Brief Thoughts: Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

Wild Beauty coverFor nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.

  • #OwnVoices for Latinx representation, also features bisexuality representation, which was one of my favourite aspects of the story – I love how McLemore describes the Nomeolvides girls’ feelings and how they are and aren’t influenced by their family’s history.
  • My early impression of Wild Beauty was that it is lovely but slow, especially the first 100 pages or so. The story is very introspective, more so than When the Moon Was OursI felt.
    • (I read Moon earlier this summer. That was one of my best reads of 2017, so I can’t help but compare Wild Beauty to it.)
  • I didn’t connect with Estrella until about 150 pages in and overall, I didn’t feel much regarding her romantic story line, certainly not like I felt about Miel and Sam in Moon. Fel I found a bit dull, though his role in the story and his relationship with the Nomeovildes was different from anything I’ve read before.
  • A key part of the story focus on identity – my favourite parts were about personal identity, about defining and shaping your own identity and about not rendering someone invisible by imagining them as you want them to be, rather than as they are.
  • The writing is just as lush and evocative as in Moon, but I personally preferred the imagery in Moon. The concept of flower magic is gorgeous, though my knowledge of flowers is lacking so I felt I wasn’t able to fully visualize what McLemore was describing.
  • The Bottom Line: A different reader may connect more with this story than I did. Even without that connection, Wild Beauty is still worth your time if you’re a fan of magical realism.

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5 Books I Read and Loved But Never Got Around to Reviewing

These books I enjoyed but never reviewed because I either thought they were excellent all around and couldn’t figure out how to do justice to them in a review, or because they were excellent in a very personal way, or because they were just pretty good and I couldn’t think of much to say about them. I don’t want to let these books fall through the cracks, though, because they’re all books I would recommend! So here are a few thoughts I’ve managed to muster up.

The Break by Katherena Vermette

The Break coverWhen Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.

In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

  • This book is #ownvoices in that Vermette is a Métis Winnipegger.
  • I read this book in one sitting, which I wasn’t expecting to do. The writing is sharp and the story is one that could easily pull you in.
  • Parts of this book were extremely difficult to read. As a Winnipegger settler myself, this book took me into lives of people I know exist, people who I’ve probably passed on the street, whose lived experiences seem like a world away from mine. But they’re not actually, and that’s the painful part. I’m not the best person to advocate for this book, which is more than a few steps away from middle grade fantasy – the reviews at The Globe and Mail and Quill and Quire do a better job at capturing why this is an important read.
  • I was definitely miffed when The Break didn’t win Canada Reads (and a book that most Canadians were already familiar with, a book with no female characters, did win…). Here is a an excellent clip of Candy Palmater defending the book during Canada Reads.

Drift and Dagger by Kendall Kulper

Drift and Dagger coverMal used to have a home, a best friend, and a secret. But he lost all three on the day Essie Roe exposed him as a blank. Blanks cannot be cursed or saved or killed by magic. And everyone is afraid of them—even Mal himself.

Now Mal travels the world in search of dangerous and illegal magical relics, never stopping in any one place too long. When his partner in crime, Boone, hears of a legendary dagger that can steal magic, Mal knows he finally may have found a way to even the score with Essie. Crossing oceans and continents, Mal and Boone travel from Boston to Paris to Constantinople in search of the dagger. Finding it would mean riches, fame, and revenge—but only if Mal can control the monster inside him.

  • I was delighted to win a copy of this book annotated by hand by the author. Drift and Dagger, a companion book to Salt and Stormtakes place some years before the events of Salt and StormSalt and Storm held a lot of promise for me; I loved the premise but it turned out to be more of a romance. I preferred Drift and Dagger because there’s more of an emphasis on magic and travel and adventure, and no emphasis on romance. The historical setting makes it that more fun.

Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a DoorwayChildren have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

Down Among the Sticks and bones coverTwin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

  • I rated both of these books four stars on Goodreads, and I can think of aspects of the stories that I would have liked to see done differently, but when it comes to how these stories tugged at my heart, they’re both five star reads for me.
  • Every Heart a Doorway especially will be one of my best reads of 2017 for personal reasons, while I think Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the better written of the two.
  • Things I loved particularly about Down Among the Sticks and Bones: Parents, Jack and Jill figuring out their own identities, the creepiness of their bleak world.
  • My main critiques are: 1) the murder mystery of Every Heart a Doorway was a bit blah  and 2) I would have liked to read more from Jill’s perspective in Down Among the Sticks and Bones.
  • I hope to squeeze in a reread of these books before the end of the year!

Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea

The Hounds of the Morrigan book coverA wonderfully written fantasy set in the west of Ireland, which tells of the coming of the Great Queen who is bent on bringing destruction to the world. Only Pidge and Brigit can stop her, and their task seems impossible as they’re constantly trailed by the queen’s hounds. But they’re aided in their quest by a host of willing helpers – a glorious array of unforgettable characters.

  • I read this book over the summer at the lake. I consider it a children’s classic, which had been on my TBR for a few years.
  • Definitely a fantasy story, very episodic, entertaining, though it did seem to drag on at times. There are frightening parts (I particularly remember a terrifying horse, haha) and classically epic parts. And according to my notes, there is a cute baby spider part. I might have gotten more out of it if I was better familiar with Irish folklore!

