Book Review: The Animators

animatorsThe Animators
by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Contemporary Fiction
386 pages
Published 2017

I hadn’t actually intended this to be one of my Pride Month reads, but Mel, the main character’s best friend and business partner, is lesbian, so it turns out that it counts! I read this book as part of Litsy’s “Buddy Reads” program, where everyone participating reads the same section of the book and discusses it before moving on to the next section. So I’ve been slowly reading this one over the past month. I’m not sure I would have read this if not for the Buddy Read.

This book surprised me! I enjoyed it, and I wasn’t sure I would. Mel and Sharon have been friends since college, spurring each other to greater artistry in their chosen field of adult cartooning. (Not porn, just not childish themes.) They work well together, with Mel coming up with most of the beginning ideas and Sharon hammering them into a shape that will work and keeping them on track through projects. But Mel has a drug and alcohol problem, and Sharon has a stroke, and working through all of those things are really what the book deals with.

The two go back to visit Sharon’s hometown in Kentucky at one point, and the way Sharon describes the town, and how surreal it is and how she never felt like she belonged, even when she lived there – that was a really hard-hitting passage for me. I went back to my own hometown last Christmas, and I felt the same feelings Sharon has in the book. Seeing those feelings actually put into words was….strange.

I honestly didn’t like either Mel or Sharon for the first few chapters, but as the story unfolds, they begin to open up. The book is about growing up in some ways; the two of them, though advancing in their careers, haven’t had to do a lot of maturing emotionally until the events of the book. I thought they both become much more likable as that happened.

The writing was excellent in this book, the character development outstanding, and the plot heartbreaking in places. Even though it’s not my typical reading fare, I really liked it.

You can find all my Pride Month reads listed here.

From the cover of The Animators:

She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

A funny, heartbreaking novel of friendship, art, and trauma, The Animators is about the secrets we keep and the burdens we shed on the road to adulthood.

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Book Review: The Dirty Girls Social Club

the dirty girls social club

The Dirty Girls Social Club
by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
Contemporary Fiction
308 pages
Published 2004

So in trying to read more inclusively, I had been looking at some prominent minority writers like Junot Diaz or Sherman Alexie (I actually had one of Alexie’s books out from the library when I realized where I’d heard his name). When the news broke about Junot Diaz, and I remembered that Sherman Alexie also had sexual harassment accusations against him, I decided instead of reading their books, I’d look up the books of the women calling them out! The Dirty Girls Social Club is the first book of what I’m calling my “Wronged Women” list. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez wrote an article titled “I tried to warn you about Junot Diaz” about her experience with him. Others on the list include Erika Wurth, Elissa Washuta, Zinzi Clemmons, Carmen Maria Machado, and Monica Byrne. I’ve built a shelf on Goodreads for my list, and I’m sure more names will wind up on it. (Unfortunately.)

The Dirty Girls Social Club is the story of six college friends who decide to meet every six months for the rest of their lives, no matter what. The book covers one six month period, from one meeting to the next. It took me a few chapters to sort out who was who, and throughout the book I occasionally had to flip back to the first chapter, where Lauren gives a rundown of names and professions. All six are Hispanic of some flavor, whether that’s Dominican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Spanish, or Southwestern Native American. That’s why they banded together in college. Each one has her own storyline – dealing with an abusive marriage, leaving a loveless marriage, being forcibly outed as a lesbian and learning to adjust to her new visibility, or becoming a rock star. I enjoyed how each of the six had a very individual story; they have interesting jobs and complicated love lives and unique problems.

Each of the women reflects on her Hispanic heritage in some form, whether that’s taking lessons in how to love from their parents, or fighting for recognition for their minority, or writing columns about their lives for the local newspaper. The book both shows and tells us about the differences in various Hispanic cultures.

I especially enjoyed Amber/Cuicatl (the rock star) and Elizabeth (the lesbian). The rest of the book was a little slow going at times, but I think that’s largely because I’m not a fan of contemporary fiction. I did enjoy it, though, and I’ll probably check out more of the author’s books.

From the cover of The Dirty Girls Social Club:

Meet the Dirty Girls – Lauren, Sara, Amber, Elizabeth, Rebecca, and Usnavys – six friends whose mutual support and (mostly) admiration society sorts out and celebrates the complications and triumphs in each other’s lives. No matter what happens to each of them (and a lot does), the Girls dish, dine, and compare notes on the bumpy course of life and love. There’s always a lot of catching up to do.

Book Review: Dragon Heart

dragon heartDragon Heart
by Cecelia Holland
Fantasy
286 pages
Published 2015

I picked this up on a whim; the cover and synopsis made it sound like yet another maiden-befriends-a-dragon standard fantasy novel, with her family in the balance. I was wrong. I’d never heard of the author, but apparently she has been writing historical fiction since the 60s, and she took that wealth of experience and added a dragon to make this gothic tale of a family fighting to keep their sovereignty against an encroaching empire.

