And That’s a Wrap: June ’19 Edition

Six months down, six months to go. I’m now almost exactly halfway towards my reading goal for 2019. Up until the beginning of last week, I was about 3 weeks behind on my challenge which was stressful to put it mildly, especially since I’ve consistently been ahead of the game up until this month. Still, I’m pushing through. Let’s have a look back at June.

This month was a light one for me in terms of the number of books finished. I had a slow start to the beginning of June and my motivation to read was fairly low for some inexplicable reason (even though I was reading books I was enjoying). It’s improved a little in the last few weeks but we’ll have to see how July goes. The books I managed to finish this month were:

Strange the Dreamer – Laini Taylor ★★★★.5 | Review

Strange the Dreamer was a re-read for me. I knew there was no way I’d be able to tackle Muse of Nightmares without doing one. As expected, the book was just as good as the first time around. I love the world building, characters, and absolutely stunning writing – Laini makes magic with words. While the plot is slow, I really enjoy it and the book definitely goes out with a bang.

Muse of Nightmares – Laini Taylor ★★★★

While I didn’t enjoy this as much as Strange the Dreamer, I still think it’s a really good book. I appreciate how Laini was able to expand her world and story in an unexpected direction, however, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the resolution to that expansion. It was great to get some more backstory on the Mesarthim and answers to the questions from STD. The book treats its characters well (plus introduces compelling new ones) and I like that it still manages to keep smaller roles in the picture.

All the Bright Places – Jennifer Niven ★★★.5

This is a tough one to review. For the most part I found ATBP mildly enjoyable. It has some really lovely moments and the characters are okay (even though Finch does seem a little ‘manic pixie dream boy’). The book also puts a spotlight on some heavy topics like suicide, abuse and mental health – even though I’m questioning the way these were handled at times. However, the book does feel a bit emotionally manipulative and even with the author drawing on her own experiences, the ending still feels like something you’d find only in a novel. This was an up and down read for me which made scoring it hard. I have to say though, Jennifer Niven’s author’s note is an easy five stars.

Magic for Liars – Sarah Gailey ★★★

Harry Potter meets Noir. The concept for MfL is great and I was quite excited about it. In the end though, the execution could have been better. Despite dealing with some emotional things, the characters and story didn’t connect with me as much as they should have. There are a few plot elements that feel kind of thrown in without much real purpose and I wasn’t so keen on the ending itself. However, I did enjoy the way magic was handled (a little more scientifically) and the general mystery aspect (even if it did take a bit of time to warm up).

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss ★★★★★

It’s been about four months and by George, I’ve finally done it. And what a fabulous ride it was. I’ve had this book on my to read list for about 8 years(!) and kept putting it off for fear it’d be slow and disappointing. While I can understand why it may not appeal to some people, that wasn’t the case for me. I thoroughly enjoyed reading TNotW at a leisurely pace – the characters, the incredible and extensive world building, even the writing itself, it’s all fantastic and I understand why it’s considered a masterpiece of the fantasy genre.

In June I added four books to my physical TBR. NOS4A2 and Recursion were both bought using birthday money (and credit on my Dymocks membership card – win).

This month Book Depository also had a good sale going on and FINNNAAALLLLYYY the hardback edition of Winter was discounted. I’ve been waiting a very long time for this. There was a happy dance involved before I hit the order button.

Magic for Liars was an ARC approval but weirdly enough I was only approved for it on release day. Still, I’m not going to complain about a free copy of a book I was interested in reading.

I meant to read Beartown in June but with my lacking motivation for the past month, that just didn’t happen. I’ve started it today and I hope it’s as good as people have said. Last month I bought Legendary and in order to refresh my memory, I’ll probably do a re-read of Caraval some time in July as well. As for the rest of this month’s reads, it’s a bit of a mystery. We’ll see how I feel as the weeks progress.

