Review: Mayhem by Estelle Laure – A Gorgeous Chaotic Mess

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Title: Mayhem
Author:
Estelle Laure
Publisher:
Wednesday Books

Genre(s): YA Historical Fiction, Paranormal, Magical Realism
Subject(s): Multigenerational, Abuse

Release Date:
July 14th, 2020
Page Count: 304 (hardback)

Rating: 4.0/10

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It’s 1987 and unfortunately it’s not all Madonna and cherry lip balm. Mayhem Brayburn has always known there was something off about her and her mother, Roxy. Maybe it has to do with Roxy’s constant physical pain, or maybe with Mayhem’s own irresistible pull to water. Either way, she knows they aren’t like everyone else.

But when May’s stepfather finally goes too far, Roxy and Mayhem flee to Santa Maria, California, the coastal beach town that holds the answers to all of Mayhem’s questions about who her mother is, her estranged family, and the mysteries of her own self. There she meets the kids who live with her aunt, and it opens the door to the magic that runs through the female lineage in her family, the very magic Mayhem is next in line to inherit and which will change her life for good.

But when she gets wrapped up in the search for the man who has been kidnapping girls from the beach, her life takes another dangerous turn and she is forced to face the price of vigilante justice and to ask herself whether revenge is worth the cost.

CW: talk and depictions of domestic abuse, sexual assault, suicide

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Set in 1987 against the backdrop of Santa Maria, with a girl and her mother fleeing their abusive household, Mayhem is a poetically wrought mess that disappointed me the more I read.

The core message of the story is sound and impactful, about taking control and power in an environment where you’re offered little of either, but it’s heavily stifled by a tangle of storylines and genres that gets thrown onto your lap without much fanfare. From research, it seems that the book is less of a mashup of The Lost Boys and The Craft and more of a direct retelling with a few changes made here and there. Which is a little eyebrow-raising considering how the marketing did its usual “If you like X and Y, you must check this out!” and made it out to be a book that takes elements of those films while still remaining an original, not a near-same story with a different filter. And I would have been fine with that, since I didn’t know much about the source materials to begin with, if it wasn’t obvious that the book is multiple stories awkwardly cobbled into one. It tries to fit magical witchy elements, mother-daughter relationships, new friendships, budding romance, navigation of past trauma, an abusive husband/stepfather on the loose, and a serial killer mystery in 300 pages.

It just doesn’t work.

It picks up a plotline and then pushes it aside in favour of a different one, resolves the latter with underwhelming speed, and returns to the old one only to leave it hanging or tied in the messiest knot imaginable. Characterization also suffers because of this. There are just too many people introduced all at once–Roxy, Roxy’s twin sister Elle, the three children living in Elle’s attic, Roxy’s old friends–and Roxy, the one character aside from May who should have had the main focus throughout, fades into the background in the second half. The other side characters are surface-level interesting, but again, never given enough time for me to get attached to.

The writing is beautiful, however; that’s what hooked in the beginning. And environmental storytelling is the story’s strongest suit. Laure knows how to create quiet scenes that seem to expand with each sentence, and some of the chapters read like haunting vignettes, a moment in time frozen by the lingering memories of what May and her mother endured. There are scenes that made my throat close up in empathy and anger, and the horrors of abuse and assault are depicted with care.

If Laure had just taken that and expanded on it for the rest of the book, focusing solely on the relationships between the characters and their individual pains and journey to healing, while introducing the magic as a subtle undercurrent? How complete the story might have been.

As it is, Mayhem knows what it wants to accomplish, and the emotional depth is well present, but it tries to go about it with more tools than it can hold and falls in the execution.

 

 


About the Author

AP Estelle Laure_Credit Zoe Zimmerman

Twitter || Instagram

Estelle Laure, the author of This Raging Light and But Then I Came Back believes in love, magic, and the power of facing hard truths. She has a BA in Theatre Arts and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and she lives in Taos, New Mexico, with her family. Her work is translated widely around the world.

 


Bonus Content

A Letter from the Author | Chapter One Excerpt

 

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Thank you to Wedneday Books for having me on this tour!

Find me (and my art) @aildreda on:

Twitter | Instagram | Tumblr

Review: Dealing in Dreams – Starts Off High, Crashes To Blandness

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Title: Dealing in Dreams
Author: Lilliam Rivera
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: March 5th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Dystopia
Subjects and Themes: Feminism
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

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Sixteen-year-old Nalah leads the fiercest all-girl crew in Mega City. That role brings with it violent throwdowns and access to the hottest boydega clubs, but Nala quickly grows weary of her questionable lifestyle. Her dream is to get off the streets and make a home in the exclusive Mega Towers, in which only a chosen few get to live. To make it to the Mega Towers, Nalah must prove her loyalty to the city’s benevolent founder and cross the border in a search of the mysterious gang the Ashé Riders. Led by a reluctant guide, Nalah battles crews and her own doubts but the closer she gets to her goal the more she loses sight of everything—and everyone—she cares about.

