Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Late to the Party is a contemporary novel about what happens when the narrative about yourself you built in your own head starts hindering your potential. It is about the differences between yourself, your perception of yourself, and others’ perception of you, and how one can find spaces for exploration in those gaps as well as places to get stuck in.

On the surface, it’s a very typical coming-of-age story about Codi, a white American teenage lesbian living in Atlanta, who has always been “the quiet kid”. She has her art and her two best friends, but after forming an unexpected new friendship with a “popular” boy (who is gay and closeted), she decides she wants to change that.

Like most coming-of-age stories, it includes a romance (F/F, of course), but it’s not the focus – because, beneath the surface, Late to the Party is mostly a story about friendship. It follows Codi as she understands what her relationships mean to her, why she feels stuck, and how friendships can be outgrown but can also shift in their meaning to you as you change. It does all of this while following mostly queer characters, and how that influences the dynamic.
I feel like often the message of this kind of book can be very one-note, become the party-lover you were always meant to be! get out of your comfort zone! who cares about your boring friends!, but this book deals with it with enough nuance for it not to feel this way.

It’s one of those stories that have just have enough truth to them to hurt. While I did enjoy this as an adult, I know that probably wouldn’t have been true as a teen – sometimes when you’re struggling there are things you’re not ready to hear or deal with, and they hurt. (I would have taken it personally, probably; one thing that you won’t learn in this community when talking about “hurtful books” is that sometimes when a book hurts you isn’t because there’s something wrong with it but because you need therapy.)
Despite this, I did feel like something was missing. There isn’t much to Codi as a character apart from her shyness, her desire to grow out of it, and her love for her art. To make some examples, she struggles with her self-esteem but mental health isn’t even discussed in this book; and while this is a story about friendship between queer people, it’s yet again a gay book in which the portrayal or discussion of anything but rigorously cis and gender-conforming queerness is very lacking. And I think that’s where many of my issues with this book come from – it’s good and it achieves what it sets out to do, but it still feels somewhat surface-level; I think it could have done so much more.

On other minor negatives:
🏠 it has no sense of atmosphere and relies on the reader’s assumed familiarity with America to make up for that. Too bad for the book that I have no idea of how Atlanta looks like;
🏠 the characterization could have used some help in general; while Codi’s close friends and brother are well-drawn characters, the same can’t be said about most of the supporting cast, and sadly this includes the love interest.

My rating: ★★★¾, and I can say that the audiobook was pretty good.

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

There’s nothing as powerful as reading books involving Pride in June.

Felix Ever After is a story about love. It’s a love story just as much as it is one about how love can be difficult to accept, especially when you’re a Black trans person and so much of the world seems to want to tear you down. Felix’s arc in regard to recognizing and accepting love instead of chasing the approval of people who hate him was wonderful to read.

Felix Ever After is also about questioning. There isn’t much questioning representation out there that isn’t specifically about a character first discovering they’re queer, but like coming out, questioning is usually a process. I loved how both the internet and the people at the LGBT discussion group were important to Felix’s journey – who at the beginning of the book identifies as a trans boy (and has already transitioned) and then discovers that demiboy fits him better.
By the way, it’s great to read an all-queer friend group in which various people have different opinions on labels, parades and LGBT spaces (many love them! Many find them overwhelming, in different ways.)

Like many other queer YA books, this has a plotline involving outing, and yet it’s handled in a way I hadn’t seen before, one that felt completely different. From the beginning, the emotional impact of it is never brushed off. Other characters, the ones portrayed as supportive, don’t make it about themselves. And, most importantly, the question hanging in the air isn’t whether people will accept Felix, this story grapples with outsider approval in a completely different way. What matters to this book is that the main character gets to reclaim what was taken from him – in this case, with his art (Felix is a painter). It doesn’t just feel different, it is different, which is why ownvoices reinterpretations of “tired tropes” are vital.
While we’re on this topic: this book has a love triangle, as the main character is in love with and loved by two boys. One of the two relationships works out, the other doesn’t; I still really appreciated how this book talked about loving multiple people at the same time, true love doesn’t need to be one.