MUSIC

Songs I had on repeat in June were:

  • Don’t Throw it Away & Rollercoaster – The Jonas Brothers (Happiness Begins)
  • Never Really Over – Katy Perry
  • You Need to Calm Down – Taylor Swift
  • Outta My Head – John Mayer & Khalid
  • Star Maps – Aly & AJ

TV & MOVIES

I watched less TV & movies in June than usual but what I did watch included:

  • Stranger Things S1 & S2 (rewatch to prepare for S3 in July)
  • Started HBO’s Chernobyl mini series
  • Started Veronica Mars (rewatch to prepare for S4 in July)

LIFE

  • This month both my sister and I celebrated birthdays – we’re 4 years and 3 days apart. They were both very low key this year. Twenty-six is a…littttttle bit scary but I guess time progresses even if we don’t want it to.
  • At work we’ve been preparing to move to a brand new office which we finally did just a few days before the end of the month. It’s going to take some getting used to but it’s good to have a bit more space.
  • I’ve been wanting to get back into bookstagram lately but boy, finding the right light during winter is hard. One minute the sun is there and the next, poof, behind a cloud. *sigh*

And that’s a wrap on June. Not the best month reading or blogging wise (except for my finally finishing The Name of the Wind, which I’m psyched about). Here’s hoping for a better month in July all around.

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Let’s Talk: The Challenges of Reviewing Diverse YA Books

When I first considered discussing this topic, I wondered whether it would be possible to do so, as a white, straight, cis, able, and mentally healthy woman, without sounding like an insensitive and privileged ass. Then again, the point of book blogging is to discuss opinions on book related topics and if we’re afraid to do that, then why blog in the first place? So, I’m going to give it my best shot. Diversity in YA books and how to appropriately review diverse reads is something I’ve thought about a great deal over the past year or so. While there is still a very long way to go, I honestly believe that in recent years there have been great strides made with regards to putting different ethnicities, cultures, sexualities, mental health conditions, and disabilities at the forefront of YA stories and representing them well. Yet, this progress also presents certain difficulties with regards to reviewing.

When an author takes the time to properly showcase the stories of people in a minority or stigmatised group or, better yet, writes an ‘own voices’ novel representing elements of their own experiences, it’s a pretty amazing thing. These kinds of stories deserve to be told and should be encouraged.

But.

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What happens when a novel wonderfully incorporates diversity, but fails to appeal in terms of plot, characters, setting or writing style? These books pose a significant challenge to reviewers. Critique the book heavily and you risk damaging public opinion/book sales, meaning a publisher may pull back on releasing these kinds of stories in the future. Downplay your doubts to focus on praising the book simply for being diverse, and suddenly you’re not being honest. I’ve found myself in this position numerous times since I began blogging and bookstagramming. I want to be able to read books about, and written by, people with different experiences, characteristics, and obstacles. Without them, fiction would be extremely boring. At the same time, I don’t want to boost an author’s work purely because it’s diverse.

In the past, my approach towards reviewing diverse reads has generally been, where possible, to treat the diversity elements and the quality of that representation separately from other major areas e.g. enjoyment of plot, development of characters, etc. Where the book succeeds on all fronts, reviewing is easy. Problems arise where the diverse components are good, but the book fails to satisfy on the other big elements. Having organic, realistic, and well-handled representation is considered a major positive in deciding my overall rating of a book, but at the same time, it’s only one part of the overall picture. Consequently, even wonderfully diverse reads can still end up with an average or not so great final rating.

Looking at book reviews on star ratings alone, this approach could be considered extremely damaging to efforts to expand YA diversity. For this reason, I believe it is extremely important that, as reviewers, we consistently make an effort to discuss diversity/representation in our reviews (where relevant), and to praise elements of good representation even if the review itself is largely negative. In doing so though, we do have to trust that readers will take the time to look at our reviews beyond just the hard number score. At least this way we ensure we remain honest yet still show support for a growing and diversified YA genre.

