They Never Learn by Layne Fargo | Book Review

Look up trigger warnings! There’s a lot around sexual assault and abuse of power.

Genre: thriller, serial killer, dark academia, lgbt; f/f relationships, queer women, two bisexual female protagonists

Pages: 378

Synopsis

Scarlett Clark is an exceptional English professor. But she’s even better at getting away with murder.

Every year, she searches for the worst man at Gorman University and plots his well-deserved demise. Thanks to her meticulous planning, she’s avoided drawing attention to herself—but as she’s preparing for her biggest kill yet, the school starts probing into the growing body count on campus. Determined to keep her enemies close, Scarlett insinuates herself into the investigation and charms the woman in charge, Dr. Mina Pierce. Everything’s going according to her master plan… until she loses control with her latest victim, putting her secret life at risk of exposure.

Meanwhile, Gorman student Carly Schiller is just trying to survive her freshman year. Finally free of her emotionally abusive father, all Carly wants is to focus on her studies and fade into the background. Her new roommate has other ideas. Allison Hadley is cool and confident—everything Carly wishes she could be—and the two girls quickly form an intense friendship. So when Allison is sexually assaulted at a party, Carly becomes obsessed with making the attacker pay… and turning her fantasies about revenge into a reality. 

My thoughts

Sometimes I feel the books with a really interesting plot/synopsis that feels targeted at me, is the ones that let me down the most. It’s got a very good goodreads rating too. I just couldn’t get over how much I didn’t like the writing, as in the language used being cringy and constantly taking me out of the story. There’s two f/f queer friendship (both POVs are bisexual women) that turn sexual at certain points, both ending up very different. It’s all very intense and dramatic, yet it fits into the story. And there’s enough twists to the characters and the plotlines that I did enjoy reading it, even if it was built on somewhat one-dimensional characters.

I first blamed it on the fact that writing a serial killer is difficult, and it still could be, but it’s the same problem with the student Carly. Because in many ways she’s supposed to showcase the start of a girl turning cold and ruthless by the experiences and total lack of support in the systems, like being ridiculed by school administration when trying to help her friend after a sexual assault. It was a nice comparison, even if it was laid on a bit thick with even the professor Scarlett pointing out how she saw a young version of herself.

I have to state that there’s nothing wrong with these “unlikable” female main characters that made me dislike the book, as I often prefer them. In general, the author seems to be known for writing those well. I also want to say I whole-heartedly disagree with some other bad reviews claim that all the rapists weren’t equally bad and so on, it’s showcased all the way why the serial killer chooses her victims and the actions they’ve committed. I had to stop reading those reviews quick to not get sick, as they excuse sexual abuse so blatantly. It’s not meant to be feministic in how you should cheer on a serial killer, that’s up to the reader, but in showing how a culture of abuse and sexual assaults can be protected against those who want to report it. And that’s not far-fetched at all in today’s society, even if it shouldn’t have to defend itself as fiction.

Is it dark academia? Absolutely, it’s a look into a professor/murderer’s mind set on an university campus, trying to avoid persecution. The student’s POV even shows how her experiences and obsessiveness with helping her friend and keeping up with writing leads her into a darker path than she could imagine. It definitely showcases the potentially worst sides of an (academic) institution with abuse of power from everyone in charge.

Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler | Book Review

Pages: 352

Genre: young adult fantasy, lgbt; bi morally-gray protagonist, f/f relationships, a lot of queer characters, pirates

Synopsis

In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka comes to collect when there’s money owing. When her ability to access the Well of Combat is discovered by the Empire—an ability she should have declared and placed at His Imperial Majesty’s service—she’s sent on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit. 

My thoughts

Rating out of five: two stars

I read the book “Ship of Smoke and Steel” by Django Wexler right after this one and I would very much recommend it if you’ve already read & liked this book, because it’s pretty similar in the style of the protagonist’s voice, but I also found them both lacking in the same areas.

The world-building isn’t great, but it truly is interesting as it is pretty much powered by magic, and you get to slowly learn the mechanisms behind the ship and the world as the plot unfolds. It’s obvious the author has experience writing fantasy books and I think it’s more of a choice considering the YA targeting. There is also the constant questioning of which characters to trust and not, while none of them ever claim to truly be ‘the good ones’, there’s just different degrees of selfishness among them. The whole crew of the ship were tributes with magical abilities trapped there forever, meaning Isoka is no longer that special, but at the same time she does seem to have abilities to do things the other never could, so it does feel like there’s some short-cuts taken there.

I don’t care about everyone. Maybe that makes me a monster, but I’ve always known that. o save Tori, to save Meroe, to save my own skin, I’d kill every crew on the ship if I had to. But— There’s more to saving Meroe than just keeping her alive. If I take her with me, and we live when everyone else dies, then she’d never forgive herself. The goodness in her, the part that makes her care, might be snuffed out forever. Then she’d be a monster, too. And I can’t accept that.

