Publisher: Ruby Dixon, 2015 Genre: Science Fiction, Romance Pages: 188 Format: Paperback Buy Book My Rating: 5/5 stars
Georgie had a normal life here on earth. That is, until she was kidnapped by aliens who intended to sell her, and the other women they stole, as slaves. After a ship malfunction, Georgie and the rest of the women are dumped on an ice planet until the aliens can return.
Frozen and starving, Georgie sets out to find help and meets Vektal, a six-foot-tall blue alien with massive horns on his head and an instant attraction to her.
Together, they work to save the women from their captors and, maybe, fall in love in this spicy tale of fate and discovery.
The fun of Ice Planet Barbarians is the inherent lunacy of the story’s premise. The plot is insane, but Ruby Dixon’s willingness to embrace the madness allows the reader to do so as well, resulting in an adventure of a book where logic is abandoned and the reader can just enjoy the ride.
The book wastes no time getting to the story, opting instead to thrust the reader, along with the characters, right into the bizarre environment. This creates a fast paced and engaging narrative that draws you in almost as soon as you start reading. Not only that, it also forms a connection between the reader and Georgie as they are equally clueless to the world.
Speaking of Georgie, her and Vektal’s relationship is masterfully crafted. Ruby Dixon has a gift for creating romantic pairings that feel natural. Both Georgie and Vektal are remarkably similar and when paired together they strengthen each other, creating a positive and sincere romance. The book doesn’t shy away from steamy moments—in fact, it’s full of them—but they are well written and offset by scenes of casual affection and connection, creating a well-rounded romance that’s a delight to read.
While the book focuses on Georgie and Vektal, the other kidnapped women and the aliens are also well developed. Since this book is the first in series, each of the kidnapped women and aliens are fleshed out to some degree, to the point that observant readers may be able to determine the future pairings from their personalities alone. This not only sets up the future books, but also serves to create a really dynamic cast of characters who add another layer to the story.
Overall, I loved this book. It was a wild, outlandish romance with sincere and relatable characters. Ruby Dixon has a real knack for romance, and Ice Planet Barbarians is a perfect example of that. I have read six books in this series so far and, in my opinion, they only get better. If you’re looking for a racy romance, Ice Planet Barbarians is the book for you.
Publisher: Wednesday Books Genre: Young Adult, Coming of Age Pages: 448 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4/5 stars
If you’re looking for an extraordinarily unique, dark twist on a classic story, look no further than Christine Riccio’s Better Together. Jamie and Siri are sisters separated at a young age and completely devoid of contact for over a decade due to their parents’ nasty divorce.
In a twist of luck (or fate) the two sisters are reunited at the same “rediscover yourself” retreat and hatch a devious plan: the two will switch places and confront their respective parents.
However, not everything goes as planned, and it’s going to take a lot more than switching places to understand each other, find themselves, and ultimately face the complexities of family.
It has been almost a year since my very first post with The Spellbinding Shelf where I discussed one of my favorite young adult novels, Again but Better by Christine Riccio. Now, coming full circle, I decided to review her newly released second novel, Better Together. While very witty, I have to admit that initially I was not completely sold on the plot—mostly because it wasn’t my usual type of young adult novel. The whimsical magic reminiscent of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday are classically engaging, but I was not as enthused with those themes. Perhaps due to my hesitancy, I ended up being disengaged, and the combination of short and rather uneventful chapters left me searching for more.
Despite some of these shortcomings, I was pleasantly surprised with Riccio’s capability to take a traditionally lighthearted storyline and investigate the twisted, dark, and traumatizing difficulties of divorce, dysfunctional families, and the impact of parents’ choices on their children. Indeed, there were moments in the book where, while I was craving more action, I couldn’t ignore the insight and attention to how both Jamie and Siri processed their emotional baggage. Riccio does an amazing job detailing the struggles of both characters who have completely different personalities and means of handling their past to move towards their future. There were multiple times in which I had to underline prominent messages or found myself laughing at the page as Riccio nicely combined comedy, romance, and sardonic tones with the seriousness of her overall topic.
Most importantly, Better Together was primarily written during the pandemic—a heaviness that is translated in its pages as the reader slowly feels the suffocation and eventual release of tension most everyone has felt over the past year. In this manner, I appreciated Better Together not only because of its mix of tragedy and comedy, but also its overall feeling of angst and the eventual, much needed, feeling of relief.
Summer is just around the corner and, for me, there is nothing better than lying in a hammock with a good book. While it is arguable that most any book will work in this scenario, some books just scream “summer” more than others. After some thought, I have compiled a list of books that I think are perfect for diving into summer.
