Book review · Young adult

Review: Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle

SpellbookSpellbook of the Lost and Found is a book set in an Irish small town where, after the night of the bonfire, everyone loses something.

It’s told in three PoVs, and I had the same problem with all of them: too many characters introduced too quickly, none of them memorable, not even the PoV ones. I  liked some of them, but they never surprised me, and I will forget about them easily.

I liked that this book was really diverse despite being set in a rural small town. There were both a f/f couple and a m/f couple, but I never cared for either of them.

The three narrators were:
Olive. She is a chubby bi girl with a deaf ear. She was at the bonfire the night the lost answered, and she was getting drunk with her friend Rose (also bi, and biracial Indian).

Hazel. Her and her brother Rowan are new in town. Her PoV wasn’t my favorite – the “Dark!Secret I keep mentioning to the reader” is one of my least favorite tropes.
Hazel is a lesbian.

Laurel. What we read is Laurel’s diary, and the story of her friendship with Ash and Holly. Laurel’s PoV is the most mysterious of all of them. Also the creepiest.

What I liked the least was the writing – while it had its good moments, sometimes I confused the narrators (Lauren’s PoV had a totally different feel, but I did confuse Hazel and Olive sometimes) and it was also really, really pretentious. There are few books that can compete with Looking for Alaska in pretentiousness, and this is one of them.
The characters spend half of their time doing at least one of these things:
•quoting classics and poetry (almost every chapter)
•having deep conversations about love (at least it never really became an amatonormativity party)
•being really angsty
•drinking/smoking (a lot)
•saying things like “you feel like a character from a book” (tone down that fourth wall break)

Yes, teens are angsty and some of them drink and smoke a lot. I know. I’m a teen. You can write about them without being this pretentious. At least it didn’t go in I smoke to die territory, and some of the forced *deep* dialogue was acknowledged to be pretentious in-text.

What this book did right:

•It was eerie and unsettling and sometimes just really creepy. The atmosphere was perfect, and so was the tone. It felt real and not-quite-real at the same time, and that’s a feeling I love.

•It’s a book about losing things and letting them go, about growing up, about coming to terms with your past and your trauma (TW: arson, sexual assault). The message was great.

•It’s also about girls supporting each other. There are many friendships between girls, even if they have their toxic moments, too. Friendships, like romantic relationships, are not flawless or static.

•It was really original. Yes, it was pretentious, but it was never cliché, and I appreciated that.

•The plot was more intricate than I thought. This book surprised me many times, in ways I didn’t expect at all.

My rating: ★★★½

Book review · Young adult

Review: Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

WildBeautyWild Beauty is a standalone magical realism book that follows the Nomeolvides family, women whose magic can make plants grow everywhere.

The second book by this author, When the Moon Was Ours, is one of my favorite books of all times. I went into Wild Beauty expecting it to be a new favorite, and I don’t know if it was. Am I disappointed? I don’t know; this was still really good.

I loved seeing three generations all living together in one house.
Different generations living very close or even in the same house is not that unusual where I live, but I rarely see it in American books, even in speculative fiction (we all know fantasy parents are either dead or missing). So that was great, and I loved how the cousins were so close they were like sisters.

The writing made the whole book feel magical. It’s slow, but it’s not a book you’d want to read quickly, anyway. But while it’s not fast-paced, there is a lot going on.
The descriptions are vivid, evocative – they make you feel what is happening, and they’re not only beautiful. Sometimes they are creepy. Sometimes they give you the chills, like the manteca colorá scene.
Also, one of the main symbols is the indigo milk cap, Lactarius indigo. Fungi in a young adult book! (Yes, that’s important to me. Like plant magic.)

Most characters are brown, and many characters are queer. The five Nomeolvides cousins are all bisexual.

Twice as many paths to trouble, their mothers would whisper. As though their daughters loving men and women meant they wanted all of them in the world. There was no way to tell their mothers the truth and make them believe it, that hearts that loved boys and girls were no more reckless or easily won than any other heart.
They loved who they loved. They broke how they broke.