Nalah must choose whether or not she’s willing to do the unspeakable to get what she wants. Can she discover that home is not where you live but whom you chose to protect before she loses the family she’s created for good?

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I went into Dealing in Dreams expecting three things:

1) “The Outsiders meets Mad Max: Fury Road”
2) Female friendships
3) Subversive look at feminism

To my delight and surprise, one of those “X meets Y” blurbs actually proved to be pretty accurate because the world of Dealing in Dreams is one of girl gangs and throwdowns and unrepentant, gritty ultraviolence.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic society where women rule the top of the food chain–as gang members and soldiers to Dessee, the city’s ruler–and men either toil away in factories or in clubs as sex workers (“papi chulos”). And dreams (or sueños)–a drug made to induce euphoric dreaming–are manufactured and dealt like currencies. Overall, it’s a cool, unforgiving city and Rivera paints a stark portrait of it.

I wasn’t as impressed with the female friendships. I never got a good sense of the other girls in Nalah’s gang, and there were definitely no heartwrenching “Stay gold” moments to be found here.

The biggest draw of the book, aside from its worldbuilding, is the theme that it carries. Rivera addresses gender roles and equality and the issue of feminism being presented as the direct opposite of male dominance–the idea that tough, rough women and submissive men equates to a better world. It asks the readers whether lopping off the head of one kind of inequality only to replace it with another can really be called progress.

“You are forced to abide by rigid rules on what it means to be a man and a woman…Do you think violence makes you more of a woman? Does forcing papis to work at boydegas make them a better ally?”

And I love that. That’s a fantastic message. And I loved the way it was presented in the first half.

But I found the second half to be a massive let-down. It felt like an abridged version of the book, with several sections missing from the middle, and events happened far too quickly to pack any kind of emotional punch. And this denial of a satisfying lead-up to the ending renders that message, not moot, but significantly less powerful.

The writing style also plays a part in this issue. It’s super clipped and plain which fits the setting and the MC’s personality pretty well, but doesn’t do much in terms of showing off the secondary characters, and ends up muting scenes that could otherwise have been poignant.

The book is still definitely worth giving a shot, but considering the sheer amount of potential it had, my feelings on Dealing in Dreams are mostly of disappointment.

Blog Tour Review + Giveaway: The Fever King – Baby, You Burn My Brain Up Like a Fever

The Fever King Character Highlights & Giveaway

Title: The Fever King (Feverwake, #1)
Author: Victoria Lee
Publisher Skyscape
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Paranormal, Dystopian
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Politics, Abuse
Page Count: 384

Rating: 6.5/10

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In the former United States, sixteen-year-old Noam Álvaro wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of the viral magic that killed his family and made him a technopath. His ability to control technology attracts the attention of the minister of defense and thrusts him into the magical elite of the nation of Carolinia.

The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam has spent his life fighting for the rights of refugees fleeing magical outbreaks—refugees Carolinia routinely deports with vicious efficiency. Sensing a way to make change, Noam accepts the minister’s offer to teach him the science behind his magic, secretly planning to use it against the government. But then he meets the minister’s son—cruel, dangerous, and achingly beautiful—and the way forward becomes less clear.

Caught between his purpose and his heart, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in pursuit of the greater good.

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The Fever King has been getting 5 stars left and right, so before my rating scares you off, I’d to like say that 1) Anything I rate above a 5 is not bad, and 2) I don’t even know if 6.5 is the right rating for this because overall I think (??) I liked it, but I had some major issues with the execution, but at the same time I still recommend it. I haven’t been this conflicted about a book in a while (hence the review title).

This is gonna be a messy one, folks. Strap in. (We’re doing sections today. :D)

 

Some general things I really liked about the book:

♦ The story features very, very pointed themes of immigration policies, refugee crises, and fearmongering–ones that obviously parallel U.S’s political climate in the past handful of years. One could call it too on-the-nose, I suppose. I found it passionate and unapologetic. For me, the political message and scenes relating to it are the strongest aspects of this book.

♦ The integration of science with magic. Something I’ll never not love.

♦ The diversity. We have a protagonist who’s biracial, Jewish, and bisexual, and a queer brown love interest.

♦ Noam and Dara’s relationship, once it gets going, is about navigating the line between unbridled affection and respecting boundaries, which I thought was done very well. And the two are really sweet together.

♦ The last 1/4 of the book ramps up in pace and it’s one crazy event after another. Really entertaining stuff.

