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Book Review: What Shines From It by Sara Rauch

What Shines From It by Sara Rauch

Short story collection

Release date 3/3/20

Rating: 4.5 stars

Review: 

A fantastic short story collection focusing on fractured or fracturing relationships and incredibly human characters. The stories are thoughtful and beautifully written, and they stayed with me long after I finished reading them.

Some of my favorite stories in the collection:
-“Kintsukuroi,” about a woman who uses gold to repair broken pottery in her shop, as she focuses on the beauty despite the wrongness of the affair she’s having
-“Abandon,” about a woman who seemingly loses everything in the aftermath of an accident and a miscarriage–except her best friend, who’s there, like it or not, to help her pick up the pieces
-“Seal,” about a woman and her partner debating whether to relocate when they have their first child, and how she faces the aftermath of her mother’s alcoholism

And my absolute favorite of the collection was the final story, “Beholden,” which is the most sensitive and achingly real portrayal of post-9/11 New York that I’ve ever read, and which uses fabulism to convey the way that memories never leave us.

I look forward to reading more from Sara Rauch in the future, and hope that her next collection includes even more fabulist fiction in the vein of “Beholden.”

I received an ARC of What Shines From It from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Feb Reading Wrap-Up!

 

Feb was a solid reading month for me, but not a standout one. I found some books I enjoyed and learned from, as well as some really fun reads, and participated in two readathons (Tome Topple and the Contemporaryathon), but I also had a few disappointments. I think I also set myself up for failure a little bit considering I read my NEW FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME, Bunny by Mona Awad, in January, which of course was a tough act to follow.

Stats:

Books finished: 8

#readmyowndamnbooks: 6

ebooks: 2

The Last Book Party by Karen DukessThe Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri WilsonSerpent & Dove by Shelby MahurinJuliet Takes a Breath by Gabby RiveraWicked Wonderland by Eva ChaseWrathful Wonderland by Eva ChaseOctavia's Brood by Adrienne Maree BrownMiddlegame by Seanan McGuire

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (4 stars) – I just finished Middlegame, and I…have some thoughts. Here’s the thing: I was really hoping that this book would blow me away, and it didn’t, and even though I overall enjoyed it, I just kept wanting more weirdness, more alchemy, more fantasy, more explanation and exploration of the genuinely awesome concepts at work in this book, and also less time spent with the main characters as children with little forward motion. Middlegame is fantastically creative, following twins created to become the living embodiments of math and language and, through fantastical alchemy, harness the power to shape the world for their creator. It’s a long book, but I think it spends time in the wrong places, and for that reason it’s a 4 star and not a favorite for me. I’d still recommend it, and I remain a huge Seanan McGuire fan, but I wish this amazing story had been told just a little bit differently.

Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin (4 stars) – After seeing this YA fantasy romance on about a million top ten lists at the end of 2019, I was fully convinced I needed to pick it up. And although this wasn’t a favorite for me, I did find it a very fun read–it’s a marriage of convenience/enemies-to-lovers plotline, featuring a kingdom divided between witches and witch-hunters. I think that I might have enjoyed it more if it leaned more thoroughly in the direction of either fantasy or romance, rather than straddling the two, but it’s definitely worth picking up, and I’ll be looking for the sequel, Blood & Honey, which comes out in the fall.

Wicked Wonderland by Eva Chase (4 stars) – I’ve been looking out for a good Alice in Wonderland retelling for awhile now; I’m obsessed with the SyFy adaptation of Alice, and have had this hope of somehow finding the book equivalent. With Wicked Wonderland, the first book in the Looking-Glass Curse trilogy, I finally found one that worked for me! Lyssa’s just been cheated on by her boyfriend, and after her aunt passes away and leaves her a house, she moves into the secluded mansion in the forest and discovers an unusual mirror. This being an Alice retelling, she of course falls through the mirror into Wonderland and into the resistance movement against the tyrannical Queen of Hearts–while falling for three very different men she meets. It’s a slow-burn fantasy romance, with the heroine moving in the direction of a poly relationship rather than a love square (which was a refreshing change in a romance, as there isn’t any jealousy or competition, but rather mature people communicating about what they’re looking for in relationships) but the resistance plotline, along with the heroine’s journey towards believing in herself, takes center stage. Definitely recommend if you’re looking for an adult retelling of Wonderland with plenty of action and romance.