Let’s get to the… not exactly complaints, let’s say complicated points. I’m in awe of how much this book is doing, and not only in the sense of representation – so many things are discussed: the many forms privilege can take & their consequences, marginalized people’s relationship with outsider approval, queer intra-community dynamics, unsupportive parents, labels and their limits, the role of morality in art (and many others I would tell you about if not for the fact that I can’t highlight an audiobook).
And here’s the thing: this is very unsubtle and sometimes its dialogue and introspection sound like a repurposed twitter thread, disclaimers included. However, I don’t think that lack of subtlety is necessarily a bad thing when it comes to difficult topics in YA, and we’ve seen that being subtler and allowing teens to be messier on-page can have consequences, especially for queer authors of color, so let’s move on.

Overall, I loved this and think this is how quality YA contemporary looks like. There’s a mystery aspect that isn’t obvious and yet isn’t exactly the center of the story, there are not one but two romance dynamics to explore (one friends to lovers, one enemies to lovers), supportive friendships and friendships that have to end, all inside an queer friend group (glad this book knows that’s realistic)… and I’m just realizing now that this is shorter than 400 pages. How.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Reviews: Similar Ratings, Very Different Books

Here I am again, back with some very gay books I read recently of which I haven’t posted the reviews yet. One is a novel in verse with an F/F established couple; the other a genrebending M/M novella.


I think that at this point it’s safe to say that dual PoV novels in verse don’t work for me. I’ve looked at what set the poetry novels that did work for me and the ones that didn’t apart, and the pattern is clear.

I love Elizabeth Acevedo’s writing style, so I did end up liking this, but when I think about my experience with her previous novels, Clap When You Land pales in comparison – despite having something that her previous two books don’t have but really matters to me, a sapphic main character and F/F romance. Unsurprisingly, the very sweet, supportive and already established relationship between Yahaira and Dre was my favorite part of the novel (also because I could see a lot of myself in Dre; I, too, was a teenage plant gay who easily fell into all-or-nothing thinking).

When talking about Acevedo’s books, many people will recommend the audiobooks. This time, I will too, but for the wrong reasons: I read this alternating between ebook and audio, and the two narrators really helped me tell the two girls apart in the scenes in which they’re both in the same place, as I didn’t feel they had distinct enough voices in that situation. It wasn’t a problem for the rest of the book, as they are apart for most of it – but that’s also something I didn’t love, because it takes so long for them to even learn about each other, and we end up not seeing a lot of them together.

I appreciated that this was more than anything a story about sisterhood, family, grief, and the double-faced nature of tragedies, how they can tear you apart while bringing you closer to other people. After all, this starts with two sisters discovering each other’s existence because their father, who had two families in two different countries, just died in a plane crash.

This book has many things going for it: it’s about Black women supporting each other, it’s a contemporary mostly set in the Dominican Republic, and it talks about what it’s like to have to leave, what it’s like to be bilingual in the DR compared to the US, and many other differences between the two countries with all kinds of impacts. I wish I had liked it more, that I hadn’t felt like the characters were more like faded outlines than people, which I really do think was caused by the format. Poetry, to me, feels personal in a way that just doesn’t suit the added distance inherent to a multi-PoV book.

My rating: ★★★½

[apart from all I’ve already mentioned, TW for sexual assault in both plotlines]


On the surface, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a story about Demane, a “sorcerer” accompanying the Captain he loves in a dangerous journey across the desert and then the Wildeeps, where he’ll have to face something powerful and horrible. It’s not necessarily always linear, and there’s very little plot, because its heart is elsewhere.

I want to point out that I can’t do this novella justice. This is a book whose very structure and use of English is a commentary on language and what’s considered respectable, portraying the experience and struggles of a multilingual protagonist with that. I know I missed half of it because I’m ESL and don’t recognize the nuances of different forms and registers of the English language that well. The irony isn’t lost on me and I’m not sure how I feel about it?

