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IF I’M BEING HONEST by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka

High school senior Cameron Bright’s reputation can be summed up in one word: bitch. It’s no surprise she’s queen bee at her private L.A. high school—she’s beautiful, talented, and notorious for her cutting and brutal honesty. So when she puts her foot in her mouth in front of her crush, Andrew, she fears she may have lost him for good.

In an attempt to win him over, Cameron resolves to “tame” herself, much like Katherine in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. First, she’ll have to make amends with those she’s wronged, which leads her to Brendan, the guy she labelled with an unfortunate nickname back in the sixth grade. At first, Brendan isn’t all that receptive to Cameron’s ploy. But slowly, he warms up to her when they connect over the computer game he’s developing. Now if only Andrew would notice…

But the closer Cameron gets to Brendan, the more she sees he appreciates her personality—honesty and all—and wonders if she’s compromising who she is for the guy she doesn’t even want.


Title : If I’m Being Honest
Author : Emily Wibberley & Austin Siegemund-Broka
Format : OverDrive (eBook)
Page Count : 370
Genre : YA contemporary
Publisher : Viking Books for Young Readers
Release Date : April 23, 2019

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★


Hollis’ 4 star review

IF I’M BEING HONEST is something of a love letter to the archetype of the mean girl. The girl who is pretty, blonde, popular and always there with a harsh barb. What these authors do with that character, however, is somewhat different from what we’ve come to expect.

If every glare I earned, or didn’t earn but received nonetheless, bothered me, I’d drown in the judgment.

Cameron is beautiful, blonde, popular.. but she’s not rich. She doesn’t have a string of broken hearts in her past — infact, she’s been very purposefully single for two years. She has plans for her life and she executes them accordingly, each task an item on her list to be crossed off. She’s methodical because it’s something she can control. Because her home life is complicated, fraught with emotional minefields, and her honesty — her drive — is a direct result of the neglect and belittling from her father, and the disdain she has for her mother’s string of failed jobs, failed motivation, failed ability to parent. Cameron feels driven to prove to her successful, and absent, father that she can be worthy of his attention, worthy of his love, that she is unlike her mother who earns only his scorn. She puts in the work because she can see, with her own two eyes, that work gets results.

Which is why she spends a year planning out her perfect relationship. She meets the guy, likes the guy, and waits. She wants to see that he has drive, has ambition. And when she finally makes her move.. it, unfortunately, backfires. And the boy in question no longer wants her, much less likes her, as a result.

I didn’t understand it at first. Wouldn’t a person be a better friend if they told the truth? [..] I’ve always thought of honesty as helpful even if it’s hurtful.

It’s in studying THE TAMING OF THE SHREW that Cameron sees so much of herself in the main character and decides to reinvent herself, to prove herself worthy of being liked, to soften her edges; to self-tame. And so begins her road of apologies, of amends, to reinvent herself.

I would have to be pretty desperate to put my fate in the hands of Cameron Bright, the girl who wrecked my life in the first place.”
Grant, you passed desperate when you were modelling lingerie for the innocent bystanders in a bookstore.”

IF I’M BEING HONEST is a retelling/reimagining of the aforementioned Shakespeare play, as well as Ten Things I Hate About You, and honestly? By about ten percent I wanted to shout my love of this book from the rooftops. It was funny, it was unflinching, it was heartfelt, it was raw. The evolution, not only of Cameron but the relationships — platonic and romantic — was so.. organic? Genuine? Real? Sure, it occasionally journeyed a somewhat expected path as far as plot progression, and emotional speed bumps, but it was the strong writing, and the solid characters, that carried it. That, infact, made it soar.

The ending doesn’t wrap everything in a bow; not every broken or bruised relationship is mended, not everyone is perfect and pleasant. The characters don’t change, they evolve. They don’t just apologize, they forgive.

Nobody’s ever bothered to figure out what would be the exact right thing to say to me. What I need to hear.

This book made me laugh (a lot), tear up (a few times), and even had a few less-than-subtle ‘these characters are from our first book’ cameos shoehorned in at near the end. I didn’t even really mind, even if it felt a little clunky, and I have no problem taking the hint and have, in fact, already put a hold on that first book. But other than that little tease, this is a true standalone, so don’t worry about missing anything.

It’s like there’s this horrible thing eating me from the inside, and the only way to let it out is to fall apart — or to lash out. To leave someone else with hurt and doubt and insecurity just to know they know how it feels.

If you appreciate characters being unfiltered and far from perfect, as well as a story that has plenty of grand gestures, fandom, and real issues that never cross the line into overwrought drama, you should definitely pick this one up. Sure it doesn’t get full marks from me but it’s really close. All the greatness is great and even the stuff I didn’t super love.. it’s still so good. This is a perfect summer-y kind of read, because it’ll make you feel good, but don’t expect too much fluff (not used in a derogatory way). This definitely has substance, and weight, and will be well worth your time.

STORM AND FURY by Jennifer L Armentrout

Enter a world of gargoyle protectors, rising demons and one girl with an explosive secret.

Eighteen-year-old Trinity Marrow may be going blind, but she can see and communicate with ghosts and spirits. Her unique gift is part of a secret so dangerous that she’s been in hiding for years in an isolated compound fiercely guarded by Wardens—gargoyle shape-shifters who protect humankind from demons. If the demons discover the truth about Trinity, they’ll devour her, flesh and bone, to enhance their own powers.