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (4 stars) – I really loved this contemporary coming-of-age story that focuses on intersectional feminism. The main character, Juliet, is so relatable, as is her search for knowledge about gender, feminism, race, and intersectionality that leads to constant questioning and learning from everyone around her. It’s a book that I really think everyone would benefit from reading.

Wrathful Wonderland by Eva Chase (4 stars) – In the second installment in Chase’s Looking-Glass Curse trilogy, Lyssa finds herself more deeply enmeshed in the resistance movement against the Queen of Hearts, and even more drawn to the three men she met in book 1–and they, in turn, begin to have more and more faith in her ability to save Wonderland.

The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson (3.5 stars) – A very cute, Miss Congeniality-esque book about a nerdy teacher who has to take her twin’s place at a beauty pageant after an allergic reaction renders her twin unable to compete. It was a very fun read that made me want to re-watch Miss Congeniality immediately afterwards.

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess (3 stars) – I was hoping to like this one more than I did. It’s a summer coming-of-age story set in the 1980’s, following an aspiring writer finding herself wandering down the wrong path, in no small part due to her desire to be a part of the literary and artistic elite crowd where her family summers on Cape Cod. Unfortunately, I felt that although it was a quick, entertaining read, it lacked depth, and I had a big problem with one character’s extremely problematic actions being excused at the end.

 

Here’s to finding some 5-star reads in March!

December Reading Wrap-Up (Last Wrap-Up of 2019!) (Belated)

 

OK, yes, it’s late January, and here is finally my December reading wrap-up, but last year I promised that I’d stop remarking on the lateness of my wrap-up blog posts, so I’d like to take that energy into 2020. December ended up being the month with the most 5-star reads in all of 2019, and I discovered a few new favorites in addition to re-reading one of my favorite YA books of all time. I also picked up several novellas that surprised me, and read a Star Wars book for the first time in many years in preparation for the release of The Rise of Skywalker. Let’s get into the stats!

December reading stats

Total books read: 10

ARCs: 1

ebooks: 2

#readmyowndamnbooks: 6

The Test by Sylvain NeuvelAll Systems Red by Martha WellsNinth House by Leigh BardugoArtificial Condition by Martha WellsGhost Wall by Sarah MossIn Other Lands by Sarah Rees BrennanAn Easy Death (Gunnie Rose, #1)A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris

Resistance Reborn by Rebecca RoanhorseDeathless by Catherynne M. Valente

And now for some reviews!

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (5 stars) – this is now my third 5-star read from Catherynne M. Valente, the previous two being The Refrigerator Monologues and Space Opera, and if she wasn’t already, she’s now been firmly cemented in favorite author status for me. Deathless is dark, disturbing, even disgusting at times, but beautiful in spite of or perhaps because of these elements. Set in Russia, it has so many elements of both history and mythology twisted into its narrative (some I was familiar with, some I was not, but I definitely don’t think you need to be an expert of Russian history to enjoy this book, although you’d probably pick up on some elements I may have missed) but still manages to create something wholly new and unique. It centers around the twisted, myth-based love story of Marya Morevna, who when the story begins is a young girl growing up as Russia turns to communism, and Koschei the Deathless, a villainous god from Russian mythology. They spend years fighting against and falling into the tropes that myth have set for them, meanwhile encountering other memorable figures both historical and mythical. Valente’s writing is so saturated and compelling that you feel completely immersed while at times forced to distance yourself and reflect on what she’s doing with the narrative, which is always something impressively clever. I was absolutely blown away by this book, and I can’t wait to pick up more from her and find out what other worlds she’s created in her books.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan (5 stars) (re-read) – Although this is my second reading of In Other Lands, my feelings have not changed since my initial read, so I’m just going to include my original Goodreads review, with a brief addendum at the end:

