Book Review

Spring by Ali Smith

Publisher: Anchor
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

The short synopsis of Spring describes spring (whether the book or the season) as “the great connective” and as such the novel brings together the lives of three unlikely people: a grieving director, an immigration custody officer, and a young schoolgirl. As the story is told through each of their perspectives the reader is introduced to the intricacies of their lives and the presence of today’s most pressing challenges. As their lives intersect the reader is exposed to the impact of these challenges on not just individuals but a nation.

Thoughts

Ali Smith’s novel Spring is the third book in a four-part seasonal series with three other novels titled Autumn, Winter, and Summer. The series explores a post-Brexit United Kingdom and highlights some of the most pressing, controversial, and painful realities of the nation through their characters. I studied abroad during the Spring 2022 semester and while at a bookstore I picked up Smith’s Spring. I have yet to read the other novels in Smith’s series, but even without this reference I was frozen with interest and continuously taken aback with emotion while reading the novel. While seemingly simple in plot and fast to read, it is a novel you will want to read multiple times given the depth of the story. The narrative is similar to stream-of-consciousness mixed with poetry and in conjunction with the plot, the story struck me like a force. The narrative requires more from the reader, acting almost as a puzzle that boldens the hidden context in our everyday lives to the turmoil and complex socio-political landscape. As well, the gradual reveal of the plot allows the reader to assume the role of the characters as they, too, approach their journey blindly. 

Spring focuses on immigration in the United Kingdom and while I lack the personal connection to the geographic and political context I found it a useful tool to begin understanding the current political climate in the United Kingdom. This was not just demonstrated with the physical aspects of the plot – one character’s attempted suicide, the viewpoints and decisions of the immigration officer, and the efforts of a young child to reach her mother – but also the subtext of the characters actions. I also found a lot of the commentary similar to discussions within the United States which proved revealing to the nature of social and political narratives today. Smith’s Spring is daring and tragic and truthful and it is a statement and looking-glass into not just the United Kingdom’s current state of the nation but can draw parallels to the current state of the world.

Book Review

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Publisher: Viking
Genre: Fiction / Science Fiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Nora doesn’t want to live. It’s not complicated: she has experienced enough to know that her life has been a complete and utter waste. Thinking upon all her mistakes, the decisions she made and the ones she didn’t, she knows there is nothing left for her in the world. When she finally acts on this knowing, however, she didn’t expect to end up in a library. 

The Midnight Library is a place that can show her every regret, but also every possibility and it is up to Nora to decide whether she wants to say – in her life or another.

Thoughts

I think the question of “what if ______?” is universal because despite all wanting to live without regrets or making peace with the unknown details of the future we allow such an intrusive question to linger with every decision. Despite hours of wondering and regretting every decision we’ve ever made there is rarely an answer and while Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library doesn’t offer a strict answer, it does explore the depths of this question and reveals the amazing possibilities we have in our choices and our decisions. Nora is incredibly cynical and straight forward to the point of comedy and there is no doubt that she wants to die. While this blunt self-hatred can be offsetting it is layered with laughter and warmth and humor which makes it relatable and revealing to the reader. I found myself laughing as Haig illustrated the undeniable truth that our own expectations and perceptions of life do not align with those of reality. It is a sarcastic story but full of truth when Nora goes through every major possible alternative life and realizes that it is not the differences in choices which decide her happiness but her perception of them. Every life she visited proved disappointing and the idea of happiness – of fame or wealth or marriage – came with its own disappointments. A sunny life in Australia had hidden depth and a life of fame proved unstable. The Midnight Library was a book that made me laugh and cry and think; it was straight-forward but also heart-warming and was universally relatable. I haven’t read a book that so easily changed my perspective without the messy connotations of allegories or metaphors. Matt Haig presents a direct look at life and our perception of happiness, choices, and possibility and it is a book I would strongly recommend to anyone who has ever thought “what if _______”.

Book Review

55 Slightly Sinister Stories

Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 119
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Racha Mourtada’s 55 Slightly Sinister Stories is touted as “55 Stories. 55 Words Each. No More. No Less.” leaving the reader as to no doubt what they are getting.

Mourtada’s author’s note reveals that book was born of a New Year’s resolution to write one 55 word story each day…which lasted until May 5th (clever girl!)

This quirky little book also features illustrations by Lynn Atme, and each story occupies two pages.

Thoughts

In honor of the sheer discipline it takes to create a complete story in just 55 words (I have been working on my own set of 101 word stories for quite some time) I have decided to give Racha Mourtada’s 55 Slightly Sinister Stories a 55 word review.

