Audiobook Review: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Title: Bookish and the Beast (Once Upon a Con, #3)
Author: Ashley Poston
Narrator:  Caitlin Kelly, Curry Whitmire
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication date: March 29, 2016
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 21 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Digital review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook purchased from Audible
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In the third book in Ashley Poston’s Once Upon a Con series, Beauty and the Beast is retold in the beloved Starfield universe.

Rosie Thorne is feeling stuck—on her college application essays, in her small town, and on that mysterious General Sond cosplayer she met at ExcelsiCon. Most of all, she’s stuck in her grief over her mother’s death. Her only solace was her late mother’s library of rare Starfield novels, but even that disappeared when they sold it to pay off hospital bills.

On the other hand, Vance Reigns has been Hollywood royalty for as long as he can remember—with all the privilege and scrutiny that entails. When a tabloid scandal catches up to him, he’s forced to hide out somewhere the paparazzi would never expect to find him: Small Town USA. At least there’s a library in the house. Too bad he doesn’t read.

When Rosie and Vance’s paths collide and a rare book is accidentally destroyed, Rosie finds herself working to repay the debt. And while most Starfield superfans would jump at the chance to work in close proximity to the Vance Reigns, Rosie has discovered something about Vance: he’s a jerk, and she can’t stand him. The feeling is mutual.

But as Vance and Rosie begrudgingly get to know each other, their careful masks come off—and they may just find that there’s more risk in shutting each other out than in opening their hearts.

It’s no surprise that Bookish and the Beast is completely charming. After the delightful Geekerella and the lovable The Prince and the Fangirl, how can Ashley Poston miss?

For those unfamiliar with the Once Upon a Con series, these books take us into the world of Starfield fandom, as devoted fans cross paths with stars of the movie reboot, all structured along the lines of classic fairy tales with a modern twist.

Starfield is a (fictional) cult TV series with a huge, obsessed fan base. In Geekerella, Starfield is being rebooted as a movie, and fans are up in arms over what they see as questionable casting and a fear that their beloved characters will be sacrificed in the name of box office success.

Two books later, the Starfield movie franchise has completely filming the second movie, and the fans are ecstatic. Unfortunately, the bad boy of the movie’s cast, Vance Reigns, who plays anti-hero General Sond, can’t stay out of the tabloids. At age 17, he parties hard and gets in trouble endlessly. Finally, fed up and wanting some serious damage control, his parents arrange for him to hide out in a small town in North Carolina at the home of the film’s director, along with a guardian to keep him in check. And Vance is not happy.

Meanwhile, in the same town, Rosie Thorne is entering her senior year of high school. She has two amazing best friends, Annie and Quinn, and lives with her dad (a former punk rocker who causes her friends to swoon, and who they refer to as Space Dad — because “he’s so beautiful that his beauty is out of this world…”. Rosie lost her mother the previous year, and she’s both still deeply grieving and also sick of everyone seeing her as the girl with the dead mother and nothing more.

Rosie and her dad’s finances are shaky, having spent all their savings and then some on medical bills, but they get by. A chance encounter with Vance’s dog leads her into his orbit, and after she accidentally ruins a rare Starfield book from his borrowed house’s library, she agrees to pay it off by working in the house, tasked with organizing and cataloging the cartons and shelves full of books.

What neither Rosie nor Vance realize is that they’ve met once before, at ExcelsiCon, the annual convention dedicated to Starfield. Wearing masks, they spent one magical evening together, but left without disclosing their true names or faces. Neither has been able to shake the memory of their first meeting or the feelings it stirred up, but both have accepted that they’ll never know who that special person was.

Until…

Well. It’s a Beauty and the Beast retelling, so you know where this is going. The house where Vance is living is known locally as the “Castle House” — a vanity project of some millionaire, not usually inhabited, with moats and turrets, located at the end of a hidden lane through the trees. Rosie stumbles upon it (at night, of course) while trying to rescue a dog that ran in front of her car, and when she follows the dog (uninvited and unannounced) into the spooky, dark house, she runs right into Vance, who is outraged by the intrusion and behaves… um… beastly.

I loved all the little B&tB references, from a diner waitress named Mrs. Potts to the rose symbolism to the library as a way to a young woman’s heart. Little lines thrown in made me smile:

They probably got sick of being the middle of nowhere and left to have grand adventures in the great wide somewhere.

… and also:

… it’s pretty, and at least — unlike most of the houses around here — it doesn’t use antlers in all of the decorating.

Then there’s the story’s villain, Garrett Taylor, a handsome, popular jock who can’t believe someone like Rosie could even dream of turning him down. Like Gaston, he’s decided Rosie is the prettiest, therefore the best, and he deserves the best. His persistence goes from annoying to overboard to damaging, and he simply won’t listen to Rosie’s rejections.

The story is sweet and clever, and keeps the Beauty & the Beast storyline going without it ever feeling forced or overdone. At the same time, Rosie and Vance are fleshed-out characters with inner lives, each dealing with pain and emotional challenges, each striving to find a new future.

The author shows us Rosie’s grief and the depths of her loss, and how dramatically losing a parent can devastate a teen’s entire world, leaving her feeling not just the loss, but also the isolation and the rootlessness that comes with being different and losing a mother’s love and support.

I really loved this book, and enjoyed the through-story bits that continue expanding the world of Starfield, its characters, and its plot twists. One of the characters refers to Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and like Fangirl, the story within the story always leaves me wanting more. Might Ashley Poston actually write a Starfield book? Because I’d love to get more Carmindor, Amara, and Sond into my reading life!

The audiobook is really well done, with two different narrators — one for Rosie, one for Vance. They keep it light and entertaining, and let me feel like I was listening to the characters telling their own stories.

I have one complaint about the audiobook, and it’s a pretty big one that, days later, still makes no sense to me. Vance’s last name is Reigns, which I assume is pronounced like “rains” — there are even some tabloid headline puns about Vance needing to be “reigned” in.

So why, then, does the Rosie narrator (and occasionally the Vance narrator too) pronounce his last name as “re-gins” (with a hard G, kind of like begins, but with the accent on the first syllable). I couldn’t figure out what I was listening to at first, and had to go back to the print version to see if I’d misunderstood. Like, is Vance Reigns his stage name, but the family name is actually Reagans or something? Nope, it’s Reigns throughout the book.

So why does the audiobook have a different pronunciation? No idea. But it’s super annoying, and constantly distracting. Did they finish recording, realize it was wrong, and decided not to go back and fix it? Honestly, it makes no sense at all.

I realize I’m harping on about this, but it was distracting throughout the entire audiobook, so as much as I loved it overall, this one thing made it really frustrating too.

Putting that aside… I wholeheartedly recommend Bookish and the Beast. I think this is my favorite of the Con books, and I really hope there are more to come! And while this could possibly be read on its own, I really recommend reading the books in order, because you might not get the Starfield elements and what they mean otherwise.

Don’t miss these wonderful books!

Me, after finishing Bookish & the Beast

Book Review: Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer

Title: Midnight Sun
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: August 4, 2020
Print length: 662 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When Edward Cullen and Bella Swan met in Twilight, an iconic love story was born. But until now, fans have heard only Bella’s side of the story. At last, readers can experience Edward’s version in the long-awaited companion novel, Midnight Sun.

This unforgettable tale as told through Edward’s eyes takes on a new and decidedly dark twist. Meeting Bella is both the most unnerving and intriguing event he has experienced in all his years as a vampire. As we learn more fascinating details about Edward’s past and the complexity of his inner thoughts, we understand why this is the defining struggle of his life. How can he justify following his heart if it means leading Bella into danger? 

Midnight Sun — the Twilight retelling we either needed or didn’t need, depending on who you ask.

I’m not going to hate on this book. I mean, hey, I compulsively read the Twilight series (multiple times) way back when, attended a midnight release party for Breaking Dawn, saw all the movies… I may even have had a T-shirt and calendar, but I’ll never admit it.

And yes, I’m a grown-ass woman. Anyhoo…

While my tastes and opinions related to the Twilight series have changed substantially over the years, I can’t deny that no matter how ridiculous the plotting and the writing, there’s something weirdly compelling and readable about these books. Despite my better instincts, they’ve always managed to just suck me in completely.

So, Midnight Sun. This is the long promised and often-leaked book that Stephenie Meyer wrote, retelling the events of Twilight from Edward’s tortured and brooding perspective. Does it work? Well, yes, but you have to decided for yourself whether you actually want to need to hear it all.

First, be aware of the length. From an interview on Amazon, the author explains:

The reason Midnight Sun is a hundred pages longer than Twilight is because the font is much, much smaller. The word count gives you a better picture: Twilight is around 119,000 words; Midnight Sun is about 240,000. It’s literally twice as long. It was obvious from the beginning that Edward’s version would be quite a bit longer. First of all, Edward never sleeps. Secondly, he’s quite the overthinker. Third, he’s lived a lot longer than Bella and thus has a bunch of flashbacks. The length wasn’t something I decided to do 14 years later; the story always demanded this.

You read that correctly: If you’re looking just at word count, which is a better measure for comparison, Midnight Sun is TWICE as long as Twilight, even though it’s telling the same exact story. Living inside Edward’s head must be exhausting!

So let’s get on with my reactions to this book.

Yes, the length was annoying. I felt like I was reading this book non-stop, and it still took me all week to finish. And while I was entertained at first, I got a little weary after a while.

Everything that’s ridiculous and/or annoying about the original is still ridiculous/annoying here. Vampire baseball is still stupid. The Cullens always seeming to pick up Bella and carry her instead of trusting her to walk on her own two feet is all sorts of awkward, and really funny to visualize. Going to hide in Phoenix because the bad guy would assume Bella isn’t stupid enough to hide in Phoenix is… stupid.

The idea that the Cullens could actually attend human high school and blend in somehow is utterly nonsensical. Of course, I do blame the movie version a bit for this, because before seeing the movie, it maybe wasn’t quite as startling in my head how white and nonhuman they all look. But even just reading Midnight Sun, it’s absolutely clear that don’t fit in.

Never mind that fact that if I’d been alive for decades, not to mention a century, the last thing I’d want to do would be to sit through high school over and over again. How utterly awful. Especially given that 4 of the 5 Cullen “children” attending high school are living in partnered adult relationships. Are they teens or adults? It’s weird and confusing every time Edward thinks of himself as being 17.

It’s also funny to realize how much my memory of the Twilight story is influenced by scenes from the movie. I was 100% sure that the big confrontation between Bella and Edward, when she admits that she knows he’s a vampire, takes place in the forest. Right? Right?

Well, sorry, that’s wrong. They’re in Edward’s car. Not quite as dramatic a setting.

But let’s switch over to the positive. It IS actually interesting to see events from Edward’s perspective, to get more of a detailed look at why he reacts to Bella the way he does. Funnily enough, the most interesting parts of Midnight Sun for me are the scenes without Bella, when we see what else was going on when we were following Bella in Twilight.

We get a lot more of the Cullens, and they’re always the best part of the story. We learn a lot about the family history, Edward’s relationships with his different siblings, and how they behave amongst themselves when it’s just them, with no fragile little humans in their midst.

The best character, as always, is Alice. There’s just so much more of her here, and she’s a treat. Through Edward and Alice’s interactions, we get a much better view of how her visions of the future and Edward’s mind-reading work together, and honestly? It’s kind of cool.

Also, through Alice’s visions, we find out more about how Edward sees the future. Alice continually shows him possible outcomes as he falls deeper and deeper in love (or obsession) with Bella, and most aren’t pretty at all. No wonder he’s so torn up inside all the frickin’ time. On the other hand, it’s adorable how Alice tries to steer Edward in certain directions, because she’s seen already that she’s going to love Bella, even before she knows her, and doesn’t want to ruin the chance of being her friend. Awwwww.

Emmett is also pretty awesome as Edward’s closest brother and friend, always having his back and all-around pretty chill. Jasper is a bit enigmatic in this version, and Rosalie isn’t particularly likable, even though Edward repeatedly explains why she feels the way she does about Bella.

I really liked a dramatic car chase scene toward the end where the family basically acts as Edward’s GPS, with Alice monitoring the future for road conditions and speed traps, and the other family members acting as rear and side mirrors, watching the road so Edward can view it through their eyes. Kind of ridiculous, but also pretty fun.

I mean, sure, the more problematic aspects of Twilight are still as problematic in Midnight Sun. Edward is such an obsessive stalker — but I guess because he acknowledges it to himself, it’s supposed to be okay? Sorry, but there’s no way to make his behavior (like lurking in Bella’s bedroom while she sleeps) not creepy, even if he justifies it through his compulsion to keep her safe every second of the day.

And the writing? Well, I suppose tastes may vary, but here are a couple of snippets that prompted me to have to close the book for a minute or two and refocus.

It felt like simmering coals, as though a dull version of my thirsting burn had spread throughout my entire body.

I’m not entirely sure what that means, to be honest.

With her wet hair looping in long seaweed tangles around her shoulders, and her face glowing in the moonlight, she looked more than good. The English language needed a word that meant something halfway between a goddess and a naiad.

Oh, Edward. You’re just too much.

And I guess “too much” is about how I feel overall about this book. I liked it, gotta be honest. It was fun in spots. But Edward is SO broody and introspective, and he just never stops. And even at the end, he’s still planning to leave Bella, which really isn’t the impression I had from the end of Twilight. So that’s a good twist, but I’m not convinced that the new and different outlooks really justify the length of this doorstop of a book.

Please don’t ask me if I’d read more books set in the Twilight world, if Stephenie Meyer decides to keep going.

I think we all know the answer to that question.

Book Review: Four Days of You and Me by Miranda Kenneally

Title: Four Days of You and Me
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: May 5, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A new swoon-worthy romance following a couple’s love story on the same date over four years.

Every May 7, the students at Coffee County High School take a class trip. And every year, Lulu’s relationship with Alex Rouvelis gets a little more complicated. Freshman year, they went from sworn enemies to more than friends after a close encounter in an escape room. It’s been hard for Lulu to quit Alex ever since.

Through breakups, make ups, and dating other people, each year’s class trip brings the pair back together and forces them to confront their undeniable connection. From the science museum to an amusement park, from New York City to London, Lulu learns one thing is for sure: love is the biggest trip of all.

Such a sweet story! It’s been a while since I’ve read any YA, but I’ve always enjoyed Miranda Kenneally’s books, so I knew I had to read her newest.

Lulu and Alex start as rivals freshman year, both running for class president — Lulu on a green platform, and Alex capitalizing on his popularity as a baseball star. When Alex wins, they exist as frenemies for the rest of the school year, until accidentally getting locked into an escape room together on their class trip. As they finally acknowledge their mutual sparks, Lulu and Alex start a relationship that will last throughout their high school years, despite ups and downs and time apart.

As each section of the book focuses on the class trip for that year, we get to see how Alex and Lulu have matured, and how their relationship has matured with them. There are problems along the way, of course. Alex’s devotion to baseball and his commitment to working in his family’s restaurant leaves him unavailable except for late at night, past Lulu’s curfew. They both end up frustrated and unable to see past their own hurt, so a break-up is inevitable.

Still, every year on May 7th, as they set out on another class trip, Alex and Lulu seem to be thrust back into each other’s orbit. They really are great together, and even when trying to make something work with other people, they both realize that what they have is special.

I love how matter-of-fact the author is when it comes to teen relationships. There’s no judgment here, and the characters all enjoy varying degrees of healthy sex lives. Alex and Lulu take their time getting there, but they do enjoy gradually deepening levels of intimacy, and when they finally decide to have sex, it’s with lots of discussion, explicit consent, and pre-purchased condoms.

The supporting cast is quite good too — best friends and cousins and teammates, each with their own lives and quirks. They form a loyal and strong core, and I liked that we get to see Alex and Lulu not just 100% about their relationship, but really engaged with true friendships.

I also appreciated that Lulu and Alex each have their own passions — Lulu as an author/illustrator of graphic novels, Alex with baseball — and that they support each other’s dreams and goals. Neither one would ever suggest that their plans outweigh the other’s. It’s refreshing to see two characters work through their differences without losing sight of how much they care about each other.

Miranda Kenneally writes terrific, strong female characters, and Lulu is no exception. She’s talented and smart, and someone who’d be easy to like in real life. Four Days of You and Me is a quick read, and I really enjoyed this glimpse of high school life and all its drama, humor, and adventure.

Book Review: When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk

Title: When You Were Everything
Author: Ashley Woodfolk
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You can’t rewrite the past, but you can always choose to start again.

It’s been twenty-seven days since Cleo and Layla’s friendship imploded.

Nearly a month since Cleo realized they’ll never be besties again.

Now, Cleo wants to erase every memory, good or bad, that tethers her to her ex–best friend. But pretending Layla doesn’t exist isn’t as easy as Cleo hoped, especially after she’s assigned to be Layla’s tutor. Despite budding new friendships with other classmates—and a raging crush on a gorgeous boy named Dom—Cleo’s turbulent past with Layla comes back to haunt them both.

Alternating between time lines of Then and Now, When You Were Everything blends past and present into an emotional story about the beauty of self-forgiveness, the promise of new beginnings, and the courage it takes to remain open to love. 

It’s refreshing to read a contemporary YA novel where romance takes a backseat. In When You Were Everything, the focus is on friendship — or more specifically, on the end of friendship.

Few things are more traumatic for teen girls that losing a best friend. In When You Were Everything, we witness the pain and sorrow and rage that occurs when besties forever, Cleo and Layla, fall apart.

It happens the way these things do. Friends since age twelve, the girls start moving in different directions at the start of their sophomore year of high school. Layla wants more than anything to join the school chorus, and while the “Chorus Girls” adopt her right away, they have no interest in including Cleo in their elite circle.

Cleo’s feeling are hurt over and over again as Layla spends more time with her new friends than with Cleo, and small slights turn into bigger and bigger betrayals, until there’s a final and irreparable break.

Cleo is also dealing with her parents’ separation, and her new friendless status is made even worse by a stream of bullying and harassment she endures from the Chorus Girls while Layla stands by and does nothing.

Cleo is smart and driven, but she also makes some poor choices, lashing out in hurtful ways when her own feelings are hurt. And while I felt that Layla was more to blame for the friendship break-up, Cleo isn’t blameless either.

When You Were Everything is hard to read at times, specifically because it’s so relatable. My own high school years are way in the past, but Cleo’s feelings as she’s isolated and tormented ring very true, in a sadly timeless sort of way.

I enjoyed seeing how Cleo opens herself up to new friendships and learns to see what’s in front of her instead of living inside her own head so much. There’s a sweet romance too, but it’s less important than what Cleo learns about herself and about friendship.

The cast of characters is nicely diverse, and I liked the way the story includes the importance of family and the impact of parents’ and grandparents’ support, love, and involvement. Despite the sadness of the end of a friendship, the book ends on a hopeful note.

Definitely a recommended read!

Book Review: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2) by Philip Pullman

Title: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 3, 2019
Length: 641 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .

The second volume of Sir Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.

Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.

How to describe this long, strange book, set in the world of His Dark Materials?

The Secret Commonwealth is very much a middle book. It’s packed with details and characters, most of whom are people on a journey or quest. There’s a lot of travel from here to there… but we leave off before anyone actually arrives at their destinations.

In La Belle Sauvage, the installment in The Book of Dust that precedes The Secret Commonwealth, we see Lyra as an infant. She’s the object of hot pursuit by nefarious agents of the Magisterium, the ruling religious entity, and a person to be protected by an assortment of good guys and heroes, chief among them young Malcolm Polstead, an 11-year-old boy with unflinching bravery and a very steady canoe.

Here, we re-meet Lyra at age 20. She’s a student at St. Sophia’s, and still lives at Jordan College, the Oxford college where she’s been sheltered under rules of scholastic sanctuary since infancy. Lyra’s life is difficult as the story opens. Her comfortable home at Jordan is no longer a safe place for her, the money supporting her has run out, and shady characters are once again intent on tracking her down.

Closer to home, Lyra and her beloved daemon Pantalaimon are not getting along, which is a huge deal, considering that daemons are the external representation of a person’s soul. Daemon and human are two halves of one whole; neither is complete without the other. It’s almost beyond imagining that Lyra and Pan should be so estranged. Pan believes that Lyra has come too deeply under the influence of literary and scholarly works that prize only what’s real and can be seen, discounting completely the value or even existence of subtlety, imagination, and unseen forces and worlds.

Meanwhile, there’s a movement behind the scenes within the Magisterium to consolidate power even further, pushing toward total religious authoritarianism, leading to fear, civil unrest, and a growing flood of refugees throughout Europe. There’s also a quest by the Magisterium to root out a particular type of rose oil that’s believed to have certain properties that are considered threatening and heretical, and the efforts to wipe out all roses is being conducted by force.

As Lyra is forced into a quest across Europe and into the Eastern lands, she faces incredible danger and constant pursuit, meeting some allies and encountering enemies of all sorts. We also see events through Pan’s perspective, as well as accompanying Malcolm and others on their own strange and dangerous journeys.

It’s a little hard to figure out just who the intended audience of this book is. It’s clearly a youth-oriented book, based on the publisher and where it fits into the greater world of His Dark Materials, but this book is different. For starters, it’s the first novel in either series with no children as characters. Lyra, at age 20, is the youngest, and she’s truly a young woman and not a girl any longer.

More than that, though, is the tone and feel of the book. This book is DARK. Really bad things happen. This rarely feels like fantasy-level danger, with mystical forces or supernatural threats. The danger in The Secret Commonwealth is from people, and it’s awful. Lyra suffers through terrible ordeals, and so do many of the other characters in the book.

The pieces that are revealed about human/daemon connections and certain things that can happen (being deliberately vague here) are pretty horrible too, and are really startling in the context of the series as a whole.

Finally, the Lyra/Pan relationship and where it is in The Secret Commonwealth is heartbreaking and demoralizing. There’s really no ray of sunshine in this book whatsoever.

I suppose that the bleakness of the story is appropriate to the political conditions of Lyra’s world, but it makes for a pretty dismal reading experience. Philip Pullman is masterful as always, and I do love the world he’s created.

However, The Secret Commonwealth is so unrelentingly dark and full of misery that it’s hard to consider it an enjoyable read at all. After 600+ pages, it ends more or less on a cliffhanger, with all threads still to be resolved. The book is building toward something, and I hope the final book in the trilogy is successful in tying it all together and, hopefully, bringing back a little of Lyra’s fire and optimism.

I will absolutely want to read the 3rd and final book in The Book of Dust, and hope the conclusion will make all the suffering of the 2nd book worthwhile. Meanwhile, The Secret Commonwealth has left me feeling sad, upset, and worried about Lyra, and that’s not a fun way to be left hanging.

Book Review: Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Title: Only Mostly Devastated
Author: Sophie Gonzales
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: March 3, 2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA meets CLUELESS in this boy-meets-boy spin on Grease

Summer love…gone so fast.

Ollie and Will were meant to be a summer fling—casual, fun, and done. But when Ollie’s aunt’s health takes a turn for the worse and his family decides to stay in North Carolina to take care of her, Ollie lets himself hope this fling can grow to something more. Dreams that are crushed when he sees Will at a school party and finds that the sweet and affectionate (and comfortably queer) guy he knew from summer isn’t the same one attending Collinswood High.

Will is more than a little shocked to see Ollie the evening of that first day of school. While his summer was spent being very much himself, back at school he’s simply known as one of the varsity basketball guys. Now Will is faced with the biggest challenge of his life: follow his heart and risk his friendships, or stay firmly in the closet and lose what he loves most.

Summer loving had me a blast
Summer loving happened so fast.
..Save

Well, you know how it goes.

Two cute teens meet on their summer vacation, fall head over heels, say sad good-byes… and then end up attending the same high school in the fall.

But in Only Mostly Devastated, we’re not talking good girl Sandy and bad boy Danny. Instead, we have two adorable boys, Ollie and Will, who have a magical summer together. They should be thrilled to end up at the same school unexpectedly, right?

The problem is (and of course, there has to be a problem): Ollie is out; Will is not. And while Ollie came out to supportive parents and a chill circle of friends and school acquaintances back in California, Will grew up in more conservative North Carolina, where homophobic jokes are de rigeur for the cool jock crowd and their hangers-on.

When Ollie and his parents relocate to North Carolina to be near his terminally ill aunt and help with her children, he doesn’t really expect to run into Will without some effort. Not to mention that Will appears to have ghosted him right after their final summer good-bye kiss.

So when Ollie tells the group of girls who befriend him on his first day of school about his summer love — and shows them a picture — complications almost immediately crop up. Because of course, Will goes to the same school, and of course, the girls are thrown for a loop by this news that straight hot basketball star Will is maybe not so straight after all.

Ollie is sweet as can be, and it’s so sad and painful to go through all his emotions alongside him. He’s firmly out and will never accept a situation where’s he’s forced back in the closet — but he has to respect Will’s choice, even if it means accepting that Will has to pretend not to know Ollie, and can’t hang out with him too visibly for fear of being teased about turning gay.

The author does a great job of helping us (and Ollie) understand why Will might fear being outed, showing the social environment at school and the not-so-subtle pressure to conform, as well as the scorn reserved for those who don’t fall nicely into socially acceptable gender and relationship roles.

Meanwhile, Ollie forms close friendships with a trio of girls who seem to adore him and take him under their wings. They’re all interesting and varied, not just a generic crowd of high school girls but real people with distinct personalities and conflicts and challenges.

Ollie’s family life is also portrayed sensitively, and it’s quite sad to see Ollie processing his aunt’s decline while also being there for his two little cousins. As if Ollie wasn’t adorable and sweet enough already, he’s also a terrific babysitter and loves his family unconditionally, and it’s heartbreaking to witness his grief when the inevitable finally happens.

The cast of characters in Only Mostly Devastated is nicely diverse without making a big fuss over it, which I really appreciated. The romance at the heart of the story is so well done, and even though it’s almost too sad at times to see how hurt Ollie is, by the end, it feels like a realistic journey that the boys go through to get to where they end up. (Being vague here, so as not to spoil too much…)

If you enjoy sweet, sensitive young adult romances with well-earned happy endings, definitely check out Only Mostly Devastated!Save

Shelf Control #203: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
Author: Holly Black
Published: 2013
Length: 419 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.

One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a wholly original story of rage and revenge, of guilt and horror, and of love and loathing from bestselling and acclaimed author Holly Black.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a copy at a library sale a few years back.

Why I want to read it:

I’m on a Holly Black kick! I just finished the amazing Folk of the Air trilogy, and I want more! And while this isn’t a faerie book, it still sounds pretty awesome to me. I understand it’s a vampire story… which is okay by me. And I like the fact that this is a stand-alone, because I have more than enough ongoing series that I’m trying to keep up with.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #201: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: Challenger Deep
Author: Neal Shusterman
Published: 2015
Length: 320 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

National Book Award and Golden Kite Award Winner

A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman.

Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.

Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.

Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence to document the journey with images.

Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.

Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.

Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a deeply powerful and personal novel from one of today’s most admired writers for teens. Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak, calls Challenger Deep “a brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frightening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary.”

How and when I got it:

I bought an e-book edition when there was a price drop, either last year or the year before.

Why I want to read it:

A certain bookish friend has been reminding me that I NEED to read this book for years now! I’ve read several Neal Shusterman books, so I know I enjoy his writing and his approach to young adult fiction. Challenger Deep is an award winning novel that tackles mental health issues and has received so many rave reviews. I really do look forward to finally reading this book, and look — I’m publicly committing to reading it in 2020!

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Title: Long Way Down
Author: Jason Reynolds
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication date: May 2, 2019
Length: 306 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

An ode to Put the Damn Guns Down, this is New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds’s electrifying novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.

A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he?

I picked up Long Way Down knowing next to nothing about it. I’d been searching for examples of realistic urban fiction for teens, at the request of my son, and stumbled across a recommendation for Jason Reynolds’s books in general and Long Way Down in particular.

Fortunately for me, I think, I only read the back of the book before starting it, rather than the detailed synopsis above (which I’ve shortened, because I feel like it gives away way too much).

Long Way Down is not what I expected! For starters, I had no idea that it was written in verse. This isn’t an approach I usually gravitate toward, but once I got past my initial reluctance, it completely sucked me in.

The story is sad and straight-forward. Will’s older brother Shawn has been shot and killed. But Will knows where Shawn kept his gun, and he knows what he has to do — find the person who killed Shawn and get revenge.

As Will gets on the elevator from his apartment down to the ground level, Shawn’s gun in his waistband, he starts encountering different people who all have a connection to Will, to Shawn, and to the never-ending cycle of violence that has taken so many lives.

As each new person gets on the elevator, Will learns a little bit more about events of the past, and has one final minute to consider whether or not to get off the elevator, whether or not to go after Shawn’s killer and become a killer himself.

Jason Reynolds’s words are stark and powerful:

I HAD NEVER HELD A GUN.

Never even
touched one.

Heavier than
I expected,

like holding
a newborn

except I
knew the

cry would
be much

much much
much louder.

I tore through this book in an hour, and really do need to go back through it again more slowly to savor the language and the story development.

Jason Reynolds has just been named the newest National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress, which is amazing and awesome. Here’s a clip of an interview with the author:

And here’s a clip of him reading from Long Way Down:

Finally, I love this tweet from a teacher whose students wrote six-word responses to Long Way Down:

I will definitely want to read more books by this talented author. Do you have any recommendations?

Check out Long Way Down, and give a copy to all the teens in your life. It’s an important book, and I’m so glad I gave it a try.

Book Review: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3) by Neal Shusterman

Title: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 625 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It’s been three years since Rowan and Citra disappeared; since Scythe Goddard came into power; since the Thunderhead closed itself off to everyone but Grayson Tolliver.

In this pulse-pounding conclusion to New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, constitutions are tested and old friends are brought back from the dead.

 

The Toll wraps up the futuristic story begun in 2016’s Scythe and continued in 2018’s Thunderhead. In these books, author Neal Shusterman presents a post-mortal world, where an all-knowing AI has become sentient and has solved all of the world’s problems, from starvation to disease to crime to poverty. Humankind is essentially immortal.

To preserve the fine balance of resources and needs, the only authority left in the world is the scythedom — people given the authority and responsibility to “glean” a certain percentage of the world’s population in order to make sure that the perfect world can continue to support everyone who’s left. And it works, for the most part… except that it’s still true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there are those among the scythedom who revel in their own power and the thrill of the kill, rather than seeing themselves as servants of the greater good.

In The Toll, the world is, basically, going to hell in a handbasket. The reasonable and responsible old-guard scythes have mostly all been eliminated, and the most corrupt and power-hungry scythe of all has taken over, with the goal of nothing less than world domination.

In this scary world, there are still scythes on the fringes, working to evade or undermine this new order, as well as a group hand-picked by the Thunderhead to create a mysterious settlement in an unknown tropical location. Meanwhile, the oddball religious cult known as Tonists have a new prophet, and their popularity and power seems to be on the rise as well.

At 625 pages, The Toll is longer than either of the preceding books, and while I get that there’s a lot to wrap up, it’s also overstuffed and often meandering. What I really loved about Scythe, in addition to the fascinating world created in its pages, are the characters and their moral dilemmas, as well as their personalities and their relationships.

Much of that is sacrificed in The Toll for the sake of plot, plot, and more plot. We spend very little time with the young heroes from the previous two books. Instead, the cast of characters is even broader than before, and we jump around the globe constantly. On the one hand, it’s pretty remarkable how the author keeps so many plot strands in play and connected; on the other hand, this book feels much less personal and much more action-driven.

Also, for a YA trilogy, this final installment spends a lot more time with its adult characters than with its younger, teen/young adult people, which is perhaps an odd choice.

Did I enjoy The Toll? Yes, for the most part. I’m actually quite satisfied with the wrap-up to the trilogy and the clever solutions and outcomes. However… there were lots of moments within the book where the length just made me downright tired. I think a lot could have been trimmed, and I would have preferred a more intimate scale rather than trying to encompass the entire world.

Still, the trilogy as a whole is mesmerizing, presenting a flawed utopia and showing how a society can only be as perfect as its most imperfect members. I loved the concept and the world-building, and have no hesitation about recommending these books.

And now, for those who have already read the books, here are my lingering questions and quibbles.

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS!

Just a few of the little fiddly bits that continue to bug me after reading the book:

  • The Thunderhead is not able to break the laws that govern its interactions. Who created those laws?
  • Did the founding scythes program the Thunderhead so it would have no contact with the scythedom? Or did the Thunderhead institute the scythedom and then create the separation itself?
  • How did the founding scythes first form and settle upon their purpose? Again, were they created by the Thunderhead?
  • We only know that the Thunderhead can’t break the law because it repeatedly says so. Can the Thunderhead change its own programming? Could someone else change it?
  • How did the founding scythes create the scythe diamonds in the first place? We know that scythe technology is way behind what the Thunderhead can do, and that without the Thunderhead, technology just isn’t particularly reliable.
  • Why wouldn’t people rise up in protest against the scythes and their mass gleanings long before the events in The Toll?

Okay, those are just my initial random thoughts and questions immediately after finishing the book. If you’ve read these and have thoughts on any of these (or anything else related to the story!), please add your comments!