Category Archives: book review

Book Review: My Favorite YA Book of the Year: The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

Genre: contemporary YA fiction, Shakespeare retelling

Release date: 10/1/19

Rating: 4.5 stars

The Last True Poets of the Sea is a book that wasn’t even on my radar prior to Book Expo, when I heard it pitched in a YA Buzz books panel discussion as, I’m not kidding, a book that’s really hard to describe. Despite the vagueness of this description, or perhaps because of it, I was drawn to pick it up, even though when the panel had started I’d promised myself to only pick up one book that was being pitched, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, because I wanted to limit the number of ARCs I picked up from BookExpo to ensure that I’d have time to read them all. I broke my promise to myself, which was pretty inevitable in hindsight, and I’m so glad I did, because The Last True Poets of the Sea is probably going to end up being my favorite YA book of the year.

It’s true that you could say The Last True Poets is hard to describe; you could also say that it’s a loose retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as a YA contemporary, set in a small town in Maine, that focuses on mental health issues, sibling relationships, and family mythology. And yes, that is a lot of components for a premise, but it blends together perfectly through Julia Drake’s seemingly effortless writing style. We’re following fantastically flawed Violet (an incredibly dimensional, realistic main character), whose twin brother Sam has just survived a suicide attempt, and who’s been sent to live with her uncle in Maine for the summer while Sam receives treatment at a mental health facility, and where presumably she’ll be forced to stay out of trouble. Because while Sam has been struggling more and more with his mental health, Violet’s been partying more than she should, to the point where she doesn’t know how or where to draw the line. In Lyric, Maine, the small town where her family originates from and, legend has it, founded the town after her ancestor survived a shipwreck off the coast (one of the many Twelfth Night connections in this story), Violet gets a job at the local aquarium, falls in with an existing friend group, two of whose members, Orion and Liv, instantly appeal to her, and tries, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to do better–as a daughter, a niece, a sister, a person. Her efforts are flawed and halting some of the time, but she’s trying, and as she does, she starts to investigate the mythology behind her family and the town of Lyric, and simultaneously starts falling for Liv, an unofficial Lyric history truther.

It’s so hard to review a book when your primary thoughts are I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH, YOU ALL NEED TO READ IT, I PROMISE YOU WILL LOVE IT TOO. Because while that’s all true, I do need to also find other, more appealing ways to say it, so let’s try this: The Last True Poets of the Sea is one of the most authentic-feeling books I’ve ever read. It’s able to capture both the contradictions and complexities of being a teenager and also the atmospheric and unique Maine setting, seemingly without much effort, because Julia Drake’s writing is a style that almost seems simple until you realize just how skillful it is. It’s a beautiful book, but it doesn’t shy away from anything difficult or ugly, and it talks about mental health in ways that seem truer than most nonfiction I’ve read. It talks about love, not just first romantic love but sibling love and family bonds, and love for a place that’s wrapped in nostalgia and difficult to recapture as we get older. The characters are people that are so easy to identify with, because none of them are perfect, but messy in a way that’s somehow better. Reading this book made me feel and think about so many things; I was brought back to the three months I spent living in a small town in Maine during grad school, and also to the doubt and insecurities of being a teenager, and to the anxiety I deal with as an adult. The best books are like that, I think: consuming when you read them, and lingering long after you finish, to the point where you can’t help but keep thinking about them.

Hopefully somehow this messy, disjointed review somehow fits with this gorgeous book that’s impossible to simplify, and I hope that you all love it as much as I did.

 

I received an ARC of The Last True Poets of the Sea at BookExpo in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Love Her or Lose Her by Tessa Bailey

 

Love Her or Lose Her (Hot & Hammered, #2)

Love Her or Lose Her by Tessa Bailey

Release date: January 14th, 2020

Genre: contemporary romance

Rating: 3 stars

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this second installment in Bailey’s Hot and Hammered series quite as much as the first book, Fix Her Up, but it was still a fun, quick read that I think a lot of contemporary romance readers will likely enjoy. Love Her or Lose Her follows a married couple (unusual for a romance novel!), Rosie and Dominic, who, despite a deep love for one another that began when they were childhood sweethearts, find themselves at a point in their marriage where they’re only truly able to connect in the bedroom; otherwise, their communication has completely broken down. Rosie in particular has been feeling the strain, and kicks off the novel by leaving Dominic, as she’s feeling unappreciated and unsatisfied both professionally and in their relationship. The plot of the novel revolves around Rosie and Dominic’s attempts to reconnect through a hippie version of last-ditch couples counseling Rosie initially proposes as a challenge to Dominic, thinking there’s no way he’ll let his guard down enough to try therapy, and Rosie’s efforts to start her own restaurant, which she’s been dreaming about her entire life.  We also get to see glimpses of Georgie and Travis, the main characters from Fix Her Up, as well as what’s presumably the setup for the third book in the series, a meet-cute between Bethany and new-in-town, cowboy hat-wearing Wes.

On the positive side, this eARC really saved me when I found out that my flight had been delayed for 4 hours and was stuck at the airport, finding myself not quite in the right mood for any of the physical books I’d brought with me but looking for a fun contemporary romance. It’s a quick read, Rosie is a likable main character, and Bailey’s writing is snappy and funny. I continue to enjoy the girl-power aspect of this series that centers around the women in their community forming the “Just-Us League,” a group designed for female support and empowerment, and how Georgie, Rosie, and Bethany lean on each other and have each other’s backs.

On the negative side, I wasn’t so much a fan of Dominic, and I felt that there was a lot of his backstory that wasn’t explored thoroughly enough for me to root for him and Rosie as a couple. He was also very possessive, and there was a definite feeling of him reinforcing traditional gender roles in certain aspects of their relationship, which very much did not work for me. The actions of all the male characters in this book were often very unappealing; one scene in particular, when Rosie and her friends are planning a girls’ night out in the city, and their love interests are so insecure and upset by this that they follow them all the way to New York to exhibit possessive behavior and deny them a night out with their girlfriends, really rubbed me the wrong way. I’ll still definitely look to read more Tessa Bailey in the future, as I did enjoy Fix Her Up quite a bit, but overall I don’t think this was quite the right book for me.

I received an eARC of Love Her or Lose Her from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Genre: contemporary romance

Release date: November 5th

Rating: 3.5 stars

This contemporary romance, set in England, follows web designer Chloe Brown, a guarded woman dealing with her fibromyalgia diagnosis, and Redford Morgan, an artist-turned-property-manager, who’s dealing with insecurity and the aftermath of a traumatizing relationship. Our story kicks off when Chloe undergoes a near-death experience and decides that she needs to, well, get a life–to stop being afraid to make bold life decisions and go out and experience the world. She initiates this by moving out of her family’s house, but stalls trying to accomplish any of the next few tasks (ride a motorcycle, travel the world with minimal luggage, have meaningless sex, etc) until she meets Red, who she seems to think is the sort of “dangerous” guy who could help her with her list, but who in actuality is a complete sweetheart who happens to ride a motorcycle. While working through Chloe’s list, with some necessary modifications, the two confront their mistaken first impressions of each other (Red assumes Chloe is a rich snob, Chloe assumes Red is carefree and full of himself) and end up falling for each other.

There’s a lot to like about Chloe Brown, chief among them being the titular main character. Chloe is smart and fierce, but she’s also grappling with a lot of insecurities and still working on figuring herself out, especially in the context of the aftermath of her fibromyalgia diagnosis. She’s instantly likable, and scenes from her perspective are hilarious, full of surprising quips and witty observations; she’s a character I would happily spend more time with. I would also be completely on board with more books involving Chloe’s family, since her two awesome sisters and badass grandmother stole every scene they were in. I wasn’t as much of a fan of her love interest, Red, who wasn’t nearly as charismatic of a viewpoint character, and I felt that their romance, once it began, progressed much more quickly than felt natural. But there was another issue I had while reading this book, which I’m probably going to explain terribly, and which probably will be a reason many people love this one.

At risk of sounding like a terribly cynical person, I was taken aback by how considerately everyone treated each other in this book. Let me explain: Chloe Brown is ostensibly a hate-to-love romance, but the main characters never actually hate each other, and even if they make certain assumptions, they always treat each other with an abundance of consideration and respect. There are misunderstandings and disagreements, sure, but they’re all dealt with incredibly nicely. Which is fine! It’s fiction, it’s a romance novel, I totally understand that respect, consideration, and niceness are how we should all treat one another in life and in relationships. But for me, a lot of the time it did feel unrealistic, as people tend to be much more imperfect and messy when it comes to emotions, and although I can of course suspend disbelief when it comes to fiction and romance a lot of the time, I think I’d have preferred a messier story to a more perfect one. I think a lot of people might disagree with me on that, but I think it comes down to a matter of preferences in romance: I tend to like a little less ease and a little more angst, whereas Chloe Brown definitely falls into the “sweet” category, which was why, although I did overall enjoy the read, it didn’t get a higher rating from me.