The Summer I Turned Pretty—Jenny Han. Starting off the list is a novel from the author of the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series. It follows the story of Belly, who looks forward to the summer all year. Each year, her family spends the season in the small town of Cousins where they join the Fishers, whose sons Jeremiah and Conrad have grown up with Belly. It’s a story of first love, heartbreak, and the summer sun. I used to read this book every year—it’s the perfect YA summer love story. If you’re looking to get into the summer mood, then I highly recommend giving this novel a chance. If you like it, it’s part of a three book series!
Red White & Royal Blue—Casey McQuiston. It wouldn’t be a summer reads list without this fan favorite. This novel tells the story of Alex Claremont-Diaz, whose mom is the President of the United States. When the tabloids get a hold of a physical altercation between him and the Prince of Wales, a variety of problems arise. In the efforts between the two countries to mend the relationship comes a heart-warming and unlikely love story. There’s a reason this novel is so popular, and as summer rolls around I find myself gravitating towards it again.
It Had to Be You—Georgia Clark. This is a newer release—it came out about two weeks ago—but I have a feeling it is going to be the novel of the summer. Told in a style similar to Love Actually, this novel tells the story of Liv Goldenhorn, who is not only dealing with the death of her husband, but also the fact that he left half of their business to his mistress, Savannah. For obvious reasons, Liv isn’t happy about this, and when Savannah comes to work with her, they don’t exactly mesh right away. However, long nights and deep conversations have a way of revealing hidden depths about people, and both Savannah and Liv find that not everything is what meets the eye. It’s a witty, heartwarming story that perfectly captures that summer feeling.
The Girl from Widow Hills—Megan Miranda. I read this novel at the beginning of last summer and as I was thinking of novels for this post that were less romance-y but still summer-y, and this one immediately popped into my head. This novel follows Arden Maynor, who now goes by Olivia Meyer, 20 years after she was found in a storm drain in the small town of Widow Hills. She has spent her life trying to distance herself from her past, but it always has a way of catching up. This novel is shocking and thrilling while still maintaining that summer feeling. If summer romances aren’t as much your thing, I highly recommend checking this novel out.
Publisher: Tor.com Genre: Fantasy Pages: 160 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
In this queer fantasy romance, Aqib bgm Sadiqi, son of a lesser noble in the court of Olorum, falls hard for Lucrio, a Daluçan soldier in the city as part of a trade delegation. Their love burns quick and bright, both knowing that each moment together is precious. All too soon the treaty will be signed, and Lucrio will be called back home. But they must also be careful, for the religion of Aqib’s forefathers does not approve of their union.
While kings and gods negotiate the future of their nations, Aqib and Lucrio negotiate their own futures in a treaty no less monumental for all that it defines—not relations between kingdoms and empires, but only between their two hearts.
The wonderful thing about short books is that you can read them in one sitting, and ever since Tor.com decided to start publishing novellas (one of the most underappreciated literary forms, in my humble opinion) I’ve been on the hype train.
A Taste of Honey is Wilson’s second novella from the imprint, set in the same world as his debut The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Tonally, however, the two books could not be more different. Sorcerer was a tour de force of experimental fantasy: a traditional sword-and-sorcery story with a non-linear narrative structure, and a masterful use of layered, naturalistic dialect. Imagine my surprise upon picking A Taste of Honey to discover an aching summer romance, full of queer longing and forbidden love.
Honey is in many ways a more casually approachable work than Sorcerer. This was a purposeful decision on the part of Wilson, who wrote in his essay “A POC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction” that “Many people won’t read even gorgeously written dialect—cannot, in the first place, perceive the beauty in it.” Therefore he toned-down the dialect in his second work, though he notes that Honey is still “deeply although subtly spiced with it.” His experiments with form, on the other hand, have been—if anything—heightened. The warp and weft of interwoven past and present give the book an almost dreamlike quality, imbedding the reader into a diachronic character study of Aqib bmg Sadiqi.
Aqib’s personal turmoil takes center stage in Honey. I’m not ashamed to say this book made me cry as Aqib’s thorny relationship with his family tore its way through my heart. (Don’t worry though, Ashante knows better than to violate romance’s sacred trust of the happily ever after).
And Lucrio—sweet Lucrio—is just about the best Prince Charming I’ve ever encountered in print. If you fall hopelessly in love with storybook characters (as I do), be prepared to go head over heels for this strong and gentle Daluçan soldier.
I recommend this book whole-heartedly. You would be hard pressed to find a more intimate portrait of tragedy, romance, and longing in a smaller package than A Taste of Honey. Come spend a chilly winter evening warmed by love and the light of the Olorum summer sun.
Twilight. Divergent. Matched. Pride and Prejudice. Romeo and Juliet. These stories are classics; known by readers everywhere for their intricate detail and swoon-worthy love interests. However, is it possible that these stories have ruined the young reader’s current perception of relationships?