An eclectic grouping of romance, death, heartbreak, and even the woes of that all-important first line of a story, Mourtada presents readers with this fun collection. It’s satisfying to be able to complete two or three stories in the time it takes to read the first page of a novel, and the illustrations are delightful.

It’s not as easy it sounds!

Book Review

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

Publisher: Quirk Books
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 424
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 3/5 stars

Summary

Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires has a title that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. It is what it says it is! Set in the 1980s and 1990s Patricia—doctor’s wife, mother to two teenagers, and caregiver to her mother-in-law—is bored to tears with her country-club and pearls lifestyle. Her book club, which should be somewhat of an escape, is just more of the same…rich women posturing by reading pretentious books that they only skim through at best. 

But things get kicked up a notch when some of the ladies defect, and begin their own true crime gathering. Immersed in the world of serial killers, Patricia feels like she may have found a little excitement. That is until a stranger moves into town, some kids go missing, and Patricia and her Southern book club sleuths find themselves facing something a lot more sinister than Dahmer or Bundy. 

Thoughts

I wanted to love this, but ended up just liking it. The title grabbed me right away, and immediately I was thinking Blanche Dubois or any of the Sugarbaker ladies from Designing Women (look it up) or Steel Magnolias with a stake in one hand, and a Mint Julep in the other ready to “y’all” the bloodsucker back to hell where he belonged.

No such luck. While the premise is fabulous, and there were some chuckle-aloud moments, I wanted more camp. I was hoping for more comedy with my horror—but it was less comedy, more drama, and mystery. Hendrix spends some time on Patricia’s feelings of isolation and abandonment when the book club isn’t really feeling up to the detective work she is so eager to engage in. I have to wonder if that was his commentary on how women who may be a little longer in the tooth (get it?) seem to get cast aside if they don’t fit a certain mold, or want just a little more than what they have been given. From their initial defection, I got a little female empowerment at times from this crew of Van Helsings.

Hendrix does turn a few vampire legends upside down (I won’t spoil them here) but they aren’t anything I rebelled against. No one glittered or procreated. Thank goodness. In fact, I rather enjoyed the method in which you have to destroy this particular vampire’s kind. Some reviewers of the book complained about the level of gore (high), but that didn’t bother me in the slightest. Rats eating flesh, people eating flesh. Isn’t that what vampire novels are supposed to include? 

There are a couple elements that Hendrix slays (pun intended) beautifully. He has the art of suspense down. Even though it’s been done numerous times, there is a particular scene where Patricia is in the vampire’s house, and there’s that feeling of will-she-get-caught-or-won’t-she that is well-handled and anxiety inducing. The other element that really worked for me is Hendrix’s atmosphere-building in this novel. You can just feel the Charleston humidity rising up from the pages, and see the Spanish moss dripping from those thick trunked trees. Ah…I could use that Mint Julep right about now. 

If you like a good amount of gore and a few laughs mixed in with a heaping helping of drama, you’ll like this novel. For me, it was enough to generate some interest in Grady Hendrix’s other work, so stay tuned. 

6 Books I’d Love to See as Television Series

It is not often that I find myself thinking “I’d like to see that on the screen!” Most of the books I have read fit into three categories: so good that the film would mess it up; so important that transforming into film would be unethical; or so terrible that no money, time, or effort should be wasted on this story. Occasionally, however, a story takes on a unique, colorful, and euphoric sort of life in my mind and I quickly fall into the belief that creating this visual experience in film would be a thing of cathartic beauty which would leave viewers breathless—and in this breathlessness, they would examine their own lives and improve upon them. That might be a bit idealistic, so, at the very least, I am talking about my own self-improvement. The following six books are the handful that I would watch as a television series in a heartbeat.


Cemetery Boys—Aiden Thomas. Cemetery Boys follows Yadriel, a young transgender boy born into a Latinx family of the brujx community in East Los Angeles. Brujx is the all-encompassing word for a community of brujos and brujas, which is a Spanish word generally translated as a sorcerer. When young brujos and brujas in the community come of age, they perform a ritual to gain their powers, which differentiate based upon gender. Yadriel, who was assigned the biological sex of female at birth, wants to prove that he is actually a young man by performing this ritual. After this, Yadriel goes to find the ghost that murdered his cousin, but in the process, he accidentally summons the spirit of Julian Diaz, one of his classmates. As the novel unfolds, the characters work to solve a mystery, an adorable love story takes place, and we grapple with the question of what a family truly is. 

