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Review – Tash Hearts Tolstoy

Tash Hearts Tolstoy, Contemporary YA by Kathryn Ormsbee

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Give me more main characters who love a dead Russian author to the degree of counting him as a boyfriend! That was what initially intrigued me (by design, one might safely assume) and it mostly held up. I loved the way it informed Tash’s romantic asexuality. She’s so easy to identify/empathise with, that I still don’t know if that even reflects on me or if she’s just a well-written teen who is basically cool and decent. Flawed, obviously, but that’s part of the point of the story–she grows up and improves as a person by the end.

For the sake of context, I read this book in the long hours of pre labour. Breathing through increasingly painful contractions isn’t exactly a picnic, so I was glad to have this to ameliorate the stress.

Tash is a fairly sheltered young woman who takes a lot for granted. Her friends are always there for her (including her online crush), she knows where she’s going to school after graduation and what she’ll be studying, and her family is a strong support system. She and one of her best friends produce a Youtube serial adaptation of Anna Karenina called Unhappy Families, which gains an insane boost in popularity when an established Youtuber gives them some positive press.

Her negative reactions to sudden fame are a bit predictable, but they’re also understandable and realistic. I struggled a bit as her bad behaviour clashed with her perception of herself. For someone who professed to be so close to her friends and grateful for the closeness of her relationship with both friends and family, Tash does an awful lot of lying by omission, and generally withholds information to her detriment. While this is certainly part of her character arc and addressed in the text, I couldn’t help thinking that she must have been a pretty shitty friend for a long time if she was so unaware of how to communicate.

Also, for clearly personal reasons, I wasn’t terribly thrilled with her treatment of her mother after the announcement of an unexpected pregnancy. Despite repeated mentions that the pregnancy was unplanned, Tash and her sister both questioned their mother’s reasons for having a baby. How does one have reasons for something completely unplanned? Is this an implication that they think she’s making a choice by not having an abortion? She also gets maligned for “keeping it secret” which is stupid, because especially with a pregnancy at that age, one does not announce it until about the second trimester because of the chance of miscarriage in the first. I get that Tash felt displaced, but I didn’t sympathise.

Although I have to admit that I don’t think I would like Tash’s web series if it were a real thing, the portrayal of the work involved in the production, especially the rough bits like stuff that can ruin a day’s shooting, was wonderful. The young actors run the gamut from Casual and always late to Overly “Professional” and insufferable but suffered because of Talent. The latter character actually surprised me in the end, which was awesome.

There’s some great representation for marginalised teens in this book. Not only is Tash herself asexual, but one of the actors in Unhappy Families is gay, and another is bisexual. It’s all very easygoing and natural, without too much underlining.

Although she is the main character, Tash still manages to take up more narrative real estate than necessary, which has the effect of leaving all of the other characters feeling underdeveloped and some go sidelined overlong because Tash is too wrapped up in herself. It’s brilliantly meta, as it ties directly in to her character arc.

The romance is about as predictable as the Youtube Stardom main plot, but once again, it’s done well enough that I wouldn’t really count that as a mark against the book. Tash’s relationship with her online crush develops slowly, and she gets to enjoy it as one of the things going well for her, but it’s also a major point of stress thanks to her not being out and not having a clue how to come out to basically anyone.

This is a great read overall, but particularly effective if you’re looking for something satisfying and not too twisty or demanding.

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Review – The Love Interest

The Love Interest, YA Gay Romance by Cale Dietrich

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️

My hopes were so high for this one, and for at least the first third, I managed to ride on those hopes without their being dashed. The writing style is punchy and funny. Even in first person present tense, the general hatred of which I am still getting over. (it’s a process.)

The opening world-building is a hopscotch court of meta jokes for YA readers. Love Interests are cultivated in a compound where they must hone their bodies to physical perfection, gaze at themselves in the mirror daily, learn pop culture so they can fit in, and fall into two factions categories: Nice and Bad. No names–they go by numbers until they are given a name and additional Pretties-esque makeover when they are assigned to make a person fall in love with them. Two Love Interests compete in a love triangle, and the one who is not chosen is doomed to die. But what happens when the Love Interests fall for each other?

