TBR & Goals

5 YA Books I’d Like to Reread

To exist in the online book world is to always hear about the new books coming out. Deep down, I’m also always looking for something new, because isn’t a significant part of the drive to read born from curiosity? And while I can find “something new” in backlist books if I distract myself from new release hype for a moment, finding the motivation to reread books isn’t as easy.

I find this harder to do with YA books specifically. Maybe I’m afraid that the books I liked at 16 will be ruined for me if I read them now, despite having some evidence of the contrary from the few times I actually got through with those rereads – I still like most of them, just for different reasons. Or maybe it’s that I’m constantly being inundated with news about all the latest YA books, which means I’m more likely to reach for a new one when I just don’t have the energy to deal with the level of worldbuilding and complexity I want adult SFF to have. I don’t know.

But the thing is, from past rereads I know that every reread brings with itself something new. There are YA books I consider “favorites” that I liked without understanding why, because I read them at a time I didn’t have the tools to get into the reasons under “this made me feel a lot”. There are books that changed my life, and I want to know how that change will shape the experience of reading them. There are, on the opposite side, books I read at the worst possible time, but I only realized that in hindsight and now want to give them a fairer chance.

Today, I’m going to talk about five YA books I want to reread. Maybe that will help me motivate myself… at least, I hope.


Mirage by Somaiya Daud

I should probably add a disclaimer to this blog, “don’t trust anything that was written in 2018 too much”, but that’s especially true for everything I wrote in the fall of that year. I remember that my thoughts on Mirage were “this is great and one of the most original YA books I’ve ever read setting-wise, but something is missing and I’m not sure what”; now I know what was missing, and it was not about the book (for details, look for the Empire of Sand section). Two years later, I want to give this Moroccan-inspired sci-fantasy about colonization another chance, especially given how many amazing things I’ve been hearing about its sequel Court of Lions.

The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé

While I believe in the importance of representation of marginalized groups in fiction, I’ve never really understood why so many of the conversations around it focused on “seeing yourself”, or “being seen” by a book. Then it happened to me once, and I agree, while it’s still far from the main reason I read diverse books, it is life-changing if you’ve never experienced that before. The Dark Beneath the Ice is a horror novel that uses a haunting as a metaphor for the most painful aspects of anxiety, while featuring a textually mentally ill character – it’s not a it was ghosts all along story nor a it was mental illness all along story. The two are one and the same, and it makes so much sense. The thing about “anxiety disorders” is that their very name feels like a dismissal. “She has anxiety” feels so much like a slightly heavier version of “oh, she’s just shy“, and I hate it so much – it feels completely inappropriate for the life-ruining well of isolation it actually is to me. This book gets it; I also feel haunted sometimes. I want to know how it feels to go into it knowing what it’s trying to do from the beginning. Also, horror season is incoming!

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

I don’t know why I liked this book so much! Or, I do, superficially – the whimsically strange writing coupled with beautiful, macabre imagery means I will never forget certain scenes, and the gay subtext with the literal manifestation of Night helped, but I know that there was more to it. I know. I’ve read Never-Contented Things by the same author last year, and what was on the surface a nonsensical, at times grotesque story about escaping the faery realm was actually about cycles of abuse and recognizing actual love from codependency or neglect. I strongly suspect that Vassa in the Night also has a similar thematic core – maybe about parental neglect specifically? I’m not sure – but at 16 I… didn’t exactly miss it, I absorbed it without recognizing what it was. After all, at the time I thought that a book having some sort of message had to mean that it was preachy. I’m glad 16-year-old me didn’t actually have a platform?

A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

This is a corollary to an upcoming post about my next step in the journey of “trying to figure out what I like in the mystery/thriller genre”. I read A Line in the Dark in 2017, and since then, it has been the only book in the mystery genre I’ve actually ever given five stars. I remember loving the lesbian love triangle, and I remember loving how flawed and… horny the main character Jess was allowed to be, in a way that I just couldn’t find back then. I remember the cold, lost atmosphere; the complicated feelings the Jess had in regards to gender presentation in her Chinese-American family, and how this book grappled with the racism, subtle and not, Jess gets from her crush’s white friends. I don’t remember what I liked about the mystery. I should find out!

For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig

Another book I read in 2018! This is also a YA fantasy inspired by Southeast Asia during French colonialism, featuring a main character with bipolar disorder who is trying to survive being mentally ill and magical when her magic is tied to necromancy. This book has a portrayal of mental illness that really spoke to me back when I was going through one of my worst moments with it, despite it not being something I actually “related” to (different illness). Also, it’s a gorgeous mixed media fantasy (how rare is that as a format?) that includes plays and sheet music. I just want to go back to it & get to the sequels.


Do you reread books often, or do you also get distracted by newer things?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Night Shine by Tessa Gratton

this book: this mysterious, possibly evil character is known as The Sorceress Who Eats Girls
Acqua, immediately: 👀

Night Shine is, more than anything, a story about the importance of having a choice.
It follows a girl known as Nothing as she goes on a quest to rescue Kirin Dark-Smile, the prince and her closest friend, after he has been kidnapped by a Sorceress.
Hearing this premise, one might think they already know this story. They don’t.

