Trope-ical Readathon 2020

I am participating in my first readathon. WOOHOO!! After contemplating this for a while, I decided I would take the plunge. I’m already reading romance novels so why not join in on the fun? The Trope-ical Readathon is cohosted by JenJenReviews, and I am looking forward to it. After deciding on my TBR, I am starting to feel like it might be an ambitious endeavor…but then again, the problem,has never been the reading. It’s always been about my TBR and commitment. A goal that isn’t written down is just a wish so here’s to accountability with this post! (hehehe…commitment is scary)

Does anyone else have this problem? I currently have a long list but when I go to pick a book to read, I usually end up picking something that was not on the list. It usually goes a little like this:

  1. And now, I shall check books off my TBR.
  2. Oh, wait! This book sounds interesting. This is the book I shall read next.
  3. Let me pretend it’s always been on my TBR so I can technically say I did read something from the list and check off #1.
  4. Repeat steaps 1-3.

I have to admit that a few…okay, fine, a lot…of these were never on my “official” TBR but they sounded so interesting I had to add them. Then I picked those that I saved on my Kindle app but just never got around to reading because I kept finding other stuff to read. BUT…you see how one of the common challenges says to pick a book you forgot about on your TBR? I at least know for sure that was on my TBR. See…I got this. I am totally trimming down my list of stuff to read (hehehe).

When I decided to participate, I decided to make a map…at 3AM. This is my second iteration of it because I had to switch some books out. The library gave me time frames of anywhere from ~3 weeks to ~10 weeks so I have 16 books and will grab whichever team challenge I can get my hands on first.

Also, I feel quite guilty so I have to make a confession about The Mermaid, The Witch, and The Sea. This was one I had to substitute in because the library said Tweet Cute would get to me in ~10 weeks. Because strange name is based on the names as nouns trope so I figured I could use Flora. The main character is named Flora and disguises herself as Florin. Flora is a noun, therefore satisfies strange names/names as nouns…I know. It’s a stretch. But it’s been on my TBR for at least a month and I really want to read it. Humor me please. Flora isn’t a strange name. Whew! I’m so happy I got that off my chest.

My final list of books are below and linked to their Goodreads pages. Check them out!

500+ Pages
Part of Series
New Kid in Town
Forbidden Love
Dead Parent(s)
Mixed Media
Recommended
Fake Dating
Strange Name
Ebook
Enemies to Lovers
Anonymous Text
Blast from Past
Retelling
Forgot on TBR
Team Read

I am so ready to be swept off my feet with #TeamRomance. (I mean…just look at my pick for forbidden love.)

The Girl and the Ghost (2020)

Hanna Alkaf
ISBN: 9780062940957
Publication: August 4, 2020

**I received a copy of the book from the author and publisher through Edelweiss+. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**I wanted to thank Hanna Alkaf for helping ensure ARCs of the book were able to get into the hands of individuals who identified as Southeast Asian. I greatly appreciated the extra effort.**

Central to the story is the friendship between a girl and her ghost. Suraya inherits a ghost from her grandmother who has passed on. He quietly prCentral to the story is the friendship between a girl and her ghost. Suraya inherits a ghost from her grandmother who has passed on. He quietly protects her from all sorts of harm—she is a rather rambunctious girl—until he finally deems it is appropriate to reveal himself to her.  Despite his protests, she names him Pink. Their friendship blooms but becomes threatened when Pink displays a darker side to protect her from bullies and when he grows jealous of Suraya’s growing friendship with new student Jing.

Have you ever read a book that you liked so much it was difficult to put into words? The Girl and The Ghost was that for me. It was both heartwarming and heart wrenching. I experienced so many emotions reading this book. As I reached the end, my heart became heavy because the story itself spoke to me on so many different levels and it was really going to be over. An ending was truly in sight.

I don’t know if what I write can truly capture everything I feel about this book. I was completely charmed as soon as I began reading it. Alkaf transported me to a place that was both real and imagined, and at times terrifying. The first half of the book left me in this haze, full of childlike wonder, and turned me into a pile of goo. Suraya was so endearing as a little girl and it hurt my heart to see her bullied by other children. It was made more difficult knowing that home was not a sanctuary either because she felt unloved and neglected by her mother. To an extent, Pink was able to fulfill some of these holes in her life. Pink reminded me of a curmudgeon who refused to admit he is anything but what he appears to be. Despite Pink’s insistence that he was a dark spirit and lacked a heart, it was clear he was completely besotted by Suraya, acting more like a guardian and a friend than the terrifying creature he was supposed to be. I completely loved the first half of the book. 

