectations (I saw Sarah Waters’ name on the cover so…) but Plain Bad Heroines was not the Gothic novel I was hoping it to be. The ‘past’ timeline was far from being a satisfying historical tale of paranormal suspense (I was hoping for something on the lines of Picnic at Hanging Rock meets A Great and Terrible Beauty). On the plus side: at least it was hella sapphic. I also liked the illustrations by Sara Lautman (I wish there had been more) and the chapter names could be kind funny.

Anyway, just because I didn’t think that this book was the bees knees (or perhaps I should say wasps knees) doesn’t mean that you won’t love it as it may as well be your cup of tea.

 

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

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Treasure by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Treasure is a short story story that explores the darker side of Instagram fame. Treasure is an aspiring influencer who is quite willing to present a glamorised version of her life to her follower. She likes the attention, the compliments, and the devotion of her fans. User @Sho4Sure has become particularly obsessed by Treasure and one small oversight on her part will have dangerous consequences for both of them.
Treasure is a story that is bursting with irreverent dark humour that touches upon machismo, opulence, fame, obsession, and class. Whereas My Sister, the Serial Killer took me by surprise, Treasure seemed a bit more formulaic. Still, Treasure is quick and entertaining read that cemented my belief that Oyinkan Braithwaite is an author to watch.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner — book review

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“It’s almost religious, that belief, that faith that a piece of silk or denim or cotton jersey could disguise your flaws and amplify your assets and make you both invisible and seen, just another normal woman in the world; a woman who deserves to get what she wants.”

Beach read meets mystery in Jennifer Weiner Big Summer. Daphne Berg is a plus-sized ‘influencer’ (I have a hard time using this word unironically) who after years of being subjected to all sorts of body-shaming (from strangers on the internet to her own friends and relatives) has finally started to become more confident in her body. While in many ways she loves her ‘community’, since it encourages her and others to love themselves and their bodies, the influencer lifestyle isn’t all its cracked up to be.

“The trick of the Internet, I had learned, was not being unapologetically yourself or completely unfiltered; it was mastering the trick of appearing that way.”

The first of the novel focuses in particular on Daphne’s relationship with her body over the years by giving us some snapshots from her childhood (her grandmother is monstrous towards her). There are many painful moments in which readers become intimate with Daphne’s most innermost thoughts and fears. We’re also introduced to her former best friend. Drue is conventionally beautiful and comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Their friendship is not an easy one as Drue toys around with Daphne’s feelings, treating her as her closest confidant one moment and pretending she doesn’t exist the next. Unsurprisingly, after a particularly cruel night, Daphne finally calls out Drue on her behaviour and cuts ties with her.
Years later, when Daphne’s is a successful influencer, Drue shows up again in her life and asks her (begs her really) to be her bridesmaid. In Cape Cod, the wedding location, the novel shifts gears. (view spoiler)
While I appreciated the complexities of Daphne and Drue friendship, and the way in which Drue wasn’t painted in an entirely negative way, as well as the novel’s early discussions around body positivity, I just did not care for the mystery (which was predictable at every turn). The love interest was a very dull character indeed (did we really need him in the story?).

While for the most part I enjoyed Weiner’s prose I did find the constant descriptions of her characters’ physical appearance to be tiring. Even characters who make small cameos are described within an inch of their life (their eyes, teeth, skin, legs, arms, stomachs). While I could accept that Daphne has an eye for other people’s clothes (due to her job), the detailed, and often exaggerated, accounts of random people’s appearances added little to the story.
Still Big Summer is far more thoughtful than other ‘light’ reads.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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