This entire book is set to the backdrop of magic and colorful imagery, which I imagine people in the film industry would trip over to create. There are far too many neutral tones and darkness in television, but this book would take something that could be darkly lit and place pops of color and life everywhere. Besides that fact that it would be visually appealing, this book has LGBTQ+ representation written literally everywhere. It isn’t the kind of story that awkwardly sticks a gay best friend in the corner as an afterthought. The author of Cemetery Boys and all of the main characters are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, so the audience is made aware of real issues that far too many of them face, including homelessness and rejection by their family. What I especially love about this book, however, isn’t simply that the author raises these issues, but that they show a possible world where they find people who love them and those who were previously opposed grow to become accepting. This is the kind of sweet magic we should be putting on our screens.


Girls Save the World in This One—Ash Parsons. June has been obsessed with zombie films her whole life, especially a zombie apocalypse show called Human Wasteland and its dreamy lead character. When she and her two best friends head to ZombieCon to meet him and other prominent actors from zombie-themed films, she is ecstatic. When they arrive, however, some of the fans are acting a bit off. Before they know it, chaos breaks out and June discovers that it’s because real zombies are taking over ZombieCon. June must do everything she can to save her and her friends from the zombies, relying on the skills she has learned as such an avid fan. Along the way, she meets the star of Human Wasteland, and she learns what it means to be a leader in an unlikely situation. 

This is exactly the kind of hilarious, light nonsense I would love to see as a limited series. None of that Marvel-women-coming-together-in-one-scene-as-a-forced-show-of-feminism nonsense. The prospect of this show is giving off the vibes of Netflix’s new show “The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window”. It’s the perfect satire of those popular zombie shows, while also being powerful, sweet, and relatable (at least in the sense that an avid fan has wished for something like this to actually happen).


Macbeth—William Shakespeare. This play follows the titular character Macbeth on his quest to amass more power and take over as Scotland’s ruler. Persuaded by his wife, Lady Macbeth—and his own ambition—he sets out to obtain this position by any means necessary. Interwoven into the story are themes of love, murder, prophecy, and paranoia, as well as questions about proper gender dynamics, what it takes to be a good leader, why we seek power, and how we should seek power. 

Like many other Shakespeare plays, Macbeth has made it to the big screen many times, the most recent being at the end of 2021 with Denzel Washington playing Macbeth. Call me critical or filled with hubris, but I believe that we should give Macbeth more than a two hour movie. At the very least, it deserves to be a limited series so that we can properly explore the intricacies of this play. There is so much to unpack, and I haven’t seen a single rendition that fully encompasses this story. They’re either lacking the philosophical questions Shakespeare poses about how power corrupts and how a good ruler is made, or they play too far into modern notions of entertainment: blood, drama, sex, and violence (which is ironic because that is exactly what Macbeth covers in the play). Macbeth shouldn’t simply serve as entertainment. It should shock people so deeply that they begin to understand how malleable human nature is and undertake a strengthening of their own character. 


Ash Princess—Laura Sebastian. Ash Princess, which is now a finished trilogy, follows Theodosia, a young woman whose country was taken over when she was a child. She is forced to live among her captors, enduring abuse and ridicule. That is, until a series of events forces her to choose between continuing this life and fighting to regain her and her country’s freedom. This story raises themes of imperialism, colonization, and slavery. In typical Young Adult Fantasy fashion, these characters have powers, Theodosia herself having her own unique force. 

I thought the book series was excellent, but I did think there could have been more detailed storylines. In my vision of a television series adaptation, this story would not stay so much in the Young Adult genre. It would expand on the effects of colonization, and Theodosia would be less whiny. The books spend far too much time on her love triangle, and they don’t adequately show the strength that someone in her position and making those choices would require. In at least five seasons, I can see this story being the next Game of Thrones. 


Second First Impressions—Sally Thorne. Ruthie Midona likes to play it safe. She has a stable job, and her appearance is an absolute paradox—she is a young woman, but she dresses as if she were an elderly lady. Moreover, she works at a retirement villa called Providence. When Teddy Prescott enters her life, he is everything she is not: a motorcycle-riding, tattooed young man who has trouble committing to much of anything. He is everything she wants, though. When Teddy’s father, the owner of Providence, has him live on site with Ruthie and the other residents, Ruthie tries her best to avoid falling in love with him. He’ll be gone soon enough anyway. However, Teddy’s charm and persistence makes her efforts impossible. Every single character, not just Ruthie and Teddy, has a unique and quirky personality that everyone is sure to enjoy. 

When I imagine the setting of this novel, it brings me great peace. In my mind, the cottages of Providence are sporadically placed amid a giant garden-like plot of land. A staple of the novel is also the tiny, endangered turtles that wander around the grounds. This beautiful setting, as well as the eccentric characters that fill the novel, would create a fabulous limited series of absolute hilarity and romance. 