The second half of the book takes a darker turn and is considerably creepier. I am also one to be easily scared so you can take the “considerably creepier” with a grain of salt. Pink takes matters into his own hands, playing tricks on bullies despite Suraya telling him not to. It gets substantially worse when he also dislikes that Suraya has a new friend, Jing. When jealousy rears its ugly head, it becomes difficult to justify why Suraya and Pink can or even should remain friends.  I liked Jing and her references to Star Wars. Suraya and Jing made for a formidable pair.

REFLECTING ON THE WRITING

Alkaf has a way with words—lyrical, emotional, beautiful, and comical. And the imagery is just…well, let me share some of my favorites so you can get a glimpse into how wonderful the writing in this book is.

Suraya compares befriending her to “the case of durian.” If you’ve smelled durian and tasted it, it is clear that it is an acquired taste. Like Suraya, I am not a fan of durian but those who like it, love it. Essentially, those who are able to see beyond the materialistic and become friends with Suraya will find someone who is worth their friendship.

Another one of my favorites is the binding between Pink and Suraya being compared to “digging out ear boogers,” something “you had to get out of the way every so often so that things worked the way they were supposed to.” Hahaha…It was an unexpected comparison but I think one we can all understand. This one made me laugh. Alkaf is able to evoke so many wondrous images and emotions in this book. I loved it!  

FURTHER REFLECTIONS

I read the line about the jars and bottles and it whisked me away to a different time. Scents from my childhood have now become a part of me as an adult. Nothing replaces the smell of my mom’s kapoon, which I really should learn how to make but moms always make it best, and the aroma of steamed rice drifting from the stove rather than an electric rice cooker. What used to be a pungent stench and even embarrassing as a child, I now thrive on: Vicks Vaporub, Icy Hot, and, when in dire need, monkey balm and tiger balm. My medicine cabinet is always stocked with Salonpas, now my cure for every ache and pain, from headaches to even sore throats. In what feels like my old age, whiffs of these transport me to my childhood, of my mom slathering any one of these ointments on my arms and my chest when I was sick. Rather than a lingering odor, they’ve become medicinal perfume, allowing me to recall my past and live my present. Will these same things be present in Suraya’s room when she grows up like they were in her mother’s? Like my own is a reflection of my mom’s, the answer is it most likely will.  

This leads me to ask, are there any scents that send you spiraling down memory lane? Something that you disliked as a child but now often permeates your own home? It’s funny how these things can happen without us realizing it.

This was a resounding 4.5 stars. I was completely charmed by the book. It was endearing and made me miss my childhood. A lot of different themes arise but friendship and what it means to be a friend is an important one. Also, loss and learning to move forward is something the book touches on. 

Being Southeast Asian American (Hmong), I could connect with the culture where ghosts and spirits are abundant. Hmong homes are believed to have hearth ghosts protecting members of the family from harm. And then there are other ghosts that may try to harm you, who try to steal your spirit and make you sick. As I began reading, I almost felt like I was predisposed to like this book because I saw a culture similar to my own reflected back at me. I imagine that if I had read this as a kid, I would have been even more excited because it was rare to see this kind of representation.  

In an interview, Alkaf says she hopes that the book shows how “ our stories don’t have to be about our traumas. They can be about us having adventures, encountering ghosts, dealing with making new friends and figuring out how to get along with our parents” and that “we are far more than the most painful parts of our existence.” I think she clearly accomplishes that with this book.

Despite being a middle grade read, many adults will enjoy the book. I obviously did! I do not read many middle grade novels, but I am starting to think that I should. If this book is any indication of their quality, I know I will enjoy them immensely. I liked the book so much that I am preordering a hard copy for myself.

Again, a huge thanks to the author and publisher for providing an copy of the book.

The Midnight Bargain (2020)

by C.L. Polk
ISBN: 9781645660071
Publication: October 13, 2020


**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Midnight Bargain is the successful melding of magic and regency era classics reminiscent of Jane Austen novels.  I hate when reviews use other books to describe it, but in this instance, I couldn’t help it.  As a fan of Austen, I could not help but mark the social similarities: women looking for husbands, men looking for wives, annoying sisters, congregating at balls, social calls, and so on.  But the women of Midnight Bargain have much more at stake.  Those with magical abilities are collared when they marry, suppressing their powers so their unborn children may be protected from possession by spirits. For individuals with aspirations to become sorceresses like Beatrice Clayborn and Ysbeta Lavan, marriage is the equivalent of imprisonment; they can be released only if their husband so chooses.  The choice before Beatrice is to choose between her family or her own desires, which is not much of a choice at all.  If she marries well, she can relieve the family of their outstanding debt but the cost is her dream to become a mage.  Despite this impossible decision, she believes a compromise can be had: become a mage then use these abilities to bring her family wealth.  This is made more difficult when the Bargaining Season—a time when eligible women are put on display and forced to entertain potential suitors—brings Ianthe Lavan, who seems different from the men around her and captures her heart. Now it’s not only her family and her dreams but also love that is on the line. 

