ARC Review: Grit

GritGrit by Gillian French
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Seventeen-year-old Darcy Prentiss has long held the title of “town slut.” She knows how to have a good time, sure, but she isn’t doing anything all the guys haven’t done. But when you’re a girl with a reputation, every little thing that happens seems to keep people whispering—especially when your ex-best friend goes missing.

But if anyone were to look closer at Darcy, they’d realize there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. Staying out late, hooking up, and telling lies is what Darcy does to forget. Forget about the mysterious disappearance of her friend. Forget about the dark secret she and her cousin Nell share. Forget about that hazy Fourth of July night. So when someone in town anonymously nominates Darcy to be in the running for Bay Festival Princess—a cruel act only someone with a score to settle would make—all of the things that Darcy wants to keep hidden threaten to erupt in ways she wasn’t prepared to handle…and isn’t sure if she can.

Going into this book, I thought it was a mystery and perhaps that expectation dampened my experience a bit. Grit is about a girl in a small town that is filled with secrets, but does not want to admit it. Like her cousin who seems like the epitome of Good Girl, or the people who cheat their way into money, or secrets that make a person disappear. Darcy hates her town, and can’t wait to get away from it, but life is difficult and unlike her cousin, she cannot set aside money for her future. So she lives for the parties, the small pleasures and working hard and earning money for herself.

Most of the book takes place during the summer before her senior year, with her working as a farmhand in the fields, raking berries and competing against the town’s resident dudebro for a name on the leader-board. Besides the mystery of the events of a year ago that led to a girl’s disappearance and assumed murder, the plot is sort of aimless. If this was a coming of age story, I did not see much in the way of character development, except perhaps Darcy finally realizing that some secrets are not hers to keep. She may make bad decisions but she owns up to them in the end, and confronts people who need to be confronted. In a way, she is fierce, but it takes her time to stand up.

The writing is impressive but there are problems with pacing. The first half is too slow for my liking and I was further dismayed that it was going to focus on day-to-day minutae than solving the mystery. There are elements of racism and otherness depicted in the novel, mostly surrounding the disappearance. Most of the town people suspect the migrant workers who come during harvest season to be responsible; this issue is called out by one character, too. There’s also slut-shaming and mention of statutory rape, the former not resolved much and the latter was resolved but as a after note. Overall, it is a good read but not the kind I was hoping for.

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ARC Review: User

UserUser by Devin Grayson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Originally published as a groundbreaking three-part Vertigo miniseries, User explores sexual identity and online role-playing in the text-based MUDs of the nineties.

Whether or not you are a gaming fan (I am not), this book is an experience to read through. Set in the 90s, this story about a young woman named Mel who discovers the whole world of MUDs (think MMORPG in text form) and initially drowns in the delight of that experience. In real life, she is the elder daughter, who is helpless to save her younger sister, but in that virtual world, she is a bisexual French knight in a medieval fantasy. It makes her feel more alive than her life, that she has a purpose over there, a cause to fight for and gets to be the knight in shining armor. It also speaks to her gender fluidity in a way.

At first, I had thought that the book would be a cautionary tale about losing yourself in your online persona. It happens to most of us – we prefer the virtual or online world than our reality, because there we can be something we are not. We can hide behind a strong personality, but this book takes a step further and shows that you can learn from what you built up as a persona. Mel eventually learns to emulate her character and be as valiant in real life as she is in the game, to take risks and be actionable than just living through life passively. She saves her sister from her abuser, and for herself, she finds a new relationship with someone who is as passionate as she about the game. (Side note: It does not, however, linger on the consequences of her getting lost in the virtual world, like her losing her job and her leaving her sister behind initially. Which, yeah, she is a flawed character and has to grow, but I felt wrong that she did not apologize for it)

As for the artwork, it is amazing. There are two styles – the real and the virtual. The real is done in exquisite detail, and you can see some amazing artwork in the lineart – expressions, body language, setting, as well as some beautiful shading even in the greyscale-ish rendering of her life. As for the virtual, it seems more rudimentary in lineart (to emulate the gaming atmosphere) but is vibrant in coloring. Both, however, have markedly impressive amounts of work and detail put into them – the best one I’ve seen since Monstress #1.