We Were Liars—E. Lockhart. This book follows Cadence, a member of the wealthy Sinclair family who spends their summer vacations on a private island with large estates, one for each little family. When Cadence is fifteen, she suffers a head injury, but doesn’t quite know how this happened to her. Over the next few years, she receives little communication from her two cousins and friend, who she normally spends the summers with. When she finally returns to the island, everyone seems a bit off, and she is pushed to uncover what actually happened to her when she was fifteen. This novel is filled with mystery and frustration over unnecessary wealth and class differences. In a shocking twist at the end (one that had me screaming in my car because I was listening to the audiobook), we are forced to think about how our actions can have severe consequences, even when they begin from someplace righteous. 

This would make an excellent limited series. It’s energetic, exciting, and traumatizing. The setting of a private island during summer would give us so many beautiful scenes. Most of all, I want to see this on the screen because it calls attention to wealth and class disparities, how money can corrupt our personalities, and how it can misguide even the best of our intentions. This is the kind of story humanity needs in order to see the true effect of our actions and become more conscious of our choices. 

Book Review

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Frida is a sleep-deprived single mom trying desperately to juggle the requirements of work and the needs of her toddler Harriet. On one very bad day she leaves Harriet home alone, just for a little bit, so she can get a coffee and a report from the office. She admits this wasn’t a good idea, but when you’re sleep deprived you do stupid things, and it wasn’t for long. But one bad day is enough to earn her the state’s attention.

The judge offers an ultimatum: lose custody of your child or attend a year-long residential program using the latest scientific techniques to turn bad mothers into sparkling specimens of devotion.

If Frida wants to see Harriet again, she must first prove herself at the school for good mothers.

Thoughts

In Good Mothers, the protagonist of a slice-of-life literary novel finds herself trapped in a bureaucratic panopticon written in the style of Philip K. Dick. The science fictional elements of the story introduce themselves slowly. By the time the android children programmed to feel pain and love in order to be better training tools show up, Frida is too numb to react with much surprise.

I have never before read a book which conveys in such clarity the feeling of living within the self-perpetuating logic of the carceral state.

The American justice system operates on the premise that crime is a failing of the individual whose proper antidote is punishment of the individual for their moral failing (denying systemic problems and those based on material conditions). Criminals are only eligible to re-enter society as citizens when they have “paid for their crimes” and undergone some sort of personal rehabilitation. This insidious reasoning has becomes so endemic in our society that many Americans would define justice as synonymous with punishment for crime.

So when single, working mother Frida fails to meet the exacting standards of motherhood mandated by the state, the solution is for her to be punished and then rehabilitated. That Frida will never be able to meet standards designed for stay-at-home mothers of petite bourgeois families only serves to proves that she is indeed a bad mother.

She has been put into a Sisyphean struggle. Society demands that she work in order to live, but society has also conveniently defined labor traditionally associated with women as not real work deserving of wages. Frida is therefore expected to excel at the labor of motherhood without payment and still work for a living in a profession whose labor is granted material value by society. When she fails to perform perfect motherhood according to these standards, she is punished.

And not merely punished. At the titular school for good mothers, Frida participates in her own humiliation. She repeats over and over the mantra “I am a bad mother but I am learning to be good” as if she were in a 12-step program. She doesn’t have to say it, but if she refuses, her noncompliance will be noted in the file which the judge will use to determine if she can ever see her child again.

Frida’s constant self-abnegation struck a familiar chord with me. To be poor or marginalized in America is to be constantly groveling. The service worker must apologize to the customer who screams at them or else lose their job. The poor student must right essay after essay flogging their personal traumas for the chance at a life-changing scholarship. The parolee is forced to act as their own warden, enforcing on themselves the onerous terms of their semi-freedom on threat of re-imprisonment.

To become an active participant in one’s own subjugation is the ultimate horror of the carceral state.

I won’t spoil how Good Mothers ends, but I will say that the final scenes are neither hopeful nor despairing, and more than worth the horror one must wade through in the preceding pages.

10 Books To Look Forward To In 2022

A new year brings with it another crop of incredible books for readers to enjoy—and while it’s impossible to know which books will captivate the world in 2022, these 10 books appear to be full of potential. Mark your calendars, because these amazing stories will be hitting bookstore shelves this year, and you won’t want to miss them.