A few examples of books which have created this challenge for me over the last few years include:

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  • Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeymi: How often do we see West-African inspired YA fantasy books? Not very often, and aside from some confusion over the magic system, I loved the setting/world building in this book. My final rating was a solid 3.5 stars – not bad, but not the glowing highs of the hype train. In the end, this was due to my issues with irrational character behaviour, stretches of boring plot, and unnecessary/forced romance.
  • Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan: GoP&F is a YA fantasy set in a Malaysian inspired world. It features Asian leads and involves a lesbian romance. On that basis alone it ticks great diversity boxes, and yet, my final rating was 2.5 stars. I liked the premise of this book and so badly wanted to rejoice in something that put strong, Asian, lesbian women at the centre of a story. However, from an enjoyment perspective, I couldn’t get past my issues with the worldbuilding, pacing, and inability to connect with the characters.
  • Queens of Geek – Jen Wilde: QoG is a sweet and fluffy YA contemporary. It features a bisexual lead, a plus-sized lead with Asperger’s and anxiety, and a bunch of side characters who are racially diverse and suffer from disabilities. This is a book that screams diversity. Yet, there’s also minimal plot and very simplistic writing, which rendered it only a 3-star read for me.
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Being unable to give these kinds of books glowing reviews is extremely difficult because I genuinely want authors and stories like these to succeed. In many cases, this pressure has even discouraged me from wanting to write a review altogether, especially where the diverse elements are inextricably linked to the major components of the story e.g. American Panda by Gloria Chao. Stories like these make me wonder whether, as someone who does not write reviews for every book they read, I should perhaps direct my attention to reviewing only those diverse reads that I genuinely really enjoy. Then again, an approach like this seems to involve its own problems and depending on what I choose to read could result in reviews of little to no diverse books on my blog.

On the flip side of this is the equally challenging situation of how to a review a book which does well on the enjoyment scale yet fails when it comes to realistic and good quality representation. Are we allowed to like and praise a book even though it handles the treatment of certain groups and experiences badly? While I may have said that good representation is not the ultimate determiner of a review rating, for most reviewers the reverse does not seem to hold true. Fail in your attempts at good representation and half the book reviewing community will roast you alive while the other half grab marshmallows. It’s situations like this in which I’m likely to avoid writing a review and to spend agonising time selecting a star rating on Goodreads. However, in saying this, my biggest worry is not that I’ll like a book that does certain groups a disservice, but that I’ll review it positively without even knowing or picking up on just how bad the representation is.

Despite my ability to sympathise with fictional characters, I do not have detailed knowledge of what life is like for every group out there. I have never experienced depression, I am not from an immigrant family, no one I know has experienced police profiling or brutality, and I have never had to deal with sexuality-based stigma. There are a multitude of things that I have no way of knowing anything about until I (a) meet someone who has first-hand knowledge of these things or (b) I read about them. Being able to pick out the realistic from the skewed is a challenge with diverse reads and makes it difficult as a reviewer to ensure we’re writing an informed review. This then begs the question, am I even qualified to write these kinds of reviews?

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Earlier this week I finished reading All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. This is a book that deals with suicide, depression, PTSD, survivor’s guilt, bipolar disorder, and bullying. At several points during the novel I found myself questioning the realism of how some of these issues were represented. And as usual, when in doubt, I went to Goodreads. Scrolling through the book’s page, I found that there are some people who relate heavily to MC Finch and his experiences with mental health while others who have also experienced depression and attempted suicide take great issue with how these are depicted. This leaves me with more questions than ever – if even those with first-hand experience cannot decide if the representation is good or bad, how in the world am I to know? The only solution I can see to this is to do my own research and determine whether what I’ve read represents the experiences and reality for at least a small component of the chosen represented group, even if it may not represent the majority.

At this point, I’m not entirely sure what the correct way forward is. Perhaps it’s more of a case by case type of issue. In the end, I suppose all we can do is review the books in front of us as honestly and constructively as we can with a sense of self-awareness. We also need to continue to demand better representation of minorities in the things we read and hope that writers continue to put these stories out there and that publishers will help them reach us.