– Isoka in Ship of Smoke and Steel

There’s certainly some heart-warming elements to the book as well, they even highlight some of the unreliable narration as there’s a split between how she views herself and her actions; like how Isoka claims that she cares about little other than her sister, but at the same time she’s finding herself saving strangers and wanting other things. Meroe is also an interesting character, having skills that isn’t revealed right away and a good backstory to back them up, but for the most part they’re pretty shallow and stereotypical.

The queer parts (were kind of bad)

I could tell this book is written by a man through the writing of some characters. It’s not as bad as it sometimes can be and there was (thankfully) no explicit scenes, even if it’s obvious when people have sex. There’s a lot of queer characters, so a clap for that I guess. The f/f romance between Isoka & Meroe is nice, their gender has little to do with it in many ways though. It’s a nice touch from the start how Isoka is always thinking about what Meroe might think if she were to kill someone, in a way that social pressure becomes her conscience, not to mention a bit of jealousy.

There’s no book or plot reason Isoka is a girl really in this book at all. I’ll explain – there’s a few extra sentences put in here about both experiencing exchanging sex for favours or power of some sort (which does happen for also the male characters) and being threatened extra for being female, but overall there’s nothing characteristicly making her female. Which I would maybe even have truly liked, weren’t it for the sexist world built up around them and how it never seems to affect Isoka, which is truly weird. Isoka is afraid of certain things, like the fate of her sister, but never for herself. When she’s in a position where she has sex with a guy to get access as part of a plan, she talks herself into how she wants it in a very strange and not empowering way, to be honest.

Being female never holds her back, but the world built up around her should at least bring her to have more thoughts around it, if not feel the consequences directly. For fuck’s sake, she talks about how if she were found to be unwilling to cooperate back in the city, as someone with magical abilities, they would’ve just kidnapped her and bred her. It’s basically mentioned as a one-off comment. There’s also the fact that Isoka is all of a sudden constantly distracted by Meroe & her body, as she’s fighting for her life, in a very fanfic way that does not match her character. Fantasy worlds doesn’t inheritely have to be sexist; either naturally have it affect a female character or just don’t make a sexist world??? They’re very much not a joy to read for your female readers??? At least make a point if you are to create them. The more I think about this, the angrier I get at how it colors this book for me.

I haven’t even mentioned the “beast” of a woman that is a tyrannical leader, somehow to make the woman also evil in this book, without any reason other than pride/humiliation of course as the other leaders gets more complex ones.

For someone truly excited about queer relationships, Jack and Thora (both female) is where it already started to feel sketchy. They’re both kind of one-dimensional characters, which doesn’t help as every time they’re in the room together Jack is all over Thora, who sometimes even reads as if she’s uncomfortable. There’s the fact that Isoka deals with some internalized homophobia in the beginning, before realizing she likes girls as well, that might draw the relationship worse than it is. But it does at times contribute to the feeling that the author wanted to write a good fantasy where the YA parts and the female protagonist, as well as the queer characters, became more of a selling-point than truly a part of the story.

The plot was predictable, but interesting. I went into this book looking for a badass morally-gray protagonist and a cool fantasy world. I finished it being both a bit confused about my feelings around it, a bit excited by the action, very let down about the predictability of plot and lack of explanation about the world. But most of all with the sense that the wrong person wrote the story for all its highlighting of a kickass-female-character & queer cast.

I REPEAT: Fantasy worlds doesn’t inheritely have to be sexist; either naturally have it affect a female character or just don’t make a sexist world???

Wilder Girls by Rory Power | Review

I’ve gotten so into horror after reading this book, which I did for hours during the night as I couldn’t sleep. I was visiting my boyfriend and he absolutely thought I was a bit more strange trying to explain this book and how well it balanced between fantasy and horror in a unique way. Most of this unique feeling I think came from the perspective, it all being about and told by teen girls. Anyway, I’ll get back to that.

Pages: 357

Genre: young adult (don’t agree), horror: disease & body horror, lgbt (queer girls, slight f/f relationship, but a lot of yearning), some mystery vibes, set in a boarding school on an island. quarantined (which will be a genre i guess).

Warning: it has a lot of trigger warnings, pls search them up before reading

Synopsis

It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.

It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.

But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.

My thoughts

Rating out of five: five stars

here’s me arguing it’s not YA

This book has amazing cover art, but I think it did the book a diservice, along the fact that it’s branded as young adult. I feel like this is a larger conversation that I keep having, but not everything with teenage characters (especially female) is YA! It doesn’t have a great rating at goodreads (3.58) and I think it’s because people isn’t expecting what they get unless they’re like me that added this to their TBR as it was released a year ago and then now saw one book blogger (don’t remember who oops) saying it was more horror like, which got my interest again.

the friend-group & characters

SO! An all-girl high school on an island where most of the teachers die off on the beginning of the the two year quarantine, where everything starts up pretty simple and then reveals so much more complex moral, practical, society & science-related questions. It’s reveal after reveal and a constant search for who is the good & bad guys, which gives the mystery vibes. There’s a strong queer friend-group & chosen family trope, but not with likable characters. Think about it – unlikable female characters, violent at that. Most reviews I’ve read lists that as a main issue they had, but I feel like a lot of this book is the experimentation of fierce, reckless, dangerous girl characters, who also have other sides to them. Some of it can be excused to this disease they’ve all got and are dying from, the Tox, mutating their bodies in graphic, unique and eerie ways. But they’re also shaped by living in a two-year life & death situation, along with maybe not being the perfect complacent & normal main characters in the first place.

