Five Reasons Why You Need to Read Desdemona and the Deep

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Title: Desdemona and the Deep
Author: C.S.E. Cooney
Publisher: Tor.com
Release Date: July 23rd, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Fae, LGBTQIAP+ (lesbian mc, trans side character)
Page Count: 224 (ebook)

Rating: 9.5/10

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In Desdemona and the Deep, the spoiled daughter of a rich mining family must retrieve the tithe of men her father promised to the world below. On the surface, her world is rife with industrial pollution that ruins the health of poor factory workers while the idle rich indulge themselves in unheard-of luxury. Below are goblins, mysterious kingdoms, and an entirely different hierarchy.

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My god, what an absolute treasure trove this book is.

I’m a little review-weary at the moment and don’t feel like doing elaborate paragraph transitions, so I’ve made this into a “X Reasons Why” post!

 

1. The Prose

The prose, guys. The prose. If you want to see blushing described as “double roses of reverence and rapacious cupidity,” then you’re in for a treat because that’s the whole book. Rich, charismatic, whimsical, and the very definition of purple, the words melt hot in your brain and on your tongue. It’s been a while since I had this much fun with language.

 

2. A Larger-than-Life Protagonist

Desdemona is one of my favourite characters I’ve encountered this year, and hands-down my favourite female protagonist of 2019.

The thing is, she starts out as a pretty shitty person–rich and spoiled, with a dismissive let-them-eat-cake attitude. My definitive “Oh, I really don’t like you” moment was when she mentioned how she enjoys collecting art and artists, not because she cares for them, but because they make her feel prestigious and wanted.

But she grows over the course of the story, as did my opinion of her. Because despite being a prissy heiress, she’s also fun, and stubborn as heck, and her relationship with her best friend Chaz is endearing from the start (they are a magnificent duo). And she’s not some hapless heroine who inadvertently stumbles into another world. Oh no no, Desdemona will march up to the threshold of worlds and obnoxiously demand that they let her in.

There’s really no box you can shove her into, and I love that so much.

 

3. The Worldbuilding

Three worlds exist in this story. Athe for mortals; Valwode for the gentry (a mishmash of fae-adjacent creatures); and Bana, the kingdom of goblins.

If I were to sit here and write out everything I love about the worldbuilding, I’d be siting here typing out the entire book for you. So trust me when I say that it’s incredible. There are details that left me grinning and wanting to roll around in its richness. Like the notion that the fae are as affected by human art as humans are by fae magic. So things like poetry become a weapon and a shield in Valwode.

But my favourite part? How, despite all the beauty, the story doesn’t let you forget that magic has fangs. That these worlds aren’t just about glitter and gold, and their brutality goes hand in hand with beauty. There’s an almost alien quality to it that you don’t fully understand, but one you’re drawn to regardless. And those are the fae stories I want.

 

4. Themes of Justice and Art Prevailing in Darkness

This is a story about a mortal who ventures into another realm for a rescue mission. And usually, with those types of stories, the object of said rescue is a loved one–a spouse, a sibling, a child. Here, it’s not a rescue mission for the heart, but a mission to right a wrong. Because Desdemona was party to an injustice she initially ignored, and she wants to fix that. That to me is incredibly refreshing.

And from there we see the class struggles of the mortal realm (a kind of an alternate early 19th century Europe) being echoed in the magical realms, the idea that compromises exist, and Desdemona giving life back to the women who had it taken from them.

 

5. Just the Utter Joy of It All

Everything about this story, from the language to the characters to the worldbuilding is gaudy in the best way. It’s ostentatious, it’s heartfelt, it’s beautiful, and most importantly, it’s entertaining. You turn your head and you find something new and even more wondrous and strange than the last.

This book made me incredibly happy during a time when I desperately needed to feel happy, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

So, please, PLEASE. Give your brain a treat it sorely deserves. Go pick this up.

