The Ballad of Never After by Stephanie Garber

Ballad of Never After book cover

Information

Goodreads: The Ballad of Never After
Series: Once Upon a Broken Heart #2
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Publication Date: September 13, 2022

Official Summary

The fiercely-anticipated sequel to the #1 New York Times bestseller Once Upon a Broken Heart, starring Evangeline Fox and the Prince of Hearts on a new journey of magic, mystery, and heartbreak.

Not every love is meant to be.

After Jacks, the Prince of Hearts, betrays her, Evangeline Fox swears she’ll never trust him again. Now that she’s discovered her own magic, Evangeline believes she can use it to restore the chance at happily ever after that Jacks stole away.

But when a new terrifying curse is revealed, Evangeline finds herself entering into a tenuous partnership with the Prince of Hearts again. Only this time, the rules have changed. Jacks isn’t the only force Evangeline needs to be wary of. In fact, he might be the only one she can trust, despite her desire to despise him.

Instead of a love spell wreaking havoc on Evangeline’s life, a murderous spell has been cast. To break it, Evangeline and Jacks will have to do battle with old friends, new foes, and a magic that plays with heads and hearts. Evangeline has always trusted her heart, but this time she’s not sure she can. . . .

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Review

I wrote in my review of Once Upon a Broken Heart that Stephanie Garber had blown me away with a fairy tale world that felt fresh and new and, of course, rather dangerous and with a romance that had my eyes glued to the page. And there is so sequel slump here. The Ballad of Never After continues Evangeline’s story with immersive writing and a story I could hardly put down, and now I’m dying to read the third book.

After reading and being underwhelmed by Caraval, I never would have predicted I would have a Stephanie Garber obsession, but the Once Upon a Broken Heart series has managed to give me one. This is the kind of original world building I love. Garber gives little nods to well-known fairy tales, but the Magnificent North feels totally her own, like something I have never seen before but somewhere I’d certainly like to go and experience a bit of magic (danger notwithstanding). I love, too, that she has created Fates, beings who like Fae are not quite human and don’t function by our rules, yet which humans are drawn to.

I do think The Ballad of Never After seems more romance-focused than Once Upon a Time. Obviously there’s a plot, but at times it felt a little bit slowed by how many romance scenes there were. I am all for it though. Garber knows how to write a gut-punching line about how a love interest will break kingdoms for his love, and it was rather moving. My only reservation is that Evangeline was married in book one so . . . her romance with Jacks involves her committing adultery. The book doesn’t really deal with this besides her occasionally saying, “I’m married, you know!” as if that achieves anything or stops all the caressing. (And as a content note for anyone looking for book recs for younger readers, there’s no sex, but there’s certainly a lot of touching of Evangeline’s breasts.)

I want to know what happens next though! I do like, minus the adultery bit, that the romance between Jacks and Evangeline seems fairy tale doomed, and I want to see how they get out of it. Because I am going to believe they do get out of it! And the book sets up a wild cliffhanger for the plot of book three.

I will be avidly awaiting the next release and ready to throw my money at stores to purchase it.

Briana
5 stars

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

The Drowned Woods

Information

Goodreads: The Drowned Woods
Series: None (Set in the same world as The Bone Houses)
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: August 16, 2022

Official Summary

Once upon a time, the kingdoms of Wales were rife with magic and conflict, and eighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is well-acquainted with both. She is the last living water diviner and has spent years running from the prince who bound her into his service. Under the prince’s orders, she located the wells of his enemies, and he poisoned them without her knowledge, causing hundreds of deaths. After discovering what he had done, Mer went to great lengths to disappear from his reach. Then Mer’s old handler returns with a proposition: use her powers to bring down the very prince that abused them both.

The best way to do that is to destroy the magical well that keeps the prince’s lands safe. With a motley crew of allies, including a fae-cursed young man, the lady of thieves, and a corgi that may or may not be a spy, Mer may finally be able to steal precious freedom and peace for herself. After all, a person with a knife is one thing… but a person with a cause can topple kingdoms.

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Review

Every so often I am blessed to read a book that is nearly everything I could want in a YA fantasy. With compelling characters, a fast-paced plot, a vividly imagined world and a corgi sidekick, The Drowned Woods delivers an enchanting reading experience. I finished this book in two days after a minor reading slump, and I’d be happy to check out more of the author’s work in the future.

