ACT COOL by Tobly Smith – double review!

A trans teen walks the fine line between doing whatever it takes for his acting dream and staying true to himself in this moving, thought-provoking YA novel from the acclaimed author of Stay Gold.

Aspiring actor August Greene just landed a coveted spot at the prestigious School of Performing Arts in New York. There’s only one problem: His conservative parents won’t accept that he’s transgender. And to stay with his aunt in the city, August must promise them he won’t transition.

August is convinced he can play the part his parents want while acting cool and confident in the company of his talented new friends.

But who is August when the lights go down? And where will he turn when the roles start hitting a little too close to home?


Title : Act Cool
Author : Tobly Smith
Format : ARC/Hardback
Page Count : 352
Genre : LGBTQIAP+ contemporary YA romance
Publisher : Quill Tree Books/Harper 360YA
Release Date : September 7, 2021

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


Hollis’ 2.5 star review

I said this in another queer YA contemporary review recently that it’s important for queer and trans characters to have messy love lives, or messy stories, or just be messy, because so many of those stories already exist for straight and cis-gendered content.

However, queer or not, messy doesn’t always make it easy to love.

August is a trans boy who has recently run away from tinytown, Pennsylvania to not only avoid conversion therapy as a result of his religious parents rejecting his identity but also to attend a prestigious acting school in New York courtesy of his aunt’s connections. Suffice it to say August is going through it. He has baggage. He’s recently transitioned, come out, and he’s dealing with a new city, new school, and finally being his authentic self. Sorta. But because of all that, because he’s new to almost every aspect of his life, he’s also changing personas the way most people change shirts. This makes August a difficult character to get a read on. 

Now, listen, I get it, I’m old now but I was hip and young once. I understand the concept of having a different angle with different groups; hell, most of us still have elements of that to our personality : it’s called work and home life. However.. this isn’t just August at Home vs August at School. This is too many Augusts; funny guy, serious guy, acting guy, flirting guy, humble guy.. again, how am I supposed to know who I’m reading about if he’s just a mask?

Eventually this does phase out when he addresses it, or rather when he gets called out of it multiple times and then addresses it, and again, so much of it is understandable. But it’s also hard.

August gets caught up in the buzz and high of being well liked and successful, focusing on followers and curating his social media presence, lying about not reading the articles and posts about him, because he happens to land a starring role in his school’s play and then another opportunity shortly thereafter. Naturally.. things go to his head and he becomes outright unlikeable. 

Which phases into the next thing I disliked. All the lies. Again, tied into his shifting in and out of being who he thought he had to be in the moment.
Probably it’s just that, as much as I could empathize for August’s struggle and what he had endured, and what he was going through in general, I never liked him. Infact, the only characters I loved (yes, I did love some!) were August’s aunt and his trans fairy-godmother, Juliet. A+, five stars, for both of them. Everyone else.. meh? They were just too much drama for me, not going to lie, and that probably tied into why I wasn’t down for any of the various romances. Besides the fact that none of them were particularly well developed.

I have also found with previous stories that focus this much on theatre or acting just don’t interest me. And there was a lot of that in this one. Not helped, too, by August assuming his way was the right way to do things despite the advice of his teachers or discussion with peers — you know, at the prestigious school he probably didn’t deserve to be at and clearly didn’t respect enough — which also does get addressed, in a rather heartbreaking way, but it was one more thing that added to the arrogance and frustration around his character.

Much of the narrative in Act Cool is about getting transpeople other narratives that aren’t necessarily defined by their being transgender, telling different and happier stories, in addition to representation in general. And then there’s also the emphasis on found family and finding those who will accept you no matter what.There’s a lot of great in here. I just had to sift through a lot of less great to appreciate it.

That said, if you’re looking for a diverse YA contemporary, with drama and romance that does get a wee bit messy and soap opera-y, but with some heavier themes to keep it from being too frothy, you could definitely do worse than picking this one up. But if you hate theatre or Broadway.. maybe avoid.

** I received an unsolicited ARC from the publisher (thank you!) and this in no way influenced my review. **


Micky’s 4.5 star review

Headlines:
Drama on and off the stage
Tough but still uplifting
Shitty parents

Call me enchanted by Tobly McSmith’s writing and stories, because this is the second book of his that has drawn me in, made me love all the things and left me thinking. Act Cool was the kind of story that had tough themes (and I expected it this time) but it is also a hugely uplifting and empowering read. It transports you into the world of August and for me, I became his cheer team.

