IRON WIDOW by Xiran Jay Zhao – double review!

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain. 

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​ 

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.


Title : Iron Widow
Author : Xiran Jay Zhao
Series : Iron Widow (book one)
Format : eARC
Page Count : 400
Genre : YA fantasy
Publisher : PenguinTeen
Release Date : September 21, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis/Micky
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★.5/★ ★ ★ ★


Hollis’ 4.5 star review

I’ve gone from one debut to another, had huge expectations for both, and yet wow what a different experience has been had. I’m actually | | close to rounding up and giving this the full five star treatment, to be honest. It’s so close to that feeling. And wow has it been a long time since I’ve felt that.

How do you take the fight out of half the population and render them willing slaves? You tell them they are meant to do nothing but serve from the minute they are born. You tell them they’re weak. You tell them they’re prey. You tell them over and over, until it’s the only truth they’re capable of living.

You’ve probably seen the pitch by now : The Handmaid’s Tale meets Pacific Rim and I think that’s actually a great vibe to have going into this because it lives upto it so well. But there’s also a lot more going on than just that so don’t worry. Much awaits you.

Men want us so badly for our bodies, yet hate us so much for our minds.

But before you even get to the story the author has a fabulous note to explain their inspiration, their themes, and more. It did such a great job setting the tone for this story and even though I’m very spoiler averse (not that there were any) I really appreciated the insight.

[..] nothing in this world has been created, built, or set up in our favour. If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.”

Maybe I should actually talk about the book though? As with many favourites, though, sometimes that’s hard to do. Because even though this book isn’t subtle about its themes, there is still nuance to explore, evolutions to witness, and a few little surprises that didn’t exactly surprise me but I was delighted to see play out.. only to then be actually surprised by something. Which maybe happened once or twice. I was digging it.

Love cannot save me. I choose vengeance.

As for the romance, well. I don’t know if it counts as a spoiler but for those who haven’t yet seen the reveal, and want to experience that on page, I won’t say anything. It isn’t hard to search out if you’re curious though! That said, I would’ve liked some of it to be a little better developed but.. well, again, saying more would be a spoiler.

Rarely, no matter how much I love a book, do I feel the desire to flip back to the beginning and immediately reread. But Iron Widow makes me want to do so. I’m sure there were things I missed because I d e v o u r e d this in one sitting but I will save my reread until book two comes out. Which, like.. can that be now? Please?

[..] he’s trying to worm into my mind and shackle me down with morals, so he can feel more comfortable about my existence. Too bad. I am exactly the kind of ice-blooded, rotten-hearted girl he fears I am. And I am fine with that.

If you want to read a down-with-the-patriarchy story that is less “girl power!” and more “I am sick of this shit”; about a character who streaks right past shades of grey and fully embraces the dark; who claws her way out of the pain, literal and figurative, of existence to fight, every day, and challenge everything she’s been brought up to believe; in a world where pilots are both celebrity and saviour as they battle aliens.. and I mean, I could go on. I haven’t even touched on Li Shimin who, besides Zetian, stole my heart.

Preorder this book, request this book, beg you library to buy it. Do whatever you can to read this book.

** I received an ARC from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **


Micky’s 4 star review

Headlines:
F*** the patriarchy
Interesting relationships
Foreshadowing and twists

Iron Widow was a middle finger to this fantasy world’s patriarchy, seemingly modelled on historical and contemporary issues. How could any feminist not rise to this reading occasion and enjoy? The women in this fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian (take your pick) society were demeaned, abused, used, trafficked and raised to serve the men. How this was perpetuated through the society was totally believable, we’ve seen the like in our world and still do. Zetian’s empowerment was a small growing beam of feminism, surging into a path towards dominance and I couldn’t resent her decisions one bit.

What’s holding them back is that they don’t believe there’s any way for a women to live a meaningful life other than by rearing a family. I’ll show them; I’ll prove to them that it’s not true. We can live for more. We can live for justice. Change. Vengeance. Power.

Zetian was a morally grey character with totally understandable motivations. Her frienships in Shimin and Yizhi brought balance to her ferocity. Nevertheless, expect violence, gore and unconventional relationships in this story, that for me, made it all the richer.