That’s far from the only thing this novella did with language, however. Code-switching is part of its structure on multiple levels, and language is used to lay down the worldbuilding, which even holds a sci-fantasy twist inside. One of the things I look for the most in short fiction is the unraveling of genre boundaries, so I really appreciated what I understood of this book. There are pieces of dialogue written in other languages as well – not something I often see in fantasy stories that don’t seem to be directly tied to the Earth we know currently. I think this choice might have been made to use how these languages are coded in American society to “translate” the situations in terms an American might understand, which I have mixed feelings about.
(There are some… let’s say puzzling choices made with Italian words, but this is an American book and I don’t have it in me to have expectations anymore.)

It’s also really gay! (But keep in mind, this is not a happy story.) It explores expectations placed on male sexuality and the meaning of masculinity across cultures, and the shock Demane feels relating to this as well, for many reasons – one of the more prominent being that while he’s great at fighting (superhumanly so), his heart has always been in protecting and healing.
My appreciation for this is somewhat dampened by the absence of even one named female character (especially given that of the few women who do appear is an underage sex slave).

My rating: ★★★


Have you read or want to read any of these?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Never-Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

How can you write something so unprecedented yet so tropey?

43561631The Never-Tilting World is a queer post-apocalyptic fantasy book inspired by ancient Mesopotamian mythology and climate disasters. It’s a really peculiar book, and yet, despite my love for weird queer novels, I never fell in love with it. I did enjoy it a lot, yes – it was overall a really fun time and the audiobook was amazing, making the four PoVs work perfectly with four different narrators.

Let’s start from this book’s main strength: the worldbuilding is inherently cool. It’s set on a tidally locked planet (instant love for me), it has an interesting spin on what could have been a very tired elemental system but wasn’t, with a sprinkle of creepy plant magic. This book understands how to maximize the cool factor with the characters as well, having two goddess with rainbow-shifting colored hair as main characters, and involving undead underworld priests covered in lapis lazuli. And it’s really diverse, having an all-PoC cast, an F/F romance, an amputee main character and another with PTSD, with some really great conversations around trauma, including what’s more or less their world’s version of therapy.

However, while The Never-Tilting World is made up of a lot of very interesting and often unique ideas, they never quite came together in a satisfying way, and you could see the scaffolding too much.
This book has two storylines, one that is a hate-to-love romance during a desert chase, one that is a goddess/bodyguard love story featuring a descent into darkness. And everything about them felt like the author came up with the pitch before actually writing the story. I don’t know whether that’s true, but the result felt a lot more like a list of ingredients than a book. I wanted more depth from it, from the relationships, instead of it relying on tropes over and over, but that’s difficult to achieve when the novel seems to think that the way to keep the reader engaged is throwing either romance tropes or fight scenes against monsters at them. (Fight scenes are really not that interesting. I promise. Please let the characters have an actual conversation for once.)
The result is character work that is shoddy in places, predictably.

This book is inspired by climate disasters, and it was promoted as a book that had “climate change” as a theme. Did it, though? I guess that it does in the sense that it’s a story about young people doing what it takes to change the status quo in an increasingly hostile environment, and it talks about how the powerful believe they can survive by living in a bubble (the golden city) while stealing resources from poorer people, but the thing about fighting climate change is that it’s nothing so cool as fighting monsters; rather the often depressing and too slow work of, among many things, pushing for better policies, learning to deal with our problems instead of making them someone else’s, listening to scientists and indigenous people, reshaping the ways we conceptualize growth and economy, changing our priorities and whole way of living. This is not a problem we’re good at dealing with as humans, and the fact that you can’t solve it by whacking something might have something to do with that. The solutions this book gives to the environment-warping magic do not resonate, so far.
Maybe that will change in the sequel, I don’t know – it’s true that there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and this novel kept my interest enough for me to want to read The Ever-Cruel Kingdom. Something in the ending made me think this might be aiming for “we can solve this problem only if all the world works together”, which would already be thematically a better path. I hope that’s what it meant, as there is already one egregious case of wasted potential: Odessa’s descent into darkness.

You’re telling me that you had a whole character arc tied to greed for power in a book about climate disasters and you didn’t tie the “greed” and “climate disasters” themes together? Why? Is that not one of the main driving forces of real-world climate change?

