Red, White & Royal Blue Review

41150487._SY475_Title: Red, White & Royal Blue
Author: Casey McQuiston
Genre: romance; contemporary; LGBT; new adult; fiction
Synopsis: (from Goodreads): What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales?

When his mother became President, Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly cast as the American equivalent of a young royal. Handsome, charismatic, genius—his image is pure millennial-marketing gold for the White House. There’s only one problem: Alex has a beef with the actual prince, Henry, across the pond. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse.

Heads of family, state, and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals. What at first begins as a fake, Instragramable friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have imagined. Soon Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret romance with a surprisingly unstuffy Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations and begs the question: Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through?

Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue proves: true love isn’t always diplomatic.

Review: 4 Stars

Casey McQuiston’s 2019 romance was as funny as it was tender. It was sweet and kind but also witty and full of banter and sexy flirting from the millennial characters McQuiston created. It was so well done too. All of the millennial / gen z generation characters felt fully dimensional. In fact, the characters that fell flat for me were the older generation. The ones I didn’t really care about, even if they were the ones apparently leading the nation. *shrug*

Alex and Henry had me from Cakegate. Their energy was electric. From the moment Henry called Alex out and was like, “you’re the one always coming to seek me out, Alex,” I was hooked on them.

When McQuiston wrote in the banter from the people following them on internet, the newspaper, Twitter, on Buzzfeed, etc. I felt like it literally could have been me. Particularly the “OMG just make out already” comments after their first television filming.

But it’s not just about their snark and witty repartee. It’s also about their tender moments and their private email exchanges. I loved how they sent excerpts from actual letters in history. I loved how that began with Hamilton and John Laurens. It was a fun, and particularly pop culturally relevant way to start their love story.

The author was, in my opinion, particularly brilliant with how she allowed their love story to unfold. The clandestine meetings, their secret texts, their private emails, their innuendos, and the help of the seven people they trust. It just works. It helps build the suspense but also brings with it this reminder that it has to end. Logically, as a reader, I knew somehow they would get exposed, and from some of the repeated phrases, I guessed (SEE! I CAN GUESS THE ENDINGS!!! TAKE THAT LAST TWO BOOKS) correctly. It was a really volatile coming out for both of them and it felt like a real invasion of their privacy, but I really like how they all handled it.

I don’t have any experience with this, so I can’t speak to whether McQuiston handled this with grace and empathy, but I thought Alex and Henry were strong and brave AF. They stood up to the MF Queen of England for Christ’s sake.

The LGBT representation in this book was awesome. Nora and Alex pulling it out for the bi team, Amy for the trans community, Henry and Raf for the gay community, Cash for the pan community, and then all the other characters as strong allies. (I don’t think I missed anyone, but I’m writing this review without the book to skim through, so if I am, please comment below).

Getting back to the older generation for a second, they all seemed so flat. The only one that really gave me anything was Alex’s dad. When they were in Texas for their weekend away from the world, I really loved how the father just accepts Alex. He even teases him and calls himself the patron saint of genderless bathrooms in California I think.

But they have a good conversation about how it’s different when it’s your own kid, which I think is a good distinction to have. Oscar (dad) says it isn’t any different for him, and Alex is his kid and he loves him just the same— but it really is for some parents. I’ve heard parents say that they’re okay with it as long as it isn’t THEIR kid. (Gross, btw)

So for Oscar and Alex to have this conversation, it’s pretty cool.

POTUS has a moment of humanity when she kicked her staff out and asked if Alex was okay, but other than that, she was just a politician, through and through.

I think in general, the book is one written in response to what happened in the last election. It’s a HEA, and it’s FICTION, so it’s not this super realistic account of what could happen tomorrow. This was one of the concerns I read about when I got the book— “it’s too unrealistic, it would never happen” — in my opinion, that’s why it’s uh, FICTION? And that’s also why I like it. It’s the dream election for 2019, that’s what makes it good.

The POTUS is also a Democrat, so the politics mentioned in the book, naturally, swing left too, but that didn’t bother me either. I figured that would be the case so I didn’t get caught off guard by it.

Another criticism I read was about how Henry hates the monarchy while still benefitting from it. I lol’d at that. Henry’s character literally struggles with being part of an empire built on genocide and war the whole book, going so far as to never spend any of that money. I liked his character development. I don’t really understand the criticism I guess. *shrug*

Overall, this book is driven by more than just Henry and Alex. It’s also Nora and June and Pez and Amy and Cash and Bea and supported by the POTUS and a double agent (triple agent?) and a senator and two protective agents who care deeply, even if they pretend they don’t.

It was an idealistic HEA and I loved it. Pick it up today.

Sorcery of Thorns Review

IMG_1283Title: Sorcery of Thorns
Author: Margaret Rogerson
Genre: fantasy; ya; lgbt
Synopsis: (from Goodreads) All sorcerers are evil. Elisabeth has known that as long as she has known anything. Raised as a foundling in one of Austermeer’s Great Libraries, Elisabeth has grown up among the tools of sorcery—magical grimoires that whisper on shelves and rattle beneath iron chains. If provoked, they transform into grotesque monsters of ink and leather. She hopes to become a warden, charged with protecting the kingdom from their power.

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

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

Review: 4 stars. This was another Lit Coven selection — if you are looking for a badass book club that is primarily YA fantasy, look no further. You can find them HERE. Last month we read These Witches Don’t Burn (my review of that is HERE) and I loved that one too. So, you could say that my book club picks out some bomb titles for us to review.

So, this month, it’s Sorcery of Thorns. As you read from the synopsis above, this one is about a girl who is framed for a crime, and then has to figure out how to stop the actual perpetrator(s) from continuing their crime spree. I had some predictions as the text went on, but not really. Like, about 100 pages in, I thought I knew who, but I had literally no idea how until it was revealed.

In my These Witches Don’t Burn review, I said I was usually pretty good at predicting things, but maybe I’m not as good as I thought after all. (Lol). In the end, I didn’t really care about not being able to guess because I liked having Elisabeth reveal it all to me. It’s a new experience to be shocked by the big reveal. (okay, so I guess that means I am good at it usually, but not in these two cases?)

I really liked the dynamic between Nathaniel, Elisabeth, and Silas. That trio was so strong and foundational. I mean, I think obviously Silas was my favorite character. With Katrien as a strong second supporting character. Their unwavering devotion to Elisabeth, their faith in her was awesome, and fun to watch unfold. Silas was a strong character’s even stronger sidekick. As demon’s go, he was pretty amazing. The way Rogerson wrote his backstory and character development felt pretty damn spectacular.

Everyone in Austermeer has these preconceived notions of what it means to have a demon, and how those demons feel about their human masters. Elisabeth sees something in Silas that no one else does, and that’s wicked cool. (tangent: but, I HATE that I used wicked there. I didn’t want to use it, but the New England transplant in me couldn’t think of a better word to use, and so I used it, and didn’t replace it). I LOVED Silas and Nathaniel’s relationship too.

Another obvious favorite for me was Nathaniel’s almost acquiescence to Elisabeth. I even marked a page because of how he confessed himself to her. Like he hated it, and only did so begrudgingly. “God, Elisabeth, I’ve been doomed since the moment I watched you smack a fiend off my carriage with a crowbar” (343). All the way through the book he calls her a menace. It starts honest enough, but then basically becomes a pet name of sorts. It’s kinda cute. I like it. PS: Nathaniel is bi, and just so casual about it. He’s like, if you’re gonna talk about my love life, might as well be accurate about it. Like, he trusts Elisabeth enough to be honest with her, but it’s so flippant and just naturally a part of him — well introduced and written in, Rogerson!

What I love the very most is Elisabeth’s attachment and connection to the books. I think every avid read wishes to be as connected to books as Elisabeth is to them. When Katrien explains why she is, I found myself wishing I was her.

“None of this is its fault” (377) she says about a book some of the wardens are using as torture practice. And later, when they need their help, I got seriously over emotional when the books spring forward and do her bidding. A little bit of freedom and a whole lot of sacrifice.

This adventure is so full of story, heart, and vivid world building. There’s so much to take in, so much to want to figure out as you’re reading. I didn’t feel like I was in the 19th century aside from the carriages, the cravats, and the female hysteria. Women can be in the Magisterium, can be Directors of the Collegium, but if they read too many books, they’re prone to hysteria? That was the only jarring thing for me.

The ending was perfect. The last paragraph specifically.

While I would love more in this world, I’m secretly hoping this is where this ends. Goodreads doesn’t have it listed as a duology or as a series, so I’m thinking it’s a standalone and this makes me very happy indeed.

These Witches Don’t Burn Review

image1Title: These Witches Don’t Burn [1/?]
Author: Isabel Sterling
Genre: fantasy; ya; paranormal witches; own voices; LGBT
Synopsis: (from Goodreads) Hannah’s a witch, but not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s the real deal, an Elemental with the power to control fire, earth, water, and air. But even though she lives in Salem, Massachusetts, her magic is a secret she has to keep to herself. If she’s ever caught using it in front of a Reg (read: non-witch), she could lose it. For good. So, Hannah spends most of her time avoiding her ex-girlfriend (and fellow Elemental Witch) Veronica, hanging out with her best friend, and working at the Fly by Night Cauldron selling candles and crystals to tourists, goths, and local Wiccans.

But dealing with her ex is the least of Hannah’s concerns when a terrifying blood ritual interrupts the end-of-school-year bonfire. Evidence of dark magic begins to appear all over Salem, and Hannah’s sure it’s the work of a deadly Blood Witch. The issue is, her coven is less than convinced, forcing Hannah to team up with the last person she wants to see: Veronica.

While the pair attempt to smoke out the Blood Witch at a house party, Hannah meets Morgan, a cute new ballerina in town. But trying to date amid a supernatural crisis is easier said than done, and Hannah will have to test the limits of her power if she’s going to save her coven and get the girl, especially when the attacks on Salem’s witches become deadlier by the day.

Review: 5 Stars. When my book group, the Lit Coven, (find them HERE) decided to read this book, I was late to the party. I’d instituted a summer book buying ban and decided against reading anything I didn’t already own, but obviously I folded, (DUH) and bought this. It only took me reading the description before I was clicking BUY and devouring it upon its arrival.

Okay, so let’s start with setting. I’ve only been to Salem three times, but Sterling put me back there pretty much immediately. From the touristy areas where all the witch shops are, to where the more suburban houses are, it was New England through and through. She did a great job at setting the scene and using the historic undercurrent to highlight the very real threat for her main characters in 2019. I loved how this modern day clan of witches lives and breathes the history of what happened in 17th century Salem, and Sterling’s writing made that happen for me.

Another thing I quite enjoyed about this book are the very real and relatable characters in this book. Hannah is a solid main character. She’s, like many of the other MCs I tend to like, not perfect, but learning and growing. She relies on others, seeks truth, doesn’t just accept things as fact, and questions everything the adults tell her to believe. Go Hannah!

She trusts her judgment and believes in her friendship with Gemma, even when she knows it goes against everything she’s ever learned. She trusts her heart and her mind. But she’s a teenager, so she’s also learning how to come to terms with heartbreak, and relationships. She’s also a really strong example of an unapologetic and badass lesbian. I love Sterling’s writing of her character.

At one point, a side character,  Benton thinks he can persuade her to date him, and she’s like, um, “no dude, I’m gay.” The way Sterling injects the social commentary of turning girls straight here was so smooth and so easily done, just a quick conversation. Then it was done and handled, and then both Hannah and Benton move on, as friends.

Morgan is also badass. She’s bi, and so cool. Hannah assumes she’s a lesbian, there’s a clarifying convo in there about assumptions, and then they move on and it’s literally no problem. Another cool move by Sterling. Morgan is confident, calm, and perfect for Hannah— the complete opposite of Hannah’s ex, Veronica.

Veronica is the epitome of unhealthy relationship.

———-Okay, hold up————

Listen. I promise this book is about witches. But Sterling’s writing is SO GOOD we have to talk about how she writes these characters.

Okay, back to Veronica. So unhealthy. Manipulating. Wishy washy. She wants Hannah back, but only so Hannah doesn’t have someone else. Ugh. But so well written. Isabel Sterling. You are so so good at writing characters and character interactions. For real.

The plot itself is kind of like a mystery whodunit but with witches and a teenage love triange thrown in for good measure — if you’re into that sort of thing. As it’s in Salem, and it’s called These Witches Don’t Burn, there are some assumptions you can make, right? Someone wants to burn witches. So people are after Hannah – the witch. Despite, everything though, throughout the whole book, I wasn’t actively trying to figure out who it was that was trying to hunt witches. I’m usually pretty good at guessing who the bad guy is, but this time, it took me a bit to figure it out.

BUT
I REALLY LIKED that. I liked not knowing. I didn’t want to figure it out. I wanted to enjoy the story and the mystery. I was so wrapped up in the characters and the drama of the romance and the family / clan dynamic that I didn’t guess who the witch hunter(s) was/were until the end.

These Witches Don’t Burn was amazing. I am putting it in my classroom with a big huge 5 Stars on it so my kids know it was an amazing read.

 

Outrun the Wind

outrunTitle: Outrun the Wind

Author: Elizabeth Tammi

Genre: fantasy; ya; retelling; lgbt

Summary: (from Goodreads) The Huntresses of Artemis must obey two rules: never disobey the goddess, and never fall in love. After being rescued from a harrowing life as an Oracle of Delphi, Kahina is glad to be a part of the Hunt; living among a group of female warriors gives her a chance to reclaim her strength, even while her prophetic powers linger. But when a routine mission goes awry, Kahina breaks the first rule in order to save the legendary huntress Atalanta.

To earn back Artemis’s favor, Kahina must complete a dangerous task in the kingdom of Arkadia— where the king’s daughter is revealed to be none other than Atalanta. Still reeling from her disastrous quest and her father’s insistence on marriage, Atalanta isn’t sure what to make of Kahina. As her connection to Atalanta deepens, Kahina finds herself in danger of breaking Artemis’ second rule.

She helps Atalanta devise a dangerous game to avoid marriage, and word spreads throughout Greece, attracting suitors willing to tempt fate to go up against Atalanta in a race for her hand. But when the men responsible for both the girls’ dark pasts arrive, the game turns deadly.

Review: This novel was a compelling and fun read! Tammi writes with conviction with two distinct narrators. Each of the two entwined storylines are interesting to follow.

You cheer for both Atalanta and Kahina individually as their lives unfold, especially since the story switches from each woman’s point of view chapter to chapter. Later in the story, you begin to cheer for the two of them together… but it does take a really long time for the main storyline to actually get going. I tend to enjoy stories like this, but I know they aren’t for everyone.

I quite enjoyed the portrayal of the gods. Artemis and Apollo are given villainous but just character arcs. I like how they’re written. Things are the way they are with them because that’s how they’re meant to be with the gods, but that doesn’t mean the other characters should just blindly follow.

I love Ancient Greek retellings. When I downloaded this, I was fresh off of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, and it was hard not to compare the two titles. In that regard, Tammi’s narrative storytelling takes longer to get into, so if you are anything like me, and riding the wave of Greek love, watch out for that.

Overall, if you’re into Retellings where characters that deserved better than their ancient myth get better, this is a story for you!

**Thanks to Netgalley for this free download in exchange for an honest review.

Labyrinth Lost

Title: Labyrinth Lost
Author: Zoraida Córdova
Genre: fantasy; young adult; LGBT; paranormal; fiction
Synopsis: (from Goodreads) Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation… And she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo she can’t trust, but who may be Alex’s only chance at saving her family.
Review: While reading this, the first thing that came to mind was, “heck yes, a Latinx bruja story!” I legit haven’t seen many of these on the market and with paranormal fantasy as big as it is, that’s a tragedy. That said, I am happy to report that Córdova has opened up this niche market to the wider audience with her first book of her Brooklyn Brujas series. Authors like Isabel Allende and Cristina Garcia have been bringing powerful Latinx women to the written page for decades and with Labyrinth Lost, Córdova puts herself on that list of authors too — for a young adult audience.

Alex is an interesting narrator for this first installment. She is written like a perfect middle child — I am one, I know what it feels like, okay! — Somewhere between knowing everything and getting away with everything, Alex is just looking for ordinary in a family that is anything but. Like any true YA heroine, doubt and panic lead to major second guessing which leads to a major lack of communication between mother / daughter. (Really, between the whole family.) This is my only gripe with this book. Had ONE of the 400 years of brujas and brujos in Alex’s family told her what she needed to hear, many of the conflicts would have resolved themselves. But as I continue to think about this, I think, what sixteen-year-old girl talks to their parents about the stuff that matters? And there are a few instances where she tries and gets brushed off, so I take away this gripe. But I don’t erase it. Because it was there.

That said, the storyline was beautifully written. Woven like an Ancient Greek tapestry by Penelope herself, Córdova takes you into Los Lagos, the In Between as it were, and writes three dimensional characters all the way through. The villain is interesting. The plot is too. Alex’s character development is both realistic and touching. I like Nova as a character. I like Rishi, but less than I like Nova. Alex does something really impulsive for Rishi that I think is counterintuitive to her character’s whole motivation. In fact, when this particular scene happened, chapter 33, I was riding on a train from Cavaillon to Salon in Provence and I slammed my book down in my lap in a most dramatic fashion. My fellow French passengers were not amused. Je suis désolé. Like my earlier gripe that I took back because she’s sixteen, I think I have to use that same card here too. What do you think?

I’ve already put in an order for the second book and can’t wait for it to arrive.

Toil & Trouble

Image result for toil and trouble tessaTitle: Toil & Trouble
Editors: Tessa Sharpe & Jessica Spotswood
Genre: short stories; fantasy; anthology
Synopsis: (from Goodreads)  A young adult fiction anthology of 15 stories featuring contemporary, historical, and futuristic stories featuring witchy heroines who are diverse in race, class, sexuality, religion, geography, and era. Are you a good witch or a bad witch? Glinda the Good Witch. Elphaba the Wicked Witch. Willow. Sabrina. Gemma Doyle. The Mayfair Witches. Ursula the Sea Witch. Morgan le Fey. The three weird sisters from Macbeth. History tells us women accused of witchcraft were often outsiders: educated, independent, unmarried, unwilling to fall in line with traditional societal expectations. Bold. Powerful. Rebellious.
ReviewToil & Trouble is a brilliant collection of short stories about powerful women that bend and break the traditional chains that bind them. From a series of varied perspectives, the power of women comes through in ways that are soft and easy as well as hard hitting and intense. Each author tells the story of the witch or bruja as if magic itself coiled around the words. The prose is beautiful and poetic, and yes, sometimes heartbreaking. I enjoyed every single short in this collection and will be buying it the moment it is released.

*Special thanks to Netgalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

Love in the Time of Global Warming

Image result for love in the time of global warmingTitle: Love in the Time of Global Warming
Author: Francesca Lia Block
Genre: retelling; ya; hero’s journey; adventure; dystopian; lgbt; mythology
Synopsis: Her life by the sea in ruins, Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that all but destroyed the city of Los Angeles. She sets out into the wasteland to search for her family, her journey guided by a tattered copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon she begins to realize her own abilities and strength as she faces false promises of safety, the cloned giants who feast on humans, and a madman who wishes her dead. On her voyage, Pen learns to tell stories that reflect her strange visions, while she and her fellow survivors navigate the dangers that lie in wait. In her signature style, Francesca Lia Block has created a world that is beautiful in its destruction and as frightening as it is lovely. At the helm is Pen, a strong heroine who holds hope and love in her hands and refuses to be defeated.
Review: This Odyssey pairing is an interesting YA version of the text. A modern setting and some cool queer characters make this classic tale seem fresh and inviting for a new generation of readers. Pen is an interesting protagonist, thrown into the apocalypse without warning or preparation.  While Block doesn’t have the sweeping power that Homer does, it would be a good pairing for lower-level readers so that they understand the mile markers of the epic. Pen is a heroine in her own right, but she is no Odysseus.

In the end, the book felt a little one-dimensional for me. I am very well versed in Homer, so I think I went into it with really high expectations and hopes, but was instead kind of left wanting more. The characters didn’t get enough backstory and the drama felt a little rushed. I’d still recommend it to the students I teach though, so….