There was a fair bit of foreshadowing in this book and colour me surprised when a few crucial plot twists were called out much earlier in my mind. I didn’t mind that at all and I really appreciated the plot directions.

The end section felt a bit of plot chaos, understandably fast-paced, twisty with battle prominence. The ending secures readers for the next installment and I can’t wait.

WHITE SMOKE by Tiffany D. Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out in this chilling YA psychological thriller and modern take on the classic haunted house story from New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson!

Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper.

The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone.

But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?

As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks.


Title : White Smoke
Author : Tiffany D. Jackson
Format : eARC
Page Count : 384
Genre : YA psychological thriller
Publisher : Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date : September 14, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 3 review

Throughout this read, I was definitely in the ‘like’ camp more than the ‘love’ and had it been the opposite I would’ve been far more disappointed by the ending than I was. But it was still a huge, abrupt, bummer.

This story is half horror and half psychological anxiety fuelled discomfort. It also has a less than fun new blended family dynamic which was grating in a whole different way, too. While I enjoyed this when it was a horror, I was equally horrified by the circumstances that had plagued this town, the violent gentrification that had occurred (and was still occurring) at the expense of others; but at the same time this particular plot sort’ve went off the rails in an unbelievable way (not the criminalizations, that, unfortunately is very believable, but the shady corporate conspiracy and the specifics of what they had set up..? yeah, no) — which, considering I was reading about ghosts and hauntings and potential possession, says a lot.

As a haunted house story, this was great. For someone with an anxiety, reading about Mari’s phobias, it was just as unsettling. Everything else, and the ending.. I don’t know. Equally in the ‘I don’t know’ pile of things is the reluctance for Mari to jump to the very obvious conclusions about what was happening around her. Why she was so slow to pick up on this, to resist it when others were more convinced, I have no clue.

This one gets a cautious recommend out of me, I think. I absolutely don’t want to dissuade you from picking it up but at the same time I’m not going to encourage anyone to read it.. just incase it’s even less a hit for you than it was for me.

** I received an ARC from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

THE CHARM OFFENSIVE by Alison Cochrun

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever Afterexpects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.

In this witty and heartwarming romantic comedy—reminiscent of Red, White & Royal Blue and One to Watch—an awkward tech wunderkind on a reality dating show goes off-script when sparks fly with his producer.


Title : The Charm Offensive
Author : Alison Cochrun
Format : eARC
Page Count : 368
Genre : LGBTQIAP+ romance
Publisher : Atria Books
Release Date : September 7, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★


Hollis’ 4 review

I snagged this from NG at almost the eleventh hour after seeing some rave reviews and I’m really glad I did. Also, this is a debut? Seriously? Wow.

I wasn’t at all interested in a premise surrounding a Bachelor-like reality tv show but the aforementioned reviews promised something grand, and queer, and delightful, and so I took that risk. And it paid off. This isn’t a story where that plot fades into the background, though, this is literally the premise, so if it’s really not your thing, I don’t think you’d be able to enjoy this.

But if you enjoy conversations around mental health, discovering one’s true self, support for a late-stage (though it really isn’t ever too late) coming out, this’ll be right up your alley.

Charlie, one of our MCs, is cast in the role of Prince Charming in a bid to correct the damage done to his reputation when he’s ousted as co-owner of his tech company. Dev, who has worked for Ever After for six years, who still believes in happily ever afters despite the end of his six year relationship, is the one tapped to coach him through the show and the dates when it is quickly obvious Charlie has almost no social skills or ability to cope with what he’s signed up for. Soon enough, their awkward acquaintance becomes friendship and then becomes more.

Charlie was so so easy to love. Watching him bloom into someone more confident, more aware of his true self, as well as someone who was seen, and own both without reserve was just gorgeous. Dev’s character definitely took a turn I didn’t expect, which was kind of the point, though I did sometimes feel he was a little inconsistent; nothing to do with his mental health, just little blips I didn’t quite get.