Even in the beginning, I had a lot of minor nitpicks that I had to shelve in order to keep enjoying myself. While I liked the concept of the world-building, I never felt like it was very solid and it was certainly not without irritating holes. Why do they have to have plastic surgery when so much focus is placed on the strain of conventional beauty attained through grueling effort? Why are they stolen children? It didn’t bother me that this is what they were, but there wasn’t really any narrative reason. Why that source for the LIs? Why not test tube babies? Or sentient organic robots? Is this a dystopia or the regular world and the joke is that YA love interests in even straight-up contemporary YA are like this? The given reason for the entire Love Interest Compound is that they are matched to people who become influential/important and will presumably have privileged information with monetary value. This isn’t technically a bad reason, but it’s sort of dumped out there once and referenced after, but never actually explored. Which… describes much of the book.

One of the major indicators that someone was a Bad was that he had a bulkier musculature than a Nice, which didn’t work for me, since in my reading experience, YA Bad Boys are usually skinny angst pots. Exercise is wholesome, as is sunshine, and bad supposedly cool habits tend to be unhealthy things like smoking, so I expect the muscular guy to be Good/Nice. Mileage may vary, I guess, however like so much else that doesn’t work terribly well in this book, it’s evidence of shallow shallowy-ness.

The main character, given the name Caden, is shallow. He thinks that he doesn’t quite fit the label of Nice, but he falls into it anyway because someone else is making that distinction and probably to make some kind of Divergent reference. His perception that he’s too Bad to be Nice doesn’t really go anywhere. Shallow character arc. Dylan is barely a character–he mirrors the Am I Really Bad/Nice? thing but does it better than Caden. Any potential he has as a character is lost in not having a written perspective. The narrative, technical reason he doesn’t have one is so that there can be a big misunderstanding in the latter part of the book to keep him and Caden from getting together. It isn’t even a believable misunderstanding. In fact, given the concept, Caden, Dylan, and the girl should have had their own POVs. Caden is about as exciting as tapioca pudding and can’t carry a book on his own.

The romance is insultingly shallow. In fact, all of the queer content was.  Caden goes through a questioning phase to realisation in such a rote manner that I not only could sing along in a mocking voice, but at one point, I managed to quote something nearly verbatim before the book got to it. His “OMG am I gay?” passage comes off as dated and insincere. It honestly sounds like it was written by someone else, it looks so out of place.

But the romance just made me sad. Why is it that so many books that hinge on an unexpected homosexual attraction fail to depict that attraction as anything other than author mandate? Sure, I could see why someone would find Dylan appealing–he’s good-looking and displays a lot of charming traits. But somehow it felt like the book just skipped over the parts where Caden showed why he in particular fell for Dylan. I was more invested in the romance between Ewan and Archie in A Hero at the End of the World. And I cannot for the life of me tell what anyone might see attractive about Ewan.

When I realised that the romance was never going to feel satisfying, the rest of it sort of deflated. It just isn’t a strong enough narrative. Side characters are nauseatingly, unrealistically nice. A lot of the plot falls flat as boring string holding together set pieces of cool moments. By the end, I was just bored. The concept I had been so excited to read about felt wasted. I hope that this isn’t the last time someone tackles a premise like this. I love meta humour and unexpected couples. I don’t think I killed this for myself with high expectations, though, as I really liked it up to a point. It simply wore me down with unsteady world-building and weak romance.

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Review – An Unseen Attraction

An Unseen Attraction, Gay Historical Romance by KJ Charles (also counts as Mystery)

Series: Sins of the Cities #1

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I don’t quite have auto-buys when it comes to authors because I tend to take forever to buy books that I desperately want. It drives Hubby crazy. But whatever my own weird equivalent of an auto-buy is, KJ Charles is one of them. Not only does she write gay historical romance as though it is not a gimmick or in a novelty in comparison to heterosexual historical romance, she’s also an excellent storyteller and damn classy.

Clem Talleyfer is an Indian-Englishman who doesn’t quite belong anywhere. He doesn’t speak Hindi and he was otherwise denied that half of his heritage, so he has trouble fitting in on that side, and being dark-skinned and illegitimate are enough to keep him from being considered truly English. He’s also clearly on the autism spectrum, which comes with its own social difficulties. I adored Clem. He’s sweet and self-aware, compassionate nearly to a fault, and loyal. His support network was also lovely.

Clem runs a boardinghouse. One of his tenants is Rowley Green, an intense, bespectacled taxidermist who sees his profession as artistic. The two begin with a quiet friendship of sharing tea and conversation in the evenings. They’re each crushing on the other, but neither is quite ready to risk making a move.

Then one of the other tenants, a massively unpleasant drunkard, turns up on the front steps dead and showing signs of torture.

