The book starts out in medias res, which I like. I prefer to get right to the action.
And WHAT A START:
They say death aims only once and never misses, but I doubt Ty Yorkshire thought it would strike with a scrubbing brush. [….] Does killing a man who tried to rape me count as murder?
WOW. SOLID beginning! I know just enough to want to know more. Until…
My mind wheels back to twelve hours ago, before the world turned on its head….
YOU’RE ALREADY LOSING ME, STACEY.
You mean to tell me you’ve just warded off an attempted rape by killing your attacker and your FIRST thought is to reminisce about the morning? I AM NOT CONVINCED. Any interest I had in the murder is dwindling.
Sammy, our protagonist, remembers being angry with her father that morning.
I strapped on the Lady Tin-Yin’s violin case and glared at my father, who was holding a conch shell to his ear. I thought it was pretty when I bought it from the curiosity shop back in New York. But ever since he began listening to it every morning and every evening, just to hear the ocean, I’ve wanted to smash it.
All right, we’re back on track. Sammy is mad at her dad and I want to know why. Is this a depression symptom? Does he lay around listening to the shell all day? I’d be mad, too.
Noisily, I stuffed a tin of peppermints into my case for the children’s lessons, then proceeded to the door. Unlike Father, I kept my promises. If a student played his scales correctly, I rewarded him with a peppermint. Never would I snatch the sweet out of his mouth and replace it with, say, cod-liver oil. Never.
Wait… Is this something you would actually do, Sammy? Is this a joke? Is this something your father would do? I don’t know enough about either of you to guess. Then again, we’re only two pages in.
Finally, Sammy gives some hint as to why she’s angry with her father:
“You said we’d move back to New York, not two thousand miles the other way.” New York had culture. With luck, I might even make a living as a musician there.
Wait a minute… Did you…not realize…where you were moving? I’M NOT CLEAR AS TO THE SITUATION. I’m imagining this girl traveling 2000 miles in the opposite direction thinking she’s headed to New York. And that makes me feel some REAL UNCHARITABLE THINGS.
Okay, we’re only on page 2. I’m sure I’ll get more context later.
Oh, it sounds like Sammy’s father moved to California for the gold rush. That gives me a LITTLE more information. But Sammy’s not having it – she leaves the house.
I want to jump in and mention that there’s an 8-hour time skip between this passage and the next. I mention this because I MISSED THE TIME SKIP, which greatly influenced my reading of the next passage.
Anyway, 8 hours pass and Sammy is walking home when she smells smoke. She runs home and finds her father’s store burned to the ground. Stacey Lee simultaneously describes the store as an ashy ruin and a wall of heat. I’m not sure what’s going on.
I would like to mention that, at this point, we’re only on page 4.
On page 5, a background character drops this bomb: Sammy’s father is dead.
This is where the time skip might have helped me.
I read this and thought, “SHE WAS JUST TALKING TO HIM TWO SECONDS AGO,” when, in reality, it had been 8 hours.
Then I realized that didn’t help the situation.
The father appears ONCE for TWO PAGES before he DIES. Oh, excuse me, BURNS ALIVE. And this in a novel that opened with a murder. TOO MUCH IS HAPPENING.
Sammy feels stabs of guilt:
I shuddered and then my chest began to rack so hard I could scarcely draw a breath. Smoke engulfed me, thick and unyielding, but the awful truth rooted me to the spot: after I’d given my last lesson of the day, I’d dawdled along the banks of the dirty Missouri, throwing stones instead of coming home directly.
Did you? Because I remember a fight between you and your father followed by the announcement of his death and NOTHING ELSE.
Oh, Father, I’m sorry I argued with you. I’m sorry I left with my nose in the air.
A little guilt is understandable, even without much context for the rest of their relationship.
Were you remembering that when the smoke robbed you of your last breath?
That’s a bit dramatic…
You always said, Have patience in one moment of anger, and you will avoid one hundred days of sorrow.
Oh, he ALWAYS said, that did he? I wouldn’t know; I only knew him for TWO PAGES.