August was a character that jumped off the page with his raw feeling, his ability to trust, his naivety as a trans character and his desire to be accepted. August was the unfortunate owner of some top-form shitty parents. I hated them, as I should, but these kind of ignorant folks exist, they’re not an illusion and they are harmful. Hooray for Aunt Lil to offset some of that.

August’s journey through a performing arts school, fresh opportunities and finding his feet with being a man was just 100% absorbing. The crew around August were a dramatic bunch and he spent time sussing out who was friend, foe or both. I really warmed to the side characters and even Mr Daniels. The performing arts backdrop, Broadway and how those themes intersected with August facing his gender dysphoria was emotional; I was gripped.

There were a number of quotes I tabbed, probably all a bit spoilery to share but amongst the witty banter, the fun of school life were deep thoughts, the odd profound inner monologue and interaction with others.

I simply loved this book, it made my Saturday and I avidly await Tobly McSmith’s next book.

Please do check out some trans reviewers for this book.

Thank you to Pride Book Tours and Harper 360YA for the review copy.

BEFORE THE DEVIL BREAKS YOU by Libba Bray

New York City.
1927.
Lights are bright.
Jazz is king.
Parties are wild.
And the dead are coming…


After battling a supernatural sleeping sickness that claimed two of their own, the Diviners have had enough lies. They’re more determined than ever to uncover the mystery behind their extraordinary powers, even as they face off against an all-new terror. Out on Ward’s Island, far from the city’s bustle, sits a mental hospital haunted by the lost souls of people long forgotten–ghosts who have unusual and dangerous ties to the man in the stovepipe hat, also known as the King of Crows.

With terrible accounts of murder and possession flooding in from all over and New York City on the verge of panic, the Diviners must band together and brave the sinister ghosts invading the asylum, a fight that will bring them face-to-face with the King of Crows. But as the explosive secrets of the past come to light, loyalties and friendships will be tested, love will hang in the balance, and the Diviners will question all that they’ve ever known. All the while, malevolent forces gather from every corner in a battle for the very soul of a nation–a fight that could claim the Diviners themselves. 


Title : Before the Devil Breaks You
Author : Libba Bray
Series : The Diviners (book three)
Format : eBook (overdrive)
Page Count : 561
Genre : YA fantasy / historical fiction / paranormal
Publisher : Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date : October 3, 2017

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating :  ★ ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 3 star review

You know those books that have very clear peaks and valleys in enjoyment where you can point out “see that? that’s where I started to hate this” or “this, this was where I felt the story redeemed itself”. Well.. yeah, this is one of those.

What started off slow, quickly (well.. not quickly, this is almost six hundred pages after all) started to prove itself better than its predecessor; and I don’t just mean plot-wise. Because for some of this I was having fun with the characters, too. But of course we can’t have nice things so that took a serious dive (or two!), and we ended things back where we started with me being checked out on character and only here for over arcing plot.

I don’t know if it’s really just me (likely, based on ratings) that can’t connect to these characters or what but like.. it’s not even that they just aren’t likeable. They just have do some questionable, sometimes outright stupid, things. Some can be blamed on the author who has thrown at least one under the bus for the sake of resolving a romance (which.. I’ll get to this in a mo) but the rest just seem to be their personality and, welp, I’m not here for it.

Much like how I wasn’t getting on with the characters, I also wasn’t getting on with the majority of the romances. In fact.. the only ones I liked where the queer pairings? And they didn’t even get much page time. Maybe that’s what saved them. As for what wasn’t saved, aforementioned character and the bus, like.. wow. Harsh. I guess that’s one way to solve a love triangle? Just kidding, no it is not. Curious to see that fall to shit in book four.

And having that said, I don’t understand how in a book with so much happening, much action, much filler, many characters, there were so many scenes that were just.. rushed over? Seemed to have been skimmed? It made the pacing so strange and it made the whole experience frustrating as, again, I was actually liking this more than I wasn’t. Until the last 20%.

Very glad there’s only one more book to go because even though this series hasn’t been a total fail (though it obviously hasn’t been a total win, either) it’s rather exhausting to be trapped in this dreary racist past (as opposed to our dreary racist present) and I find my skin crawls more from the terrible non-magical human characters than it does from the spooky ghosts or horror elements. Imma need something fluffy after this for sure.