Let’s Talk: What are your thoughts on the difficulties associated with reviewing diverse books? Do you have any similar experiences and if so, how do you deal with them?

WWW Wednesday | 12.06.19

We’re getting towards the middle of the month so I thought it might be a good time for reading check-in in the form of WWW Wednesday. Hosted by Taking on a World of Words, WWWW asks the big three questions: what have you recently finished, what are you currently reading, and what’s up next?

Strange the Dreamer – Laini Taylor

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As I mentioned in my May wrap up, I went into this month doing a reread of Strange the Dreamer. Luckily for me, it was just as good the second time around. As someone who’s not usually a fan of flowery descriptions, I still can’t get over just how gorgeous Laini’s writing is. Some of her phrases… they’re like poetry. The world building in this one is also a high point for me and I love how the story somehow manages to have this whimsical tone at multiple points whilst also dealing with darker themes like trauma. Having finished this, I’m now finally ready to tackle…

Muse of Nightmares – Laini Taylor

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Yep, finally. I bought this book right after its release and like usual, here we are, ages later. Muse of Nightmares is way too pretty to be sitting unread. So far, I’m about 200 or so pages in and enjoying it. I like the addition of the new characters and I’m interested to see where their storyline goes. It’s nice to be getting some clarification on certain things from book one and I’m glad each of the side characters from Strange the Dreamer have continued to get some time in the limelight, even with everything going on with Lazlo, Sarai and Minya.

Magic for Liars – Sarah Gailey

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Weirdly enough, I was approved for an ARC of this one on the day it came out. It was kind of a head scratching moment. Anyway, I’ve started it, but it’s still very early days. I like the concept for this one – a non-magical PI trying to solve a murder at a school for mages – so I’ll have to see how it plays out. At this point I’m certainly intrigued enough to keep going. Fingers crossed it’s a good read and it doesn’t take me a million years to finish it.

All the Bright Places – Jennifer Niven

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Next up I think I’ll be opting for something a bit shorter after two slightly longer reads which means it’s time for a YA contemporary. I’ve been hearing good things about All the Bright Places for years (it even won a Goodreads choice award back in 2015) so it’ll be nice to see what the fuss is all about, especially with the adaptation coming out…at some point. Hopefully I’ll end up in the majority opinion wise. It’s always so disheartening when I’m not *sigh*.

I hope June is progressing well for you all and that you’re finding plenty of books to add to your top ten books of the first half of 2019!

Top 10 Tuesday: YA Contemporaries on my Summer TBR

This week’s topic is to do with cozy winter reads (thanks Jana) but as usual, I live in the Southern Hemisphere which means, to my horror, we’re now in summer. Basically in AUS that means the country is flooding, on fire, and in drought all at the same time. There’s also been word of a giant cow somewhere. Anyway, I’m finally getting on board with the whole ‘summer is a great time to read YA Contemporaries’ thing. In my case, it’s probably more like: summer is a great time to catch up on all the YA Contemporaries everyone else in the world seems to have read ages ago and I haven’t. So here are ten that I’m hoping to read at some point over the next few months of icky, sweaty, humid, bug infested Summer.

Image result for alex approximatelyAlex, Approximately – Jenn Bennett

Essentially this is You’ve Got Mail (which I really enjoy) in a modern, teen setting. So, as you can imagine, I’m very much on board. I like the whole enemies to lovers trope where it involves gaining a new understanding of someone you thought you knew and this definitely seems to check that box. I’m just preparing for a chick flick in book form, really.

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Image result for fangirl rainbow rowellFangirl – Rainbow Rowell

I bought this one a few months back now and still haven’t gotten to it despite the fact that it’s one of those YA Contemporaries everyone RAVES about because it’s apparently so relatable. The cover is cute, the blurb’s cute, and yes, it does all feel very relatable. The lead is an introvert who writes fan fiction and absolutely loves books..sound like anyone you know? I also kind of like the fact that it’s set at university rather than high school. Time to see what everyone’s been talking about. Cath and Levi, I’m coming for you.

