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: Like Water by Rebecca Podos

31556136I wish I had liked this book more. This could have been a favorite, if it hadn’t been for the romance.
Like Water is a contemporary coming-of-age story set in a small town in New Mexico, during the summer after Vanni’s graduation. Vanni feels stuck, because she doesn’t feel like she can leave the small town – her dad has Huntington’s disease, and she might have it too.

Like Water is a slow, atmospheric contemporary story, and not your average summer novel – it has a romance, but it’s so much more; it’s about self-discovery and difficult decisions and family, all of it beautifully written. It’s a story that feels real, almost painfully so at times, and Vanni’s mixed feelings about her hometown, her family and her future are not something I often see in books. Also, this is a really sex-positive book with great bisexual representation, in which the main character likes casual sex but still isn’t portrayed as a cheater. I love it.

I did not love the romance.
Vanni and Leigh’s relationship reminded me of Elena and Freddie from The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, which features one of my least favorite relationship dynamics ever, with one character being both constantly rude and manipulative towards the other. Like Water wasn’t as bad, but that element was definitely there. Leigh is constantly passive-aggressive, acts out and ends up in risky situations because of that, and it’s clear (and even acknowledged in the ending, but that was too late) that she has unresolved emotional issues, maybe depression and hates herself. I never understood why Vanni even liked her, and at one point I didn’t just not understand this romance, I wanted them not to end up together, because Leigh went too far. I can’t explain without spoilers, but that was not depression, that was Leigh being manipulative and the book blaming it on her issues.
Sometimes I hate how mental illness is represented in YA. It goes from “not showing any unappealing symptoms, ever” (many anxiety portrayals) to “character is constantly rude, aggressive and manipulative because they have a mental illness and You Should Forgive Them” (most portrayals of depression I’ve found so far) and… no. Why.

The thing is, I really wish I had liked Leigh more. She’s Italian-American (I think?), she likes girls, she is questioning her gender (at the end of the book, she settles on “genderqueer” as a description) and dealing with mental illness. But I just couldn’t, after what she did. There was also this undertone of “I discovered I was queer before you did and because of that I’m allowed to be condescending to you” which is something that happens in real life too and that I hate.
Both Vanni and Leigh are objectively well-rounded, developed characters, but Vanni deserved better.

I loved the atmosphere – I felt like I was there in New Mexico with Vanni, and I’ve never been there – and the water park scenes and Vanni’s love for swimming were also elements I really liked. Another thing I really appreciated was how the characters spoke Spanish sometimes and the book didn’t give you a translation, but you could understand what they were saying from the context; I like bilingualism done well.
If you like atmospheric, character-driven contemporary which is also really diverse and don’t mind what I said about the romance, I really do recommend this book.

My rating: ★★★★