My temper has cost me a lifetime of sorrow. And now, I will never be able to ask your forgiveness, or see your kind face again.
This. Is. Too. Much. We are only 6 pages into this novel. There’s not enough context for me to understand this relationship and not enough room for me to process what this death means to the protagonist. This whole premise feels beyond rushed.
The next chapter opens with several townspeople gossiping about Sammy:
“She’s been standing there over an hour,” a man muttered to another as they passed by.
COOL IT, BOOK. WE’RE ON PAGE 7.
The townspeople say some other horrid, racist things that STILL DON’T FEEL EARNED. Frontloading angst is a STRATEGY, but it’s not working for this book.
Sammy makes this reproach:
Fly, you crows. My father was not a spectacle. He was the greatest man I ever knew. He was my everything.
I WISH I HAD KNOWN HIM FOR MORE THAN TWO PAGES.
Things get far worse from here.
Sammy describes her astrological sign; she mentioned it once earlier, but now she goes into more detail:
A child born in the Year of the Snake was lucky. But every so often, a Snake was born unlucky.
“This is always true of Snake children…except when it’s not.”
Mother died in childbirth, a clear indication that my life would be unlucky.
OF COURSE SHE DID.
To counteract my misfortune, a blind fortune-teller told Father never to cut my hair, or bad luck would return. In addition, she said I should resist my Snake weaknesses, such as crying easily and needing to have the last word.
…did he do it? Have you been growing out your hair ever since? ARE THOSE YOUR ACTUAL WEAKNESSES? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS ASTROLOGICAL DIAGNOSIS?
Enough of that; time to introduce Sammy’s would-be-rapist:
“‘Tis a shame about your daddy,” said a familiar voice. Our landlord, Ty Yorkshire, shook his head.
I immediately pictured Norm McDonald as Colonel Sanders. Solid association.
When was the last time a book I read featured a Southern villain? Why do I have a bad feeling about this all of a sudden.
Oh no…I remembered. Now I can’t get Kady Cross out of my head!
“My best building, too,” he said in his rapid speech that caused his jowls to shake.
Oh. So not a fancy Southern drawl, as I assumed.
“Sometimes you roll snake eyes.”
I gasped. He knew my Chinese lunar sign?
This is what did me in. I can’t deal with stupid heroines. Still, I thought I could do one more page.
Scanning page 9, I found Sammy by the river about to throw herself in.
SUICIDE. ON PAGE 9.
This is way too much drama for me to care about. So long, female friendship. Thanks for nothing, historical fiction. See you never.
I have yet more literary disappointments to unearth.
Thankfully, queer literature has never let me down.
HAHAHAHAHA just kidding.
Ash by Malinda Lo
I’m using Ash to represent all of Malinda Lo’s books.
Malinda Lo writes excellent nonfiction; I keep entire anthologies for her essays alone.
Her fiction is just so boring.
This book appealed to my love of retoldfairytales and came out right as my interest in queer literature began. Imagine a magical, gay Cinderella who falls for the king’s huntress.
Right? Sounds awesome.
I just reviewed the plot summary on Lo’s website – apparently there was an evil fairy in this and I COMPLETELY FORGOT.
Nothing about this story felt urgent or exciting. What could have been a fresh take on the Cinderella tale came off as dry and lifeless as ash.
Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst
I am often, though not always, swayed by aesthetics.
If I’m going to buy a book, I need an eyecatching cover and an interesting cover blurb.
As soon as I read this book’s plot synopsis, I had to have it. You couldn’t have engineered a more perfect story for me: princesses, queer romance, elemental magic, and HORSES? Cap that off with mystery, action, and intrigue and I was MORE than sold.
Too bad the book failed to deliver on the last two points. I got almost halfway through this clunker without anything of interest happening. All the plot points felt mechanical, like the author ran through a checklist of what she thought she needed for an interesting story. It felt similar to “The Greatest Showman,” full of tropes added for manufactured authenticity.
Which, with such a refreshing plot, is a SHAME.