Overall, a feast for the eyes and an interesting story as well.

Content warning: The novel contains some sexual scenes, and mention of rape.

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Image Comics, via Edelweiss.

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ARC Review: Seeking Mansfield

Seeking MansfieldSeeking Mansfield by Kate Watson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sixteen-year-old Finley Price has perfected two things: how to direct a world-class production, and how to fly way, way under the radar. The only person who ever seems to notice Finley is her best friend and godparents’ son, Oliver Bertram. Since Finley moved in with her godparents after the death of her father, she and Oliver have grown close. If Finley could just take Oliver’s constant encouragement to heart and step out of the shadows, she’d finally chase her dream of joining the prestigious Mansfield Theater. But when teen movie stars Emma and Harlan Crawford move across the street from the Bertram’s, they shake up Finley and Oliver’s stable friendship. As Emma and Oliver grow closer, Finley realizes that Harlan Os attention is shifting to her. She discovers she might have feelings for him too. Or, is she only interested in Harlan because Oliver is taken? Finley doesn’t want to be won, and she doesn’t want to see Oliver with anyone else. To claim Oliver’s heart -and keep her own- she’ll have to find the courage to do what she fears most: step into the spotlight.

I would like to preface the review with the fact that I haven’t read the original Mansfield Park but I am familiar with the plotline. Now, Seeking Mansfield is a modern retelling of Mansfield Park, and on the whole I was very much impressed with it. It takes the storyline of MP and gives us Finley, a parental abuse survivor who is living with her godparents and throughout the book, learns what it means to stand up for herself and where to allow people to support you. It retains much of the original storyline, and involves a complicated love rhombus or something, and is a good retelling.

Finley’s situation with her godparents is such that she feels indebted to them, and always thinks first of their comforts than her own. Now, with the exception of their daughter and the aunt, they are all good to her and protective about her. But the aunt – yeesh! She is a terrible woman, and constantly makes Finley feel like an orphan. The star siblings, Emma and Harlan are snobbish but charming, but kind of controlling, which Oliver and Fin, respectively, take some time to understand. Both of them have feelings for each other but run’s into the respective siblings’ arms because they think it is a safer choice. In case of Finley, specifically, Harlan brings out a different, more confident side of her, but ultimately she can’t take his betrayal. The story delves into relationships and how they change a person, and to what extent leaning on someone is healthy, and when protectiveness becomes suffocating.

The writing is fluid, and shifts well enough between the two perspectives of Finley and Oliver. The author also spends good amount of time building up the relationships and showing how it worked and how it did not. It touches upon PTSD, addiction, and morality in relationships, as well as how intense family can be. Recommended, especially, for contemporary fans and Austenites alike.

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Flux, via Netgalley.

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ARC Review: Beast

BeastBeast by Megan Crewe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Max Weston knows that life is a game: Turn on the charm, say what people want to hear, and whatever you want is yours for the taking. What do a few lies matter if everyone ends up happy? His best friend, Davey, can’t look a cute girl in the eye and barely scrapes by in school, so yeah, Max hassles him sometimes. But he always has the guy’s back—even when a strange beast attacks Davey in the woods.

As Davey heals, something awakens inside him. Something with razor-sharp teeth, vicious reflexes, and no patience for Max’s ploys. Suddenly Davey is challenging Max, getting smarter, stronger, faster—and harder to control. Max plunges into a series of schemes to save his friend, but with each move he makes, Davey lashes back twice as hard. The monster inside him is calling the shots now, and the game it wants to play has deadly consequences for everyone Max loves.

If Max forfeits, he’s giving up on his best friend. But winning might mean losing even more.

If you are a Teen Wolf fan, this book feels a lot like it. The story is basically of two friends, (think Stiles and Scott) but the two had sort of an unequal relationship. Max pretty much takes charge of Davey’s life, and though the latter appreciates it at times, at most he resents it. Davey also has a terrible life at home due to an abusive father, and when he gets bit on a full moon and starts to change, he revels in this newfound power that he has. Max, on the other hand, is understandably afraid and hunts down cures for him. Davey, however, is letting the dark side of his transformation take over, and with that they are placed at odds.

