The Cartographers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Peng Shepherd
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022 (read Apr. 2022)

I was super excited when I first read the synopsis and saw the cover art for The Cartographers! Everything about the blurb appealed to me and I was stoked to jump into this one. Since its release, it’s getting some pretty mixed reviews, which I can definitely understand. It’s a very compelling story and there’s a lot that I liked about it. Initially I gave it 4 stars, but upon closer reflection, I have to admit that parts of the book are pretty flawed and that I loved the premise of the book more than the execution, so I decided to bump my review down to 3 stars. Still a great read, but not everything it could have been. So let’s talk about it.

The Cartographers features protagonist Nell Young and opens with the death of her estranged father. He passes away at work and when the police notify her of the incident, she discovers a map hidden in his office and sneaks it away with her. She quickly discovers that despite the unassuming nature of this cheap gas station map, it appears to be extremely desirable and is the only remaining map in existence. A shadowy group called the Cartographers appears to be after the map and Nell is quickly catapulted into a mission to unravel the maps secrets before the dangerous cartographers find her.

Sounds great right? It is. I found the writing to be pretty fast paced and the mystery super compelling. There’s a fantastical element to the story as we discover some of the secrets that maps can hold and slowly get answers about who the Cartographers are as we unravel Nell’s family history. I loved the idea that maps can be portals and that some places exist only within the maps on which they are shown. I got totally caught up in the story, in solving the mystery and exposing the secrets.

Unfortunately, as smart as the premise of the plot is, the execution and backstory are so flawed that it does take away from my overall impression of the book. Without getting into spoilers yet, a lot of the characters make questionable decisions, portions of the story are left unexplained, and the ending is perfect and messy in a way that doesn’t really make sense. We are introduced to a lot of characters, but many are left only partially developed. The premise of the plot is excellent, but it’s left unsupported by weak characterization and themes.

I would still recommend this book because of how fun it is. It really captured my imagination and it is very fast paced and I found it hard to put down. It’s just not quite as good as I believe it could be and beyond the extremely creative premise, I felt the author lost that creativity in telling the rest of the story. So I’d still encourage you to check it out, but for now, I’d like to jump into the spoiler part of the my discussion because I want to further explore some of the plot points and would love to hear opinions from others who have read the book.
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My main criticism relates to the Cartographers and their motivations. I feel like Shepherd created this wonderful idea of having the errors on maps become real places and I loved the discovery of Agloe, I just didn’t understand the choices the rest of the characters made. I didn’t understand why Nell’s mother opted to stay in Agloe for 30 years. Actually, I understood it in theory, it’s more that I didn’t believe it.

I didn’t believe that her motivations for deciding to stay in Agloe were strong enough. To say she is hiding from, or afraid of Wally is unfair. While he did become an extremely unstable character, I believe this was mostly due to his grief and ongoing fanaticism about the map. Had Tam simply left Agloe and not been presumed dead, he would not have spent 30 years trying to get back to her and I believe the combined effort of the Cartographers could have managed and support Wally in his grief. Instead they stood idly by for 30 years – allowing Wally to become more and more unhinged and permitting a young girl to grow up without her mother. This is selfish and irresponsible. I could excuse some of the Cartographers since it was only Daniel that knew Tam was still alive, but together Nell’s parents are a bunch of idiots.

Secondly, I didn’t believe any sane individual could stay in a fictional town for 30 years. The perceived danger wasn’t real, but even if it was, what person wouldn’t risk it to be with their husband and daughter. There’s no way Tam would still be sane after 30 years in a make-believe town, but clearly she wasn’t sane to begin with if she thought self isolating for 30 years was a good idea.

So all of the decisions made by the Cartographers were based on this flawed fear of an unhinged individual that they themselves created. It just wasn’t a good enough motivator for me to understand of empathize with their decisions. Tam made the decision to abandon her daughter and Daniel made the decision to ruin her career and slander her. What kind of life are they even trying to protect for Nell? A life where she is estranged from her family and forced to work in a dead end job, never having known a mother or father’s love? What is even the point? Leave Agloe and burn the map. No one should love cartography this much.

Tam being alive explains the motivation for hiding the map for so long, but honestly I thought this book would have been a lot stronger if Tam had actually died in the fire. It would explain why the rest of the Cartographers repressed the entire ordeal out of grief and I would have understood better why they hid it from Nell. Tam being secretly alive for 30 years just made me mad about Nell’s abandonment and weakened the premise for the rest of the story.