Protagonist Mer grounds the book as a powerful water diviner (basically she can control water in general, not just find it) who has done heinous deeds but sort of accidentally or without knowledge of what horrors she was accidentally contributing to. So basically she’s an excellent blend of power and regret, anger and righteousness. She can be dangerous and she is willing to when necessary, but she’s not exactly heartless, which makes her a complex character and one it’s easy to root for.

The band for the heist comes together nicely, and I also enjoyed that Mer is not the organizer. The book even notes that Mer was never a leader, and I love that she can be strong while not technically being in charge. The actual leader of the group is a spymaster. Then the group adds a fighter, a scholar, a thief, and a man whose talents are kept under wraps. And the group and the readers are ready to go!

The plot did not always go where I expected it to; it wasn’t always a heist in the way I was expecting. And Emily Lloyd-Jones seems to play with this and poke fun at it a bit (in the same ways she occasionally makes small jokes about the stock phrases one might expect characters in a fantasy to say). Nonetheless, the plot is always enjoyable and often surprising. There were some twists I anticipated and a few I did not, which were a pleasant surprise. I do think the author could have made some bolder choices about the ending of the book, but it was still fine.

I have never read anything by Emily Lloyd-Jones before, but I certainly will be looking out for her work in the future. This is exactly the type of fantasy I like, and the prose is beautiful on top of everything else. I was immersed in this, and I would love to go back to this world when I finally get around to reading The Bone Houses.

Briana
5 stars

Seoulmates by Susan Lee (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Seoulmates
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Publisher for Review
Publication Date: September 20, 2022

Official Summary

Her ex-boyfriend wants her back. Her former best friend is in town. When did Hannah’s life become a K-drama?

Hannah Cho had the next year all planned out—the perfect summer with her boyfriend, Nate, and then a fun senior year with their friends.

But then Nate does what everyone else in Hannah’s life seems to do—he leaves her, claiming they have nothing in common. He and all her friends are newly obsessed with K-pop and K-dramas, and Hannah is not. After years of trying to embrace the American part and shunning the Korean side of her Korean American identity to fit in, Hannah finds that’s exactly what now has her on the outs.

But someone who does know K-dramas—so well that he’s actually starring in one—is Jacob Kim, Hannah’s former best friend, whom she hasn’t seen in years. He’s desperate for a break from the fame, so a family trip back to San Diego might be just what he needs…that is, if he and Hannah can figure out what went wrong when they last parted and navigate the new feelings developing between them. 

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Review

Seoulmates is a fun and thoughtful look at friendship, love, identity, and fame. While there are other YA novels about the protagonist suddenly finding herself dating a celebrity, Seoulmates sets itself apart with a childhood friends to lovers plot line and with Hannah’s search to reconcile her Korean part of her identity with her American part, an issue that takes her a bit by surprise as Americans suddenly begin to find all things Korean cool. I don’t think the book was entirely my thing, but a lot of it comes down to my personal preference, and overall I think this will do well with readers looking for a contemporary read with heart and a little bit of K-pop glamor.

I didn’t love the voice from the beginning of the novel (though this will perhaps resonate with actual teens!), and I found it a bit funny that the characters often give lengthy monologues about their innermost thoughts. Anyone who has ever thought, “Why don’t these characters solve their problems by just talking to each other?” might be a bit relieved by this, but I found the execution of the idea slightly unnatural, and I think it messed up the pacing, as well. There are several minor misunderstandings that the characters clear up in a matter of pages with their in-depth communication, so there isn’t a lot of time for readers to get invested in the problem before it suddenly no longer is one, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the “main problem” of the novel is supposed to be.

On the other hand, I loved the setting. Lee really makes San Diego (which I’ve never have the pleasure of visiting) truly come alive; I felt as if I could envision it, and I see why Hannah is so happy she gets to live there.

I also enjoyed the family relationships, including Hannah’s with her sister and her mom, and Jacob’s feelings of responsibility to support his own mom and sister, even though he’s still a kid himself. The book also gives a good look into Jacob’s life as a K-drama star, showcasing the fame and perks that come with handsome looks and strong acting talent, alongside the studios’ merciless dedication to controlling actors’ lives and images. And this is definitely something I’ve seen MG and YA grappling with the past few years, in terms of publishing books that target an audience that clearly loves K-pop, K-dramas, etc., while trying to be sensitive to the fact that the lives of real participants in these industries are not always as glamorous as they seem.

So, because I’m not an avid K-drama fan and because I didn’t love the voice and pacing, I thought the book was fine. In general, however, I think other readers will love this a lot. The setting, the premise, the look at a protagonist trying to find herself even as she tries to find love . . . all will appeal to a wide audience. If you like YA contemporary romance, this might be the book for you.

Briana
3 Stars

12 (More) YA Books Perfect for Younger Teens

YA Books Perfect for Younger Teens

Are you looking for a young adult novel for a tween or younger teen? Check out some of these books that are rich in character, storytelling, and world building but that aren’t incredibly dark or overly sexy. And, of course, readers of any age can enjoy them (a lot are my favorites, and I’m an adult!).

Our first list with lower YA recommendations, 15 YA Books for Younger Teens, can be viewed here.

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Queen of the Tiles Book Cover

Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

CATALYST
13 points
noun: a person or thing that precipitates an event or change

When Najwa Bakri walks into her first Scrabble competition since her best friend’s death, it’s with the intention to heal and move on with her life. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to choose the very same competition where said best friend, Trina Low, died. It might be even though Najwa’s trying to change, she’s not ready to give up Trina just yet.

But the same can’t be said for all the other competitors. With Trina, the Scrabble Queen herself, gone, the throne is empty, and her friends are eager to be the next reigning champion. All’s fair in love and Scrabble, but all bets are off when Trina’s formerly inactive Instagram starts posting again, with cryptic messages suggesting that maybe Trina’s death wasn’t as straightforward as everyone thought. And maybe someone at the competition had something to do with it.

As secrets are revealed and the true colors of her friends are shown, it’s up to Najwa to find out who’s behind these mysterious posts—not just to save Trina’s memory, but to save herself.

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Duels and Deception

Duels and Deception by Cindy Anstey

Miss Lydia Whitfield, heiress to the family fortune, has her future entirely planned out. She will run the family estate until she marries the man of her late father’s choosing, and then she will spend the rest of her days as a devoted wife. Confident in those arrangements, Lydia has tasked her young law clerk, Mr. Robert Newton, to begin drawing up the marriage contracts. Everything is going according to plan.

Until Lydia—and Robert along with her—is kidnapped. Someone is after her fortune and won’t hesitate to destroy her reputation to get it. With Robert’s help, Lydia strives to keep her family’s good name intact and expose whoever is behind the devious plot. But as their investigation delves deeper and their affections for each other grow, Lydia starts to wonder whether her carefully planned future is in fact what she truly wants…

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Princess of the Midnight Ball

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day Geory

Galen is a young soldier returning from war; Rose is one of twelve princesses condemned to dance each night for the King Under Stone. Together Galen and Rose will search for a way to break the curse that forces the princesses to dance at the midnight balls. All they need is one invisibility cloak, a black wool chain knit with enchanted silver needles, and that most critical ingredient of all—true love—to conquer their foes in the dark halls below. But malevolent forces are working against them above ground as well, and as cruel as the King Under Stone has seemed, his wrath is mere irritation compared to the evil that awaits Galen and Rose in the brighter world above.

Captivating from start to finish, Jessica Day George’s take on the Grimms’ tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses demonstrates yet again her mastery at spinning something entirely fresh out of a story you thought you knew.

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Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Thorn by Intisar Khanani

A princess with two futures. A destiny all her own.

Between her cruel family and the contempt she faces at court, Princess Alyrra has always longed to escape the confines of her royal life. But when she’s betrothed to the powerful prince Kestrin, Alyrra embarks on a journey to his land with little hope for a better future.

When a mysterious and terrifying sorceress robs Alyrra of both her identity and her role as princess, Alyrra seizes the opportunity to start a new life for herself as a goose girl.

But Alyrra soon finds that Kestrin is not what she expected. The more Alyrra learns of this new kingdom, the pain and suffering its people endure, as well as the danger facing Kestrin from the sorceress herself, the more she knows she can’t remain the goose girl forever.

With the fate of the kingdom at stake, Alyrra is caught between two worlds and ultimately must decide who she is, and what she stands for.

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Spin the Dawn

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.

And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.

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The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king’s long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner’s motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword’s point—he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage’s rivals have their own agendas as well.

As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner’s sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.

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Geekerella

Geekerella by Ashley Poston

Part romance, part love letter to nerd culture, and all totally adorbs, Geekerella is a fairy tale for anyone who believes in the magic of fandom. Geek girl Elle Wittimer lives and breathes Starfield, the classic sci-fi series she grew up watching with her late father. So when she sees a cosplay contest for a new Starfield movie, she has to enter. The prize? An invitation to the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball, and a meet-and-greet with the actor slated to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot. With savings from her gig at the Magic Pumpkin food truck (and her dad’s old costume), Elle’s determined to win…unless her stepsisters get there first.

Teen actor Darien Freeman used to live for cons—before he was famous. Now they’re nothing but autographs and awkward meet-and-greets. Playing Carmindor is all he’s ever wanted, but the Starfield fandom has written him off as just another dumb heartthrob. As ExcelsiCon draws near, Darien feels more and more like a fake—until he meets a girl who shows him otherwise.

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Pumpkinheads

Pumpkinheads By Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Deja and Josiah are seasonal best friends.

Every autumn, all through high school, they’ve worked together at the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world. (Not many people know that the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world is in Omaha, Nebraska, but it definitely is.) They say good-bye every Halloween, and they’re reunited every September 1.

But this Halloween is different—Josiah and Deja are finally seniors, and this is their last season at the pumpkin patch. Their last shift together. Their last good-bye.

Josiah’s ready to spend the whole night feeling melancholy about it. Deja isn’t ready to let him. She’s got a plan: What if—instead of moping and the usual slinging lima beans down at the Succotash Hut—they went out with a bang? They could see all the sights! Taste all the snacks! And Josiah could finally talk to that cute girl he’s been mooning over for three years . . .

What if their last shift was an adventure?

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Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters. Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible—assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul.

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Uglies book cover

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait. In just a few weeks she’ll have the operation that will turn her from a repellent ugly into a stunning pretty. And as a pretty, she’ll be catapulted into a high-tech paradise where her only job is to have fun.

But Tally’s new friend Shay isn’t sure she wants to become a pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world—and it isn’t very pretty. The authorities offer Tally a choice: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all. Tally’s choice will change her world forever….

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The Fifth Wave book cover

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

After the 1st wave, only darkness remains. After the 2nd, only the lucky escape. And after the 3rd, only the unlucky survive. After the 4th wave, only one rule applies: trust no one.

Now, it’s the dawn of the 5th wave, and on a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs from Them. The beings who only look human, who roam the countryside killing anyone they see. Who have scattered Earth’s last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, Cassie believes, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan Walker may be Cassie’s only hope for rescuing her brother-or even saving herself. But Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

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The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars

Information

GoodreadsWe Were Liars
Series: Liars #2
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

Each summer, the Sinclair family goes to their private island near Martha’s Vineyard. On her fifteenth summer, Cadence Sinclair Eastman wakes up on the beach one day with no memory of how she got there. Two years later, she returns to the island, hoping to remember what happened that fateful night.

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Review

We Were Liars is the perfect summer read, a story that takes readers on a journey to an idyllic island where youth is eternal and summer is full of possibilities. Even Cadence’s slow realization that her family is damaged and that her past harbors a terrible secret cannot wholly take away the magic and the beauty that the novel evokes. It made me think of beach days and cloud watching and first kisses. The tragedy slowly creeps in, however, as Cadence regains her memory, mingling pathos with beauty. Nostalgic, atmospheric, and experimental, We Were Liars is not a read I was expecting, but one that will linger with me.

The official summary of We Were Liars is so vague, that I have in fact never desired to read the book. I had, after all, no idea what it was about, except a vague understanding that it usually makes lists for best YA thrillers/mysteries. But, since the library seemed short on audiobooks, I decided to pick it up just to have something to listen to. And I began to imagine the most shocking and disturbing possibilities for the big reveal that I was sure was coming. But…I was also baffled because We Were Liars did not read like a thriller. It reads like a story of first loves, and a bit like a story about grief. I was prepared for a story along the lines of McManus’ books, and got something totally different. And I began to understand why all the summaries of We Were Liars are so purposefully vague.

The real delight in We Were Liars is that it is a meandering story with seemingly little idea where it is going. Cadence narrates her fond memories of summers on the island, revels in her crush on Gat, and slowly starts to realize that the perfect Sinclair family is anything but. She says she wants to uncover the mystery of her amnesia, but does not always seem dedicated to that. Instead, she recalls favorite moments of the past, ponders her current sense of displacement, occasionally feels guilt about her privilege and, above all, tries to make sense of the broken edges of her family. The story is a like a bit of dandelion fluff floating on the wind. To say anything more is to ruin the ending.

Since We Were Liars is somewhat of an experimental book, I can imagine that the experience is not for everyone. For me, however, it was a beautiful look at love, grief, and family–all the messiness that makes up life.

4 stars

How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: How to Succeed in Witchcraft
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Publisher Giveaway
Publication Date: September 27, 2022

Official Summary

An overachieving teen witch vies for a prestigious scholarship at her elite high school in this contemporary YA fantasy for fans of Never Have I Ever and Sabrina the Teen Witch!

Magically brilliant, academically perfect, chronically overcommitted…

Shay Johnson has all the makings of a successful witch. Now that she’s a junior at T.K. Anderson Magical Magnet School, she’s one step closerto winning the full-ride Brockton Scholarship–her ticket into the university of her dreams. Her main competition? Ana freaking Alvarez. The key to victory? Impressing Mr. B, drama teacher and head of the scholarship committee.

When Mr. B persuades Shay to star in this year’s aggressively inclusive, racially diverse musicalat their not-quite-diverse school–she agrees, wearily, even though she’ll have to put up with Ana playing the other lead. But with rehearsals underway, Shay realizes Ana is…not the despicable witch she’d thought. Perhaps she could even be a friend–or more. And Shay could use someone in her corner once she finds herself on the receiving end of Mr. B’s unpleasant and unwanted attention. When Shay learns she’s not the first witch to experience his inappropriate behavior, she must decide if she’ll come forward. But how can she speak out when the scholarship–and her future–are on the line?

An unforgettable debut, How to Succeed in Witchcraft conjures up searing social commentary, delightfully awkward high school theater, and magical proclamations of love.

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Review

How to Succeed in Witchcraft is a creative and moving story that brings readers to a world that functions very similarly to ours–except it’s magic! Protagonist Shay Johnson faces the same pressures as many high schoolers, taking a full load of AP courses in subjects like Potions and Transfiguration and competing hard for a free-ride scholarship to a magical licensing college. Author Aislinn Brophy seamlessly blends her rich magical world building with these real world concerns, creating a story that is sure to stick in readers’ minds after the last page is turned.

I do admit that, although I very much liked this book, it was at times difficult to read. While Shay’s fixation on academic excellence and balancing too many activities she’s trying to stuff onto her resume can be relatable, and her blossoming relationship with academic rival Ana is just as charming as the actual magic in the book, I hesitate to call the overall book “delightful” as some other reviewers have. At its heart, this book is still about a high school teacher being a predator and grooming underage students so . . . it was actually stressful for me to read at times. I cringed and gagged and really didn’t want to watch this teacher being a creep. The book is very well done and shows how the teacher starts small and builds up, and how his behavior is excused by 99% of people by innocent, and how there are rumors about his hooking up with students but no one seems to care — all the things that, unfortunately, happen in these situations in our own world. It’s sensitive and moving and deeply realistic. But I hesitate to say it was “fun” to read!

So I can see why a lot of the other reviews I’ve seen have focused on the other aspects of the book. Aislinn’s relationship with her best friend, who is bright and talented but can’t seem to get accepted into a magical licensing college and (in Aislinn’s eyes) might have to “settle” for a lesser school. Her relationship with Ana, the other top contender for the coveted college scholarship, whom Aislinn has hated since freshman year. Her time practicing for the high school musical, since the creepy teacher convinced her to join theatre after implying it would boost her scholarship application. All these things are well done, too, and I do think they help keep the book light. Aislinn gets to have fun with her friends, and flirt, and learn all about the highs and lows of theatre. She has such a great high school experience in many ways, and anyone who was in their own high school drama department, or who spent far too many late nights studying for AP courses, or who worried about how to pay for college, will doubtless see a bit of their own lives in hers.

How to Succeed at Witchcraft is an amazing blend of fantasy and contemporary that speaks on important issues while also incorporating a bit of whimsy. Brophy is an author to watch.

Briana
4 stars

If You Could See the Sun by Ann Liang (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: If You Could See the Sun
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Published for review
Publication Date: October 11, 2022

Official Summary

In this genre-bending YA debut, a Chinese American girl monetizes her strange new invisibility powers by discovering and selling her wealthy classmates’ most scandalous secrets.
 
Alice Sun has always felt invisible at her elite Beijing international boarding school, where she’s the only scholarship student among China’s most rich and influential teens. But then she starts uncontrollably turning invisible—actually invisible.
 
When her parents drop the news that they can no longer afford her tuition, even with the scholarship, Alice hatches a plan to monetize her strange new power—she’ll discover the scandalous secrets her classmates want to know, for a price.
 
But as the tasks escalate from petty scandals to actual crimes, Alice must decide if it’s worth losing her conscience—or even her life.

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Review

If You Could See the Sun, set in an international school in China where the protagonist is the only scholarship student in a sea of the children of the rich and famous, feels fun and fresh, even as it takes on popular tropes like academic rivals-to-lovers and a protagonist who suddenly finds herself invisible and able to discover the secrets of others.

I enjoyed the detailed setting and the author’s vivid descriptions both of China and the school itself, a distinctly different environment from the local public schools, which protagonist Alice makes very clear with her reluctance to have to transfer to one when her parents inform her they will not be able to pay the tuition for the next semester at her current school. Liang brings the place to life, grounding readers with Alice, the only economically average student in the entire school. (Her status is so unusual, in fact, that the other students are all completely unaware she is not breathtakingly wealthy like them.)

I enjoyed the plot of the novel, and I think this is one area Liang excels. She clearly positions Alice as a star student whose main goal in life is to succeed academically, then demonstrates the increasing risks Alice is willing to take in order to earn enough money to stay at her school. The stakes get higher as the book goes on, and the love interest gets more and more invested and closer to admitting his love.

I do wish there were a little more exploration of Alice’s character beyond her intelligence and ambition, however. While she takes on some morally questionable tasks for cash, the reader really has no idea whether this is “out of character” for her or not. Alice mentions close to the end of the story that her mother’s greatest wish for her is to be a good person but . . . is she one before the start of the book? I mainly got the sense she stays out of the way of others and is a more or less neutral entity, not being kind to others but not being mean (largely because she can’t have a reputation as being unkind if she wants to make connections and succeed in life, so this is pretty calculated). Her one defining personality trait is her academics, and Liang really focuses on that to the exclusion of other traits.

(I tried to be vague in the next paragraph, but some people might consider it spoilery. Skip it if you dislike spoilers of any kind!)

I also was a bit taken aback by the end of the story, where Alice takes on a final, horrifically criminal task that could result in serious harm to a fellow student. The book really struggles what to do with this, ultimately suggesting her actions were rather understandable and forgivable because she didn’t fit in with the rich kids at school and really needed the money for her tuition. (If only the school had given her a larger scholarship, Alice and the book argue, she would not have needed to resort to such things!) There are some throwaway lines about how, ok, it was a bad thing to do and she shouldn’t have done it, and she faces some minor consequences, but ultimately the book implies it’s not really a big deal.

This doesn’t undermine my enjoyment of the book in general, but I admit I am not fully on board with the ethics here, and I got the sense the author herself might have been struggling a bit to reconcile the book’s message about class differences and admitting that, uh, the protagonist did something truly terrible and should perhaps be accountable for that. (Also one of her accomplices was one of the rich kids, who clearly was not doing this because he needed money, and that’s just glossed over.)

Overall, however, this is a fun, quick read that touches on a few serious topics and feels like something a bit different in the YA space. I would recommend checking it out.

Briana
4 stars

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Legendborn

Information

GoodreadsLegendborn
Series: Legendborn #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

After the death of her mother, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews accepts a place in an early college program at UNC-Chapel Hill, the same school her mother attended. She does not expect to see a flying demon feeding on human energy, right on campus! Bree’s desire to learn more leads her to infiltrate a secret society with roots stretching back centuries. The students involved call themselves “Legendborn,” and say that they are descendants of the original Round Table. Their mission is to fight demons and protect humans. But Bree suspects that the society may have been involved in the death of her mother, and she is determined to learn the truth.

Star Divider

Review

I have conflicted feelings about Legendborn. While the idea of a contemporary retelling of King Arthur intrigued me, and while I was impressed by the extensive worldbuilding done by Tracy Deonn, at times I could not help but think that Legendborn does feel rather like a debut. The ingredients are all there for a wonderfully immersive story, but it veers quite often into overdone YA tropes and occasionally feels bloated. I could see Deonn’s craft improving, however. While I found the start of the story somewhat painful, by the end I could almost visualize myself picking up the sequel.

Of course, I will be the first to admit that a story filled with YA tropes is not a deal breaker for every reader–some readers will no doubt even love and welcome these tropes! Readers who enjoy a good Chosen One story where the protagonist uncovers hidden powers (multiple ones never seen before, way more powerful than everyone else’s, etc, etc) or love triangles or instalove or lovers to enemies will find a lot to like here. Personally, I tend to enjoy Chosen One stories, though not love triangles or instalove. What really bothered me in this instance was just how many tropes there were, and not necessarily what the tropes were.

I also found it difficult to engage initially with the basic premise of the story because it hinges on the protagonist Bree having zero plan, and, personally, I tend to prefer characters who know what they are doing. Essentially, Bree sees something supernatural, and wants to know more. Then she starts to consider the possibility that the supernatural event is connected to her mother, and she is determined to find out the truth. To do so, she pressures her love interest Nick into rejoining the secret Order he left years ago, even though he cautions her that she knows nothing about the Order and will be endangering her life. (Also his, for that matter.) Bree doesn’t care. She has no idea what the Order is, what it does, how it works, or what will be expected of her, but she decides that joining and engaging in a three-part trial involving things like combat with demons is something she, a normal teenager who has no experience with fighting, will figure out as she goes along. It does not make a lot of sense.

Bree not only does not have a plan. She’s also behaves in a morally dubious manner, that I personally found difficult to sympathize with. She lies and takes an Oath to protect and serve humanity that she does not mean to fulfill. And she positions herself as a loyal fighter who will always be there for her fellow pages, even though she plans to drop them as soon as she is done using them. The Order as an institution is undoubtedly flawed, but many of the individuals in it truly believe in the mission to protect humans from demons, and they are prepared to give their lives to do it. For Bree to lie to everyone about her purpose, and essentially plan to stab them in the back at the end does not make her particularly sympathetic to me, no matter how sorry I am that she’s hurting over her mom. But, because Bree narrates the story, she presents herself as the hero and the Order as the villain–even as she is perfectly willing to use the Order’s resources, influence, and power for herself. I would like to say that the first person narration is supposed to read as unreliable, but it seems that readers are meant to take all Bree’s words at face value.

Indeed, I really wanted a more extended treatment of Bree’s thoughts and feelings as she learns more about the Order and its past. For much of the book, the Order is presented as a despicable institution, an Old Boys Club, that many readers would no doubt love to see burned to the ground. Other characters whisper its name in fear, say that the Order wields wicked powers gained through cursed means, and call them “colonizers” who have brought more harm to the world than good. Bree, interestingly, however, goes from wanting to infiltrate the Order to maybe actually wanting to join it. The story seems to present the idea as Bree one-upping the Order. They don’t want her, but she’s going to become one of them, wield their power, and watch them squirm as she does it. I rather wanted something more visionary, though. If the Order is truly so despicable, I would want Bree to reject their power gained through evil and find a way to either destroy them or renew them through some other means. Seeing Bree become one of the Order does not feel like a victory if the Order is so sickeningly corrupt.

In the end, Legendborn is a book that I would describe as really “YA-y,” if that makes sense. It has many of the typical YA tropes and it just feels like a standard YA book in everything from the way it is narrated in the first-person present tense to the way that it raises serious ethical and philosophical questions, only to let them fall by the wayside in favor of upping the action and the drama. I give credit to the extensive worldbuilding, the raising of important issues like racism and sexism, and the exploration of grief after the death of a loved one. I just hope to see Bree grapple more seriously with the implications of joining a corrupt institution in the sequel.

3 Stars

A Darkness at the Door by Intisar Khanani

A Darkness at the Door book cover

Information

Goodreads: A Darkness at the Door
Series: Dauntless Path #3
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: July 21, 2022

Official Summary

I’ve been cursed, betrayed, and sold into slavery – but the truth I carry can’t be allowed to die.

Only Rae knows the extent of the corruption at the heart of the kingdom of Menaiya, from the noble lord who betrayed her, to the Circle of Mages whose wards protect the slavers from discovery. Injured and imprisoned on a slave ship, Rae’s options are quickly running out. When a desperate escape attempt goes terribly wrong, she finds herself indebted to a terrifying Fae sorceress.

Now Rae will not rest until she has rescued her fellow prisoners and freed her land from the darkness that has taken hold. To succeed, she’ll need every ally she can find—including Bren, the thief who may have stolen her heart. But Bren is hiding his own bloody secrets, and the curses that encircle Rae have sunk their claws into her mind. With her debts coming due and time running short, all the truths in the world may not be enough to save her kingdom, or herself.