THE KEEPER OF NIGHT by Kylie Lee Baker

Death is her destiny.

Half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami, Ren Scarborough has been collecting souls in the London streets for centuries. Expected to obey the harsh hierarchy of the Reapers who despise her, Ren conceals her emotions and avoids her tormentors as best she can.

When her failure to control her Shinigami abilities drives Ren out of London, she flees to Japan to seek the acceptance she’s never gotten from her fellow Reapers. Accompanied by her younger brother, the only being on earth to care for her, Ren enters the Japanese underworld to serve the Goddess of Death… only to learn that here, too, she must prove herself worthy. Determined to earn respect, Ren accepts an impossible task—find and eliminate three dangerous Yokai demons—and learns how far she’ll go to claim her place at Death’s side. 


Title : The Keeper of Night
Author : Kylie Lee Baker
Series : The Keeper of Night (book one)
Format : ARC
Page Count : 401
Genre : YA historical fiction fantasy
Publisher : Inkyard Press
Release Date : October 12, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ .5


Hollis’ 3.5 star review

I don’t know about you but I hadn’t heard much about The Keeper of Night. So if, like me, you were oblivious to its existence.. you may want to pay attention.

Ren’s entire existence is defined by being on the outside. The daughter of an English Reaper and a Japanese Shinigami, she resides in London and is bullied, disrespected, and ignored for her heritage — something that, I’ll admit, was really getting my back up because I thought her father, the obvious culprit for her dual heritage, had been let off the hook and all the hate and distrust was focused solely on his daughter. And well.. he is demoted for his transgressions but Ren still bears the brunt of it as he gets to, mostly, wash his hands of it all. I got to say, I’m hella tired of that particular narrative. Next time I want the kid to be welcomed and the parents to be ostracized please and thank you. Also, I hope more of this backstory is explained in book two as, currently, I’m not quite satisfied by how things stand.

But anyway, stuff happens and Ren is forced on the run and her brother, who has always loved her despite having been also tarred with some of the same brush as his sister, even though he is not biracial, flees to Japan with her. And basically this whole relationship, this whole bond? The best. They didn’t always get on, they could never full understand each other, but they were still there for each other.. though this bond definitely does get tested along the way. Especially when Neven admits to feeling like a fish out of water in Japan and expresses those feelings to Ren, even though it was only a glimpse of what Ren had endured in London for centuries — and I really loved that Baker explored this.

While so much of this story ends up being about Japanese mythology and legends, the author leans close to, if not outright, grimdarkness with some of the violence and demons they encounter. Maybe it’s not quite grim but it is dark. Being that the whole premise is set around death and soul collecting, I like that this wasn’t glossed over considering the target audience.

Also not glossed over is Ren’s anger, which we see explode out of her a few times once she’s away from London and is able to both articulate and let herself rage, about all the years of being told who she is, what she isn’t, and how she’s not accepted. Because unlike what she thought.. she is not immediately welcomed in Japan. She’s seen, once again, as a foreigner. This disappointment felt so raw and real and I honestly have no words to describe it.

Where things sorta fell apart for me was near the end. I knew this wasn’t a standalone (yay it’s only a duology!) so maybe that explains why the big climax came upon us in a bit of a quick and dramatic fashion — well, there’s two, really. I loved the first, which I sorta saw coming (but one reveal was still a surprise) but it was what followed that.. I don’t know. I really enjoyed where things ended, though, and I’m so keen to see how it all resolves — or if it even does — in book two.

If you’re looking for a dark YA fantasy, set in the past, with a compelling setting, rich in atmosphere and setting, with a main character who isn’t remotely the hero, though not quite a villain, but definitely grey in hue.. you should give this a go.

** I received an unsolicited ARC from the publisher (thank you!) and this in no way influenced my review. **

THE ATLAS SIX by Olivie Blake

The Alexandrian Society, caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity, are the foremost secret society of magical academicians in the world. Those who earn a place among the Alexandrians will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams, and each decade, only the six most uniquely talented magicians are selected to be considered for initiation. 

Enter the latest round of six: Libby Rhodes and Nico de Varona, unwilling halves of an unfathomable whole, who exert uncanny control over every element of physicality. Reina Mori, a naturalist, who can intuit the language of life itself. Parisa Kamali, a telepath who can traverse the depths of the subconscious, navigating worlds inside the human mind. Callum Nova, an empath easily mistaken for a manipulative illusionist, who can influence the intimate workings of a person’s inner self. Finally, there is Tristan Caine, who can see through illusions to a new structure of reality—an ability so rare that neither he nor his peers can fully grasp its implications. 

