Review: All the Bad Apples – Smoky with Old Magic

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Title: All the Bad Apples
Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Publisher: Kathy Dawson Books
Release Date: August 1st, 2019 (UK); August 27th (NA)
Genre(s): YA Contemporary, Magical Realism, Historical Fiction
Subjects and Themes: Family, Women’s Rights, LGBTQIAP+ (lesbian mc, queer side characters)
Page Count: 319 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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CW: Rape, homophobia, and a myriad of casual atrocities against women (historical and modern)

When Deena’s wild older sister Mandy goes missing, presumed dead, Deena refuses to believe it’s true. Especially when letters start arriving–letters from Mandy–which proclaim that their family’s blighted history is not just bad luck or bad decisions but a curse, handed down to women from generation to generation. Mandy’s gone to find the root of the curse before it’s too late for Deena. But is the curse even real? And is Mandy still alive? Deena’s desperate, cross-country search for her beloved sister–guided only by the notes that mysteriously appear at each destination, leading her to former Magdalene laundry sites and more–is a love letter to women and a heartbreaking cathartic journey.

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“This novel was, in part, fueled by rage”

It’ll be a cold day in hell when I don’t finish a blog tour book at the last minute, it seems, so this is gonna be shorter and less effusive than I want it to be. But don’t let my procrastination take away the fact that I loved this book.

All the Bad Apples checks all my boxes: a road trip to uncover family secrets, a spotlight on women, ancient magic bleeding into the modern, and the use of past tense in a contemporary(ish) YA. It’s also the closest thing to Kali Wallace’s The Memory Trees I’ve read in the past two years, and I can’t tell you how giddy that makes me.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the prose alone makes me want to read everything Fowley-Doyle has written and will ever write in the future (and I’m kicking myself that she hasn’t been on my radar until now). It’s quiet, addicting, and sensual, and it winds through you like a drug. Add to that the atmosphere of it all–curses and storms and the scent of apples moving through the air–and you have a recipe for pure decadence.

The story is contemporary interspersed with magical realism, and the latter are appropriately magical and chilling, but what amazes me is that even the contemporary bits feel textured and rich. So very old and loaded with everything–magic, history, the lives of their ancestors reaching forward to touch them. The book understands that there are places in this world that share a space with the past. Places where the past is so looming and loud that you almost feel it as a physical presence. You move from one rundown location to the next throughout the story, all of them spilling with history, and the author makes sure that you feel the weight of each one. It’s beautifully done.

At the core of it, though, is a poignant story of a teenage girl’s attempt to break a cycle of bigotry and secrets and abuse that left me touched and seething in each equal measure.

“You tell your story and the story of your family. You speak your truth. You shatter the stigma. You hold your head up to the world and speak so that everyone else who was ever like you can recognize themselves. Can see that they aren’t alone. Can see how the past will only keep repeating itself as long as we’re kept powerless by our silence.”

I do wish the second half of the book had been a bit longer, though, and that the events leading up to the end were more drawn out. The follow through on the side characters (minus Deena’s sisters) was also kind of disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all very interesting and had the foundation to be complex characters, and the romance between Deena and Cale (“short-haired punky witch girl,” in Deena’s words) was developing nicely, but their stories get neglected in the last 1/3 of the book, which is a massive shame because I feel like they had so much more to offer.

But those are small complaints.

Ultimately, All the Bad Apples is a book that deserve a place on your shelf. It’s got the atmosphere of a fable and the anger of the best feminist stories that exist in the world, and it’ll leave you with the lingering taste of apples in your mouth.

 

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Website|Goodreads|Twitter|Facebook|Tumblr|Instagram

Moïra Fowley-Doyle is half-French, half-Irish and made of equal parts feminism, whimsy and Doc Martens. She lives in Dublin where she writes magic realism, reads tarot cards and raises witch babies. Moïra’s first novel, The Accident Season, was shortlisted for the 2015 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize & the North East Teen Book Awards, nominated for the Carnegie Medal & won the inaugural School Library Association of Ireland Great Reads Award. It received two starred reviews & sold in ten territories. Her second novel, Spellbook of the Lost and Found, was published in summer 2017, received a starred review from School Library Journal and was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards.

 

Giveaway (UK/Ireland)

You can win 1 of 3 copies of All the Bad Apples HERE.

 

Tour Schedule

Check out all the other stops on this tour HERE.

Review: Last Bus to Everland – Life Sucks But We’re in it Together

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Title: Last Bus to Everland
Author: Sophie Cameron
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: June 18th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Contemporary, Portal Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

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Brody Fair feels like nobody gets him: not his overworked parents, not his genius older brother, and definitely not the girls in the projects set on making his life miserable. Then he meets Nico, an art student who takes Brody to Everland, a “knock-off Narnia” that opens its door at 11:21pm each Thursday for Nico and his band of present-day misfits and miscreants.