Once again, it bears mentioning, I’m shocked this was a debut. This was so good. You definitely shouldn’t go into this expecting full on fluff — in addition to discussion of mental health and therapy there was some homophobia and an all-around unpleasant “villain” — and while there was one part that had me howling, it was a little more serious than it was lighthearted or comedy based (outside of the outrageous premise of the show, that is).

I can’t speak for any of the rep (please check out other reviews where you can) but I definitely felt a lot of the care the author put into handling her characters and everything that made them who they were. I would definitely recommend.

** I received an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

THE SHAADI SET-UP by Lillie Vale

In this witty and heartfelt rom-com debut for fans of Jasmine Guillory, Emily Henry, and Tessa Bailey, an Indian-American woman signs herself and her boyfriend up for a matchmaking site to prove they’re a perfect match, only to be paired with her ex instead.

High school sweethearts Rita Chitniss and Milan Rao were the golden couple, until the day he broke her heart. Now, six years later, Rita has turned her passion for furniture restoration into a career and has an almost-perfect boyfriend, Neil. The last thing she needs is for Milan to re-enter her life, but that’s exactly what happens when her mother, an unfailing believer in second chances, sets them up. Milan is just as charming, cocky, and confident as he was back in school. Only this time, he actually needs her business expertise, not her heart, to flip a hard-to-sell house for his realty agency. 

While Rita begrudgingly agrees to help, she’s not taking any risks. To prove she’s definitely over him, she signs herself and Neil up on MyShaadi.com, a Desi matchmaking site famous for its success stories and trustworthy enough to convince everyone that she and Neil are the new and improved couple. Instead, she’s shocked when MyShaadi’s perfect match for her isn’t Neil…it’s Milan. Ignoring the website and her mother is one thing, but ignoring Milan proves much more difficult, especially when she promises to help him renovate the beach house of her dreams. And as the two of them dive deeper into work—and their pasts—Rita begins to wonder if maybe her match wasn’t so wrong after all…. 


Title : The Shaadi Set-Up
Author : Lillie Vale
Format : eARC
Page Count : 368
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date : September 7, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 2 star review

I was so excited for The Shaadi Set-Up when I first heard about it and, though it started interesting, though not very strong, I still managed to have pretty high hopes.

Hopes that were rather quickly, and dramatically, dashed.

I don’t really know how this crashed so quickly for me but nothing really fit? We are meant to believe our MC is interested enough in her boyfriend to come up with this convoluted scheme to pair up on a Desi marriage site, in order to get their parents to — independently, not as a couple — stop hassling them to marry but we’re repeatedly shown she barely tolerates the guy she’s with. So, what gives? Why bother? Why do we spend 50% of the book cycling through this process, long after we are confronted with the long-ago love who broke her heart and she’s obviously going to end up with?

That drama aside, I just found the MC — and the idiot boyfriend — pretty insufferable, annoying, and just not likeable; which made sense for the boyfriend but less so for the MC. The best friend seemed delightfully quirky but has so little page time, and later just acts too weird when she does pop up, that it doesn’t work as a fun distraction from the rest.

Of course, when we finally get all the on-page time between the MC and her ex, we drag out any kind of closure for ages, and then when things are explained it’s just.. really? Is that it? Which, is at least sorta addressed on-page, but overall it’s just not quite satisfying.

This is also right around the time that the ARC, which has the fairly common formatting weirdness, started getting really weird. Scenes seemed to jump around, feel oddly placed, details didn’t line up, and as we started to come to the big resolution moment, nothing seemed to jive properly. Whether that’s a combination of rushing the scene and just a rough draft, I don’t know. But it was very jarring.

I found in general some dialogue to be strange, too; exchanges where instead of exposition all the explanation was done in dialogue even though the conversation didn’t call for it. In a similar vein, this started out with some very adult stuff on page, which surprised me because it was like.. chapter two, maybe? I could be wrong, and then it disappears completely except for random tingles, a bunch of fade to black, and then random references to sexual acts that were performed. This felt strange and inconsistent and like the author themselves didn’t know how spicy to make this.