5 stars is not enough. I loved the crap out of this book. In Other Lands fits right into that niche genre of books that satirize and also pay homage to traditional portal fantasy stories, like Lev Grossman’s Magicians series, or Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, or Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. If you liked any of those, you’ll also probably love this book. We follow Elliott, a young bisexual British boy, who’s given the opportunity to enter the fantasy realm of his dreams–except nothing there is as he expects it to be, and he finds himself constantly challenging society’s expectations and norms. Elliott is extremely intelligent but very difficult in social situations, and he’s constantly butting heads with everyone around him except for his crush, Serene-Heart-In-the-Chaos-of-Battle, a beautiful elf maiden who is also, like all female elves, a deadly warrior. The two of them form an at-first tension-filled friend group with Luke Sunborn, a seemingly perfect stereotypical male fantasy hero, with the three of them gradually becoming closer and learning more about accepting each other’s faults as they progress in their training to join the Border Guard, which acts as a military force policing both the fantasy realm and its border with the human ones.

I will say that if you are a stickler for structured plots, then you may have issues with this book. Personally, as long as I’m enjoying what I’m reading and I love the characters, I could care less about having drawn-out battle scenes or whatever, so it didn’t bother me at all, but I could see some readers taking issue with the fact that the story meanders without following a traditional conflict/resolution fantasy plot struture.

This book is a beautiful story about growing up and learning to challenge traditionally held beliefs, which may not be the right ones, and learning to understand and accept yourself for who you are. It’s about friendship and how people can complement each other while still being from very different backgrounds. It’s about learning your strengths and using them to make the world a better place. It made me laugh out loud continuously and also cry multiple times. It’s one that I can see myself re-reading and enjoying just as much each time. It’s honestly wonderful, and I really hope that more people read it.

Edit: Upon re-read, In Other Lands has become one of my favorite books of all time. You should all stop what you are reading and immediately read this instead, because it’s better.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (5 stars) – I’ve seen some stellar and some disappointed reviews for this highly hyped adult fiction debut from YA powerhouse Leigh Bardugo, and I found myself falling firmly in the “love” camp on this one. Ninth House is dark, yes, and there is a LOT of infodumping, yes, but neither of those things tend to bother me; on the contrary, if I’m really interested in a book, I’d always rather err on the side of more information, and I don’t really mind if it’s presented in the narrative or outside of it. And although the worldbuilding of Ninth House is fascinating–magical secret societies at Yale, a protagonist with the ability to see ghosts, magic driving political and business leaders’ decisions but sourced from college students–it was the characters that really grabbed me. Alex, a misfit with a dark, haunted past, and Darlington, an old-money “gentleman,” both won me over instantly, and their scenes together were some of my favorite in the book. I also think Ninth House sets itself up really well for a sequel, which I can’t wait for.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (5 stars) – I love a short, impactful literary fiction novel with a unique premise. Ghost Wall is about a modern-day family who joins a summer university project to live like it’s the Iron Age, but the historical reenactment brings out the worst in the family’s abusive father, and the daughter is confronted with just how disturbing his actions are. It’s extremely tightly written, a very fully realized story with no extraneous words or actions, and I’ll definitely be looking to pick up more from this author.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells (4 stars) – Even after hearing about a million positive reviews of this scifi novella series, I was put off by the name (Murderbot isn’t a word that’s instantly appealing to me) but I finally gave into the hype, and I’m very glad I did. Following Murderbot (who named itself) a bot intended for guard/protection duty who has hacked its system and now spends most of its time watching TV inside its head, All Systems Red is both very funny and also full of plenty of action, as Murderbot’s most recent mission to protect a team of scientists goes very awry and it’s forced to interact with people far more than it feels comfortable with. Murderbot is a great, memorable character, and as soon as I finished this novella I knew I’d be picking up the rest of the series next.

The Test by Sylvain Neuvel (4 stars) – a twisty, addicting scifi novella about a man taking a UK citizenship test where something goes horribly wrong. You really don’t want to know much going into this one, since it goes in several unexpected directions, but I read it in one sitting and would very much recommend–it would be perfect for a readathon,

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (4 stars) – the sequel to All Systems Red, this novella follows Murderbot as it attempts to fill in the gaps in its memory about the events that lead to it hacking its system and gaining autonomy. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as All Systems Red, but I did enjoy the interactions between Murderbot and an overbearing transport ship it meets.