Book of Night—Holly Black. From the beloved author Holly Black comes the story of Charlie, a con artist working as a bartender. In her world, shadows can be manipulated, changing a person’s memories, feelings, powers, and more—but these changes come with a serious price. When a figure from her past arrives at Charlie’s door, she must re-enter the terrible world of shadow trading, facing off against thieves and nobles, all hell-bent on controlling the power of the shadow. In this world of shadows and deceit, is there truly anyone Charlie can trust?

Release Date: May 23,2022


Daughter of the Moon Goddess—Sue Lynn Tan. Inspired by the legend of the Chinese moon goddess, this story follows Xingyin, a young girl who lives on the moon to hide from the celestial Emperor who exiled her mother until she is discovered and forced to flee. She makes her way to the Celestial Kingdom where she, in disguise, begins to train with the Emperor’s son. However, even as passion blooms between the two, forbidden magic threatens the kingdom and Xingyin will soon have to choose between saving the realm or saving those she loves the most.

Release Date: January 11, 2022


Book Lovers—Emily Henry. Nora Stephens is a cutthroat literary agent who is seeking a literary adventure of her own in Sunshine Falls, North Carolina. Despite her best efforts, though, she keeps running into Charlie Lastra, a brooding editor from the city and Nora’s personal rival. However, as their encounters become more and more frequent, Nora begins to discover that there is more to Charlie than what she first suspected.

Release Date: May 3, 2022


Dead Girls Can’t Tell Secrets—Chelsea Ichaso. Was Piper’s fall an accident? Piper Sullivan has been in a coma for a month after what everyone assumed was a freak hiking accident—but when her sister Savannah finds an invitation to a wilderness club at the very place and time her sister fell, she begins to suspect foul play. Savannah joins the club for the weekend camping trip at the same mountain, but the truth will not be found so easily. Everyone has secrets, including Savanah.

Release Date: April 5, 2022


The League of Gentlewomen Witches—India Holton. Charlotte Pettifer is the future leader of the League of Gentlewomen Witches, a group of witches dedicated to using magic to maintain what is proper. When the long-lost amulet of Black Beryl is discovered, Charlotte must team up with Alex O’Riley, a pirate who also desires to steal the amulet. But Charlotte must be careful or her pirate might run off with her heart.

Release Date: March 15, 2022


Dead Silence—S.A.Barnes. A salvage crew receives a distress call on their way back to earth and are shocked to discover that it’s The Aurora, a luxury spaceliner that vanished twenty years ago. The crew is elated as this salvage could set them up for life, but as they investigate further they realize something is very wrong. From messages in blood to haunting voices from the darkness, it’s clear that something horrible happened to the Aurora, and if they don’t figure out what happened soon, they might be next.

Release Date: February 8, 2022


Taking Down Backpage: Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker—Maggy Krell. Backpage was the largest sex trafficking operation in the world, advertising the sale of sex with vulnerable people in 800 cities and making millions of dollars. In Taking Down Backpage, Maggy Krell, a California prosecutor, details how she and her team managed to take down the trafficking monolith. From the victims’ stories to the sting operations to the future of sex trafficking, Taking Down Backpage provides a harrowing tale of the fight for justice in the digital age.

Release Date: January 11, 2022


The Book Eaters—Sunyi Dean. Devon belongs to a reclusive clan of book eaters, people who are able to gain a book’s content by eating it. As a woman, she was raised on a diet of fairytales and cautionary stories while her brothers were raised on stories of valor and adventure. However, all she’s ever learned from her years of book eating will be put to the test when she discovers her son doesn’t hunger for books, he hungers for human minds.

Release Date: August 9, 2022


Serendipity: Ten Romantic Tropes, Transformed—Edited by Marissa Meyer. Lovers of the romance genre will be familiar with the genre’s many beloved tropes. The fake relationship, the matchmaker, first love, unrequited love, secret admirers, and many more have delighted readers since the beginning of time. Now, ten young adult authors join forces to turn these tropes on their heads, creating new stories for readers to fall for.

Release Date: January 4, 2022


Gallant—V. E. Schwab. Olivia Prior is an orphan who was raised in a school for girls with only her mother’s journals to provide her any clue to her past. That is, until she receives a letter that invites her home to Gallant. However, she finds that there is more to the Gallant manor than the first meets the eye, and she must now decide where she truly belongs—with her prior family protecting the world from the master of the house, or by his side.