This could’ve been so fun but no fun was had. For those who might want to pick it up, this’ll what you’ll find : a second-chance romance (admittedly, not my favourite), but make it Desi, some forced proximity and slowburn, and enough house renovating and flipping and designing and thrifting to make you nostalgic for saturday afternoon binges of Trading Spaces and Love It or List It (or maybe these shows still exist, I don’t know, I don’t have cable); but honestly this inevitably just felt like a bunch of tropes thrown together without actually considering how all the pieces fit or how the characters fit into those pieces to make the story, the history, the angst, and the reunion, actually work.

I believe this is the author’s debut, or adult debut at least, so I imagine a lot of my issues could just be growing pains, but I didn’t come out of this with enough enjoyment to try the author again, sadly.

** I received an ARC from Edelweiss+ and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

VOW OF THIEVES by Mary E. Pearson

Kazi and Jase have survived, stronger and more in love than ever. Their new life now lies before them―the Ballengers will be outlaws no longer, Tor’s Watch will be a kingdom, and the two of them will meet all challenges side by side, together at last.

But an ominous warning mars their journey back, and in their rush to return to Tor’s Watch, just outside the fortress walls, they are violently attacked and torn apart―and each is thrust into their own new hell.

Unsure whether the other is alive or dead, Kazi and Jase must keep their wits among their greatest enemies and unlikeliest allies. And all the while, Death watches and waits.


Title : Dance of Thieves
Author : Mary E. Pearson
Format : eARC
Page Count : 496
Genre : YA fantasy
Publisher : Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Release Date : August 6, 2019

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ .75


Hollis’ 3.75 star review

So, my theories were crap. But only because at least one thing I expected to be revealed.. wasn’t. Which is perplexing. Are there more books to come for this world to explain? Is it something that just won’t be? I have fewer theories but more questions.

I truly don’t know how to rate these books. More and more I hate having a star system and wish I didn’t have to assign a value to anything. Anyone else? Anyway.

What Pearson does so well, and this book/series is no exception, is how messy and complex and crafted the plots are. Some characters (usually the villains) are eight steps ahead of the rest of the players; not in an outlandish, it’s not possible, kind of way but legit villainy. Obsession. Carefully considered moves and steps and feints. Which makes sense because the heroes, those fighting back, are so good, so clever, themselves that they need a true opposition to make the stakes feel high. And they always do feel high; especially in this instalment. 

For all that the action was dialled up in this one, letting the romance take a bit of a backseat, I did find myself pulled away from the story more than book one. I don’t know why. Might’ve just been my distractible brain.

But for all that I’m fretting over the rating, for all that I wasn’t as absorbed, I did still devour this book and am actually kind of sad I’m now all caught up. I guess I’ll be joining the queue of fans to see if there’s more to come from this world which is such a strange mix of fantasy, dystopia, and science fiction. Am I still the only one who doesn’t quite know how the original world fell apart, though? Maybe one day I’ll figure it out.

** I received an ARC from Edelweiss+ and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

CAZADORA by Romina Garber

In Cazadora, the follow-up to Lobizona, Romina Garber continues to weave Argentine folklore and real-world issues into a haunting, fantastical, and romantic story that will reunite readers with Manu and her friends as they continue to fight for a better future.


Title : Cazadora
Author : Romina Garber
Series : Lobizona
Format : eARC
Page Count : 400
Genre : YA fantasy
Publisher : Wednesday Books
Release Date : August 17, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 2.75 star review

Did I think this was a duology? Yes. Am I disappointed? A bit. Because even though my feelings about this instalment were kind of lukewarm, the ending hooked me. I kind of expect to be in the same spot again with book three, where I end this review thinking the next book might inspire some love and probably being a little let down again.. but oh well, we’re going to do it anyway.

Bruja. Lobizón. There’s no accompanying symbol, but there’s no need. The gendered language makes it clear which one is for girls and which one is for boys. There’s no breaking out the binary, no room for anything in between.

Some of what I struggled with in book one wasn’t here in book two, which was great, but overall I’m not 100% what actually happened in this book to differentiate it from book one. I mean, yes, we had the big capture, the big confrontation, but the majority of this book was just going through similar motions except the world expanded a bit more from the binary structure introduced in Lobizona. Until those misfits, much like their strict counterparts, weren’t willing to unbend quite as much as expected. Part of me appreciated it, because going with the flow would’ve been a little too easy, but it did reinforce the whole ‘what was the point of this’ feeling. I imagine where we go next will be to lean back into a lot of the themes of book one — isolation, illegal, unwanted — with a few key differences.. such as the truth being out in the open. I can’t picture how this ends, though; so that’s something.

