So, I’ve always wanted to try writing book reviews. At the same time, I don’t want to transform this entire blog into a review blog. Plus, there are tons of books I want to talk about, so it would feel weird to just post the occasional review of one book chosen over several others. The solution: mini book reviews!
I hope for these books to double as book recommendations, so I’ll be sticking to reviews that are primarily positive. This doesn’t mean I’ll only heap on praise–I’ll discuss flaws as well as strong points–but I don’t see the need to talk about books I strongly disliked. I’m certainly someone who likes to critique everything from social norms down to the brand of dishwasher soap I use, but these are books by modern authors who probably use the Internet. Critical reviews are different from reviews that can’t find many good things to say about a book, even if only because the reader’s personal tastes didn’t align with the author’s. I don’t wanna participate in the latter.
With that in mind, here are the six books I’ve enjoyed most over the past two months! I’ll avoid spoilers to the best of my ability.
My rating system:
★★★★★ – I count this book among my favorites
★★★★ – I loved it, but not quite enough to make it a favorite
★★★ – Good, I enjoyed it
An Ember in the Ashes – Sabaa Tahir
★★★★ – I’m always excited to find a fantasy novel that isn’t based on the Western world (especially if said world = medieval England, because at this point, that’s super overdone). Tahir’s debut takes place in a desert-based territory featuring a corrupted Empire and oppressed citizens trying to fight back. True, the Empire vs. Rebels thing is something I’d like to see less of, but this novel focused more on individual journeys within those two factions, which added unique flavor to an otherwise stale trope. What I found most impressive about this book was how it kept me turning pages and thinking “oh, just one more chapter” (this is unusual for me, since it takes a lot to get me hooked on a book). Tahir has a knack for tantalizing cliffhangers and keeping the reader guessing about where the plot could be headed. There were several twists I hadn’t anticipated, and one in particular that had me exceptionally nervous about a character’s fate. I connected most to Elias, the male POV character, and enjoyed the complexity of his friendship with Helene. Leia, the female POV character, was interesting enough, but could have used more fleshing out–she didn’t seem as well-developed or lifelike as Elias. I do wish the romance that cropped up near the end of the novel had stayed…nonexistent, especially because it felt forced and based on nothing besides “the plot demands this.” I’m one of those readers/writers who gets grumpy about romance being included if it’s not absolutely necessary, so I’m hard to please when it comes to that. However, an overall excellent read, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.
Soundless – Richelle Mead
★★★ – In this fantasy novel based on Chinese folklore, Fei has lived her whole life in a mountain village in which every citizen is deaf. The villagers’ ability to hear vanished generations ago, so over time, they have adapted their lifestyle to complement their deafness. Then one day, for no clear reason, Fei is able to hear. She uses this to travel down the mountain in an attempt to save her village from starvation. There was a lot to like about this novel. For one thing, I enjoyed the romance between Fei and Li Wei, probably because it was introduced in a more unique way than most other romance subplots I’ve seen in YA. Fei and Li Wei have a history extending back years before the novel’s starting point. They don’t lock eyes and immediately swoon, or even develop a new romance over time. Rather, they rekindle something they’d previously lost, and the chemistry between the characters does a fine job of demonstrating their familiarity with each other. Fei herself was an excellent character. She was determined and stubborn, but didn’t fall into the strong-female-character-look-how-tough-I-am trap some female protagonists do (this trope bothers me because of the implication that in order for a female character to be strong, she must be physically competent/show little to no vulnerable emotion). I also loved the portrayal of her passion and skill for painting. However, the novel aims to represent two groups that I am not a part of: deaf individuals and Chinese people. I can’t speak to the quality of representation in either case, but several GoodReads reviewers have pointed out that the Chinese influence on Mead’s world is disappointingly superficial, at best. The book claims to be “steeped in Chinese folklore,” which, once you’ve read the book, feels like false advertising. As for the deafness, I worry that it participates in the harmful “magically-cure-the-disability” trope so many fantasy novels make use of, creating the impression that a character with a disability is only/most valuable without their disability. It’s true that all the other originally deaf characters remain deaf until the end and show plenty of competence, but again, since I’m not deaf, I can’t authoritatively speak to whether or not this was portrayed responsibly (a better resource for that would be Disability in Kidlit).
What We Left Behind – Robin Talley
★★★★ – This is a difficult book to review, because I adored everything about it…except for the execution of the reason I bought it, which was that it featured a genderqueer character. It follows Toni, who spends the novel exploring their genderqueer identity (since Toni never settles on a pronoun, I’ll use “they” for this review), and Gretchen, a lesbian cis woman trying to figure out who she is. Toni and Gretchen started dating in high school, but when they end up attending colleges in different cities, they experience life on their own and discover more about who they are without their significant other. The novel’s portrayal of a high school relationship encountering turbulence in freshman year of college was beautifully rendered. It handled difficult truths and uncomfortable realizations deftly and realistically. I truly would’ve believed I was reading about two real people struggling to hold onto this once-effortless relationship that meets with necessary, painful change. The dynamics between the characters in the LGBTQ group at Toni’s school also felt authentic, which was probably helped by the fact that the author is part of the community. I was also impressed by the portrayal of a gay character who’d grown up in a sheltered town and whose only understanding of gay people outside himself was the caricatures he’d seen on TV, and who he wound up imitating because he didn’t know anything else. However, the genderqueer representation could’ve been better. It wasn’t horrible, but I’m not sure it was helpful, either. Genderqueer people, like bisexual/pansexual people with their sexuality, are often accused of being confused about their gender, or of going through a phase before settling on male or female. Throughout the novel, Toni is incredibly confused about their gender, and spends each of their POV chapters switching labels, pronouns, etc. Now, this is all perfectly fine and realistic–plenty of people do have Toni’s experience and identify as genderqueer before deciding they identify more with a binary gender. It was also stated in the book that being genderqueer doesn’t mean a person is confused. But…there wasn’t a single non-confused genderqueer character in the book who could’ve served as a contrast to Toni’s confusion. The book really would have benefited from this. I was also puzzled by the choice to have every one of Toni’s trans friends identify as male, while all the women in the group were cis. A few of these characters also used genderqueer as a “transition phase” before identifying as male. Despite this, I enjoyed the other aspects of the novel and would happily read more of Talley’s work.