I received an eARC of Get a Life, Chloe Brown from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

Genre: science fiction

Rating: 4 stars

I have mixed feelings about time travel-focused science fiction; it’s never an element that draws me toward a story, but I’ve found it to be an interesting plot device in the hands of the right author (prior to picking up this book, namely Connie Willis, whose writing style I love). One of the things that can make or break a time travel plot is the method of time travel presented, and this was an element that I really enjoyed in The Future of Another Timeline: time travel is geology-based, and centers around specific rock formations in several locations around the world. We’re never sure whether the rock formations are a natural occurrence or whether they’re a remnant of a past advanced or alien civilization, but we know that one travels through time by tapping out specific patterns into the rock, and that humanity has barely scratched the surface of what the machines are truly capable of, and that explanation/non-explanation worked for me, because it felt unique, somewhat organic, and added a persistent oddness and potential for twists in the story.

The Future of Another Timeline follows time-traveling geologist Tess, who is ostensibly a researcher focusing on the late 1800s but in actuality is part of a secret organization dedicated to fighting for women’s and non-binary persons’ rights and preserving their contributions to society by manipulating the timeline and fighting against a shadow organization attempting to suppress women and non-binary persons in the past so that they can create a male-dominated future. We’re also following Beth, a teenager in the 1990s in California who is enmeshed in riot grrl culture and who’s dealing with a complex and precarious family situation, as well as the fact that she and her friends have just killed a rapist. We bounce back and forth between these two storylines throughout the book, with a few interludes from other perspectives, as Tess and her organization strategize about how to save the future while Beth deals with both emotional fallout and rising danger.

I found the writing style of Timeline to be concise, clear, and quick-moving; Newitz’s background as a science journalist feels clear in the story’s telling. It’s a fascinating premise, and one that could be intimidatingly complex if not told as succinctly as it was. The emotional depth of the story, however, was more inconsistent; I felt much more connected to Beth’s story than Tess’s, and not just because one involved time travel and one didn’t, but because Beth felt like a more fully realized character, whereas I never truly felt like I had a handle on who Tess was, beyond her fight for societal justice.

Beth’s portion of the plot, as well, was more gripping for me, probably because it was much more personal and immediate; it was as though, strangely, even though this is a book about time travel, it may have been a stronger story without the time travel element altogether, and just focusing solely on Beth. Newitz creates a fully realized vision of 1990s California, rife with punk rock, hypocrisy, the allure of freedom, and the crushing weight of restrictions placed on teenagers that prevent them from fully realizing that freedom as it lurks just out of reach with the escape of college. There were parts of Tess’s story that did work for me as well, particularly the parts featuring the other members of her society, the Daughters of Harriet (named for Harriet Tubman, who became a senator in this version of history), but for me the parts set in the 1890s tended to drag and felt oddly paced.

If you enjoy fast-paced, well-written science fiction that focuses on politically relevant issues, I do think you’ll enjoy this one. The Future of Another Timeline comes out tomorrow, September 24th.

 

Thank you so much to the publisher for the opportunity to pick up an ARC of The Future of Another Timeline at BookExpo.

Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls

Wilder Girls by Rory Power (release date 7/9/19)

Genre: YA weird fiction

Rating: 4 stars

A lot of people have been calling Wilder Girls a female version of Lord of the Flies; I’d say it’s much more of a YA take on Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, since both involve an all-female cast, weird fiction focused on a very specific environment, and an overlying sense of unease and strangeness. Unlike Vandermeer’s creation of humid Florida otherness, Wilder Girls is set on an isolated island off the coast of Maine, home to an all-girls boarding school that has been completely cut off from the mainland for a year and a half after the outbreak of a mysterious disease referred to as the Tox. The Tox, along with causing intermittent episodes of crippling pain and affliction, warps the bodies of the girls to suit its opaque purposes: one character’s hair glows, and the cover illustration shows a metaphorical look at the potential for beauty in these mutations, but the reality for the rest of the girls is much more sinister: our main character Hetty’s eye has been sealed shut, her best friend Byatt has grown a second, alien spine, and our hair-glowing friend Rae can’t use one of her hands.