I go into more detail with this idea later on, so I’ll be brief: it bothers me when authors receive praise for unique ideas or props for representation with no consideration given to the story’s execution.
The romance between Mare and Denna hits so many familiar notes. You can’t rely on the novelty of same-sex YA romance to make your relationship compelling. Novelty is not enough.
This book reeks of wasted potential. Someone PLEASE rewrite this.
Get it Together, Delilah! by Erin Gough
Whoever designed this book deserves a medal. Overlarge, with weathered pages and a pleasing weight, this book felt right in my hand.
Reading the plot summary, I came away thinking this book would be a zany comedy about the wacky hijinks of a gay teenager. I mean, come on – the coffee stain? The cutesy font? The exclamation point? The use of the phrase “how in the name of caramel milkshakes?”
I was so, so wrong.
This book isn’t bad so much as different from what I expected. Yes, the cover blurb mentions Delilah managing her father’s cafe while he goes on a trip. I didn’t realize he was depressed – as in, get your doctor to prescribe some Citalopram STAT. I didn’t think Delilah would hide her various struggles to keep from aggravating her dad’s mental illness. NO PART of me expected my own daddy issues to be triggered. If I’d known THAT, I WOULD NOT HAVE PURCHASED THIS BOOK.
I went in expecting laughs and found myself STRESSED OUT. The story’s combined stresses of parental abandonment, financial insecurity, failure, and hostile work environment proved too much for my psyche. Know what’s hilarious? Employees taking advantage of their teenage bosses. Here’s a joke for you: CULTURAL HOMOPHOBIA. Isn’t it hysterical when closeted lesbians make others’ lives hell? The onslaught of misery never ended.
As soon as I finished this book, I hurled it onto my Books to Sell pile and never looked at it again.
Zodiac Starforce by Kevin Panetta and Paulina Ganucheau
For someone with no interest in astrology, I have a pretty huge obsession with the zodiac. I buy pretty much anything zodiac-related, including fiction.
I’m also fond of the magical-girl genre, having grown up on “Sailor Moon.” As a kid, I loved watching powerful women fight the forces of evil and win the hearts of tuxedoed men. This series may have fueled my not-so-secret desire for a magical girl squad, a dream that dies a little bit every time one of my friends gets married. (#stop)
I drooled over this graphic novel for months. Star signs AND magical girls? COULD THIS BE??
The store I frequented shrinkwrapped their copies, so I couldn’t peek at the pages. I ended up buying a copy for my best friend’s birthday, telling myself I would borrow it once she finished.
A week later, I decided I couldn’t wait that long.
This novel isn’t…bad? I guess? The art is great? The concept is interesting?
I just don’t care.
My friend and I tried to play “Who Would You Be?” and found we couldn’t remember the characters’ names. A huge plot twist happens near the end and I could only think, “Wow, this would have been more interesting had I been invested…”
It breaks my heart to think this idea was only ever good in theory.
And now my squad dreams are completely dead.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Before we talk about this book, we have to talk about infamous YA author Alex Sanchez.
Alex Sanchez wrote the Rainbow Boys series in the early 2000s. While researching my thesis, I found out his books have been banned numerous times, making Sanchez something of an anti-censorship hero. Sanchez’s books have been praised for tackling the topic of homosexuality in the mainstream at a time when not much queer YA literature existed.
Unfortunately, Sanchez doesn’t write…well.
Granted, I read his books more than a decade ago. My dislike can be attributed to my age, the timing of my reading, or my style preferences. Even though I don’t like his books, I don’t want to dismiss what Sanchez has done for the queer canon.
However, reading Sanchez’s work has left me with an impression of Sanchez as an author more valued for subject matter than skill.
What the culture considers groundbreaking isn’t always good.
So, when I read Benjamin Alire Saenz’s award-winning 2014 novel about gay teens, I found myself feeling the exact same way.
LOOK how many awards grace that cover!
James Howe called this book “breathtaking.”
The friend who recommended it to me used words like “beautiful” and “precious” and “perfect.”