When the candidates are recruited by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they are told they will have one year to qualify for initiation, during which time they will be permitted preliminary access to the Society’s archives and judged based on their contributions to various subjects of impossibility: time and space, luck and thought, life and death. Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. The six potential initiates will fight to survive the next year of their lives, and if they can prove themselves to be the best among their rivals, most of them will. 

Most of them.


Title : The Atlas Six
Author : Olivie Blake
Series : The Atlas (book one)
Format : eBook (overdrive)
Page Count : 336
Genre : fantasy
Publisher : TorBooks
Release Date : September 28, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★


Hollis’ 3 star review

I don’t think it’s hype that shot me in the foot for this one, necessarily, but I definitely think my expectations, or preconceived notions, about what this was were.. not on the mark. Even if I had some of the elements right.

If you’re anticipating this to be a little bit dark, a lot magical, academic for sure, and featuring an ensemble of personas that run the gamut of archetypes, well. You’ll find all of it. This book is also very smart? Or at least too smart for me. Blake did a good job of presenting theories and discussion with words I could follow, and mostly with concepts I could parse, but occasionally I would just find myself going along with it.

I think for all the hugeness of the scope there is also a very small window into said world. Both in setting and in some of the potential for the characters that sometimes we glimpsed — whereas other times they just spun their wheels or went through the usual motions — but there’s lots of room here for more, I think. And with some very key, and some unexpected, reveals and directions this has shifted into near the end.. maybe we’ll get that in book two. There may also be more value in these beginnings in hindsight, who knows.

So while I was far from blown away, I’m definitely interested in more. If you’re looking for a helpful review, this will not be it! Sorry.

THAT DARK INFINITY by Kate Pentecost

By night, the Ankou is a legendary, permanently young mercenary. By day, a witch’s curse leaves him no more than bones. Caught in an unending cycle of death and resurrection, the Ankou wants only to find the death that has been prophesied for him, especially once he begins to rot while he’s still alive….

After the kingdom of Kaer-Ise is sacked, Flora, loyal handmaiden to the princess, is assaulted and left for dead. As the sole survivor of the massacre, Flora wants desperately to find the princess she served. When the Ankou agrees to help her find the princess, and to train her in exchange for her help in breaking his curse, she accepts. But how can she kill an immortal? Especially one whom she is slowly growing to understand—and maybe even to love?

Together, they will solve mysteries, battle monsters, break curses, and race not only against time, but against fate itself.


Title : That Dark Infinity
Author : Kate Pentecost
Format : eARC
Page Count : 384
Genre : YA fantasy
Publisher : Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date : October 19, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ 


Hollis’ 1.5 (rounded up) star review

Unfortunately That Dark Infinity is a great example of a very exciting premise that is let down by execution. 

This dark romantic premise is hamstrung by very young-leaning YA dialogue, which is frustrating considering the darker content, and an immortal being that, after living three centuries as a nineteen year old instead reads like he’s sixteen. For someone who carried all these tales and mystique around him, I enjoyed that almost none of them were remotely true, which was a funny twist, but at the same time.. some mystique would’ve been good. How this was set up, how it played out, and how he actually should’ve been treated based on how he interacted with others.. I don’t know, it didn’t quite line up.

Another thing that didn’t quite work was this starts off with an off-page assault on our other main character, Flora, which is not only traumatic but carries extra shame due to her peoples’ value on virtue, but what was perplexing is that she was mistaken for the princess when she was grabbed and her attackers made a comment she was meant for the invading prince but “what he wouldn’t know wouldn’t hurt him” and yet.. they subsequently leave her for dead? Because the prince also said to “leave no one alive”. So.. she wasn’t going to the prince after all? We never end up seeing this prince, this whole plotline kind of becomes background noise to a certain extent, so it doesn’t have any real relevance I’m just irritated because I don’t understand the point of the comment or why things end up the way they do.