REFLECTING ON
ON THE CHARACTERS

The Midnight Bargain is an engaging read and was difficult to put down. This has much to do with Beatrice Clayborn as a smart, strong-willed main character. (But there are some decisions she makes that cause you to question just how smart she is because they do not make much sense.  She doesn’t necessarily need to be infallible but these decisions just seem so foolish for someone like her.)  Beatrice’s struggle for autonomy in a patriarchal system designed to oppress women, especially those with magical abilities, is one that can easily be identified with.  The unfairness of a woman’s life is brought to the forefront when Beatrice states that “the device women have to wear for the safety of their children is an instrument of punishment to men in the chapterhouse.” In the same conversation, she questions the stigma surrounding unmarried women when unmarried men hardly face the same penalties.  But, even Beatrice’s comments on the state of women in her world is nothing compared to a poignant conversation she has with her mother surrounding the dreaded collar.  The cost of the collar is not just magic, but a woman’s spirit, the light in her is extinguished along with it. This is by far one of the most heartrending moments in the book. 

The magic versus family dichotomy easily parallels the timeless struggle by women to balance having both a family and a career.  Must we choose one or the other, or is it possible to have both? Maybe my own struggle with the familiar question is why the book affected me so much and why I immediately connected with Beatrice…and later Ysbeta as well.  For some there can be a balance, while for others one choice is clear. This book can be viewed as a commentary on a woman’s role in society and the struggle to balance family and a career, but it doesn’t do more than scratch the surface.  Despite this, the world Polk introduces us to does allow a lot more to be discussed on the matter. (Let me know, I’d love to discuss this some more.)      

I particularly liked Beatrice’s relationship with Ysbeta.  Where Beatrice is indecisive about which choice to make, Ysbeta is absolute in her search for knowledge and desire to remain unmarried.  Initially they are presented as potential enemies, turn into allies, and become friends.  Their interactions with one another contribute to each’s growth.  While there were a few things that bothered me about Ysbeta, this is the one that likely topped it. For someone who does not desire a marriage partner, Ysbeta kept pressuring Beatrice to choose Ianthe when Beatrice had as much of a claim to refuse a potential proposal as Ysbeta did.  It might be because Ianthe is her brother, but still…solidarity anyone?

Ianthe is not as developed a character as Beatrice and Ysbeta.  He seems more like the token romantic interest–almost too perfect (and oh so dreamy).  He is understanding, likes Beatrice for speaking her mind, and even agrees with her on some things about the patriarchy. He is so different from the males around Beatrice, making him seem unrealistic for the times, but this can also be explained by the relationship between his parents.  It is largely due to his mom that the family business has flourished, and she is a much more authoritative figure in his life as opposed to his father.  If he is understanding and much more “progressive,” then it is due to his upbringing–being Llanandari as opposed to being from Chasland (where the book is set).  He at least seems to argue this anyway.

REFLECTING ON THE BOOK

While the attraction between Ianthe and Beatrice is nearly immediate, I have to say that it did not bother me as much. In other books, I’ve questioned how genuine feelings are after such a short courtship but I think this has much to do with understanding the setting (regency era and my partiality for Jane Austen novels) as well as Polk’s ability to evoke certain emotions through her writing. I was quite taken by her writing style within the first few pages. Being new to Polk’s work, the first thing I noticed was the purposeful word choices; the words are not wasted on the page. Rather than a horse-drawn carriage, it is the “fiacre” or “barouche” that characters are riding in, helping to place me in the time period.  Her descriptions are particularly vivid.  For instance, this one of Beatrice’s hair is memorable, “the peculiar, perpetually autumn-red tint of her frowzy, unruly hair.”  Then there is the common “butterflies in the stomach” feeling elevated to “the butterflies burst into delirious flight.”  If having butterflies is a familiar sign of falling in love, then what Polk evokes is better; it’s akin to a heart bursting, overcome with love’s euphoria.