 

Onto more specific things:

Worldbuilding:

I love the setup of this world–this future dystopian North America that’s been ravaged by plague that can turn you into a magic user (“witching”). I would have loved to see more of it, but I feel like what I got in the end was a handful of blurry images.

And for such an elite training program, we see so little of Level 4 (the government’s witching school) and the people involved–students and instructors and all–so most of the time it feels like Noam, Lehrer, and Dara are interacting in their own little vacuum. That made things weirdly stifling.

 

Noam:

Noam. Noam. Noam. Noam. Noam.

I love his passion and his determination to fight for what’s right, I really do; he’s got a big heart and the anger that runs through it is utterly infectious. But some of the other aspects of his personality–his obliviousness, naivete, doing things without thinking–annoyed me to no end. Not because I have a problem with those character traits in general, but because they didn’t seem to really fit him.

Noam Alvaro’s background: hacker whiz; political activist; newly-made orphan; been to juvie; and knows first-hand the corruption of government and the sting of discrimination. He’s not some sheltered rich kid who’s ignorant about the ways of the world, and his life thus far has been a string of hardships underlined with tragedies.

So I had trouble reconciling all of that with someone who has the naivete of a storybook princess and the situational awareness of a brick wall. Someone who, among other things, breaks into a high-security government building with zero foreplanning and thinks, “I should just surrender. I’m sure they’ll understand” when he’s about to get caught. It just didn’t make sense.

 

Lehrer and Dara:

Lehrer reminds me quite a bit of Magneto from X-Men, which is probably why I find him the most interesting of the three. Going down the checklist, he’s: German-Jewish; survivor of experimentation and torture; wanted to create a utopia for witchings to live without discrimination; and has a moral compass that veers wildly from “manipulative SOB” to “caring leader.”

My problem with both Lehrer and Dara is that the book (or Noam, rather) keeps nudging me in the ribs and whispering, “Oh wow, aren’t these guys so contradictory and fascinating?” without really showing me that. While we get to see more of Lehrer’s past from the excerpts at the end of the chapters (which I did like), we don’t get much from him in the main story, and Dara is all evasiveness and cryptic “I can tell you things, but I won’t.” And while there’s a good reason for that, a more in-depth look into his character would have been great.

But Dara did grow on me in the last 1/3 of the book, and his story is one that’ll have you reaching for a pillow to hug.

 

Conclusion:

If it seems like I’ve just been ragging on the book, let me give you this:

My brain sometimes acts like an overly persistent, sporadically cantankerous dog that thinks it has something to prove to the world, so once it snags a particular issue, it doesn’t like letting go. And that kind of ends up setting the tone for the rest of the reading experience.

But there’s a a high chance your brain is a nice affable pup. An annoying squirrel throwing nuts at you from a tree? Who cares! Shake if off! (Literally!) The day is sunny and warm, the flowers are in bloom, and holy crap, there are miles and miles of sticks to chew on. Life is amazing.

So some of these issues I had you might be able to easily overlook. And if that’s the case, then I think your experience will be a much, much less conflicting one.

TL;DR. The Fever King was too uneven for me to fall headlong in love with it, but it’s got a good foundation, a heartfelt message, and an ending that just begs you to pick up the sequel (which I will be doing). 

 

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Favourite Quotes

 

Everything worth doing had its risks.
Sometimes you had to do the wrong thing to achieve something better.

“And I meant it when I said I wasn’t gay,” Noam said.
Ames looked disbelieving, but she didn’t pull away.
Noam smirked. “Bisexual isn’t gay.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Victoria Lee grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. She’s been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. She’s also a bit of a snob about fancy whisky.
Victoria writes early in the morning, then spends the rest of the day trying to impress her border collie puppy and make her experiments work.
She is represented by Holly Root and Taylor Haggerty at Root Literary.

 

Giveaway (US Only):

Giveaway starts on March 19th and ends on the 30th. ENTER HERE.

 

Tour Schedule:

Check out the other tour stops HERE.

Top 5 Wednesday – Books at the Top of My TBR

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes in which you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic.

This week’s topic is: Top of Your TBR.

And…that’s it. No fancy rewording for this one; it’s what it says on the tin. (Though I did limit the list to books that are already published) See, mom, I can simplify things!

 

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

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What’s an alternative phrase for “performance anxiety” to describe how you’re anxious about the performance of the other party because it’s been 10 long years of waiting–and you know it’s going to be good because they know exactly how to push your buttons, but what if it isn’t good?–so you keep putting it off and making half-hearted excuses like “Sorry, can’t today. I’m washing my hair” and “The stars aren’t aligned tonight. Not a good time”?

…Asking for a friend.