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Image result for what if its usWhat if it’s Us? – Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera

I was majorly anticipating this particular release and while I have certainly bought it, as usual, I still have yet to read it. I love Becky’s books and after reading my first of Adam’s books last month, I’m super keen to read their joint baby. I’ve seen a few mixed reviews on it since its release but I’m hoping that adorable characters and theatre vibes will make it a winner for me.

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28919058Autoboyography – Christina Lauren

This one was recommended to me by someone at the bookstore after I finished Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. I’ve heard Christina’s books are really sweet and there is honestly so much love for this book online. I also feel like it’s pretty important to read some more books with diversity. The cover is super pretty and I think the concept in itself sounds really lovely. It may also be because like every other book worm out there, I, too, like to write.

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33385229They Both Die at the End – Adam Silvera

This one’s a little different from the other YA Contemporaries on this list because its technically set in another world but it’s still classified as one anyway. After reading and enjoying History is All You Left Me, I’d love to read some more of Adam’s work and this one seems to be the most popular of the bunch. I can tell it’s going to be another heart wrecker but hey, emotion is good. I think this will be a great reminder to live life to the fullest and appreciate the little things. At least it won’t be a shock ending, right? RIGHT?

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25756328Love and Gelato – Jenna Evans Welch

Um, what’s more summer than romance, gelato and Italy? Nothing, that’s right. Okay, there’s probably a lot of things but regardless, I get the feeling this will be a perfect summer pick. I’ve used this book in other posts before but because I still haven’t got there, it’s showing up again. Sue me. I absolutely adore Italy so it’ll be nice to read something fun and light set there. I’m not expecting anything too substantial but sometimes that’s okay. I can’t read books about life and death questions all the time.

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18304322Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy

Dumplin’ has been on my radar for a while but I’ve been putting it off because there seems to be some people that love it and think it’s wonderfully body positive, and others that have a heap of issues with it and complain about it being hypocritical. I’m far from the skinniest person you’ll ever meet so I’m hoping I’ll end up finding something in the former camp. Plus, the Netflix adaptation comes out later this week and I’m one of those people for which nothing spurs me on to read books I’ve been putting off quite like seeing an adaptation trailer.

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31952703Words in Deep Blue – Cath Crowley

A book about BOOKS. Can you imagine anything more perfect than that? Even better, people connecting and falling in love by leaving notes for each other in books! It’s basically my romantic dream. No direct socialisation and spending heaps of time in bookstores. *swoons* This is suposed to be a short read but it’s also got a great reputation for being a really beautiful book about love, loss and learning to move on with your life. Why do so many books on this list want to wreck me emotionally? BONUS, it’s set in Australia! Horray! And yet, I’m still determined to get my hands on the US cover because gosh the UK/Aus cover is a snooze. Zzzzzzzz…

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18460392All the Bright Places – Jennifer Niven

This book has come up a lot in YA circles. It’s on the 2018 top 101 list at my local bookstore, won a Goodreads choice award back in 2015 and has an average star rating of 4.18. Yes, it’s another love story but this seems like it deals with a lot of bigger things too such as mental health and suicide so I’m expecting to get that giant hole in my heart by the end of it. However, apparently it’s a bit John Green-esque which, no shade to Mr Green, hasn’t really been my thing so far. Eh, we’ll have to see!

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31351689Girl Made of Stars – Ashley Herring Blake

Okay, this isn’t exactly what you’d call an easy, breezy summer read but it’s YA, contemporary and I am hoping to read it during summer. I’ve got a lot of love story books on this list and I feel like it might be nice to have something a little more serious. This book deals with rape, trust, relationships and it looks intense but it’s supposed to be fantastic and I’m hoping for a really great read which successfully tackles some heavy themes.

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That makes 10. I’ll be realistic, it’s unlikely I’ll get anywhere near to reading all of these during the next few months because I do need to break things up with some other genres for variety but it’s always nice to have goals.

Have you read any of the YA Contemporaries on this list? What are some of your favourite books in this genre?