I also found Odessa’s arc, like most “descent into darkness” arcs, unsatisfying: it relies too much on magic that warps the character’s mind. It deprives the main character of agency, and generally makes for a very uninteresting story. Hundreds of pages of a main character falling into a trap, slowly, with stilted magic-induced character development: not great!
(Also, let’s add “character eavesdropping on other character’s therapy session” to the “content warnings I didn’t know I needed” folder.)

Acqua, you might say, you spent the whole review complaining. But you still said you liked this?
Mainly because I’m a simple gay distracted by shiny cool things and this book is full of them and gay girls, so this was actually a great time, as long as I wasn’t thinking too much about how much better it could have been if only it had done certain things differently. But I don’t want to undermine that this book did get a lot right, mostly pertaining to Lan’s storyline and the ways it talked about power.
Lan’s arc around trauma, survivor’s guilt, and her attraction to Odessa was really well-written; if Odessa’s arc disappointed me, the exploration of the power dynamics between her and Lan, the way they shifted as Odessa changed, was really interesting to read. So was the subplot revolving around abuse in religious orders, which was accompanied by some hard truths this kind of stories don’t often deal with – everyone has the potential to be an abuser, and switching the people in power won’t put an end to abuse if the power structure itself isn’t changed.

Also, it was fun. It was entertaining and it was tropey but tropes exist because they work, so yes, I enjoyed this a lot, and I want to know what happens next.

My rating: ★★★½

This is my third book by Rin Chupeco, and so far all the books I’ve read by them have been either 3.25 (The Girl from the Well) or 3.5 stars (The Bone Witch, The Never-Tilting World), which is… really interesting, considering that they’re an author I still want to pick up more books from in the future.

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

36292242._sy475_After loving Girls Made of Snow and Glass, I’ve been anticipating Bashardoust’s second novel for years. I broke my ARC ban for it (yes, again) and it didn’t disappoint. Faith partially restored in YA fantasy!

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a standalone YA fantasy novel inspired by ancient Persia, its folklore, and Zoroastrian beliefs. It follows Soraya, the shah’s reclusive sister, whose touch is deadly because of a div curse.

It’s the kind of fantasy story I prefer not to say a lot about, one I’d recommend going into without knowing much at all, because it’s really short and it’s hard to talk about it without spoiling it, as it’s true for most books that rely on not quite being what they seemed. It makes so much sense that the original title of this was She Was and She Was Not, as so much of Girl, Serpent, Thorn relies on shifts of the main character’s perspective on the world and herself. It’s intricate in an elegant way (as the cover is); a little game of characters-as-mirrors that comes together in a wonderful story about the inherent power of self-acceptance.
The new title is just as appropriate, for spoilery reasons I hope you’ll decide to discover for yourself.

I could continue by praising the atmosphere for paragraphs, or Melissa Bashardoust’s effective, light writing, but I want to say that a big part of the reason I loved this book is that I, too, would fall in love with the moth girl. (And I did, of course I did, it’s Parvaneh.) The F/F romance isn’t even that prominent, but it stole my heart in a few scenes. This book is so short, and yet it doesn’t feel like it, and I mean that in the best way.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is an atmospheric, almost fairytale-like story about growing up unloved, and the vulnerabilities that kind of experience opens; at the beginning of the story, Soraya can’t see other people, much less herself, clearly. (This also has one of the most chillingly realistic portrayals of lovebombing I’ve ever seen.)
It’s full of twists, betrayal, and trust, be it misplaced or not; it has as much beauty as it has thorns – and it has a lot of thorns, as the best stories featuring plant magic do. It also happens to have one of the best endings I’ve read in YA fantasy in a long time.