It’s difficult to articulate what I liked so much about this particular book. There are tonnes of things that I wouldn’t have thought of beforehand that I apparently needed in my life. Polish Mark the PI, Rowley’s artistic musings on the art of stuffing animals, trips to see occasionally cross-dressing acrobats. The romance is a slow burn, which I mightn’t have expected to like, but did. The mystery is amazing, so the less said about it the better: Go Read This is all I have to say on that score.

In fact, just Go Read This.

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Review – High Season

Nacho Figuras Presents: High Season, Contemporary Romance by Jessica Whitman

Series: The Polo Season #1

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My rating: ⭐️

Oh boy, where do I even begin.

Full disclosure: while I love Romance and all of its subgenres, Contemporary typically has to work hard to impress me. Problematic elements like sexism (be it from the hero using or belittling women, or from the heroine invoking Not Like the Other Girls) or casual racism are harder to look past, the conflict is far less likely to appeal to me, and when I smell formula, my boots start to feel made for walking. So my review is probably most intended for other readers who are finicky about their Contemporary Romances, like me.

The Polo Season books are written by committee, and it shows in the worst way. Alejandro Del Campo is a typical rich hero with dead spouse angst. He is of the “reacts to suffering with asceticism” variety, which results in every single support character taking every single opportunity to declare him No Fun. Like many a hero of category romance, he comes with the hot and rich pedigree, but when his personality weighs in, he waffles like a madman so as not to offend anyone and to hopefully attract everyone. One of the first things he does is ride a horse at night the night before a game, explain that he is aware this is dangerous to both horse and rider, and then try to justify it. Charming first impression.

But I can take a waffly, not terribly inspiring hero. What really made my nose wrinkle was the heroine. Georgia seems more like a YA heroine than an actual adult who’s had relationships before and actually graduated from university. At times, I may have gone so far as to mutter aloud that she was being infantilised, by either the text or other characters. She’s a vet, and she gets a job with Alejandro’s polo team as the direct result of catching a life-threatening condition in one of their best horses. (yes, the one he rode the night before the game) But her knowledge about horses and equine medicine seems to fluctuate according to what the committee thought most appropriate at the time. Here, we must read her as capable and admirably expert, but in the next chapter, we must read her as cute and naive.

Her naivety made me want to smack her. Every single display of Alejandro’s wealth or the money involved in the sport made her drop her jaw and cry aloud. I’m sure I was supposed to be charmed by her humble ranch girl reactions to large expenditures, but I wasn’t. I was disgusted that she could have horses at home and be completely unaware of the obscene monetary value of a polo horse.

The story unfolds pretty much the way one would expect just from reading the summary on the back of the book. After Georgia saves his beloved mare, Alejandro up and kisses her without any buildup and they go to pants feelings pretty much all the time. She does stupid, childish things that either keep them apart for a modicum of pages–like mistaking his daughter for his girlfriend and being too idiotic to just ask if he’s single–or that make him like her even though they are childish and stupid–like forcing him to buy a subpar horse because she can’t bear that its fated to become glue. …I can sympathise, but her reasoning and behaviour in this situation didn’t make her look very good. Alejandro is also prone to dumb assumptions that could be cleared up with a brief conversation, but he’s generally just a cardboard man who exists to give Georgia sex and make her feel good about herself. There are a couple of false romantic leads, some predictable drama near the end, and then they live happily ever after. So at least there’s that.

It isn’t a complete wash. If you like categories, this delivers on all of the important points. If you don’t mind or actually like Big (and little) misunderstandings, then you’ll wonder what’s wrong with me. The parts of the book that are about polo are pretty good–certainly enough to satisfy readers who love sports romances. And while Alejandro rather bored me, I would not say the same about his family or even the majority of the supporting characters. His mother and daughter are entertaining archetypes written well, and with the exception of an antagonistic character who was wasted as a badly executed villain, I loved the people around Alejandro and Georgia much more than I cared for them.

I thought this would be the kind of Contemporary I would like despite my persnicketiness. With a better heroine and less predictable (and TAME) drama/conflict, it might have rated two or three stars. But I simply did not enjoy this.

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Review – Emperor of the Eight Islands

Emperor of the Eight Islands, Fantasy/Folklore by Lian Hearn

Series: The Tale of Shikanoko #1

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I loved this book. It’s a low-key, don’t get too excited, kind of love, but I love it all the same. I grew up as the weird kid who liked Japan, but while I did watch anime and I was certainly familiar with western otaku, it wasn’t the end-all be-all. For me it was the language and the history. I didn’t take Japanese in college in hopes of reading original copies of Ranma 1/2 manga. I wanted to read Genji Monogatari and A Cat, A Man, and Two Women.

The story hits a lot of high notes as fabricated folklore. Everyone has either a devastating or idyllic childhood, magic and sorcery set practitioners apart from mere mortals, people lie, people die, and magical items are fascinating even when they don’t do anything. Or rather, when they haven’t done anything yet. The pacing is necessarily a bit on the slow side, as events unfold over the course of years, counting backstories.

Kazumaru has a poetically tragic beginning. His father, a bright and charming man who does as he pleases, disappears when he dares to play go with tengu in the mountains. His death is readily assumed, and Kazumaru’s mother gives in to her grief by leaving to become a nun. Kazumaru is left in the care of his uncle, who despite having promised to care for the boy like his own, proceeds to make Kazumaru’s life miserable. This culminates in a plan to kill the boy just before he comes of age while they hunt a stag whom the uncle desperately wants as a trophy.

As the plan is fable-obvious, Kazumaru knows it’s a trap. He says farewell to his only friend and goes regardless, because he knows that his uncle wants him dead. It will happen one way or another, and this way, he faces his fate like a man. However, in the moment when he knows his death is coming, the stag takes the killing blow meant for Kazumaru, and like Alice, the boy literally falls into a world of magic, danger, and political manoeuvring.

…technically that last one was not something Alice had to worry about, I suppose. Unless you count the issues between the Duchess, her fat baby, and the Red Queen. But I digress.

While Kazumaru is the central figure in the story, it has many layers beyond him. There are multiple perspective characters, and they tend to come into conflict with one another. No one is necessarily good or evil, even characters whom we are told are explicitly good or evil. I don’t know where to stand, which is rather fascinating.

Sorcerers in this world are all the esoteric sage types who live supernaturally long lives studying and hoarding scrolls and grimoires. Their powers are immense, yet portrayed in enigmatic broad strokes. Parlour tricks aren’t off the table, but they tend not to work. Magic is too vast for the uninitiated to even grasp.

Hearn’s writing style has a profound dignity, measured and even. I could easily imagine kotsuzumi and nōkan playing in the background while I was reading. A bit like reading a play, where implied sound and visuals come to mind.

There’s an unpleasant jolt just pages before the end of the book that threw me for a nasty curve, though. I won’t say what happened, as it’s seriously right at the end, but suffice to say, while it was certainly appropriate for a story faithfully written in the style of Japanese folklore and mythology, I hated the event itself and cannot see the guilty character recovering in my eyes. Maybe there will be a redemption arc over the series or even as soon as the second book. It will have to be stellar for me to get over that ending.

Even so, taken as a whole, Emperor of the Eight Islands is a beautifully written book that I highly recommend to anyone familiar with Japanese culture or looking to become so.

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Review – The Crimson Skew

The Crimson Skew, Historical Fantasy by SE Grove

Series: The Mapmaker’s Trilogy #3

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

After I first finished reading, I wrote several paragraphs about maybe two things: how much I enjoy SE Grove’s prose for its own sake, and that this particular book left only a faint impression on my memory if any.

The Mapmakers Trilogy is ambitious. Multiple plot lines, histories voiced by both viewpoint and nonperspective characters, literal world exploration… Even the titles require some thought to get. Everything from the language to some of the structure of the overarching plot relies on readers being patient and intelligent. What a compliment from author to reader! Particularly in Middle Grade, where so many books are content to make fart jokes and tired puns. Grove’s writing is absolutely lovely, and the story is complex. Introducing Sophie’s missing parents in the first book and tying it up in the third is not unexpected, but the political intrigue took me by surprise. It holds up throughout the series and explodes into one of the most major parts of the third book’s plot.

Broadgirdle is still a scary villain, particularly when compared to real life counterparts. But he could feel a bit toned down due to everything going on with Sophia, Goldenrod, Errol, and the pirate siblings, as they follow Sophia’s Ausentinian map. Divinity, prophecy, and the like ballooned into major themes. …it could also be that Shadrack took the fore to deal with Broadgirdle, which is appropriate, but Shadrack never quite got past being a damsel in distress adult to me.

I was never a fan of the three fates as a deity idea, even after Sophia had her crisis of faith. It went somewhere I rather liked in this book, but it still has so little basis. This whole world makes no sense to me, particularly when held up against the originally promised premise. That was my complaint in each book–though sufficiently ameliorated in the second–and although I thought it would get better, just starting the third book sort of disappointed me as I realised I was still not over it.