Star Divider

Review

Intisar Khanani has quickly become one of my favorite authors. I fell in love with her storytelling after reading Thorn (a “Goose Girl” retelling), and The Theft of Sunlight was one of my top reads of 2021. I couldn’t wait to continue reading Rae’s tale in A Darkness at the Door, since The Theft of Sunlight ended on a huge cliffhanger, and I was not disappointed. Action, adventure, a bit of magic, a bit of mystery, romance . . . this book has it all, and it’s all led by Rae with her will of iron and a sense of morality she will not have stamped down.

So this is one of those reviews that’s hard for me to write simply because I loved absolutely everything about the book. The plot, the pacing, the characters. There’s not much I could ask to be changed here. Khanani has such a strong sense of both story and her characters that her skill as an author is obvious chapter by chapter, and I personally think it’s absurd her US publisher dropped this book (I bought the UK version, but Khanani has also teamed up with Snowy Wings Publishing to make a US edition available for purchase). Khanani is basically an auto-buy author for me at this point, so I blame any “disappointing” sales of book two on a lack of marketing from the publisher.

Anyway, all the questions I could have had left from Thorn or The Theft of Sunlight have been answered here, and I got to see more of the characters I love (Bren! The perfect thief! Because who doesn’t love a good YA thief character?) and some characters who previously didn’t get a lot of page time (Rae’s badass mother and one of her sisters!).

I also love that the series grapples with some interesting questions, like what justice is and who can mete it out and what recourse “ordinary” people have when the authorities don’t seem to be enforcing it. Khanani tries to make this discussion as nuanced as possible, so readers can see where people on all sides of the question are coming from. Kudos for being able to make me sort of side with a thief!

In short, this is definitely going to end up on my “best books of 2022” list at the end of the year, and I will be looking forward to anything else Khanani publishes. Buy this book. Buy the whole series. If you like fantasy, I don’t think you can go wrong here.

Briana
5 stars

Three Kisses, One Midnight: A Novel by Roshani Chokshi, Evelyn Skye, and Sandhya Menon (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Three Kisses, One Midnight
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: August 30, 2022

Official Summary

New York Times bestselling authors Roshani Chokshi, Evelyn Skye, and Sandhya Menon craft a spellbinding novel featuring a teenage trio who discover the magic of true love on a fateful Halloween night in Three Kisses, One Midnight.

Four hundred years ago, the town of Moon Ridge was founded on Halloween. Everyone born and raised there knows the legend of the young woman who perished at the stroke of twelve that very same night, losing the life she was set to embark on with her dearest love. Every century since, on All Hallows’ Eve, the Lady of Moon Ridge descends from the stars to walk among the townsfolk, conjuring an aura upon those willing to follow their hearts’ desires.

“To summon joy and love in another’s soul
For a connection that makes two people whole
For laughter and a smile that one can never miss
Sealed before midnight with a truehearted kiss.”

This year, three best friends, known around school as The Coven, will weave art, science, and magic on a Halloween unlike any other. Onny, Ash, and True believe everything is in alignment to bring them the affection, acceptance, and healing that can only come from romance—with a little help from Onny’s grandmother’s love potion.

But it’s not so simple to boost Ash’s confidence, nurse True’s heartache, or open Onny’s eyes. And as midnight approaches, the friends learn that it will take more than a spell to recognize those who offer their love and to embrace all the magic that follows. 

Review

Three Kisses, One Midnight is a fun Halloween romance that links together the story of three friends who agree to all try using a love potion at a midnight gala to celebrate their town’s founding. Readers looking for a read with some Halloween vibes (the potion, magic, costumers, ghosts, creepy mannequins, etc.) that isn’t super scary will appreciate this one to help them get in the holiday spirit.

Unfortunately, besides the fact that it’s fairly light and fun, I didn’t feel the book stands out in any sense. The three-story format is interesting, as there is one story for each of the three friends, and they vaguely interconnect (though there were times I thought there were some inconsistencies between the stories; perhaps this will be ironed out before the final prints). Each character is mildly interesting, with one thing their short story sort of focuses on: Onny’s interest in magic, Ash’s love of art, True’s struggle to move on after dumping her ex-boyfriend for being a jerk.

But overall, I just don’t think the book is memorable. It wasn’t really thought-provoking in any way, and I know it’s going to be one of those books that, six months from now, I’ll have forgotten I even read it. Maybe I’ll come across this review and go, “Huh, oh yeah, I did read that,” and that will be the extent of my thoughts about it.

So file this away as a light, entertaining book you might want to add to your Halloween to-read list, just to have something seasonal to get into, but don’t count on it being an otherwise remarkable read, in spite of the strong trio of authors who contributed.

Briana
3 Stars