Over the course of the book, the aforementioned weird dialogue persisted, which was frustrating as some of the description was decent. But overall there was just no tension. These big action or suspenseful moments were, theoretically, taking place but you could feel none of it. Especially as the characters reacted as if, really, nothing had happened. At one point, during a scene I can’t describe due to spoilers, Flora is calling out constantly for Lazarus to help her, save her, and then he does, and when he asks after her, she says “oh don’t worry about me”.. insert side eye here. At another point, Flora gets her period (yay! and cramps! love to see it, hate to live it) and it’s a big issue because it attracts spirit thingies and this whole scene is set up where we see her surrounded and barely protected by their super special fence thing, except.. she’s found sleeping outdoors infront of said fence. Why? There’s no explanation for it. It’s just for this tension-less tense scene. It just.. doesn’t make sense.

Anyway, I’ll end the complaining, mostly because I don’t even want to get started on the “romance”, but this just wasn’t it. And I’m sad. It’s got a good looking cover (which, granted, looks better from a distance than it does close up) and has what sounded like a great, intriguing, romantic premise but.. alas.

Wouldn’t recommend and, unfortunately, I wouldn’t pick up this author again.

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

WITHIN THESE WICKED WALLS by Lauren Blackwood

What the heart desires, the house destroys… 

Kiersten White meets Tomi Adeyemi in this Ethiopian-inspired debut fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre.

Andromeda is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. When a handsome young heir named Magnus Rochester reaches out to hire her, Andromeda quickly realizes this is a job like no other, with horrifying manifestations at every turn, and that Magnus is hiding far more than she has been trained for. Death is the most likely outcome if she stays, but leaving Magnus to live out his curse alone isn’t an option. Evil may roam the castle’s halls, but so does a burning desire.


Title : Within These Wicked Walls
Author : Lauren Blackwood
Format : eARC
Page Count : 336
Genre : YA fantasy retelling
Publisher : Wednesday Books
Release Date : October 19, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★


Hollis’ 4 star review

Almost any Jane Eyre retelling gets me excited but an Ethiopian-inspired one made me look not once, not twice, but thrice. Having said that, other than some very basic bones of said original, this deviates a lot from the majority of the story — and honestly I think it succeeded because of that.

Andromeda is this version’s Jane who comes to Thornfield, to Rochester — Magnus, in this case — not to be a governess but to exorcise the Manifestations that are haunting the castle, and it’s master, from an inherited curse. I don’t know that I ever fully understood how she was capable of doing this, it involved goggles and a welding pen (steampunky, almost, I guess) to make amulets that were suited to each element of the curse, and then.. voila. She takes this job, what she learns is an impossible job, to guarantee her patronage and recognition as a debtera aka exorcist. But, much like the original, Magnus is often distracting Andi from her job, longing for attention, lonely and entitled, and fascinated by this person who resists him, speaks truths to his face, and is also fiercely capable.

From then on I won’t say which parts are new or true or how it all plays out but honestly other than a few scenes that I think tried too hard to force themselves into the original story.. this was totally captivating. I maybe would’ve liked to see more build up to their relationship, maybe because I enjoyed their earlier prickly interactions so much and didn’t feel as much chemistry after a certain point, but the rest of the story, the world, kept it strong. There was a secondary relationship that I thought was both adorable and also maybe took some focus away from other dynamics I would’ve liked to be stronger but.. it helped humanize, and soften, a character that definitely needed it. And made some later moments perhaps a little more believable.

Vague vagueries, oooh, spooky.

If you want a somewhat dark, atmospheric, yet also occasionally playful, diverse fantasy, that happens to harken back to a well known classic tale, you should absolutely have this not only on your radar but on your TBR. Considering this is Blackwood’s debut, I can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

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

LAIR OF DREAMS by Libba Bray

The longing of dreams draws the dead, and this city holds many dreams.

After a supernatural showdown with a serial killer, Evie O’Neill has outed herself as a Diviner. With her uncanny ability to read people’s secrets, she’s become a media darling, earning the title “America’s Sweetheart Seer.” Everyone’s in love with the city’s newest It Girl…everyone except the other Diviners.

Piano-playing Henry DuBois and Chinatown resident Ling Chan are two Diviners struggling to keep their powers a secret—for they can walk in dreams. And while Evie is living the high life, victims of a mysterious sleeping sickness are turning up across New York City.

As Henry searches for a lost love and Ling strives to succeed in a world that shuns her, a malevolent force infects their dreams. And at the edges of it all lurks a man in a stovepipe hat who has plans that extend farther than anyone can guess…As the sickness spreads, can the Diviners descend into the dreamworld to save the city?