Here Brody finds his tribe and a weekly respite from a world where he feels out of place. But when the doors to Everland begin to disappear, Brody is forced to make a decision: He can say goodbye to Everland and to Nico, or stay there and risk never seeing his family again. Will Nico take the last bus to Everland?

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“You’re magic, Fairy. Remember that.”

Surprises can be a hit or a miss for me. Sometimes it’s like sticking my hand in a mystery box and hoping nothing cuts my fingers off.

I came into Everland thinking it’d be a light and quirky story about a boy who goes to a magical world and discovers himself while befriending a band of misfits. Instead, I got something more quiet and poignant: a story about mental health and identity and what happens when life becomes too heavy to bear on your own.

So I think things worked out pretty well with this one. All fingers intact.

If you’re looking for a portal fantasy story with an emphasis on “fantasy,” this probably isn’t for you because Everland is one of the least developed portal fantasy worlds I’ve come across. That’s not entirely a criticism, though, because detailed worldbuilding wouldn’t have fit the vibe of the story. It’s supposed to be a world that’s magical in a vague and scattered kind of way, more like a virtual reality club than an actual fantasy setting–cool things to see (massive libraries, festivals, beaches) and interesting people to meet, but not a whole lot of depth to it all. A place that’s different enough from the the real world for it to be an escape.

There were definitely moments where I wished I had something more to chew on, but overall I didn’t mind it.

So what makes the book good? First of all, it’s a YA contemporay-ish novel that’s set in Scotland which already sets it apart from most of its peers. Secondly, Brody’s narration is easy and charming (I loved his Scottish brogue) and his empathy pulls your right in. Thirdly, the cast is super diverse–Everland allows people from all over the world to mingle–and they’re all interesting characters with their own little backstories.

Fourthly, and most importantly (for me, anyway): the mental health representation. Pretty much every character is struggling with something in their lives. Like Cameron’s father, for example, which was a complete surprise for me because we don’t often see father figures in media going through mental health issues. Either they’re strong and well put-together, or their illness manifests in violent and abusive tendencies. Empathetic portrayals are few and far between.

Well, serious kudos to Cameron because Brody’s father has agoraphobia and her portrayal of it is stunningly real and painful.

What I love most about the story, though, is that it explores the invisible hardships that people deal with on a daily basis–depression, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders–and the idea that just because you think someone’s life is perfect and untroubled, doesn’t mean it actually is.

When I was in undergrad, a friend opened up about how she was going through anxieties and depressive episodes and how uncertain she was about her future. Then she punctuated it by saying that I couldn’t possibly understand her feelings because I was happy; I had a loving boyfriend and knew exactly what I wanted to do once I graduated.

And well. Talk about words that make you feel small.

I get why she said it. Often times we can be so wrapped up in our own heads that we don’t see past our own darkness. And we can’t help but weigh our suffering on a scale and see how it compares to someone else’s. See whose life comes out the shittiest. But I think that’s a train of thought that only does harm in the long run, breeding resentment in a world that already has its fair share.

Life is hard and people hurt in different ways. Ways that aren’t often visible to others. Your rich and successful neighbour might be dealing with panic attacks on a regular basis. Your friend who wears a smile 24/7 might be wrestling with suicidal thoughts. You just don’t know sometimes. Your demons don’t negate the existence of other people’s demons and, conversely, other people’s demons don’t make yours worth any less. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

And the book addresses all of that in a beautifully candid way. Characters get open and honest about their feelings by the end of the story, and it’s touching to see friends and families air their problems and come together in moments of mutual understanding. A lot of “You feel that way? I’m sorry, I didn’t know that” and “I know what you mean–I’ve felt that way too.” Some people might call it cheesy; I found it cathartic.

Everland isn’t a book that had me bouncing off the walls and wanting to scream from the rooftops, but it is a book that made me feel warm and satisfied and a little wistful. Like waking up smiling from a dream and trying to chase the tail ends of it.

And sometimes that’s enough.

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Double Reviews: The Guildmaster and All the World Between Us – Water-themed Romances

One book has pirates. The other has swimming. Both involve water. (And I’m a sucker for themes)

Let’s get to it.

 

The Guildmaster (Vanguards of Viridor 3) by T.S. Cleveland

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Having helped foil the attempt to kill Viridor’s queen, Merric’s return to the Guardians’ Guild should have been celebrated. Instead, his support of elementals has earned him nothing but scorn. With the man he loves presumed dead, and fearing his injuries may prevent him from ever becoming a full guardian, Merric believes his life may as well be over. But when a series of mysterious attacks puts the fate of all Viridor in jeopardy, Quinn, a handsome and dangerous pirate, may be just the man to help save the kingdom – and Merric.

Genre(s): Fantasy, LGBTQIA+ Romance
Publisher: Self-published

Rating: 7.0/10

 

Do you like charming pirates?

Do you like charming pirates who are openly kind, respect boundaries, and engage in hurt/comfort?

Well, do I have a book for you.