Release Date: March 1, 2022

Our Favorite Tropes: 6 Recommendations and Why We Love Them

This post is a collaboration between Makayla Aysien and Lauren Kuhman

Enemies to Lovers

The Hating Game—Sally Thorne. The Hating Game follows Lucy and Josh—two people who work for the same publishing company—who are forced to work in the same office space, and who absolutely despise each other. Lucy is sweet, colorful, passionate, and friendly, while Josh is tough, reserved, and intimidating, but no less passionate than Lucy. The two clash so often and so epically that their heated relationship is infamous at their little publishing company, Bexley & Gamin. When a promotion becomes available—available to only one of them—their competition appears to come to an all-time high. Amid the chaos of change, and the two of them knowing that their current dynamic will surely be altered by this promotion, the main question is what kind of new relationship might blossom between the two of them. 

The Hating Game is the book that pulled me into the romance genre. I thought I had picked up a mediocre book that wouldn’t distract me while I was supposed to be committed to schoolwork, but this turned out to be one of the best mistakes I have ever made! With its endless hilarity and truly passionate romance, I couldn’t put it down. Other enemies to lovers books like to point out the fact that their main characters are “verbally sparring” without actually bantering, but Lucy and Josh know what it means to be witty. I think it’s safe to say that Sally Thorne has reinvigorated the enemies to lovers trope in the modern romance genre.


Found Family

Six of Crows—Leigh Bardugo. Six of Crows follows a handful of teenagers in Ketterdam, a city where capitalists’ dreams come true and gangs run the streets. When an opportunity comes along to become obscenely wealthy, Kaz Brekker—leader of one of Ketterdam’s prominent gangs, the Dregs—recruits an unlikely crew to complete a heist. 

Six of Crows is everywhere, and it deserves all the hype it gets. It intertwines some of the greatest storylines and tropes imaginable, from heists and trickery to young love and friendship. Bardugo has created vivid, lively, but vastly different personalities who somehow come together to achieve their goals. Every member of Kaz’s crew comes from some sort of great familial loss, but in working together, they discover a love for each other that is more important than any other wealth.


Workplace Romance

If I Never Met You—Mhairi McFarlane. This romance follows Laurie, a successful career woman, whose longtime boyfriend suddenly and unexpectedly ends their relationship. Their breakup is made all the more awkward by the fact that they work for the exact same law firm. Laurie hasn’t dated in years, but her ex and his new girlfriend, as well as the workplace gossip about her love life, pushes her to take action. After running into Jamie Carter, the office playboy whose love life is the topic of conversation far too often, they hatch a plan to pretend that they are dating.

If I Never Met You combines one of my favorite tropes—workplace romances—with another amazing romance trope: fake dating. While this is very much a romance novel, it offers a unique type of romance to the genre. It’s subtle, slow, and sweet. This book focuses a great deal on Laurie and what it’s like to move on from a relationship that ended in profound heartbreak, but also offers a gentle hand to those who are learning to open their hearts back up again.


Main Character Ends Up with a Celebrity

Catch a Falling Star—Kim Culbertson. I am a supporter of the fact that romances don’t need to be incredibly physical to be amazing or that adults can’t enjoy YA novels—and Catch a Falling Star is no exception. One of the first novels I bought and read myself at my school’s Scholastic Book Fair, Catch a Falling Star perfectly encompasses all the feelings of young love with the caveat that the main character doesn’t initially want such feelings. This fairly short novel is about a small town girl who, when a movie star comes to film in her town, is asked to portray the celebrity’s girlfriend. While the relationship is tense at first, it isn’t before long that both catch feelings. But is it real? Can the two survive the pull of their completely different lives?

This is a great read any time of the year, but if you don’t like the cold and are dreaming of summer look no further for a perfect wish-I-was-on-the-beach read. As well, for fans of Disney Channel’s movie StarStruck this book encompasses those tensions, feelings, and hope that young love can offer.

Honorable Mention

Girls Save the World in this One—Ash Parsons. We couldn’t include this trope without mentioning Girls Save the World in this One by Ash Parsons. A quirky and lovable novel that combines unlikely romance and the zombie apocalypse, this book is perfect for anyone wanting a typical literary trope with a unique plot.



Self-Discovery and Mental Health

Dear Evan Hansen—Val Emmich. A musical, a book, and now a movie, it goes without saying that Dear Evan Hansen has become a world-wide phenomenon (and with good reason). The story follows Evan Hansen, an anxious and isolated high-schooler. One day he is tasked with writing a letter to himself by his therapist—however fellow student, Connor Murphy, takes the letter. The next day, Evan Hansen is approached by Connor’s grieving parents who believe that the letter was a final note from their son, who took his own life that day. Evan Hansen is pulled into a conflicting situation as he searches for belonging while addressing the harsh reality of being a young person and lifting the grief of the Murphy family.