Star Wars: Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse (4 stars) – the last time I picked up a Star Wars book, I think I was about ten and obsessed with Queen Amidala’s outfits and badassness from Episode 1. I was inspired to return to the world of Star Wars books for a few specific reasons: Rebecca Roanhorse, whose Sixth World series I’m obsessed with and recommend to everyone who listens; my love of the new Star Wars sequel trilogy and impatience for The Rise of Skywalker to come out; and my best friend, who’s obsessed with Star Wars and bought me a copy of Resistance Reborn when she was worried she wouldn’t finish her copy in time to lend it to me before the movie’s release. I’m very glad I did end up picking it up, as I found myself thoroughly enjoying this book; it’s a bridge between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, jumping between several perspectives but focusing in particular on Poe and his struggles with the events of The Last Jedi and the ramifications of his actions. I really liked how Roanhorse delved into the emotional fallout from The Last Jedi, and also was very much on board with the interesting side characters she introduced. I’m definitely glad I picked this one up; it’s definitely not necessary for understanding the movies, but it works well as a companion.

An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris (4 stars) (re-read) – Again, since this was a re-read, I’m including my original Goodreads review; I felt similarly about it upon re-read.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a Charlaine Harris book, but for years and years, I devoured every book of hers that I could get my hands on, starting with the Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire Mysteries series. She’s still #1 on my most-read authors feature on Goodreads (although Ilona Andrews has recently caught up, and they’re currently tied for first place with 28 books each). When I heard that she had a new book coming out, though, and that she would be signing copies at BookCon, I was so excited to be able to dive back into her writing. And An Easy Death definitely did not disappoint; the premise is a lot different than Harris’s other books, but it has her signature cozy mystery-esque writing style alongside plenty of action and lovable characters.

An Easy Death is hard to classify, genre-wise; it’s sort of an alternate history Western with fantasy elements. It’s set in a version of a fractured United States that splintered apart after the assassination of FDR and a series of disasters, and at the time the book is set, pieces of the U.S. are now owned by Canada, Mexico, and England, and the exiled tsar of Russia has settled on the West Coast with his army of grigoris, or wizards. Our main character Lizbeth Rose lives in the southwestern country of Texoma and works as a gunnie, sort of a gunslinger/bodyguard hired out to protect people. She gets drawn into a search for a missing grigori when she’s hired by two wizards as a guide and protector, and although she’s not a fan of magic or the Russian wizards that brought it with them to her country, she’s determined to see her mission through.

There are really no dull moments in An Easy Death; it’s action-packed and does have a high body count. Lizbeth Rose is a badass, street-smart heroine who’s easy to root for, and she faces down a series of bandits, wizards, and rival gunslingers head-on. The worldbuilding is gradual and fascinating; the concept of the Romanovs surviving an assassination attempt and fleeing Russia for California is a particularly interesting one, as well as the idea that Rasputin had actual magical powers that he taught to a host of other magic-wielders. The book sets up a sequel well, as there’s still a lot left to explore at the end of the book, and I really can’t wait to return to this world. I think that this book would work really well for fans of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (which I also loved) as well as urban fantasy fans looking for something different. Highly recommend!

A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris (3 stars) – Unfortunately, A Longer Fall missed the mark for me, especially compared with the first book in Charlaine Harris’s fantastical, Western alternate history series, An Easy Death. I love the world-building in these books (FDR was assassinated, which set off a chain of events that fractured the United States into several smaller countries, and California/Oregon was settled by the exiled Russian tsar and an order of magic users founded by Rasputin), and the first book was an action-packed ride featuring “gunnie” or hired bodyguard Lizbeth Rose as she took a job protecting two Russian wizards whose mission had a connection to her past.

A Longer Fall brings back Russian wizard love interest Eli, who I did find likable in the first book and who hires Lizbeth to help him track down a mysterious crate in the nearby country of Dixie, or what was formerly the American South. A Longer Fall is slower in pace, with not much of a payoff at the end, and a romance that quickly turns from interesting to stale. A central issue in this book is Dixie’s pervasive racism and sexism, which could have been interesting for the story to delve into, but unfortunately I didn’t feel that either topic was handled very well.