The Guildmaster is the third book in the Vanguards of Viridor series set in a loosely constructed fantasy world where magic users called “elementals” are feared and discriminated by the general public (it’s always the mages, isn’t it?) Reading the previous books would probably add to your enjoyment of the story, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

I thought it was a fun, romantic read with a good balance of action and intimate character moments. Merric’s struggles to establish himself outside of his father’s shadow are compelling, as is Quinn’s efforts to help him heal, both physically and emotionally.

I did have issues with the second half of the story. At one point, there’s a lot of deliberate vagueness and lack of communication from the love interest (which didn’t really make sense considering how open he is about everything) and that contributed to a lot of unnecessary angst on the MC’s part. I also wish the worldbuilding was more robust than “*shrugs* It’s high fantasy. Half its characters run around waving swords. The other half runs around shooting fire from their fingers.”

Overall, I really enjoyed it. Also, bonus points for a completely unexpected reference to Dragon Age: Origins–“And swooping was bad.” Actually the first time I’ve seen that line in a book. Delightful.

 

 

All the World Between Us by Morgan Lee Miller

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Seventeen-year-old Quinn Hughes needs to be in top shape if she wants to medal at the swimming World Championships in ten months. This means no easy distractions, no matter how pretty they are.

She’s still piecing her confidence back together after not qualifying for the Olympics, her relationship with her twin brother is getting worse the more he hangs out with the popular kids, and then Kennedy Reed suddenly squeezes herself back into Quinn’s life. The girl who was her best friend. The girl who gave Quinn her first kiss. The girl who hasn’t spoken to her since.

Soon, Quinn finds herself juggling her new girlfriend, training for the biggest competition of her life, and discovering she’s not the only Hughes twin with a crush on Kennedy Reed. All these distractions are getting to her, and if she wants that medal she needs to find a way to stop drowning on dry land.

Genre(s): YA Contemporary, LGBTQIA+ Romance, Sports
Publisher: Bold Stroke Books

Rating: 6.0/10

I’m a girl of simple tastes. I see “swimming” and “gay” in the same sentence and I glomp onto it like an overattached koala. All the Worlds Between Us is an ownvoices second-chance story about two friends navigating the rocky paths of first love. It was quick and light and fine but didn’t really scratch my swimmer romance itch. Most of the story revolves around highschool drama and less of Quinn’s experiences as an aspiring Olympic swimmer, which was kind of disappointing. When a romance story is set against the backdrop of a sports world, I want the sports side to be as well-developed as the relationship aspect. That’s not always the case, though.

The narration also felt more juvenile than Quinn’s age warranted, and combined with a few explicit scenes, it got a bit jarring. I did find Kennedy’s experiences of being a closeted teen portrayed pretty well, however, and I enjoyed the mix of sweet and heartbreaking moments.

Overall, it’s not a bad sports f/f (especially if you’re new to the subgenre) but definitely not the best I’ve read either.

 

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Review copies provided by the author and the publisher. All opinions are my own.

Review: Deposing Nathan – Heartwrenching, Raw, and So Very Important

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Title:
Deposing Nathan
Author: Zack Smedley
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Release Date: May 7th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Contemporary
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Religion, Abuse
Page Count: 400 (hardback)

Rating: 9.0/10

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For sixteen years, Nate was the perfect son—the product of a no-nonsense upbringing and deep spiritual faith. Then he met Cam, who pushed him to break rules, dream, and accept himself. Conflicted, Nate began to push back. With each push, the boys became more entangled in each others’ worlds…but they also spiraled closer to their breaking points. And now all of it has fallen apart after a fistfight-turned-near-fatal-incident—one that’s left Nate with a stab wound and Cam in jail.

Now Nate is being ordered to give a statement, under oath, that will send his best friend to prison. The problem is, the real story of what happened between them isn’t as simple as anyone thinks. With all eyes on him, Nate must make his confessions about what led up to that night with Cam…and in doing so, risk tearing both of their lives apart.

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Sometimes I read books and love them, and then days or weeks or months later I’d think back and go, “This wasn’t as good as I thought it was.” Well, this book is the opposite of that because I seem to love it more and more with each passing week.

Deposing Nathan is good. Like, award-winning good. Like, why the hell are you reading this when you could be pre-ordering the book RIGHT NOW good.

It’s a propulsive debut that covers a myriad of complex topics from religion and sexuality, to parental abuse, to a friendship gone terribly wrong, and nails all of them with stunning clarity and a rawness that makes your heart weep.

Its two main characters are very flawed and very real, and while Nate’s struggles broke my heart, it was Cam that captured it. Really, I was a goner from the moment he said, “A thousand merry fucks to the MCAT.” He’s one of those people who talk like they’re reading from a movie script–charming and sarcastic and wit dripping down the tail end of every sentence. You’re not sure if they’re arrogant or just too smart for their own good, but either way you’re drawn to them because they’re like walking motes of light and just being with them makes you feel alive.

So there’s Cam on one side, who is able to reconcile Christianity with his sexuality, and then there’s Nathan on the other, who just cannot. And there lies the heart of the story’s conflict.

“If you’re wondering why I’m not designing my sexual identity around a few sentences from a twelve hundred-page book that was last fact-checked two thousand years ago, I don’t have an answer for you. Christianity is about love, and acceptance, and I’m as much a part of it as you are.”

I’m always going on and on about messy characters and how they’re so important–especially teenage ones–and Nathan and Cam are two of the best examples I’ve come across in recent years. The book doesn’t pull punches with these two. They say and do terrible things to each other with nothing spared. Every grievance, frustration, and anger are hashed out in scenes that twisted my stomach into knots.

And what I loved and appreciated most is just how much they communicate together. If they have a problem, they say it outright, regardless of how harsh it is. Sometimes because of how harsh it is, because they want to hurt each other in the worst ways. And that might be a weird compliment to give to a book–that the argument scenes are done incredibly well. But I think verbal fight scenes in books are so hard to pull off, and Smedley pulls it off well enough to make me grimace and forget that this is fiction.

I realize these scenes might be triggering for a lot of people–this being with someone who’s unable to acknowledge a part of their identity, but still refusing to give up on them because you love them and you believe love will pull through in the end. And on the flip side, being stretched out so thin between parental pressure and the feeling of not knowing who you are.

But I think the payoff is absolutely worth it, because the ending is immensely satisfying, painful yet healing. In between bouts of heavy crying, I was filled with so much pride for both characters.

As for criticisms…If I had reviewed this a month ago, immediately after finishing it, I would have said that Aunt Lori crosses over into evil Disney stepmother territory at times. And that some of her actions feel unrealistic next to the organic nature of Nathan and Cam’s relationship. But I’ve sat on it for a month and I’m going to cancel that out. Because the world is wide and there’s a wide variety of shitty people out there, many absolutely falling into the cartoonish category, and some even holding offices of high power. So who am I to state what is and isn’t realistic when it comes to abusive adult figures?

“I just don’t think it’s possible to love someone and be afraid of them at the same time.”

Deposing Nathan is a beautiful and stark love letter to teens (and adults) who have their faith in one hand and sexuality in the other and are wondering if they can walk their lives carrying both.

A hard read but an absolute must-read.

 

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Playlist

Zack has an official playlist up here, which is longer and better, but have a gander at my version HERE! (Or down below)

1. Gravity by Vienna Teng
2. Ashes of Eden by Breaking Benjamin
3. How to Save a Life by The Fray
4. Alibi by Thirty Seconds to Mars
5. Saturn by Sleeping at Last (the main song for the book)

(WordPress lets me add the Spotify playlist in editing mode but it’s completely invisible in preview mode, so I have no idea what’s going on there.)

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Zack Smedley was born and raised in southern Maryland, in an endearing county almost no one has heard of. He has a degree in Chemical Engineering from UMBC and currently works within the field. As a member of the LGBT community, his goal is to give a voice to marginalized young adults through gritty, morally complex narratives. He spends his free time building furniture, baking, tinkering with electronics, and managing his obsession with the works of Aaron Sorkin. DEPOSING NATHAN is his first novel.

Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram

 

GIVEAWAY (US Only)

Win a physical copy of Deposing Nathan! Starts May 1st and ends May 15th. ENTER HERE.

 

TOUR SCHEDULE

May 1st

The Unofficial Addiction Book Fan Club – Welcome Post

May 2nd

Musings of a (Book) Girl – Review + Official Book Playlist
The Bent Bookworm – Review + Favourite Quotes

May 3rd

Book-Keeping – Review
Pages Below the Vaulted Sky – Review + Playlist

May 4th

Reads Like Supernovae – Review + Official Dream Cast
Young Adult Media Consumer – Review

May 5th

Bookish_Kali – Review
The YA Obsessed – Review

May 6th

Cheyenne Reads – Story Behind The Cover
The Layaway Dragon – Review + Favourite Quotes

May 7th

everywhere and nowhere – Is “Natural Talent” All You Need?
Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile – Review

 

Review: Starworld – Girl Friendships, Family Drama, and Roleplaying via Text

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Title: Starworld
Author: Audrey Coulthurst & Paula Garner
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: April 16th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Contemporary
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Female Friendships, Family
Page Count: 352 (hardback)

Rating: 6.5/10

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Sam Jones and Zoe Miller have one thing in common: they both want an escape from reality. Loner Sam flies under the radar at school and walks on eggshells at home to manage her mom’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, wondering how she can ever leave to pursue her dream of studying aerospace engineering. Popular, people-pleasing Zoe puts up walls so no one can see her true self: the girl who was abandoned as an infant, whose adoptive mother has cancer, and whose disabled brother is being sent away to live in a facility. When an unexpected encounter results in the girls’ exchanging phone numbers, they forge a connection through text messages that expands into a private universe they call Starworld. In Starworld, they find hilarious adventures, kindness and understanding, and the magic of being seen for who they really are. But when Sam’s feelings for Zoe turn into something more, will the universe they’ve built survive the inevitable explosion?

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*Tries to write review*

*Remembers that I read this two months ago and that I have the memory of a goldfish when it comes to books* 

*Clutches head and swears profusely at the procrastination gods* 

There’s a lot of that kind of dialogue in this book, and sometimes it’s cute and other times it’s cringey, so if you’re super sensitive to secondhand embarrassment, you…might have a hard time with it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself!

Starworld is a slow-burn contemporary story about an awkward artsy girl and a popular girl who navigate the murky waters of family and friendship together. Both girls have difficult family lives–one has with a mother with OCD and the other a mother with cancer and a brother with special needs–and the emotions surrounding these everyday battles are shown so incredibly well. Guilt, resentment, anger, and love connecting all of it–it’s messy and complex and the book gives no definite answers on how they should be reacting to these problems, which I thought was beautifully realistic.

And to see Sam and Zoe come together and realize they have so much in common, and that their personalities mesh so well, was a treat to read. Believable chemistry is so hard to pull off in stories and these girls have it in spades.

Now for the not-so-great parts:

The story doesn’t really come with an overarching plot and so the pacing moves from slow to near-glacial (so much that it felt a lot longer than 352 pages). There’s a lot of extraneous dialogue and scenes with people eating and doing other mundane activities; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–just not for everyone.

And I did find some of the text dialogue overbearing. I think there’s a limit to how much asterisk talk (or “startalk”) I can handle and there’s a LOT of it in this book. And I’m speaking as someone who uses asterisks all the time. Doesn’t mean I want to read through a hundred pages of it.

My biggest problem, though, is with the ending. I appreciate the authors sticking to the theme of life being messy and unpredictable, but the execution just made me super annoyed.

[Spoilers: highlight to read] Everything leading up to the ending made me believe that this was a strangers-to-friends-to-lovers story. Turns out I was horribly wrong because Zoe ends up rejecting Sam, and Sam goes into ghost mode and ignores her for the rest of the school year. The end.

Compared to the care that was put into their relationship for 300+ pages, everything about this ending was abrupt and underdeveloped. The open communication that was such a key part of the friendship straight-up vanishes in this final act and I couldn’t help but feel cheated.

So my feelings on it are mixed. But I would still recommend it just for Zoe and Sam’s friendship (sans the ending), because they are very, very good together and we always need more stories about girls helping each other to find themselves.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: Summer Bird Blue – Of Grief, Music, and Sisterhood

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Title: Summer Bird Blue
Author: Akemi Dawn Bowman
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: September 11th, 2018
Genre(s) and Subject(s):
YA Contemporary, Death/Grief, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 384 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of—she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.

Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door”—a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago—Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.

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Summer Bird Blue opens with an unspeakable tragedy–a car accident that takes the life of Lea Seto, leaving her older sister Rumi and their mother to pick up the pieces. Now Rumi’s been sent to her aunt’s place in Hawaii, where she finds herself drowning in anger and sadness. Rumi must now find a way to deal with her grief and finish “Summer Bird Blue,” a song the two sisters had been working on.

This is my first experience with Bowman’s writing and I can see why readers are so taken with her work. Summer Bird Blue is well worth the praise. And the ugly tears.

Let’s start with my favourite part of the story: the protagonist. Rumi is a fantastic character for many reasons–her pragmatic attitude, the love she has for her sister, her passion for music–but what I love most is her anger. From the flashbacks we see that she’s always been prickly, kind of cynical, and generally not the most sociable person to be around–like the moon to her sister’s sun. But with her sister’s death, she’s become this whirlwind of explosive anger. She says cruel, terrible things and lashes out at those around her (because where else is all that helpless grief going to go?) and it all feels so unbelievably realistic. People grieve in different ways and sometimes we can’t help but dole out our hurt to others because bearing them alone is too hard. Bowman explores this to perfection.

We alternate between the present to short flashback scenes where we get a better sense of Rumi and Lea’s relationship. As an only child I’ve always been distantly envious of my friends who have sisters, and this book makes me even more so. Good memories, bad memories, we get it all, and their addition makes us empathize all the more with Rumi’s grief.

I loved the navigation of friendship and sexuality Rumi goes through with Kai, whose constant sunshiny attitude offers such a great contrast to Rumi’s wry one. Bowman has such a talent for writing dialogue and it shines the brightest with these two characters–their exchanges are so fun and charming and I found myself grinning ear-to-ear through many of their scenes. 

I did find some of the side characters rather underdeveloped and the plot a little too stagnant for my tastes, especially in the latter half. But that’s probably just me–there’s nothing specifically wrong with the story and Contemporary YA lovers and/or teen readers should gobble it right up.

Overall, Summer Bird Blue is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that balances anger and humour and tackles many important topics with veteran ease.

Copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review

Review: Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe – Hilarious and Life-Affirming

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe


Title:
Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe
Author: Preston Norton
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: June 5th, 2018
Genre(s): Young Adult, Contemporary, Speculative
Page Count: 416 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 9.0/10

 

Life is more than just existing. And it’s more than just a door with death and nothingness on the other side. Life is a series of doors. Every moment, every decision, is a door. And by opening them and stepping into the unknown, we are expanding and illuminating a world that we never knew existed. But if we never open those doors? If we stay put? We’ll be living in a world of walls.

Don’t you want to know what’s on the other side?

This book is a 400-page love letter to life. It’s like a rib-crushing hug that says, “I believe in you. Whatever you’re going through now, I believe you can push through it and come out on the other side stronger.” Ridiculous, witty, heartwarming, and full of wisdom dressed up in laugh-out-loud–sometimes over-the-top– humour, Preston Norton has written an indelible story of friendship, love, and what it means to live.

Cliff Hubbard is going through the worst year of his 16-year old life. On top of dealing with highschool bullying (he’s nicknamed “Neanderthal” for being 6’6 and 250 pounds), he has to face ongoing abuse from his father and the never-ending grief of losing his brother to suicide a year ago. Then one day, his arch-nemesis Aaron Zimmerson approaches him after a near-death experience and claims that he has met God (who inexplicably sounds like Morgan Freeman) and that God has given him a To-Do List of sorts. One that would make Happy Valley High a much better place. And guess whose help he needs?

First and foremost, the prose is absolute perfection. Humour, the kind that has you devolving into helpless laughter, is incredibly hard to nail. What’s even harder is to combine it with smart, no-nonsense wit. And what’s even harder is to transition from that humour into serious poignancy within a matter of a few sentences without it being jarring. And Norton nails that. There are so many moments that had me giggling to misty-eyed in a matter of seconds. Cliff’s narration finds the right balance of sarcasm and self-deprecation, and the metaphors and imagery he uses are inventive and so, so on-point.

“So…you don’t like the List.”

“I feel like the stupidity of the whole thing is burning a hole in my cerebral cortex. I’m trying to figure out which part is the dumbest, but the levels of stupidity for each point are so astronomical, I wonder if two of ideas bumped together, the universe might implode in a reverse Big Bang, and life as we know it would vacuum into a supermassive black hole and disappear from existence.”

The book also uses pop culture references in a way that doesn’t make me cringe, which is kind of a rarity. I’m not sure why YA contemporary writers have the idea that teenagers are these reference-spewing machines, but I figure if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it well. And Norton does it pretty damn well. My heart positively fluttered at seeing how 2001: Space Odyssey got woven into the main storyline.

I also loved the way it touches on the complexity of parent-child relationships. Cliff’s mother is a very kind, very loving woman when it comes to every aspect of his life except for one: his abusive father. With her, Norton pitches the question of how your parents can be so supportive and wonderful in certain aspects, but not so in others. And as with everything else, Cliff puts it perfectly:

“In times of peace, she was Mother of the Year. In times of war, she was a mannequin.”

So what does this make her? A bad parent? An enabler of abuse? A victim? There’s no one satisfactory answer. Part of growing up is realizing that your parents are very, painfully human, that they make very human mistakes, and that sometimes they’re just as lost as you are. And Norton explores this with pitch-perfection.

Most importantly, though, Neanderthal shines a spotlight on human potential, and the hope that there is always, always good in this world. It calls on you to embrace empathy and discard apathy. To show vulnerability and to take a chance into the unknown, the strange. I admit, there was a point where I thought to myself, “Is this a little too heavy-handed?” Then I realized, no. I don’t think there’s ever a heavy-handed way of saying that life matters–that you matter. There are scenes near the end that moved me to my core, and you can bet this is one of those books I’ll be returning to time and time again.

Review: Summer of Salt – Magical in Premise, Faulty in Execution

Summer of Salt

Title: Summer of Salt
Author: Katrina Leno
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: June 5th 2018
Genre(s): Contemporary, Fantasy, Young Adult
Page Count: 272 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 5.0/10

 

 

 

This is one of those “You could have been amazing, so what the hell happened?” books. The premise is fantastic. Described as Practical Magic meets Bone Gap, it’s about a pair of twin sisters who are about to spend their last summer in their childhood home–one that’s situated on a small island full of strange history and myth. Georgina and Mary Fernweh are descended from a line of magical women–some could control fire, others could fly and even walk on water. Sounds great, yeah?

The first quarter of the book is everything I’d hoped it would be. The island is cozy and quirky in a way that made me smile, and the conversational tone of Georgina’s narration complements the setting perfectly. It’s like we’re on a vacation with her on this island and she’s showing us all its sights and history.

And then the problems begin.

First of all, the writing style. Sometimes the prose is poetic and moving. Other times, it’s more like this:

“Hey, Kathy, what do want for breakfast?”

What do I want? I want the taste of strawberries on my lips, ones plucked fresh from my grandmother’s garden. I want to watch the dawning of the skies as the sun crawls over the horizon and the world holds its breath. I want the feel of birdsongs winding across my skin. I want to be washed by the morning mist in a baptism of hope and new beginnings.

“Just some cereal, thank you.”

Repetitions can be used for powerful effect. When used sparingly. And at choice moments. The problem with Summer of Salt is that the author doesn’t know when to stop. She’s overindulgent with her prose, and what was beautiful and effective early in the book becomes more and more grating and contrived.

Then we have the characters. While I enjoyed Georgina’s narrative voice, all the side characters were uninteresting and their relationships very shallow. The romance between Georgina and a tourist girl named Prue is painfully underdeveloped. We barely know who Prue is and yet the two of them are already declaring love for one another by the end of the story.

But my biggest problem is with Mary. Here’s the thing: I hate stories that think sexual abuse and assault can stand in for character growth. For most of the book, Mary is abrasive, insensitive, bratty, and just not all that great in general. My issue is that no one challenges her on this–not her sister nor the rest of her family. They all shrug and say, “Oh, well, that’s just who she is. But we love her anyway.” And so she remains that way until the very end, when a certain event triggers a change in her personality. She could have had an interesting character arc; her personality could have clashed with Georgina’s and they could have spent the rest of summer trying to untangle the snarls in their relationship. Instead, the author went with a cop out: use of rape as a catalyst for interpersonal conflicts.

The plot is just as underwhelming as everything else. A mystery pops up out of nowhere at the halfway point and ends up fizzling out by the end.

I had high hopes for this one, but all in all, it was a sadly disappointing read.

~

Review copy provided by HarperTeen and Edelweiss

 

[Review] Fire Song – A Story of Canadian Aboriginal LGBTQ+ Youth

Fire Song
Title: Fire Song
Author: Adam Garnet Jones
Publisher: Annick Press
Release Date: March 13, 2018
Genre(s): Contemporary, YA
Page Count: 232
Goodreads

Rating: 6.5/10

 

 

 

 

It’s been a while since I’ve read Canadian Aboriginal fiction. The last one had been Green Grass, Running Water from my highschool AP English class, which was…well, to put it kindly, definitely an experience. A bit of advice for English teachers? It doesn’t matter how brilliant you think a book is or how well-read and mature you think your students are. They’re still teenagers. If they can’t relate to the subject matter (hell, if they can’t even figure out what the subject matter is), they’re not going to get the most out of the book like you were hoping for.

With that immediate digression out of the way, let’s talk about Fire Song!

Fire Song was originally released into the world in the form of an indie film, written and directed by Adam Garnet Jones. Turns out the guy is super multi-talented because his first attempt at a novel isn’t too shabby either. The story stars Shane who’s lived in an Ontario reserve with his family all his life. Shane has his girlfriend, Tara, but in the past year and a half, a secret relationship began to bloom between him and a boy named David. Despite not being able to disclose his sexuality to his family and friends, the future didn’t seem all too bad for Shane. Then his sister Destiny committed suicide. And everything got flipped upside-down.

Shane is a likeable character (at least in the beginning–we’ll get back to this in a bit). His efforts to juggle a tragedy, two relationships, and the possibility of a higher education are easy to empathize with. You find yourself rooting for him to find peace and happiness.

The side characters weren’t all that well-developed, however. The problem is that this is such a short book and we only get small glimpses of most of them. Like David, for example. There’s little to him besides the fact that he’s Shane’s secret boyfriend and passionate about their ancestral culture. We don’t really get to see the qualities that made Shane fall in love with him in the first place.

But what I did love about these teenagers is that they do everything with so much intensity. They lust deeply. They love deeply. And they hurt and get hurt deeply. It’s a double-edged sword, this openness–this unrestrained energy–but it’s what I think defines teenagehood. And Jones does a terrific job of showing it.

I also loved the contrast between the prose and the subject matter. The latter is stark and refuses to shy away from heavy topics–sex, drugs, drinking, death. It could have easily become an overly grim story if not for the prose. There’s such a quiet, dreamy quality to the writing that not only balances out the harshness but softens it out to a manageable level.

Watching the fire grow, Shane feels the presence of his ancestors like an echo behind him. Generations that crouched near the flames and warmed their palms, one after another for tens of thousands of years. He wonders if white people ever feel something like that or if it’s just Indians who feel their past and present breathing into each other.

The writing is truly great. The author has no shortage of lovely metaphors to describe every emotion and senses.

I also really liked how the story educates you on what life in a rez might be like for  Aboriginal youth without sounding like a pamphlet. The injustice and setbacks that these kids face is depicted in the emptiness that follows Destiny’s death. In Shane’s struggles to help out his mother and pay his way to university at the same time. In the scrapbook of rez kids who have been murdered or committed suicide. In the anger that roils through Shane at the helplessness of it all. These are major issues concerning First Nations communities in Canada, one that the government has yet to fully address, and Jones presents them well with a lot of heart and raw emotions.

“But, Kathy, it sounds like you have a truckload of praises for the book. Why the shitty score?”

First of all, 6.5 is not a bad score. Secondly, I did (do) have a lot of praise for the book. But then I got past the halfway mark and things started to…unravel a bit. The chapters alternate from Shane’s POV to chapters that are solely diary entries by Tara. From the start, I’m wasn’t too keen on the latter. It felt like cheating–telling what the character’s really feeling without having to actually show any of it in Shane’s narrative. Then out of  nowhere comes this one scene near the end, and without getting into spoilers, it was clear that showing so little of Tara outside of her diary was a detrimental decision.

From there, the pacing takes a nose-dive and things turn crazy hectic. Shane’s personality is all over the place. One minute he’s snuggling with David and the next he’s pushing him away and planning the world’s worst amateur heist and physically threatening an old woman. And all of this is supposedly happening within a span of few days. I felt majorly whiplashed; it seemed like there was a large chunk of segue missing between the middle and the end of the story.

The ending is a hopeful one, though, which I appreciated. And, all in all, I do love the spotlight shone on the LGBTQ Aboriginal youth of Canada. It’s an important story, to be sure, with some issues of execution. My hope is that stories like these pave the way to similar ones in Canadian literature in the future.

~
This is an honest review of an ARC provided by the publisher.

[Review] How to Stop Time – A Moving Look at Time and Happiness

How to Stop Time
Title:
How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Harper Avenue
Release Date: February 6th, 2018
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Sci-fi, Contemporary
Page Count: 336 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 7.5/10

 

 

 

 

I think every one of us has, at one point or another, wished our lives were longer. That we could take the distance between one moment to the next and give it a nice, long pull. And when you think of your time in this world not in terms of decades, but hundreds, maybe even thousands, the possibilities can seem endless. You can witness hundreds of years of technological advances. Scour every corner of the globe for its natural and human wonders. Read and watch and play every piece of creative media out there. Sink yourself into your passions without the threat of a ticking clock looming over your head.

Well, Matt Haig has heard your musings and replied with an old, but sensible, adage: Be careful what you wish for.

Tom Hazard is weary. Living for hundreds of years is not sexy or liberating; it becomes the same pattern repeated over and over. His life has been a long stretch of loneliness punctuated by moments of happiness, then grief and hardships, and stretches and
stretches of gray nothingness. Now he just feels lost. Lost in the maelstrom of identities he had worn over the years.

Tom’s elongated life span is not presented as a curse or a feat of magic, but rather a very unique medical condition, which I found refreshingly different from other stories with similar premises–he’s not cursed or chosen, he just is. Those with the condition are known collectively as “albas,” named after albatrosses that were once thought, mistakenly, to live a very long time. Their secrets and identities are protected with the help of the Albatross Society (which is kind of like a union), founded by a man called Hendrich.

Hendrich is an interesting figure. I found him manipulative, arrogant, and divisive. He says the right things, in a long, winding, charming kind of way, but there’s something hollow about it all. And I love that sense of wrongness in a character. Unfortunately, I found all the other side characters, especially Camille (Tom’s love-interest-to-be) and the famous historical figures Tom encounters, lacking. Though they intrigued me, I felt like there were many more layers to them that we never got a chance to uncover, and that’s a bit of a shame.

The chapters alternates between flashbacks to Tom’s earlier years–from medieval England to the Roaring Twenties–and the present. A simple but introspective prose makes it very easy to empathize with the main character and I quite loved his sense of humour. It’s not the laugh-out-loud kind, but a wry, quiet one that threads through the narrative with ease.

One of the most notable things about the book is that it’s chock full of quotable lines. Ones you would frame and plaster all over your walls. Matt Haig has a talent for expressing sentiments that should feel trite and annoying but end up being very moving. There’s such an unabashed honesty to his writing that I couldn’t help but love.

7.0 was the review score that was hovering in my mind when I was about a chapter away from the end. Despite the lovely writing, I couldn’t deny that the book had its share of flaws–a somewhat disappointing plot, a climax that felt rushed, and characters that felt unfulfilled.

But then I encountered this passage:

And just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over? If I could love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?

This paragraph knocked me breathless and frozen for what seemed like eternity. I imagined myself doing this–unshackling myself from all my fears and doubts and hurts–and the possibilities that I glimpsed sent chills down my spine and tears to my eyes. Like the rest of the book, there’s a simplicity to the words. But the best truths are the simplest ones that you scorned in favour of the cool and flashy kinds. And I realized that’s what makes this book so special. Matt Haig overturns the recesses of the human mind and shines a light on things that we all know peripherally but have never fully examined. One powerful paragraph can’t erase all the criticisms I have, but it can damn well mute them.

The blurb makes the book sound like a romcom with a scifi bent, but that’s a shallow–and frankly, wrong–interpretation; those expecting a wild, passionate romance between Tom and Camille will be disappointed (their relationship doesn’t even kindle until near the end). The story is rather more about one man’s journey to find himself. And this man is you and me–all of us living in a world that feels alien and terrifying. This is a story about life and how we choose to live it, whether we have five or fifty or five hundred years ahead of us.

How to Stop Time is a prime example of a comfort book. One that gently dares you to rise above your fears and take a chance, and just see what happens.

I think this is one that I will end up revisiting many times in the future.

~
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