This is just… it’s so magical and it has a meaning. It doesn’t always feel removed from reality. It’s not complicated writing for the sake of it. And that’s what matters.

I liked the characters; Estrella was the best. At some point she burns down the car of the man who is threatening her family, and I really didn’t expect that, but I should have.
I also liked Fel, and the romance between him and Estrella. To see them growing close as Fel slowly discovers more about his past was great. And painful.

The main thing I didn’t like: This book is obsessed with romantic love. Romantic love is so special it is a poison that can make people disappear (the love-is-a-curse trope, as usual. I hate it because I’m aro and I hate it because it’s cliché).

One of the main symbols of this book is the starflower. Starflowers keep growing on the ceiling of Estrella’s bedroom. That was supposed to feel magical, I guess, but here we use starflowers (borage) to make ravioli. If I told you that I’m worried because my ceiling is covered in spinaches it wouldn’t feel that magical anymore, would it? I just couldn’t take it seriously.

My rating: ★★★¾

Have you read Wild Beauty? What did you think of it?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody

DaugrThis is what Caraval should have been.

Caraval was compared many times to The Night Circus and then didn’t deliver a circus, so I was wary going into Daughter of the Burning City.
This time, I wasn’t disappointed. Gomorrah is a traveling circus of sin, and it’s the perfect setting for a fantasy murder mystery such as this.

The descriptions and the history of Gomorrah were fascinating. The mystery aspect was well-developed and I didn’t find it too predictable, although I did see some things coming.
I really liked Sorina and her family of illusions. Nicoleta was my favorite, but I loved them all. I was heartbroken when some of them died.

The only thing I really didn’t like was the romance: Luca, the love interest, was condescending and boring. Also, the ace & aro representation wasn’t great. The author said Luca is demiromantic and asexual, but that wasn’t clear from the text – I think she should have used labels.

At some point, Luca says: “I guess I don’t just look at someone and think… attraction […] I have to care about the person first.”
He didn’t specify which kind of attraction, but I saw that a few lines before they were talking about romance. So he’s demiromantic, but not necessarily asexual. Then it’s not clear whether he is on the ace spectrum or not. “Lacks sexual interest” and “not interested in sex” isn’t enough. Asexuality isn’t celibacy or sex repulsion/indifference.

The book never really addressed that romantic and sexual attraction are not the same. If you’re writing aro or ace characters, you probably should.

And then this, which is my main concern regarding the representation (and it’s a spoiler):
Luca is an illusion created to be Sorina’s lover. Sorina’s illusions never “turn out as planned” – that’s why he’s ace/arospec.

“Yes. The boy you made to be a lover. Your illusions never do turn out as planned, do they? From the rumors I’ve heard… he’s hardly much of a lover at all.”

Yes, it was the villain who said this, but it was never called out/contradicted in-text. I’m tired of the trope “I’m asexual/aromantic because of magic/curse”.

Everyone seemed to find Luca’s lack of interest in sex suspicious. Isn’t this a world where queer people are accepted? Sorina is interested in more than one gender, one of the side characters is a lesbian, and no one had a problem with that. I didn’t understand if heteronormativity existed in this world or not. If this world is not heteronormative, then why is allonormativity a thing?

The writing wasn’t bad, but there were some mistakes.

I narrow my eyes. We’re. Not. Friends. “But I don’t have anything. I’ll sell it in Cartona. Then you get your cut.”

Sorina, the main character, has no eyes.

My rating: ★★★½

Have you read Daughter of the Burning City? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney C. Stevens

DressCodesSmallTownsDress Codes for Small Towns is, more than anything, a story about friendship.
This book follows Billie and her group of friends, called “the Hexagon”.