Half Bad – Sally Green
★★★★★ – I was thrilled the second I opened this book. I was in the mood for something unusual and not too reliant on formula, and that was exactly what I got with Half Bad. It starts off with a few scenes halfway through the book’s timeline, told brilliantly from second-person POV. Eventually, the narrative shifts gears to the beginning of the story told in first-person, which I was glad for. The second-person narration, while lending a magnificent amount of mystery and suspense, wouldn’t have been sustainable for the entire novel. The story itself follows Nathan, a member of a society of Witches living secretly among regular people all over the world (Nathan lives in the UK). The similarities to Harry Potter, however, stop there, because this society is built upon the assumption that White Witches are good witches, while Black Witches are evil. Nathan, the son of a White Witch and a Black Witch, is known as a Half Code, and so grows up despised by most witches, including his own half-sister. I connected with Nathan’s voice immediately, both in second person and first person. He has this quiet sense of humor and a self-deprecatory attitude that made him easy to warm up to. I also appreciated Green’s willingness to show Nathan’s vulnerability, which is less common with male characters. There were no hang-ups surrounding masculinity every time Nathan cried or mourned over something lost (though he was sometimes embarrassed to expose his vulnerability for non-gender-related reasons). He was also allowed a very tender, affectionate relationship with his brother, which is a departure from the brotherly relationships I’m used to seeing, in YA and otherwise. Add a dash of queerness to the mix, and you’ve got a novel that I adored. I ordered the sequel almost immediately after finishing.
Half Wild – Sally Green
★★★★ – Yeah, it’s never the best feeling in the world when a sequel doesn’t quite live up to the novel before it, but I still really enjoyed Half Wild. Something I didn’t mention in the above summary is that all Witches acquire a new power when they turn seventeen, and they don’t learn what it is until it appears. The way Green portrayed Nathan’s power was exciting and, as I should’ve expected, made fantastic use of unconventional narrative techniques. There were also several unexpected deaths in this book that I didn’t see coming, and one that made me put the novel down to let myself mourn for a moment. In fact, Green handles Nathan’s responses to death very well. Most fiction I consume (books, movies, video games) tends to treat death in a cavalier way, especially if the genre is adventure-based. I prefer the Nikolai-from-War-and–Peace approach, which is more akin to, holy shit, I just killed a human. Nathan reflects this, and the more often death occurs, the more used to it he becomes, which leads to its own kind of discomfort. It’s a nuanced treatment of the issue, and I loved it. On the other hand, the plot meandered a lot more than it did in the first one, making it frequently feel directionless. I also realized that, while I feel attached to Nathan, I’m not big on most of the other characters. For those who’ve read it–no, not even Gabriel. His obsessive treatment of Nathan creeps me out. Doesn’t mean he’s a bad character, just that I’ve struggled to enjoy him as a person. Like with Snape from Harry Potter (although Gabriel and Snape are vastly different characters). We’ll see if a new character is introduced in the next installment that I enjoy more, or a current character develops in a way that makes them more likable to me. I’m thrilled that the final book in the trilogy comes out today, and can’t wait to buy a copy.
Lair of Dreams – Libba Bray
★★★★★ – I am wild about Libba Bray. I read her Gemma Doyle trilogy as a teen, and this new fantasy series doesn’t disappoint. In fact, Lair of Dreams was an immense improvement over the first book in the series, Diviners, which I gave only a three-star rating. I’m a sucker for beautiful prose, and Bray’s prose is both haunting and gorgeous. It breathes life into not only the characters, but also the setting, which I think is fundamental to any fantasy series (what would Harry Potter be without Hogwarts, which is a character all its own?). Lair of Dreams continues the story of the diviners, a group of teenagers living in 1920s-era New York and gifted with supernatural abilities. It’s clear that Bray has spent a lot of time with each of her characters, because I could practically hear each character’s individual voice in my head when they spoke (that might also have something to do with Bray’s talent for writing dialogue). I became so attached to the characters that I whisper-screamed “Nooo!” at one of the book’s more upsetting twists while I was reading at work. Bray also must do a buttload of research for her historical fantasies, because I’d easily believe she time-traveled to the 1920s and lived there while writing this book. The slang and historical details are implemented in such a seemingly-effortless way that I felt utterly transported. The first book already included people of color and queer characters, but Lair of Dreams added to this with a new half-Chinese, half-Irish character, and by setting the main plot primarily in Chinatown. Again, I can’t speak to the accuracy of the Chinese/Chinese-American representation, nor to the representation of the black characters in the book, so I’d take someone else’s word on that. I was delighted by the abundance of queerness present in this one, especially in comparison to the first in the series. There was one character who the novel seemed to hint at being queer, but I was disappointed that nothing came of it. I’m hoping it will make an appearance in the next book and we’ll get a firm confirmation of my suspicion. I’m super upset that I have a long wait for book three, but I’ll be sure to order it as soon as it goes on sale.
Those reviews were a lot less…mini than I’d planned, but thanks for reading! What books have you enjoyed most this year? I would love to see your book recommendations in the comments.
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