Title : Lair of Dreams
Author : Libba Bray
Series : The Diviners (book two)
Format : eBook (overdrive)
Page Count : 613
Genre : YA fantasy / historical fiction / paranormal
Publisher : Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date : August 25, 2015

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating :  ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 2 star review

Yeesh, we’ve taken a bit of a dip in this series — and by we I mean me — but a brief scan of ratings shows I’m definitely the outlier on this one. So, well. You know the saying.

But let me just take this brief moment to get the snarky out of the way : the main premise/conflict of this second book is that people are falling prey to a sleeping sickness, unable to wake up. And hoo boy was that some powerful mojo because I, too, was wanting to fall asleep while reading this.

Okay, snark over. I hope.

Listen, I’m a big fan of Bray’s obvious dedication to research and setting and, in some cases, the atmosphere. But in addition to this just being so long, and everything taking so much time to sort out, along with all the little side quests that are building the main meat of the series.. well. It just felt a bit much.

And it was all made worse by the fact that this sleeping sickness originated in Chinatown and so, leaning into the racism of the time (hahah we laugh because it isn’t gone.. and also, just wait), it becomes the Chinese Sleeping Virus. With sounds a lot like something else. And oh, they do quarantines, post signs barring certain people from entering establishments, spread propaganda about the hygiene of certain people, there are assaults in the street.. yeah. It was really real. So it wasn’t fun to read about something we’re more or less enduring now despite the century of time difference. So, again, while I appreciated the very real historical relevance of the racism, the segregation, the talk of eugenics.. it was just hard. And butted up against the length of this, the sleepiness of the sleepy sickness, the fact that I still don’t like many characters — and am starting to actively dislike a few — well. We did not have a great time.

About the characters, though. Ling saved this one. And Henry had his moments. I couldn’t give much of a fig about anyone else, though, and if Old Bill doesn’t drop dead soon.. I swear.

Anyway, certainly less thrilled to be reading on in this chonky four-book series but now that we have a solid gang of teens amassed to like.. potentially battle evil, with some still in the closet about it all, things might get more interesting. Maybe. Cautious optimism, it’s to what I cling.

THE SWEETEST REMEDY by Jane Igharo

When a woman travels to Nigeria to attend the funeral of the father she never knew, she meets her extravagant family for the first time, a new and inspiring love interest, and discovers parts of herself she didn’t know were missing, from Jane Igharo, the acclaimed author of Ties That Tether.

Hannah Bailey has never known her father, the Nigerian entrepreneur who had a brief relationship with her white mother. Because of this, Hannah has always felt uncertain about part of her identity. When her father dies, she’s invited to Nigeria for the funeral. Though she wants to hate the man who abandoned her, she’s curious about who he was and where he was from. Searching for answers, Hannah boards a plane to Lagos, Nigeria.

In Banana Island, one of Nigeria’s most affluent areas, Hannah meets the Jolades, her late father’s prestigious family–some who accept her and some who think she doesn’t belong. The days leading up to the funeral are chaotic, but Hannah is soon shaped by secrets that unfold, a culture she never thought she would understand or appreciate, and a man who steals her heart and helps her to see herself in a new light.


Title : The Sweetest Remedy
Author : Jane Igharo
Format : physical
Page Count : 314
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : Berkley
Release Date : September 18, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★


Hollis’ 2 star review

Despite my rather low rating, I’m grateful to the publisher for sending this my way as I don’t think I would’ve picked it up on my own. In fact, I don’t think I had even stumbled across it before, despite that absolutely eye-catching and stunning cover (seriously, so pretty).

Low rating notwithstanding, I do think this story will mean a lot to people who connect with the story about discovering one’s identity — how it can be shaped by culture and family but how, ultimately, it’s up to the individual to decide who they will be — and (or!) those longing not only for a romance set in Nigeria but also featuring Nigerian culture.

Where I think this failed, for me, was that there wasn’t a whole lot of depth. We got teased with some, glimpses of it, when discussion around Hannah’s search for a community, for her people, for how she fit within a culture she was never exposed to, came up. But so much of the focus of the story was on a romance I never bought into, that had little to no chemistry, as well as the drama surrounding Hannah’s introduction to a group of siblings, and some extended family, that were unaware of her existence until their father had died. These interactions, too, lacked depth. They were either antagonistic or immediately friendly.

