From some of the most exciting bestselling and up-and-coming YA authors writing today…journey from Ecuador to New York City and Argentina to Utah, from Australia to Harlem and India to New Jersey, from Fiji, America, Mexico and more… Come On In.
With characters who face random traffic stops, TSA detention, customs anxiety, and the daunting and inspiring journey to new lands, who camp with their extended families, dance at weddings, keep diaries, teach ESL, give up their rooms for displaced family, decide their own answer to the question “where are you from?” and so much more, Come On In illuminates fifteen of the myriad facets of the immigrant experience.
I know my posting schedule has been sporadic and absent at best, but not to worry – I haven’t disappeared completely! Just…hibernating for a bit until I can cobble together some energy to finish writing posts (and socialize). My draft folder is a bit of a horror at the moment.
Note 1: This particular post is going up rather late due to Life Issues, so thank you to the Hear Our Voices team for being patient and understanding!
Note 2: Also a hearty thank you to Adobe Digital Editions for refusing to save the latter 70% of my reading notes and me for not realizing until three weeks later. I always enjoy that.
Why You Should Read (feat. hasty doodles)
one of the best anthologies I’ve read this year. Which, admittedly, would mean more if I had read more than three anthologies in total. BUT if I compile a list of all the anthologies I’ve read in the past, say, six years, this would still rank pretty high. So there
aesthetically charming scenes including and not limited to donkeys against sunsets, cigars in teacups
a journey through multiple countries, generations, and families that you’ve never met but ring with notes of familiarity
the wonderful and confounding dichotomy of families, ubiquitous regardless of culture or time. Families driving you insane. Families keeping you sane. Family being your greatest disappointment and your greatest joy. Leaving your family only to return like a rubberbanded slingshot
not all are feel-good stories about embracing culture and family. Some seep anger and uncertainty–a non-sugarcoated look into hardship and life in the Trump administration. What next? When will it get better?
Alaya Dawn Johnson having fun with words (“Bones exist not of themselves but as representations of potential, past or future. They are a being reduced to its bleached essence. But it is flesh, so briefly animated, that makes those bones dance, resplendent in gold and jade. It is hope, and then death.”) Her story was, unsurprisingly, one of my favourites
Tío Reynaldo (Isabel Quintero’s “From Golden State”) and his eternal youth and eyes that see beyond the dark
tidbit truths about immigrant life that hit you hard (“To have families in two countries is to have part of yourself missing”)
the fact that, for many readers, the first Korean idiom they’ll learn is one involving butt hairs. All hail Maurene Goo
About the Editor
Adi Alsaid was born and raised in Mexico City, where he now lives, writes, and spills hot sauce on things. He’s the author of several YA novels including LET’S GET LOST, NEVER ALWAYS SOMETIMES, and NORTH OF HAPPY.
Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, isn’t returning her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, LA, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous invisible strings that held together her single mother’s life as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother.
Interwoven with Margot’s present-day search is Mina’s story of her first year in Los Angeles as she navigates the promises and perils of the American myth of reinvention. While she’s barely earning a living by stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing Mina ever expects is to fall in love. But that love story sets in motion a series of events that have consequences for years to come, leading up to the truth of what happened the night of her death.
What traits do we inherit from our culture’s history?
That’s something I think about on occasion. Like, how a good chunk of our personality might be determined by something that some random person in our country did decades or centuries before we were born. One action that branched into another and another, until an entire cataclysmic event sprouted and fell with a ricochet that would be felt generations later.
Maybe it’s pride that we inherited. Maybe it’s something more sinister – bitterness, fear, hate, a defensiveness that comes from trying to squash down the knee-jerk bitterness, fear, and hate. Maybe such cultural traumas are always inevitably passed down, zero chance of escape, and the best we can do is understand and navigate them.
That’s more or less the lane of thought The Last Story of Mina Lee ventures into. And when it comes to the topic of personal traumas wrapped in cultural traumas and one’s disassociative response to them, this book nails it. Does it so well, in fact, that I felt disassociated from the narrative itself.
Boredom, meet book. The only reason I didn’t scribble it down as a DNF was because I wanted to know the real reason behind Mina’s death. Surely all this slow burn was leading up to some sort of payoff? Disappointment, meet Kathy.
The prose is a head-scratcher. The writing is technically good, descriptive and occasionally florid, and yet so dry that you can scrape splinters with it. The book is meant to be a slow-paced slice-of-life story strung together by small and intimate moments, but everything felt so strangely devoid of real emotions and it was like I was seeing things happen through multiple sheets of glass. Any emotional connection I formed with these characters were annoyingly casual and brief.
I found Margot’s chapters especially trying. A lot of dull spoon-feeding of exposition and musings and an endless list of questions. That last one drove me insane. Asking rhetorical questions every other paragraph doesn’t make a scene any more poignant or mysterious, and at some point it just becomes silly and reads like a weird third-person diary.