I love Charlaine Harris, and I hate that I’m not giving this book a higher rating, but ultimately it just wasn’t as enjoyable for me as many of her other books have been.

I received an eARC of A Longer Fall courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.

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.

November Reading Wrap-Up

November lasted approximately five minutes, which is probably why I didn’t get quite as much reading done as I expected. But I did read three Book of the Month books, and since I’m working with a significant BOTM backlog, that was definitely helpful. I was pleasantly surprised by a book in a genre I don’t normally read, and I also finished another ARC from BookExpo.

Here are my stats:

Number of books finished: 6

Audiobooks: 1

ARCs: 1

#readmyowndamnbooks: 5

The Grace Year by Kim LiggettThe Witches Are Coming by Lindy WestMagic for Liars by Sarah GaileyBringing Down the Duke by Evie DunmoreWell Met by Jen DeLucaWhen the Sky Fell on Splendor by Emily Henry

And here are my reviews:

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey (3.75 stars) – It would be hard for me not to read a contemporary fantasy set at a magical school, and Magic for Liars was no exception. In this case, socially isolated private investigator Ivy is called into the magical high school her sister teaches at in order to investigate a murder, and in the process has to revisit her childhood insecurities about growing up normal with a magical sister and losing her mother at a young age. I found this an enjoyable read overall; at times it feels like a modern play on a noir detective story, and the magical elements often felt incidental rather than central. For that reason, it would be an easy dip into fantasy for readers who aren’t typically fans of the genre, but still has enough fantastical elements for genre fans. The characters and the school that Gailey sets up would definitely work well for the possibility of spin-off books set in this same world, possibly even with different main characters, that I would like to see, but also wraps up well for this being, from what I understand, a standalone book.

Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore (4 stars) – Before picking up this book, I was ready to give up on the historical romance genre–not through any fault of the genre itself, but because I had yet to find a book or author I really clicked with. And then Book of the Month offered Bringing Down the Duke as one of its selections, and it had one of those cute cartoon romance novel covers that I vastly prefer to traditional bodice-ripper covers, as well as a feminist premise, and I decided to give historical romance one last shot. I’m so glad I did, it because this was such a fun read. I found that I loved Dunmore’s writing style and liked both main characters equally (which shouldn’t be rare in romance novels, but for some reason is for me?): suffragist and Oxford student Annabelle and icy aloof duke Sebastian. I also got some Pride and Prejudice vibes from their early interactions and in some ways the writing style, which is something that I’ve been looking to find done well in the genre but previously hadn’t seen. There was one plot point that I was NOT a fan of, but I do understand that it could be attributed to social norms of the time, and it didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of the read. There’s also a clear set-up for the next book in the series that I am very much on board for, with a romance between lead suffragist Lucie and a notorious rake taking center stage.

Well Met by Jen Deluca (3 stars) – A cute contemporary romance with an interesting setting (Renaissance faire!) and premise (out-of-towner-turned RenFaire tavern wench meets uptight English teacher/RenFaire pirate!) that I ultimately didn’t connect with writing-wise the way that I was hoping to. Relationship issues became repetitive, as did their solutions, and I wasn’t convinced by how quickly the relationship progressed.

The Witches are Coming by Lindy West (3 stars) – I found this essay collection on how pop culture influences our current political environment to be enjoyable, but ultimately disappointing, as I felt West didn’t necessarily choose the best examples to make her points, and was largely speaking to an audience who already agreed with her views. It’s an easy and short listen on audio, and if you like Lindy West, I’d still recommend it, but it’s not the strongest essay collection I’ve read on the topic.

When the Sky Fell On Splendor by Emily Henry (3 stars) – Excellent band of misfits friend group at the center of this story, but ultimately a plot that I just didn’t love. I really enjoyed Henry’s A Million Junes, and this didn’t quite live up, despite the characters that I would have happily followed in a different story. I almost felt like the science fiction elements of this story detracted from its impact; when you have such strong characters that readers can connect with so easily, sometimes a simpler plot allows them to shine more.