Anyways, overall this is leaving me thoroughly confused about the book. Like I said, I can’t deny I had a lot of fun reading it, my frustrations are mostly because I thought it could be stronger and I was sad to end the book feeling disappointed when I wanted so badly to love it. I didn’t quite understand the ending, but it was a wonderful blend of magical realism and I would read it again in hopes of picking up on some other subtleties about how the map magic system works. If you want to enjoy it, you just have to be willing to accept the story for what it is. A great idea, just maybe not perfectly thought out. 3.5 stars

A Hundred Other Girls

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Iman Hariri-Kia
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Jul. 26, 2022 (read Apr. 2022)

Thanks to Harper Collins and Netgalley for gifting me with an early e-copy of this book. I attended HCC Frenzy’s first adult fiction preview on upcoming new releases for summer 2022 and was stoked to receive an arc of A Hundred Other Girls, which was really hyped up.

It’s impossible to talk about A Hundred Other Girls without comparing it to The Devil Wears Prada. Granted, it’s been MANY years since I read The Devil Wears Prada, but the similarities are immediately obvious. A Hundred Other Girls is definitely a much more contemporary version of this classic and I loved that it features a Persian-American protagonist and displays all kinds of minority identities and relationships throughout the story.

Noora is an aspiring writer not long out of college who lives in New York and runs her own moderately successful lifestyle and culture blog. She wants to be a journalist and aspires to one day write meaningful think pieces for magazines, of which Vinyl is at the top of her list. She’s a bit down and out on luck and is currently sleeping on her sister’s couch to help make ends meet when she interviews for an executive assistant position with none other than the Editor-in-Chief of Vinyl, Loretta James.

As you can probably guess from the comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada, Noora lands the job and Loretta turns out to be a certifiable nightmare. Vinyl is currently in the midst of an internal war between the digital and print versions of the magazine and Noora’s job quickly becomes her entire life as she gets constantly dragged by Loretta, motivating her to get naively involved in the underground war taking place at Vinyl.

First off, I should state up front that I didn’t like The Devil Wears Prada, so I’m not sure why I was so motivated to read this one. I think it was mostly because of Noora and I wanted to experience New York through the eyes of a Persian-American protagonist. I wanted to love A Hundred Other Girls, but I have to admit that I didn’t. I feel like the author had all the right elements, but overall I thought the plot was just a bit basic. I wanted this to challenge my thinking and provide new perspectives, but I thought it was a bit oversimplified and not as revolutionary as I’d hoped.

Loretta was really the worst and I felt like the author kept trying to make us somehow empathize with her despite her terrible actions. I don’t care how much Loretta might have championed certain causes or impacted the print industry – she was an asshole and it’s never okay to rationalize treating people like shit. I understood why Noora kept working there (money and exposure), but I lamented for her mental health because being treated this way could not be worth it.

I will say that the author is a pretty good story teller. Despite being frustrated with the content, I did not struggle to read this book and was engaged throughout the entire story. The writing flows well and Noora is still a very relatable character. I just wanted more from it. I didn’t buy that Noora would get such a good reception after writing one think piece (that’s really just not how the world works) and I would have loved to be more engaged in the piece that she wrote.

I picked this book up because I wanted to understand the prejudice and micro-aggressions Noora had been working against her entire life. I would have loved for the writing of her think piece to be more central to the novel. To understand her own lived experiences and get insight into how she interviewed and developed the piece into something so meaningful. As a reader, it was hard for me to be impressed by her work without getting the opportunity to experience it. I understand the point the author was trying to make, but I feel like she only just scratched the surface of the issue and that body hair should have been a lot more central to the story if that’s the first piece that Noora decides to write.

I did like the ending of the book, I felt like it was a bit unconventional, but I was glad to see Noora stand up for herself. Like I said, I think all the elements were there, I just wanted the author to develop stronger themes. It was a compelling story, but I finished the book questioning what my key takeaways are supposed to be. But as always with a book like this, I want to acknowledge that this perspective may mean the world to someone else and that there is always value in telling diverse stories. I didn’t love it, but it’s a fresh take on a modern classic and I still liked it better than The Devil Wears Prada, so don’t be deterred from checking it out!

Olga Dies Dreaming

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Xochitl Gonzalez
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Jan. 2022 (read Feb. 2022)

Olga Dies Dreaming is a new release that immediately caught my eye. Even from the synopsis, I had a bit of trouble figuring out what it was about, but it appeared to be a family drama and immigration story centered around Hurricane Maria, and I was very intrigued.

Unfortunately, after starting it the plot didn’t really become any clearer, but the writing was really sharp and smart and I was still intrigued with the characters. This is definitely a character driven novel rather than a plot driven novel, to the point that I could see some people really struggling with it, even those who love character driven stories (which I do). The synopsis made it seem to me as if the story would revolve around Hurricane Maria, but it’s more what we’re propelling towards throughout the narrative. If you think of this as a family drama centered around 2 siblings of Puerto Rican descent, who’ve been abandoned by their mother, I think it will be a bit easier to get into it.

