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.

End of the Year Book Tag!

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I was already thinking about posting a combination TBR for November and December (particularly because I’m not sure how much reading I’ll be able to fit in during these two months, with a possible NaNoWriMo and Chrismakkuh shenanigans happening) when I discovered the End of the Year Book Tag, which was created by Ariel Bissett. 

Basically, we’ve got a bunch of questions about what we’re planning on doing with the remainder of our reading year, which somehow is only about 2 more months. Now is definitely about the time when I start assessing what and how much I’ve read over the course of the year, and try to self-correct and pick up books I’ve been meaning to get to but haven’t yet. I always end up feeling like I haven’t found enough favorites, and waffle between putting pressure on myself to find new 5-star reads and trying to use the last few months of the year to pick up books I’m genuinely excited about and think I’ll love. And on that note, let’s get to the questions!

Are there any books you started this year that you need to finish?

The Grace Year

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett. This was one of my most highly anticipated ARCs from BookExpo, and I started it last month but put it on indefinite pause when I realized that I was really not liking it. I’m determined, however, to persist and see if I can find out what all the hype is about, or whether it’ll end up being a miss for me.

Do you have an autumnal book to transition into the end of the year?

Deathless (Leningrad Diptych, #1)

Sort of! I’ve always thought of Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente as a very autumnal book, or at least a fall/wintery one, and I started it the other night with the goal of finally, finally reading it (it’s been on my TBR shelf for literal years).

Is there a new release you’re still waiting for?

The Witches Are ComingThe Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air, #3)In the Dream HouseDead Astronauts

There are 4 new releases coming out this month that I’m really looking forward to: The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (essay collection), The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black (YA fantasy, third book in trilogy), In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (memoir), and Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer (science fiction).

What are three books you want to read before the end of the year?

Ninth House (Alex Stern, #1)Magic for LiarsMiddlegame

My top three books to read by the end of the year are three of my most anticipated releases of 2019, and all happen to be fantasy: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, and Middlegame by Seanan McGuire.

Is there a book you think could still shock you and become your favourite book of the year?

This is such a hard question. I’d really love for any of my three most anticipated books to become a new favorite, but also in general, I’d really love to find a bunch of new 5-star books in the coming months. If I had to guess, I’d say Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente is a strong contender for a 5-star read, given my past track record with that author.

Have you already started making reading plans for 2020?

The City We BecameHarrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, #2)The Heart Principle (The Kiss Quotient, #3)House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City, #1)

Heck yes! My 2020 shelf on Goodreads is currently at 33 books I’m looking forward to, and I’m planning on a post sometime in December focused on my most anticipated reads of next year. The covers above are a sneak peek at what I’ll be freaking out about in that post.

 

What are you looking to read before the end of the year? Let me know in the comments!

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.

September Reading Wrap-Up

I had set a vaguely defined goal for myself for September (something like “read lots of books”) and I’m happy to report that I accomplished that. Not only did I finish more books than I have in the past few months, but I read several books that I rated over 4 stars, and I honestly enjoyed every single thing I read in September.

Let’s go to the stats and reviews:

Total books read: 9

ARCs: 2

Audiobooks: 2

#readmyowndamnbooks: 7

Sapphire Flames by Ilona AndrewsKill the Queen by Jennifer EstepThe Future of Another Timeline by Annalee NewitzShame Is an Ocean I Swim Across by Mary LambertParkland by Dave CullenWe Died in Water by Meg FloresBloodlust & Bonnets by Emily McGovernRadio Silence by Alice OsemanThe Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews (4.5 stars) – Sapphire Flames is technically the fourth book in Andrews’ Hidden Legacy series, although it’s also technically the start of a new trilogy featuring the younger sister of books 1-3’s protagonist. I’ve actually just finished this one and LOVED it; I’m an Ilona Andrews superfan, but this was actually one of my favorites of hers. It’s set in a version of our world that features warring dynasties of magical families, and our main character Catalina has a very unique power; we follow her trying to solve a friend’s mother’s murder, protect her own family, and maybe connect with her crush, Alessandro, who has more than a few secrets up his sleeves. Honestly, this book is SO GOOD, and I think it’s also a great starting point for readers new to Ilona Andrews.

Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across by Mary Lambert (4.5 stars) – An impactful, striking, shiver-inducing autobiographical collection of poems that discuss sexual assault and its aftermath, falling in love, heartbreak, mental illness, and survival. There were several poems in this collection that made me pause, re-read, and take a moment to consider how Lambert used so few words to say so much. Her writing style is sometimes fluid and sometimes jarring; the poems are relatable and very readable but contain a lot of depth. I’d definitely recommend this one.

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake (4.25 stars) – I absolutely loved this YA contemporary retelling of Twelfth Night that dealt skillfully with mental illness and sibling relationships; my full review will be up soon. I received an ARC at BookExpo from the publisher.

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (4 stars) – really well done YA contemporary, revolving around two misfits and a science fiction podcast. I absolutely loved the main characters, and the writing and perspective felt extremely authentic. I did feel that the plot stumbled a bit towards the end, but overall I really loved this one.

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz (4 stars) – Creative, feminist time-travel science fiction, set mainly in the 1990s and 1890s. Check out my full review here.

Parkland: Birth of a Movement by Dave Cullen (4 stars) – A very necessary and topical read. I listened to Dave Cullen’s Columbine on audiobook last month and was impressed by his research and thoroughness, and I wanted to pick up Parkland especially because it focuses almost exclusively on the March for Our Lives kids and movement rather than the school shooting itself; although the books are related, they emphasize very different things. The Parkland kids are so impressive and inspirational, and I think Cullen did a great job capturing what they are trying to accomplish.

Bloodlust and Bonnets by Emily McGovern (4 stars) – the first graphic novel I’ve picked up in literally years, because it’s by the author of a webcomic I adore (My Life as a Background Slytherin). It’s a parody of historical/Regency romances, with an added fantastical element, and I quite enjoyed it. We follow Lucy, our heroine, who feels like a misfit under the constraints of proper society; Lord Byron (“from books!”), a poet with a very short attention span and a penchant for stabbing any vampire he sees; and Sham, a mysterious vampire hunter, on their adventures around England while trying to infiltrate a secret vampire society but keep getting sidetracked. I found it very cute, quirky, and funny, although for me it maybe wasn’t quite as consistently hilarious as McGovern’s webcomic tends to be, likely because there’s a lot more plot in a graphic novel than a 1-page webcomic. The art style and colors are likewise adorable and fun, and I’m definitely glad I picked it up.

We Died in Water by Meg Flores (4 stars) – We Died in Water is a memoir told in short prose poems that focuses on themes of love and leaving, using the ocean to help tell the author’s story in a variety of metaphors. The memoir itself mirrors the waves in structure, by repetition of the stories of loving and heartbreak that both the author and her mother experienced, stories that echo each other and force both the author and the reader to wonder if we are doomed to repeat our families’ pasts. As someone who’s always loved the ocean (as you can probably garner from my account name), I loved the integration of waves and ocean imagery into the author’s retelling of her story, and I found the writing overall to be lovely and fluid, while still retaining clarity, which can be difficult in a book with a nontraditional structure. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful little book, and I’d recommend it if you enjoy unconventional structures, poetry, and the ocean.

I received an early copy of We Died in Water from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep (3.75 stars) – Mistakenly thought this was UF when I picked it up (the leather pants threw me off!) but it’s actually a really fun, fast-paced royal revenge plot in a full fantasy world with a writing style that reminds me of UF. I really enjoyed it–our main character Everleigh, a minor royal, survives an assassination attempt on the royal family, and joins a gladiator troupe, where survival turns into a desire for vengeance. She has to use the magic she’s kept hidden her entire life as well as every ounce of the cold rage that fuels her in order to do what she’s never even imagined–try to kill the queen. It’s got action, humor, and the hint of a romance, plus literally every character is wearing black leggings at all times, which is a fantasy world I can really get behind. There’s also a really interesting magic system featuring everything from enhanced senses, shapeshifting, and elemental magic. I’m about to start the second book, Protect the Prince, and I’m really interested to see where the story goes from here.

 

Have you read any of these, or are any of them on your TBR? Let me know in the comments!

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.

 

I write about nontraditional beach reads for nontraditional readers