The first thing you should know about Night Shine is that it is, from the surface to its heart, a very queer story. I’m not only talking about the characters, though of course that’s a major factor; I’m talking about what it prioritizes as well. Night Shine is a story that says, you should get to choose. Your name, over the one that was given to you. Your relationships, over what has been forced on you either through magic or norms. The way you define yourself, over an assigned gender or other kinds of restrictive roles.
For a story, having this kind of priorities means trope subversion, and this book is full of it.

Maybe the girl and the prince love each other, but not the way one would think, and maybe the girl is going to rescue the prince with the help of the prince’s secret boyfriend, his bodyguard Sky, and maybe the prince is charming, genderfluid, and also the most beautiful maiden of the realm, and maybe the sorceress is hot in a very gay way. Consider!

I always love to find new books to recommend to other gay villain romance fans, and Night Shine might be my favorite F/F example so far. The tension between the main character and the Sorceress… to give you an idea, I had to pause many times because I felt like spontaneously combusting, and that’s why this took me five days.

That’s far from the only reason this book deeply appealed to me, however. Another, maybe the most personal one, is that the main character’s arc is about understanding who she is and can be, and the first step in that is learning to want things. I was drawn to “Nothing” from the moment I met her, because I know the appeal of being functionally invisible and haunting the place you live in, unpredictable and unseen but more than anything unassuming, never-bothering, never really even occupying space if you can. And maybe that’s what you think you want, or maybe it’s a coping mechanism because the world is cruel, and it’s not all there is to you.

Then there’s the portrayal of intimacy. Back in 2018, Gratton’s Strange Grace was described by many as “full of kissing”, and I can say that it applies to Night Shine even more – people kiss! A lot! For different reasons and with different results! Like most binaries, the line between platonic and romantic isn’t a concern to this book, and this is particularly clear in the dynamic between the main character, Sky, and Kirin, which was so fascinating to read. They all love each other, it’s clear, but there are power imbalances and things turn sour – the relationship between Kirin and the main character takes a clear controlling bent, especially when contrasted with how she and Sky grow close without forcing any expectations on each other, allowing themselves to be surprised.

About Kirin specifically, I loved how he was portrayed. I know I’ve talked many times about the importance of portrayals of queer villainy, and queer flawed characters, from queer authors – and just like we get to have a sorceress who eats girls’ hearts and is a lesbian and a love interest, we get to have a genderfluid prince who is charming but also entitled and jealous, and portrayed sympathetically. We understand the reasons for his actions, and that’s why they hurt even more to read. I’m always here for books that understand that good and evil exist in shadows.
(Kirin is also not the only non-binary character who appears. The narration also uses he/him pronouns for Kirin, so that’s what I did, while it uses they/them for the other n-b character who appears.)

Another fascinating part of Night Shine are the names. Every character has a full name which almost reads like poetry; for example, Sky is The Day the Sky Opened, and another example is Sudden Spring Frost – and since we were on the topic of Kirin, it’s said that the main character starts using different full names depending on what he says about his gender that day, among which “Neither Kirin”, which is… so cool of a name. Then there’s the matter of “Nothing”‘s name, which is… plot-relevant and I’m not going to say more.

The writing was dreamlike, and yet I could see the setting so clearly – because this book knows the balance between giving enough descriptions to make everything feel real and bright but not too much to still leave some mystery and distance. In a world of sorcerers, demons, spirits and dragons, it only feels right – and the meticulous attention to detail helped, as usual for Tessa Gratton’s works.

I loved Night Shine a lot, even more than I loved Strange Grace in 2018; I think it might be a new favorite book of all time. I will know that for sure in a few months, but for now, I can say that there’s a good chance.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

Yellow Jessamine is a queer gothic horror novella following shipping magnate, poisoner and pretend-widow Evelyn Perdanu as a terrifying plague of mysterious origin devastates her already dying city.

I will start by saying that I’m not completely sure I got this. Horror endings are some of the most polarizing things to read for me, as them not resonating can break the book, and I think that’s what happened here. The ending made sense, and it wasn’t necessarily underwhelming, but I still finished the novella thinking “that’s it?”: it didn’t make sense to me on an emotional level. However, that’s something so personal that I don’t think it should discourage others from picking the book up, despite it being the main reason I didn’t get much out of this.

Because there is a lot to love about Yellow Jessamine. A story that knows the potential of a creepy poison garden is a story I want to love, and so is a story that explores how someone’s paranoia can be at the same time their strength and their downfall. It is a creeping spiral from misanthropy to paranoia, all rooted in a self-loathing so overwhelming that it masks every other feeling in Evelyn’s mind.

That might be one of the reasons people on goodreads aren’t recognizing this as a queer book, but it is, and it’s clearly queer early on. No, the main character isn’t in a place where she can think about loving or anything similar. However, anyone who isn’t forcing heteronormativity on the novel can recognize that Evelyn is meant to be a portrayal of a lesbian who happens to be deeply unwell, given that from the beginning Evelyn spends a lot of time thinking about her maid Violetta undressing her, describes Violetta as (quoting) “special”, “radiant”, and the only good person in the world, and becomes clearly uncomfortable when men show any interest in her.
I wish people realized that we’re used to dismiss – often, even in ourselves – signs of women being attracted to women at every turn because of how homophobia and misogyny shape the way we understand and recognize desire. There’s a reason “just gals being pals” about obviously gay situations is a lesbian meme. To not take this at all under account and just stating “this isn’t really queer” is to reinforce heteronormativity.
This isn’t a love story, this is a tale about devotion and obsession and downfall. Queer people exist – and should get to exist in fiction – outside of clear romantic storylines.

Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this. Reading Yellow Jessamine felt like following something to its inevitable consequence, but the atmosphere wasn’t strong enough for that to work: it should have felt creepy and ominous, but everything was too vague and barely-grounded. Maybe I would have liked it more had it sacrificed some of its readability (it is a quick read) for some heavier writing. More detail and clear indication of how things looked like would have made the whole story feel much more claustrophobic. You can’t feel trapped in a manor if the book doesn’t even really bother telling you how it looks like.

I still have a lot of respect for how casually messed up this book gets, and Evelyn is a fascinating if somewhat static (that’s kind of the point! She is rooted) character to follow, but I don’t know how much it will stay with me.

My rating: ★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

One of the best things about A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is how it makes its world come alive. It takes place during a festival that only happens once in decades, Solstasia, and it felt magical in a way I hadn’t experienced in a long time.
Between the Patron Deities (who doesn’t love a good faction-like system?), all the mythical creatures (talking hyenas? chipekwes? serpopards? yes), and the challenges we get to witness both inside the actual Solstasia competition and outside of it (…the wakama match is one of the best scenes), this world was so interesting to read about, and just fun.
It also felt grounded. One has to see a city’s worst sides to fall in love with it, and this book never shies away from Ziran’s issues – the xenophobia, the corruption, the opulence existing side by side with poverty; the way the city’s history might be darker than anyone imagines, with real repercussions on the present.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is narrated in dual PoV, and while I liked both protagonists, I was surprised the most by Malik.
Boys in YA often seem to come from the same mold, especially if they have a “love interest” role. They react to traumatic events and other difficulties in almost always the same ways, the designated Acceptable Manly Ways™, which are to use sarcasm to cover wounds or become closed-off and brooding, which ~enhances their mysteriousness~.
Malik has anxiety.
Malik has anxiety and several panic attacks on the page.
 Some very realistically portrayed ones, by which I mean uncool and embarrassing and weird and oh no now you’re going to cry again; and this book gets it. It gets how panic attacks lower your self-esteem and feed off your low self-esteem; it gets what it means to grow up knowing that everyone kind of sees you as the village freak; it gets how they make living (and taking part in an important competition) in a place that discriminates against Malik’s people even more difficult. This books gets it, and that’s why this first chapter of Malik’s story ends up being about self-acceptance.
(This book also has content warnings in the beginning, which is kind and also shouldn’t be rare.)

Karina couldn’t be more different from Malik, being the daughter of Ziran’s Sultana, and yet the two have a lot in common – in the end, they just want to be accepted as they are. Karina wants people to appreciate who she is, but also knows she doesn’t really want to rule. She’s an impulsive mess, which made for a lot of really interesting developments, some of which involving necromancy! I love her.
Her story also involved learning to see the people around her more clearly instead of taking them for granted, and the way it ended was just… perfect. (The female friendships…)
And since I forgot to mention that before: this book is casually queer-inclusive. When Karina decides that the Solstasia competition reward will be her hand in marriage – she needs the heart of a prince: an important ingredient to perform a certain necromantic ritual – the competition isn’t closed to women, because law says she can have a wife. Now she just has to make sure that a woman won’t win, because that’s someone she can’t use the corpse of!

Please don’t let the marketing mislead you. Before I actually tried this book, all I knew about it was that it had the enemies-to-lovers trope and that someone needed to save a younger sibling, which didn’t make it sound interesting at all – I don’t even like these tropes. Especially the sibling one. And I still loved this, because it’s that good. It helps that Malik has more than one sister, so you get to see that he cares about his siblings, instead of being told about it for all the book and shown the contrary. It helps, more than anything, that this book puts thought into things as it builds over its premise – so it doesn’t even matter that I wasn’t so drawn to the premise.
Also, publishing should stop being so attached to comp titles, because the way the marketing (nonsensically) pushed the comparison with Children of Blood and Bone almost made me not read this. Just because it’s West African fantasy it doesn’t mean that they’re alike.

I listened to the audiobook, which I liked: in this novel storytelling is a form of magic, so it’s great to have someone tell it to you.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review

Stories from the End of the World: Thoughts on Books About Natural Disasters

Today, I’m reviewing two books I read recently in a genre I almost never reach for: anything to do with natural disasters and their fallout. I’m a natural sciences student, which means this topic isn’t something I usually want to be reading about in my free time as well.

Last year, I identified “being about natural disasters” as one of the reasons The Fifth Season didn’t work for me. I wanted to see if I could find something in the genre I actually like, or if this is a topic I just can’t read about.


Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Me and the post-apocalyptic genre just don’t get along.
Or, more specifically: remind me I should be wary of anything that uses Mad Max as a comp. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve now read several books it’s compared to, and the main thing they have in common is that they think very frequent action scenes are a good way to keep the reader interested, which is never going to work for me. I mean, I’m going to get through the book very quickly, that’s true; and that’s because nothing encourages me to skim as often.

Most action scenes are boring, and so is this book. So much of it felt like characters moving around from one place to another to either fight someone/something or recover from fighting someone/something, without any other aim. When I consider not finishing while I’ve only 20% left, there’s usually something very wrong with the story, but I don’t think that’s the case here – I think I’m just not the right kind of reader for this, and that’s fine. This book is doing a lot of things, some subtly and some not, like questioning the very heart of the post-apocalyptic genre: isn’t the concept of “apocalypse” what happens when a catastrophe befalls the privileged, after all? The Diné have gone through their own apocalypse before, it’s just not called that by the rest of the world.

There’s also the reversal of several tropes common in paranormal fiction, one of the most interesting examples being the character of Kai – a male love interest whose characteristics and capabilities are usually associated with female characters in fantasy. To avoid spoiler territory, I will say that for example he is kind of there to be very pretty, even if that’s far from his only role. Because of these things, he was probably the most interesting character around; I found most of the side ones to be extremely underwhelming, with maybe the exception of Coyote.
This very much includes a certain someone who is built up as this legendary figure and then is actually as interesting as cardboard with an Evil Hat™. I see possessiveness as insecurity, and given that it seems a huge part of his character once we meet him, I was never able to take him seriously (this, by the way, is a big part of why straight villain/heroine sexual tension rarely works for me anymore. The evil man archetype from this subculture™ is so fragile and kind of pathetic.)

As far as the other side characters, there’s a good reason we never really get to know them, or have a feeling on who they really are, and that reason is the main character, Maggie. She holds everyone at a distance, and that reflects on the story. This is a book about a traumatized woman who has known nothing but fighting and death for a long while, and her character arc involves learning that she can be something else as well. I don’t have any complaints about the development, but the thing about this book is that it feels very much like a set-up for the sequels, and just when we’re getting to a somewhat interesting part with Maggie’s arc, it ends. I’m not going to read the sequel because clearly this is not my kind of thing independently from execution, but I do wonder if the side characters get more development as Maggie learns to let people in. I hope that’s the case.

My rating: ★★½


Depart, Depart by Sim Kern

I wish I could not shelve this book as contemporary.
Depart, Depart follows Noah, a Jewish trans man who ends up in a shelter after a hurricane devastates Houston. It’s a story about what societal collapse brings out in people – about connection and grief and rage, about how catastrophe puts even more of a target on marginalized people’s backs.

I usually can’t read stories about natural disasters, but this one worked for me – I couldn’t stop reading it. Maybe it’s because it’s short even for a novella, maybe it’s because it’s not as hopeless as it could have been, despite being realistically bleak; maybe it’s because reading from the point of view of someone who is also constantly afraid makes it paradoxically less exhausting. (I don’t have to feel all of it on my own, I guess?)

The most chilling part of reading Depart, Depart is that it feels exactly like something one could see playing out. Not only because it follows a climate disaster that could actually happen in the present, but because of how real the characters and their dynamics felt. The portrayal of the queer “found family” feels close to reality from the big picture – how queer people quickly group together from the beginning, because there’s safety in numbers, but also how the most privileged and rich don’t care about the others once they’re safe themselves – to the details, like accusations of oppression olympics during tense moments, the non-binary person wondering about vegan options, Mountain Goats mentions… I’m not American but if you’ve been around US trans twitter for enough time, you know these people. That’s why it hurts.

All the while, Noah is being haunted by visions of his great-grandfather, who escaped Nazi Germany as a boy. There are parallels between Noah’s situation and Abe’s, and this story also follows what it means for Noah to be Jewish and raised in an atheist family – the history that goes with that, and what has been passed down to him in good and bad and all the ways in between.

After all, this felt like a story about how we can’t change what was, but we can choose to not repeat someone else’s – or our own – mistakes. Noah has left behind people in the past to tragic circumstances, but now he can choose to stay with the people he’s grown to care about – because something Depart, Depart highlights is the importance of connections between people, how they save us in the most difficult times.

My rating: ★★★★½


Conclusions

So, these were surprisingly readable! While Trail of Lightning didn’t work for me, it wasn’t mainly because of the natural disaster elements, though that’s still a background I don’t feel particularly drawn to when it comes to picking up fantasy stories.

I’m realizing that for the most part, I prefer stories about natural disasters to be as close to reality as possible – which sounds paradoxical when one of the reasons these are usually so unreadable for me is “anxiety disorder”, but I think I know why. I really appreciated Depart, Depart, but I didn’t enjoy it the way I usually enjoy a novel – if that makes sense, it’s closer to the kind of liking I get from reading nonfiction, though not exactly. My brain was in a completely different mode, and while I’m in that ~serious mode, I honestly can’t be bothered with fantasy worldbuilding or something like that: ~serious mode already takes up a lot of energy. I will never be the kind of person who says that fantasy can’t deal with difficult and heavy topics (it… should) but if it’s a topic I have a lot of anxiety about at the moment, I prefer to stay away from them.