The magic system Polk builds is an interesting one.  Explanations of how magic operates are weaved throughout the book as opposed to being blocked off into a section and fed to the reader in the beginning.  It contributes to the smooth flow of the book, but there were moments I was left wondering about some of the rules and how things worked.  I would have liked to know more about the conjuring of spirits and categorization of those lesser versus greater spirits.  And, this may be more customs as opposed to the magic system, but I’m not entirely sure who the Skyborn are.  Who does everyone keep calling to and why??  I’m used to greater detail about magic so would have appreciated more explanation.  I had to set aside some questions about the system and was able to enjoy the book much better after doing so. 

Aside from Beatrice and Ysbeta’s interactions, I quite liked the relationship between Beatrice and Nadi, the chance spirit Beatrice conjures.  Spirits crave the pleasures of the flesh: the taste of fruits, the feel of sand on toes, and even a first kiss.  They must be restrained or else their desires can take over their host but they’re not necessarily all bad as they’re made out to be.  I found Nadi’s childlike behavior and its curiosity amusing.  I liked the evolution of their relationship that began from a bargain to one where they enjoyed each other’s company as friends.  At one point, it is only Nadi that understands everything Beatrice is feeling, and it becomes protective of Beatrice.  It is through their relationship that I learned most about the magic system. And, for some reason I want to refer to it as she/her. Reminding myself it has no sex/gender assigned to it has been difficult.

Things are tied up nicely–maybe a little too nicely–and I was unsure how I felt about that. There is so much more to this story and I would not hesitate to read more but the inclusion of an epilogue seems to dissuade this potential.  But, one can still hope.  (And, I’m serious. I will keep hoping.)

Midnight Bargain is a solid 4 stars for me.  I’ve already started rereading it again to try to see if there is anything I may have missed.  I am a serial rereader and this is one of the best compliments I can give a book. If you’re thinking about picking this up, be forewarned excitement is not present on every page.  If that is what you’re looking for, then this book is likely not for you. On the other hand, if regency classics interest you and you are prepared to read it with a dose of magic, this might be something you will enjoy.  I thoroughly did.  

Sound of Stars (2020)

by Alechia Dow
ISBN: 97813335911551
Publication: February 25, 2020

The Sound of Stars is set in the U.S., mainly New York, where aliens—Ilori—have taken over to…wait for it…use it as a vacation spot.  (I know.  Doesn’t that make you mad too?) They will use humans as sleeves, inserting their consciousness into human bodies to experience earth as “natives.”  Before this can happen, a vaccine must be created and administered to make human bodies vacant, devoid of freedom and thought but still functioning.  M0Rr1S—since humans cannot produce the sound of his name pronounce it as Morris instead—is a labmade, created in a lab in the image of humans and from the genetic material of a true Ilori mother (true meaning fully Ilori and not mixed with any other type of genetic material).  As a labmade, he holds the title of commander largely due to his father’s status but is no more than a servant doing the bidding of true Ilori.  One of his tasks is to create the vaccine, which he successfully makes. But, being labmade makes M0Rr1S unique: he feels; he enjoys music; and he enjoys reading—all things outlawed by Ilori.

The other half of our pairing is seventeen-year-old Janelle, or Ellie as her friends call her, who silently defies Ilori restrictions by loaning out books—yup, she’s a rebel librarian (best title ever). She is not the most sociable person, proclaiming books to be her friends, except for one individual, Alice.  Ellie may live with her parents but she may as well be living on her own. Her father is no longer her father but a walking, breathing “half-shell” of the man he used to be after being given monthly injections of a vaccine. Her mother has fallen to a different kind of drug, alcohol, and even asks Ellie to help hide alcohol. 

Ellie’s current life is often interspersed with memories of life before the invasion when things were (relatively) better.  Her father was a librarian, her mother was a professor, and she played the cello. Her parents were in love not sleeping in different bedrooms and barely speaking to one another. Before the invasion, racism often reared its ugly head (not that it isn’t still present after the invasion; it’s just there are now other things to possibly be more concerned about). They weren’t welcome in their new home and people looked at her, wondering how she got into a prestigious school (hence not better, just only relatively).

Their lives intersect when M0Rr1S stumbles upon her hidden library.  Rather than turn her in, he requests her assistance in acquiring more music, and in return, he promises that she and her family will be spared from the vaccine.  Despite the danger, Ellie agrees to the bargain to save the people she loves.  All seems to go according to plan until someone notifies the guards of what she is doing, and she is to be immediately executed. Rather than allow this to happen, M0Rr1S rescues her and sets into motion a road trip to California, bonding over music and books, and trying to board a fallen Ilori ship to save the world.