My rating: ★★★★½

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

51201758._sx318_sy475_Don’t let the rating I’m going to give this lesbian political fantasy on ice mislead you; this is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend or advise against depending on these two options:

⇝ If you like plot-driven books, not in the sense of “fast-paced” (this isn’t) but meaning that you like amazing, complex, unpredictable political intrigue while character development can come second (as in, the characters are well-built, but the character arc moves at a… glacial pace), you’ll love this book.
⇝ If you like character-driven books and the most important part of political intrigue for you isn’t so much the politics but the way they influence deep, well-developed interpersonal relationships, or the way circumstances strain people and force them to reexamine their outlook and loyalties, this won’t do much for you. The main character doesn’t begin doing these things until 75% in.

This is a good book. I can’t understate how much one part of the final twist (there are so many twists, and yet they all make sense) took me by surprise, and YA fantasy hasn’t managed to do that in years. I also know that I would never have finished it had I not started skimming, or if it hadn’t been an audiobook.

The Winter Duke has an incredibly satisfying ending after all the frustrating events I had to read about, and the F/F romance was sweet, and just a treasure overall. Inkar was my favorite character, and it’s a shame that for plot reason we didn’t get much of her until the end.
I also have good things to say about the atmosphere, since this book is set in an ice castle, one standing over a moat hiding a magical underwater city below, and that’s just an amazing setting to explore. So is the idea of so many things being powered by magic when the characters’ don’t truly understand the forces at play.

It only failed in what I realize is the most important thing for me – the characters, and especially the main character, who was really flawed and had sensible reasons for doing what she did (of course at first she thought ruling meant being ruthless, seeing how her family was; she’s a victim perpetuating the cycle) but kept not learning from her mistakes, over and over and over, almost only because it was necessary for her to be dense for the plot to move forward.
I had to spend more than half of this book reading the same scenes with the same dynamic: Ekata tries to keep Inkar away, tries to rule without thinking of the consequences first and alienates people in the process, her prime minister scolds her, she keeps trying to wake up her father even when it’s obvious that would be the worst move, and tries to fend off Sigis’ advances without success.

That was the other problem, apart from how repetitive this dynamic was – I constantly had to read about skeevy Sigis, and I was so tired of that. Sigis this, Sigis that, Sigis invades Ekata’s personal space, Sigis creeps her out, Sigis threatens her and her friends and is almost so efficient he felt like a villain sue at times (though in the end I didn’t think he was one), Sigis gets more lines than the actual love interest (why). He isn’t an interesting character, he was always saying the same things, and I spent most of this book feeling bored and annoyed until I started skimming his scenes: they were unnecessary enough that I still understood everything. While this is not a Beauty and the Beast retelling at all, it’s the equivalent of a Beauty and the Beast retelling that dedicates no time to the Beast and has instead the main character talk with Gaston for most of the book. Why would I want to read that?

My rating: ★★½

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

44603899._sy475_The Last True Poets of the Sea is a contemporary story about the importance of communication. Having read so many stories that only use miscommunication as a plot device, it’s so refreshing to find something that truly tackles how difficult it can be to open up to others, even when you need it; how easy it is to not understand each other inside a family.

Violet’s family has a history of mental illness. Her younger brother Sam has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt, and she has been sent to a coastal small town in Maine to spend the summer with her uncle. She’s very much not ok: she’s dealing with dissociation and panic attacks and a general feeling of not belonging in her own life, of only existing to ruin everything.
Violet is a kind of YA main character I’m not used to reading about – she tries to distract herself through partying, drinking, flirting, sometimes ending up in dangerous situations, and yet she’s never a cautionary tale. She’s queer but doesn’t have everything figured out. And, more than anything, she’s never afraid to take up space, and likes to attract attention: I’m not used to seeing this, because there’s a stigma to women wanting attention (it’s not a case the most common insult used for people who want attention has a gendered slur in it), and characters like Violet are often seen as “unlikable”. I loved her and her growth.

One of the things I liked the most about The Last True Poets of the Sea is how it handles mental illness. We rarely see books deal with the fact that sometimes (often? more often than fiction would have you think) these things run in families, but present themselves differently depending on the person. At the same time, some parts were weird to read for me, because seeing yourself in a side character can be like that (and, by the way, I really didn’t like how they referred to Sam’s panic attacks as “tantrums”. That’s not what that is), but for the most part I can’t complain: this book is uncomfortably accurate in portraying many things, and I really appreciate its dedication to realism.