Dear Evan Hansen is an amazing story and addresses so many ideas but mostly emphasizes the idea of personal growth and self discovery as Evan Hansen searches for meaning and belonging while making some pretty bad decisions. Additionally, the story is available in many formats that all articulate the prevalence of Evan Hansen’s journey. The book and movie are the most accessible, but as always I encourage you to read the book first (and as a bonus listen to the original sound track as you read!).


Psychological / Survivalist

Lord of the Flies—William Golding. Lord of the Flies by William Golding is just an all-around good book. Short and concise, the novel follows a group of young boys who have recently been stranded on an island. What begins as an organized attempt to survive quickly descends to chaos. Declared a classic and recipient of the Nobel Prize, the novel goes beyond its acclaimed status. It is the type of story that offers something new every time you read it; it takes on multiple forms, multiple focuses, and articulates new ideas. It is timeless not only because it speculates some of the most innate qualities of humanity, but because it is a story that answers the age-old question of what would happen if you were stranded on a desert island. So…what would you do?

Book Review

Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Publisher: Aladdin
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Jason and Rachel were from our world and lived very ordinary lives until they were sucked into a magical realm known as Lyrian. This world is run by an evil ruler named Maldor. After accidentally discovering a secret that has Maldor hunting after them, Jason and Rachel must set off on a strange quest. There is a word that has been divided into several syllables that, if spoken to Maldor, will kill him. With the help of a blind king named Galloran and several new friends made along the way, Jason and Rachel will do whatever they can to end Maldor’s reign of terror.

However, Maldor has some tricks of his own. Deceitful loyalists, deadly obstacles, sinful temptations, and a dark secret from centuries ago will strive to stifle any attempt to unseat this dark ruler. After all, Lyrian is a world without heroes, and Maldor will do whatever it takes to keep it that way.

Thoughts

The best part of any Brandon Mull book is undeniably his world-building, and Beyonders is no exception. Lyrian is a magical realm unlike any other and is exclusively populated with unique fantasy characters that can’t be seen anywhere else. My two favorite creatures introduced are the displacers—beings who can remove any piece of their body without losing its function—and the seed-people, beings who, when they die, plant a seed found at the base of their neck and grow an entirely new body. These creatures make Lyrian a world that can only be experienced within this series, giving it a unique touch that makes rereading easy. Not only that, but the uniqueness of the people within Lyrian help guide the reader to oppose Maldor, as his destructive need to control Lyrian inherently threatens the world the reader has come to love.

In a similar vein, the character building in this series is also magnificent. Rachel and Jason are charming characters who balance their confusion and fear in the face of this new world with their desire to help their new friends seamlessly. They also have incredible chemistry as a duo and their interactions lead to some of the funniest parts of the series. The people they meet along the way are also unique and well-rounded—there are no throwaway characters in this series. Everyone has fully developed desires, aspirations, and personalities and they all feel integral to the overall narrative. This also aids in the reader’s investment when these characters are in danger or die. There are no meaningless deaths in this book: they all impact the characters and the reader.

The most unique aspect of character building in this series is the redemption arc of a specific character. Not to spoil the series, but there is one character revealed to be a spy for Maldor that eventually joins the heroes. The constant question as to whether they will betray them again is fascinating enough as it is, but it’s the struggle of the character themselves that really makes this story a special one. Brandon Mull doesn’t pull any punches with this character—rather, he fully addresses the difficultly of abandoning what you once believed, the struggle to be honest after deceiving for so long, and the pain of being constantly distrusted and despised even as you try to change. By far, this is the best arc of the series, and it ends perfectly in the third book, and anyone who wishes to write a redemption arc should read this series.

Lastly, this book also has both a great sense of humor and the ability to be serious. The comarderie between the characters leads to hilarious banter that really lets the characters connect on a personal level. Likewise, the book doesn’t shy away from showing the abuses that Maldor perpetrates and the risks that these characters face in opposing him. When characters die, they stay dead, and their loss is felt for the rest of the book. These conflicting energies play off each other perfectly, with the humorous moments showing the beauty of Lyrian and the serious moments showing how much would be lost if Maldor took over completely. The reader feels the risk and the loss along with the characters and is therefore brought along for the ride.

Overall, I adored this series. My favorite aspect of the fantasy genre is that the reader gets to experience a brand new world full of incredible people and places, and Beyonders delivered that in spades. I highly recommend Beyonders to anyone looking for a great fantasy adventure to dive into this year.

5 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books for YA Lovers

Of all genres, science fiction and fantasy most closely match the wild exuberance and sense of wonder that makes young adult fiction so enjoyable. But when new readers are introduced to these genres, they are often recommended the first 600 page tome in a series written by an old white guy with a beard. And while there’s nothing wrong with those epics (if that’s your thing), they are certainly not the only books these genres have to offer.

Here is a list of science fiction and fantasy titles that explore the themes of self-discovery and growing up YA readers will find comfortingly familiar, but feature styles, ideas, and worlds that YA readers will find enticingly novel.

These are some of my very favorites, and I hope you enjoy them!


Spinning Silver—Naomi Novik. The winters in Lithvas are getting longer, the harvests poorer. But Miryem Mandelstam, despite her youth, is keeping her family fed, clothed, and sheltered. She has taken over her father’s failing moneylending business and rebuilt it. But one day, proud of her success, she unwisely brags that she can “turn silver into gold.” Word of this brag reaches the Staryk—the strange and cruel winter fae who inhabit Lithvas’ woods. They take her brag literally, and show up at her doorstep with fairy silver, expecting gold in return. If she fails this impossible task, Miryem knows the Staryk will kill her, but even if she succeeds, the strange kindnesses of the fae may be more terrible than their wrath.

A new take on a classic fairy story, Spinning Silver is equal parts clever, romantic, and terrifying.

Trigger Warning(s): This book is written from a Jewish perspective and deals frankly with the history of antisemitism in Eastern Europe.


Parable of the Sower—Octavia E. Butler. In a future United States ravaged by climate change and capitalism (not too dissimilar from our current reality), teenaged Lauren Oya Olamina keeps a journal of her life. She had been blessed (cursed?) with the ability of hyper-empathy, which forces her to share the sensations of people around her. Hyper-empathy can be quite deadly to those who suffer from it in this violence-plagued world. Lauren must struggle to survive and grow, always seeking a place where she and her loved ones can be safe.

A decade before dystopian novels would become a trope of YA fiction, Parable of the Sower invented many of the conventions that would later become staples of the subgenre.

Trigger Warning(s): This book depicts a collapsing society. It contains depictions of violence, including racist and sexual violence.


Trail of Lightning—Rebecca Roanhorse. After a great flood, most of the world is underwater, but Dinétah—traditional homeland of the Diné (Navajo) bordered by four sacred mountains—has survived, becoming an independent nation in the post-apocalyptic world. The flood that obliterated most of the world brought back magic with it, and monsters. On Maggie Hoskie’s sixteenth birthday her grandmother is murdered and her home destroyed by a witch. This traumatic event activates her magic powers, inherited from her ancestral clans. Her magic attracts the attention of the demigod monster-slayer Neizghání, who agrees to train her in his craft. Filled with sorrow and a lust for vengeance, Maggie sets out on a quest to defend the people of Dinétah from monsters, by any means necessary.

A bold work of fantasy that blends tropes from the mythic and urban subgenres in a way I’ve ever seen before, Trail of Lightning is unputdownable.

Trigger Warning(s): This book deals frankly with violence and its aftereffects, including PTSD.


An Unkindness of Ghosts—Rivers Solomon. The survivors of Earth set out many years ago on the colossal spaceship Matilda towards a new planet. In the generations since its launch, society in the Matilda has stratified into a racial caste system reminiscent of an antebellum Southern plantation. Aster Gray is a healer born into a life of slavery on the lower decks. From her secret laboratory in a long abandoned part of the ship, she researches the journals her mother left behind before her death 25 years ago. Hidden in their pages may lie the secret to understanding her own history and how it entwines with the future of this broken ark. Or perhaps all she will find are ghosts.

A bleak, lyrical meditation on intergenerational trauma and claiming life amidst a system of racial oppression, An Unkindness of Ghosts is heavy and rewarding.

Trigger Warning(s): This book examines a system of slavery much like Southern chattel slavery of Black Americans. It contains depictions of the racial and sexual violence and the consequences of said violence.


Assassin’s Apprentice—Robin Hobb. FitzChivalry is a bastard. That’s what his name means: Prince Chivalry’s bastard. Royal bastards are considered dangerous in Buckkeep Castle—left unchecked they could become rivals to the true princes for the throne. Accordingly, royal bastards are never allowed independent lives, but are kept as servants and wards of the crown. They are trained as diplomats, magicians, and even assassins. Assassin’s Apprentice chronicles the childhood and young adulthood of a lonely boy caught up against his will in a political system much bigger than him. He is passed from faux father figure to tutor to liege lord, searching for an identity of his own and people who love him for more than the power he represents.

A tender, character-driven fantasy, Assassin’s Apprentice has the most memorable characters of any book I’ve ever read and a hero you can’t help but root for despite his flaws.

Trigger Warning(s): A dog dies in this book.