 

July Wrap-Up: Family News, Red & Blue is the New Black

I feel like a lot of my personal posts lately have just been me going, “I’m a sad little bundle of sadness!” And, well….the same applies today (I promise a LOT more flowers and rainbows for the next one). But I’ll try to keep it brief this time.

To put it shortly, my grandmother passed away from cancer several weeks ago (I wrote about her diagnosis a month ago) and I’ve been dealing with a lot of the family stuff surrounding that. See, everyone on my mom’s side of the family–from her parents to her four brothers and their eight children and down to me–is incredibly close (we have multiple group chats and we do frequent video calls). And our line of communication works like an actually functional game of telephone, so that when there’s any kind news or gossip brewing in one sector, it travels down the line until everyone knows about it word for word. And while it’s incredible to know that I’m part of this intense support network that crosses oceans, sometimes it can get a bit overwhelming. Like in this case, because being smothered with non-stop condolences and well-wishes because you’re the baby of the family isn’t exactly fun, and at some point it just got…macabre.

Then last week was the funeral, which my uncles attended on my dad’s behalf, and apparently there was a group of church “friends” who were talking loudly about how irresponsible it was of my grandmother to not have visited the doctor sooner. My mom got super angry about it, which got me riled up because 1) who the fuck says that at a funeral, and 2) I’m an “empath”–which is a term I hate using because of all its sci-fi connotations (and being an emotional sponge is a shitty superpower)–and people’s emotions easily affect mine.

And to cap it off, I found out that a gaming personality, called Geoff “iNControLTV” Robinson, who I had admired and had been watching for many years, had suddenly passed away without notice. Which was shocking and heartbreaking and made me really sad for some number of days (“sad” sounds like I’m downplaying it, but sometimes there’s just no better word.)

So it’s been a month of combing through emotions and memories, and discussing grief and mortality with people. Draining, yes. Difficult, yup. But all that processing does help, and I think death is a topic that we as a society shouldn’t shy away from.

I did read some really fantastic books, though, and that’s also been helping with my overall mental health. So let’s get to them!

 


⚔️= Fantasy; 🚀= Scifi; 🐺= Paranormal; 👻= Horror; 🔍= Mystery; 🌺= Contemporary; 🗝️= Historical; 🌈= LGBTQIAP+

 

This is Me Plastering Myself Against Your Window With a Sign That Says “Drop What You’re Doing and Read This Now

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This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone 🚀🌈:
Two time traveling agents. Flowery passive-aggressive taunts morphing into gentle teasing into unabashed love. All the blue and red imagery you could ever want. I adored it to pieces. [Review]

Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney ⚔️🌈:
This book. This fucking book. I went into it not expecting a whole lot and now it’s one of my top three reads of the year. I’m saving the more colourful words for the review, but the bottom line is that it made me incredibly happy. With the way it uses language (the way it’s so in love with language), and how it embraces magic in all its strange and sharp glory. It made me feel like a kid again and it’s been a while since I was so genuinely enchanted with a fantasy book.

 

Solid Queer Mysteries

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Proper English by K.J. Charles 🗝️🔍🌈:
K.J. Charles once again proves why she’s one of the best in historical romance, this time with a f/f whodunit. This was short, uncomplicated, sexy fun.

Orientation (Borealis Investigation 1) by Gregory Ashe 🌺🔍🌈:
A solid, engaging P.I. mystery feat. friends-to-lovers! Speaking of which, I seem to have less patience with slow burn friends-to-lovers nowadays. I mean, there’s “slow burn” and then there’s “four books of longing glances and almost-but-not-quite moments that go on forever when there’s literally nothing hindering them from getting together.” Like, I’m not made of time. I did make an exception for this because Greg is one of the few authors I trust to do long-term relationship building well.

 

Could Have Been Better, But Overall Not Too Bad

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Contagion and Immunity by Erin Bowman 🚀🌈:
The series starts out as scifi horror with Contagion and ends as a scifi action/adventure drama with Immunity. I was disappointed that the horror element wasn’t more drawn-out, but overall, it’s a solid series.