As an action thriller, the book offers a lot of horror and the uncertainty that Teen Wolf fans will come to appreciate. Davey is unpredictable and vicious, and Max is running around trying to be one step ahead of him. Their relationship itself plays against them, because as Max is used to being the guy in charge, he doesn’t offer Davey the knowledge or choice in the initial days. Nope, he jumps right to fear (even if it was warranted, as proved by the second half of the novel) and ruins any hope of reconciling their friendship and taking a less brutal way out.

As a character, Max is not much likeable. He directs the lives of the people around him, including Davey and his own younger sister, Amy. He plays with the hearts of the girls in the school, just because he can. His and Jena’s arc did not fit well in the whole story overall, so I pretty much ignored that part going down. What I felt was amiss with the novel was the connection to characters. They are given ample backstories, but not fleshed out enough. Davey is not given a voice as to why he goes homicidal in such a short span of time. It feels, in a word, formulaic.

As a whole, it is enjoyable as a horror story. It certainly has its good moments but I wish more effort had gone into characterization.

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from the author.

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ARC Review: My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen

My Fairy Godmother is a Drag QueenMy Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen by David Clawson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chris Bellows is just trying to get through high school and survive being the only stepchild in the social-climbing Fontaine family, whose recently diminished fortune hasn’t dimmed their desire to mingle with Upper East Side society. Chris sometimes feels more like a maid than part of the family. But when Chris’s stepsister Kimberly begins dating golden boy J. J. Kennerly, heir to a political dynasty, everything changes. Because Chris and J. J. fall in love . . . with each other.

With the help of a new friend, Coco Chanel Jones, Chris learns to be comfortable in his own skin, let himself fall in love and be loved, and discovers that maybe he was wrong about his step-family all along. All it takes is one fairy godmother dressed as Diana Ross to change the course of his life.

My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen has a ridiculously cute and optimistic protagonist, Chris as our Cinderella. Unlike the original, our Chris is not exactly forced into a life of servitude, but he is relegated to it. Now, living with his stepmother and step-siblings, who care only about staying in the limelight, he lives like a glorified butler to them. They aren’t cruel to him, but they have a twisted sense of nice, and are more likely to treat him as a favored servant than a member of the family. Which is why, with the help of a friendly drag queen named Coco Chanel, he crashes a big party where he gets to meet the love of his life, J J Kennerly. There is a whole shoe bit, too, for those invested in the fairytale retelling part of this story, but that is where the similarities end.

The major theme of the story is about coming out and acceptance. Chris is not exactly out, but his sexuality is basically an open secret. He still feels fear over people knowing he is gay, thinking they won’t approve of him. For that part, at least, his family is supportive of him, albeit in their weird way. But his secret boyfriend JJ isn’t out, and since he is a public personality, he isn’t itching to be out either. He is using Chris’ stepsister as an unknowing beard, and sneaking around with Chris. Between keeping it secret from the family and from the paparazzi, they have their hands full, but Chris does want more out of their relationship.

I liked Chris as a character – he is hopelessly naive, but also comes across as a doormat most times. His one saving grace is that he still stands up for what he wants out of the relationship – ultimately. J J, meanwhile, just kept rubbing me the wrong way. Dude was so self-centered, it was all about his public image and his political future – as if him being gay is going to affect his running for office some 20-3o years down the line (I am optimistic about a more tolerating future, okay?) and for that, he subjects Chris to what is akin to be like a mistress. Duane, aka Coco Chanel, is funny and entertaining, and I loved that he got his own arc about his gender fluidity and fashion designer dreams than being just a small character in the story. He was over the top at times, especially when it came to Chris’s step-brother, which felt like a stereotype? I don’t really know, but it felt very cliche – like, of course the drag queen is going to hit on the hot straight guy? Yeah, I wasn’t that convinced.

Overall, though, I would say read it if you like to read a queer Cinderella retelling. The romance wasn’t that great, for me, though.

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Sky Pony Press, via Edelweiss and Netgalley.

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