Right. Come February it’s gonna be you and me, Bridge of Clay. Show me what you got.

 

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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I’ve been announcing to myself every year since 2011 that I’m going to read this for sure. Why break a seven-year tradition?

So, ahem. *taps mic* This year. For sure.

 

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

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I’ve been hearing so many incredible things about The Winter of the Witch from several bloggers whose opinions I wholly trust, so I figure now is the best time to continue with the series. It hasn’t been all that wintry here thanks to El Niño but at least I can live vicariously through Arden’s vivid descriptions.

 

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

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I mean, firstly, it’s a Sanderson book (and I hear it’s great which is utterly unsurprising). Secondly, I have a feeling this might be a good sampler on what the third era Mistborn books might be like. Thirdly, it’s an overdue ARC and I really need to start chopping away at those.

 

Tower of Living and Dying (Empires of Dust 2) by Anna Smith Spark

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Another one that I absolutely wanted to get to in 2018 but couldn’t.

A few tidbits on these books (because I never actually talked about them on this blog):

Despite my local bookstore’s propensity to stick this series in the YA display (because women can’t possibly write grimdark fantasy for adults, amirite?) it’s very much an adult grimdark and probably best I’ve read in the past couple of years, for several notable reasons.

One, it’s sexy, which I never thought I’d say about a grimdark story. Yet it doesn’t weaponize sex to fuel the grimdark aspect (a common complaint I have with these books)–so there’s no rape or attempted rape to be found here.

Two, several of its main characters happen to be queer which is definitely something I don’t see in this subgenre (the traditionally published ones, anyway).

Three, Spark’s prose is the kind that I want to roll around in for days–a gorgeous interplay of poetry, sensuality, and bloody violence.

And if you’re now wondering, “Hell, why is it taking you so long to get to it, then?” don’t worry, I’m right there with you.

 

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What are some books that are at the top of your TBR right now?

Review: The Cruel Prince – Bad Fae Boys Don’t Do Romance (Or Much of Anything)

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Title: The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air 1)
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: January 2nd, 2018
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Fae
Page Count: 384

Rating: 6.0/10

Add to goodreads

 

 

Me: I should just write a mini review. Writing a detailed review for this is probably like doing an hour-long seminar on why Pixels doesn’t work as a commentary on video game culture.

Also me: Hey all, enjoy this 1200-word review! Also, here’s some crappy fanart!

(Warning: I wrote this in December when I was in a really ranty mood. Apologies to anyone who loved the book. :P)

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I finally caved into hype’s cold, seductive embrace and cracked open this beauty. And what I found inside was…well, more or less what I’d expected. But also less.

A word of advice: if you’re looking for a fae story that’s built from the ground-up, with in-depth exploration of fae culture and social hierarchy and gritty characters, then look elsewhere.

But if you want Boys Over Flowers: Fae AU (kudos to Alice for mentioning the BOF comparison), complete with all the eyeroll-y drama, then turn your sweaters inside out and hop on over to Faerieland because Holly Black’s got you covered!

Part 1 is a story we’ve all seen before ad nauseam. A plain, outsider girl butts heads with the most infamous and popular clique at school and she’s the only one daring (and stupid) enough to defy them. They make her life a living hell, their leader gets off on tormenting her (because he’s an emotionally challenged asshole who doesn’t know how to express interest in a healthy way), but she ends up in a relationship with one of the members who’s so kind and so different from the rest, and all the while the tension between her and the leader ramps up.

Part 1 is like a shoujo high school story that got sloppily ported over to a fae setting. And I wouldn’t have minded the cliche of it all if the main characters had something going for them (one of my favourite things to experience is a story with an overdone plotline that absolutely works because the characters make it work–hello, Fullmetal Alchemist). This, for the most part, didn’t.

Let’s go down the list, shall we?

Jude is…something. I’m still not exactly sure what because book doesn’t give me much about her beyond hating Cardan, wanting more power, and being “badass” for the sake of being badass. It would have been nice if, in the beginning, we were shown what growing up in the fae as an orphaned human was like (how her parents’ murders affected her childhood, how she had to adjust to fae customs, etc), because right now she feels rather hollow and her connection to the fae world tenuous.

As for our titular character, we don’t actually see much of him. In the first half of the book Cardan pops in every now and then to bully Jude, and the second half he spends lounging around in the background like some pretty upholstery. And what we do see of him I found disappointingly tame. I wasn’t expecting a Joffrey-level of sadism but something meatier than what we got would have been great.