While at first I thought the addition of POVs for the siblings, and the love interest, would be helpful to round out these characters, and this family, ultimately it didn’t add much at all. And I’m left wondering why we even had them to begin with.

All of this, however, I think could’ve been helped by different writing. I found Igharo’s voice to be very.. formal, almost stilted or distant, and so there wasn’t any emotional resonance to this situation that should’ve been incredibly emotional. Hannah, especially, felt like a filler character in the sense that she just felt.. bland? Other than when she stormed out of emotional reveals or betrayals, she just blankly seemed to go with the flow and have no real personality. Which, in hindsight, is also kind of true for the rest. The only thing that made them standout were they all had very distinct archetypes.. which doesn’t necessarily mean they had personality. Hm. That’s a bummer of a realization.

Having said that, the one exception, the one piece that really worked for me, was Hannah’s relationship with her mother. Somehow, despite my struggle with Hannah as a character, I felt that bond, and I appreciated the strength in writing them that way considering Hannah’s search for the other half of herself was something her white mother couldn’t relate to. But she supported Hannah nonetheless. I thought that was lovely.

While this read wasn’t a win for me, I do want to try the author again, as I’m not quite ready to write her off as a bad fit — here’s hoping, despite my struggle with her writing, I have better luck with a different premise.

** I received an unsolicited finished copy from the publisher (thank you!) and this in no way influenced my review. **

THE HOLIDAY SWAP by Maggie Knox

A feel-good, holiday-themed romantic comedy about identical twins who switch lives in the days leading up to Christmas–perfect for fans of Christina Lauren’s In a Holidaze and Josie Silver’s One Day in December.

All they want for Christmas is a different life.

When chef Charlie Goodwin gets hit on the head on the L.A. set of her reality baking show, she loses a lot more than consciousness; she also loses her ability to taste and smell–both critical to her success as show judge. Meanwhile, Charlie’s identical twin, Cass, is frantically trying to hold her own life together back in their quaint mountain hometown while running the family’s bustling bakery and dealing with her ex, who won’t get the memo that they’re over. 

With only days until Christmas, a desperate Charlie asks Cass to do something they haven’t done since they were kids: switch places. Looking for her own escape from reality, Cass agrees. But temporarily trading lives proves more complicated than they imagined, especially when rugged firefighter Jake Greenman and gorgeous physician’s assistant Miguel Rodriguez are thrown into the mix. Will the twins’ identity swap be a recipe for disaster, or does it have all the right ingredients for getting their lives back on track?


Title : The Holiday Swap
Author : Maggie Knox
Format : physical
Page Count : 351
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : Viking
Release Date : October 5, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★  


Hollis’ 2 star review

Definitely don’t take my rating to heart if this sounds like your thing. This just isn’t my cup of tea.

Right off the bat, I want to say, if you’re a fan of the seasonal Netflix and or Hallmark channel holiday movies? You’ll probably love this. Enjoy those Vanessa Hudgens twin/look-alike/whatever swap concept films? This is for you. Added bonus if you also love The Great British Bake Off. And yet another bonus is this also manages to sprinkle in a small-town setting and vibe. The Holiday Swap is doing pretty much everything, and anything, it possibly can. Sadly, though, this did not make my Grinchy heart grows any sizes bigger.

If you can suspend some disbelief that grown humans (even identical ones!) would think it likely they can switch lives for the course of the week when disaster strikes (I’m not even going to touch on the recklessness of not taking a concussion seriously.. I’m not.. nope), and have no issue adjusting despite the very different lives they lead, you can probably get on with this more than I could (thankfully they do later address the folly in thinking this would be possible, but..). Added tension and hijinks ensue when they immediately stumble in their ability to adjust to their new surroundings and are unable to get ahold of each other.. and I mean, other than dealing with frustrating co-hosts of a reality tv show and an ex who can’t get the hint, that’s as high stakes as it gets. This isn’t looking to stress you out by any means, it really is here for a good wholesome holiday time.

Beyond not getting on with most of the aforementioned tropes and premise, though, I’ll admit there was not enough to differentiate the twins in personality or narrative voice. One is supposed to be more traditionally small town and perhaps a little bit of a pushover/people pleaser (though we only see that particular aspect when she’s dealing with her ex which, ugh, I disliked that whole plot point) and the other is glamourous and successful and take-charge.. except, again, with maybe two exceptions we don’t see this really come to the fore. They were both into baking, they were both workaholics, making them well.. sorry for the pun, but, identical; circumstances notwithstanding.