Still, Margot does offer some memorable moments of clarity and reflections regarding immigrant life and culture (if not a better insight into her own personality beyond “young Asian-American woman who has a prickly relationship with her mom”):
“How much language itself was a home, a shelter, as well as a way of navigating the larger world. And perhaps that was why Margot never put much effort into learning Korean. She hadn’t been able to stand to be under the same roof as her mom.”
Mina’s chapters are slightly better. They follow her as she tries to adjust to a new life in L.A. Koreatown in the wake of her family’s death. It’s a look into the life of an immigrant who arrived with nothing but the clothes on her back, hoping to escape into a better future – or, at the very least, a different one. It’s utterly, distinctly unromantic, which is both a positive and a negative. Mina’s day-to-day drudgery at her supermarket job is only punctuated by the occasional conversations with her neighbour and coworker, and it’s clear that this is a woman who’s stuck in a rut, going through the motions of life.
Is it a realistic portrayal of someone who’s in her position? Whittled down by recent tragedies, compounded by her memories of the Korean War, further compounded by her struggles as an undocumented immigrant? Absolutely. Does it make for an engaging read? No. Especially not when her conclusion feels so rushed and empty, like a book with the endpages ripped out.
And, at the end of it, I’m not quite sure what audience the book is meant to satisfy. Is it a mystery? If you squint really hard, yes. Is it a mother-daughter family drama? In a very one-sided, perfunctory way, sure. Are there other Asian-American stories that handle this theme of cultural displacement with more conviction? Definitely.
See – I too can ask many questions and give not-quite-satisfying answers.
Thank you to the publisher for having me on the blog tour!
I’m now off to knock on the WordPress gates and have some words with whoever designed this new interface and grumble at the fact that we’re being forced to use it. WHY.
If anyone has suggestions, please feel free to mail out a note to my brain detailing step-by-step instructions, as the poor thing has clearly forgotten. Which, turns out, is a bit of an inconvenience when you’re trying to run a book blog.
It’s not that I don’t have the time – quite the opposite, really. It’s not that I don’t have a good selection of books to read, or that I’m not excited to get to them – because I have and I do. It’s just that I open a book, read the first couple of chapters, and then think, “Oh look, squirrel!” and proceed to chase the squirrel instead. And in this case the squirrel is a text message or a cute YouTube video or a dark blotch on my ceiling that I swear is a spider. I feel like, at this point, if I were stuck in a 10 ft x 10 ft room with nothing but the clothes on my back, some water, and a Kindle on my lap, I would still manage to find an excuse to NOT read.
Sigh. It’s a maddening puzzle, my friends. But one I’m determined to crack this month. There are so many incredible-sounding books coming out in the next couple of months, and I do not want to miss them.
In the meantime, here are a few mini reviews that I’ve been procrastinating on!
Title: The Shadows
Author: Alex North
Publisher: Celadon Books
Release Date: July 7th, 2020 Page Count: 326 (hardback)
You knew a teenager like Charlie Crabtree. A dark imagination, a sinister smile–always on the outside of the group. Some part of you suspected he might be capable of doing something awful. Twenty-five years ago, Crabtree did just that, committing a murder so shocking that it’s attracted that strange kind of infamy that only exists on the darkest corners of the internet–and inspired more than one copycat.
Paul Adams remembers the case all too well: Crabtree–and his victim–were Paul’s friends. Paul has slowly put his life back together. But now his mother, old and suffering from dementia, has taken a turn for the worse. Though every inch of him resists, it is time to come home.
It’s not long before things start to go wrong. Paul learns that Detective Amanda Beck is investigating another copycat that has struck in the nearby town of Featherbank. His mother is distressed, insistent that there’s something in the house. And someone is following him. Which reminds him of the most unsettling thing about that awful day twenty-five years ago.
It wasn’t just the murder.
It was the fact that afterward, Charlie Crabtree was never seen again…
The Shadows is less of a thriller-horror than what the blurb suggests, and a more reflective story of a man who returns home to reconcile with a traumatic past. It’s got the tone of rifling through a box of old photographs, with all the tension and melancholia that accompanies it, which I absolutely vibe with – sad trips into the fictional past are my jam – but it wasn’t quite the skin-crawling experience I was hoping for.
It is, however, still a solid atmosphere-driven tale and, in a weird way, there’s this magical lustre to it. Maybe it’s just that my brain has a tendency to categorize all stories involving dreams as fantasy-adjacent, but this feels like it exists in that grey narrative space between reality and not-quite. It’s in the way that the characters long for things they know they can’t have, and long for them hard enough to stitch their own world, their own stories, into existence. And I love it when stories do that – grounded in the real world but still dangling a thread of “But what if?”