It’s like Holly Black wanted to write an enemy-to-lovers story starring a human girl and a bad boy fae but she couldn’t make the boy too bad because she wanted their romance to kickstart in book 1, so that the readers have something to hook onto before the sequel, and she didn’t want it to be a lopsided abuser-victim relationship. So Cardan ended up being this lukewarm, all bark and no bite character. Like a chihuahua with a nice fashion sense.

What I’d hoped for was a del Toro/Brom type of fae–the kind whose “cruelty” derives from the fact that they’re literally inhuman and view the world through a stranger lens than ours. Instead I got a middle school bully cosplaying as a fae. Yippee.

And because Cardan is such an underwhelming antagonist, the vitriol Jude throws at him feels a little overblown and misplaced. Why does she show more hatred towards this school bully than the man who murdered her parents in cold blood?

Oh, and their romance? It’s less of a romance and more:

“I hate you”
“I hate you more”
*furious lip-mashing noises*

Let’s also talk about Locke, the fox-eyed (literally) not-like-those-other-bullies faerie that Jude ends up swooning over. As someone who’s spent a decade on the receiving end of callousness and disdain, you’d think she’d be a little more, I don’t know, cautious about throwing herself heart-first into a romance with one of the Big Bad Four.

The silliness of this subplot is compounded by the fact that she harps on every chance she gets about how much she hates Cardan (“That doesn’t sound like Cardan, whom I despise” — I think my lady doth protest too much). So why does fox boy here get a free pass?

Three facts that make it glaringly clear that he’s terrible boyfriend material:

  1. The boy hangs out with Cardan and co. That makes him, at best, an enabler.
  2. He straight-up tells her in the beginning that it’s fun and easy to be terrible people. I figure that should set some alarm bells ringing.
  3. At one point he has her dressed up in his dead mother’s clothes. I’m not saying that that’s sociopathic, Norman Bates, get-out-of-there-girl behaviour but that’s exactly what I’m saying.

The writing ranges from okay, with some weird word choices here and there (I’m still not sure how anyone’s handwriting can be classified as “arrogant”), to awkward and unintentionally funny. Let’s just say that there are some passages that, had I been reading this as an ebook, would’ve made me wonder if I’d bought a fake fanmade copy.

Some of the highlights:

“She’s clearly shocked by my behavior. She should be. My behavior is shocking.”

“Just tell me why you hate me. Once and for all.”

“All I want to do is nice things that make you happy. Sure, I’ll make whatever bargain you want, so long as you kiss me again. Go ahead and run. I definitely won’t shoot you in the back. (What is even going on with this paragraph? Why does it have a cadence that makes it sound like angsty song lyrics?)

And my absolute favourite:

“Because if I scream, there are guards in the hall. They’ll come. They’ve got big, pointy swords. Huge.” (Truly a threat for the ages. “They have ALL the swords. The BEST swords. HUUUUGE and bigly.”)

“Wow, Kathy, so much hate. And you still gave it a 6 out of 10?”

Right, here comes a confession: I didn’t actually dislike it. Was I annoyed? Definitely. Baffled? Sure. But I was never bored which is more than I can say for a lot of the other books I read in 2018.

The Cruel Prince is definitely not the start to the next great YA fantasy as some would have me believe, but it’s got marketability and a weird addictiveness that (almost) overrides my annoyance. It has everything that makes the Boys Over Flower formula popular with the added benefit of a protagonist who’s not a doormat which is, admittedly, cathartic (even if she does lack a personality). And Cardan does have potential to be interesting so I’m holding out on the hope that maybe–maybe–he plays a more active role in the sequel.

Oh, and Black’s descriptions of the food and fae clothing are pretty great. It doesn’t really contribute to the overall quality of the book–it only makes me wish the other elements of the story were as detailed–but it’s a nice touch.

So all this backhanded praise is to say its many faults won’t stop me from reading Book 2.

…And it won’t stop me from drawing Cardan, either (attempting to, anyway). Because aesthetics–this boy has ’em. (And no, I don’t know what’s going on with the “thorns” around him either. I got tired and lazy. Sigh.)

 

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Mini Review: Sadie (Audiobook) – Invisible Girls, Gone Girls, Dead Girls

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Title: Sadie
Author: Courtney Summers
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: September 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Abuse
Page Count: 320 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

Add to goodreads

 

 

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

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Giving a rating for this book feels…strange.

It’s like listening to someone sing a heartfelt ballad at a funeral and afterwards turning to your neighbour and saying, “Oof, it got a bit sharp at the end there, eh? What a shame.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly want the infamy of being the person who went all Simon Cowell on a group of mourners–however novel it may be.

But here we are.