The disease and quarantine, however, are affecting more than just the girls’ bodies. The majority of their teachers are dead, and no other adults are left alive on the island; the Navy sends food intermittently, but it’s never enough; and the girls are forced to be constantly vigilant against the threat of attack from Tox-warped wild animals from the surrounding forest. Contact with the outside world is almost non-existent, but the girls still left alive have become survivors, adapting to an unthinkable new reality with pragmatism and strict adherence to the new rules of their lives. Until a few crucial things change: Hetty acquires new information that makes her question what’s really happening on the island, and her best friend, seemingly irrepressible, blue-blooded, capricious Byatt, goes missing.

I love weird fiction (think Vandermeer or Samanta Schweblin) and am delighted to find the genre finding a foothold in YA. Powers creates an intensely atmospheric setting in Raxter Island that feels like a character itself, and the mysterious illness plaguing the island’s inhabitants is a constantly creeping antagonist, at times forced to the background and at other times reasserting its presence forcefully, throughout the other horrors that the characters encounter. Hetty is a tough, survival-focused main character, and I loved her loyalty to her friends, her determination, and her slowly developing romance with Rae. I also loved complex, morally grey Byatt, who I could easily read another entire book about.

Wilder Girls is fascinating and immersive, and I didn’t see a lot of the plot twists coming, but the pacing is a bit irregular and unconventional, which may bother some readers, although it wasn’t an issue for me personally. And I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but I do need to address the ending. I really don’t mind an open-ended or thought-provoking ending as long as it’s done well–Kelly Link is one of my favorite authors, for example, and all of her stories both end and begin ambiguously. But I didn’t feel that this was the case in Wilder Girls, and rather than feeling ambiguous, the ending struck me as unfinished, and unfortunately didn’t work for me, which is why I’m giving this 4 stars rather than 5.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read an eARC of Wilder Girls in exchange for an honest review.

 

Book Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – 3 stars

Release date 9/10/19

Standalone historical fantasy

The Ten Thousand Doors of January had an intriguing premise and was solidly written, but unfortunately missed the mark for me. I do, however, think it’s a book that a lot of readers will love, particularly readers of historical fiction looking to dip a toe into the fantasy genre, or YA readers looking for an approachable crossover adult fantasy.

Ten Thousand Doors follows January Scaller, the ward of a wealthy New England businessman, Mr. Locke, whose father traverses the globe searching for other cultures’ treasures for Locke’s Archaeological Society to make their own. January is mixed race and has a hard time determining her place in the world; she lives in a sprawling mansion, but isn’t wealthy herself; she’s curious and intelligent, but her options as a woman in the early 1900s are limited;  and she’s often treated with confusion about her background or outright prejudice when she’s not under the eyes of the influential Mr. Locke. January’s worldview undergoes a dramatic shift when she discovers the existence of magical doors that can lead from our world to others, and later a mysterious book that elucidates some of the secrets of the doors, as well as some of the mysteries of her own past.

I loved the concept behind Ten Thousand Doors; portal fantasy is a subgenre I’ve been obsessed with from a very young age, and some of my absolute favorite books are portal fantasies (In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan; The Magicians by Lev Grossman; Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, etc). I was intrigued by the prospect of thousands of such doors and the different worlds to be encountered behind them, and I loved the discussion throughout the book about how the doors are bringers of change and societal upheaval, as they introduce new concepts and ideas into stagnant worlds. I loved as well how a certain door-related magic manifests later in the book (I don’t want to go into any more specifics to avoid spoilers). What I didn’t love was that we really didn’t get to see many of these worlds; we’re really only given glimpses into a few of them, and the most interesting one of those is only discussed secondhand, for a short period of time (albeit by an extremely badass side character, who I wish was the central character in this story). Ten Thousand Doors feels very much like a historical fiction book with just a hint of fantasy, and while that might appeal more to some readers, it wasn’t necessarily for me; I wanted more portal fantasy and less early 1900s.

I also overall wished for more character development and consistency over the course of the book. There were times when I really liked January and found her genuinely interesting and admirable, but I found her characterization to be uneven, and none of the side characters, allies or enemies, felt fleshed out enough to give the story emotional weight. Ten Thousand Doors has several characters who, on the surface, should be fascinating–a life-sucking vampiric being, a warrior-woman, travelers who hop from world to world–but as a reader, I never really got to connect enough with any of them since they were all filtered so heavily from January’s limited perspective on the situation. I also had a lot of difficulty due to the predictability of the plot; most of the twists were very much foreseeable, and one that wasn’t lacked the emotional weight I wished it had. The story is told from two perspectives and includes excerpts from the mysterious book that January finds, and at first I really liked the changing narratives and slow reveals, but since I was able to see what direction the plot was heading in fairly early on, this worked less and less for me as the book went on.

Although this wasn’t the book for me, I do think it’s a story that many readers will connect with and love. I received an ARC of The Ten Thousand Doors of January from the publisher at BookExpo.

Book Review: Rage by Cora Carmack

Rage by Cora Carmack (release date 8/27/19) – 4 stars

Genre: YA fantasy, 2nd book in the Stormheart series

I read a lot of fantasy, but I have certain draws and preferences within the genre; not all magic systems work for me and hold my interest equally. Weather magic, however, almost always does, which was why I was initially drawn to the Stormheart series by Cora Carmack. In 2017, my first year attending BookCon, Tor was selling finished copies of Roar, the first book in the series, ahead of publication and for a discount, and between the gorgeous cover featuring a stormy sky and a Danaerys Targaryen-looking main character, I was instantly drawn in. Roar ended up being the first book I picked up after BookCon, and I fell in love with Aurora, an unsure young heroine who doesn’t quite fit the role of princess and weather magic wielder that she was born into, as well as the harsh, unforgiving, storm-ridden land she inhabits. (I’m going to try to review Rage without spoilers for either Rage or Roar, since I think this series deserves a lot more attention than it’s been getting, and I don’t want to deter any new readers by spoiling the plot of the first book.)

In Roar, Aurora flees her country after learning of her impending engagement to Cassius Locke, a prince she doesn’t trust, and after being belittled and forced to hide her true self for many years due to her terrible secret: although a princess and daughter of a powerful storm magic-wielder, Aurora herself has no power, which, if she were to take the throne without a partner, would leave her kingdom defenseless to the storms that regularly ravage the land. This is especially true due to the emergence of the Stormlord, a malicious storm magic-user who is able to call storms to do his bidding, not merely battle them as storm magicians tend to. Aurora falls in with a band of Stormhunters, who seek to harvest magic from the heart of storms in the wild country, at great personal risk, and the journey she takes forces her to question her beliefs about both the nature of storm magic and her own power.

 


When we pick back up with Aurora and her band of Stormhunters in Rage, a lot has changed. Aurora has gone through a lot of personal growth, which is ongoing in Rage, and provides a constant theme: Aurora isn’t perfect, but she’s trying, and she’s learning, and she genuinely wants what’s best for her friends and for her people. She also finds out what’s been going on in her home country of Pavan during her absence, which is more dire than she had realized; there’s a refugee crisis storyline that’s extremely politically relevant. We also learn a great deal more about the mysterious Stormlord and his motivations, which made me much more interested in him as an antagonist, and we get to hear more from side characters as the story jumps from perspective to perspective with less constant focus on Aurora compared to the first book, while still centering her personal growth in the narrative.  The multiple perspectives make the book flow quickly and retain tension throughout; I was never bored with the narrative but rather constantly looking for the next chapter in each character’s story.

The Stormheart series has a strong romantic component, and although I love the series overall, I’ve never actually been a fan of its central romance between Aurora and one of the Stormhunters she meets. I am, however, very much a fan of a burgeoning romance between two female side characters that’s set up in Rage, as well as the possibility that Aurora and Cassius Locke may be drawn together as the series goes on; I’m a sucker for the arranged marriage-turned-enemies-turned-something-more? dynamic that they have going, even though the characters haven’t spent much time together on the page.

In my opinion, the Stormheart series is a fun, weather-magic-fueled, romantic YA fantasy series that doesn’t get nearly enough hype considering what a fun read it is. I’d recommend jumping in if you enjoy your YA with a through-line of empowerment and growth, lovable characters, and a unique magic system.

I received an ARC of Rage from Tor Teen at BookExpo in exchange for an honest review