I actually wish the dragon had featured in the story more than he did; I want to know more about his history and why he was so intrigued by Tirza. Why they could understand each other when no one else could. I’m disappointed that was never explained.

The mysteries of the castle were never really explained, either, though one of the stories Tirza tells the dragon hints at it. Castle Ocean seems to be alive, in some ways, refusing to be altered from its original construction by slowly reverting any changes and luring invaders down dark hallways they will never find their way out of again. The gothic atmosphere of the novel was fascinating.

It definitely absorbed my attention for several hours. I’d give it a 3/5, I think. Not incredibly outstanding, but well done and a little hypnotic.

From the cover of Dragon Heart:

Where the Cape of Winds juts into the endless sea, there is Castle Ocean, which is either haunted or simply alive, and therein dwells the royal family that has ruled it from time immemorial. But there is an Empire growing in the east, and its forces have reached the castle. King Reymarro is dead in battle, and by the new treaty, Queen Marioza must marry one of the Emperor’s brothers. She loathes the idea and has already killed the first brother, but a second arrives, escorted by more soldiers. While Marioza delays, her youngest son, Jeon, goes on a journey in search of his mute twin, Tirza, who needs to be present for the wedding.

As Jeon and Tirza return by sea, their ship is attacked by a shocking and powerful dragon, red as blood and big as the ship. Thrown into the water, Tirza clings to the dragon and after an underwater journey, finds herself alone with the creature in an inland sea pool. Surprisingly, she is able to talk to the beast and understand it.

So begins a saga of violence, destruction, and death, of love and mosters, human and otherwise. 

Book Review: Deerskin

DeerskinDeerskin
by Robin McKinley
Fantasy
386 pages
Published 2014

Content Warning: Sexual Assault

You know, sometimes you just need some escapist fantasy. McKinley’s lyrical prose was just the ticket for me last night. There were a few times where I thought “I’d like to know what happens next, quit with the digression already” but then I got caught up in the digression itself! I’ve read several of McKinley’s books – The Hero and the Crown, Pegasus, a few others. She is a master of her craft, weaving magical tales that make you really SEE the world of the book.

Lissar/Deerskin survives some intense trauma in the beginning of this tale – it was hard to read, but McKinley hit the middle ground of being just graphic enough to really impress the horror of the assault on you, without being overly graphic. I think it could definitely be triggering, though, so be warned. Lissar survives, and escapes, and spends time healing before going among people again and learning to heal emotionally as well as physically.

The book is predictable – I knew where she was going and who she’d fall in love with from the moment she left home – but no less absorbing for that. I did like that for once, an author dealt with trauma recovery in a realistic manner, instead of just “oh well she loves him so the trauma won’t bother her anymore!” because PTSD doesn’t work that way.

Deerskin is another enchanting tale from McKinley, with parts that are genuinely hard to read. I wish the description had been more blatant that when Lissar is fleeing “her father’s lust” they really meant his assault, not just his desire.

From the cover of Deerskin

Princess Lissla Lissar is the only child of the king and his queen, who was the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Everyone loved the splendid king and his matchless queen so much that no one had any attention to spare for the princess, who grew up in seclusion, listening to the tales her nursemaid told about her magnificent parents.

But the queen takes ill of a mysterious wasting disease and on her deathbed extracts a strange promise from her husband: “I want you to promise me . . . you will only marry someone as beautiful as I was.”

The king is crazy with grief at her loss, and slow to regain both his wits and his strength. But on Lissar’s seventeenth birthday, two years after the queen’s death, there is a grand ball, and everyone present looks at the princess in astonishment and whispers to their neighbors, How like her mother she is!

On the day after the ball, the king announces that he is to marry again—and that his bride is the princess Lissla Lissar, his own daughter.

Lissar, physically broken, half mad, and terrified, flees her father’s lust with her one loyal friend, her sighthound, Ash. It is the beginning of winter as they journey into the mountains—and on the night when it begins to snow, they find a tiny, deserted cabin with the makings of a fire ready-laid in the hearth.

Thus begins Lissar’s long, profound, and demanding journey away from treachery and pain and horror, to trust and love and healing.

Book Review: Rebel of the Sands

rebel of the sands

Rebel of the Sands
by Alwyn Hamilton
YA Fantasy
314 pages
Published 2016

More Middle-eastern themed fantasy! And by a Canadian writer, though she was only born there, she mostly grew up in France, so I’m not really sure it counts for my Read Canadian Challenge. But it is one I’ve been wanting to read for a while, and when I was at Barnes & Noble for Book Club, I noticed it on the bargain shelf, so I snagged it, along with another YA fantasy based on Norse Mythology called Valkyrie. There’s two more books in the series now, Traitor to the Thone and Hero at the Fall, so I’ve requested those from the library because I really enjoy this world!