First of all, massive, massive kudos to all the voice actors who worked on the audiobook. Their performances made me forget I was listening to a book and not a fiction podcast. Sadie’s VA, especially, was phenomenal. I mean, I would have loved the character regardless; she’s an incredible mix of affection and awkwardness and rage (so much rage–I will never stop waxing poetic about authors who give their young female characters leeway to be angry and vengeful, and not in a pretty, Hollywood-approved way) and it’s impossible to not fall for her, but the performance lends her an extra layer of complexity. There are scenes near the end that are dizzingly raw and had me breathless in turn.

As much I loved Sadie’s narrative voice, I did find her chapters inconsistently paced and that had my attention drifting in places. I actually enjoyed West’s podcast chapters more. They’re more tightly structured and they give us an outside perspective of Sadie, through the side characters’ interpretation of her, and her relationship with her family.

In terms of the plot, one might also complain that it turned out to be a straightforward revenge story rather than a thriller with twists and turns.

But….child abuse is straightforward. Missing girls are straightforward. They are painfully straightforward things that occur every day in real life.

Doesn’t make them any less important.

Sadie is a harrowing account of a young woman who will grab you by the heart and twist it into knots. I may not have loved it as much as I thought I would, but there’s no doubt that this is an important piece of work worthy of all the attention and future awards.

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If you’re looking for stories of similar subject matter (but in a different media), I highly recommend Netflix’s docuseries The Keepers. Just keep some pillows nearby because it’ll make you want to scream into something.

Review: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge – Chock Full of Wit, Intelligence, and Hilarity

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

Title: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge
Author: M.T. Anderson; Eugene Yelchin (Illustrator)
Publisher: Candlewick
Release Date: September 25th, 2018
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: History
Page Count: 544 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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This is the first M.T Anderson book I’ve read since his Octavian Nothing series (must-read books) and it’s great to see that he’s continuing on the trend of writing subversive, challenging stories that ignore the usual conventions of YA, because The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is a brilliant fantasy tale that tackles everything from cultural prejudice and historical biases to war and monarchical corruption, and all with a dark humour and wit that will 100% appeal to Pratchett fans.

The Elfin Kingdom and the Goblin Kingdom have been at war with each other since pretty much forever. They’d only reached a tentative truce five years ago and the elfin king has decided he would send a little gift to the goblin court as a gesture of goodwill. So historian Brangwain Spurge gets selected to deliver this token of diplomacy to the goblin ruler and report back on what he sees of the goblin city. And just so happens that Spurge’s goblin guide, Werfel, is a historian himself–what fun!

We alternate from Werfel’s POV, which is all in written form, to Braingwain’s POV, shown as a series of illustrations which are “Top Secret Transmissions” that he magically creates and sends off to the Elfin kingdom as day-to-day reports. That’s good and all except Spurge’s view is hilariously, horrifyingly different from that of Werfel. His versions of the goblins look like they should belong in a horror house– grotesque and barbaric with the occasional entrails and beheaded heads adorning the background. Glorious nightmare-fuel stuff. Werfel on the other hand shows the goblins as eclectic, but charming and mostly well-meaning. It’s unreliable narration at its most fun and Yelchin does a wonderful job bringing the horrors to life.

There’s also some really nice, subtle character development that I didn’t expect in a story as parable-y as this one. Werfel goes from an eager-to-please, overly gracious host to being utterly frustrated and done with Spurge insulting his culture and making trouble. Seeing their rather one-sided relationship develop into one of mutual appreciation and friendship is an incredibly satisfying experience.

What I most loved about the book, though? All the myriad of topics it manages to address. I love YA/children’s authors who don’t talk down to their readers and Anderson’s motto when it comes to writing seems to be, “kids are scary smart and they understand more of this world than adults give them credit for.” And with this book he tackles subjects that we don’t even see in many adult fantasy–things like post-colonialism and the construction and control of public belief via secret police.

At its core, though, the story is about history and how we interpret them. Werfel and Spurge both have different ideas on how the elf/goblin war went down. The former believes the elves were the warmongers, driving the goblins out of their homeland forests, and Spurge believes the goblins were the massacrers and the elfin government the arbiter of peace. This leads to hilarious debates and frustrations on both sides, and through these little exchanges Anderson makes a point of how countries tweak, shift, and erase history to fit the narrative they want to sell to their citizens. It’s quite wonderfully done.

The story also examines the way we view other cultures–of how easy it is for prejudice to seep into our minds. At first glance an aspect of another culture’s can be discomforting and strange. So do you cling to this shallow impression you have of them like a safety blanket, or do you try to step out of your comfort zone and get to know them better? Seek out their stories and traditions? Bridge the gap? I love stories that try to combat “otherness” and fear of otherness, and this does exactly that. And the best part is that it never gets boring or preachy.

From start to finish The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge blends wit, action, and dark humour to create a story that’s not only full of depth but also a lot of fun. It’s one I highly recommend to all readers, young and old.