They’ve been making up stories about independent girls in every tradition since forever. And I think it’s time we take back our narrative.

As creative and visual as this world is (don’t ask me why but my brain conjures Avatar-like colours and scenery), I do think it is a bit of a distraction from the dragged out plot. The themes, the dialogue, are all just as important and great as they were in book one, but.. I don’t know. There’s just a but for me.

Again, the ending was good, I will be back for more, but am I still sad I’m not loving this world? So much. Because of that, please disregard this review. I won’t recommend you pick it up but I think this is important enough that you should anyway.

** I received an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

BATTLE ROYAL by Lucy Parker – double review!

Beloved author Lucy Parker pens a delicious new romantic comedy that is a battle of whisks and wits.

Ready…

Four years ago, Sylvie Fairchild charmed the world as a contestant on the hit baking show, Operation Cake. Her ingenious, colorful creations captivated viewers and intrigued all but one of the judges, Dominic De Vere, the hottest pastry chef in London. When her glittery unicorn cake went spectacularly sideways, Dominic was quick to vote her off the show. Since then, Sylvie has managed to use her fame to help fulfill her dream of opening a bakery, Sugar Fair. The toast of Instagram, Sugar Fair has captured the attention of the Operation Cake producers…and a princess.

Set…

Dominic is His Majesty the King’s favorite baker, the go-to for sweet-toothed A-List celebrities, and a veritable British institution. He’s brilliant, talented, hard-working. And an icy, starchy grouch. Learning that the irksome Sylvie will be joining him on the Operation Cake judging panel is enough to make the famously dour baker even more grim. Her fantastical baking is only slightly more troublesome than the fact that he can’t stop thinking about her pink-streaked hair and irrepressible dimple.

Match…

When Dominic and Sylvie learn they will be fighting for the once in a lifetime opportunity to bake a cake for the upcoming wedding of Princess Rose, the flour begins to fly as they’re both determined to come out on top.

The bride adores Sylvie’s quirky style. The palace wants Dominic’s classic perfection.

In this royal battle, can there be room for two?


Title : Battle Royal
Author : Lucy Parker
Series : Palace Insiders (book one)
Format : eARC / eBook
Page Count : 411
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : Avon
Release Date : August 17, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis/Micky
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★ / ★ ★ ★ ★


Hollis’ 4 star review

While Battle Royal shares some similarities to one of my all-time favourite Parker reads, and obviously by the above rating I really loved it, I’ll admit this might end up being on the bottom rung of my top five favourites from this author. Which just goes to show you how much I love her books because so many of them are so great. But it’s easily the one that made me cry the most.

Some of us have compassion for others. It’s called empathy.
Some of us would hug a rabid squirrel if it shed a few tears and burbled an improbably sob story. It’s called gullibility.”

This story is doing a lot plot-wise, which may actually be what works against it a little bit, only because sometimes certain elements don’t quite get the full attention they deserve, or are tied-off pretty quickly and conveniently, but despite all that, I enjoyed everything that was done. And was also, like, moved by much of it; see aforementioned tears.

[..] it’s way too.. not beige to come from your kitchens.”
A neutral palette is universally appropriate.”
That’s not how you pronounce ‘dull’.

The obvious plot points to note are easily deduced by both cover and summary; there’s a pair of rival grumpy/sunshine bakers who feature not only on a GBBO-like baking competition but also are competing to win the royal wedding cake contract. But what’s less obvious? Is the lovely infusion of found family dynamics. As well as complicated biological-family relations. Less lovely but just as emotional? The talk and processing of loss and grief.

Jealousy is a destructive, pointless emotion and a complete waste of time.
Fairly annoying, then, that it’s seeping from your pores right now?
Very.”