What’s your opinion on books following natural disasters & the post-apocalyptic genre? Have you read or want to read any of these?

TBR & Goals

Small September TBR

Since having a very small TBR back in August worked – of the six books, I only didn’t get to the novella, and that wasn’t all I read during the month – I’m going to try again.


Novels

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart – I’m intimidated by this one because it’s multi-PoV fantasy that reaches 450 pages from Orbit, and I have a mostly negative track record with long fantasy books from that imprint, but I’ve heard great things. I’m not even sure what it is exactly – I heard “gay” and “bone shard magic” and requested an ARC (I know. Went on a netgalley request spree back in July.)

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston – this is Even Longer but it’s one of my five star predictions and one I’ve heard amazing things about from people I trust on twitter. As with the one before, I’m not completely sure what it is about (I don’t like knowing too much about the premises of adult fantasy given how slowly they tend to develop…), but apparently it’s African fantasy involving a poison desert and I’m so here for it.

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke – some variety in genres is a good thing, and so I’m choosing this queer witchy YA contemporary with a gorgeous cover. I’ve heard very mixed things about it, but I’m hesitantly hopeful.

Novellas

Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling – another five star prediction! Also, reading some creepy stuff in September would mean I have new recommendations for that in October, if I want to write that kind of post, so now it’s the perfect time. Anyway, this is queer gothic feat. poisonous plants, and that’s perfect.

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg – the only book I still haven’t even tried from my TBR back in July, and it’s another I’ve heard mixed things about. I’m not sure what to expect – I don’t think I’ve ever read about elderly trans characters before, so it should be interesting.

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker (aka Seanan McGuire) – the novella I didn’t get to from the August TBR. This is the book-inside-the-book featured in Middlegame, which is just… so meta that I don’t know how to feel. I’m not sure it will be my thing, because the excerpts from this book were the least interesting part from Middlegame, but I’m intrigued.


I don’t think this is all I’ll read, but I like to give myself space to choose unexpected books through the month. Have you read or want to read any of these?

Wrap-Up

August 2020 Wrap-Up

Here I am, back to monthly wrap-ups! At least I read enough this month to make an individual post.


Life Update

After two exam months, August was a much-needed empty one. For the first two weeks, I was in the Rhaetian Alps; the rest of the month was pretty much like July minus the studying. By which I mean, my project involving becoming friends with all the city’s cats continued. I know many by now, several of which meow at me in recognition, but I finally have a Best Friend! She calls and follows me when she sees me, and she also tried to jump on my knees while I was crouching to pet her (startling me. sorry cat. The second picture is her right after that happened, by the way):

People who say cats love you just because you feed them are wrong! I don’t feed any of them and we’re still friends. And, as far as the Rhaetian Alps time went, it wouldn’t be Acqua’s blog without plant pictures:

  • maybe an unusually pink Astro alpino (alpine daisy, Aster alpinus)
  • Euphrasia, also known as eyebright: I had never seen so many of them in flower, the meadow looked like something that had just been touched by fairies.

What I Read

This month I read seven things, one short story and six novels, and DNFed a seventh. The short story was The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex by Tamsyn Muir, following Camilla and Palamedes from Gideon the Ninth; it was fun but a little underwhelming and I don’t have much to say about it, so let’s get to the novels:

At the beginning of this month, my brain was still fried from exams, by which I mean it took me almost a week to finish a book I was already halfway through, and I was even liking it! I ended up giving The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood 4.5 stars.
I’m used to predicting when the most intense parts of the book will happen basing myself on how far into it I am, as most books follow a very predictable structure. This one doesn’t, it even has a time jump of several years when you’re 30% in, which was both really interesting and horrible for my attention span. It was a very weird time and I recommend it especially if you like to read adult fantasy about unhinged immortal beings. (review)

Then I started Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles. I’ve already talked about it several times by now, but this book would have benefited from more editing and just… more substance. It did have some of the most memorably-written descriptions I’ve found this year, though, so if you’re a really atmosphere-driven reader who just wants to Imagine the Pretty, you’re going to have fun with this! I gave it 3 stars. (review; discussion of the atmosphere)

As I said I would in my August TBR, I tried The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson and determined that this is a story I’d love to read while I’m not witnessing the global rise of fascism. One could say that these books are more relevant than ever, and I agree, but I need to keep my energy for mentally dealing with this sort of thing for when I read actual, non-fictional news. If you’re someone who can’t get anxiety attacks from media, I do recommend trying this out because I do think it’s doing a lot. I wouldn’t have felt this way otherwise.
Another book that ended up not working for me is Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, because I don’t get along with books that clearly think action scenes for the sake of action are interesting. I got through this book in two days because I skimmed most of them, I was so bored – I gave it 2 stars. At this point, I’m not sure I want to reach for Black Sun at all later this year, because everything I’ve tried by this author hasn’t worked for me.

All the while, I was listening to the audiobook of A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown, a West African-inspired YA fantasy that ended up restoring my interest and trust in this genre. For a long time, the best thing I could say about the YA fantasy I was reading was “I would have loved this at 16, I’m glad it exists”, but yes, there are stories that I can still love now, and this is one of them. From the world full of magical creatures, mysterious deities and unraveling legends to the very real, deliberate focus on mental health and xenophobia – it’s beautiful, compelling, and well-crafted. I gave it 4.75 stars; it’s one of the best YA fantasy books I’ve read in a while.

Then I read the weirdest contemporary I’ve ever found, The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel by Moe Bonneau. It’s an F/F coming-of-age story that deals with mental illness (mainly OCD) and a relative’s terminal illness. The writing happens to be very strange. Everyone speaks in the same, unexplained slang; the word choices go from “unusual” to “outright baffling”; and the writing has a rhythm to it that makes it feel like poetry. It has no author note. I’m not surprised this got many bad reviews, but personally I really liked it and I have theories on why this was the way it was – and in a novel about finding the courage to be yourself, I appreciated the unapologetic weirdness. I gave it 4 stars.

The last book I read was Night Shine by Tessa Gratton, my favorite of the month (maybe favorite of the year? too soon to tell). This is a subversive queer YA fantasy about identity, choice, and the damaging, restrictive nature of binaries. The writing is beautiful and dreamlike, and so is the way it talks about learning who you are and the nature of identity and gender. Of course, my favorite aspect was the romance between the main character and the Sorceress, because villainesses are hot in a gay way. When I hear about someone named The Sorceress Who Eats Girls, the main thing I also want to know is whether she’s single. I gave this 5 stars.

As you can see, this was an unusual month – one in which I found not one but two YA fantasy books I loved (…it’s been so long), and I’m even currently reading a third that may also fit that, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. After two years of either avoiding or being disappointed by this genre (and sometimes by its adult counterpart as well), it’s so refreshing. I mean, I’m aware that I would have loved something with the concept of Night Shine even more if it had been an adult book, because it would have been allowed to be just a little darker and subtler and that would have been perfect, but you know what? It’s great the way it is already. Please ignore the unfortunate cover and read it.


Have you read or want to read any of these? How was August for you?

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel by Moe Bonneau

I never thought I’d find a contemporary-adjacent YA that fits in my books that will cause problems on purpose list, but now I have!
The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel is gorgeous and deeply, unapologetically weird, to the point that there are entire sentences of which I don’t understand the meaning; it’s full of strange choices in wording and imagery that contribute to it becoming a goldmine for cursed™ quotes; and there’s a deliberate attention to rhythm in word choice and sentence structure to mimic the pattern of anxiety-fueled obsessive thinking acting on language. It’s really good and kind of unreadable, by which I mean perfect in a genre that most of the time doesn’t even know how it would look like to take a risk. Weird is a good thing to be!

⇝ so, what is this book
This is technically a story about Lu, who during the last year of high school starts to reconnect with a girl who was once her friend and may now be something different. At the same time, she’s dealing with the fact that her grandmother is terminally ill.
This is actually a queer coming-of-age story that feels at the same time surreal, unrealistic and more real than reality, dancing between completely removed and uncomfortably close. It talks about periods, masturbation, sexual desire, drug use, self-harm and the significant repercussions of casual homophobia more unflinchingly than most contemporary YA I’ve read, but does so in its own way – which is to say, everyone speaks in slang all the time for reasons that aren’t given. They’re clearly there – I don’t think anything in this book can be described as casual – and I do not get them. This choice gives this book a very unique voice, and also got in the way of me feeling actual emotions about what was happening multiple times. Unusual choices were also made when it came to imagery, and I want all of you to witness what is probably the most cursed description of a sex scene I’ve ever had to read:

She’s anemone and I am clown and I swim gently into her stunning embrace.

This book: metaphors!
Me, a person who has sadly experienced tumblr: I never want to see the world “clown” in anything related to sex ever again

⇝ hypotheses on the slang
A common critique seems to be that no one speaks like this. I think the book is fully aware of that, given that in here everyone speaks like this. I don’t think this was a failed attempt at connecting with the youth, given that as far as ESL me understands, this is… not necessarily modern slang? Like, girls are betties and cigarettes are tars and I don’t think that’s contemporary – the author isn’t that old. Was this an unusual attempt to make the story feel timeless by dating it the wrong way?
Or maybe it’s a choice based on sound over meaning. Because:

⇝ an interpretation that turned out being canon
I was drawn to this book mainly because the writing has a rhythm I’m familiar with, the one my brain has when it gets stuck on something. It’s hard to define anxiety-disorder-sourced obsessive thoughts in terms of sound, but one thing my brain does is to turn certain sentences whose rhythm it finds pleasing in the non-musical version of an earworm. Well, so many sentences here match that rhythm and have repetitive and rhyming patterns, which, again, is a stuck brain hour™ sign. To give you an idea of how… unmistakable it is, this is the quote from the preview that made me decide I had to read this book:

And she’s cracking up and I’m all aglow.
Glow little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer.
I laugh and hum and pick up my marker and draw.
Shine little glowworm, shimmer, shimmer.

Sometimes it’s not that blatant, sometimes it’s just in the descriptions of a person being everyday, every-guy, average hit hero, or Lu being errands-girl extraordinarie (notice how this time it didn’t use “betty”! It’s a sound thing), or the beach being clash, rubble-and-trash-strewn excuse of a shore – the oh-so satisfying feeling of these words, they match! It feels almost cozy. And it takes a lot of skill to get there, because while I have this, uh, gift, I can’t actually make it happen deliberately to write weird poetry.
Then, as it turns out:

Then I get all slo-mo OCD and spell each word out, fitting spaces and hyphens into random places, feeling the different sizes and rhythms on my tongue. Just me and my obsessive anxiety disorder, having a blast, […]

&

Phrases loop in my mind, round and round, like a rogue Ferris wheel spun way out of whack. I count and I count. So mop, so OCD. Hello, my name is Lucy Butler and I’m a compulsive letter counter.

As I said: deliberate! This book only causes problems on purpose, as the best ones do.
More seriously: I love weird, clearly, and I love talking about it half joking and half in awe. What I don’t love is people calling something bad writing because it doesn’t match their experience of how a human mind works.

⇝ an interpretation that didn’t, but hear me out
Identity is a complex matter. At the same time, such strong non-binary vibes from Lu.

⇝ but Acqua, the story?
It’s mostly about finding courage – to take a chance and tell a girl you like her; to dump your toxic boyfriend and homophobic friends; to be there for the rest of your family when they need you. The F/F romance is sweet and just messy enough, because the characters are dealing with mental illness and casual homophobia, both internalized and not – even though most people in Lu’s life don’t actually mean to hurt her that way.
It’s good and at the same time enhanced and overshadowed by the writing.

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles

Maybe it makes sense that in a book full of symbolism based around cards the worldbuilding is about as solid as a house of them, and maybe it makes sense that in a book about stage magicians all the side characters feel like props to make the main ones shine, but it was about as interesting to read as it sounds.

The thing about Where Dreams Descend is that if it can sacrifice something to increase its own mysterious, dazzling atmosphere, it will. The result is a book that is all smoke and no substance, which again, it’s somewhat appropriate given the subject matter, but unsatisfying to read. It keeps adding mystery after mystery, raising questions and never answering them, and no storyline is ever given closure. I’m not the kind of reader who needs to understand things on the first try, and I can mostly get over how everything seemed so unsubstantial once you got through the layer of fondant, because was it some really beautiful fondant, but it also felt so contrived. Mystery for the sake of it, followed by meaningless reveals that don’t actually give answers, or explain anything apart from how much the publisher hopes you’ll buy the sequel.

In the end, Where Dreams Descend felt so much like that instagram cake meme that was everywhere in July – all concerned with appearances and tricking you, but when the “reveal” comes the book is like “you would have never guessed it was cake!” and you’re like “sure, never” because you’re too exhausted to even complain about how repetitive everything feels.
If you’re the kind of person who values atmosphere even more than I do, you’re probably have at least fun with this. I hope, however, that you don’t mind cliffhangers.

Now that I’ve complained enough, let’s get to the good parts: the writing fits the book perfectly. It’s ornate and descriptive without ever giving too much detail, making everything feel kind of haunted and or ghost-like beneath the glitter. I really appreciated how it managed to convey the atmosphere of Glorian, the underlying feeling of wrongness, and how it felt for Kallia – bright, always shining, burning – to be there. There would be a lot to say even about the use of color as symbolism in here, which was way more successful that anything this book was trying to do with the suits of cards and long-lost families, if this review weren’t already too long.
I also found the ways it talked about memory magic to be really interesting. It may sound over-specific, but this isn’t the first time I’ve found the concept of trading memories of fire in a frozen city, and I will always find that idea fascinating. Was anything ever explained? No, and I’m going to thank the book for that because the last thing this needed were infodumps that wouldn’t have made it make sense anyway without a stronger background.

It’s also a book with a main character whose entire role isn’t reacting to things that happen to her, who has has deep down a desire to connect with people, but mostly unashamedly wants the spotlight. That’s not something we often see, especially in YA, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kallia were received as “unrelatable” or “unlikable” (because she wears “revealing” clothing and wants to be admired). I just wish the book would have understood that making a stronger cast of side characters wouldn’t have stolen the spotlight from her; I don’t think it’s possible to do that.

I mostly found the two male characters Kallia is somewhat involved with to be boring, because the way they were described and even the way they acted felt like a YA love interest template. (As if the book were checking things off a list titled here are the attributes that are considered to be appropriate to praise in a straight man!) And did they even have a personality apart from hiding things? Because I’m not sure it came across.

If I had read this book a few years ago, I know I would have liked it more, just like I enjoyed Caraval back then despite being equally flimsy and to be honest not as well-written or interesting, so I’m giving what’s in the end a positive rating; I mostly recommend it to those who liked Caraval and Ace of Shades but want something that feels even more mysterious and sets the atmosphere even better.

My rating: ★★★

Tag

Try A Chapter #8

The Try A Chapter Tag is back! A little longer than usual, as I’ve been away for a while – my goodreads TBR was getting too long after the new entries in the last few days…

As usual, these are not reviews and don’t say much about the quality of the work as a whole; there are just far too many books I want to read, and trying the first chapter of those I’m not completely sure about helps me understand what I want to prioritize.