Billie is the tomboy daughter of the town’s preacher. Otter’s Holt isn’t a good place to experiment, but she is questioning her sexuality.
Janie Lee (pixie) is Billie’s best friend. They do not feel completely at home in Otter’s Holt, but while Billie doesn’t want to leave, Janie Lee has plans.
Woods (president) is charismatic and an extrovert. Both Billie and Janie Lee have a crush on him. Both Billie and Janie Lee are, in some way, in love with each other. Yes, it’s complicated.
Davey (pretender) is the new guy in town. He loves cosplay, but he doesn’t know if he’s going to attend the next LaserCon – his family is falling apart, and all he has are his friends.
Fifty (douchebag) is kind of a douchebag, but his friends love him anyway.
Marsh (puker) is biracial and pukes a lot. Those are his only character traits. Yes, he felt a bit like the “token black friend” and he was the least developed of the group.

The year I was seventeen, I had five best friends—a Pixie, a president, a pretender, a puker, and a douchebag—and I was in love with all of them for different reasons.

Dress Codes for Small Towns is also story about figuring yourself out when you live in a misogynistic, homophobic town. It’s a book that captures perfectly what it means to be young and not to know yourself. Am I really straight? Am I bi? What does that mean for me, my family and my faith? These are all topics this book deals with.
While the main character is questioning her sexuality, I never felt like she questioned her gender – she is offended when her friends tell her she’s one of the guys because she dresses a certain way. She’s not genderfluid, she’s a gender non-conforming woman.

I loved Otter’s Holt. It’s a small town with its traditions, which the Hexagon is fighting to preserve, and it has its own unique atmosphere.
Another thing I loved was that this book used the word “demisexual” to describe a minor character (who is demi & bi). It almost never happens.
What I didn’t like as much was the romance.

This is another book where there could have been a f/f relationship and there wasn’t. The main character is bi/pan (no label used, which made sense in her situation) and has a crush on her friend Janie Lee, who loves her too, but she doesn’t know in what way. When they experiment, they are discovered and then they refer to their kiss as a mistake, but they are into each other. This wouldn’t have been a problem if their kisses with their male friends had been considered mistakes too, but they didn’t feel guilty for those.
At the end of the book there are no romantic relationships.

I love books with no romance, but not like this.
My favorite book of all times (Ninefox Gambit, adult sci-fi) has a lesbian main character, and there’s no romance there, no love interest. She’s in trouble, she’s at war, she has a mass murderous ghost in her head. A romance in this situation would have felt forced, and it was clear from the beginning that NG was a “no romance, many explosions” kind of book. It made me happy – there was no romantic drama, no romantic subplots, and an all-queer cast. I love books like this.
What I don’t like it’s when there could be a f/f relationship but it doesn’t work out.
It’s realistic? Maybe.
But why does this happen only to f/f? Most straight romances get happy endings, and so do many m/m romances (well, these days. There are still many more tragic m/m books than m/f, but if I wanted a m/m romance it wouldn’t be difficult to find it).

But f/f?
I read 14 YA novels with lesbians/bi women as protagonists this year. Of those, only 4 ended with an established f/f relationship. Other 4 had a m/f relationship (5 if we count Little and Lion, which I will read soon) and 6 had a f/f relationship that didn’t work out in the end.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones. The Scorpion Rules. We Are Okay. Far From You. The Gallery of Unfinished Girls (one of my favorite books of all times!). And now, Dress Codes from Small Towns.
It’s not like there aren’t people who write f/f romance out there, but these are the books bought by publishers. This trend worries me.
I’m all for no romance or aro characters (hi!), but when the MC wants to be in a relationship, has a love interest and then they break up/don’t get together? I don’t like that as much. Yes, it shows that queer people can have happy endings without romance, but it’s becoming a trend, a trope, a cliché.
And clichés are annoying.

My rating: ★★★

Have you read Dress Codes for Small Towns? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

And: have you noticed this trend with f/f books too? Maybe I’m just unlucky.