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett (2 stars) – The Grace Year was one of my most anticipated books of 2019, mainly because it was pitched as sort of a YA version of The Handmaid’s Tale, and while that’s an apt description, the book itself unfortunately didn’t work for me. I had issues with the logic of the premise–in their sixteenth year, the girls of “the county” are sent into the woods for a mysterious “grace year” in order to rid themselves of the magic they supposedly possess before they fully join society to become docile wives for workers–and the fact that neither the county itself nor the surrounding world was ever explained, but that wasn’t my only issue with this one. Our main character, Tierney, felt more like a fictional YA protagonist than she did a fully developed person; the book’s side characters remained one-dimensional, despite us as readers spending a year with them, and overall I felt like there was too much summarizing in the narrative and not enough action or dialogue. I also really disliked the romance storyline; I think I’d have greatly preferred the story without it, and focusing on female friendships instead. I did like the direction the book took towards the end with regards to certain realizations Tierney came to (trying to be as vague as possible to avoid spoilers), and the potential for interesting developments in the future, but this unfortunately just wasn’t the book for me. I received an ARC of The Grace Year from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

October Reading Wrap-Up!

Yes, we’re belated again, but last month I promised that I would stop talking about how belated all of my monthly wrap-ups are, so we’re just going to move on and forget that I already broke that promise.

October was such a fun month–in addition to experiencing October-ish things, like hiking in nearby Letchworth State Park, going on a ghost tour of an allegedly haunted old mansion, and going to a set of five haunted houses, I soaked up all of the fall weather and Trader Joe’s pumpkin-related products that I could find. I was also in Orlando for a week for a work conference, but went early enough that I was also able to go to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios for the first time, which made me ridiculously happy–I nerded out hard with my friend as we got frozen Butterbeer (delicious), went on the Hogwarts ride (the experience of waiting in line inside the castle was honestly more fun than the ride itself, but I mean that in a good way), explored Knockturn Alley, and picked out a wand at Ollivander’s (I ended up choosing Narcissa Malfoy’s wand, as it best matched my overall aesthetic, plus the actress also plays Polly in Peaky Blinders, so it was a double win). I may end up doing a separate post with a more full/thorough review of my experience there as someone who isn’t traditionally a theme park person–what do you guys think?

My October reading didn’t go quite as expected–I had set aside a dark fantasy TBR stack for the month that I didn’t end up picking from as much as intended–but I still had some really great reads, including a great YA historical fantasy, a novella from one of my favorite science fiction authors, and a re-read of a favorite from 2018.

Total books read: 9

ARCs: 4

Audiobooks: 0

#readmyowndamnbooks: 5

Emergency Skin by N.K. JemisinGet a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia HibbertThe Deep by Rivers SolomonThe Beautiful by Renée AhdiehTrail of Lightning by Rebecca RoanhorseStorm of Locusts by Rebecca RoanhorseLove Her or Lose Her by Tessa BaileyAphrodite Made Me Do It by Trista MateerTo Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (re-read) (5 stars) – Update: upon re-reading, I changed my rating from 4 to 5 stars, because this book is fantastic. In the world of Trail of Lightning, a series of rapid catastrophic climate-change-related events have fractured what was once the United States and buried much of it underwater on an accelerated timeline. In the aftermath, the Navajo nation of Dinetah has formed in what was once the Southwestern United States, and Navajo legends and magical powers are manifesting among its people. Our main character Maggie possesses gifts that help her to slay the monsters that threaten her people, but also have her questioning whether she herself may be monstrous as well. An especially strange new monster has Maggie set on a new path, where, in between fighting monsters and dealing with beings out of Navajo legends, she grows closer with an attractive young medicine man while being haunted by her history with her former love, the legendary Monsterslayer. Urban fantasy can be very hit-or-miss for me, but I really enjoyed this book. With its post-apocalyptic setting and mythology-laden world-building, I think it would be great for readers of Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series. I loved that Rebecca Roanhorse took the very real threat of climate change as inspiration for the book’s setting and used that as a jumping-off point to introduce Navajo mythology into the world. It was so interesting getting to learn more about Navajo myths and legends. Maggie is a prickly, somewhat isolated main character at the beginning of the book, but we see a lot of growth even during this relatively short novel. I found it very easy to root for her, and I loved the concept of the clan powers, which played a large role in the book. The book’s secondary characters were also great; I especially loved Kai, her mysterious medicine-man love interest, and of course his grandfather Tah as well, but also thought Coyote was a great character. I think the world that Rebecca Roanhorse created has the potential for so many more stories, and I’m very excited to see where she takes Maggie next. Definitely recommend. I received a free signed copy of Trail of Lightning at an autographing session at BookCon.

Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse (4 stars) – After re-reading Trail of Lightning, I could not have been more excited for the sequel, and although I did absolutely still enjoy the read, this one didn’t quite work for me as well as the first book did. It’s a month after the events of the first book, and Maggie Hoskie, our badass, monsterslaying protagonist, is living with her elderly friend Tah, whose nephew and Maggie’s love interest, Kai, is still MIA. So Maggie’s been taking on jobs with the local Thirsty Boys mercenary crew to fill the time, and after a job goes sideways, she finds herself the guardian of a young teenage girl named Ben, and from there on the road after Kai, who seems to have been abducted by a cult leader called the White Locust. I still absolutely love Maggie as a main character; she’s tough, but is learning to care about people more and more; newcomer Ben added more to the story by bringing out Maggie’s protective side and casting her into a big sister role. The world Roanhorse created with this series is fascinating, and I would easily read ten books set here; every time we see a new angle of the Sixth World, I’m impressed with her creativity all over again. What was missing for me this time was Kai and Coyote, two of my favorite main characters from the first book, who are both pushed to the back burner for this one and aren’t given enough time to shine. I like both of their dynamics with Maggie, and I felt that the side characters from this book didn’t hold as much interest for me, with the exceptions of Ben and Rissa. Quite a few interesting things are set up towards the end of the book that definitely bode well for future stories in this series, and I can’t wait for the next installment.

The Beautiful by Renee Ahdieh (4 stars) – 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. Check out my full review here.

The Deep by Rivers Solomon (4 stars) – The Deep is a short but profoundly impactful novel that blends history and fantasy together to tell the story of Yetu, a young woman who shoulders the intense burden of being the historian for her people, the wajinru, who are mer-people descended from enslaved pregnant African women who were thrown overboard on the journey to the Americas. While all other wajinru are able to spend most of their lives spared from reliving the horror of the collective memories of their people, Yetu must constantly bear it all, and, understandably, she’s struggling to do so and still survive. When her people gather together for an event where they periodically share the memories, guided by Yetu, she flees, and embarks on a journey where she learns more about herself and her people. It’s a powerful story, one that deserves to be widely read, and one that I would absolutely recommend. I received an ARC of The Deep from the publisher at BookExpo.

Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin (3.75 stars) – Technically a short story, but I’ll take anything I can get from N.K. Jemisin, who’s one of my favorite authors. “Emergency Skin” is science fiction, told in second person, and follows a soldier sent back to a destroyed Earth from an extraplanetary colony that abandoned our planet centuries previously, in search of genetic information that would help to ensure the survival of his society. It’s a very quintessentially N.K. Jemisin story that utilizes several hallmarks of her writing (twists, second person narration, commentary on current societal issues), but, having recently read her fantastically amazing short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, I’d say that overall it wasn’t one of her strongest stories for me. I’d definitely still recommend the read, though, especially as it’s free if you have Amazon Prime.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert (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. You can read my full review here; I received an eARC of Get a Life, Chloe Brown from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Love Her or Lose Her by Tessa Bailey (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. My full review is linked here; Love Her or Lose Her comes out on January 14th. I received an eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Aphrodite Made Me Do It by Trista Mateer (3 stars) – I didn’t enjoy this poetry collection nearly as much as Mateer’s other collection Honeybee, which I read earlier this year, but it’s a gorgeously designed book with a great concept that I think a lot of readers will likely appreciate. Although I love Greek mythology, the poetry in this collection was in parts too pared down and in other parts too over-explained for my personal preference.

 

Have you read any of these? How did your October reading go?

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.