Aside from the main character, the rest of the cast kind of fade into the background. I understand why the author chose to alternate Paul’s chapters with Amanda’s. His narration is so entrenched in old memories and biases, and the detective offers a more outside-in look into everything with better objectivity (the thriller/mystery aspect definitely becomes sharper with her chapters). But I couldn’t help but feel that she’s mostly there to serve as a mirror for all the strangeness that’s going on, and not so much as a fleshed-out character. A narrative device, really, albeit an effective one.
Creepy handprints on the cover notwithstanding, I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone looking for a high-octane horror story. It’s the quiet exploration of childhood traumas and our compartmentalization of them that truly shines throughout.
Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Title: Red Heir
Author: Lisa Henry and Sarah Honey
Genre(s): Fantasy, Romance Subject(s)/Themes(s): Fake royal, Road trip Representation: Gay MC and side characters
Release Date: July 28th, 2020 Page Count: 234 (ebook)
Imprisoned pickpocket Loth isn’t sure why a bunch of idiots just broke into his cell claiming they’re here to rescue the lost prince of Aguillon, and he doesn’t really care. They’re looking for a redheaded prince, and he’s more than happy to play along if it means freedom. Then his cranky cellmate Grub complicates things by claiming to be the prince as well.
Now they’re fleeing across the country and Loth’s stuck sharing a horse and a bedroll with Grub while imitating royalty, eating eel porridge, and dodging swamp monsters and bandits.
Along the way, Loth discovers that there’s more to Grub than meets the eye. Under the dirt and bad attitude, Grub’s not completely awful. He might even be attractive. In fact, Loth has a terrible suspicion that he’s developing feelings, and he’s not sure what to do about that. He’d probably have more luck figuring it out if people would just stop trying to kill them.
Still, at least they’ve got a dragon, right?
A dwarf, an elf, a human, and an orc crash into a prison where two redheads await. One of them is the lost prince, you see, and these unlikely band of rescuers are determined to snatch him away to safety and earn all the glory. A case of mistaken identity, however, lands the wrong guy as the prince and his cellmate as his grumpy tagalong. Cue adventure.
This was….okay, in every sense of the word. It’s a simple story; it doesn’t do anything particularly new or exciting with the imposter royal trope, the worldbuilding is sparse, and the side characters are cute and provide some extra banter. In terms of queer fantasy adventures, it’s nowhere near the kind of funny that Lightning Struck Heart is, but it definitely has its witty moments.
I was just rather bored with it. I mean, the book knows what it’s about – it’s not meant to be a sprawling fantasy epic – but everything from the characters to the relationship to the plot felt surface-level and derivative compared to other stories that tackle this premise in a more interesting way. It plays safe and doesn’t attempt to be anything it’s not, but damn, I sure wish it’d at least tried.
But if you’re looking for quick and light-hearted fantasy that you want to squeeze inbetween heavier reads, or you just really love red-haired protagonists, then this might be one for you.
Author: Patrick Ness
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction Subject(s)/Themes(s): War, Discrimination, Dragons Representation: Biracial MC, Gay MC
Release Date: June 2nd, 2020 Page Count: 384 (hardback)
On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957, Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm…
Sarah Dewhurst and her father, outcasts in their little town of Frome, Washington, are forced to hire a dragon to work their farm, something only the poorest of the poor ever have to resort to.
The dragon, Kazimir, has more to him than meets the eye, though. Sarah can’t help but be curious about him, an animal who supposedly doesn’t have a soul but who is seemingly intent on keeping her safe.
Because the dragon knows something she doesn’t. He has arrived at the farm with a prophecy on his mind. A prophecy that involves a deadly assassin, a cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents in hot pursuit—and somehow, Sarah Dewhurst herself.
Ah, Patrick Ness. He never goes for the boring, does he? I so admire his drive to create stories that count for something–narratives that serve as pointed commentary on an aspect of society or of human nature, sometimes via non-human characters (he forever has my respect for choosing to tackle an inverted version of Moby Dick from the PoV of whales)–and willingness to branch out into wild genres and concepts. His ideas are like a mystery parfait. A delicious delight to spoon through.
Burn is unlike any of his previous books, yet so entirely like all of his previous books. Bold and imaginative and doesn’t shy away when faced with tough questions, it comes out on the other side with a strong thematic core, even if it does sacrifice a few things along the way.
It’s 1957 and dragons exist in this alternate world, distrusted and looked down on by human society. There have been major conflicts waged between the two groups across history, but all of that is done and out of the way now, with a peace treaty placing the parties in a cold but slightly less hostile relationship.
There is also a Canadian cult that worships said dragons, but not the dragons directly. They instead choose to worship a human proxy who represents the dragon divinity–never mind the fact that the dragons don’t give a toss about humans, cultists or otherwise, and have no voice in electing this pope figure for their own fan club. Then there’s an end-of-the-world prophecy revolving around the protagonist Sarah (it tickles me that the idea of dragons is shrug-worthy in this world, but prophecies and clairvoyance are considered nonsense. I love an alt-fantasy setting with strict rules and boundaries); a sheltered gay assassin named Malcolm who is determined to stop her at any cost; two FBI agents hot on his trail; one red dragon with sandpaper-dry snark; and an examination of inherited hatred, violence, and the human propensity to hurl ourselves into mutual destruction.