Like many romances these days, we’re getting more bang for our buck and within the pages of this cutesy adorable outside is a lot of substance. Which isn’t to say the cutesy adorable ones aren’t just as satisfying. But I definitely picked this up for something joyful and fun and I got that.. and tears. That’s all I mean. And I don’t remotely regret getting more than I wanted. There were plenty of laughs (full out cackles a time or two) and I really enjoyed watching these two opposites fall for each other amongst all the other excitement happening around them. Bonus points because they are a bit older than the typical romance protagonists and, as always, Parker makes the steamy moments steamy and a little silly and all around endearingly real.

You have the table side manner of the shark from Jaws.

Though I maybe didn’t come off as strong about my love for this one, I think that’s a combination of having too many top top favourites from the author and also just because this one, despite the emotes, was a bit of a softer touch. A slower, gentler, burn of a story.

I’m equal parts terrified and aroused.”
What an excellent relationship motto for us.”

All that to say : this is a definite recommend. And I can’t wait for the next in the series.

** I received an ARC from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **


Micky’s 4 star review

Headlines:
When your judge becomes your peer
When you hate each other, or do you…
A combination of family & found family

Well Lucy Parker started a brand new series in style and confirmed my trust in her brand of romance is unwavering. This story had a combination of a re-imagining of the Great British Bake Off with royalty, judges of the competition, business rivalry and so much chemistry.

Sylvie was the wildly creative character in this, full of glitter, focus and drive while Dominic was an ex-mentor as such, clean lines, minimalist and her opposite in every way. We all know that opposites make for the best couples though and this book provided an excellent plot to work alongside what built between these two. There was the most compelling family and found family context to this story, Pet had me glued to the page.

“You have the tableside manner of the shark from Jaws.”

Lucy Parker writes with wit (as ever) and dialogue that makes you feel the emotional temperature. The chemistry was palpable and there was nothing I didn’t enjoy about this read. I’m truly excited for more from this series.

Thank you to the author for the arc that I won in a giveaway, this hasn’t affected by unbiased opinion.

LIVING BEYOND BORDERS edited by Margarita Longoria – double review!

Twenty stand-alone short stories, essays, poems, and more from celebrated and award-winning authors make up this YA anthology that explores the Mexican American experience. With works by Francisco X. Stork, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, David Bowles, Rubén Degollado, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, Diana López, Xavier Garza, Trinidad Gonzales, Alex Temblador, Aida Salazar, Lupe Ruiz-Flores, Sylvia Sanchez Garza, Dominic Carrillo, Angela Cervantes, Carolyn Dee Flores, René Saldaña Jr., Laura Perez, Justine Narro, Daniel García Ordáz, and Anna Meriano.

In this mixed-media collection of short stories, personal essays, poetry, and comics, this celebrated group of authors share the borders they have crossed, the struggles they have pushed through, and the two cultures they continue to navigate as Mexican American. Living Beyond Borders is at once an eye-opening, heart-wrenching, and hopeful love letter from the Mexican American community to today’s young readers. 


Title : Living Beyond Borders : Stories About Growing Up Mexican in America
Author : edited by Margarita Longoria
Format : eARC
Page Count : 224
Genre : YA contemporary/mixed media anthology/short stories
Publisher : Philomel Books
Release Date : August 17, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis/Micky
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★/ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 4 star review

Who made the rules on what being Mexican was or wasn’t? I’d always been told to check a box — to fit in one category or the other. But it wasn’t ever that easy. And why did it matter?

I wasn’t sure I was going to rate this, as I don’t tend to award stars to non-fiction (not that I read much of it, to be fair, despite my best intentions!), but as I think most of what is comprised of this anthology is fiction (though I could of course be wrong..), I felt it deserved to be rated. Particularly in the hopes that people see the stars and feel inspired to look a little closer at this and maybe, even, hopefully, pick it up.

Mom and Dad used to love taking me to all the Mexican and Chicanx pride events, and I used to like it too until I got older and couldn’t wrap my head around how it’s possible to dance with such fierce colourful joy while shouldering a legacy of so much pain.

Though there are twenty different offerings within this collection this is not a long read and, in the case of some of the specific ones I’ll shoutout below, I wish it had been longer. I can’t possibly know the impact of what this collection will do for readers who see themselves, or their parents, or their loved ones, in these stories but I have a feeling this’ll mean a lot for a lot of people.

