Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

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Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT+
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: May 24th 2011

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Because ‘You’re perfect just the way you are,’ is what your guidance counsellor says. And she’s an alcoholic.”

A plane full of beauty pageant contestants crash lands on a deserted island. The girls must find a way to survive while keeping up their pageant training for when they are rescued. After all, there can only be one Miss Teen Dream!

The beginning of this novel is a fascinating satire, full of misogynistic tropes, fake brands, fake ads, and fun fact sheets about the girls. The Corporation informs the reader about the world the novel is set in, about what a good girl is like and what products they have to use to stay desirable. It’s a set-up for a very interesting story that parodies our world – but it loses itself along the way.

There was a cheesy action movie subplot that was more than the book needed. At some point, the book stops being about girls finding themselves, humour and feminism and turns into a very bad action movie. The book becomes TOO ridiculous in its attempts to be silly satire it just becomes over-the-top and more boring because of it. Evil lairs, ridiculous dictators and a ship full of hot boys all clash together in a huge mess.

The ending is a huge mess of an action scene, several convenient coincidences and just unsatisfying. The book tells the girl’s futures…which don’t seem much changed after a harrowing experience for the most part and bam happy ending even though the world isn’t changed for the better.

That’s not to say I disliked the book entirely. The premise is strong, and it does feature some good representation.Bray did make her main cast a little too large for her to handle, and the main ones were a fairly stereotypical (gun-loving Texan, dumb blondes etc.) but the thought was there. The fault is that this book just has no idea what it is or where it was going. It has elements of several potentially successful stories and tries to shove them all down the reader’s throat at once.

The highlights of this book are the “commercial breaks” and footnotes that build the world these girls live in. Period Pets, Lady Stache Off and other fun brands pepper the pages with good humour and great satire. I only wish these elements had been better explored instead devolving into a cheesy spy novel.

For Fans Of: Only Ever Yours

Blood of the Delphi by M.E. Vaughan

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Genres: New Adult, Fantasy, LGBT+
Publisher: Mag Mell Publishing
Publication Date: December 20th 2016

5 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Praise Harmatia, it is a city of gold and light. Praise it until it crumbles to dust.”

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through the author in exchange for an honest review.

Twelve years have passed since Prince Jionathan traded his life for Sverrin’s. Rufus is on the run, protecting Prince Joshua, the last Delphi prince. They are forced the live their life on the run. In the capital, others question their king. Arlen Zachary has seen things going downhill – Harmatia is not what it once was but there might be time to save it yet.

It was a bit difficult to get back into the series, I had forgotten a bit – but as soon as I was sucked in I was in love all over again. It is so rare that a sequel equals or surpasses the original but for Blood of the Delphi this is certainly the case. Vaughan’s world is more detailed and vivid than ever before and the plot is just as fast-paced and thrilling.

of course, it’s the characters and dialogue where Vaughan really shines. Every character is well thought through, even the villains have a rich character full of motives and for that reason it’s possible to feel their pain. My heart is rarely torn apart but it bleeds for these characters. They are so real and lovable and Vaughan is not afraid to rip them from her readers without mercy.

Touching on characters, no one does representation like Vaughan does. Her characters offer a wide range of diverse sexuality well represented. The characters are explicit about their sexuality and gender – there is not questioning what they are, no headcanons needed but it is not all they are. In a wonderful way, Vaughan has represented an array of sexualities without creating characters that are stereotypes or entirely governed by their sexual preferences. Vaughan includes representation with elegant skill making identities clear without smashing readers in the face with them.

Blood of the Delphi is an epic new adult fantasy that can be enjoyed by readers young and old alike. Vaughan has crafted a complex political world, multiple characters with varied motivations which we see through different POVs and an epic adventure that you’ll be desperate to keep reading. An expertly written high fantasy that I highly recommend. Fantasy is rarely done this well.

For Fans Of: Uprooted

The Forgotten Tale by J.M. Frey

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Genres: Fantasy, LGBT+
Publisher: REUTS Publications, LLC.
Publication Date: December 6th 2016

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Forsyth and Pip have created a lovely life for themselves in Victoria with their daughter Alis. Forsyth’s biggest problem is trying to keep his writer, Elgar Reed, from interacting with his family. That is until well-known stories start vanishing and a portal opens up and swallows his family back to the written world of Hain. What is causing stories to vanish and who dragged the Piper family back to Hain? Most importantly – how will Forsyth get his family home?

The Forgotten Tale is quite a bit more exciting than The Untold Tale but it’s still average overall. There’s an exciting new main cast character and the reintroduction of my two personal favourite minor characters from the previous book. There’s less sex and more adventure this time around and it managed to bring its score up an entire point.