And they all work.
Most definitely in the first half, which is a stretch of perfect pacing, great character introductions, and a flurry of events that devolve into heartbreak and anger.
I quite loved the main cast of characters–Sarah’s frustration and empathy, her father’s dilemma, Kazimir’s sass, Malcolm’s innocence warring with his cold violence–even though some we don’t see too much of. I found it particularly poignant how Sarah and Malcolm’s storylines are near-mirrors of each other. How both childhoods were shaped by authorities dictating the paths their lives must take, and the boundaries that can’t be crossed, based on what they are and what they are not. And when it comes to good people doing terrible things, morally grey people doing terrible things, and terrible people doing terrible things, the book knows to make you understand what the differences are.
The second half dives deeper into the major themes, and character work takes a backseat as all the plot threads are gathered into one clear moral lesson: that we must be vigilant of how hatred, including self-hatred, curdles and spreads and ricochets across space and time until we can’t even tell where it ends and where it begins. That’s something you can count on with Ness; things like plot and character might skew sideways, but the point of the story never gets lost.
I do think Burn works better if you look at it as a long parable as opposed as your normal YA fiction. There are definitely questions left unanswered by the end, and the characters brush off traumatic events with concerning ease, giving it the feel of a folktale in which things happen and you just have to accept that they do, even though you’re not exactly sure why.
While it’s not favourite story of his, it’s still a strong, memorable entry into his bibliography that had me ruminating for a while after.
Review copy provided by the publisher. All opinions are my own.
Genre(s): YA Historical Fiction, Paranormal, Magical Realism Subject(s): Multigenerational, Abuse
Release Date: July 14th, 2020 Page Count: 304 (hardback)
It’s 1987 and unfortunately it’s not all Madonna and cherry lip balm. Mayhem Brayburn has always known there was something off about her and her mother, Roxy. Maybe it has to do with Roxy’s constant physical pain, or maybe with Mayhem’s own irresistible pull to water. Either way, she knows they aren’t like everyone else.
But when May’s stepfather finally goes too far, Roxy and Mayhem flee to Santa Maria, California, the coastal beach town that holds the answers to all of Mayhem’s questions about who her mother is, her estranged family, and the mysteries of her own self. There she meets the kids who live with her aunt, and it opens the door to the magic that runs through the female lineage in her family, the very magic Mayhem is next in line to inherit and which will change her life for good.
But when she gets wrapped up in the search for the man who has been kidnapping girls from the beach, her life takes another dangerous turn and she is forced to face the price of vigilante justice and to ask herself whether revenge is worth the cost.
CW: talk and depictions of domestic abuse, sexual assault, suicide
Set in 1987 against the backdrop of Santa Maria, with a girl and her mother fleeing their abusive household, Mayhem is a poetically wrought mess that disappointed me the more I read.
The core message of the story is sound and impactful, about taking control and power in an environment where you’re offered little of either, but it’s heavily stifled by a tangle of storylines and genres that gets thrown onto your lap without much fanfare. From research, it seems that the book is less of a mashup of The Lost Boys and The Craft and more of a direct retelling with a few changes made here and there. Which is a little eyebrow-raising considering how the marketing did its usual “If you like X and Y, you must check this out!” and made it out to be a book that takes elements of those films while still remaining an original, not a near-same story with a different filter. And I would have been fine with that, since I didn’t know much about the source materials to begin with, if it wasn’t obvious that the book is multiple stories awkwardly cobbled into one. It tries to fit magical witchy elements, mother-daughter relationships, new friendships, budding romance, navigation of past trauma, an abusive husband/stepfather on the loose, and a serial killer mystery in 300 pages.
It just doesn’t work.
It picks up a plotline and then pushes it aside in favour of a different one, resolves the latter with underwhelming speed, and returns to the old one only to leave it hanging or tied in the messiest knot imaginable. Characterization also suffers because of this. There are just too many people introduced all at once–Roxy, Roxy’s twin sister Elle, the three children living in Elle’s attic, Roxy’s old friends–and Roxy, the one character aside from May who should have had the main focus throughout, fades into the background in the second half. The other side characters are surface-level interesting, but again, never given enough time for me to get attached to.
The writing is beautiful, however; that’s what hooked in the beginning. And environmental storytelling is the story’s strongest suit. Laure knows how to create quiet scenes that seem to expand with each sentence, and some of the chapters read like haunting vignettes, a moment in time frozen by the lingering memories of what May and her mother endured. There are scenes that made my throat close up in empathy and anger, and the horrors of abuse and assault are depicted with care.
If Laure had just taken that and expanded on it for the rest of the book, focusing solely on the relationships between the characters and their individual pains and journey to healing, while introducing the magic as a subtle undercurrent? How complete the story might have been.
As it is, Mayhem knows what it wants to accomplish, and the emotional depth is well present, but it tries to go about it with more tools than it can hold and falls in the execution.
Estelle Laure, the author of This Raging Light and But Then I Came Back believes in love, magic, and the power of facing hard truths. She has a BA in Theatre Arts and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and she lives in Taos, New Mexico, with her family. Her work is translated widely around the world.
UPDATE: The deadline for the bingo has been extended to December 31!
Hello my hippest of friends! Hope you are all having a fabulous day. If so, it is about to get even more fabulous, for today I’m unveiling the Tarot Black Lives Matter book bingo, presented by The Tarot Sequence fandom. This is s reading challenge event running from July 6 to December 6 December 31 aimed to help us discover, read, and support Black authors and their work.
Absolutely ZERO knowledge of The Tarot Sequence series is required in order to participate, as the event is meant to be, first and foremost, a celebration of Black voices within the book community. It’s a chance to show our love for Black authors, especially queer Black authors, and encourage each other to read more diversely and smartly, to read beyond the reaches of our comfort genres, and further educate ourselves on the subjects that are raised in these stories. And most importantly, to make that a habit, not just a one-off.
We have created a bingo card with each square corresponding to a tarot-specific prompt (the 22 Major Arcana, plus a few custom additions). After reading a book that fulfills said prompt, you can cross it out. For each filled square you will gain ONE (1) entry, with a bonus entry if the book is LGBTQ+, into a raffle for some incredible prizes detailed below. For each line of five squares in a row that is completed, you will gain an additional THREE (3) entries. By completing the entire grid, you’ll gain a bonus of SIX (6) entries. The overall number of squares you’ve filled out will count towards your ranking, which comes with a cool badge that you can show off for bragging rights.
You can go for as few or as many squares as you want, and you’re welcome to do update posts, TBRs posts, reviews, recommendation lists, and share on your blog and other social media using #TarotBLMBingo.
Books mustbe written (or co-written) by Black authors.
Unless specified, books can be fiction or non-fiction; prose, verse, or graphic novel.
Only one square may be filled by a re-read, and each book can only be used once. Multiple books by the same author is perfectly okay!
After each book, we highly encourage you to write a review (or draw or film–get creative!) and share on Goodreads, Amazon, and social media (please do NOT tag authors in negative reviews).
Email your bingo cards to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with country of residence (for prize purposes) and, if you’re comfortable sharing, social media usernames (so that we know to tag you in winner announcement posts).
End date: December 6December 31(11:59 PM PST)
For more info, please refer to the guidebook pdf attached at the end of the post, which will go into all the prompts, prizes, and more in detail.
Prizes (International + US)
All prizes, unless specified, are available for international participants. And you can, of course, opt out of the prize draw while still participating in the bingo.
Grand Prize: A BIG special prize that will be revealed closer to the end date
Three Winners: A book purchase up to $30 from a Black author (Book Depository or if in US, from a Black-owned bookstore)
Two winners (US only): A copy of K.D. Edwards’ The Hanged Man (The Tarot Sequence 2)
One Winner: A book sleeve
One winner (US only): A mini book bundle containing a paperback of Check Please Vol. 2, Fragile Remedy bookmarks, and a small curated tea package
One winner:An art commission of anything and anyone (with or without background) by artist @JakeShandy
One winner: A podfic up to 10k words (any fandom, requires permission from fic author, preferably no NSFW). Offered by Sam @HeartS530. (Note: a podfic is a fanmade audio recording of a fanfic)
One winner: A significant recurring cameo in Book 3 of K.D. Edwards’ The Tarot Sequence
I hope you can find the time to join us! And if you have any questions you can leave them here below in the comments or contact me on Twitter @aildreda, or email directly at email@example.com.
I come out of hiding once again like an anxious little mole. The thing I learned about staying home during this darkest timeline is that “extra free time” comes with a HUGE disclaimer that’s deviously written in tiny scrawl, and in Papyrus to boot. As free time goes up, productivity plummets. Hard. So my schedule has been thus: waking up all pumped up and wanting to be productive, getting heavily distracted, staring off into space, remembering I have things to do, rinse and repeat. Everyone who’s been able to tackle dozens and dozens of books during quarantine, my hat goes off to you and I very much want to steal the secrets to your superpower, because I’ve barely been able to read four books per month since April.
There was also the niggling anxiety of feeling like I’ll be erased from the blogsphere if I don’t post consistently during this time when everyone is home, which led to more anxiety, and…. well–that’s a topic for another day.
But I hope you’ve been well and keeping safe, and I’m looking forward to catching up with you all! ❤
Today I have a special buddy read collab review (collabview?) with the darling Pei of Pei Reads, who is sunshine and starlight stirred into a pot and poured into an adorable mold.
We hope you enjoy!
Yahoo, gentlefriends and gentleenemies and gentleenemies-soon-to-be-lovers (we see you). On this fine post-Pride day we have double the reviews and double the fun. Peikat (Pei + Kathy = delicious chocolatey wafery goodness) here with our first ever buddy read and review!
We’d planned for June to be an entire month of Pride buddy reading and reviewing, but plans are for people with a better grasp on reality and time than either of us, so we’re extending it to a full summer of rainbow goodness and joy.
Our first book is Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, released May 5th, 2020 by Balzer + Bray.
What starts out as a revenge story, an anger-fueled story, becomes an introspective, heart-forward narrative about experiencing love and life to the fullest, and flipping the lens to see where you fit in this world. Felix Ever After isn’t a romcom fairy tale where the hero collects all the friends, defeats the baddies, and rides off with the love of their life. Mistakes get made. Bridges get burned. Life offers its slivers of heartbreak and casual pain on a platter because that’s typical behaviour for life and no one’s going to convince it otherwise. But the dark moments make the eventual triumphs burn all the brighter, and the interplay of the two makes Felix my favourite YA contemporary of the year so far.
Callendar’s approach to the narration is a beautiful example of what first person can achieve, especially in YA. It’s raw. It’s winding. It’s messy to its bones. And with a story that tackles so many of the nuances of queer adolescence, and the confusion and wild joy that comes with it, messy is the minimum of what it needs to be, and the author fully delivers on that. Felix is layers of flaws and wonder, all of which Callendar portrays vividly, holding the latter up to the sky without downplaying any of the ugliness. He’s a teenager sitting in the middle of a trifecta of personal markers – trans, demi, black – that he tries to get comfortable with. He’s the soul of every artist with dye-stained fingers and sleep-deprived poets who talk about love like it’s something you need in order to breathe. He’s a hurt kid who lashes out in anger because that’s the one thing he can control in that moment, and because anger is preferable in the face of helplessness. When it comes to her lead–and any of the characters, really–Callendar never takes the shallow route. It’s gorgeous, heartfelt stuff.
The notion of art is so entwined with the narrative, of the self-portraits that we all paint in our minds, and the way Felix explores it makes my heart soar. Whether it’s his love for a particular piece, or doubts regarding his own work, or him trying to reconcile with the thought that he’s surrounded by peers who seem to be naturals, whereas he has to work so hard to match a fraction of their talent, there’s passion and longing wedged into every word. My boy is so relatable that it hurts to read at times.
And quite often I was reminded of Keating’s lines from Dead Poet’s Society. This one in particular:
To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
This story is Felix’s journey in trying to figure out what that verse could be, in all facets of his life. Of wanting to feel secure in his skin, but challenged with walls of bigotry and confusion; to create art but getting tangled up in his insecurities; to experience love but fearing ghosts present and future. And what I loved especially is that for every cut he receives–every blind ignorance and hatred that’s thrown at him–there’s a counterbalance of warm support, casual acceptance, and acknowledgments that while this is not a world they’re familiar with, they’re still willing to learn more about it and grow.
My one gripe is that the last stretch of the book feels abridged in terms of character work compared to the rest. It’s probably the slow-burn maniac in me shaking fists, but it could have easily been longer to better highlight some of the relationship transitions, because for someone who ruminates on everything Felix moves on from certain events without much of a thought.
In the end, Felix Ever After is a fierce reminder of love existing in all shape and form, and that your identity, cast in stone or not, questioning or not, is a thing to hold to your chest and nurture and let loose into the world with pride.
Rating: 8.5/10 (Excellent)
Felix Ever After is abeautiful celebration of trans identity and discovery. The writing is engaging and poignant, with emotional and deeply personal scenes that tug at your heart and make you feel. The story follows Felix Love as he sets out to get revenge on the anonymous student who’s been trolling him online with transphobic messages and a gallery displaying Felix’s deadname with pictures of him before his transition, and along the way, ends up developing feelings he has to sort out while trying to figure himself out.
Felix’s character is wonderfully nuanced, with layers of confusion and confidence and yearning interwoven, and the side characters, each with their own secrets and motivations, balance out the cast well. There is Ezra, his best friend, fiercely loyal and protective, and Marisol, complicated and haughty. Their relationships aren’t always perfect in the way they sometimes are in fiction. There are fights and betrayals and tears, and that resonated painfully with me, making this story hit even closer to home. It was a jagged reminder of the growing pains that comes with discovering yourself, in shedding toxic friendships and entering new chapters in your life.
Callender’s writing is engaging and honest, and one of my favorite parts of the book were the text conversations Felix has, where his longing to be loved and as his fierce pride for his identity are laid out in a beautifully poetic way. The book walks the reader through Felix’s quest to understand himself as well as develop his identity as an artist while he navigates complicated friendships. I loved the depth in which these relationships were explored, but when the book comes to a climax in the latter pages, the resolution of certain relationships seemed a little bit rushed.
This book made me laugh and cry and cycle through thousands of emotions in between, and I absolutely loved it. The story is messy and complex, punctuated by lost friendships and pain, but the end result is heartachingly lovely. It’s the story I wish I could have read as a queer teenager struggling to understand herself, and the story I hope everybody can come across because it still reaches into your chest and touches you in a way that is so wonderful and special. It’s a celebration and such an absolute joy to read. I cannot recommend this book enough to all readers in all its raw, unfiltered queer glory.
Overall, we both really enjoyed this book and had a lot of fun reading it together. First buddy review was a success! Please stay tuned for part 2 of our review where we ask each other invasive questions regarding how the themes of the book relates back to our own experiences! Peace out, sleep well.
Title: They Went Left
Author: Monica Hesse
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): YA Historical Fiction Subject(s): WW2, Holocaust, Mental Health, Siblings
Release Date: April 7th, 2020 Page Count: 384 (hardback)
I admit, I’m not exactly in the right mood for Holocaust fiction at this point in 2020, but I went into this book for a specific reason: I wanted something hopeful. Something about finding light at the end of a tunnel and holding onto it, despite how much easier it might be to turn and walk right back in. Nothing blindingly happy. Just reaffirming.
And that’s what I got. A story set right after the end of WW2, during its first few months of tentative chaos, with people trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. It’s not a healing story, exactly, but it is a story about healing and the complications that come with such a journey. Zofia’s mental state–her looping thoughts and fears, her gaps in memory, her disassociation– are presented with such great care and lyricism. There just aren’t a lot of WW2 stories out there that focus on camp survivors who were just recently liberated, and I really appreciate Hesse for shining a light on the topic. Because while there’s strength in surviving, I think there’s even greater strength in living. In moving forward with your life, carrying all the horrors you’ve experienced, and choosing to embrace love and laughter in spite of the pain. It’s a kind of courage that deserves to be highlighted more in narratives.
“Today I am choosing to love the person in front of me. Do you understand? Because he’s here, I’m here, and we’re ready to not be lonely together.”
I was also anticipating a good mystery, though (I mean, the blurbs and synopsis lean heavily on it) but that I didn’t get at all. What little mystery there is predictable and rushed and its conclusion left me feeling underwhelmed. And “rushed” is more or less my biggest complaint about the whole thing. The story throws a handful of plot threads at you–a slice-of-life angle focusing on the refugees in the displaced person camp; a romantic subplot between Zofia and Josef; a search for Zofia’s brother–and while their skeletal structure is interesting, the execution needs a lot more fleshing out. More development of the characters at the camp, better exploration of the romance.
Right now it feels more like an abridged book, and while I really liked the prose and the themes presented, I can only dream longingly for the unabridged version that never existed.
Germany, 1945. The soldiers who liberated the Gross-Rosen concentration camp said the war was over, but nothing feels over to eighteen-year-old Zofia Lederman. Her body has barely begun to heal; her mind feels broken. And her life is completely shattered: Three years ago, she and her younger brother, Abek, were the only members of their family to be sent to the right, away from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Everyone else–her parents, her grandmother, radiant Aunt Maja–they went left.
Zofia’s last words to her brother were a promise: Abek to Zofia, A to Z. When I find you again, we will fill our alphabet. Now her journey to fulfill that vow takes her through Poland and Germany, and into a displaced persons camp where everyone she meets is trying to piece together a future from a painful past: Miriam, desperately searching for the twin she was separated from after they survived medical experimentation. Breine, a former heiress, who now longs only for a simple wedding with her new fiancé. And Josef, who guards his past behind a wall of secrets, and is beautiful and strange and magnetic all at once.
But the deeper Zofia digs, the more impossible her search seems. How can she find one boy in a sea of the missing? In the rubble of a broken continent, Zofia must delve into a mystery whose answers could break her–or help her rebuild her world.
About the Author
Monica Hesse is the New York Times bestselling author of Girl in the Blue Coat, American Fire, and The War Outside, as well as a columnist at The Washington Post writing about gender and its impact on society. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and their dog.
You can check out all the other stops on the tour HERE!
Two lucky U.S. residents have a chance to win a physical copy of They Went Left! ENTER HERE.
Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review
This is an odd one. One of those books that send your brain into a bit of a lull. And I enjoyed it (with a faint question mark attached). But I think I enjoyed it as I’d enjoy sitting on a boat in the middle of a lake for five hours, fishing line cast out, the sun dipping in and out, and catching a single minnow at the end of it all. I can’t decide whether it was meditative or just plain dull, but then I remember that it was a nice day and the birds were singing, so I decide on the former. I probably wouldn’t try it again, but I appreciate the one experience.
It’s an atmosphere-driven book first, character second, and plot third. Moreno-Garcia shows why she’s one of the best when it comes to immersive settings. Baja California is a slow and stifling shoreside town and you can practically feel the heat emanating through the pages as you read. It’s no big city offering glitzy displays of culture, but small places can have just as much character and magnetism, and this story shows that. And Viridiana is a realistic, if unlikable, product of such a place: a little impulsive, a little adventurous, and teeth-grindingly naive. The book definitely works better as her coming-of-age story than a thrilling crime novel because the latter aspects, with the American tourists and their secret troubles, rather underwhelming and a side attraction to the Viridiana Show.
Overall, it’s a lazy immersive sprawl of a story that was worth the read but nothing that really stayed with me afterwards. A brief, quiet fling.
Series: Big Bad Wolf 4
Publisher: Carina Press
Genre(s): Paranormal, LGBTQ Romance Release Date: March 2nd, 2020 Page Count: 268 (paperback)
Two of my most pressing questions in the last few years (pre-COVIDapocalypse): 1) When will Blackpink get the respect they’re due from their company? and 2) When will Charlie Adhara release a mediocre book?
The answer is probably the same for both.
We are sitting at book 4 in the Big Bad Wolf series, and I continue to be impressed and delighted by Adhara’s ability to write consistently at the top of the game. She dives into the shapeshifter trope with fresh eyes, creating characters who feel like real people navigating traumas and insecurities, not cardboard cutouts doling out conflict for conflict’s sake, and each book adds new lines and shading to the image that is Park and Cooper. And that continues here. An undercover mission to a couples resort. Murder upon murders. Cooper figuring out that there are so many layers to a relationship, and huh, isn’t that a scary thing, but also a massively wonderful thing?
It wasn’t the strongest of the series in terms of plot and secondary characters, but “not my favourite” for a BBW story equals “really friggin good” for most other paranormal romances. Overall, a solid, solid entry to the next chapter of Cooper’s life.
Expect an overdue Why You Need to Read this Series post in the next week or so!
Title: Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights
Author(s): Patrick Weekes, Sylvia Fektekuty, John Epler, Lukas Kristjanson, Brianne Battye, Caitlin Sullivan Kelly, Courtney Woods, Ryan Cormier, Arone LaBray
Publisher: Tor Books Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Game-to-Novel Subject(s): Gods, LGBTQ+
Release Date: March 10th, 2020 Page Count: 496 (paperback)
The Dragon Age games are dark, heroic, epic fantasy role playing games that have won legions of devoted fans. The first game went triple platinum (over three millions units sold) worldwide, and the second game was released in March of 2011 to solid reviews. This sixth book in the series is an anthology put together by the game’s writing staff and specifically follows the fates of various characters and events from the previous three games and the newly announced fourth game.
So you thought your patience meter was pretty high with regards to DA4’s release? Thought “Yeah, sure, I can wait another few years for it”? Well, you can kiss that serenity goodbye, my friends, because that bar’s going to be bottomed out by the time you finish this.
Tevinter Nights just displaced The Last Flight as my favourite Dragon Age novel. Not so much in terms of prose and character work, but in terms of the breadth of content –walking you through the northern regions of Thedas, throwing you hints and speculation fodder, teasing you with storylines that will most definitely reappear in the next game (I’ll eat my stuffed nug if they don’t), and just re-immersing you and setting up the stage for everything that’s to come–Tevinter Nights is fantastic and a must-read for all fans of the series.
And here’s what the stage looks like: the Qunari invasion is well underway; Tevinter is being eaten up bit by bit even as the Magisters and the Venatori scheme from within; Nevarra is standing on a fracture line that cuts between the Mortalitasi and the royal family; Antiva is being forced to rely on the Crows as their main defense against the Qunari; and a bald overpowered heartbreaker idiot thinks he knows what’s best for the world and will stop at seemingly nothing to achieve it. And that’s just what’s on the surface and on this side of the Veil.
Things aren’t looking too great right now–and as this is THEDAS we’re talking about, that’s saying something.
A few general criticisms, though. Some of these stories are obviously a lead-in to side quests or the main quest in DA4, so their conclusions aren’t super satisfying; they serve more as teasers (though they’re pretty good teasers). Also, a lot of them follow the same plot formula: “x is killing y” or “x wants to kill y”, followed by “z has to step in to find out who and why.” It gets a bit repetitive, especially if you’re reading the book all in one go. And as with all anthologies, you’re going to get a mix of stories that you like and stories that just don’t work.
My favourites in order:
“The Wigmaker” by Courtney Woods
“The Horror of Hormok” by John Epler
“Eight Little Talons” by Courtney Woods
“Half Up Front” by John Epler
“The Dread Wolf Take You” by Patrick Weekes
(Courtney Woods and John Epler are really the MVPs of this anthology. Their stories are stuffed with interesting lore, they nail the balance of teaser and substance, and character-wise, they’re just more solidly crafted than the others)
As far as anthologies go, this was one of the best I’ve read in recent memory. And my furious obsession with the series has no bearing on that assessment. None whatsoever!
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play Inquisition for the 50th time.
Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review