What were some books you enjoyed this past year but didn’t get around to reviewing?
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Two 2017 Middle Grade Spec Fic Releases

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest dragon there is. And she’s ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when the human she finds tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw.

But she’s still the fiercest creature in the mountains — and now she’s found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is get herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time…won’t she?

  • The cover and genre of this book appealed to me, but when I came to the plot, I thought “That’s a bit too quirky for me” and didn’t add it to my TBR. After positive reviews from Ms. Yingling Reads, Charlotte’s Library, and Random Musings of a Bibliophile, I decided it might be worth a shot.
  • The story itself is a simple one. The appeal is in the combination of elements not usually taken together – dragons, apprenticeship, chocolate making, royal politics and elitism.
  • Aventurine, being a young dragon transformed into a human, brings a unique perspective to this style of fantasy. Youthful energy and dragon stubbornness combine for some interesting moments in Aventurine’s human form. I enjoyed reading about her new found passion for the craft of making chocolate.
  • The relationships Aventurine develops as she learns to trust in the love and support of others give this story some warmth.
  • I would enjoy a sequel that features more of Aventurine’s dragon family and the difficulty Aventurine may face in balancing her two identities.
  • The Bottom Line: A fun bedtime read that served its purpose in distracting me from grad school life.

Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eagar

Race to the bottom of the SeaWhen her parents, the great marine scientists Dr. and Dr. Quail, are killed in a tragic accident, eleven-year-old Fidelia Quail is racked by grief — and guilt. It was a submarine of Fidelia’s invention that her parents were in when they died, and it was she who pressed them to stay out longer when the raging Undertow was looming. But Fidelia is forced out of her mourning when she’s kidnapped by Merrick the Monstrous, a pirate whose list of treasons stretches longer than a ribbon eel. Her task? Use her marine know-how to retrieve his treasure, lost on the ocean floor. But as Fidelia and the pirates close in on the prize, with the navy hot on their heels, she realizes that Merrick doesn’t expect to live long enough to enjoy his loot. Could something other than black-hearted greed be driving him? Will Fidelia be able to master the perils of the ocean without her parents — and piece together the mystery of Merrick the Monstrous before it’s too late?

  • Not quite sure where to start with this book. It turned out to be a lot more mature, and fairly dark, than I expected.
  • The details of Fidelia’s parents’ death alarmed me a bit. I had expected them to have died prior to the start of the story. The fact that the Fidelia had invented the submarine in which they died was tough enough. But then add the fact that she decided to ignore an incoming storm, when her mom explicitly asked if they needed to head in for safety… ouch.
  • I generally enjoy having adult characters interact equally with the younger main characters in middle grade novels. However, all the characters aside from Fidelia are adults, and most of the story is really their story. I often felt like Fidelia was just along for the ride. For her part of the story, she does learn to be herself again after the death of her parents, but the plot is driven by the actions of the adults.
  • My opinion of this book isn’t as bad as you might think! There are a lot of fun elements that made this an entertaining read – pirates, ocean faring, sea creatures, and Fidelia’s inventions.
  • The Bottom Line: Another fun read, but darker and more mature than The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart. Not recommended for sensitive readers.

Have you read any speculative fiction releases (especially middle grade) from this year? What are your favourites?

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Diversity Spotlight Thursday #4

Diversity Spotlight Thursday
Hosted by Aimal @ Bookshelves and Paperbacks

Read and Enjoyed: The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutsie

The Abyss Surrounds UsFor Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

Goodreads | While The Abyss Surrounds Us didn’t have the vivid world building that I was hoping for, I’d recommend it for the human relationships. I expected Santa Elena to be Cas’s love interest (which may have been a bit Stockholm syndrome-y), but that role goes to another female crew member. I liked how Cas’s crush develops subtly and naturally. There is also some interesting exploration of us vs. them mentalities (good guys vs bad guys, rich people vs poor people). As far as I can tell, this is not an own voices novel (please let me know if you can confirm otherwise).

Released but Not Yet Read: One Half From the East by Nadia Hashimi

One Half from the EastObayda’s family is in need of some good fortune. Her father lost one of his legs in a bomb explosion, forcing the family to move from their home city of Kabul to a small village, where life is very different and Obayda’s father almost never leaves his room. One day, Obayda’s aunt has an idea to bring the family luck—dress Obayda, the youngest of her sisters, as a boy, a bacha posh. Now Obayda is Obayd. Life in this in-between place is confusing, but once Obayda meets another bacha posh, everything changes. The two of them can explore the village on their own, climbing trees, playing sports, and more. But their transformation won’t last forever—unless the two best friends can figure out a way to make it stick and make their newfound freedoms endure.

Goodreads | My sister brought this book home from a HarperCollins event. The setting caught my eye. Not own voices – Hashimi was born and raised in America to first-generation Afghani immigrants. Her website states she was “surrounded by a large family of aunts, uncles and cousins, keeping the Afghan culture an integral part of their daily lives”.