When Wardens from another clan arrive with disturbing reports that something out there is killing both demons and Wardens, Trinity’s safe world implodes. Not the least because one of the outsiders is the most annoying and fascinating person she’s ever met. Zayne has secrets of his own that will upend her world yet again—but working together becomes imperative once demons breach the compound and Trinity’s secret comes to light. To save her family and maybe the world, she’ll have to put her trust in Zayne. But all bets are off as a supernatural war is unleashed…


Title : Storm and Fury
Author : Jennifer L Armentrout
Series : The Harbinger (book one)
Format : eARC
Page Count : 512
Genre : YA paranormal romance
Publisher : Inkyard Press
Release Date : June 11, 2019

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ .5


Hollis’ 1.5 star review

I need to get one thing off my chest before delving into this review. Some readers don’t mind picking up a spinoff if there’s little to no character overlap (though, honestly, how can you really know beyond the fact that the leads are different?) but I am not that kind of reader. I like context. I thrive off it. I like references that harken back to previous events, I love cameos, etc, particularly when it’s a world that relies on context or worldbuilding; so sometimes I can roll with it if it’s, say, a contemporary but for a fantasy or PNR-style universe? Less ability to roll. So when I started STORM AND FURY only to realize this was a spinoff of one of the author’s previous series..? I was annoyed. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, because, for some reason, some publishers don’t like mentioning these kinds of details in blurbs when books go up for request. I find this does a real disservice to reviewers. Or, specifically, me. Because that said, I saw many reviews mentioning that you didn’t need to have read those other books to enjoy this one. But as I didn’t actually enjoy this book.. I guess I’m just all-around an outlier.

Anyway, rant over.

Or different rant begins?

This book is very.. stereotypical early 2000s YA. I don’t really know how else to describe it. But it was such a shocking regression for me, as I do read a lot of really great, superbly written, and characterized, YA that I actually almost DNF’d. Instead I set it down around the 15% mark and took a break to read other things — something I almost never do. I did bring myself back to it though (obviously) just incase it was a mood thing. It wasn’t. But I finished anyway. Grudgingly.

STORM AND FURY has a typical fantasy plot, unfolding in a fairly typical way — — special ish snowflake girl meets special ish snowflake boy and sorta hate-dislike banter ensues along with unprecedented connection, in addition to girl generally just not conforming with restrictions placed on her for her safety and always getting into trouble but.. also just being totally unphased and letting everything roll off her back with some snappy reply? ugh — with fairly typical dialogue, secrets, and surprises. Also lots of pauses for inconveniently timed attraction due to proximity and high stakes moments. It made it all feel very young (even juvenile), very over done, heavily sprinkled with cheese, and as a result I just didn’t enjoy it. Sure the specifics of the plot or the world or the whatever might not have been cookie cutter but everything else made it feel that way.

Now, I want to pause to say : all these typical elements can be enjoyed. And I have, in fact, loved books that basically read exactly like this (rather) cutting summary. But the writing, or the characters, have helped me to overlook it.. or love it. As we all know, writing truly makes a difference. And, in the case of STORM AND FURY, we just didn’t have that.

I foresee a few comparisons to Cassandra Clare’s books, particularly her most recent trilogy, as there’s a particular element to both the dynamic and the relationship that mirrors something we’ve seen in that series. It’s not unique to Clare but combined with everything else it just feels like a sticking point for future books and future angst. And considering I was already annoyed at the direction of the romance.. welp.

There was an attempt made for some representation as the lead protagonist is losing her sight, in a specific way the author herself is (read the note at the end), but I was often confused by the consistency and convenience of it being fine and then not. I suppose some of it is factual and maybe the rest is made appropriate for the fantasy and excitement of the moment. I shouldn’t be critical of this as it’s #ownvoices in that sense and I am neither expert nor do I share this experience. Something that confused me a bit, though, was that it took until almost 75% for us to be told how she felt about her condition. Up until that point it had always seemed to be couched in context of how it affected her ability to fight which, sure, that’s her priority vs mine, but it was nice to get some dialogue about it all. Even if she was fairly laisser-faire about everything. She just rolled with the eventuality of being blind. Which, again, okay. I can appreciate some of that. Out of one’s control and all. But also. You’re eighteen and you’re just going to be blasé about losing a main sense? If I had a degenerative condition, I’d be pretty angry or sad or.. something. Frustrated. Not just focused on practicing more knife throws. Or at least not ONLY focused on practicing knife throws. And certainly not throwing myself off rooftops during the dark of night to prove points.

Would I have enjoyed this more had I read the companion series? I guess we’ll never know. But if you need a new drinking game, take a shot for every time the word ‘Hell’ is used. It’ll make for a short game but by the time you’re buzzing.. I’m not sure you’ll mind.

Because this is a series and not a collection of interconnecteds, with different leads, I seriously doubt I will read on.

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

THE FRIEND ZONE by Abby Jimenez – double review!

Kristen Petersen doesn’t do drama, will fight to the death for her friends, and has no room in her life for guys who just don’t get her. She’s also keeping a big secret: facing a medically necessary procedure that will make it impossible for her to have children.

Planning her best friend’s wedding is bittersweet for Kristen–especially when she meets the best man, Josh Copeland. He’s funny, sexy, never offended by her mile-wide streak of sarcasm, and always one chicken enchilada ahead of her hangry. Even her dog, Stuntman Mike, adores him. The only catch: Josh wants a big family someday. Kristen knows he’d be better off with someone else, but as their attraction grows, it’s harder and harder to keep him at arm’s length.

The Friend Zone will have you laughing one moment and grabbing for tissues the next as it tackles the realities of infertility and loss with wit, heart, and a lot of sass.


Title : The Friend Zone
Author Abby Jimenez
Format : eARC
Page Count : 385
Genre : women’s fiction
Publisher : Forever
Release Date : June 11, 2019

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


Hollis’ 4 star review

Phew.

I had been prepared (warned?) by mutuals that this story was a funny bit of fun but that it would be as equally heartbreaking as it was joyful. And I’m here to confirm that for you.

I am not drunk. I’m just talking in cursive.”

THE FRIEND ZONE starts off fairly lighthearted. A snarky first-meeting between our protagonists sets the tone for their association; Kristen is in a long-distance relationship with a deployed boyfriend and Josh is recently single, and recently relocated, and, despite his attraction, not all that bothered by her unavailable status as a result.

Nothing offended me except cauliflower and stupidity.

At least not at first.

There’s something you should know about me, Josh. I say what I think. I don’t have a coy bone in my body. Yes, you’re sexy. Enjoy the compliment because you won’t always like what I say to you, and I won’t care one way or the other if you do or don’t.

Their friendship, as it can only be friendship, was a delight. Kristen is unapologetically herself. She’s not to be messed with when it comes to food, she’s witty, she’s honest, she’s out to impress no one. And Josh was just game for everything. He was sweet, understanding, gave as good as he got, and they were just so fun together. And, having not read the blurb, I didn’t really know where things would go beyond what it seemed at first glance.

I already know how I’m going to die.”
How?”
Spider bite. Or being sarcastic at the wrong time.”

But this story is a lot more than snarky, sassy, when-will-they-can-they-ever times. This is hard hitting, emotional, devastating. It deals with loss, tragedy, and Jimenez’s story even skirts a certain line I am not usually on board for but, thankfully, never crosses it. Additionally, the emphasis on Kristen’s issues with fertility — which is of course emphasized as it’s a major point of conflict — was something I thought unique to the romance (women’s fiction?) world. Talk of periods, discomfort, tampons, fibrosis, IUDs.. nothing was off limits. This is not only a great bit of fun and sweetness, alongside some heartbreak, but also a book I think a lot of women will see themselves in. Feel represented by. I think that’s so fabulous.

You know, you seem too fearless to be afraid of spiders.”
A black widow killed my schnauzer when I was a kid. Embracing a lifelong debilitating fear of spiders is cheaper than therapy.”

What stops this from getting full marks is that.. I felt some things got dragged out. Same conversations, same hot and cold, same back and forth. It was a bit exhausting, too repetitive, and honestly I was pulled out of the story a bit because I just felt so bad for these fictional people. Both of them, really. It was kind of miserable for them for a while. And then of course a whole other kind of misery started but that was easier to lose myself in. No spoilers.

I hope you’re not planning on sending me flowers.”
What would you like me to send you then?”
Something practical that I’ll get use out of, like a dick pic.”

The ending was a bit of a surprise for me and I so loved it. I really did. Additionally the author’s note was an extra bit of wonderfulness and I definitely hope readers take a moment to experience that, too.

Overall, though, I’m blown away that this was a debut. It’s funny as all get out, it broke my heart, and I definitely want Jimenez to do it again. Lots of times. Will absolutely read whatever this author serves up next.

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


Micky’s 4 star review

This was a generally enjoyable read that took me from a friends-to-more romance into something of an emotional rollercoaster. I did have some insight into the context before reading but I had no idea where the story was going to go until I got into it.

THE FRIEND ZONE is the kind of read that drags you into its web very easily with characters that are something memorable. Kristen was just a woman I could get behind and identify with some of her characteristics. I loved her honesty (at times), her individuality and loyalty. I was then somewhat bemused to find myself reading a love triangle element, I did not see that coming with this character.

Josh, the main squeeze of this story was also a loyal hunk of fireman who simply fell for Kristen hook, line and sinker; there was no going back but there were so many immovable mountains in the way. This man had to show endurance.

The friendships in this book are crucial and something of a side-blinding storyline. I felt shocked when the twists came and then shocked again. It didn’t make me overtly emotional but it did affect me. Ive seen this book pitched as a romantic comedy but even in the earlier parts of the book, I didn’t find it comedic. It is no less of a book for this however.

Simply put, this is an impressive debut from Abby Jimenez and I will be looking out for whatever she writes next. I slipped into her words and believed the world she created.

Thank you to the publisher and netgalley for the review copy.

SORCERY OF THORNS by Margaret Rogerson

All sorcerers are evil. Elisabeth has known that as long as she has known anything. Raised as a foundling in one of Austermeer’s Great Libraries, Elisabeth has grown up among the tools of sorcery—magical grimoires that whisper on shelves and rattle beneath iron chains. If provoked, they transform into grotesque monsters of ink and leather. She hopes to become a warden, charged with protecting the kingdom from their power.

Then an act of sabotage releases the library’s most dangerous grimoire. Elisabeth’s desperate intervention implicates her in the crime, and she is torn from her home to face justice in the capital. With no one to turn to but her sworn enemy, the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his mysterious demonic servant, she finds herself entangled in a centuries-old conspiracy. Not only could the Great Libraries go up in flames, but the world along with them.

As her alliance with Nathaniel grows stronger, Elisabeth starts to question everything she’s been taught—about sorcerers, about the libraries she loves, even about herself. For Elisabeth has a power she has never guessed, and a future she could never have imagined.


Title : A Sorcery of Thorns
Author : Margaret Rogerson
Format : eARC
Page Count : 464
Genre : YA fantasy
Publisher : Margaret K. McElderry Books
Release Date : June 4, 2019

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★


Hollis’ 4 star review

Just the other day I was pouting about YA fantasy just not hitting the mark for me in 2019. And in struts SORCERY OF THORNS just to prove me wrong. I didn’t really know what to expect for this one other than it had something to do with library with a hate to love (possibly) and magic and, not having read Rogerson’s first novel, didn’t know how that would all translate in the writing.

Well, it translated super well.

You used a demonic incantation to pack my stockings!”
You’re right, that doesn’t sound like something a proper evil sorcerer would do. Next time, I won’t fold them.”

This not-quite-medieval but not-quite-steampunk world is populated by living, magical, books and sorcery from demonic bargains. Librarians are the keepers of the books and look down upon the Magisters, the sorcerers, for their alliances with demons. So naturally this is a great set-up for an orphan, raised in the library and on her way to become a Warden, to get tripped up with a Magister.. who then trips up all her pre-conceived notions, too. 

I don’t mean to be forward, but is that a–“
A sword hidden under my dress? Yes, it is.”
I see. And how exactly is it–“
I thought you didn’t mean to be forward.”

The banter and dynamic between the two leads was great. Even during a weird lull, where I worried my experience with this one was also going to crash and burn, I was comforted by the four and five star worthy dialogue of bickering and nicknames. It was just fabulous. What I could never have suspected, though, was how much I would love a certain demon and that my love for him would have me shedding a tear or two. 

Can you go on?”
Of course I can. I may be useless, but my good looks might prove critical for morale.”

Honestly, the mayhem and calamity that is crashing down around their ears didn’t interest me half as much as the Help Save The World Adventure Squad Trio.. but, to be fair, I did like them a lot so even half of that.. isn’t bad. But I’ll admit I lost a wee bit of love somewhere around the middle bit. Things went in a strange direction I didn’t see coming and there was an odd interaction or two I didn’t quite understand, but overwhelmingly this book was just.. unexpected. Interesting, creative, funny, clever, and fun. There’s one specific thing I liked so much, and liked how it wasn’t really made into A Thing, but I’m not even going to remotely hint at it so that you, too, can be pleasantly surprised about it. Instead, I’ll say how much I appreciated the constant reinforcement, and reminder, of shades of grey as it applies to so many things, including people. It made for a richer story that was already pretty lush. 

These weren’t ordinary books the Great Library kept. They whispered on the shelves and shuddered beneath iron chains. Some spat ink and threw tantrums; others sang to themselves in high, clear notes on windless nights, when starlight streamed through the library’s barred windows like shafts of mercuryOthers still were so dangerous they had to be stored in the underground vault, packed in salt. Not all of them were her friends.

I feel a little nitpicky for harkening back to this after all the nice things I’ve said but for all the good, there were those moments I wasn’t too sold on, and definitely a few typical fantasy roadblocks as we see when the hero/heroes are trying to convince People In Charge that they are Here To Help. It isn’t without some clichés or slower moments so, yeah, it’s not a perfect ten. Hence the four (#math).

Tempting as the prospect is, we are not attempting world domination. It sounds fun in theory, but in reality it’s a logistical nightmare.

But the moments that were good, were great. The parts that made me laugh, really tickled. And those unexpected glimpses of brilliance and emotion.. they are definitely there. I didn’t always like how the perspective could be fluid but at the same time I also really loved how the narrative flowed and didn’t always need us to live through the events but would still catch us up. And I love love loved the end.

I dragged you into this. You wouldn’t be here it it weren’t for me.”
You’re right. I would be alone in my study, utterly miserable, spending my final hours unaware that demons were about to overrun the world. I like this version better. The one with you in it.

SORCERY OF THORNS is definitely worth picking up. I have no idea if there’s more to come and, because of the ending, I almost hope not. But I wouldn’t say no to more, either.

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

LIKE A LOVE STORY by Abdi Nazemian

It’s 1989 in New York City, and for three teens, the world is changing.

Reza is an Iranian boy who has just moved to the city with his mother to live with his stepfather and stepbrother. He’s terrified that someone will guess the truth he can barely acknowledge about himself. Reza knows he’s gay, but all he knows of gay life are the media’s images of men dying of AIDS.

Judy is an aspiring fashion designer who worships her uncle Stephen, a gay man with AIDS who devotes his time to activism as a member of ACT UP. Judy has never imagined finding romance…until she falls for Reza and they start dating.

Art is Judy’s best friend, their school’s only out and proud teen. He’ll never be who his conservative parents want him to be, so he rebels by documenting the AIDS crisis through his photographs.

As Reza and Art grow closer, Reza struggles to find a way out of his deception that won’t break Judy’s heart–and destroy the most meaningful friendship he’s ever known.


Title : Like a Love Story
Author Abdi Nazemian
Format : ARC
Page Count : 432
Genre : YA historical fiction, LGBTQIA+
Publisher : Balzer + Bray
Release Date : June 4, 2019

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating
: ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 2 star review

LIKE A LOVE STORY is a little like a love story, really. But more in the sense of love for oneself, one’s body, and one’s community. I think it did a really good job of that, particularly when propped up against the setting, but when it comes to the love story, the romance, within the book.. it kinda failed. And by kinda I mean really.

Nazemian’s story takes place on the cusp of the nineties, in 1989, and is set against the AIDS crisis. Not as a backdrop but as a very real threat and very present player for our three protagonists. Art is out and proud and angry. His best friend, Judy, has an uncle dying of AIDS. And the new kid, originally from Iran, is Reza; someone both friends fall for but who, despite initially dating Judy, is closeted. 

I knew this wouldn’t be an easy story but I knew it would be an important one. It was a frightening time and is made even more terrifying when held up against the current social and political climate. Addressing the bigotry and the homophobia was all very visceral and awful but well done. I felt like I was living it. Where the fear of touch, of being touched, infected every interaction. Where not subscribing to white, heteronormative, ideals made you worthy of hate or shunning. Where it was acceptable to wish your son dead just for being queer. Where hate fuelled both sides of the equation; one side for being ushered into an early grave just for being who they were, and the other for not understanding or not accepting people different from themselves.

What I believe failed this story was the characters.

The romance is fast tracked as is fairly typical — though the fact that these two besties go from zero to eleven within half a page over the new kid is unlikely as it is; but for it to be turned into a triangle, infusing unnecessary drama into the mix, just becomes tedious — and ultimately, it’s the leads that do a disservice to the goings on around them. Or, rather, I feel they overshadowed the rest with their nonsense. I outright disliked two of the POVs (one more strongly than the other) but overall it was their behaviours, too, that I just couldn’t stand. 

The most important four-letter word in our history will always be LOVE. That’s what we are fighting for. That’s who we are. Love is our legacy.

I’m heartbroken that this didn’t work but I do think, if the synopsis draws you in, you should still pick it up. LIKE A LOVE STORY is a book that features a four star topic but is, unfortunately, saddled with one star protagonists. 

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


CALL ME BY YOUR NAME by André Aciman – double review!

Call Me by Your Name is the story of a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest at his parents’ cliff-side mansion on the Italian Riviera. Unprepared for the consequences of their attraction, at first each feigns indifference. But during the restless summer weeks that follow, unrelenting buried currents of obsession and fear, fascination and desire, intensify their passion as they test the charged ground between them. What grows from the depths of their spirits is a romance of scarcely six weeks’ duration and an experience that marks them for a lifetime. For what the two discover on the Riviera and during a sultry evening in Rome is the one thing both already fear they may never truly find again: total intimacy.

The psychological maneuvers that accompany attraction have seldom been more shrewdly captured than in André Aciman’s frank, unsentimental, heartrending elegy to human passion. Call Me by Your Name is clear-eyed, bare-knuckled, and ultimately unforgettable.


Title : Call Me By Your Name
Author André Aciman
Series : Call Me By Your Name (book one)
Format : OverDrive (eBook)
Page Count : 268
Genre : historical fiction, LGBTQIA+
Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date : January 22, 2008

Reviewer : Hollis/Micky
Rating : /


Hollis’ 1 star review

His words made no sense. But I knew exactly what they meant.
–> this is, I feel, a good expression of this entire book but flipped on its head. I understand what I read but I DON’T GET IT

I really don’t. Like, this isn’t me shitting on the overwhelming love people have for this book, or being contrary for shits and giggles.. I, personally, just don’t get it. 

Maybe I hyped this book up in my head for too long, maybe it was because I had these grand expectations, not to mention having put off watching the movie (which I will still) in order to read this first, but.. wow. Maybe, too, it’s my fault for not looking closely at the summary which does go on to detail some of the nittier gritty of what kind of relationship this book features but as I’m #TeamNoBlurbs.. it was obviously a surprise.

The first 60% of this was stream of consciousness confusion, was cringey secondhand embarrassment, was obsessive uncomfortableness.. it was so many things and none of them good. There was no characterization to these characters beyond Elio being consumed, forever fantasizing, and sifting through passages of is-it-really-happening-nope-just-dreaming chaos that made up the majority of his days; it’s intense but.. not in a good way. It’s discomfiting. I either skimmed because I couldn’t anchor myself to Elio’s internal rambling monologuing or because I just couldn’t bear to look too hard at his fixation. And Oliver was, well, a hot and cold dick of a human for the most part. And then suddenly he wasn’t, but it was all.. I don’t know, things being said, and not said, but they seem to understand it regardless? It just felt lazy and set up for the sake of drawing things out and drama. 

Not to mention they were both, at times, grossly childish or selfish.

s p o i l e r s   b e l o w

Case in point : Elio goes from screwing around with Oliver only to go to a girl’s house for more screwing around. Later, the boys have a nice afternoon delight together, then Elio heads out to meet with girl again, after having no discussion with Oliver about the logistics of this, and then when Oliver is missing upon Elio’s return, the latter is all bent out of shape and tied in knots and ‘how dare he make me wait’? Moments later Oliver’s ‘the best person he ever knew’. What the shit kind of whiplash nonsense is this? I actually refuse to tag this as a romance because, I feel, there was none. It was attraction, it was lust, it was physical intimacy (as well as certain intimacies that I believe were included in order to convince us of the existence love, make us believe there was a romance), but to me this wasn’t romantic. It was infatuation.

In the last 40%, however, there was a part or two that felt stronger (but it’s all relative, really) and yet it also transitioned into these scenes with other random characters I couldn’t care less about who rambled on about Bangkok, and various anecdotes as delivered by a poet we never see again, for eight to fifteen pages at a time. I honestly don’t know what was going on and I’m going to be fully honest : I skimmed most of it because I didn’t understand the point of it all.

There was a moving conversation between Elio and his dad near-ish to the end but then we have a time jump and weird transitions and odd conversations between adult Elio and older Oliver, reminiscing and yet not, where we’re supposed to believe this infatuation, this obsession, has endured for over twenty years, and I was just so done, long before this point, truthfully, but at least I saw it through to the end. Where the sequel goes I have no idea. And I definitely need some time to forget most of this experience before diving into the movie. 

That said, I think perhaps the movie will succeed where the book is too much for me. It wouldn’t be the first (and won’t be the last) time an adaptation succeeds in softening the edges of its source material. So I’m hopeful that a lot of what I hated about this book won’t apply to the adaptation but, for right now, I just need space from it all. I’m in no hurry.


Micky’s 1 star review …it’s pretty short

I know a lot of people loved this book but nothing about it appealed to me. In fact, I hated a lot of it. I listened to the first 35% on audio (and hated it), then a week later, I read/skimmed/read my paperback to the end (and still hated it). 

Why did I hate it? I didn’t like either character but I found Oliver to be a pretty awful person, with nothing to ingratiate himself to the reader. More than this though, 85% of the book is Elio’s inner monologue, his egotistical and obsessive mental ramblings poured onto the page for… ever. I disliked this style of writing, I found it incessantly dull and nothing about it worked for me.

Count me out for book two.


AYESHA AT LAST by Uzma Jalaluddin – double review!

Pride and Prejudice with a modern twist 

AYESHA SHAMSI has a lot going on.  Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century. 

When a surprise engagement between Khalid and Hafsa is announced, Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and his family; and the truth she realizes about herself. But Khalid is also wrestling with what he believes and what he wants. And he just can’t get this beautiful, outspoken woman out of his mind. 


Title : Ayesha At Last
Author : Uzma Jalaluddin
Format : eARC
Page Count : 343
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : HarperCollins
Release Date : June 4 (US & Can), June 12, 2019 (UK)

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


Micky’s 5 star review

4.5 stars that I am rounding up.

I am buzzing finishing this book, I have devoured it in 36 hours as life made me put it down a few times. This was a loose pride and prejudice take set in the Muslim community in Toronto. Most importantly it is own voices written (and a debut).

Khalid is a beta-male character with little to paint an admirable picture of his personality. Khalid was a bit of a jerk, he lacked a verbal filter, judged too quickly but he was definitely misunderstood. Khalid grew on me, he was pretty endearing at times and he was a man with integrity and kindness. He didn’t know how he was perceived but awareness did begin to creep in.

Ayesha was a vibrant character, headstrong, a feminist, bucking some traditions that seemed unnecessary to her. I liked her immediately and her quirky ways. Khalid and Ayesha met through friends initially and later at the mosque organising a conference. Misunderstanding and chemistry seemed to be the nature of their relationship.

“Because while it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.”

This was a strong story, with amazing side characters, mostly family and community, that painted a rich depth. I was glued to this book and I thought about it when I wasn’t. The connection between Khalid and Ayesha was slow developing but full of feeling. This was a clean read along the lines of pride and prejudice but it didn’t need anything more. I could have done with a little more about Khalid and Ayesha in the end, however.

This is an amazing debut from Uzma Jalaluddin. Her writing flowed beautifully and I was hooked so easily; I am eager to read more from her and this context.

Thank you to Readers First for my review copy.


Hollis’ 2 star review

It pains me to rate this so low considering all the excitement I had surrounding this title, not to mention the brilliant diversity in this particular retelling, but..

If this story had been just about Ayesha and Khalid, with the former’s delightful grandparents thrown into the mix, I probably would’ve rated this much higher. But then it also wouldn’t have been as true to the PRIDE & PREJUDICE retelling. Or.. maybe it could’ve been! All I know is there were so many villains, so many unpleasant characters, and I was just bothered and frustrated by it all.

But even some of the non-villains were just.. annoying. The drama was really turned up and I know this is fictional but I was really uncomfortable, not to mention fairly rage-y, over the discrimination in the workplace plot line. Like.. no, I’m sorry. I just can’t see that going as far as it did; and maybe I’m extra sensitive about it because this took place in my hometown? I’m not saying I’m naive enough to believe things like this don’t happen in some form or another, as much as we think we’re all above it, but it just went too far.

I think what it comes down to, more than anything, is while I’m aware that most of these caricatures existed in the original, I’m honestly starting to wonder if I just can’t get behind the book anymore; if maybe I wouldn’t even like the original if I tried to read it today. Maybe I should just stick to movie or TV adaptations from now on.

I love that this book exists for the representation it brings, I did enjoy the changes to the family structures the author made, could appreciate the Toronto setting (even if it only amounted to random references to Timbits and a fairly loose, though accurate, description of Scarborough..), but.. lots of buts.

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

THE LOVELY AND THE LOST by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Kira Bennett’s earliest memories are of living alone and wild in the woods. She has no idea how long she was on her own or what she had to do to survive, but she remembers the moment that Cady Bennett and one of her search-and-rescue dogs found her perfectly. Adopted into the Bennett family, Kira still struggles with human interaction years later, but she excels at the family business: search-and-rescue. Along with Cady’s son, Jude, and their neighbor, Free, Kira works alongside Cady to train the world’s most elite search-and-rescue dogs. Someday, all three teenagers hope to put their skills to use, finding the lost and bringing them home.

But when Cady’s estranged father, the enigmatic Bales Bennett, tracks his daughter down and asks for her help in locating a missing child—one of several visitors who has disappeared in the Sierra Glades National Park in the past twelve months—the teens find themselves on the frontlines sooner than they could have ever expected. As the search through 750,000 acres of unbridled wilderness intensifies, Kira becomes obsessed with finding the missing child. She knows all too well what it’s like to be lost in the wilderness, fighting for survival, alone.

But this case isn’t simple. There is more afoot than a single, missing girl, and Kira’s memories threaten to overwhelm her at every turn. As the danger mounts and long-held family secrets come to light, Kira is forced to question everything she thought she knew about her adopted family, her true nature, and her past.


Title : The Lovely and the Lost
Author Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Format : ARC
Page Count : 336
Genre : YA contemporary thriller
Publisher : Disney Hyperion
Release Date : May 7, 2019

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating
: ★ ★ ★ .5


Hollis’ 3.5 star review

I’m a little conflicted about THE LOVELY AND THE LOST.

This book centers on Kira who, as a young girl, was found in the woods after surviving weeks on her own. She’s later adopted by one of the people who made up the Search and Rescue team and, now sixteen, Kira helps her foster mother, and her foster brother, train dogs for SAR work. There’s a lot of dogs. This made me very happy.

Part of me would never leave the forest. Part of me would always be wild and half-dying in that ravine.

What also made me happy was Jude, Kira’s brother. He was.. I don’t even have words to describe him. Hilarious. Precious. Relentlessly kind and understanding. The comic relief, the breaker of tension, first of his name. Barnes has written characters like him before in her other series and I’ve always loved them for all the reasons listed above. Jude is no exception. Kira, though.. this is maybe where things kind of stretch the limits of my disbelief.

Men like the park rangers looked at a picture of a lost little girl and saw an innocent, a victim, someone helpless and fragile and small. They had no idea what a child was capable of — really capable of — when the civilized world melted away and nothing but instinct remained.

Kira is just barely sociable. Her instincts are much like an animal. Her time alone, as a young child, has marked her. I don’t dismiss that those weeks, that experience, would have changed her or haunted her. I don’t doubt that she’d have flashbacks or nightmares. I just wonder.. after fourteen odd years, wouldn’t she have left some of that animal, some of that fear, behind? Particularly considering the socialized years far outweigh the others? How long does it take for a person to change so drastically, to be so altered by social norms? I don’t know. For all I know her behaviour is totally accurate to her circumstances. And if I accept that, I can love it. Well, more to the point, I can understand it. Hurt for her. Either way I do. That kind of trauma is horrifying. But, again, the not knowing.. I wasn’t sure sometimes about her lack of understanding sarcasm or jokes or facial expressions. After all that time, particularly after all that time spent with Jude and their other friend Free, it didn’t make me more likely to believe it, I guess. 

I understand now. The three of you share a single iota of common sense. I’m just a little unclear on which one of you has custody of it now.”

But anyway. That aside, this was a rather tense whodunnit, complete with a missing child, lots of dogs, family secrets, and a total lack of a shoe-horned-in romance (ten points). There’s angst and tragic backstory and family reunions of a few kinds.. and also dogs. I loved the dogs. Can you tell? There was also.. something.. at the end. It makes me wonder : is there more to come? Is this just open ended? Or will I get more dogs? This reader wants to know.

I’ve enjoyed, and outright loved, quite a few of Barnes’ books (forever crying about the lack of more Fixer books; woe is me). I so enjoy her writing and her characters. So if the plot intrigues you, THE LOVELY AND THE LOST, despite some of my uncertainties, is definitely worth picking up. 

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

TOP SECRET by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

Bestselling authors Sarina Bowen & Elle Kennedy return with their first Male / Male romance in 3 years.

LobsterShorts, 21 Jock. Secretly a science geek. Hot AF.

LobsterShorts: So. Here goes. For her birthday, my girlfriend wants…a threesome.
SinnerThree: Then you’ve come to the right hookup app.
LobsterShorts: Have you done this sort of thing before? With another guy?
SinnerThree: All the time. I’m an equal opportunity player. You?
LobsterShorts: [crickets!]

SinnerThree, 21 Finance major. Secretly a male dancer. Hot AF.

SinnerThree: Well, I’m down if you are. My life is kind of a mess right now. School, work, family stress. Oh, and I live next door to the most annoying dude in the world. I need the distraction. Are you sure you want this?
LobsterShorts: I might want it a little more than I’m willing to admit. SinnerThree: Hey, nothing wrong with pushing your boundaries… LobsterShorts: Tell that to my control-freak father. Anyway. What if this threesome is awkward?
SinnerThree: Then it’s awkward. It’s not like we’ll ever have to see each other again. Right? Just promise you won’t fall in love with me. LobsterShorts: Now wouldn’t that be life-changing..


Title : Top Secret
Author Sarina Bowen & Elle Kennedy
Format : eBook
Page Count : 319
Genre : NA contemporary, LGBTQIA+
Publisher : Tuxbury Publishing LLC and Elle Kennedy Inc
Release Date : May 7, 2019

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 2 star review

I’m honestly just as surprised as you are by this rating.

I’m a big fan of this duo, as individual authors and also for their co-authorered HIM and US duology, so the news that this top secret m/m — a return to the genre AND to writing together after three years — was dropping had me super super hype. And thankfully there wasn’t a huge build up between the announcement and release. But this didn’t live up to their previous works and definitely didn’t feel as strong as many of their solo offerings have in the past.

I’m single, a little depressed, and I’m very horny, with a side of sexual confusion, too.

The plot is full of, like, click baity excellence. I mean that in a good way. It’s a sexual awakening story, with a texting element, and a connection that develops via aliases that completely contradicts their pre-existing relationship. So, all that and basically a hate to love to boot? Hell to the yes. And for the first.. I want to say forty percent? I was clicking that bait, I was riding that train, I was all about that bass. Or something.

I dreamt about sex with men once. Or twice. I never mentioned that to [my girlfriend]. But why would I? I’ve also dreamt of meeting a dragon who smoked clove cigarettes. The things my brain invents while I’m sleeping aren’t newsworthy.

Except there was an added drama element that should’ve made me sympathetic towards one of the characters but instead just irritated me. On the other side of the pairing, there was a different conflict element that made up so much of the lead’s indecision and stress and then, poof, said element literally became a non-issue at a convenient time and place in the novel. What? The transition from realizing who was on the other side of the phone just.. I don’t know, I feel like I missed it? Things both escalated very quickly and yet there was no sense of time passing, no sense of anything meaningful between them beyond boning, and I honestly think it’s because everyone was so underdeveloped. It felt very plot driven, with pitstops for drama, and that was definitely at the expense of the characters’ emotional growth and evolution. Honestly if half the background noise had been cut out it would’ve been far more enjoyable. And there would’ve been much more time for the snarky banter that I liked. Because it was those moments that really did highlight the leads’ chemistry, the sexual tension, the connection.

You’re a yellow lab.” 
I’m.. what?”
A dog. A big, happy dog chasing Frisbees on the beach with his pals. You’re a pack animal.
And you’re.. a pit bull?'”
Not even. I’m a tom cat in the alley. Just passing through.”

So, while TOP SECRET is full of delicious tropes, and an excellent early build, it does fizzle well before the climax. This lacked the fun that I had with THE DEAL, it could’ve done with some of the gravitas demonstrated in STEADFAST, and ultimately I wanted a connection like we had in HIM. These authors are so talented and can handle a range of topics and genres with humour and cleverness and consideration and still drown you in swoons. But I just didn’t get much of any of that with this one. 

BIRTHDAY by Meredith Russo – double review!

Two best friends. A shared birthday. Six years…

ERIC: There was the day we were born. There was the minute Morgan and I decided we were best friends for life. The years where we stuck by each other’s side—as Morgan’s mom died, as he moved across town, as I joined the football team, as my parents started fighting. But sometimes I worry that Morgan and I won’t be best friends forever. That there’ll be a day, a minute, a second, where it all falls apart and there’s no turning back the clock.

MORGAN: I know that every birthday should feel like a new beginning, but I’m trapped in this mixed-up body, in this wrong life, in Nowheresville, Tennessee, on repeat. With a dad who cares about his football team more than me, a mom I miss more than anything, and a best friend who can never know my biggest secret. Maybe one day I’ll be ready to become the person I am inside. To become her. To tell the world. To tell Eric. But when?

Six years of birthdays reveal Eric and Morgan’s destiny as they come together, drift apart, fall in love, and discover who they’re meant to be—and if they’re meant to be together. From the award-winning author of If I Was Your Girl, Meredith Russo, comes a heart-wrenching and universal story of identity, first love, and fate.


Title : Birthday
Author : Meredith Russo
Format : ARC
Page Count : 275
Genre : YA contemporary, LGBTQIA+
Publisher : Flatiron Books
Release Date : May 21, 2019

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


Hollis’ 5 star review

BIRTHDAY blew me away.

I don’t think we have much choice in who we turn out to be, as much as we might want to.

I honestly don’t even know what to say. But my god. I was choking back the sobs by page thirty and that more or less was what I did throughout the rest of the book, too. And just thinking about the journey makes me want to cry.

What do you do when you can’t swim up, you can’t swim down, and staying put will suffocate you?

As always I went in with only a very very vague idea as to what to expect and as a result I was totally unprepared for.. everything. I loved the subject matter, I hurt from the agony of some of Morgan and Eric’s experiences, their struggles, but their enduring connection, the evolution of it, was just so heartbreakingly beautiful. Equally lovely was the way in which the story was told. I’ve read a book or two like this before but never has it suited the story as well as it did for this one.

I don’t know if anyone will love me the way that I really am.

I should have so much to say about this because I loved it so much but I’m honestly just at a loss and a puddle of feelings, so. Here’s a great book with a terrible review to recommend it. And know that I will absolutely be picking up Russo’s debut (IF I WAS YOUR GIRL) and anything and everything else she releases.

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


Micky’s 4.5 star review

I’m not going to cover old ground here having come to this a few months after Hollis but oh my, this book took me on a journey, a very emotional one.

Birthday is laid out as Eric and Morgan’s stories on each birthday from about 12 to 18, there is no narrative in between but there is definitely a catch up on what’s gone on during the gap. Eric and Morgan are an example of an unconditional friendship in their younger years, not an easy one but a giving one. I loved both these characters individually but also in their ‘ship’ journey. (Hollis look away from the use of that word – one off).

As the story evolved there was a bully-Dad who I hated with a passion, some arse-hole family and friends and some decent people on the periphery. My heart was in my mouth, then it was breaking, then it was hopeful, then it was angry…are you feeling my experience, it was pretty emotional. I messaged Hollis at one point to threaten her if this didn’t end well, as she rec’d it to me. Bad friend that I am.

I do think there is a mild case of utopia in this story in that I am not sure an Eric exists for trans teens at that age but I do hope and believe that an Eric can come into their life at a later date. That said, I loved how the story developed and I wouldn’t change a thing.

This is the kind of book that I want everyone to read, to open their mind to feel the personal journey of individuals. This is the kind of book that helps me as an educator working with young people who sometimes knock on my office door and break their hearts over major things like this. Go read it.