Because at its core, this is really about a relationship between two adult siblings, Olga and Prieto, and how their lives have been influenced by their mother leaving in their adolescence. Olga is now a wedding planner who designs elaborate ceremonies and receptions for her ultra wealthy clients, sometimes blurring the line between what’s reasonable and ethical to charge for. Prieto is a congressman who’s built his career around building up their borough in Brooklyn, but who is haunted by secrets he feels he has to keep from both his constituents and his family. While they’re now both in their 40’s, the abandonment by their mother in their teens to go fight for Puerto Rican independence (and her continued influence from afar), leaves both siblings feeling inadequate.

As they navigate their careers, relationships, and choices, we are the whole while barreling towards Hurricane Maria, which decimates the island state of Puerto Rico. Highlighting the disparity between Puerto Rico and other American States and how the island has been abused by the ultra rich to further benefit themselves at the expense of poor Puerto Ricans.

Like I said, this book is smart. It’s political and I struggled to keep up sometimes with a lot of the ideology presented, but I liked that the author wasn’t afraid to just go there and trust her readers to come along for the ride. I think this is really impressive for a debut novel – the author definitely knows how to “show, don’t tell” and wasn’t intimated to explore some complex themes. In addition, Olga and Prieto made for really interesting character studies. I honestly had no idea where this book was going at any point in time and both of the characters are extremely flawed, and yet I wanted them to succeed so badly. Despite it being hard to pinpoint the plot, there was a lot going on in this book. It is a thoughtful exploration of race, class, wealth, gender, sexuality, heritage, family, love, and so much more. It’s honestly overwhelming to think of everything Gonzales includes in the story without ever making it seem overwhelming.

Really I think it’s the writing that makes this stand out. I can’t say it was the most memorable book I’ve ever read, and yet it left me with a lot to think about. I don’t think it will be for everyone because it’s not a quickly digestible read and requires some reflection, but I would definitely recommend and will be watching to see what else Gonzales releases in the future. More books like this please!

We Are Okay

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Nina LaCour
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pub. Date: Feb. 2017 (read Nov. 2021)

This is only my second Nina LaCour book, but I think it’s safe to say now that I am a fan! I read Watch Over Me at the tail end of last year and really liked her writing style. She seems to write atmospherically haunting ghost stories that fall right on the cusp between Young Adult and New Adult. I had a book hangover after finishing Once There Were Wolves and thought this one might be the antidote.

We Are Okay focuses on college freshman Marin, who has just moved from California to New York after losing her grandfather. In her grief, she fell out of touch with her best friend, Mabel, and now Mabel is flying to New York to try and rekindle the friendship and convince Marin to come back home. The problem is that Marin is haunted by the ghosts of her past and still too deep in the throes of her grief to return to California.

This is the exact kind of character driven novel that I live for and a great example of why I keep returning to Young Adult, despite feeling I’ve outgrown most of the books in the genre. There are always books in YA and middle grade that have such beautiful writing and universal themes that they are able to rise above the rest of the genre and be appreciated at any age.

It’s a subtle book that explores Marin’s past – her relationship with Mabel, with her grandfather, with her mother, and with herself. The death of her grandfather forces her to face truths she’d rather live buried and her sudden expulsion into adulthood leaves her feeling unmoored. It’s easier to run away than face our ghosts. More than anything, this is a book for those left behind by their loved ones. Grief is a language anyone can understand, at any age. It impacts each of us differently, but it’s a beast we must all face throughout our lives. A beautiful exploration of family, both made and found.

We Are the Brennans

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Tracey Lange
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Sep. 2021)

I was so stoked for this one, but it turned out to be such a disappointment. It’s an easy read, with the flow between chapters being pretty smooth, but I wasn’t really a fan of the writing style. It was pretty simplistic, which is fine, but I feel like this has been marketed as literary fiction and I just didn’t see it.

We Are the Brennans tells the story of the Brennan family and their life in an Irish suburb of New York. I’m sure you guessed it from the cover, but the Brennans are Irish and as such, had a pretty conservative Irish-Catholic upbringing. Everything seemed to be going great until Sunday Brennan up and left 5 years ago and the family started falling on tough times. But now Sunday is back and the entire Brennan Family are forced to face the secrets of their past.

I live for family dramas, but this one just didn’t work for me. Aside from disliking the writing style, I thought the entire plot was predictable and pedestrian. I disliked almost all of the characters, which isn’t usually enough for me to dislike a novel, but I felt like everything in this book was overly dramatized because in reality, the author didn’t have that great a storyline. I feel like she had somewhere she wanted to take this story, but it was so poorly executed. It had a lot of the pitfalls of a debut novel in that Lange had a lot of ideas and no idea how to tie them all together in a meaningful way.