Wicked Fox by Kat Cho: I plan to slowly go through most of the YA books on my TBR with the Try A Chapter Tag, just to be completely sure that I actually want to read them. Most of their premises sound great – I know this one does, as magical foxes in any form are my favorite creatures in fantasy and this is about a gumiho – but let’s see if I also think the same about the story itself.
The first chapter: apart from some slightly cheesy turns of phrase, I really liked this! The atmosphere is perfect, the conflict Miyoung is facing is intriguing, and I haven’t read an urban fantasy in so long. (Also, so many food mentions already… I haven’t had lunch yet this is an Attack)
[will read at some point]

The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer: listen I actually have no idea what this is and I’ve never even heard of the author, but the cover is an ELDRITCH TOOTH SWAN. I have to know why this was a choice that was made. I have so many questions.
The first chapter: I’m just not getting along with this, and I can’t even tell why – there’s nothing exactly wrong with it, but trying to get through the first chapter felt like wading through mud. I don’t want to be unfair to the book, so I’ll say that it’s about stage magicians and I just finished a book about the same topic (…with much better writing though), so maybe I just don’t feel like it.
[goodbye, eldritch tooth swan]

Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena: to be honest, I added this for the cover only (just look at it), as the last two years had me slowly losing all the trust I had in YA fantasy, but A Song of Wraiths and Ruin singlehandedly reminded me that this genre can be great fun if you choose the right ones, so let’s try!
The first chapter: listen it’s not the book’s fault but why are maps always unreadable on ebook?? anyway, this didn’t catch my interest at all. There must be some terrible writing advice on the internet that says you have to start every YA fantasy with a scene of someone getting murdered, because I find this kind of thing in half of the ones I try. I don’t know how common of an opinion this is, but I honestly couldn’t think of a more off-putting opening – I haven’t even heard the main character speak once and you’re talking to me about arrows going through people’s heads. If I don’t know the characters, it just feels like yeah get some graphic violence, don’t you want more when actually I want to know about the characters and the world. Tell me why should I spend time here.
[removing from TBR]

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White: in theory, F/F sci-fantasy sounds like the best premise a story could ever have and exactly like the kind of book I could see going on my list of favorites of the year, but the fact that it has been on my TBR since 2018 tells me that maybe there’s a reason I don’t feel drawn to it. After the almost-all-correct Five Star Predictions post, I want to trust my gut feelings even when I don’t understand them.
The first chapter: it’s literally named D.N.F. Is this a joke? Anyway, I kind of hate the writing – listen, I’m the last one who will complain about everything being full of sci-fi-sounding words for the atmosphere™, but this has no grace to it – and couldn’t care less about race cars in space™, so I guess this is going. (I also skimmed the rest of the ebook preview and I’m just not feeling it.)
[removing from TBR]

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet: me, trying ~literary~ historical fiction? I know, unusual, but I do believe one can find something that works for them in pretty much every genre if they know where to look – and to know where to look, one has to try kind of randomly at first. This sounds interesting and everyone seems to love it, so why not? (Now, if only I were able to find an adult mystery/thriller that worked for me…)
The first chapter: this is fascinating and, as predicted, the writing is great. The fact that we’re going to be following different characters across history is encouraging, because I don’t know if I would be up for reading a whole book set in the sixties. I might check out the audiobook, because it does have the kind of writing that could work great aloud.
[will read at some point]

I Kissed Alice by Anna Birch: on one hand, it’s an F/F romance. On the other hand, it’s YA contemporary – which is very hit-or-miss for me – and got mixed reviews from my goodreads friends.
The first chapter: I guess it makes sense for an enemies-to-lovers book about fanfiction to read like mediocre enemies-to-lovers high school AU fanfiction of a pairing I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Remind me to never have high hopes for books that have anything to do with fandom.
[removing from TBR]

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He: I wanted to read this last year, then it just never happened for no reason, despite the positive hype and the lovely cover and the fact that the premise does sound interesting to me (court politics… yes).
The first chapter: now this is my kind of beginning. Carefully setting up the atmosphere, and in the meantime… let’s talk about treason. I’m intrigued but don’t want to go too far into the book before I actually pick it up. Sometimes you really do know you want to read something just from the first paragraphs.
[will read at some point]

“I felt like I was having a stroke”

goodreads review of The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel

The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel by Moe Bonneau: I removed this book from my TBR last year because it has almost overwhelmingly horrible reviews, all of them complaining about the writing. Which is interesting, because YA contemporary is possibly the genre in which I see authors take the least risks writing style-wise, so I’m curious – and also, it doesn’t feel right to not give a chance to a book about queer girls.
The first chapter: oh. The reviews all complained about the writing being overdone and weird and unreadable. They’re not wrong. It’s written half in slang I don’t fully understand and half in the way I think when I’ve just had a panic attack, by which I mean its writing is full of repetition, echolalia-like patterns and a kind of… rhythmic matching of words? To make some examples, this is a quote from the narration: glow little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer. I laugh and hum and pick up my marker and draw. Shine little glowworm, shimmer, shimmer. Or describing someone as everyday, every-guy, average hit hero. It’s all like that. In case it wasn’t clear, I love it and appreciate the neurodivergence of it all, intentional or not. It’s very cozy.
[will definitely read]


Have you read or want to read any of these?