Which is a shame, because SE Grove is such an exceptional writer! The prose is smooth, fun to read and quotable. The characters are even nicely diverse, which is something a LOT of authors fall face-down on when writing historical fiction of any kind. I listened to the audiobook for some of my reading experience, and the narrator actually gave relevant accents to all of the characters. That’s rather a big deal. I mean, Kathryne Kennedy wrote Regency Romance with sorcery in it and I don’t think she took the opportunity to insert characters of colour. (maybe I’m wrong, my memory is so cursed at present, ugh…still.)

There’s a big courtroom scene for Broadgirdle to have his day in, and I remember the drama of the moment, but I feel like it didn’t go far enough. Again, I admit to forgetting most of the book right after reading, but I swear I went back and reread this scene. It seems an important bone to the skeletal structure of the ending, and I just wasn’t… what’s the word? Impressed? Satisfied? There’s definitely a cheery tone to the rest of the ending that is more optimistic than I expected, but that fits the main character and while I didn’t expect it, I can’t say it surprised me. Whenever war is part of the narrative for a younger audience, optimism reigns. In a weird way.

But aside from that moment with the bad guy, I think everything came together to make for a great wrap-up.

I’d go into more details, but whether it’s pregnancy brain, reading over too many days, or just sort of falling out of interest, no amount of trying and typing my thoughts is helping me recall much more than: Good Ending. Would recommend to anyone who enjoys artistry of language, adventure, exploration, and intrepid heroines.

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Review – The Twistrose Key

The Twistrose Key, Middle Grade Fantasy by Tone Almhjell

Series: The Twistrose Key #1

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️

Lin Rosenquist is in the doldrums. She’s stuck away from her home, friends, and their awesome games of being troll hunters thanks to her mother’s job. Lin is also still mourning her beloved pet vole Rufus. Then she finds a strange package with the word “Twistrose” scratched into it. Inside, she finds a key, which she uses to unlock a door in the rental house that leads to Sylveros. Sylveros is a snowy magical land where beloved passed-on pets live a rather chill second life as enlarged semi-anthropomorphic talking animals.

Twistrose is at first a troll hunter code name that Lin thinks she made up, but it turns out to be the title of a special child who is called to save Sylveros in its hour of need. They get to team up with their pet–called a Petling–and basically have a land-saving adventure. After which, they get a statue and go home through the Wandergate.

The world-building is mostly made up of details and some stories told by some of the wiser characters. The stories aren’t too intrusive or info-dumpy, and the world is a decent fantasy land of what I might call the pocket size variety. A lot of people will think of Narnia, but I thought it was more like Darkbeast. It’s just not complex enough to compare to Narnia. And no bad thing. I quite loved Darkbeast.

For at least the first half, the book meanders while accomplishing next to nothing. The world-building is the only entertaining thing going on. Rufus is a bland character for that first half, if not the entire book, so I wasn’t terribly invested in Lin’s reunion or relationship with him. The task that Lin is given isn’t all that interesting, and it’s not that easy to see why it’s so important.

She’s told that she has to save another Sylveros type of creature that is not a Petling, Isvan the last of the Wynterfyrsts, who is basically a human made of ice magic. Despite the fact that Isvan is mostly characterised by other secondhand accounts and speculation, I found him to be nicely sympathetic. When the plot actually kicks in and they’re doing more active searching for him and less investigation, the pacing picks up and there seems to be more confidence overall.

Then as it ramps into the second half or last third, it all sort of… gets tired and collapses like candy floss giving up in a strong wind. The action jerks to a halt, and then a lot of revelations are dumped out without sufficient foreshadowing beforehand. There’s a character death that infuriated me because it happened very quickly and for the dumbest reason that could have possibly explained anything. Everything basically works out in the end, and I came out with any respect for the narrative structure of the story, but it’s hard to get over a move of such pococurante stupidity.

Overall, I was left with an impression of a decent idea set in a fairly rich world but without a great deal of substance. Usually when I read a Middle Grade book that doesn’t wow me, I first consider if it’s the fact that I’ve long since left the age of the target audience. Sometimes it is, but I don’t think this is one of those times. If I were younger, I might have overlooked some things, like Rufus’s disappointing lack of depth or the unusual smallness of the magical world. But I wouldn’t have missed pointless asides or departures from the plot.