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

2-For-1 YA: The Deepest Roots & When Elephants Fly – Short Reviews Are My Bane

Confession: I have a problem with writing reviews that are less than 300 words, especially when it comes to ARCs. I feel like I’m not doing the story justice and I get anxious and guilty–the whole package–which is a little ridiculous because I like reading other people‘s less-than-300-word reviews. But sometimes there are only so many words I can say about a book–usually those run-of-the-mill 2/3 star books. Because I can do passionate love and passionate rage, but I have no idea how to go about doing passionate “meh.”

So as a compromise for my poor brain, I’ve decided to stuff two short reviews into one post.

deepest roots

Title: The Deepest Roots
Author: Miranda Asebedo
Publisher: HarperTeen
Genre: YA Contemporary, Fantasy
Release Date: September 25th, 2018
Page Count: 320 (hardback)
Rating: 5/10

Cottonwood Hollow, Kansas, is a strange place. For the past century, every girl has been born with a special talent, like the ability to Fix any object, Heal any wound, or Find what is missing.

To best friends Rome, Lux, and Mercy, their abilities often feel more like a curse. Rome may be able to Fix anything she touches, but that won’t help her mom pay rent. Lux’s ability to attract any man with a smile has always meant danger. And although Mercy can make Enough of whatever is needed, even that won’t help when her friendship with Rome and Lux is tested.

Booklist called The Deepest Roots “a must-read for fans of friendship based books like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”, which had my ears perked right up. I’m desperate for more female friendships in books and, to my surprise, the comparison to Traveling Pants isn’t too much of an exaggeration. The dynamic between the Rome, Lux, and Mercy is charming and touching, and though they don’t have same allure as the Traveling Pants group, I’ll take what I can get.

My biggest problem is that the story tries to be too many things all at once–contemporary, fantasy, paranormal, and mystery. We brief touch on the girls’ powers at the beginning of the story, but they’re not elaborated much further, which is frustrating and disappointing. There’s a ghost that occasionally comes and goes, but we get no explanation as to how a ghost can exist in this world. There’s also a treasure hunt subplot that kind of fizzled out by the end.

The contemporary element is the strongest of the bunch, with exploration of heavy subjects like poverty, abuse (though they weren’t as in-depth as I’d have liked), and lighter ones like romance and friendship.

Readers wanting YA contemporaries that emphasize female friendships might enjoy this one, but I personally found myself craving more magic and depth and a less disorienting plotline.

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

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When Elephants fly

Title: When Elephants Fly
Author: Nancy Richardson Fischer
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Genre: YA Contemporary
Subjects & Themes: Schizophrenia, Animal Abuse
Release Date: September 4th, 2018
Page Count: 400 (hardback)
Rating: 6/10

T. Lily Decker is a high school senior with a twelve-year plan: avoid stress, drugs, alcohol and boyfriends, and take regular psych quizzes administered by her best friend, Sawyer, to make sure she’s not developing schizophrenia.

Genetics are not on Lily’s side. When she was seven, her mother, who had paranoid schizophrenia, tried to kill her. And a secret has revealed that Lily’s odds are even worse than she thought. Still, there’s a chance to avoid triggering the mental health condition, if Lily can live a careful life from ages eighteen to thirty, when schizophrenia most commonly manifests.

But when a newspaper internship results in Lily witnessing a mother elephant try to kill her three-week-old calf, Swifty, Lily can’t abandon the story or the calf. With Swifty in danger of dying from grief, Lily must choose whether to risk everything, including her sanity and a first love, on a desperate road trip to save the calf’s life, perhaps finding her own version of freedom along the way.

When Elephants Fly is a book for those who love, love elephants and can grit through scenes of animal cruelty. Unfortunately for me, while I do adore those floppy-eared pachyderms, I have a hard time with the latter, which is partly why I didn’t enjoy this as much as I thought I would.

The exploration of schizophrenia is done very well. It’s a topic that I rarely ever see portrayed in a respectful manner in fiction, let alone YA. At its heart the story is about taking chances in life and pushing through the fear of not knowing what’s ahead; the message is an inspirational one and I’m glad it’s out there in the YA sphere. It also debates the morals of keeping animals in zoos versus keeping them in a circus, which wasn’t something I was expecting but, again, is appreciated.

My biggest problem is that I couldn’t really connect with the characters–even the main one. There’s also a baffling romance subplot that just drops out of nowhere.

I also found the adult characters all so strangely irresponsible. Keeping a teenager locked up with an elephant overnight? Check. Sending said teenager off to Florida in the middle of the school year? Check. Slapping said teenager? Check. A 28-year old man seemingly flirting with said teenager? Check. Their actions felt caricature-y and overblown at times, which jarred with the realism of schizophrenia and animal abuse.