The most exciting part of the story is unquestionably the portion that takes place in the “writer’s world” and outside of the fantasy one. Unfortunately the entire book is cut with another point of view – Solinde’s. Solinde is a deal-maker spirit and for the most part her chapters are extremely confusing. The first few chapters are not explained and aside from the connections with the missing stories it’s generally barely comprehensible. One or two of Solide’s chapters were critically important to the story, but they were mostly filler.

Despite being an improvement on the first novel it still feels like Frey is missing her mark. Once again there are glimmers of a wonderful contemporary writer who could focus stories on fandom – but it’s bogged down by a poor fantasy adventure. To her credit, Frey has Pip acknowledge the terrible plot and world building several times….but acknowledging that the story is terrible doesn’t stop it from being terrible.

That being said The Forgotten Tale does provide an interesting look at all the problematic tropes of the fantasy genre, even if it is still entirely beholden to them. The feminism is more integrated into the story and feels more natural than the previous book which seems to throw-up buzzwords in large paragraphs. This covering of problematic tropes could have been just as well covered in a better written contemporary novel.

Perhaps the worst problem is just how things worked themselves out. The book again acknowledges that everything works out for Kintyre, which is all well and good but it doesn’t make for an interesting story. Perhaps most frustrating is Pip and Forsyth not knowing how to get home when they could have used the same method from the first book. The pieces are all still there, but instead they wait for someone else to save them.

Despite trying to be transgressive The Forgotten Tale just feels like a standard outdated fantasy story. Frey clearly has incredible knowledge of tropes and fandom but her fantasy world isn’t strong enough even if it constantly points out what is wrong with itself.

For Fans Of: Fangirl

The Sons of Thestian by M.E. Vaughan

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Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy, LGBT+
Publisher: Mag Mell Publishing
Publication Date: November 24th 2016

5 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through the author in exchange for an honest review.

Prince Jionathan has been plagued by visions of his own death for some time, but every attempt he makes to escape the city and save himself is thwarted by Magi. While the king lies dying Jionathan finally makes a successful escape followed by his ex-friend and magi Rufus Merle. Together they face faeries, bandits, other magi and eventually they must decide the fate of Jionathan’s kingdom – Harmatia.

M.E. Vaughan has created a complex magical society full of fascinating characters and places. The Sons of Thestian is full of adventure, mystery and complex political dealings. A thrilling tale that starts with a slow boil to a shocking conclusion.

The world is well-made and interesting. Vaughan has built her world and written her plot in such a way that I am entirely satisfied with the answers I have but that I still feel there is much more to explore. I am not left confused about the world but I don’t feel like it has given up everything to me yet and that is a difficult balance for any author to create.

The book’s plot is exciting enough though it does have slow spots. The real strength of the book lies in the characters. Each of Vaughan’s characters is rich in backstory and motives. Nothing is left entirely black and white, even the “bad” guys have more to them than just being bad. In fact, several of them are painfully sympathetic and seem like they might deserve a redemption arc. The protagonists have excellent chemistry and with such a wide variety of cast it’s impossible not to fall in love at least once.

Vaughan’s light LGBT representation is also commendable.It’s thrilling to just have a character be clearly LGBT+ without that being the focus of the story or without them being forced into a relationship with the first character of similar inclinations they come across. It’s not terribly important to the story that this character is LGBT+ , but it is made entirely clear what they are nevertheless.

If I disliked anything in the book it was the shallow hinted romance Jionathan explored. It didn’t really do anything to take away from the book but it wasn’t given enough development to feel real or important and it didn’t really feel like it belonged in an otherwise powerful and well-thought out story.

Though the book might take a while to get through (there is a part where the plot comes to a stand still) the ending of the story pushed it over the top for me. When all the secrets were revealed I could fully appreciate Vaughan’s brilliant foreshadowing. It was an ending that was bittersweet and brave. An ending that didn’t try to tie everything in a tight knot of happiness and it made the world and its consequences feel real.

I have become pessimistic about young adult high fantasy. I have become tired of the over-used tropes, of the love triangles and of the perfect happy endings. The Sons of Thestian is unique, complex and an absolute joy to read. Vaughan will draw you into her well-written world easily and, once there, you won’t want to leave.

For Fans Of: Throne of Glass

We Awaken by Calista Lynne

Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy, LGBT+
Publisher: Harmony Ink Press
Publication Date: July 14th 2016

2 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through the author in exchange for an honest review.