Naturally, each sister has a romance that is initially complicated by the existing way the love interests were known to the other sister, but, surprising no one, it all works out happily ever after in the end.

The Holiday Swap has the excitement, and conflict, of the GBBO-like competition, a potential baked-goods chain looking to elbow in on the small town bakery’s turf, in addition to head injuries and some ruined baking, and, of course, the sisters have to come clean just in time for Christmas. Will a miracle prevail and they will be forgiven for their trickery? Will they each get what they set out to achieve with their swap.. and maybe learn something about themselves along the way? I’m sure you know the answer to those questions but, either way, I won’t ruin the surprise.

This has so much that I know so many people will love. And I hope you do. But if, like me, this isn’t quite your jam? I don’t think this will be memorable or enough of a stand-out to change your mind about the premise. It did make me hungry, though.

** I received an unsolicited finished copy from the publisher (thank you!) and this in no way influenced my review. **

WHEN SORROWS COME by Seanan McGuire

When October is informed that Simon Torquill—legally her father, due to Faerie’s archaic marriage traditions—must be invited to her wedding or risk the

It’s hard to be a hero. There’s always something needing October “Toby” Daye’s attention, and her own desires tend to fall by the wayside in favor of solving the Kingdom’s problems. That includes the desire to marry her long-time suitor and current fiancé, Tybalt, San Francisco’s King of Cats. She doesn’t mean to keep delaying the wedding, it just sort of…happens. And that’s why her closest friends have taken the choice out of her hands, ambushing her with a court wedding at the High Court in Toronto. Once the High King gets involved, there’s not much even Toby can do to delay things…

…except for getting involved in stopping a plot to overthrow the High Throne itself, destabilizing the Westlands entirely, and keeping her from getting married through nothing more than the sheer volume of chaos it would cause. Can Toby save the Westlands and make it to her own wedding on time? Or is she going to have to choose one over the other?


Title : When Sorrows Come
Author : Seanan McGuire
Series : October Daye (book fifteen)
Format : eBook (overdrive)
Page Count : 384
Genre : urban fantasy
Publisher : DAW
Release Date : September 14, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 2 star review

Yep, it’s me. I’m still reading this (in my opinion) lacklustre series. 

Overall I’m rather underwhelmed about this instalment which makes a nice departure from previous instalments which have often annoyed me. Toby is up to her usual cavalier shenanigans, her narration is full of lighthearted dramatics, she’s delightfully (not) hypocritical about others who crack jokes in tense situations right after she’s done the same, she spews meaningful backstory to strangers for no reason except exposition as well as redundantly trying to convince us things are meaningful..

.. oh but she finally got married. To Tybalt. Eventually.

Before it can happen, though, we have coups and assassinations and all sorts of the usual-in-this-world hijinks. And, again, as usual, the High King of Everything (whatever) felt pretty incompetent and, at times, needed fae-specific things explained to him. Him. The High King. Was it to make Toby look better or what? Not sure. I didn’t understand this. But it certainly didn’t stop him, or the Queen, from throwing the occasional jabs and blame her way.. even though she hadn’t even wanted to be there and everything would’ve been worse had she not been there to save the day and be the hero. I know I complain about this series, and this character, all the time but there are times that the bigger injustice is how other characters treat this character I don’t even like. Not always. But sometimes. In this case it was milder than it’s been in the past but still a recurring and perplexing phenomenon. 

I did kind of love (this wasn’t a surprise, we’ve known since book one) that the High Kingdom or whatever is situated in Toronto but this time we were actually there, visiting, and there were some Canadian and maple flavoured jokes sprinkled around. That gave me the occasional tickle. And I clung to said amusement like Jack clung to the door.

Of note, it was rather disheartening to see a few typos sprinkled in amongst this traditionally published and edited novel. Almost as disheartening as having to sift through passages where someone says something and Toby reiterates it mostly the same way.. just because she’s the MC. Filler, got to love it.

Thankfully my massive binge has dissipated enough from my mind that I was okay riding this book out and got through it pretty quickly. Maybe because I felt removed from it all, though unfortunately had no issue remembering all the little details — helped by all the rehashing spread through the story — but overall this wasn’t as frustrating as I’ve come to expect. That said, as always, I’m still hoping the end of this series is nigh (there’s three more already announced but unclear how long the series is anticipated to last).