The teens in this book feel like actual teens. They have acne and ugly feet and questionable taste in clothes (…this is the first time in my life I’ve seen a book with a love interest who has acne), they drink and smoke even though there are times in which they wish they didn’t, they’re reckless and immature and can’t communicate, they have almost nothing figured out. All of these things shouldn’t be so uncommon, and yet I found myself surprised again and again by how real this felt, when its overarching plot is about a group of friends looking for a lost shipwreck of all things.
It also has a very realistic queer love triangle ending in a very sweet romance! And it’s one of the few books in which I’ve seen someone apologize for unintentionally walking over another person’s feelings in this context. It’s… such a gem. And it’s really atmospheric as well: Lyric, Maine doesn’t exist but it sure felt like a real place.

The only thing that didn’t make it feel as real was the audiobook narration, because all the characters, the majority of which are under 17, sounded like middle aged women. (I often couldn’t distinguish them or Violet’s narration from her dialogue.)

I’m giving it four stars mostly because around halfway through I was kind of bored and felt like not much was actually happening, but the last 20% managed to almost make me tear up, which doesn’t happen often.

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: You Must Not Miss by Katrina Leno

41139049._sy475_You Must Not Miss is a contemporary fantasy revenge story, and one of the most unique YA novels I’ve read in a while. Unfortunately, I’m individuating a pattern with me and Katrina Leno’s novels: I really like their premises, fall in love with the first half, and then everything falls apart in the second one. It’s true for this, and it was true for Summer of Salt as well.

I want to start by saying that You Must Not Miss is the kind of book that starts out slowly, very slowly, until suddenly everything happens at once. It does pay off, but I spent some time around the middle wondering whether something was ever going to happen. It’s a revenge story, yes, but far from a planned, slow-burn one.

I absolutely loved the main character Magpie. She’s a young teen – a sophomore in high school – and her life has fallen apart because of her father’s cheating, her mother’s alcoholism, sexual assault, and a lot of other reasons. She’s in an objectively horrible situation, and she deals with it like someone her age would: she’s barely surviving. She treats the people around her increasingly worse as the story goes on, and seeks refuge in the fictional world she invented – Near – which is consuming her in turn. This book never treats her with anything but empathy, and not only it makes you understand her, it also allows her to be bad without ever turning into a cautionary tale.

The way escapism is a double-edged blade – as much a refuge as it is a trap – is a theme that is really important to me, and I think this is one of the reasons the ending didn’t work for me.

The spoiler-y bit:

Magpie ends up leaving this world for Near, a fictional world she can control almost every aspect of. And maybe I’m over-interpreting things, because while she’s happy, the message of the only way you can be happy if your life is difficult is to leave this world is one I’ve spent… ten years fighting against? It’s not that I don’t believe it, it’s that I believe it too much, and to me there’s nothing as dangerous as an echo chamber when it comes to that.

At the same time, I think this is more about me than the book. I think that for some people, this ending could be comforting or liberating. I would like to read a book about escapism vs. real life in which the main character for once finds a balance. This is not that book, and it makes perfect sense for it not to be. Also, it’s not like I ever saw a book end like this before, so it was really interesting to read as well.

42052420._sy475_One thing I really appreciated was how this book explored how terrifying the concept of a teen with magical powers inherently is. I know that if I had had magic at 15 I would have used it for revenge as well! This doesn’t shy away from any of that.
This book also underlined just how important it is to have supportive friends in high school, and just how much a bad friendship and a friendship break-up can make things difficult. A lot of YA is focused on the coming and going of romantic relationships, with friends as reliable but not-so-relevant sidekicks, and this is pretty much the opposite. There is a sweet romantic element – and I really liked Ben as a love interest (queer m/f is great! Ben is trans) – but don’t expect this to be a romance.

It’s also really atmospheric, which I liked a lot. It’s not that it’s set in a particularly remarkable place, it isn’t, but I could see it, and I could see why Magpie felt the need to leave.

Overall, I did like it, but I’m still not completely sure about my feelings on the ending. I recommend it, especially as an audiobook – it was a really good audiobook – but I don’t know if I will reach for more by this author.

My rating: ★★★½

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Wise and the Wicked by Rebecca Podos

35053988._sy475_This book has my favorite m/f romance of the year, and maybe of ever. I can’t believe I almost didn’t read it.

The Wise and the Wicked is a contemporary fantasy story following Ruby Chernyavsky, a 16-year-old Russian-American girl from a “slightly magical” family in which every woman gets to know at which age she will die. Or so they thought.

I fell in love with this story right from the beginning because of Ruby. She is the youngest of three sisters, and her mother left them when Ruby was really young. Because of that and the burden placed on her by the family’s magic, Ruby is really insecure and lost, and deals with that in a number of ways – from kleptomaniac tendencies to being closed-off and trying to believe that she’s better than others to drown out her constant self-loathing. She’s also self-centered enough to often misunderstand other people’s motives; all of this makes her an easy target for manipulative people.
I love stories about difficult, imperfect girls, and I loved Ruby (even though she is well-meaning but seriously self-centered heterosexual representation), and her growth in this book meant so much to me.

My favorite character, however, was Dov.
I haven’t felt this strongly about an m/f romance in so long, and that’s because so many male love interests in novels (especially, but sadly not only, in YA) come in three formats: “rude”, “overprotective” and “personalities are for losers”.
And Dov feels real in a way so many characters don’t. He’s sweet, and maybe a little too trusting, not because he doesn’t understand that people can hurt him, but because he chooses to see the good in others – and in a genre so full of brooding boys, this is so refreshing? He is funny without his sense of humor being at the expense of the main character, which I also value a lot.
I could feel how much Ruby felt lighter during their interactions, how she let her closed-off façade crack with him, even when she was still hiding a lot from him. Their scenes were just… the chemistry. Everything was too much for me and I often had to put down the book because I had a bad case of Feelings™. I must be getting old.
(*Acqua, sitting on a pile of villain romances, tearing up*: but he is so KIND)
Dov is trans and Jewish, and this is one of the very few books I’ve read with a trans boy in which said trans boy gets to come out on his own terms. Not because of some naked reveal scene, not because he was pressured, not because he’s asked, and that was a beautiful scene.

Many scenes in here worked for me specifically because of the writing’s attention to detail. I loved the witchy early spring atmosphere, sure, but the way the author focused on objects, and small details in people’s rooms – everything felt real and deeper, as bright as this cover. When I think of Ruby, I don’t see her in a blank space, I also think of odd ice cream flavors and science books; when I think of Dov, I see aquariums and fish drawings and hitchhiking butterflies (…that scene); all these small, not plot-relevant things about them made me feel as if I knew them, and made them memorable.

I also really liked reading about Ruby’s relationship with her sisters, who raised her, and Cece’s storyline. Cece is Ruby’s cousin, and the two are really close while still hiding things from each other, because sometimes the truth is too heavy for you to talk about it with your family. Cece is a lesbian and in a relationship with another girl, and I really appreciated that this book talked about how a family can be homophobic in subtle ways even when nobody is a blatant bigot and there are other queer people in it. At its heart, The Wise and the Wicked is a story about intergenerational trauma and the weight of traditions, how they can bring comfort as well as stifle people, and how sometimes you just need to let some of them go.

Now, onto my main and only complaint: this book doesn’t work that well as a standalone. I know the author has plans for a sequel, but we don’t actually know if it will happen (because publishing), and while this doesn’t end on a cliffhanger – it ends at what I’d consider a calm point for both the characters and the romance – it’s clear that Ruby’s arc isn’t complete, and some plotlines, like the podcast one, were left without a conclusion to a level that goes far beyond “ambiguous ending”, as for example the one in Podos’ previous novel Like Water was. It’s not disappointing and I don’t feel like I was left without an answer I needed, but without a sequel some parts of this felt somewhat unnecessary.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

34522727._sy475_The Grief Keeper is a contemporary story with sci-fi aspects following Marisol, a Salvadorian lesbian who fled her country for her life, together with her younger sister Gabi. To legally stay in the US, she is forced to take part in a program in which she’ll have to bear the weight of someone else’s grief, all of this while dealing with her own trauma.

I feel weird about calling this a sci-fi book. It is one, because it features technology that doesn’t exist in our reality, and it’s not like sci-fi isn’t made for commenting on current, relevant issues. It’s just that I’m used to having more layers of unreality between a sci-fi book’s reality and our own. What makes The Grief Keeper so heart-wrenching is knowing that if this technology did exist, this is exactly what would happen: less privileged people would have to bear the weight of more privileged people’s trauma.
There is a part of this book in which a character says that if this program is successful, it will “ease a lot of suffering.” Marisol’s well-being is barely considered, and if it is, it’s just to ensure that she still exists to protect the other subject, the privileged white American Rey, from her depression.

It’s a painful read, a necessary one, and yet it’s so hopeful. This is not a tragedy, even though some of the characters are forced to endure things no one should have to. The circumstances are horrible, but the relationships between the characters are the light in the darkness for them. Marisol and Gabi’s sibling bond was so well-written and layered: Marisol wants to protect her sister and her sister is what she is surviving for; Gabi loves Marisol but also wants to break free, to rebel like someone on the cusp of teenagehood would.
I also loved the romance. I didn’t know if I would, because Marisol is falling in love with the other subject, Rey, the girl whose trauma she has to re-experience over and over. This could have turned ugly really easily, and it didn’t. We see this connection build slowly, help Marisol with her internalized self-loathing about being a lesbian, help Rey in many ways the technology she didn’t consent to either could have never, and it’s beautiful. Their scenes in the last 30% of the book were everything.

There were so many ways this could have gone wrong. It could have been a “romance cures mental illness” story, and it wasn’t; it could have had an ugly power dynamic and it didn’t. There was only one thing I didn’t like, only one thing in the whole book – this book didn’t shy away from psychiatric medications’ side effects like many YA books dealing with mental illness do, but it does somewhat fall in the opposite cliché with one quote: medication turns you into a zombie. Marisol says that the medication she’s taking is working as intended, which means that she is still anxious and depressed, but has no will. While it could be that this is a sci-fi medication meant to do exactly that, the book says that Rey is taking SSRIs, and implies that her and Marisol are taking the same pills. That’s not how antidepressants are supposed to work. Maybe some people experience this as a side effect and the book meant to show that, while also implying Marisol doesn’t know she’s experiencing side effects? I don’t know. I really would have liked more clarification about this.

One of the things that meant a lot to me was how The Grief Keeper talked about bilingualism. The main character is a Spanish native speaker, and English is her second language. Across different first languages, it was interesting to see how our feelings about English were similar, and for once, it’s so great to see a main character who has gone through the same things I do with language: struggling with idioms, with figures of speech; feeling like she has to be perfect because anything less than perfection in an ESL speaker is a sign of ignorance to monolingual speakers who don’t know a word of your language; the way we both have a relationship with language that people who don’t have to be fluent into two languages can’t understand. The amount of Spanish in this book, and the way it isn’t necessarily translated every single time, made me happy.

Another thing I loved was how Marisol and Rey connected over a (fictional) TV show, and how their understanding of their own queerness was also shaped by that show. I think that fandom has an important place in many queer people’s journey of self-discovery in a way that goes deeper than pop culture references built into a story to be relatable, and I love when books reflect that.

I was also surprised by several things: a slight twist in the ending I won’t talk about for obvious reasons, and the character of Indranie. She is an Indian-American woman, and I thought that what this book did with her and the way she is complicit in Marisol’s suffering and yet not portrayed as a fully bad person was such an interesting direction to take.

My rating: ★★★★¾

content warnings: on-page suicide attempt, depressive thoughts, rape threats and threats of homophobic violence, homophobic slurs in both English and Spanish, detention, psychological abuse of a minor at the hand of a doctor, discussion of trauma and grief, and the main characters have to deal with racist and xenophobic rhetoric and with the way the US treats latinx immigrants.