After a car crash kills her father and sends her brother into a coma life looks pretty bleak for Victoria. She wants to get into dance school in New York, but aside from pursuing that dream she’s lost interest in anything else. Until she meets Ashlinn, a girl in charge of weaving good dreams for people all over the world. Victoria is desperate to be with Ashlinn and discover herself but their relationship may have unforeseen consequences.

While Lynne’s descriptive writing style is captivating at moments the plot and characters in the novel leave something to be desired.

The story isn’t really much of a story. The fantasy elements don’t get nearly enough development (to the point where their inclusion makes the book weaker than a contemporary) and there’s not a lot of real conflict. The romance is instant with not organic build, but somehow the characters are painfully in love after a few days. The dialogue isn’t consistent for any of the characters which makes it hard to figure them out. They’ll speak one way for several chapters and then say something shockingly out of character which makes you have to reevaluate them. Most of the dialogue felt old which was only appropriate for one of the characters. We’re left with three main characters who are more or less the same aside from their main interests (dance, dreams and sex).

Lynne does represent asexuality (although there was some confusion as someone can definitely be lesbian and asexual) quite well, and I would label We Awaken as more of a coming out story than a fantasy which is a shame. Victoria’s sexuality features prominently in the book, it’s not a matter of a protagonist who happens to be asexual it is a large art of the plot which wasn’t what I was hoping for. It is very important to have books that delve deep into this topic but I am just personally sick of coming out/discovery books.

I think if Lynne had chosen to do a contemporary story centering on asexuality entirely instead of trying to incorporate fantasy and tragedy it would have worked much better. The fantasy bits are far too weak to be good. We learn very little about the “villain” (for about 20 pages) Semira even though she’s arguably the most interesting character and it’s very easy for the characters to tie up their conflict while ignoring all the important universe questions that should have been answered.

A weak conflict, insta-love romance and underdeveloped characters but an excellent read for those interested in learning more about asexuality.

For Fans Of: Keeping Her Secret

I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

Genres: Young Adult, Romance, Contemporary, LGBT
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication Date: September 16th 2014

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story.”

Nothing could ever split apart Noah and Jude – until something does. Together since before birth a tragedy and several unfortunate events rip them apart. A complicated web of lies and half-truths pushes them further and further from the other. If only they could find their way back to each other they’d learn that the world isn’t quite what they’ve made it out to be.

This book is a beautiful slow build. It has love, mystery, pain and some humour. Nelson has a unique, but polarizing writing style. Fantastical elements fuse into her contemporary setting and her descriptions are a little over the top. It’s definitely a love it or hate it sort of style.

The book is told in alternating POVs between Noah and Jude. The downside is that instead of being divided into bite-sized chapters the book is separated into eight undigestible chunks. In a story where the POVs are meant to intertwine and reveal things to you, the chapters should have been shorter and switched more often. It’s difficult to remember how what happened to Noah eight pages ago relates to a tiny event in Jude’s life now. The size of the chapters also makes the beginning of the book drag on perhaps a little too long. In fact the entire book feels longer than it needed to be.

Noah is definitely the more likable twin, but even then both stories seemed steeped in slightly unnecessary drama. There were plotlines in both that could have absolutely been dropped, or at least dealt with better. The romances were, like the writing, a little imaginative.I didn’t really feel like either of the main couples were well developed outside of lust, although the books portrayal of sex and sexuality is actually a point towards it.

There is a lot that unfortunately kept me from loving this book. I’ll Give You The Sun is a book that is obese with metaphors. I love poetic writing styles but there were times when some of the metaphors disappointed me. They felt extremely hyperbolic and slightly ridiculous.

The “twists” are really predictable, and the plot doesn’t quite go anywhere. Noah and Jude are pretty terrible, neither of their parents are great, in fact, other that Garcia it’s hard to sympathize with any of the characters for me. The worst part was the forced happy ending through MASSIVE coincidences. I’ll Give You The Sun doesn’t feel like it should have a happy ending but somehow it does even though it takes several miracles to produce.

The way this book deals with loss, sexuality, and relationships is, however, brilliant. For readers who love Nelson’s writing style it’s a book that will stay with them forever – but for those who find the excessive use of metaphors a little jarring there are other books that follow similar plots just as well.

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For Fans Of: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Keeping her Secret by Sarah Nicolas

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance, LGBT+
Publisher: Entangled: Crush
Publication Date: August 22nd 2016

2 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Riya is thrilled to attend summer camp and have a chance to practice her volleyball skills. The last thing she expects is to meet ghosts from her past – Colt and Courtney Chastain. Their friendships didn’t end on a good note. Courtney broke Riya’s heart and it’s hard to believe things could ever be good between them again. Courtney harbours her own secret – Riya changed her. She’s queen bee at the camp and can have any boy she chooses but all of them pale in comparison to Riya. Will the girls be able to let go of the past and fall in love all over again?