I understand that for many Americans — including my own parents — being seen as American is a struggle that can be tiring and long.

As for those standouts? These were mine.

Coco Chamoy y Chango by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo was the first one to make me wish there had been more to it. I wanted to keep reading, I wanted to learn more about these characters, and where they were going. It was such a casual little snapshot in time but it made an impression.

Next was My Name is Dolores by Guadalupe Ruiz-Flores and, to quickly sum up, it broke my heart. The image of that little girl.. well, I won’t spoil. But it was one of those little big moments that leaves quiet devastation in its wake.

An Ode to My Papi by Guadalupe García McCall might have been the shortest of the bunch but.. I don’t want to call it lovely, because it was also so sad, but it was a bittersweet, heartwarming, heartaching little tribute. Though there’s nothing little about the message.

Finally, there was La Princesa Mileidy Dominguez by Rubén Degollado which snuck up on me. It wasn’t that I wasn’t invested in the story as it unfolded but it wasn’t until the final paragraph or two when I realized how much I had softened as the story went on until I found myself brushing away tears. Partially it was the importance of the celebration described, the moment of transition from child to young adult, but it was more how this group of strangers, this community, came together without hesitation. It was incredibly moving.

There was one more quote I really wanted to share so I’ll use it to sign off this review but suffice it to say yes, I had some favourites, but most of the quotes I’ve pulled didn’t even come from those stories I’ve mentioned. There was something different, something important, something moving, in everything offered in this collection. And also something for everyone.

I’m so tired of these trying political times, and I’m tired of trying to care about the newest protests and the hashtags and the kids who die or almost die and get fifteen minutes of fame from the adults who have all the money and the clout and the thoughts and prayers but don’t actually do anything.

** I received an ARC from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **


Micky’s 5 star review

Here’s a collection of short stories to push you right into your emotions and some of them are going to be discomforting ones. From the first story of this anthology of stories/poems/letters from people who have straddled the Mexican/American borders, I was absorbed. These stories made me angry and hopeful, sad and in awe.

While I appreciated them all, here’s a flavour of some of the ones that either hit me in the gut, educated me or transported me to someone else’s experience (sometimes all of these things).

Ghetto Is Not An Adjective by Dominic Carrillo took a chance encounter and made an impact through poetry, ignorance felt like it was the theme for this story.

“There Are Mexicans In Texas?” by Trinidad Gonzales really conveyed the importance of family history to how he’s navigated peoples’ ignorance and racism at various junctures. These familial stories seemed to ground the author’s sense of self. I could have read his experiences and anecdotes for much longer. This quote really hit home and has relevance to other countries too:

The struggle to belong is found not only in the politics of the street, but in official institutions that are supposed to be inclusive of all Americans.

Ode to My Papi by Guadalupe García McCall squeezed my heart in a mere moment on the paper. So much was conveyed in a short space.

There were so many others to mention, but I wanted to give a dynamic snapshot of what’s on offer here.

I live overseas but I read and watch these issues, wanting to know more, especially when tensions were heightened under the 45th POTUS’ control. This book afforded me a deeper dive into individual experiences both fictionalised and non-fiction. I recommend this to all and it is definitely suitable from teenage upwards.

The editor/author provided me with a early copy through netgalley but this has not influenced by review.

ROLE MODEL by Rachel Reid

Troy Barrett has been freshly traded to Ottawa after calling out Dallas Kent during a team practice. He wants to be a better person, and the weird, scrappy energy of the struggling Ottawa team seems like the place to…well. It seems like the only place that will have Troy right now.

Fortunately the Ottawa team includes Ilya Rozanov and Wyatt Hayes, and also includes an adorable social media manager, Harris Drover. Harris is the opposite of Troy in every way: friendly, cheerful, chatty, and goofy with a booming voice, a startlingly loud laugh, and Pride pins all over his denim jacket. Definitely not the sort of person Troy would normally associate with, and yet…


Title : Role Model
Author : Rachel Reid
Series : Game Changes (book five)
Format : eARC
Page Count : 284
Genre : LGBTQIAP+ sports romance
Publisher : Carina Press
Release Date : August 10, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ .5


Hollis’ 3.5 star review

I always have a good time when I reunite with the Game Changers series and this instalment was no exception.

