Category Archives: book review

Book Review: Wolf Gone Wild by Juliette Cross, a Stellar Paranormal Romance

Wolf Gone Wild (Stay A Spell, #1)

Wolf Gone Wild by Juliette Cross (Stay a Spell, Book 1)

Genre: paranormal romance

Rating: 4 stars

Release date: January 14th, 2020

 

I have so many good things to say about this book, I’m struggling to figure out how to form them into a coherent review. Romance, and paranormal romance in particular, can be really subjective and I can definitely get pretty picky about it; though I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary romance recently, I had yet to find a new paranormal romance author I loved in recent years until I picked up this book.

Wolf Gone Wild follows Evie,  who works with her sisters and fellow witches at the bar and magic shop they own in New Orleans, alongside ruling over NOLA’s magical community as their most powerful faction. Evie is a witch with a specialty in breaking hexes, and she’s also an unapologetic, delightfully nerdy aspiring comic book artist whose insecurity from a past relationship is keeping her from sharing her skills with the public. Mateo Cruz is a werewolf, and also a metalworking artist/gallery owner, with a very urgent problem–he’s been put under a hex that forbids him from shifting with the full moon and unleashing his wolf on a regular basis, so now his wolf is talking to him. Like, all the time, and it’s driving him crazy. When Evie starts working with Mateo to help him break his curse, Evie finds herself drawn to Mateo–and both Mateo and his wolf are drawn to Evie. But the hex is more complex than it first appears, and it’s going to take help from Evie’s sisters, and a whole lot of forced proximity, to help Mateo and his wolf find balance again.

OK, so as I alluded to before, there are so many great things to talk about with this one. Let’s start with the romance, which manages to be both cute and steamy, and lacks so many of the miscommunication tropes that tend to frustrate me. Evie and Mateo are both genuinely good people, with art as a shared interest, and I really loved how their relationship slowly developed over the course of the book. I also loved how Mateo’s wolf side was handled–because of the hex, his wolf presents as a secondary entity in his mind that argues with him and constantly urges him to give in to his werewolf instincts (I saw one review comparing this to a Venom scenario, and I think that’s pretty apt) which adds a secondary level of interest to Evie and Mateo’s dynamic, and also presents a genuine obstacle in their getting together.

One of my other favorite aspects of Wolf Gone Wild was the side characters, and more specifically the plethora of opportunities for the next books in the Stay a Spell series. Evie has five sisters, all of whom are witches with different abilities and very distinct personalities, and we also meet several of their potential love interests over the course of the book. (Juliette Cross, if you’re reading this for some reason, I’m very much hoping that book 2 focuses on Evie’s older sister and badass head witch Jules, and intriguing vampire leader Ruben, but honestly, I’ll read any book you come out with next in this series.) The side characters never feel gratuitous or underdeveloped, and Evie’s family dynamic of a group of sisters who may disagree but ultimately love and support each other is so much fun to read about.

But I think my absolute favorite aspect of this book was its message. Yes, it’s a stellar romance, and very fun to read, but it’s also a really inspirational story about learning to have confidence in yourself and embrace and nurture your creative aspects, and not to be afraid to share them with the world. It’s a message that I, as an aspiring writer, really needed to hear at this exact moment, and there are quotes from this book I know I’ll return to again and again when looking for inspiration.

Other things I loved (yes, we’re just listing them at this point): the New Orleans setting, which is perfect for a paranormal romance series (and also happens to be one of my favorite places to read about); the multitude of Star Wars discussions; all of Evie’s hilarious T-shirts; and the world-building surrounding the different supernatural entities, including the twist on werewolf mythology where each has a creative talent in addition to their wolfy curse.

To summarize: read this book. I think it’ll appeal to fans of paranormal and contemporary romance alike; it’s very modern, very fun, and also has a lot of heart.

 

I received an eARC of Wolf Gone Wild from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Beautiful by Renee Ahdieh

The Beautiful (The Beautiful, #1)

 

The Beautiful by Renee Ahdieh

Rating: 4 stars

Genre: YA historical fantasy

Release date: 10/1/19

 

I’ve seen the phrase “vampires are back!” associated with The Beautiful more than anything else, and although I’m not averse to the idea (although I don’t believe vampires in literature really went anywhere in the first place, nor did I want them to), I think it’s misapplied to this book in particular. It sets up Twilight-esque expectations, or maybe a new version of True Blood, when that’s simply not the case. The Beautiful is a lot of things, but I absolutely would not call it a vampire book. That being said, I absolutely loved it.

A much more accurate description of this book would be that it’s a young adult romantic historical fantasy, which is, I guess, a less succinct genre tag than “vampires,” but, I don’t think, a less appealing one. I’ve seen a lot of reviews that express disappointment over the lack of vampires in The Beautiful, and a lot of ratings that may be lower than the book deserves, but all of this could have been avoided if different expectations had been set.

But I’m going to stop talking now about expectations and ratings, and talk about the book itself, which I don’t think we’re hearing nearly enough about. The Beautiful is the story of feisty, headstrong, fun-loving Celine Rousseau, the antithesis of a timid, clumsy, Bella Swan-type YA heroine, who flees to New Orleans haunted by what she had to do to survive in her hometown of Paris. In the company of several other girls from around the world, Celine takes up residence in a convent while awaiting viable marriage proposals and becomes drawn into the seductive underworld of New Orleans society when she meets a mysterious, confident, pants-wearing woman who wants to employ her for her dressmaking skills. While Celine is visiting the headquarters of this attractive, dangerous underworld known as the La Cour des Lions, a murder is committed, and Celine becomes sucked into the investigation as well as the orbits of two former friends and present enemies, dark and alluring leader of the Cour des Lions Sebastien Saint Germain and savant police detective Michael Grimaldi.

So, why did I like this book? The New Orleans setting was a huge part of that. Ahdieh’s descriptions of the lush, vibrant, diverse city portray a New Orleans that’s both alluring and sinister, and the perfect setting for a fantasy story. Celine is a heroine who isn’t afraid–of danger, of intrigue, to do what needs to be done, or to just have a good time, and I very much appreciated that. Female friendships and side characters aren’t overlooked in favor of the romance; I liked both Pippa, Celine’s conventional and loyal British friend, and Odette, a member of La Cour des Lions, who flaunts conventions and gender norms in every scene she steals. And the romance itself was a lot of fun to read about; I wasn’t aware that this book actually had a love triangle, and although I know a lot of readers can’t stand those, I am definitely not one of them. Did I need a lot more backstory about why Bastien and Michael hated each other? Yes. Did it make any sense that Michael was somehow the best police detective in New Orleans at age nineteen? Of course not. But if that’s what needed to happen so that we could set up an angsty love triangle, then I’m on board.

If you enjoy romance-centric YA, and the idea of a series that’s lighter on fantasy but heavy on atmosphere appeals to you, I think you’ll also really like The Beautiful.–just don’t expect it to be Twilight.

 

I received an ARC of The Beautiful from the publisher at Book Expo in exchange for an honest 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.