Romances told from both points of view always seem to fall short. It isn’t thrilling to watch two characters pine over each other when you know both characters want to be together. It’s frustrating to watch them fight when neither one wants to. A book told from just Riya’s perspective would have been much stronger. It would have allowed her to deal with her issues while creating tension. Courtney’s POV just ensures that there’s no stress.

The romance itself isn’t terribly interesting. The main characters already know each other and already have developed feelings. The steamy scenes are more stilted than sexy. There’s no thrill because both characters have POVs every chapter so readers know exactly how things will pan out. There are a lot of empty threats about Courtney’s parents and her friends that generally turn out to be very mild inconveniences at best.

It is cute at times, but mostly it feels like it’s trying too hard. It’s not touching, dramatic or erotic. It’s a romance novel where no one falls in love because that has already happened. It’s empty fluff. Even the parts that are trying really hard to be sad are still very light. It’s like cheap candy: too sugary and without substance.

Keeping her Secret is a saccharine story that’s predictable and bland. There’s no real conflict, the girls are in love from beginning to end. Very little happens over the course of this book. Verdict: fluffy and forgettable.

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Read this if you’re a fan of: Unspeakable

Simon VS. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Genres: Young Adult, Romance, Contemporary, LGBT
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: April 7th 2015

5 OUT OF 5 STARS

“People really are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows. And maybe it’s a good thing, the way we never stop surprising each other.”

Simon isn’t out, at least not until a classmate gets a hold of an e-mail he’d rather not have seen. If Simon can’t make his best friend fall for Martin his sexuality is going to be exposed. Worse, his secret crush, Blue, will be involved if Martin releases the screenshot. Simon’s school year will be a mess of navigating blackmail, friend problems, and flirty e-mails with a boyfriend who has a secret identity.

Albertalli gets it. She has captured team school and family life excellently. She has captured what it’s like to be a fan without making the book about fandom. She’s written to a T the difficult friend who everyone still loves. Best of all she’s captured the confusing and wonderful feelings of first love.

Simon VS. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is cheesy in the best way. Simon has his difficulties but nothing ever dips too far below lighthearted. Albertalli writes Simon with an excellent and unique sense of humour that will make everyone laugh and smile. It’s one of the truest representations of a feel-good read that I can think of.

This book is a romance, and the relationship between Simon and Blue is everything readers can hope for. Awkward, adorable, and undeniably hot at times. However, Albertalli doesn’t fall into the pitfall so many romance novels do. Blue is not the only thing in Simon’s life. Simon has an interesting and well-rounded family and friend group. His family is predictable, loving sisters, goofy dad, and a strict mom but the attention Albertalli paid to his friends is particularly impressive.

Simon’s friend group feels real. Leah is the real winner because she’s a character so rarely written who exists everywhere in real life. Leah is difficult. She complains, she’s making things difficult with the new girl, and she’s angry at the drop of a hat. That isn’t everything Leah is. She gets everyone a cake on their birthday. She’s an amazing artist. People can have bad traits and still be good friends. Likewise, even the annoying popular girl Taylor has a surprisingly sweet side.

This is Albertalli’s first novel, and it’s already clear that she’s perfectly suited to young adult literature. Albertalli has somehow managed to, in her debut, write one of the funniest and most realistic young adult novels I have ever read and I’m ecstatic to see what she’ll write next.

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Read this if you’re a fan of: Fangirl

Emily by Novala Takemoto

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT, Japanese
Publisher: Shueisha
Publication Date: August 5th 2016

1 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Her nickname is Emily and she wears only Emily Temple cute clothes. It’s because of this that she’s teased at school and can’t find a place to belong. When she meets a boy outside the Emily Temple cute shop they start an unlikely friendship – bonding through their separate tribulations

The book opens with the story “Readymade” which was incredibly dull and slightly pretentious. It then flows into “Corset” which can be described the same way. Nearly halfway through the book is when Emily starts and while it’s a slight improvement the stories suffer from some of the same issues.

The most glaring issue is the narration. Takemoto’s characters are hard to pin down. The middle-aged woman, middle-aged man, and teen girl all sound the same. In fact, until the point the characters specifically state their gender and age there are almost no context clues to who the might be. The first two protagonists appear to not even have names. The narration also refers to the protagonist’s love interest as “you” with no reason. This might be a quirk of Japanese literature but extremely awkwardly translated.