REFLECTING ON
JANELLE “ELLIE” BAKER

Ellie is a character I related to immediately. She loved books and music, finding solace in them. She treasures her books like I treasure mine, but she’s a lot nicer than I am because she lends them out. Lucky for me (or maybe not so lucky), my friends don’t really like to read. She has a quiet strength others may overlook because she is not very social and doesn’t vocalize her concerns. She appears to be the last person who would willingly break the rules. I could relate to that, I was that person for my friends–of course, I’ve never broken the law. (Innocent until proven guilty. You have no evidence on me. And even if you did, it’s all circumstantial. It might also depend on which law you’re referring to…)

Ellie, as one half of our heroic duo, is not a flawless individual and I liked that about her character–it made her seem like a real person. She has hyperthyroidism. She has anxiety. And, she didn’t just wake up one day and randomly decide she would be a rebel librarian; she didn’t wake up with superpowers. Events in her life compelled her to resist Ilori rule in her way. She lives in fear of the consequences of actions but also refuses to go down without fighting. She didn’t originally choose to be a hero. She starts off only wanting to save her family but eventually it becomes more than just her family but saving humanity. Janelle is the hero I hope I have inside of me.

MORE REFLECTING ON THE BOOK

While I could immediately connect with Janelle and could also sympathize with M0Rr1S, for some reason it took me a bit to warm up to them as the OTP. I rather liked them individually and as friends–despite M0Rr1S essentially blackmailing her to become his friend. Their love of art–music and books–is what connects them, allowing them to bond over the span of about a week and a half. They just meet all of two seconds (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit) and he already likes her, bordering on being in love with her. She is still cautious of him and being demisexual means that she doesn’t feel the same immediate attraction that he does. So, I understood their connection to one another, but the romance felt forced to me because it seemed more like friendship. It didn’t feel like what M0Rr1S was making it out to be, until maybe the last quarter of the book when the potential was finally there.

I like how Janelle calls out the trope as well—falling in love in just a few days and how impossible it seems—because I kept thinking it too.  But even as she calls it out loud and M0Rr1s tries to make her believe otherwise, and even if I’m a nonbeliever now, being a lot more cynical than I used to be, I recalled a time when I was in love and in those seven days I felt like I made a connection that most people only ever dream about. It was even less time than Ellie and M0Rr1s had together…so maybe it isn’t so impossible.  It was a long time ago but this book made me wistfully remember when love felt like it conquered everything, and it was worth the risk.  And for Janelle, who is cautious, and M0Rr1S, who never fails to express himself, love empowers them to risk their lives for a better future. Just to be clear, it’s not a romantic love that initially pushes them forward. For Janelle, it is first her family and humanity. For M0Rr1S, it is his mother and his people. Although at the beginning of the book, Janelle insists that “it’s about time everyone understands that there is no hope,” by the end she is doing what only the hopeful would do, shoot for the stars.

The Sound of Stars is a unique read and feels very much like Alechia Dow’s love letter about books and music. It is about the power that resides in the arts, its ability to connect us; the power it has to evoke feelings so strong that it can, and maybe even should, lead us to rebel against oppression of those we may only think are different from us.

There is a lot to like, including pop culture references and the regular person/alien becoming a hero. One of my favorite parts in the book is the incorporation of lyrics into the writing, in particular “Dreams” from The Cranberries. Neither of them was singing, it was just M0Rr1S feeling like his life was changing, you know, “in every possible way.” I found myself smiling and reading those words to the tune (and I’m also a fan of The Cranberries so obviously there is bias on my part). When an author is writing about music and books, I think it should be expected that lyrics are incorporated in the writing and not just as lyrics being sung/spoken. It’s like sharing this knowing glance with the reader, a look that says, “Yes, I just did that. And, I know you know what song this is from.” Also, I very much need music of the Starry Eyed in my life. I need to hear Allister Daniels put those lyrics to a tune.

While the middle of the book was just so-so (I mean, things happen and it’s not bad or anything), I enjoyed the beginning and the ending most of all. Overall, I found that I could connect to both characters because of their connection to music and books and how it brought them together. Music spoke to M0Rr1S and Ellie like it speaks to me, songs triggering memories and emotions but also moments triggering the perfect song. We all have a soundtrack to our lives and Dow captures that well through the characters and the epigraphs.

Most of all, I liked that the book left me feeling empowered.  

**This is a very surface-level review and doesn’t really do the book justice. There are so many themes that are rampant in this book that I could dissect but maybe I can do that another time. For now, it’s just about my connection to Ellie and the theme of music and books.