Prince of Killers (A Fog City 1) by Layla Reyne 🌺🔍🌈:
The head of a modern day assassin organization gets tangled up with a private investigator and a plot to unseat him from his throne. It’s one of those “you’ll enjoy it if don’t think too hard about it” stories.

 

Beautiful Prose & Atmosphere, Bland Characters

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Wilder Girls by Rory Power 🌺🚀🌈:
Loved the atmosphere, loved the plot, loved the emphasis on girl love (of all kinds), but I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. Oh, and the ending? We don’t talk about that here. [Review]

The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall ⚔️:
Despite it featuring one of the most bland MCs I’ve come across in the past year, I found this to be a pleasant read. If you like underworld stories and quiet, atmospheric fantasy stories that border (no pun intended) on weird horror, this is for you. [Review]

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh ⚔️🌈:
Again–loved the setting and the atmosphere, but I feel like the book was far too short for me to get a good sense of the characters.

 

Nope/ DNF

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The Phantom Forest by Liz Kerin ⚔️:
A dystopian story crossed with an underworld story that I didn’t enjoy because of, you guessed it, the characters. [Review]

Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells ⚔️🌈:
DNF @ ~20% because while there’s nothing particularly wrong with it, there wasn’t anything particularly great about it either. And I’m trying to get better about DNFing ARCs that I’m “meh” about.

 


Red and Blue Hell

I’ve been kind of obsessed with This is How You Lose the Time War, and I painted these little pieces as a quick palette cleanser in between the larger ones I’ve been painting and often ruining (but I’m learning to be okay with that because mistakes are integral to watercolour learning and if you fear them, this medium will trample all over you. Yay for growth!)

And….people actually really like them?? And they want buy prints of them????

So right now I’m in the process of digitally rendering them and setting up an Etsy store. So if you’re interested in these birdies, stay tuned!

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This past month and a half has done wonders for my confidence with sharing art online, because between health scares and unexpected tragedies, I’m realizing that art–which is, like, what keeps us going when these tragedies strike and things get bleak–is the last thing I should be fearing. And putting out into the world a thing you created from this kernel of idea floating around in your head is always, always something that should be celebrated.

So I’m thinking of doing a bi-weekly/weekly post thing where I share little doodles and/or full pieces inspired by the books that I’m reading–to help boost awareness of the books and also because I just really love doing fanart. Aaaand I wouldn’t at all be unhappy if any of you were to join me… 😀

 

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Now whisper to me all the wonderful things you did in July!

Review: This is How You Lose the Time War – This is How You Write a Time Travel Story

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Title: This is How You Lose the Time War
Author: Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: July 16th, 2019
Genre(s): Sci-Fi, Romance, Epistolary
Subjects and Themes: War, LGBTQIAP+ (f/f)
Page Count: 208 (hardback)

Rating: 9.5/10

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Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

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This is it.

After years of searching, this is the time travel book I’ve been waiting for.

This is How You Lose the Time War is a stunning achievement of prose and storytelling. It’s a love story dressed as a chess game played out on the shoulders of poetry. It’s got moments, especially near the end, that gave me full-body shivers and touched me to my core. It had me muttering “This makes me want to make out with someone” over and over to myself and to my roommate (who’s gotten used to my weird out-of-context comments about books). And I just can’t stop thinking about it.

Before I get into it, just a small note regarding the worldbuilding: this book doesn’t explain much to you–not about the nature of the war or its factions (though you do get some sense of the differences between Red and Blue’s homeland by the end, and let me tell you, they are fascinating)–and you either have to accept that ambiguity or have a very frustrating time with it.

Okay, so here’s the part that I absolutely love and something I think is genius: there are two different kinds of time travel that exist in this book.

The first is your typical “temporal and spatial movement from Point A to B.”

My issue with a lot of time travel books is that I don’t often get a good sense of the time period and setting that the characters travel to. And aside from the superficial descriptions, Point B doesn’t feel all that different from Point A. It’s like when you’re watching a school play and the castle scenery changes to a forest one, but some of the props are reused and you can still see all the scuff marks on the stage, so the illusion is kind of lost.

But here? Things feel very organic. You can see the texture of the places that Red and Blue visit–ancient pilgrims moving through a labyrinth, a Mongolian forest camp, Atlantis burning and sinking. Descriptions that snag on the most important aspects of a culture and time period and drag them forward. It’s economical and at the same time not, because of how purple the prose is, and just all around beautiful and atmospheric. El-Mohtar and Gladstone manage to convey a sense of time and space in the span of five pages better than some books do in a hundred, and I bow down to their collective talent.

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The second type of time travel is done through letters.

This is the part that gets me jittery and giggling with joy–that in this future of advanced technology, Red and Blue are sending physical letters to each other, using anything they can get their hands on and being creative with it (paper, tea leaves, seeds, and lava, just to name a few). And they have such fun with it. I can’t even begin to tell you how romantic I find all that.

…And that was a lie. I will tell you.

I love exchanging letters. I love saving letters. I love letters, period. My closet contains boxes of all the letters and postcards and notes I saved from since I was a kid. I’ve made amazing, long-lasting connections through years of penpal exchanges. If you’re friends with me I’ll probably send you a letter at some point whether you like it or not. And occasionally, on rainy days, I take some of those letters out and read them, re-living memories and re-reading passages I want to commit to memory because I found them particularly beautiful or vulnerable or funny. They’re like books, in that sense. Except they’re stories about you, and me, and the path that our relationship ended up taking.

“There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there?” Red writes at one point, and there’s such truth to those words. Letters are snapshots of a person at a particular time, and when you send a letter, you’re essentially carving off slices of yourself, preserving them, and gifting them to the recipient (that sounds dramatic, but hell, this whole book is dramatic). And there is romance to that act which defies explanation. This book gets that. My god, does it get it.

“I want to chase you, find you, I want to be eluded and teased and adored; I want to be defeated and victorious–I want you to cut me, sharpen me. I want to drink tea beside you in ten years or a thousand.”

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I also adore the way the authors portray the characters’ love as a kind of a mutual surrender to one another: blades to each other’s throat, exchanging vulnerabilities with vulnerabilities, and feeling content in the knowledge that one can destroy the other at any moment. Not all love is that intense and all-consuming, but for two people who have dedicated their lives to being the best and always winning and holding themselves to stratospheric standards, it fits perfectly. They need this. Surrender is freedom. And that’s so fucking sexy, I can’t even.

So please, please, please give this a try.

It’ll make you believe in love all over again.

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

Reviews: Contagion & Immunity by Erin Bowman – Biological Space Horror and Maple Walnut Ice Cream

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Title: Contagion (Contagion 1)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 24th, 2018
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi, Thriller, Horror
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 432 (hardback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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After receiving a distress call from a drill team on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is sent into deep space to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

When they arrive, they find the planet littered with the remains of the project—including its members’ dead bodies. As they try to piece together what could have possibly decimated an entire project, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

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This is one of those “I liked it! The end!” books, so the review is going to be obscenely short.

Contagion offers something I desperately want to see more of in sci-fi: biological space horror. Bowman combines the fear of outer space with that of alien biological entities–all the more scary because they’re microscopic–and creates a entertaining, claustrophobic tale with breakneck pacing and moments that are genuinely creepy.

It also boasts a fairly large cast and multiple PoVs, with an intern named Thea being the central character. I loved the fact that Thea’s not a leader–not your typical confident SFF hero with a smart tongue. She’s introverted yet resourceful and, being the youngest of the crew, feels she has something to prove. Some of the other characters aren’t as developed as she is, but Bowman gives you just enough information to keep you interested in their well-being (or demise).

I do wish the effect of the contagion was less…mundane than what it turned out to be. Something a little more visceral and insidious. Because after the reveal of the “monsters” (space zombies, essentially) a lot of the initial horror was lost. But I enjoyed the atmosphere and tension leading up to that moment so much that I’m mostly willing to forgive it.

And…that’s all you need to know, really. Go read it. You’ll have fun.

And, hey, Netflix? Get on it. I needed a movie adaptation yesterday.

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Title:
Immunity (Contagion 2)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 2nd, 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Thea, Coen, and Nova have escaped from Achlys, only to find themselves imprisoned on a ship they thought was their ticket to safety. Now the nightmare they thought they’d left behind is about to be unleashed as an act of political warfare, putting the entire galaxy at risk.

To prevent an interstellar catastrophe, they’ll have to harness the evil of the deadly Achlys contagion and deploy the only weapons they have left: themselves.

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Immunity is a completely different beast to Contagion in terms of genre and plot focus. So much that I got mental whiplash reading them back-to-back.

Here, the biological horror slips away into space politics and human-on-human horror. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was hoping we’d get to explore more of the contagion, and instead it’s relegated to the role of a side charactera chess piece in the conflict between the Radicals and the Union–and in the process some of what made Contagion interesting.

I don’t want to rag on an author for choosing to take a story in a completely different direction from what I was expecting because it’s ultimately their creative vision, but I can’t say I’m not nursing a spot of disappointment. It’s like going to an ice cream shop and asking for Strawberry Cheesecake but getting Maple Walnut instead. I have nothing against Maple Walnut; it’s still a great flavour and life is too short to be prejudiced against any flavour of ice cream (except Bubblegum which is a devil’s concoction and not in a sinfully good way). But it’s no Strawberry Cheesecake, is it?

That being said, I still had fun with it. The characters are bigger focus in this sequel and we get to learn more about the three characters and see their relationship develop into something more solid. A new member also joins the cast: a medic-in-training named Amber who surprised me in the best way. Give me all the soft characters who seem meek at first glance but reveal themselves to have nerves of steel. And there’s no denying Bowman is a great storyteller. She knows how to balance action with intrigue and quiet character moments, and the ending wraps everything up neatly.

Overall, this is a fun, addictive duology that I recommend to anyone with an interest in microbiology and space thriller/horror, and doesn’t mind a bit of genre-swapping.

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Thank you to Wunderkind PR for providing the review copies. All opinions are my own.

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

Review: Magic for Liars – Ivy Gamble is Not Magic and She Wants Everyone to Know

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Title: Magic for Liars
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: June 4th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Siblings, Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (Secondary)
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Ivy Gamble was born without magic and never wanted it.

Ivy Gamble is perfectly happy with her life – or at least, she’s perfectly fine.

She doesn’t in any way wish she was like Tabitha, her estranged, gifted twin sister.

Ivy Gamble is a liar.

When a gruesome murder is discovered at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, where her estranged twin sister teaches Theoretical Magic, reluctant detective Ivy Gamble is pulled into the world of untold power and dangerous secrets. She will have to find a murderer and reclaim her sister―without losing herself.

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I think this book would save people a lot of disappointment if it came with a disclaimer. Something like “NOTE: The magical boarding school featured in this story is actually pretty ordinary and the characters spend more time talking about the theories of magic than actually doing magic.” Though personally, I wasn’t too bummed out by the lack of magic. In the first half I was still interested in the mystery and the MC, so I didn’t mind that there weren’t moving staircases and people lighting things on fire. And in the second half I was too caught up in other–bigger–issues to really care.

Yeah. Safe to say this was a disappointment for me.

It starts out very strong (I mean, a book that opens up with a scene straight out of Hannibal has my full attention) and it ends on a…strange and depressing note that I still don’t know how I feel about (though I have a feeling I’ll eventually land at “I didn’t like it”). But it’s mostly the middle bits that I had a problem with. And a lot of those problems link back to the protagonist.

Ivy Gamble was a trying narrator for me. Think Jessica Jones with all her psychological baggage minus the snark. And I was sympathetic in the beginning. I can imagine how bitterly disappointing it would be to watch your sibling discover their magical abilities and get accepted to an elite magic academy while you’re sitting on the sidelines reconciling with the fact that you’re not magical and this incredible new world is off-limits to you. I understand how that can shape the rest of your life.

But I don’t need to be reminded of it every other page.

Ivy goes out of her way to let the readers know that, hey, she’s not magic. Did you know she’s not magic? Bet you forgot she’s not magic since the last time she told you she wasn’t magic.

*taps on mic* An important announcement: IVY GAMBLE IS NOT MAGIC.

If you haven’t noticed, I love–for the lack of a better adjective–tortured characters in stories. Characters carrying scars that they can’t bear to look at but can’t help but prod. But when all that mental turmoil overpowers the rest of the narrative–plot, side characters, setting–the result feels less like a story and more like a one-sided therapy session. And that was more or less my experience with Magic for Liars. The mystery would start to get interesting but then Ivy would start comparing Nonmagic Ivy (her current self) to magic Ivy (a theoretical version of herself) and musing about how the latter would do so much better in this and such situation, and that would pull me right out of the story.

And this is more of a general complaint that I’m throwing out into the fictional ether, but I’m a little tired of private eye stories where the protagonist is an emotional mess and drinking constantly. I understand that that’s part of the noir aesthetic–cigarettes and gin and staring out the window in contemplation of the fatality of life– and, yes, there’s often a romantic allure to it, but for once I would like to see a well-adjusted PI who chooses to abstain from heavy drinking because it interferes with their work. A happy (or happier) noir, you know?

This book is not a happy noir, though, so if you’re looking for a twisty mystery with magical school shenanigans, you’re better off looking elsewhere. If you want a simple narrator-driven mystery with a lot of diversity and a LOT of heavy introspection, then well, it doesn’t hurt to try!

 

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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: The Binding – Sweetly Flawed and Somewhat Forgettable

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Title: The Binding
Author: Bridget Collins
Publisher: HarperCollins UK
Release Date: January 7th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Romance
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Memories
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice – but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

He will learn to hand-craft beautiful volumes, and within each he will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, he can help. If there’s something you need to erase, he can assist. Your past will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible.

In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books – and memories – are meticulously stored and recorded.

Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of them has his name on it.

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“Don’t think of it as a fantasy. Think of it as a romance” was the mantra I repeated to myself when I started this book because I’d heard it was less of a fantasy and more of a relationship-focused story with a tinge of magic, and I was determined to do whatever it took to love it.

Because guys. I adore stories about memories. I mean, I adore memories, period. I love the nitty-gritty cellular study of it, and as a wannabe armchair philosopher, I love musing about it in the wee hours of the morning. And I especially love it when the sciences and humanities decide to join hands and create masterpieces like The Endless Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Now, The Binding isn’t science fiction. But it is historical fantasy holding hands with queer romance–which I figured was the next best thing.

So I was ready to overlook a lot of stuff, and I did.

I could overlook the vague details surrounding the process of binding and the history of how it came to be, because a lot romance stories tend to be light on worldbuilding. I could also overlook the very convenient series of events leading up to the ending, because this isn’t trying to be a masterfully plotted story. And I could overlook the ending feeling a little unfinished because, hey, satisfying endings are hard to pull off.

But I could not overlook the main character. More specifically, I couldn’t overlook the main character being bland and shallow and more or less a blank slate from beginning to end.

Emmett’s narration (totaling about 2/3 of the book) is a frustrating example of first person PoV being used like a third person. With his ailments and memory loss he would have been the perfect character to deep dive into–which first person should allow and entourage us to do–but we never end up getting past the surface layer. And his surface layer presents him as farmer’s son who becomes a bookbinder who’s also kind of judgemental of the people he meets. And…that’s about it.

Lucian, his love interest, is a far more interesting character and once his narration takes over last 1/3 of the story, things really kick off for the better. We get a little more insight into binding and how it can abused in the hands of wrong people, and the suffocating atmosphere of Lucian’s household is portrayed very well. I also quite enjoyed seeing the changing developments in their relationship from his perspective.

But at the end of the day, a love story isn’t a one-person show. If I can’t connect with one of the involved parties, I can’t fully connect with the story as a whole.

So while I didn’t dislike the book–it was a pleasant read for the most part, with some genuinely beautiful and thought-provoking moments–I’m still fiercely disappointed because it could have been so much more. A deeper love story and a deeper look into the erasure of memories and whether the loss of pain is an acceptable trade-off for the loss of yourself. And I’m having a hard time getting over that.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. 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

 

Author Interview (+ Giveaway): Starworld by Audrey Coulthurst & Paula Garner

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Today I’m very excited to present an interview with Audrey Coulthurst and Paula Garner, authors of STARWORLD–an emotional YA contemporary that explores themes of friendship, sexuality, and the battles we face in our everyday lives.

Spoiler: Their answers are FUN.

 

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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?

In a novel in two voices, a popular teen and an artistic loner forge an unlikely bond — and create an entire universe — via texts. But how long before the real world invades Starworld?
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1. Hi, Audrey and Paula! Thank you so much for being here today! To start off, how did this collaboration come about?

(Audrey) Starworld was born at the intersection of two concepts: the question of what might have happened if our high school selves had met, and Paula’s insistence that we write a book “in the stars” (e.g., *writes a terrible first draft*) despite a lack of any plot or characters at the outset. Between revisions on our debuts we started exchanging chapters back and forth, having way too much fun sneaking in inside jokes while also exposing some painful pieces of our pasts and ourselves.

 

2. What were some difficulties you encountered during the collaboration and what were some of your favourite moments?

(Paula) We had a really easy time co-writing. I think one of the most difficult times was when beta readers pointed out things that might come off as insensitive for various reasons. That was the last thing we ever intended, and it did hurt to hear—but ultimately it made for a better book, seeing some of those issues and having the chance to change them.

Favorite moments: the excitement and joy of reading a new chapter from the other, and all our hilarious shenanigans in Google docs trying to write startalk or dialogue on the same page at the same time.

(Audrey) We spent a rather unhealthy amount of time trolling each other throughout the drafting process.

 

3. Both Zoe and Sam deal with a lot of things in their family lives: divorced parents, parents with OCD and cancer, and a brother with special needs. And it amazed me just how real the emotions involved are–the worry, the guilt, the helpless anger. Did that come from personal experience or extensive research?

Both. We each drew on difficult things from our own lives/pasts, but we also did a lot of research to be as accurate and true as possible.

 

4. I don’t know how you got a hold of my messaging histories, but some of Zoe and Sam’s asterisk talk is straight out of my own conversation with friends. Are you both big asterisk users?

(Paula) *does not know what you’re talking about* *never talks in stars* *especially not to Audrey* *huffs* Okay the truth is we always have talked in stars and we have a hard time NOT doing it.

(Audrey) *startles awake* *stares into space attempting to look like a sage author type but actually trying to remember one of Ruby Rose’s tattoos*

 

5. I think, at one point or another, we all need a Starworld of our own–a place that we can escape to and call our own. Zoe and Sam’s world comes with kingdoms and dragons and mysterious quests. What does your perfect Starworld look like? And who would you take with you?

(Paula) I think if grown-up Audrey and I had a Starworld, it would have a lot of spicy food, good cocktails, amazing settings, LOTS of hilarium, and of course, each other.

(Audrey) Spoiler: it’s a bar. But a classy bar.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

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Paula Garner spends most of her time writing, reading, or making good things to eat and drink. She is the author of YA contemporary novels Starworld, Relative Strangers, and Phantom Limbs, which was a 2017 Illinois Reads selection for grades 9-12. Follow her on Twitter at @paulajgarner.

Audrey Coulthurst writes YA books that tend to involve magic, horses, and kissing the wrong people. When she’s not dreaming up new stories, she can usually be found painting, singing, or on the back of a horse.

Audrey has a Master’s in Writing from Portland State University and studied with Malinda Lo as a 2013 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

 

Giveaway

ENTER HERE to win one of three copies of Starworld! Open Internationally (Age 13+).

 

Tour Schedule

Go check out the rest of the tour stops HERE.