There is – in fact – quite a bit of awkward translation issues. The translator decides which words should remain Japanese with a footnote to explain and which to bring over. He leaves words like OL (Office Lady) abbreviated when translating wouldn’t change the meaning and uses Senior instead of Senpai when in English calling someone “Senior” doesn’t feel at all the same.

“Corset” and Emily are both disturbingly sexual. Sexual in a way that sometimes is meant to be sexy but isn’t. Examining only Emily there is a scene with sexual assault on a child that really doesn’t add much to the story. There’s a separate male on male rape. There’s a consensual sex scene that’s uncomfortable at best. It’s not clear what Emily is going for but it doesn’t feel like a book about geek culture at all.

There’s no real conclusion to Emily. There are a few pretentious paragraphs about the real message of the story – how things change and happiness is fleeting – and then it ends. The book is at its climax, no pun intended, where all the problems have been built up and we don’t get to know how it ends. It’s just over. It’s tremendously unsatisfying to read, the author is clearly pushing and agenda and it doesn’t feel like it’s examining the culture of Lolita fashion at all.

It’s a weak novel and it’s a shame that the translation kicked Emily while it was down.

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Read this if you’re a fan of: Summer, Fireworks and My Corpse

This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

Genres: Young Adult, Thriller, Contemporary, LGBT+
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: January 5th 2016

4 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Together we could be so strong, but the gun has made us individuals.”

Fifty-four minutes is all it takes. Told from four different points of view, This is Where it Ends tells a thrilling and tragic tale of a school shooting. Each of the four stories takes place in two to four minute chunks as they struggle to survive.

This is a review that is going to be extremely hard to write. To put it simply: I loved this book. It was exciting and fun to read, easy to finish in a single sitting. Above all books should entertain, but I’m not entirely blind to the issues that stopped it from being a complete masterpiece.

There were parts of this book where I could not suspend my disbelief. Where I realized certain things were just TOO ridiculous to be realistic. Three of the four main characters stare down the barrel of a gun while giving speeches. Two of these speeches read like prose from a John Green novel far more suited to a graduate of literature than a teenager. Courage does exist, but these characters spit in the face of death. They’ve crossed the thin line between brave and stupid. There are exchanges I cannot force myself to believe would ever happen between a teenager and someone who just murdered a dozen people.

It’s a novel that should have been about victims, but made itself about heroes.

I know that sentence sounds like it’s a good thing but it’s not. A lot of the trauma a shooting like this should create is lost because our protagonists are too busy giving speeches about their love or trying to save the whole school.  The protagonists are almost flawless caring for sick mothers, working hard, defending siblings; I could not give you a single flaw of any of the four main characters. Sure Tomás beats people up but only for good reasons. He’s lovably mischievous. The four protagonists barely even sound different in their narration; which doesn’t even cover that Claire is horrifically boring because she’s not even involved in the shooting or the rescue.

On the other end we have our shooter, what a twisted caricature he is. Tyler does at times speak like a school shooter would; but the entire affair has been made too black and white. Tyler is not a kid who snapped, he’s evil. Tyler is given a few good characteristics immediately swept away with more stories about how he was definitely pretty bad the whole time. It changes the situation from a tragedy no one could have seen coming to “yeah maybe you should have noticed when he did all this other evil stuff before this”.

He’s also a flawless murderer. The amount of set-up he does and the fact that almost nothing goes wrong for him is entirely unbelievable. Things only start to go wrong for him when it’s convenient story-wise and then they go so far in the opposite direction it’s still hard to believe.

it’s also very diverse, and diversity is a good thing; but Nijkamp chose to set this book in Alabama. We’re meant to believe that in Alabama an out-and-proud gay student has few issues and everyone loves him for standing up to bullying. Like discrimination against the LGBT+ community doesn’t exist in Alabama schools anymore. Not to mention that in this small town a shooting manages to last almost an hour while the police muddle around outside waiting – which is no longer something they do in school shooting scenarios.

I’m torn; I loved this book despite all the issues. It was a joy to read; but it is written with bare bones understands of school shootings and school shooter psyches. It puts good and evil hats on the characters and fine; we know school shooters are bad. What they are doing is bad; the interesting part is why. Tyler is given some very flimsy motivation and sent on his way.

This book is a good thriller. It is not a good book dealing with school shootings. It’s not a good book about the moral complexity and why shooters become killers. It’s not even very good at creating the diversity it strives to feature. But it’s entertaining. I have to give it that.

It may have MANY flaws; but it was a good read and if you don’t think about it too much it’s a lot of fun.

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Read this if you’re a fan of: All the Bright Places