But mostly I think I just disagreed with her central themes. She had a lot of ideas about family and shame and I struggled to agree with any of them. I’ll get into the details in the spoiler section of the review, but by the end of the book I couldn’t help but acknowledge that me and Lange are just not on the same page. I feel like this Irish immigrant space is something that she knows really well, and maybe other Irish immigrants in NY might be able to relate more, but I also grew up on an island full of Irish immigrants and I felt that she really romanticized the Brennans in an unhealthy way. The book is all about family, but I thought every member in this family was toxic. She kind of tries to acknowledge this towards the end of the book (via Vivienne), but then she’s just like “sod it, they may be toxic, but they all love each other, so it’s fine”.

Anyways, it’s hard to really get into it without spoilers, but a lot of this book hinges on the reveal of a big secret about halfway through the book and this is where it all went downhill for me. I thought the secret was so problematic and that the author had so many blind spots about it that I just couldn’t move past it. So for me this book was a big miss. It’s still a somewhat entertaining read, but I wouldn’t recommend it – there are so many better family dramas out there – skip this one.
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Okay, now for the spoilers. There were two parts that killed this book for me – the “secret” reveal and the ending. Let’s start with the secret.

So the big secret is basically that Sunday got drunk one night when her family was in Ireland and the bartender tricked her into coming up to his room with him. He comes on to her, she leaves, and then he pushes her down the stairs and leaves while she bleeds from a miscarriage.

This scene is so traumatic for her that she leaves New York for 5 years because she can’t bear to tell her family. She is obviously traumatized, embarrassed, and ashamed by the incident. We had an interesting discussion about this secret at book club because we thought it was silly that she didn’t feel she could tell anyone about this. She didn’t do anything wrong and her family should really only feel sympathy for her. In the long list of things that could have gone wrong for her as a woman, we felt like maybe this wasn’t the worst case scenario, the trap of “it wasn’t really that bad”.

This is the one part of the book Lange gets right. Any situation that harms a woman physically or mentally is “that bad”. Society has a tendency to create an unfair hierarchy of trauma, which only results in silencing a lot of women. I read a whole anthology about this concept (Not That Bad by Roxane Gay) and I did really like that Lange never belittled the trauma that Sunday felt from this incident.

What I didn’t like was how it all played out. Because the real reason Sunday feels she can’t tell any of her family members is because she thinks they’ll literally go out and kill Billy, which turned out to be a pretty damn justified fear. So she doesn’t tell anyone out of the fear of how they will react. Sure, it plays into her catholic upbringing, but it drove me crazy that she underwent 5 years of self-imposed exile over how someone else might react to her pain. So she not only takes ownership of what happened to her, but she takes on the added responsibility of what her brothers might or might not do in their anger.

Now I know women do this all the time – take on the responsibility of other people’s actions, but I’m f*cking sick of it. Lange could have taken this whole ordeal and written something really meaningful and healing about it, but instead she takes a woman’s pain and uses it for drama. There are several instances of victim blaming where both Sunday and Kale (maybe Denny too?) think that she had too much to drink, indirectly blaming her for Billy’s actions. There’s some exploration of how the ordeal was traumatic for Sunday, but I don’t feel like Lange ever explores that in any depth. Sunday’s assault is simply used as a lazy way in which to create this time and space between her characters and to spurn on the actions of the rest of the book’s male characters. I detest when assault is used solely for drama and the motivations of other characters and try as I might, I just couldn’t look past it throughout the entire second half of the novel. Denny, Mickey, and Kale are all toxic characters and the fact that they “love” Sunday doesn’t excuse them all going out and being violent assholes about it. In fact, it’s so toxic, her fear of it drives her away from them for 5 years.

Which brings me to my second point – the ending. So Kale leaves Vivienne even though he knows the Brennans are all toxic and liars (but their “his” liars, AWWW), and everyone seems to finally be moving forward, acknowledging that as a family they can band together and support one another because that’s what families do. But then we find out Mickey actually murdered Billy (which was also super predictable), and they’re just like, “oh…. but it’s okay, we’ll get through it together like we always do”.

I’m sorry, but what kind of messed up theme is that. What a way to end your book, with a family condoning and shielding a murderer – yeah, that’s exactly the kind of message I want to take with me from this book! If this was a thriller, sure, but it’s not and it doesn’t fit. I feel like Lange just places the Brennans on this pedestal and because of her proximity to the subject matter, she can’t see what kind of bias she brings into this story. Love doesn’t excuse your actions. You show love by showing up for your family members and creating safe spaces for them. If the theme was about surviving these kind of toxic behaviours it would be great, but this book only condones them.

Anyways, there’s other things I didn’t like (namely the treatment of Vivienne), but I feel I’ve ranted enough. Obviously I didn’t like it and I like it even less now that I’ve taken the time to vocalize why I didn’t like it. I’m honestly blown away by how many high reviews this got on goodreads. I feel like I missed something, maybe I did, but I’m still done with this book. Good riddance.