This is undoubtedly an important story–one that I’m sure many people will love and connect with–but I just never found myself truly invested in it.

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

September 2018 “TBR” – Procrastination, Witches, and Hard Choices

“Kathy.”

“Mm?”

“We’re pretty much in the middle of September right now.”

“Yep, I can see that. I have a tear-away calendar thingy on my desk.”

“Well, one generally writes a TBR post at the beginning of the month.”

“Eh, that’s debatable. There’s no Blog Police skulking around checking for these things, ready to clap you in handcuffs (and not the fuzzy ones). So you can technically write a TBR whenever. Hell, you can even write them at the end of the month and be like, ‘Here are all the books I thought I was going to read this month…and here’s what I actually read.’ Do whatever you want, you know? The world is your oyster. Break free from the shackles of conformity.”

“I mean, sure, shackles and oysters. But this one’s just a case of you being a lazy procrastinator.”

“Oh my god, you are ruining my brand. Why are you even here?”

“Well, I’m you. And you’re me. And this is an overlong conversation you’re having with yourself. And I feel like we should just get to the post before we scare off the readers. What’s left of them, anyway.”

“But I’m not the one who started–UGH. Fine.”

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Right, so here we have the latest TBR post I’ve done to date! It’s a badly stitched-up mix of “TBR” and “What Did I Just Finish Reading?” and “What Am I Reading Now?” and “Hey, You Like Voting For Things, Right? (‘No,’ Said 50% of America) Well, Here’s A Thing You Can Vote For!”

It’s awkward, kind of ugly, and suffers from a heavy case of identity crisis.

My own little Frankenstein’s monster. Please treat it kindly. ❤

(Fun fact: that above conversation was originally twice as long and included a side-argument about adjectives. No, I don’t know what’s wrong with me either.)

 

Recently Finished

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Bloody Rose (The Band 2) by Nicolas Eames:
Great sequel to a great debut. Review here.

Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton:
Oh boy. I have a lot of thoughts on this one and I’m in the process of trying to sort them out. Review to come.

The Deepest Roots by Miranda Asebedo:
A YA contemporary/fantasy/mystery/paranormal story that didn’t really work for me. Review to come.

 

READING NOW

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Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon:
McCammon wrote one of the my favourite books of all time–Boy’s Life–and I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while now. It’s a doorstopper historical mystery (at nearly 800 pages) that centers around a witch trial and I’m loving it so far. McCammon’s gift for creating atmosphere and interesting characters really shines in this one.

Los Nefilim by T. Frohock:
A historical gothic fantasy (aka my favourite subgenre) about angels and daimons. I’ve had the book for a couple of years now and I figured now is a good time to get started on it, seeing as how the sequel’s dropping in a few months.

Equal Rites (Discworld 3) by Terry Pratchett:
I’m reading this as part of the Discworld Readathon and very much liking it so far!

 

YET TO READ

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Nightingale by Amy Lukavics
YA historical horror set in an asylum and featuring an unreliable narrator. It’s also been blurbed by Paul Tremblay so I’m rather quite curious.

The Nine (Thieves of Fate 1) by Tracy Townsend:
Another book that’s been milling around on my shelves for a year. It’s about a mysterious, magical book and it’s set in a secondary world that’s kind of similar to our own…but not really? I don’t know. The blurb gives you a lot without really giving you anything.

The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang:
This one will probably/maybe/hopefully be a buddy read with Justine from Milkz Bookshelf!

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The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar:
A historical fantasy (yay!) about a (dead?) mermaid set in 18th century England. I’ve been hearing amazing things about this one and I can’t wait to dive in!

The Tower of Living and Dying (Empires of Dust 2) by Anna Smith Spark:
Sequel to one of my favourite books of last year. I’m hoping it’s be as brutal and bloody and beautiful as the first.

 

Undecided (aka Oh God Choices are Hard Help Me)

Both of these are ARCs I want to knock out before October, but I have no idea which one to tackle first. So if you’d like to relieve me of my choice paralysis, vote for one and tell me in the comments below!

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Time’s Children (The Islevale Cycle 1) by D.B. Jackson
A blend of high fantasy and scifi in which a 15-year old boy is sent back in time to prevent a war and finds himself in an adult body. I did say I was going to take a break from scifi for a bit, but the premise for this one is just too interesting to pass up.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
Sequel to Lee’s Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue in which the former protagonist’s sister is the new protagonist. It’s got adventures and pirates and well, petticoats, presumably. Should be good fun!

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And there you go! See any that catches your eye? What are some books you’re excited to get to this month?

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

Summer Bird

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