I WAS SHOCKED at having seen one girl of the friendgroup having been described by the main character Hetty in one adoring (almost worshipping) way the whole time. And then we got the other girl’s narrative and she was so different, with clear sociopathic/violent tendencies. But still it was revealed during a situation where you as a reader wanted to feel bad for her, which is when I truly cheered for this duality this book accomplished.

the island setting & writing

Every description was done so well and fit the mystery and horror aspect as the island they’re on takes as much part as any character. It makes so much sense with the quarantine aspect, the fact that one of the characters has a dad she hasn’t seen in a year living in those woods. The woods are alive and overgrown, as is the mutated animals, which is a threat. I’m just surprised by how much the author got into one book tbh. It’s also a lot of fun to read, surprisingly!

conclusion

This book has the mystery, murder, dark humor and boarding-school vibes of Maureen Johnson’s ‘Truly Devious’ mixed in with any dystopian bad-government, mutated animals, body horror you can think of, all with a good dash of forest aesthetic and eerie, descriptive writing. It’s one of my new favourite books and I would totally recommend it. Just don’t expect it to be YA or to like most of the characters.

Quote with slight spoilers:

These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling | Review #PrideLibrary19 🌈

I’ve already made a post of queer girls YA book recommendations, if you’re looking for a list of f/f romances. So today, let’s give a review of a new release with more than one f/f romance, that I read and enjoyed very much this month.

The Pride Library 2019 Challenge is hosted by Library Looter, Anniek’s Library and Michelle Likes Things. Join in on it anytime or link your post in the comments so I see it! Also all reviews I’ve written will be linked.

Genre: YA urban fantasy, with lesbian witch protagonist and at least three other lesbian/bi girls, trans minor character.

Pages: 336

Synopsis

Hannah’s a witch, but not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s the real deal, an Elemental with the power to control fire, earth, water, and air. But even though she lives in Salem, Massachusetts, her magic is a secret she has to keep to herself. If she’s ever caught using it in front of a Reg (read: non-witch), she could lose it. For good. So, Hannah spends most of her time avoiding her ex-girlfriend (and fellow Elemental Witch) Veronica, hanging out with her best friend, and working at the Fly by Night Cauldron selling candles and crystals to tourists, goths, and local Wiccans. 

But dealing with her ex is the least of Hannah’s concerns when a terrifying blood ritual interrupts the end-of-school-year bonfire. Evidence of dark magic begins to appear all over Salem, and Hannah’s sure it’s the work of a deadly Blood Witch. The issue is, her coven is less than convinced, forcing Hannah to team up with the last person she wants to see: Veronica.

While the pair attempt to smoke out the Blood Witch at a house party, Hannah meets Morgan, a cute new ballerina in town. But trying to date amid a supernatural crisis is easier said than done, and Hannah will have to test the limits of her power if she’s going to save her coven and get the girl, especially when the attacks on Salem’s witches become deadlier by the day.

My thoughts

Rating: I’ve never had a book be more of a 3.5 out of five stars. I’m giving it a four star because it made me smile so much and was filled with small relatable moments for its queer girls.

I went into this book expecting fun, dramatic moments, a city of witches, covens arguing and lots of lesbians. I got it all. I really liked the protagonist and the voice and writing of this book. The title is so awesome and I was so excited to find out how literal it was, the magic in this book started interesting enough, but then the limits of it was never explored much or explained.

The way the main character’s witch family was incorporated isn’t something you see a lot in YA fantasy and I really liked it. It also annoyed me how the author made them very much go out of their way at the beginning to not see the signs of trouble their daughter did, so that it led to the typical scenario of the main character having to – on her own – investigate if new witches that meant harm had arrived.

My fav thing: Hannah and Veronica’s relationship/friendship, having grown up together and then become a couple and now exes. How they know each other very well and constantly edged the line between it being suspensful & teasing and manipulating. Also how Hannah resolves this in the end, while there also being a love for each other that comes up throughout the whole book. Don’t expect a cute f/f romance book, but it has those moments as well. Friendships in general are a really strong influence in this book and I love that.

It was towards the last half this book dropped to a three stars with the predictable plot and suddenly having to tie everything together to set up for a sequel. But I have my hopes up that it’s going to be great as well, if a bit nervous that the ball is going to be dropped again on the character development and special moments in favour of following a strict plot.

Fav quotes *spoilers below at own risk*

“You and I are going to scry for the Blood Witch.” I pour the water into the bowl and set it on my desk. “That’s why I had you bring your grimoire.” “This is ridiculous.” Veronica reaches into her bag and pulls out her personal Book of Shadows. “Why can’t you be a normal ex and post angry poetry online?”