Amani is a girl in a country that doesn’t value women, and treats them as useless property only good for breeding sons. The country is basically occupied by another country that the Sultan is “allied” with, but lets run roughshod over his people. She has her sights set on escaping her backwoods, dead-end town, and running to the capital city, where the aunt she’s never met lives. All of that is derailed when she meets Jin at an underground shooting competition, and then later hides him from the armed forces hunting him.

The country is definitely middle-east inspired, but there’s a lot of religion-bashing, and complaining about the culture oppressing women. It’s the same problem I have with a lot of knight-and-castle era fantasy – just because historically in OUR world those time periods weren’t kind to women, doesn’t mean they have to be the same in fantasy. It’s FANTASY! It can be anything you want! Break the tropes! It’s a fine line to walk, taking the good parts of a culture without just cherry-picking and appropriating the culture, and who’s judging what the good and bad parts are, anyway? So I understand it’s difficult, but bashing the culture in a book inspired by their mythology is not quite cool, either. I feel like City of Brass hit a nice middle ground of embracing the culture of the inspiration without bashing parts of it.

That gripe aside, I really enjoyed the world-building. I’m not quite sold on the characters yet – Amani is far too quick to abandon things she should fight for – but I’m interested enough to see how they progress in the next two books.

Rebel of the Sands was also a past Goodreads Choice winner, filling that prompt of the PopSugar 2018 reading challenge.

From the cover of Rebel of the Sands:

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mythical beasts still roam the wild and remote areas, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinn still perform their magic. For humans, it’s an unforgiving place, especially if you’re poor, orphaned, or female. Amani Al’Hiza is all three. She’s a gifted gunslinger with perfect aim, but she can’t shoot her way out of Dustwalk, the back-country town where she’s destined to wind up wed or dead.

Then she meets Jin, a rakish foreigner, in a shooting contest, and sees him as the perfect escape route. But though she’s spent years dreaming of leaving Dustwalk, she never imagined she’d gallop away on mythical horse—or that it would take a foreign fugitive to show her the heart of the desert she thought she knew.

This startlingly original Middle-East-meets-Wild-West fantasy reveals what happens when a dream deferred explodes—in the fires of rebellion, of romantic passion, and the all-consuming inferno of a girl finally embracing her power.

Book Review: Star Wars: Ahsoka

ahsoka tanoStar Wars: Ahsoka
by E. K. Johnston
Space Fantasy (Star Wars)
356 pages
Published 2016

I’ve been wanting to read this novel for a long time, as Ahsoka Tano is my favorite character from the Clone Wars cartoon, and second-favorite in the entire Star Wars series. (Because General Leia exists.) I picked the book up at a used book store in Oregon when we went home from the holidays, but I’ve just had so many other things to read. I finally read it for May 4th, Star Wars Day.

I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. I’ve read another book by Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing, which I enjoyed but thought was too fluffy. And comparing this to the last Star Wars book I read – Phasma – this tilts that way too. It’s not as fluffy as TIVT – people die, and the Empire is the ever-looming possible doom that it always is – but it just didn’t feel as gritty as Phasma did. Perhaps it shouldn’t; Phasma is a villain, and her backstory is suitably dark. And Ahsoka, here, is floundering a little in the wake of Order 66, and being alive when none of her compatriots, to her knowledge, are.

I did enjoy learning how she got her lightsabers back, and the story should lead well into the Rebels cartoon, which I have yet to watch.

So I don’t know. It was an entertaining book, and it was effective at furthering Ahsoka’s story, it just…wasn’t quite what I wanted.

The book does, however, fit the Popsugar 2018 prompt of “Takes place on another planet.”

From the cover of Star Wars: Ahsoka:

She thought her war was over, but a new battle is just beginning…

Ahsoka Tano, once a loyal Jedi apprentice to Anakin Skywalker, planned to spend her life serving the Jedi Order. But after a heartbreaking betrayal, she turned her back on the Order to forge her own path, knowing Anakin and the other Jedi would still be there for her should she ever need them.

Then the Emperor took over the galaxy and the Jedi were ruthlessly murdered. Burdened with grief and guilt, Ahsoka is now truly on her own, unsure she can be part of something larger ever again. She takes refuge on the remote farming moon Raada, where she befriends a young woman named Kaedan and begins to carve out a life for herself. But Ahsoka cannot escape her past or the reach of the Empire. When Imperial forces occupy Raada, she must decide whether to become involved – even if it means exposing her Jedi past. Her choices will have devastating effects for those around her . . . and lead her to a new hope for the galaxy.