Hi. I’m Troy. What’s your name?
Fuck you.”
Nice name. Pretty.”

This particular match-up is between a closeted player working through a redemption arc and the gregarious and very out social media manager for the team he’s recently been traded to. Naturally there are lots of cameos from characters from previous books (I l y a) but instead of feeling intrusive, as it sometimes does in other series, in this particular world it’s just excellent (because I l y a).

Yeah, I talk a good game but honestly, while I do enjoy this author and her books, the thing that has me go grabby hands are the cameos. And the fact that each one brings us closer to the sequel for that particular pairing.

I’m going to fucking kill you, Rozanov.”
You have been saying that for years. But I am still here.”
I think he likes you.”
Of course he does. I’m great.

But back to Role Model. I liked it probably on par with book three, it doesn’t quite edge out the last one (which was the closest I had come to love since book two), but I like that Reid offers different tropes and different circumstances to navigate even if most follow the basic formula we come to expect.

I might forget the specific details of this plot by the time I pick up the next one (which sadly happens every time) but I’m sure when I get to see these characters, along with their contemporaries, on page, either as a reference or actively in a scene, it’ll all come back. This series is like that; it’s a comfort and it’s fun and it’s a good time.

** I received an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

ALL’S WELL by Mona Awad

Miranda is a theatre professor whose life is less than satisfactory. After falling during a performance early in her acting career, she finds herself in constant, seemingly incurable pain and struggles to even sit still. When she hopes to revisit the glory of her acting days by having her class stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, she is met with a mutiny from her students, led by her least favourite undergrad–the devious Briana. Forced instead to put on Hamlet, Miranda is devastated at the duplicity of her students, underhandedness of her boss, and is consumed by frustration at the lack of control she has over her own body and life.

When she’s drowning her sorrows at the local pub one night, her path takes a sharp turn. Three mysterious men in suits who seem to know everything about her–her pain, her glory, and her deepest desires–offer to help her. After drinking a glowing, golden liquid, she wakes up the next morning with no memory of the night before, and her chronic pain has lifted. Miranda’s life starts falling into place: she is not only walking but running with ease; Briana has become gravely ill; and a twist of fate allows Miranda to stage her beloved All’s Well That Ends Well. But as a lover of the Bard, Miranda should know that sudden streaks of luck always come at a price… 

All’s Well is a searing exploration of chronic pain and depression through the classic tensions between saints and sinners, healers and witches, revenge and jealousy, love and lust to craft a completely modern and truly unique rendition of a Shakespearean play


Title : All’s Well
Author : Mona Awad
Format : eARC
Page Count : 368
Genre : contemporary / magical realism?
Publisher : Hamish Hamilton
Release Date : August 3, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ 


Hollis’ 1 star review

All’s well.. now that I have finished this book. Because this was not for me.

I don’t quite know what I expected from this; well, okay, this was one of those rare cases where I did read most of the blurb before requesting. So I expected the summary. Which does sound good. And yes, I had heard some strange and varied things about Bunny, the author’s previous release, and thought, of the two, this might be more my speed to test the waters on a new-to-me author.

But no.

While the commentary surrounding chronic pain and how it is treated in the medical community, particularly with women patients, was definitely frustrating, and heartbreaking, the writing was.. manic? Stream of conscious strangeness? And that was before the was-it-magic-or-delusion-who-even-knows.

This was just so strange, and often uncomfortable — in the sense that it was visceral and I did, often, find myself in Miranda’s shoes as if I, too, was haunted by her pain; at least in the beginning, before I started to check out. So I did feel things but I didn’t like anything I felt and, again, the rest just felt like it went a bit off the rails. It was also a bit repetitive with the actual preparation of the play, which made it feel dragged out, and.. yeah, obviously, I didn’t like this so why I’m still trying to justify the reasons, I don’t know.

I can’t make myself round up on this and definitely can’t recommend it, either.

** I received an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **