Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index – Julie Israel Review

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Rating: ★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Juniper Lemon’s sister Camilla died two months ago, but the Happiness Index that they began together, where Juniper notes down all the positive things that have happened to her, helps her feel closer to her. When one of her cards go missing, one that holds a dark secret about the night Camilla died, it is as though Juniper’s life has lost all semblance of balance once again, and to make things worse, she discovers a secret love letter from her sister to an unknown lover. Juniper sets out on a desperate journey to find her lost index card and deliver her sister’s letter, one that brings new friends, more secrets, and possibly even the ability to find peace with herself.

There was nothing wrong with this novel, but it just didn’t hit the spot. Usually, stories about relatives dying set me off on a path of helpless sobbing, but for some reason this book didn’t have that emotional power with me. I think that one reason for this was that the plot felt a little disjointed. For example, Juniper makes various friends throughout the course of the novel, and although I did enjoy some of their scenes, sometimes it felt like their storylines were diverting attention from the main story, whilst not being strong enough to justify it. Her new friends were fun to read at times, with wit and jokes, but with the exception of Brand, they were pretty flat and felt irrelevant, and frankly, I didn’t really care about them. It felt like the story about Juniper’s grief and recovery was not only being left on a back burner but being completely forgotten at some points. On the other hand, I did really enjoy Juniper and Brand’s relationship. I am a sucker for bad boys who are actually not that bad, and Brand falls right into that category of a bad boy that is actually a softie. Their relationship felt sincere and loving, even if it did feel like it deepened a bit too quickly once it began.

What really weakened this novel though, was the completely unsatisfactory ending. Now, beware, because this next paragraph will be spoilery, so read at your own risk!

Here we go. The ending. Not only were there loose ends, but the story was left completely wide open, unfinished, and fraying at the edges. The mystery of the identity of Camilla’s lover was the driver of the entire plot, and after an entire book with Juniper hunting for clues, and us going along with her, at the end, we are simply not told. It felt like a betrayal to lead me along on a goose chase for answers only for the mystery to be left completely unanswered. I don’t care if Juniper moved on and saw her duty to her sister has been dispatched, I don’t care if she only cared about delivering the letter and not about finding out who the mystery person was, I WANT TO KNOW. I HAVE THEORIES. I HAVE SUSPICIONS. I DESERVE TO KNOW. Honestly, endings like this don’t feel emotional or poignant, they just feel like the author couldn’t figure out how to end their book. If a mystery is going be at the heart of your story, you should answer the mystery. Don’t make me turn on my detective brain only to not answer my questions.

So, this book was neither here nor there. I would have given this book 2 stars instead of 3, but the reality is that for the most part, this book wasn’t boring and it wasn’t bad. It was a little disjointed in tone, and the plot was disappointing, but mainly it was the ending that ruined it for me. Yes, I feel disappointed and misled by the book, but there were positives and until I began to suspect that the ending would disappoint, I was enjoying reading this book.

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Book Reviews, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Gilded Cage – Vic James Review

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Rating: ★★

Gilded Cage was my first foray into the dystopian genre in a while, and while I was really excited, it failed to deliver. I liked the blend of dystopian and fantasy in a modern, urban, British setting, which we don’t see very often. There were also certain characters that I liked and would happily read more about, but overall, I found the story boring, and some aspects of the story and characters were just not quite there.

In the world of Gilded Cage, society is divided in two. At the top, are the ‘Equals’. They have Skills, or magical powers, and rule Britain. Then, there’s everyone else, and they are each required to spend 10 years of their lives in slavery to the Equals. These 10 years can be taken at whatever point in life they wish, and most people are sent to slavetowns, where they work in factories. At the heart of this story is the Hadley family, who elect to sign up to do their ‘slavedays’ as a family while they are still young enough to survive it. Whilst they think that they are all being sent to the estate of the Jardine family, one of the ruling families of Britain, Luke Hadley is actually sent to Millmoor, a slavetown. There, he gets wound up in a revolution, whilst back at the estate, his family serve the Jardine family, trying not to fall foul of the rules of the imposing Lord Jardine, and his three sons,  Gavar, a brute, Silyen, a mysterious figure with dark powers, and Jenner, the Skill-less disappointment.

I’ll start with what I did like about this book, and that was the whole concept behind the world. I really liked the way that Vic James’s Britain has some alternate history aspects to it, dystopian aspects, and fantasy. All of that together was very interesting. I liked reading about the political set up of this alternate Britain, the way that the Equals governed and their families, and the political intrigue. Quite a few of the Equals are scheming constantly, trying to outsmart each other to get to the top spot. My favourites of these were Bouda, who in my opinion did not appear enough. She is set to marry the Jardine heir, and is only in it for what it can do for her. Her goal? To be the first female leader. I don’t care that she’s a bit evil, she’s like a mini-Cersei, a Slytherin through and through, and I want more of her. Even more interesting, and also unforgivably underrepresented, was Silyen Jardine. He’s the slightly creepy middle son of the Jardine family, and there were hints of him being ready, and almost eager, to betray even his own family to get what he wants. The only parts of the book that I really enjoyed included Silyen, including an eerie chapter in the middle of the book where he steps right into someone’s memories. I loved Silyen and his dodgy ways. Give me more Silyen. In fact, I propose abandoning the story, and just following Silyen.

Now, for the not-so-good parts.

Honestly, the story at the Jardine estate was plain boring. Abi is the main protagonist of this part, and she is a completely passive character for most of the book, doing next to nothing (until the last two pages). The only thing that she does do is, of course, fall in insta-love with Jenner Jardine. This relationship was difficult to buy into because (apart from the slave/master thing) both Jenner and Abi had zero personality, apart from just being nice, so not only could I not see what had attracted them to each other, but I literally could not care less. Further, I was disappointed in the way that the Hadley parents are completely ignored. They might as well have not been mentioned, and it made the whole family dynamic and the premise of the story – their family decision to become slaves – difficult to understand. The only remotely interesting character in this set-up was Daisy, the little sister, who showed potential to be spunky, but wasn’t quite there. Even so, I still found her story flawed, as I found the idea that a ten year old would be charged with taking care of a baby quite hard to believe. Am I the only one? Maybe it’s just because I’m 21 and children terrify me.

Luke’s story was far better, although the characters still suffered from the same one-dimensional characterisation issues. They were just popping up randomly, and then disappearing, and apart from a few central characters, I couldn’t tell you much about his gang of rebel misfits. Still, Luke actually does stuff, and so this story was more exciting.Towards the end of the novel, the action really amps up, and over the course of a few chapters there is literally stuff going on left, right, and centre. It’s full on. Guns are going off and things are blowing up. BUT I had literally no idea what was going on. I think Vic James was trying to capture the characters’ shock in her writing, but it just felt too disjointed in parts and confusing.

Overall, this book had potential, but I think it just failed to deliver in terms of plot and characters. The characters were flat, and the plot was slow. While I didn’t enjoy Gilded Cage, I do feel that it has potential. It is a shame that the book waited until the end to delve into action, but I see a lot of promise for where the story is going in the sequel, Tarnished City, and for the characters themselves. I really hope that the characters are developed more in the sequel, as I think that this was the main flaw of Gilded Cage and was what really held back the story.

Book Reviews, Historical, Young Adult, Young Adult Historical

Things a Bright Girl Can Do – Sally Nicholls Review

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Rating: ★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I have loved learning and reading about the suffragettes for years, and from when I first learned that this YA suffragette novel was being published, I was brimming with excitement. I was thrilled to be sent a copy. However, no matter how excited I was, and how much I wanted to like this book, I just didn’t think it was a good book. I thought that the writing was poor and the story was stretched too thin across the characters and the time that it spans. I’m gutted to be one of the lone voices so far disappointed in this book so far, but I can’t help it. I read this a while ago, but held publication of this post back until today when the book is published because I suspected it might not go down too well, but I hope anyone who disagrees with me will remember that these reviews are just my personal opinions on the book as a novel and not the subject matter.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do follows the story of three young girls – Evelyn, May, and Nell – from 1914 to 1918, through their struggles as they campaign for votes for women, the trials of the First World War, and finally to the first extension of suffrage to women in 1918. Evelyn is seventeen, from a wealthy background, and expected to marry her childhood sweetheart. However, she is frustrated at not being allowed to follow her dream of attending Oxford University, which drives her to join the suffragettes. May, however, is seventeen and has grown under the influence of her feminist, socialist, pacifist, vegetarian mother. Being a suffragette to her is a given. Nell is also already a suffragette, driven by the poor living and working conditions that she witnesses her family dealing with on a daily basis, and motivated by the suffragettes’ promises of social reform. The three of them join the fight for votes for different reasons, and we follow them as they pursue this fight through four tumultuous years.

A positive of this book is that the characters are diverse for a book set in this period, and which follows three white women. The book not only explores class and sex, but also LGBT issues, and even mentions a few times the work of BME suffragettes like Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. Sally Nicholls managed to include a broad and varied amount of information relating to the suffragette movement, however, in my opinion, this scope was at the expense of depth for the characters and the story. I felt like the characters were not detailed and three-dimensional, but rather the writing and the characterisation felt flat, and the girls felt instead like a vehicle for the presentation of all of this social history. Further, if diversity of characters was going to be the highlight of this book, there could have been even more, perhaps in the form of a POC protagonist.

My main issue with the characterisation of these girls was that their motives for acting the way that they did felt superficial. I’m not saying that I don’t understand why they were suffragettes, but I felt like Nicholls took for granted that modern audiences will. As a feminist reader, of course I will instantly cheer on these suffragette protagonists, but I still want characters to feel real. I have recently been watching Susan Dennard’s writing tips on her Instagram stories, and she mentions that characters must have a ‘desperate desire’, something that drives the more superficial desire of the plot. Yes, these girls want the vote. But why? What drives them to these lengths? What makes them abandon social norms? What makes them, in particular, act differently to other women who do not become suffragettes under the same pressures? As understandable as their reasons are from a detached perspective, I couldn’t feel their motivations on a human basis. I understood that Evelyn wanted to study and have opportunities like her brothers, but I didn’t feel her anger and her resentment come across in the writing.

You might have heard of the saying ‘Show, don’t tell,’ in writing. In my opinion, I couldn’t feel this because it didn’t stick to this rule. It meant that I couldn’t experience what Evelyn, May, and Nell were thinking and feeling because the author’s narrative was a wall between us rather than a bridge. Rather than getting into the characters’ heads, feeling exactly what they are feeling, we’re held at arms’ length. For example, one of the girls is arrested. We are told that it is the worst thing that has ever happened to her, the cell is described in detail, we are told that she feels lonely, but we can’t feel her loneliness, and we just have to take the description for face value rather than trying to experience for ourselves what it might be like to be arrested like her. This personal connection felt even more important than in most books considering that we know, in hindsight, that the suffragettes did eventually achieve their goal of female suffrage. If the only thing hooking us as readers is ‘Do they get the vote?’ the hook isn’t strong enough, because we know that they do. Instead, we have to also be hooked by the girls’ personal deep desires, and I just wasn’t.

This made it difficult for me to feel emotionally connected or invested in the girls as people. I had to just accept when characters fell in love, rather than feeling the love that they felt, accept that they were angry, rather than feel angry with them. Rather than feeling Nell’s pain and struggle, I was treated to a pages-long retelling of her families’ troubles during her entire childhood. I generally cannot stand info-dumps, and this book was full of them. Rather than embedding the historical facts more gently in the story itself, perhaps revealing information through conversations or experiences, and so making the historical facts feel more poignant, the information was simply dumped on us in the narrative. On the other hand, there were things that could have been mentioned. I expected, when Nell starts work as a munitionette, that mention would be made of many munitionettes being poisoned by the substances they were working with and the health implications, or of the explosions that killed many, something that would have been easy to point out considering its relevance to her story, and yet it wasn’t.

I wanted to give 2 stars just in recognition of its subject matter and representation of different social groups, but I decided not to, simply because the subject matter was literally the only thing that kept me reading this book. I also felt that the causes represented could have been more impactful with stronger writing, and perhaps a smaller focus. Instead of spreading the story so thinly over three girls and four years, perhaps focusing on one perspective with the others as secondary characters would have allowed for the depth of detail that was missing. I can’t describe how gutted I am to have not enjoyed this book, but I just couldn’t see past the poor writing.

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T5W: Books From Before I Joined the Online Book Community

Top 5 Wednesday is a weekly meme that was created by Lainey of gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam of ThoughtsOnTomes. Every week, I will post my top 5 of that week’s theme. If you’d like to learn more about it or join in the fun, head over to the Goodreads group where all the discussions take place here.

This week’s topic is about the best books from before joining the online book community. I have been posting reviews here for a while, but I first properly joined the online book community on Instagram. It has introduced me to many excellent books, many of which have become firm favourites. So, here we go!

1. I’ll Give You The Sun – Jandy Nelson

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This was recommended to me by an Instagram follower, and it honestly changed my life. That may be a slight exaggeration, but this book is amazing. It is always in my top 5 favourite books, and I still remember how long it lingered in my memory after I had finished it. Jandy Nelson has a way with words, and I don’t think I would have picked up her books if it wasn’t for other book bloggers. So thank you, Bookstagram!

Full review here.

2. Throne of Glass – Sarah J Maas

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This was my first foray into YA fantasy for a long time, and it opened up a whole new world for me. I loved Sarah J Maas’s world and characters, and YA fantasy, with its multitude of female protagonists and interesting magical worlds, has always been a favourite genre since.

3. The Sin Eater’s Daughter – Melinda Salisbury

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Another YA fantasy series that had already begun before I joined bookstagram, this book was recommended to me by a friend, and it is another world that dragged me in. I loved its quiet protagonist, and the way she slowly woke up to the injustice and lies of the world around her.

Full review here.

4. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

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YA book bloggers love Jenny Han, and although at first I thought that I wouldn’t like this book – I don’t typically go for ‘fun’ contemporaries, this book was too much fun to deny. You just have to give into it. Jenny’s writing was lighthearted but still strong, and Lara Jean feels like a real character, as do her family. This is another book I would not have given a chance if it weren’t for book bloggers, and yet again, I’ve been proven wrong about my prejudices!

5. All the Bright Places – Jennifer Niven

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I really enjoyed this book, despite (again) having some concerns about going into YA contemporary – basically, the online book community has broken down all my YA fears. I loved the characters and the writing, and the book made me cry. That’s always a score in my books (pun intended.)

Full review here.

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Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

S.T.A.G.S – M.A. Bennett Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

WOW! I am still reeling from this book even though I finished it hours ago, and if I didn't have a serious need to get through some books on my reading list before school starts, I would delve right back into S.T.A.G.S again from the beginning to see how many more little details I missed. I've already tweeted and told friends that this book is like Hogwarts meets How to Get Away With Murder, but there is honestly so much in this book to get excited about, and I hope I can control my excitement enough to write a coherent review.

S.T.A.G.S stands for St Aidan the Great School. It is the prestigious boarding school that Greer, the protagonist, has won a scholarship to attend for sixth form. Intimidated and lonely, surrounded by children who are wealthier than her and know all the rules better than she does, she is intrigued and excited when she receives The Invitation. She has been invited to spend a weekend 'huntin, shootin, fishin,' at Longcross, the manor house belonging to the school's golden boy, Henry de Warlencourt, along with his gang, called the Medievals, and two other misfits. However, Greer's belief that she might have finally been welcomed into S.T.A.G.S begins to waver. As each of the bloodsports ends in a well-timed 'accident', the three guests begin to wonder whether they are the predators, or the prey.

This novel has a mystery feel to it from the beginning. I loved how Bennett uses foreboding so well, instantly telling us from the start that a 'murder' takes place, and that there is something ominous going on in S.T.A.G.S, and yet, like Greer herself, we can't quite figure out what it is. Just as she does, we're suspicious of characters, and then we see them in a slightly more flattering light and we wonder whether they're really the bad guys at all, or whether they're just misunderstood. I liked how she alternated tense scenes, like the hunting scenes, with Downton Abbey-esque dinners, more romantic scenes, or slightly friendlier chats with the Medievals. It meant that your idea of the characters was never set in stone, and they changed with every scene. Until the very last page, you can't quite put your finger down on the problem, you can't figure out who the real bad guy is, where the 'bad guys' end and the 'good guys' begin, and how Greer and her friends will ever be able to escape.

The plot moves forward constantly, and even where the pace of the story is slower, there is always tension bubbling away beneath the surface. Every conversation that the characters have, every room that we enter, every little detail means something, and you are kept on your toes throughout. I loved the way that the three guests at Longcross, Greer, Nel, and Shafeen, come together to try and figure out what is really going on at Longcross, and discover that the seemingly harmless traditions of not using technology hide something far darker underneath. I never felt that Bennett's writing dragged the story down, even though she often described things like buildings and dresses, because she did so in a way that felt natural to Greer's voice and fit in with the story, and always picked up details that she had mentioned and made them important later in the story. She has an excellent skill at weaving details and storylines together in a way that you suspect they will add up to something more significant, but can't quite figure it out. In fact, right up until the last page, she is pulling tricks out of her sleeve and shocking you.

Underneath all of this excitement, mystery, and suspense, there are deeper themes of class, race, and tradition. Even if the setting of S.T.A.G.S and Longcross is as establishment as it comes, and as alien to you as it was to Greer and me, this book is not Downton Abbey or Hogwarts-esque. It isn't even, as Greer jokes, Mean Girls-esque. It is dark, thrilling, and thought-provoking. It makes you question establishment and traditions, and also wonder what deep, dark secrets could be lurking in plain sight.

I've said this in a few reviews recently, but this is definitely one of my books of the year, and even after writing this review, I'm still reeling. I just know that I'll read anything that M.A. Bennett writes after this.

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Book Reviews, Historical, Young Adult, Young Adult Historical

Following Ophelia – Sophia Bennett Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

I always enjoy books about art, artists, painting. The descriptions are always more vivid, drawing your attention to details that are sometimes taken for granted – the way light shines on fabric, the shade of sky in the morning. Following Ophelia did just that, as well as delivering an exciting story, an amazing protagonist, and an insight into both Victorian London and pre-Raphaelite society.

Mary Adams is new to London, having left her home in Kent to work as a scullery maid. Amongst the tiresome and endless work however, she catches the eye of London’s artistic circles, with her striking red hair and green eyes, that mark her out as the next ‘stunner’. She begins to model in secret for Felix Dawson, a promising but as yet unknown painter, who makes her feel seen and important, and is ferried about by her new friends under the fake name ‘Persephone Lavelle’. However, as big as London may be, society is small, and should her secret be found out, she could lose everything. When it comes under threat, Sophia has some startling decisions to make.

I took to Mary instantly. The book opens as she leans precariously over the edge of the ship transporting her through London, and she is instantly marked out as adventurous and slightly rebellious. She is clumsy but clever, and I admired her brain and wit. As she started modelling, I wondered when she would begin to do things for herself, however. It seemed like everything was happening to Mary, instead of because of her, and she was happy being pampered and adored by artists and their friends. Nevertheless, she proved me wrong, and my love for her doubled when Mary herself began to notice the shallow nature of the society she was keeping. She began to wish for something more than being stolen away from her life as a maid in secret to live as a lady in disguise, and realised that life as a lady and a model gave her little more freedom than life as a friend. It is only towards the later half of the book that Mary really begins to make her own choices, but this character growth was my favourite part of the novel, as we really see her grow and take ownership for her choices and her life.

I really love how Sophia Bennett has brought Victorian London and the art of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood into YA literature, and she did an excellent job at crafting this world. Her writing was beautiful and she described everything from dresses to houses and streets so well that you can imagine everything in your mind as you read, but it never felt convoluted and was never at the expense of plot. It all simply wove together perfectly. Further, I liked that significant figures in Victorian art kept popping up throughout the novel, such as Effie Gray, Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal popped up throughout the novel, sometimes as speaking characters and sometimes in the background, but there was never an info-dump or a feeling that I didn’t understand who the person was. Instead, Bennett feeds us tidbits of information about the artists and their lives throughout the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed Following Ophelia and would class it as one of my favourite reads of 2017. I rarely read historical novels as I become wary of having to learn too many facts to enjoy the story, and I rarely see Historical works in the Young Adult section, but Bennett managed to take an area of Victorian history and make it accessible and fun, creating her own story for the setting and a strong character that keeps us hooked with her adventures and her personal growth. I was surprised to see at the end of the book an advert for a sequel, and although I am usually apprehensive about YA series that are not fantasy or sci-fi, I can’t wait to follow Mary/Persephone in her story.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Piglettes – Clementine Beauvais Review

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Rating: ★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Piglettes is a fun and comedic story about three young girls who over the course of a summer, find friendship, adventure, and courage. It both follows the recent trend in ‘feminist’ YA whilst also feeling more light-hearted and warm than many others. The novel has been translated from French, and as you can probably tell from the cover art, it is a feel-good summer read.

Piglettes is about Mireille, Astrid, and Hakima, three teenage girls who are awarded the prizes for three ugliest girls in their school in a competition hosted by their classmates. Whilst Mireille has experienced this before and wears an armour of sarcastic pride, she takes the two younger newcomers to the gang under her wing. The girls are all very different, and they discover that they are all seeking different things. Mireille wants to find her biological father. Astrid wants to follow her favourite band wherever they go. Hakima want a chance to avenge her brother’s trauma in war. When the girls discover that there is a chance for all of them to achieve these goals in Paris, they set out on a journey to do so, and prove a point while they’re at it. They cycle to Paris selling homemade sausages along the way, and amass a loyal following, but more importantly, build strong bonds between themselves.

I loved the light-hearted comedy of this novel. Mireille is a brilliant narrator, and she genuinely made me laugh at times. Clementine Beauvais did a really good job at creating a unique voice for Mireille and it really brought the rest of the novel to life. It was easy to get to know Mireille as a character, whether through her witty jokes to the other girls or her sarky backchat with her mother and step-father, or even just reading her thoughts.  I was also impressed at the breadth of issues that the novel explores despite keeping this light-hearted and funny tone. For example, the story of Hakima’s brother who suffered life-changing injuring serving in the army and is traumatised by what he sees as a failure on his part to save his friends.

This novel toed quite a thin line between being a ‘message’ book and being a light-hearted comedy. It was refreshing to read about three empowered young girls in an exciting story about proving others wrong and achieving their dreams without feeling like the author was waving a banner in your face. On the other hand, there were parts of the novel that seemed to drag on and without Mireille’s humorous narration, the novel would just have felt boring. Particularly, a sequence where the girls attend a party hosted by university students felt unnecessary and pointless. Further, there was little action or drama in the form of plot twists, and any tension or problems was quite low-level and so easy to ‘overcome’ for the characters.

Overall I still feel like the book as a whole works well enough. It is not particularly deep or serious, but not all books have to be. The characters set a goal and worked to achieve it. By the end of the novel, they had learned a great deal. I appreciated that the culmination of their stories is not necessarily what they were expecting at the beginning of the novel, and they came to terms with these new circumstances.

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Seraphina – Rachel Hartman Review

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Rating: ★★★

I love fantasy, but it can be difficult to find original twists on old ideas. This is a perfect example of that. Rachel Hartman’s novel takes dragons and makes them into something new and fresh, and crafts a world full of complexities, nooks and crannies. I loved reading Seraphina, and while I think that the plot could have been tightened up in parts, I really enjoyed it.

Seraphina is the newly hired assistant music mistress at the Goreddi palace, but she has arrived at a period of turmoil. Prince Rufus has just been violently murdered, and it appears that a dragon is to blame. Tensions rise between the humans and dragons, who have lived side by side in Goredd since a peace treaty between the two sides was signed forty years previously. In the novel, Seraphina gets drawn into helping Prince Lucian to investigate the murder, and balances this not only with court politics and her duties as the music mistress, but also with keeping a dark secret that could get her killed.

My favourite thing about this novel was Hartman’s world-building. I was sucked into this world where humans and dragons live side by side, and loved learning about all of the different facets of the society. I was intrigued by how dragons took on a human form, the rules that they lived by, and all of the more subtle details that Hartman included, like how a dragon in human form still had a particular smell, how dragons take care of their scales, how dragons are by nature logical and cold, and have to keep their emotions in check so as to not become too ‘human’. There is so much to unpick and love in this novel without even discussing the plot, and I am a sucker for a well-crafted fantasy world.

Although I did have some issues with the plot, I still found the story to be intriguing enough to keep me entertained. The plot was exciting and I loved how the different aspects and characters featured in the book all linked together like pieces of a puzzle. My main issue was that I found it difficult to care all that much about Prince Rufus, and I kept forgetting that he was at the heart of the investigation. I think I would have preferred it if we had at least seen a glimpse of him at the start of the novel to get a feel for his character, rather than jump right into a world that is grieving for him. Also, while I was excited when I found out Seraphina’s secret, I resented her ‘powers’ a bit for seeming a bit too useful, in a sense, and didn’t understand why they existed. I also found the ‘resolution’ to her secret being revealed to feel a little rushed.

Unfortunately, I felt like some of the weaker aspects of the plot reflected less than well on the characters. For example, Seraphina as a character was great to begin with. She was smart and ‘prickly’, and I admired reading about a YA female fantasy protagonist with a hard-earned and well-respected job. I liked her curiosity, her loyalty and her complicated feelings towards Orma and dragons. However, she seemed to fall in love with Lucian from one page to the next and with no warning apart from the fact that it was somewhat expected considering that he is a prince that kept popping up in her path. Although Lucian and Seraphina do spend time together and seem to get on, I wasn’t getting any romantic vibes, sexual tension, or flirtation going on between them, and the sudden declaration of love from Seraphina felt forced by the author, and in my opinion, makes her look a bit flighty.

Overall however, the world-building was enough to keep me hooked in this book. I wanted to know if the peace would survive, I wanted to know whose side the dragons were on, I wanted to know which dragons I could trust and who was secretly a dragon in disguise. This saved the novel from some of the less perfect aspects, and redeemed it in my eyes. Whilst I will definitely be putting the sequel to Seraphina, Shadow Scale, on my to-read list, I won’t be pushing it straight to the top of the list.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks

Rating: ★★★★

I had heard so much about this book before I read it, mostly in the form of raring reviews. When I finally landed a copy, I barely waited before starting to read it, and I was not disappointed. This is an example of a book really living up to the buzz around it, and now I completely understand why this book is so loved.

This book (I’m not going to write the whole title out again!) is narrated by Aristotle, or Ari. He is a lonely fifteen year old kid at the start of the book. He feels out of place in most places, uncomfortable with people his own age, and doesn’t know where he belongs. Then, one day, he meets the light, colourful and bubbly Dante. After initially bonding over their unusual names, they form a strong friendship, but as time goes on and Dante discovers that he feels more for Ari, Ari battles with his own feelings.

What made this book for me was that the relationship between Ari and Dante was more than your typical YA romance. Their friendship was real and founded on more than physical attraction. They actually have things in common and shared experiences that bind them. In fact, there is very little romance involved in this novel until near the end, and this means that we get to know the characters as themselves and appreciate their relationship to a deeper level. For someone who doesn’t always appreciate romantic storylines being the central plot of a novel, this made it much easier to appreciate the storyline.