Not Yet Released: Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi

Beasts Made of NightIn the walled city of Kos, corrupt mages can magically call forth sin from a sinner in the form of sin-beasts – lethal creatures spawned from feelings of guilt.

Taj is the most talented of the aki, young sin-eaters indentured by the mages to slay the sin-beasts. But Taj’s livelihood comes at a terrible cost. When he kills a sin-beast, a tattoo of the beast appears on his skin while the guilt of committing the sin appears on his mind. Most aki are driven mad by the process, but 17-year-old Taj is cocky and desperate to provide for his family.

When Taj is called to eat a sin of a royal, he’s suddenly thrust into the center of a dark conspiracy to destroy Kos. Now Taj must fight to save the princess that he loves – and his own life.

Goodreads | Look at the cover! Then read that description! Are you sold on this one now? 😛 This debut comes from a Black American author.

What books would you select for Diversity Spotlight Thursday? Leave a link in the comment if you’ve already written about it!
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Read Diverse 2017
This post counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 reviewing challenge!

Diversity Spotlight Thursday #2

Diversity Spotlight Thursday
Hosted by Aimal @ Bookshelves and Paperbacks

Read and Enjoyed: Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

Star-Crossed by Barbara DeeMattie, a star student and passionate reader, is delighted when her English teacher announces the eighth grade will be staging Romeo and Juliet. And she is even more excited when, after a series of events, she finds herself playing Romeo, opposite Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet. Gemma, the new girl at school, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing—and, if all that wasn’t enough: British.

As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy named Elijah. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls? If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama! In this sweet and funny look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to be the lead player in her own life.

Goodreads | Whoohoo,  I finally get to review this book! I had it on hold at the library for sometime before it was released March 14. I felt like I had to wait agggeeees for it to come in. I would have bought it at Chapters but they didn’t have it in store. Anyway. I was able to enjoy the entire book last Sunday while I was out at the lake.

What I love most about Star-Crossed is that it doesn’t complicate Mattie’s feeling. Mattie recently had a crush on a boy, and now she has a crush on a girl. Some of her friends try to comment on that (Can you like boys and girls? Is she gay now?) but Mattie avoids any attempt to label herself. She’s only in grade eight, and all she knows for now is that she has a crush on a girl (and that doesn’t mean she can’t have a crush on a boy). I imagine at that age, when you’re just figuring things out, it’s not necessary to come away with a concrete definition of your sexual or romantic identity.

Mattie does fret a little about what her classmates may think of her. She wonders that while hypothetically her classmates aren’t homophobic, how would they react around a real girl who likes another real girl? The overall arc of the story is less about Mattie coming to terms with her feelings (she likes girls and boys, she knows that) and more about Mattie making her own decisions. The people she comes out to don’t make a big deal about it and are supportive. I cheered for Mattie at the end, which I thought was a perfect conclusion.

The story also feels very realistic and grounded in how Mattie’s crush develops and how she interacts with her friends and classmates. I thought the development of her crush on Gemma in particular was very cute. I recognize myself going through similar motions when I was in middle school!

How Dee incorporated Shakespeare both through the class play and classroom lessons also really impressed me. I actually just saw a production of Romeo and Juliet a few weeks ago, so the play was fresh in my mind. I remember studying the play in high school. My classmates had many similar reactions as Mattie’s classmates. Dee makes Shakespeare intriguing and fun, showing that his work doesn’t have to be indecipherable for young people.

Further reading: Review by Danika @ The Lesbrary | “Please Don’t Talk About Your LGBTQ+ Book”: Barbara Dee on “Star-Crossed” and Her Recent School Visit Experience (interview @ SLJ)

 Released but Not Yet Read: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

The People of Forever ARe Not AfraidYael, Avishag, and Lea grow up together in a tiny, dusty Israeli village, attending a high school made up of caravan classrooms, passing notes to each other to alleviate the universal boredom of teenage life. When they are conscripted into the army, their lives change in unpredictable ways, influencing the women they become and the friendship that they struggle to sustain. Yael trains marksmen and flirts with boys. Avishag stands guard, watching refugees throw themselves at barbed-wire fences. Lea, posted at a checkpoint, imagines the stories behind the familiar faces that pass by her day after day. They gossip about boys and whisper of an ever more violent world just beyond view. They drill, constantly, for a moment that may never come. They live inside that single, intense second just before danger erupts.

Goodreads | This book has been on my TBR for a veery long time (#78 out of 718). I don’t think I’ve read any novels set in Israel. This own voices book sounds like an intense read.

Not Yet Released: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Girls Made of Snow and GlassAt sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone—has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do—and who to be—to win back the only mother she’s ever known…or else defeat her once and for all.

Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything—unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

Goodreads | This one popped up in my GoodReads feed just the other day. Sounds like a retelling I can get behind! It’s not clear from the description, but reviewers have been mentioning a relationship between two girls. Look for it on September 5.

What books would you select for Diversity Spotlight Thursday? Leave a link in the comment if you’ve already written about it!
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Read Diverse 2017
This post counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 reviewing challenge!