BookTubers I respect cite this book as one of their favorites.
I hated the clunky prose as soon as I started reading.
I often hear the argument that simplistic first-person YA prose “nails the teenage voice.” “Real” teenagers don’t sound like award-winning novelists; they sound like teens with underdeveloped frontal cortexes. So you can’t blame writers for coming off as awkward, dramatic, or stupid – that’s just how teens ARE.
To convince me with that argument, you better back a strong character. Well-written, believable characters can excuse “simplicity” in voice, tone, style, or plot.
I don’t find Ari compelling enough to carry an entire story. Much of the time, I found it hard to sympathize with him. I seemed to be missing the emotional connection others felt.
I also think the “teenage voice” argument misses the fact that writing is an art. It’s not enough to have your narrator say, “I feel sad sometimes.” Sure, real teens feel sad sometimes, but this narration doesn’t fully portray their perspective or capture the nuance of the teenage experience. Stating facts doesn’t make a work feel real.
So while I tried to connect, I found the writing too simplistic to enjoy. I’ll be avoiding Saenz’s work in the future regardless of the awards it wins.
In this area of my life, I value quantity over quality, blowing my budget on thrifty, vaguely-interesting paperbacks rather than the one or two pricey hardbacks I really want. Why bother when I’m going to switch them out for cheaper, less bulky, better-looking copies in six months?
If I feel I can’t live without a book, I’ll splurge. Sometimes I’m too impatient to wait for the paperback release; other times I buy on impulse, swayed by a perfect plot summary or a pretty cover.
When these books disappoint, it’s agony. It feels as bad as a breakup; all that effort and emotional energy for nothing. WE COULD HAVE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL, AND YOU RUINED IT.
Though this isn’t a complete list of past offenders, be warned: these books broke my heart.
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
The fact that I talked this book up to my friends before I read it makes the the memory of this purchase especially embarrassing.
I bought what sounded like a female-led remake of “A Horse and His Boy” with foreign fugitives, fleshed-out romance, magical mounts, and GUNSLINGERS. Make no mistake: throw ANY of those elements in a book and I’ll whip out my debit card. Add all four and you find me saying things like, “I feel like this book was written for me!” to my skeptical friends.
As always, the cover played a big part in my decision. In my heart of hearts, I prefer pretty books. And LOOK AT THIS THING.
(Author’s note: Free punch in the face to anyone who smugly comments, “That’s why they say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover!'” No one wants to read a $2.00 copy of Pride and Prejudice; Barnes and Nobles makes special editions for a reason.)
I gave up after 80 pages. I didn’t even make it to the horse. (I don’t think. See? I CAN’T EVEN REMEMBER.)
I didn’t enjoy the world or the characters, and I DEFINITELY didn’t appreciate the rushed romance with a heavy helping of denial.
A year later, I saw this book on Barnes and Nobles overstock table for $6. No one should have to pay that much for this letdown.
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
I find it harder and harder to like YA romances.
I had a heartbreaking moment the other day when I realized one of my all-time favorite ships isn’t healthy. I’ve become a more moderate shipper and I don’t like how it feels.
All that to say I hated the romance in this book.
The protagonist ends up married to a mysterious man who claims they were a couple in a past life. Whenever she asks for details, he says, “Just trust me.” RED FLAG #1.
The guy gets way too intimate way too fast and repeats the same justification: “No, we used to be in love! Trust me! I’m not a bad guy!” RED FLAG #2.
Nothing he did showed care for the protagonist. She spent the bulk of the novel confused, avoiding his touch and flowery sentiments. Yet he never apologized or agreed to take it slow. He practically begged her to sleep with him with the argument that he can’t help it – he loves her too much. RED FLAG #3.
Halfway in, I decided he was really the villain. The narrative purposefully muddied the waters, casting this creepo in a suspicious light.
I wish the author had followed through.
Listen, love interests: The best justifications and purest feelings don’t excuse overwhelming your partner. If she feels uncomfortable orconfused, BACK OFF.