I also adored the writing in this novel. The style is so calm and mellow, that it really let Ari’s emotions rise to the surface.  Benjamin Alire Sáenz has a way with words that really enables him to capture exactly what Ari is feeling and put it in a way that you understand it too. This is really important as the novel doesn’t have a clearly defined plot, it simply follows the central relationship over a few years. There are events over the course of the novel, of course, but they don’t form separate stories of their own. Without this excellent writing style, the book could have quickly become boring for me, but I was swept away by his writing and devoured the book in a single day.

The only reason why I haven’t given this book five stars is because I felt that the pacing could have been better. Ari’s own stubbornness and fear keeps him from coming to terms with how he feels, but I felt that there wasn’t enough foreshadowing or hints at how he really felt in the earlier parts of the novel, which meant that the ending of the story felt a tiny bit contrived and fake. I went along with it and enjoyed it anyway because I loved the characters and the writing style, but it did nag me a bit and I felt like this could have been done a bit better for the sake of consistency.

Overall, this book had well-developed characters and excellent writing, which are the most important things in a book for me. Although I found the plot to be a bit weak at points, I could look past these because I loved the other parts of the book. If you haven’t read this, I would definitely recommend it, even if you don’t typically read YA literature.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

My Heart and Other Black Holes – Jasmine Warga Review

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Rating:★★★★

I was concerned starting this book that it would fall into a lot of cliches, and to be fair, it did – a lot of cliches. However, I still enjoyed this book. The writing and the characters meant that the cliche plot didn’t stop me appreciating the book.

My Heart and Other Black Holes revolves around sixteen year old Aysel and Roman, who meet via a Suicide Partners website. Both want to die, and they agree to do it together, a month from their first meeting. They’re both running away from something, but as they spend more and more time together, Aysel starts to wonder if running away is really necessary, or if all you need is someone who understands you. Eventually, Aysel realises that there is more to live for than there is to run away from, but the clock is ticking, and Roman is much more committed to the plan than she is.

The first cliche that I was apprehensive of in this novel was the suicidal teen story. Obviously, suicide and depression are very important issues to address in fiction, but sometimes I worry that teen novels romanticise mental illness as characteristics and quirks. Warga addressed the feelings of both Aysel and Roman well enough that their problems didn’t feel like they were just being used to advance a plot. Aysel’s father committed a horrific crime a few years before, and she is running away from the fear that she is just as bad as he is. Roman is running away from guilt that he could have stopped a tragedy in his family. Warga wrote this after the death of a close friend and you can see clearly that her writing is influenced by real experiences. This novel is dark, because it honestly addresses the characters’ experiences, and while it is heart-wrenching at times, this means that overall, mental illness doesn’t feel like a prop.

Further, the characters both feel real and less like quirky caricatures than they sometimes feel in other teen novels that address characters with health problems. Instead of being one-dimensional and cookie-cutter characters that serve the author’s purpose of writing about their mental health problems, Aysel and Roman were multi-faceted and fun to read. Personally, I loved Aysel’s interest in physics and how it influences her narration of the story. She also talks us through some of her memories, and we see how these affect her, without an annoying info-dump or cringe-y flashback. Both Aysel and Roman have their own sense of humour and wit, and overall, they were just a lot of fun to read and very likeable characters.

All of these little cliches, however, developed into what felt like one big cliche. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but my feelings around the ending made me feel unsure about the  novel as a whole. On the one hand, all of the little cliches developed into a bigger cliche ending that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Lifetime movie. While this felt refreshing compared to other teen novels about mental health that sometimes feel like they romanticise huge tragedies, the ending isn’t objectively super happy. Rather, it is an open-ended and hopeful conclusion. However, the ending did feel a little rushed, and so the cliche aspect of the ending was emphasised until it was much stronger than it actually might have been.

Overall, it’s just my ambiguous feeling to the ending of My Heart and Other Black Holes that dampened my feelings to the novel overall. The characters were well-crafted and multi-faceted, and Jasmine Warga’s writing is excellent. While it was a really good read, I don’t feel like it made an impact in the same way that other novels on this topic has, but at the same time, I didn’t think that any aspects of her exposition of mental health and suicide was problematic or unresolved.