Blog tour + Audiobook Review: Tokyo Dreaming by Emiko Jean

Title: Tokyo Dreaming
Author: Emiko Jean
Narrator:  Ali Ahn
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 31, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased/Review copy via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Return to Tokyo for a royal wedding in Emiko Jean’s Tokyo Dreaming, the sequel to the Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick and New York Times bestseller Tokyo Ever After

When Japanese-American Izumi Tanaka learned her father was the Crown Prince of Japan, she became a princess overnight. Now, she’s overcome conniving cousins, salacious press, and an imperial scandal to finally find a place she belongs. She has a perfect bodyguard turned boyfriend. Her stinky dog, Tamagotchi, is living with her in Tokyo. Her parents have even rekindled their college romance and are engaged. A royal wedding is on the horizon! Izumi’s life is a Tokyo dream come true.

Only…

Her parents’ engagement hits a brick wall. The Imperial Household Council refuses to approve the marriage citing concerns about Izumi and her mother’s lack of pedigree. And on top of it all, her bodyguard turned boyfriend makes a shocking decision about their relationship. At the threat of everything falling apart, Izumi vows to do whatever it takes to help win over the council. Which means upping her newly acquired princess game.

But at what cost? Izumi will do anything to help her parents achieve their happily ever after, but what if playing the perfect princess means sacrificing her own? Will she find a way to forge her own path and follow her heart?

I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour celebrating the release of Tokyo Dreaming by Emiko Jean. Many thanks to Macmillan Books for the chance to participate!

Tokyo Ever After was one of my favorite reads of 2021, and the sequel, Tokyo Dreaming, definitely lives up to expectations!

In Tokyo Ever After, we met Izumi Tanaka, Northern California teenager who suddenly discovers that her long-lost bio dad is the Crown Prince of Japan. Whisked off to reunite with the father she’s never known, Izumi faces a steep learning curve when it comes to fitting in as a member of the Imperial Family, especially with the eyes of all of Japan tracking her every move.

As Tokyo Dreaming begins, Izumi is in a very good place in her life. She’s finished high school, has become more acclimated to life in Japan, has learned how to behave like a real princess, and even has a happy relationship with the boyfriend of her dreams, her former bodyguard Akio. And best of all? Her parents have been reunited and despite their almost twenty years apart, have rekindled their love for one another. A royal wedding is on the horizon!

But Izumi and her mother don’t quite fit the mold of Imperial family members quite perfectly enough, and it’s clear that her parents may not actually get the official approval they’ll need to move forward with getting married. Izumi realizes that she can make a difference: If she polishes up her princess act and starts doing a better job of being perfectly in line with expectations, it’ll help her parents secure the stamp of approval.

But, as Izumi discovers, being a perfect princess may mean pushing aside her own interests and wishes for the sake of appearances, and that doesn’t actually bode well for her long-term happiness.

The plot of Tokyo Dreaming is not super high-stakes — it’s impossible not to expect a happy ending, so even though there are obstacles, I never expected them not to be overcome. The fun of this book is seeing how Izumi manages her life, from befriending her twin cousins — formerly nicknamed The Shining Twins (as in Stephen King, not because they’re glittery) — and discovering that they’re not as evil as she once thought, to gaining acceptance to a prestigious Japanese university, to losing her boyfriend but possibly finding another. Sigh — yes, there’s a love triangle, but it’s handled very well, and the author does a good job of letting us into Izumi’s feelings and showing us why it would be so hard for her to make a choice.

I loved the depiction of Japanese culture (I was practically drooling over all the amazing-sounding food!), as well as the vicarious pleasure of experiencing life as an Imperial Princess, with amazing clothes and experiences and first-class everything!

Izumi herself is a wonderful character, adapting to royal life but still the down-to-earth American girl she’s always been at heart. I love her relationship with her parents, and it’s lovely to see how her bond with her father has built after their years of not knowing each other. And the twins absolutely grew on me too!

The audiobook is a treat. Narrator Ali Ahn is amazing at portraying Izumi, her friends, her family members, the stiffly formal household staff members, even giving voice to the tabloid press! Plus, it’s fun to hear so many words and phrases in Japanese (and there’s enough context and/or translation to ensure that nothing is lost for those who don’t understand Japanese).

Together, Tokyo Ever After and Tokyo Dreaming are immersive, warm-hearted, fun-spirited books with terrific characters and a great plot progression. Tokyo Dreaming’s ending seems to tie up all the plot points, so I’m assuming the story is done at this point… but I’d be totally okay (i.e., jumping up and down happy) if another book in the series came along.

I highly recommend checking out both of these books this summer!

About the author:

When Emiko Jean isn’t writing, she is reading. Before she became a writer, she was an entomologist, a candlemaker, a florist, and most recently, a teacher. She lives in Washington with her husband and children (unruly twins). She is also the author of Empress of all Seasons and We’ll Never Be Apart.

Find out more at https://www.emikojean.com/

Book Review: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, & Jodi Meadows

Title: My Lady Jane
Series: The Lady Janies, #1
Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows
Publisher: HarperTeen
Publication date: June 7, 2016
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Edward (long live the king) is the King of England. He’s also dying, which is inconvenient, as he’s only sixteen and he’d much rather be planning for his first kiss than considering who will inherit his crown…

Jane (reads too many books) is Edward’s cousin, and far more interested in books than romance. Unfortunately for Jane, Edward has arranged to marry her off to secure the line of succession. And there’s something a little odd about her intended…

Gifford (call him G) is a horse. That is, he’s an Eðian (eth-y-un, for the uninitiated). Every day at dawn he becomes a noble chestnut steed—but then he wakes at dusk with a mouthful of hay. It’s all very undignified.

The plot thickens as Edward, Jane, and G are drawn into a dangerous conspiracy. With the fate of the kingdom at stake, our heroes will have to engage in some conspiring of their own. But can they pull off their plan before it’s off with their heads? 

I’ve always been fascinated by the sad story of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen — the young woman used as a political pawn following the death of King Edward VI. Put in place as queen despite not actually being next in line to the throne, her brief reign ended with Queen Mary seizing the throne, and shortly thereafter, both Lady Jane and her husband were beheaded.

But good news! In My Lady Jane, her story is revised, rewritten, and turned into an absolutely, adorably engaging romp. Heads DON’T roll in this version of the story. #justiceforjane

In the England of My Lady Jane, the political landscape is divided between Eðians (those who can assume an animal form) and Verities (those who can’t). Verities have persecuted Eðians for years, and the return of Mary to power signals a return of the terror of burnings and purges. King Henry VIII very famously became an Eðian when he turned into a lion in a fit of rage, but Edward doesn’t think he’s an Eðian… or is he?

Meanwhile, Jane — a girl who would rather read a book than do just about anything — is forced into marriage with a boy she doesn’t know, all as a means of securing political power for his father. There’s the inconvenient fact that Gifford (G) is an Eðian who turns into a horse by day… but that’s only one of the many obstacles facing the newlyweds.

Sound silly? You betcha. But SO much fun, and the writing is truly a delight. Here’s a sampling of some favorite passages and conversation. See for yourselves how adorable this is!

Wife #3 (Edward’s mother) had done everything right; namely, she’d produced a child with the correct genitalia to be a future ruler of England, and then, because she was never one to stick around to gloat, she’d promptly died.

So. Her husband-to-be was a philanderer. A smooth operator. A debaucher. A rake. A frisker. (Jane became something of a walking thesaurus when she was upset, a side effect of too much reading.)

“Was that a horse joke?”

“Neigh.”

“Was that a horse joke?”

“You have hay in your hair.”

He smoothed his hand over his hair before he caught her smile. “No horse jokes.”

“Never! But I wanted to ask: are you catching a chill? You sound hoarse.”

At this point, G realized he’d just asked a ferret what the dog said.

“Right. As I was saying, bears are always hungry. Try not to act like food.”

“How does one act like food?”

“…And Bess can stay with Jane to make sure she doesn’t ferret her way out of that cage.”

“Can you use ferret as a verb?” G asked.

She shrugged. “You can now.”

“Right,” G said slowly. He picked up his sword. “We are off, then?”

“Without hesitation,” Edward said.

And for a few moments, they hesitated.

Then they were off.

“Armies aren’t very good about carrying libraries with them. I can’t imagine why. We’d fight so much less if everyone would just sit down and read.”

As if on cue (or maybe a bit late on his cue), a kestrel flew through the window. “Edward!” At least, she hoped the bird was Edward. It’d be embarrassing to just start talking with a strange bird.

I loved this book, start to finish. I have the next two Lady Janies on my Kindle already, but I’ve saving them for when I feel like I need a reading treat. The next two are:

And after that, there are a couple of Mary books… so I have plenty to look forward to!

Book Review: When You Get the Chance by Emma Lord

Title: When You Get the Chance
Author: Emma Lord
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: January 4, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Nothing will get in the way of Millie Price’s dream to become a Broadway star. Not her lovable but super-introverted dad, who after raising Millie alone, doesn’t want to watch her leave home to pursue her dream. Not her pesky and ongoing drama club rival, Oliver, who is the very definition of Simmering Romantic Tension. And not the “Millie Moods,” the feelings of intense emotion that threaten to overwhelm, always at maddeningly inconvenient times. Millie needs an ally. And when a left-open browser brings Millie to her dad’s embarrassingly moody LiveJournal from 2003, Millie knows just what to do. She’s going to find her mom.

There’s Steph, a still-aspiring stage actress and receptionist at a talent agency. There’s Farrah, ethereal dance teacher who clearly doesn’t have the two left feet Millie has. And Beth, the chipper and sweet stage enthusiast with an equally exuberant fifteen-year-old daughter (A possible sister?! This is getting out of hand). But how can you find a new part of your life and expect it to fit into your old one, without leaving any marks? And why is it that when you go looking for the past, it somehow keeps bringing you back to what you’ve had all along?

Millie Price is a LOT, and she knows it. Almost 17, done with junior year of high school, and completely obsessed with musical theater, Millie is ecstatic when she finds out that she’s been accepted ot a competitive “pre-college” (a combination senior year of high school plus four-year undergraduate program) that claims to have huge success in turning wannabes into Broadway stars. The problem? She never told her dad that she’d applied, and he’s absolutely opposed to her going.

But Millie is nothing if not determined, and she decides to convince her dad to let her attend in the weirdest way possible: After stumbling across her dad’s awful LiveJournal musings about his sad college romances, she decides to track down her mother — who, she’s sure, will back her up on this pre-college thing, since one of the few things Millie knows about her is that she was also a performer.

On her quest, Millie ends up taking an internship at a talent agency, where she’s forced to work side-by-side with Oliver, the grumpy stage manager from her high school theater department with whom she’s had a serious battle of the wills (not to mention ongoing very loud conflicts) for three years now. But working together, she finds out there’s more to Oliver than she realized.

When You Get the Chance is a cute story, sure to appeal to anyone who (a) loves New York and (b) loves musical theater — but even if you don’t happen to love either of those, Millie’s out-there personality, her relationship with her father and her aunt, and the madcap search for her mother are sure to charm you anyway.

Millie’s extroverted personality, in person, would make me hugely uncomfortable. She’s someone who craves the spotlight, and her big emotions and reactions are constantly on display. While these traits carry her where she needs to go, she also steps on people’s toes and gets into all sorts of awkward situations, not to mention hurting the people she loves most by not talking to them directly instead of carrying out her wild schemes. Still, as a fictional character, she’s funny and charming, and we readers know that her heart is in the right place, even when her actions are over the top.

There are a lot of cute and engaging elements in this story: Millie’s search for her mother, based on the sparse cues she and her best friend find, take her all over the city and introduce her to people who all enrich her life in various ways. The mother “candidates” are interesting women who share some traits with Millie (and whose scenes with Millie are very entertaining), and the travels around New York are lively and enjoyable. Also, Millie’s aunt owns the Milkshake Club, a performance space that serves amazing milkshakes, which is such a fabulous concept… and now I desperately want a huge milkshake of my own!

The family conflicts and drama get resolved in satisfying ways, the romantic element is sweet (and I appreciated that the romance doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the story), and as a musical theater fan myself, I appreciate all the silly ways that various lyrics, plotlines, and characters get woven into Millie’s daily conversations and thoughts.

When You Get the Chance is a engaging read with an entertaining (and occasionally exasperating) main character. It releases the first week in January — what a fun way to start the new year!

Audiobook Review: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Title: Tokyo Ever After
Author: Emiko Jean
Narrator:  Ali Ahn
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 33 minutes
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Izumi Tanaka has never really felt like she fit in—it isn’t easy being Japanese American in her small, mostly white, northern California town. Raised by a single mother, it’s always been Izumi—or Izzy, because “It’s easier this way”—and her mom against the world. But then Izzy discovers a clue to her previously unknown father’s identity… and he’s none other than the Crown Prince of Japan. Which means outspoken, irreverent Izzy is literally a princess.

In a whirlwind, Izzy travels to Japan to meet the father she never knew and discover the country she always dreamed of. But being a princess isn’t all ball gowns and tiaras. There are conniving cousins, a hungry press, a scowling but handsome bodyguard who just might be her soulmate, and thousands of years of tradition and customs to learn practically overnight.

Izzy soon finds herself caught between worlds, and between versions of herself—back home, she was never “American” enough, and in Japan, she must prove she’s “Japanese” enough. Will Izumi crumble under the weight of the crown, or will she live out her fairytale, happily ever after? 

If you’re a fan of The Princess Diaries, have I got a book for you!

In Tokyo Ever After, Japanese American high schooler Izumi stumbles across her long-lost father’s true identity — he’s none other than the (George Clooney-esque) Crown Prince of Japan! Raised by her single mother in a predominantly white small town in California, a place where Izzy always felt like something of an outsider, she suddenly finds herself whisked across the ocean to meet her father and be introduced to life as a member of the Japanese Imperial family.

Talk about whiplash.

Izzy’s casual, self-deprecating, none-too-serious approach to life does not help her succeed in Japan. Suddenly, her every move is scrutizined by the imperial-obsessed press. From her unscheduled airport bathroom break to her leggings and sweatshirt to her failure to wave to the crowd, Izumi is picked apart and criticized, literally from the moment she steps foot in her new country.

Nothing is easy. Her clothes, her manners, her gestures — all have to be replaced with behavior and looks befitting a princess. Not to mention the fact that despite being descended from Japanese immigrants to America, she grew up speaking English only, so language lessons are a must as well. And while Izumi’s father is warm and eager to get to know the daughter he never knew he had, certain members of the household are not thrilled by this new arrival, and will do anything to undermine her.

Tokyo Ever After is a delightful listen, with an entertaining mix of modern teen angst, humor, and texting with an entirely new culture and way of life. As Izumi learns more about Japan and life as a royal, so do we. The lessons and introduction to the imperial family are never dull or heavy handed; as Izumi experiences each new fascinating sight and taste and wonder, we readers/listeners get to experience it along with her.

Izumi herself is a wonderful character, not perfect by any means, but full of hope and willing to give this new twist in her life a real chance. She’s flawed (not a very good student, no compelling hobbies, not all that much going on in her life outside of her amazing set of friends — known affectionately as the AGG, the Asian Girl Gang), she’s not intentionally disobedient but has a hard time with the level of compliance required of young princesses, and she’s not entirely okay with putting up with slights for the sake of etiquette.

There’s a love interest, of course — the super attractive young Imperial Guard assigned to head Izumi’s security team. Akio is introduced as stiff and surly, but Izumi soon discovers the sensitive, poetry-loving soul hidden beneath that gruff (and muscled) exterior. A relationship between a princess and a commoner is not okay as far as Japanese tabloids are concerned, and when their budding romance is exposed, the plotline of the book comes to a head as Izumi must decided where she belongs and where her future lies.

The key themes of the book — family, fitting in, understanding identity, finding a way to belong without giving up who you are — are all well developed, but the writing never hits us over the head screaming important message here. Instead, through Izumi’s adventures and challenges, we’re along for the ride as her journey helps her find her own voice and figure out what matters, and how to stay true to herself while also welcoming tradition and family expectations.

The audiobook narration by Ali Ahn is just terrific. First off, it’s so much fun to hear the bits and pieces of Japanese dialogue, as well as Izumi’s attempts to learn the language. Also, the narrator’s voices for Izumi and her friends are really distinctive and well-done, giving each a shot of personality and conveying their humor, even while reading aloud their text exchanges.

Overall, Tokyo Ever After is a treat to read and listen to. The story is fun and upbeat, yet includes emotional connection and thoughtfulness too. Highly recommended.

The sequel to Tokyo Ever AfterTokyo Dreaming — is due out in May 2022, and honestly? It can’t come soon enough. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Izumi!

And finally… can we just take a minute to appreciate the gorgeousness of these covers??? These might be my favorites this year!

Book Review: Any Way the Wind Blows (Simon Snow, #3) by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Any Way the Wind Blows (Simon Snow, #3)
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: July 6, 2021
Length: 579 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In Carry On, Simon Snow and his friends realized that everything they thought they understood about the world might be wrong. And in Wayward Son, they wondered whether everything they understood about themselves might be wrong.

In Any Way the Wind Blows, Simon and Baz and Penelope and Agatha have to decide how to move forward.

For Simon, that means deciding whether he still wants to be part of the World of Mages — and if he doesn’t, what does that mean for his relationship with Baz? Meanwhile Baz is bouncing between two family crises and not finding any time to talk to anyone about his newfound vampire knowledge. Penelope would love to help, but she’s smuggled an American Normal into London, and now she isn’t sure what to do with him. And Agatha? Well, Agatha Wellbelove has had enough.

Any Way the Wind Blows takes the gang back to England, back to Watford, and back to their families for their longest and most emotionally wrenching adventure yet.

This book is a finale. It tells secrets and answers questions and lays ghosts to rest.

Carry On was conceived as a book about Chosen One stories; Any Way the Wind Blows is an ending about endings. About catharsis and closure, and how we choose to move on from the traumas and triumphs that try to define us.

Note: I’ll try not to be too spoiler-y about Any Way the Wind Blows, but since this is the 3rd book in a trilogy, there will be spoilers for the first two books. You have been warned!

In Carry On, we meet Simon Snow, the most powerful magician of his generation. Simon is the Chosen One, the boy destined to save the World of Mages from its most dastardly threats. Carry On is very much a Harry Potter-esque story — Simon is an orphan, brought to Watford, England’s school of magic, and nurtured as the protégé of the Mage, the school’s powerful, dashing headmaster who exerts influence over all elements of the magical world.

But what would have happened to Harry Potter if, rather than killing the evil Lord Voldemort, he grew in power only to discover that his beloved mentor Albus Dumbledore was actually the villain, set on gathering all power for himself and bending the magical world to his own wishes? This is more or less where Simon finds himself at the end of Carry On. He and his friends confront the greatest evil, ready for the ultimate showdown, only to discover that it’s the Mage himself who’s behind all the bad. And then, inadvertently, Simon kills him.

The end.

But what happens to Simon next? What happens after you face your biggest foe and win, but cause death and the end of the life you knew?

In Wayward Son, Simon and his friends go on a roadtrip in America, experiencing challenges and dangers and adventure, while also giving Simon time to process how very upended his life has become. It’s very action-packed, and there isn’t a whole lot of time for contemplation.

But in Any Way the Wind Blows, back in England, it’s time to confront their futures. For Simon, he’s finally romantically involved with Baz, who was his nemesis and awful roommate during their years at Watford, only to eventually realize that beneath their mutual distrust and dislike was a simmering attraction and depth of feelings. For Simon’s bestie Penelope, she’s ready to resume being the cleverest magician around, except she’s brought a Normal (Muggle) back from American on a mission to cure him of a demonic curse — and as a result, has to not only put all her magical skills to the test, but also challenge magical society’s prejudices about non-magical people. And for Agatha, Simon’s former school girlfriend, she has to find a way to make sense of her life apart from being the beautiful girl always being rescued by Simon.

They all have a lot to deal with, clearly.

Simon suffers the most of all of them. At the end of Carry On, he lost all his magic, but ended up with dragon wings and a tail. He’s madly and passionately in love with Baz, and they’re trying to have a relationship, but at the same time, Simon absolutely doesn’t know how to be intimate or open with another person. It’s not just about physical intimacy — he loves Baz and knows that Baz loves him, but he has literal panic attacks when they get too close. Simon has spent his early life in foster homes, has no family, and has spent his formative years being a savior. What does he do when he has no magic, can’t save anyone, and no longer belongs in the world he thought he was meant to save? And how does he let Baz in when he doesn’t understand himself or who he is?

Simon and Baz’s relationship has ups and downs throughout the book, and parts are painful to read. They’re awkward, and Simon is so clearly suffering. He’s so full of want, but also so fearful, and he just doesn’t know how to be. Baz is absolutely lovely with Simon, even as he also learns more about his own (vampiric) nature and what that might mean for the rest of his life.

To be honest, while I wasn’t exactly bored at any point, I did find Penelope and Agatha’s storylines less interesting than Simon and Baz’s, and since the book alternates focus between the characters from chapter to chapter and section to section, I was always a little reluctant to move away from the main points of interest to delve into the supporting plotlines.

At almost 600 pages, this book is much longer than the previous one, and while I loved it as a whole, I think a large part of that is due to how much I love the characters. When you read a long, involved series, the characters can become more than just people on a page — or at least, that’s true for me when reading really excellent stories with amazing world-building and character development. It’s something of a double-edged sword though, because I become so invested in the characters I love that I don’t particularly want any plot points to get in the way of their happiness… which wouldn’t lead to a very interesting story.

In the case of Any Way the Wind Blows, this means that I was unhappy whenever Simon and Baz were unhappy, even if their unhappiness was part of their journey toward finding their way forward in their relationship. (If I’m making any sense at all…)

In terms of the plot, I enjoyed a lot of this book, although the overarching mystery/drama about the rise of a new Chosen One didn’t particularly resonate for me. There were things I was hoping would happen by the end of the book that didn’t (being cryptic here), and even though that’s hard for me to accept, it makes sense. At the same time, I felt unsatisfied by the lack of answers to certain questions, and felt that the story just kind of ended. There’s an epilogue that gives a lovely ending situation to one character, but it’s a year after the main events of the book… so what happened to everyone else and where are they now??

I love the Simon Snow books as a whole, and I love Simon and Baz so much (and yes, even Penelope and Agatha)… but I wish I’d felt a little more fulfilled when all was said and done. I may need to let this one simmer for a bit and come back to it again, to see if my feelings change over time.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll go back and listen to Carry On all over again, to revisit the origin story with full knowledge of how it all turns out. Carry On is an introduction to a trilogy that — with Wayward Son and Any Way the Wind Blows — ends up not being about a powerful magician in a magical world, but what happens to a formerly powerful magician who doesn’t fit in in any world.

Overall, it’s a fabulous journey with characters who can make my heart happy and also break it into pieces. Come for the magic wands, stay for the Simon and Baz lovefest. And Agatha. And goats (yes, really). And even Penelope and her Normal. As a whole, I heartily recommend the Simon Snow trilogy. It’s not what it seems like it’s going to be, but what it is is very, very cool.

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Book Review: Flash Fire (The Extraordinaries, #2) by TJ Klune

Title: Flash Fire (The Extraordinaries, #2)
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 13, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Flash Fire is the explosive sequel to The Extraordinaries by USA Today bestselling author TJ Klune!

Through bravery, charm, and an alarming amount of enthusiasm, Nick landed himself the superhero boyfriend of his dreams. Now instead of just writing stories about him, Nick actually gets to kiss him. On the mouth. A lot. But having a superhero boyfriend isn’t everything Nick thought it would be—he’s still struggling to make peace with his own lack of extraordinary powers.

When new Extraordinaries begin arriving in Nova City—siblings who can manipulate smoke and ice, a mysterious hero who can move objects with their mind, and a drag queen superhero with the best name and the most-sequined costume anyone has ever had—it’s up to Nick and his friends Seth, Gibby, and Jazz to determine who is virtuous and who is villainous.

And new Extraordinaries aren’t the only things coming to light. Long-held secrets and neglected truths are surfacing that challenge everything Nick knows about justice, family, and being extraordinary. Which is a lot to handle when Nick really just wants to finish his self-insert bakery AU fanfic.

Will it all come together in the end or will it all go down in flames?

I’m not sure that I can say anything more positive about this book than the fact that I WANTED TO HUG IT throughout the entire reading experience. Flash Fire is sweet and funny and adorable. It’s also a superhero story! But secret powers and daring escapades — while awesome — are really secondary to me in terms of why I love this book so much.

The heart and soul of Flash Fire (and The Extraordinaries, the first book in the series) is Nicky, the sweet, nerdy fanboy who is madly in love with his best friend Seth… who just happens to secretly be Pyro Storm, the superhero who recently saved the people of Nova City from the villainous Shadow Storm.

Now that Nick knows the truth about Seth and his superhero alter ego, he’s even more head-over-heels in love. Fortunately, Seth is just as crazy about Nicky, and the two of them are are maddeningly sweet and goofy whenever they’re together.

Gah. I can’t seem to write a single paragraph about Flash Fire without using the word sweet. Guess I should just accept it and move on.!

As Flash Fire moves forward, Nicky and Seth are starting to explore more of their physical relationship, but they can’t seem to get very far without Nick’s super embarassing yet incredibly lovable father giving them demonstrations on how to use condoms or make dental dams. It’s SO cringe-y, yet also amazing. Meanwhile, Shadow Star has been caught and imprisoned, but there’s a sense that more danger is on the way.

Nick and Seth are joined by their best friends Gibby and Jazz, and with the backing of their supportive parents, the four are on high alert for any new threats. And new threats do surface, and violence seems to stalk Nick and Seth wherever they go — and they’re also endangered by nosy, unethical reporter Rebecca Firestone, whose mission seems to be to expose Pyro Storm’s secret identity, no matter the cost.

One of my favorite YA tropes is cataclysmic events happening at prom, and Flash Fire does this to the nth degree and then some. Who doesn’t love a streamer-decorated school gym becoming the setting for a superhero showdown? The battle at prom is all sorts of awesome, and I won’t say much more about it, but you’ll love it too. Nicky’s sequined and spangled prom suit is just icing on the cake. Trust me.

This book!! HUGS HUGS HUGS. The dialogue is amazing, the writing overall is lovely and funny, the plot zips along, and there’s so much heart in it all that I can’t stop talking about how fabulous the whole thing is. Basically, rather than writing a review, I’m apparently participating in a one-woman love fest.

I’ll just wrap by sharing some great moments from the book, starting with a snippet that’s comes up a lot in the book, whenever Nicky is about to do something incredibly stupid or brave or both. (Have I mentioned that Nicky is a lot? He’s very extra.)

“Nicky, no,” they all groaned

“Nicky, yes!”

Seth was pretty much the hottest thing in existence when he wore a cravat and spoke forcefully.

“Hello, boyfriend of mine,” Nick said, and because he could, he leaned forward and kissed Seth right on the mouth. He hoped a homophobe had been watching and was now filled with so much heterosexual rage, they were choking on it.

“Yeah, no,” Gibby said. “It’s weird. What are the chances that three people we know personally ended up being Extraordinaries?”

“And they’re all gay,” Jazz said with a frown.

“Seth’s bisexual,” Nick said, because he’d be damned if he’d allow bi erasure, even in the face of all the ridiculousness.

“Quiet,” Jazz hissed at her. “We can’t interfere. We can only observe. We talked about this. You know how queer boys are in the wild. If they know they’re being watched, they get skittish and run for the forest.

He didn’t even realize he was crying until Seth said, “Hey, hey, Nicky, it’s okay. You’re okay.”

“I know,” he sobbed. “I’m pretty much the best thing ever. You’re so lucky to have me.”

“I really am,” Seth said.

So yeah. Five stars all the way!! I love this SWEET book so much, and just CANNOT WAIT for #3.

Shelf Control #273: The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

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!

Title: The Beauty That Remains
Author: Ashley Woodfolk
Published: 2018
Length: 336 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Told from three diverse points of view, this story of life and love after loss is one Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, believes “will stay with you long after you put it down.”

We’ve lost everything…and found ourselves.

Loss pulled Autumn, Shay, and Logan apart. Will music bring them back together?

Autumn always knew exactly who she was: a talented artist and a loyal friend. Shay was defined by two things: her bond with her twin sister, Sasha, and her love of music. And Logan has always turned to writing love songs when his real love life was a little less than perfect.

But when tragedy strikes each of them, somehow music is no longer enough. Now Logan is a guy who can’t stop watching vlogs of his dead ex-boyfriend. Shay is a music blogger who’s struggling to keep it together. And Autumn sends messages that she knows can never be answered.

Despite the odds, one band’s music will reunite them and prove that after grief, beauty thrives in the people left behind.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle version early in 2020.

Why I want to read it:

After reading this author’s outstanding 2020 release, When You Were Everything, I just knew I needed more of her books! She’s so talented when it comes to portraying teen friendships and the emotional ups and downs that come with being at that stage of life.

The Beauty That Remains sounds very powerful, with themes of grief and friendship and loneliness. I’m going to try my best to squeeze this book into my summer reading schedule!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

Stay tuned!


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Book Review: Game Changer by Neal Shusterman

Title: Game Changer
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Publication date: February 9, 2021
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All it takes is one hit on the football field, and suddenly Ash’s life doesn’t look quite the way he remembers it.

Impossible though it seems, he’s been hit into another dimension—and keeps on bouncing through worlds that are almost-but-not-really his own.

The changes start small, but they quickly spiral out of control as Ash slides into universes where he has everything he’s ever wanted, universes where society is stuck in the past…universes where he finds himself looking at life through entirely different eyes.

And if he isn’t careful, the world he’s learning to see more clearly could blink out of existence…

Ash Bowman is a straight, white, 17-year-old male, a lineman on the high school football team, son of working class parents, a good student, and a good friend. He considers himself pretty woke, not particularly a social activist, but sensitive and caring, and certainly not making the world any worse.

As the book starts, in the middle of a high school football game during a particular hard tackle, Ash has a weird sensation, but it’s over in a moment. Probably just the impact from the tackle, nothing to worry about. It’s not until Ash is driving home and nearly gets hit by a truck in an intersection that he realizes something is wrong. The friend in the passenger seat points out that Ash blew through a stop sign. Impossible, Ash thinks, until he gets to the next intersection and sees the familiar shape of a stop sign — but it’s blue. And to everyone but Ash, that’s completely normal. Stop signs have always been blue.

Ash knows something is wrong, but can’t pinpoint what. But at the next football game, during his next hard tackle, there’s another strange moment, and this time, there’s an even bigger shift in reality. When he heads to the parking lot, instead of his beat-up old car, Ash realizes that he drives a BMW. Rather than living in a poorer part of town, his family now lives in a gated community. Rather than leaving behind his football dreams in high school Ash’s dad is a retired NFL star who now owns a successful business chain, and the family lives in luxury. And once again, Ash is the only person who remembers that the world was once different, although those closest to him seem to have some almost-memories that they can’t quite explain.

With each impact at each game, Ash’s world shifts further and further from his own. He finds changes within himself, as well as in the world around him. Ash suddenly finds himself needing to confront racism, homophobia, and sexism in ways that were never quite as immediate in his original life. And as he learns to control the shifts, he faces a dilemma — does he continue to aim for a better world, or to go back to his own flawed world and try to be a voice for change?

The hows and whys of Game Changer have to do with some sci-fi mumbo jumbo that’s fun but not all that important. It’s not meant to be real quantum physics or anything, just a bit of hand-waving to set up the story and what happens. And that’s okay. The mechanics behind Ash’s world-shifting aren’t what matter here — the heart of the story is about Ash standing in different versions of his life and finally understanding other perspectives from the inside.

Some of these realizations are a little simplistic, as he lives out the concept of walking in someone else’s shoes. Still, it’s interesting to see this character, who’s always considered himself one of the good guys, come to grips with what it’s like to be someone else, what it’s like to lose privilege, and finally get what a friend has been telling him over the years — you can’t explain someone else’s experiences to them if you’re not them.

In some ways, Game Changer reminded me of David Levithan’s Every Day, in which the main character wakes up in a different person’s body each day and has to adapt to living as them, whatever their gender, orientation, race, economic status, or body type. In Game Changer, Ash is always Ash, but with the shifts in worlds, he becomes different versions of himself, and must learn to inhabit that self in the world he finds himself in.

Game Changer is a quick, intriguing read, and I think the target YA demographic will really find it though-provoking and a great jumping-off point for some intense discussions. Definitely worth checking out.

Book Review: The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune

Title: The Extraordinaries
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 405 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra. TJ Klune’s YA debut, The Extraordinaries, is a queer coming-of-age story about a fanboy with ADHD and the heroes he loves.

Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right?

After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl meets Marissa Meyer’s Renegades in TJ Klune’s YA debut. 

Based on having read two of his books, I can now pretty confidently state that TJ Klune writes books that makes me want to hug them. I loved The House in the Cerulean Sea, which came out earlier this year, and now The Extraordinaries is here, with adorableness galore.

Our hero, Nick Bell, has no superpowers to speak of — unless you count his amazing imagination, his neuro-atypical brain that never slows down, and his ability to screw up no matter his good intentions.

Nick is starting junior year of high school with a promise to his dad to do better. No more getting into trouble. No more disrupting class or showing up late. And he really, really means to live up to that promise, but things have a way of not working out the way he plans.

Nick and his father live in Nova City, where his dad is a hard-working cop on the night shift. They live in the After — the years that have passed since Nick’s mother was killed during a bank robbery. Now it’s just the two of them, and while they love each other very much, it’s just not always easy.

Nova City is also the home of two Extraordinaries — superheroes who swoop in to fight crime and save the day. Shadow Star is the good guy, the masked man whose every move causes people to swoon in awe (and Nick to swoon in lust). Shadow Star’s archnemesis is Pyro Storm, the villain who can create and control fire, blocked from evil deeds by Shadow Star’s ability to manipulate shadows to carry out his will. They engage in epic battles over and around Nova City, but lately, these battles have escalated in their seriousness and the amount of damage left behind. The police chief is determined to put a stop to the havoc caused by these Extraordinaries.

Besides having a huge crush on Shadow Star, Nick writes incredibly popular fanfiction about him, and lives for the idea of meeting him eventually. Meanwhile, he goes to school and spends time with his best friends, who love Nick unconditionally, even when his brain and his tongue get him into trouble again and again. He’s a lot. But he’s theirs, and he’s a good guy (so lovable!), and they have his back no matter what.

Where do I even begin to describe how much I loved this book? It’s delightful and funny, but also surprisingly tender and lovely.

The relationship between Nick and his dad isn’t always smooth, but it is always grounded in love and devotion, and it’s really special to read about. While Aaron, the father, often causes Nick to squirm with his frank talk about sex and other matters, he’s coming from a place of support, and he’s determined to be the parent Nick needs, knowing that the two of them have to stick together through good times and bad.

Nick’s friend group is amazing — each quirky and unique in their own way, and so much fun to read about. Also, all queer and proud, in a no big deal, this is who I am sort of way. Each one of them deserves so many hugs! (Except Gibby might twist your arm if you try to hug her, so watch out. She’s tough.)

The writing is funny and charming, and Nicky especially has great lines. He’s a total smart-ass, even when he doesn’t necessarily intend to be.

The Great Romance of Nick and Owen came to an end as quickly as it started. (“You’re a great guy, Nicky, but I’m a wild animal who can’t be caged.” “Oh my god, you are not!”)

Nick really didn’t understand straight people. They didn’t seem to have any sense of self-preservation.

He wasn’t very adept when it came to comforting people he’d made out with. Or, at least, that appeared to be the case. He’d never made out with anyone else. He wondered if he needed to find someone else to make out with and then have them talk about their damaged relationship with their family to make sure.

Nick wondered if it were possible to disappear into the floor. He tapped his foot against it. Solid as always.

Nick groaned. “This sucks. Not only am I the comedic relief/love interest, I’m also the clueless comedic relief/love interest who is a pawn in a game I didn’t even realize was being played. God, my life is so cliche.

I feel like I could go on and on about how awesome this book is, or spend another 10,000 words or so just picking random paragraphs from the book to prove to you how fantastic and whimsical and hilarious and touching the writing is.

But let’s leave it at this: Nick is a damaged, imperfect guy living in a superhero world, and he’s extraordinary in his own ordinary way. I love him bunches and bunches, and I’m thrilled to know that The Extraordinaries is apparently the first book in a trilogy. I will absolutely read more about these characters and this world, and wish I didn’t have to wait for 2021 for the next installment.

Meanwhile, I’m clearly going to need to start working my way through TJ Klune’s backlist, pronto.

Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 540 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

AMBITION WILL FUEL HIM.

COMPETITION WILL DRIVE HIM.

BUT POWER HAS ITS PRICE.

It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes. 

When the news first came out that a new Hunger Games book was on the way, 10 years after the release of Mockingjay, I knew I’d have to read it. And then, as the first synopses and excerpts starting coming out, I was probably as confused and nervous as all the other Hunger Games fans.

A book about President Snow? Really?

Did we really need this particular character’s backstory? And given what a horrible person he is, would a novel about his early years manage to satisfy readers or make us care?

Fortunately, Ballad (sorry, I’m just not going to keep typing out the full LONG title) exceeds expectations and shows that the talent of Suzanne Collins can make a man we all despise into a compelling lead character.

Coriolanus Snow is 18 years old when we meet him at the start of Ballad. It’s been ten years since the war ended, and he lives in his family’s luxurious home in the Capital. Or at least, it was luxurious once upon a time, when the Snow fortune was thriving and Coriolanus’s parents were still alive.

The war was brutal and cruel, and the streets of the Capital are still filled with the rubble left behind. The Snow family’s home is falling apart at the seams, and when District 13 was bombed into oblivion, ending the war, the Snow industries located there were also obliterated, leaving the once wealthy family destitute. Now, years later, Coriolanus lives in the shabby home with his elderly grandmother (referred to as the Grandma’am) and his cousin Tigris, where they subsist most days on cabbage soup.

Fortunately for Coriolanus, he’s a stellar student at the Academy, where his uniforms are provided and he’s guaranteed hot meals during the school day. He hides his poverty and hunger from everyone around him, determined to continue to portray himself and his family as upper crust, top tier, best of the bunch. After all, as he and Tigris reassure one another:

Snow lands on top.

This year, for the first time, Academy students are going to be given an exciting new assignment: Each of the top year students will be assigned as a mentor to a tribute in the Hunger Games. This is a chance for Coriolanus to shine. If he’s successful, if his tribute does well, he’s more likely to get the prizes and recognition that will get him a University scholarship. And his dreams definitely include University — the education and access will be necessary for his goal of restoring the Snow family to power, maybe all the way to the Presidency someday.

But first, he has to make sure his tribute does well. And it’s not looking so good. He’s assigned the girl tribute from District 12, the least prestigious assignment possible. And she’s an odd one — a girl dressed in poofy rainbow skirts with a beautiful voice and a magnetic presence, but clearly not a threat in any sort of way. Still, Coriolanus will have to work with what he’s given, and he begins to scheme and plan for how to push Lucy Gray Baird into the spotlight and into the public’s affection.

That’s a lot of synopsis, and there’s so much more to say, but I’ll stop here and talk about the pieces that really stood out for me in this book.

First, it’s truly fascinating to see life in the Capitol in the post-war years. In The Hunger Games trilogy, we only see the Capitol through Katniss’s eyes. It’s a cruel, spoiled place, full of pampered, shallow people, a place where other people’s suffering is entertainment for the masses.

Here in Ballad, the Capitol is a shelled, damaged city trying to rebuild and reestablish its absolute control. The black market is thriving, old families are starving and fading away, and social standing is the only possible avenue to regain what was lost.

The Hunger Games, ten years after their creation, are just one facet of the Capitol’s attempt to dominate the districts, and they’re pretty meager at that. The Games are held in a bombed-out sports arena, where the tributes are basically just dumped with a pile of weapons and left to kill one another. No high-tech tricks or elaborate sets, no cannons or anthems, not even any removal of bodies. The dead lie there until it’s all over, and it never does take very long.

What’s more, the tributes of these early Hunger Games don’t get any of the special preparation or luxury guest accommodations that Katniss experiences all those years later. They’re transported to the Capitol in cattle cars and housed at a cage at the zoo, given neither food nor water. It’s Coriolanus who draws attention to them, realizing that his tribute will benefit from having the public love her, finding ways to create interest and encouraging people to bring food to the caged tributes, who might otherwise starve to death before they ever enter the arena.

One of the truly fascinating aspects of this book is seeing the hated President Snow as a vulnerable teen. He’s not hateful when we meet him. He’s a young man who has to put on a good show while his private world falls apart, every single day. He’s driven and determined, but loves his family, and isn’t terrible at his core.

It’s his ambition that drives him forward, and he does have people he cares about. He also struggles with the morality of the Hunger Games, although as he views Panem’s actions from the perspective of a Capitol family, he has no sympathy for the rebels who caused such devastation in his home. Under the tutelage of the Academy professors, he hones his thinking on control and the social structure of Panem, and finds ways to push aside any personal disgust or moral ambivalence when it gets in the way of his goal to ensure the survival and triumph of the Snow family legacy.

Lucy Gray is a wonderful character, as is Sejanus, Coriolanus’s school friend who is decent to the core. Sejanus’s family is from District 2, but moved to the Capitol thanks to their enormous wealth — but no one lets Sejanus forget that he’s District, and he himself can’t seem to fully accept the Capitol’s approach to ruling the Districts. Sejanus’s morality is both a guidepost and an irritant to Coriolanus, and their contrasting journeys over the course of Ballad is a key part of what makes this novel so compelling.

(If I had more of an education in the classics, here’s where I’d go into the symbolism of the characters’ names… but alas, all I can do is say that looking up Coriolanus and Sejanus on Wikipedia was very interesting!)

As a side note, I know people were commenting/complaining about the lengthy title of this book. And yes, I’ve opted to just call it Ballad instead of typing it out over and over again. That said, ballads and snakes and songbirds are all significant within the book and factor strongly into certain plot points, so it’s definitely not an arbitrary title!

There’s so much more to say about Ballad, so much food for discussion, but I’ll stop going into details and just encourage you to discover it for yourself! I could not put this book down. The author does an amazing job of taking an established villain and showing us the nuances and all the shades of gray in his development. Coriolanus wasn’t always the man we know in the Hunger Games trilogy; Ballad illustrates who he once was and how he became the person he ended up.

A terrific read. Don’t miss it!