The creepy persistence paired with self-centered reasoning turned me off this series.
I won’t be picking up a sequel, no matter how pretty the cover.
As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti
Fine, let’s get this cover out of the way:
Not only is the cover WONDERFUL, this book was released around my birthday; looking at it felt like a celebration.
I loved Chelsea Sedoti’s first novel, the deeply-weird-yet-emotionally-affecting The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett. When I heard she’d written a follow-up, I was immediately on board.
I have nothing good to say about this book. I read it while on vacation and found myself becoming more and more disillusioned.
Compared to Hawthorn Creely from Lizzie Lovett, this protagonist had nothing going for him. I can’t even remember his name. Connor, maybe? I don’t often notice when authors write from an opposite-sex POV, but Sedoti’s writing of Connor felt particularly self-conscious, i.e., “Yo, I’m a dude, this is how dudes think.”
If I had to sum up the plot, it would be “Brainwashed town keeps magical secret on orders from power-mad mayor and everyone learns a lesson at the end.”
That sounds more like a TV episode I’ve seen 1000 times than a compelling idea for a novel.
This concept had so many possibilities and Sedoti chose to tell a standard fable. Too bad.
I love alternate histories. I find speculative fiction fascinating because it examines extremes. I don’t remember the exact plot of this book, but I remember the ban on caffeine being part of a religious revival. The ban results in a new Prohibition era with Mafia members smuggling chocolate and opening coffee shops around the city.
Also, a girl becomes a crime boss, which is in no way a power fantasy of mine.
The first third of this book was solid, with a great set-up, interesting characters, and the promise of romance.
I hate, hate, HATE when an author rushes a potential romance. The star-crossed, slow-burn sexual tension ramped up to true love way too early, shunting aside the more interesting crime plot.
AUTHORS! Stop using your plots as elaborate vehicles for more typical fare! ENOUGH WITH THE FALSE ADVERTISING.
I wouldn’t have been bothered if this had a been a romance/crime combo. Had both parts been equal, I could have maintained my interest. But the crime plot became an afterthought, the stakes plummeted, and the leads wasted their time on dramatics.
In an extra disappointing twist, I love (er, loved) Gabrielle Zevin’s work. In the past, she’s delivered high concept character studies. I took her name on the cover as a sign of quality.
This is why I have trust issues.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Get out of here with your stupid cover and your stupid circus, you worthless, worthless book.
Of all the books on this list, this one makes the angriest.
I love the hell out of magical realism, okay? Magic and romance and circuses and book covers inspired by The White Stripes are my favorite things.
I saw this book everywhere for TWO. YEARS.
Every time I went to Target, I glimpsed it on the shelf.
Every time I turned around, it had won another award.
I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE MOVED BY THE CHARACTERS AND INVESTED IN THEIR LOVE BUT ALL I FELT WAS EMPTINESS AND RAGE.
IT REALLY MADE ME BURN.
My low-level annoyance didn’t escalate to blinding anger until the climax.
First of all, I COULD NOT understand what was going on. It felt like hearing a bomb go off without being sure it was a bomb. The other characters kept reacting as if to tragedy without ever revealing what had happened. I felt panicked, scouring for clues and not finding any. Something big had happened in the climax; I just didn’t know what or why or how.
Then one of the characters, a creepy redheaded child (let’s call him Pickle), sat down and preached the theme of the novel to me. Nothing Pickle described matched the events I’d witnessed. WERE WE READING THE SAME BOOK, PICKLE?
(I want to say this is the moment I turned against ensemble casts.)
AND YOU, ERIN MORGENSTERN: YOU DON’T JUST PICK A THEME OUT OF THE BLUE. YOUR ENDING HAS TO MATCH WHAT CAME BEFORE.
I remember throwing this book across the room during Thanksgiving dinner.
Forget this book. Forget the glowing reviews. Forget its best-seller status. I curse this story and all its success. MAY YOU NEVER KNOW TRUE LOVE OR FRIENDSHIP.