I’ve thought a lot about the role of YA romance novels in the last couple years. I once praised the gooey-feel-good, yet often simplistic plot line of romantic comedies and the “bad boy/good girl” archetype I read throughout my tween and teen years. While these books are wonderful for many reasons, I couldn’t help but realize as I got older that the protagonists were much younger than myself, and yet they had their life easily figured out by the end of 300 pages. This led me waiting throughout my teen years to be older; but as I grew into my late teens, I found the end of high school didn’t mean the completion of my self development—and more importantly—no attractively mysterious love interest would randomly come into my life.
In a blog post about why they hate YA novels, Vivian DeRosa discusses two important points surrounding the typical themes within teen-romances: first, teenagers are inherently awkward, underdeveloped, and immature people; second, YA relationships are pure fiction. I don’t think there is a single person who looks back at their early teens and thinks they were at their peak. Being a teenager, even well into someone’s twenties, is awkward both physically and mentally; developing into who we are and finding who we want to be is a lifelong process that doesn’t conclude when one problem is solved. It is difficult for young adults to read these iconic stories and not receive the impression that they are supposed to be stunningly attractive and fully mentally developed, especially when Hollywood casts older actors to play these characters. It is impossible to think that 16-year-old Tris, while just beginning to understand her “Divergence,” could possibly build an actually sustainable relationship with Four. Or that 17-year old Bella not only found true love with a 104-year-old Vampire but gets married and fights in an ancient feud between the vampires and werewolves all while still in high school.
To this point, “YA tends to treat teenage relationships like they’re going to last forever. Many epilogues show the main character and their love interest happily married. But that’s not how most teen relationships shake out…” (DeRosa, 2017). Most teenagers are focused on typical high school and young adult things, and if they are in a relationship usually it doesn’t develop into a life-altering love story that will take precedence of their life and last forever. However, these stories have young readers believing that not only are relationships purely built on “finding the one,” but that there is no effort involved in finding, cultivating, and sustaining an actual romantic relationship. This thought process is detrimental to the perception of good relationships because it doesn’t offer the difficult perspective of how much work and time relationships actually take; it gives young readers a false foundation that life is just like these stories and all two people need is an attractive counterpart and one very passionate kiss.
Additionally, the perception of love through not just YA romance novels but all romance media is dangerous for all genders and sexualities. Because while Twilight, Divergent, and Romeo and Juliet are all coming of age stories where the protagonist’s journey takes the reader on one of self discovery as well, these mediums are often excluding the storylines of non-cis gendered, racially diverse, or gay protagonists. That a male protagonist without abs might fall in love with another male, female, or nonbinary peer who might have a diverse set of beliefs or culture is almost unheard of in YA romances, while today this is the reality of relationships. These stories, while considered classics, cater to a specific female fantasy—and without the diversity of representation, there is a whole population who may either lack a well-rounded understanding of relationships and/or see love as an unreachable fantasy.
This is not to say that these stories aren’t good. They are. There is a reason why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is continuously taught and referenced through different mediums; why John Green’s “Okay? Okay.,” line reference has taken off with readers; and why the promotion of “sparkly, chiseled-abed vampires” has become a teen cliché. These stories are beautiful, incite strong emotions, and are oftentimes powerful. Despite having contradicting emotions about the genre, I still love and appreciate these stories. Don’t stop reading them, but don’t take them as a bible to your literary world. Teach each other that these books are not a guide for how to look, act, or love—and, most importantly, expand to local and diverse authors dedicated to telling the story that is not only special but realistic. In this way, we can indulge in the beauty and power of love, but remember that love is nothing without a relationship—which is often much more complicated than 300 pages would suggest.
Publisher: Atria/ Emily Bestler Books Genre: Fiction, Romance Pages: 320 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4/5 stars
Dear Emmie Blue tells the story of Emmeline Blue as her life falls to pieces. When she was 16, Emmie released a balloon with a secret written on it, only for it to wash up on a distant shore and introduce her to her best friend, Lucas. Now in her twenties, she is hopelessly and irretrievably in love with Lucas, and thinks he is finally going to ask her out—only for him to announce that he is getting married. To make matters worse, Lucas wants Emmie to be his “best woman,” prolonging and magnifying her anguish. From her dead-end job, distant mother, and aloof landlady, Lucas’s engagement is the last straw for Emmie.
Despite all the loneliness and heartache, however, wonderful things are in store for Emmie Blue. Lia Louis’ novel pays homage to the idea that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, and reminds us that unexpectedly wonderful things could be waiting just around the corner.
I don’t know about you, but this year has been a doozy for me. This was a book that I desperately needed to help me cope with this unpredictable—and sometimes depressing—world we’re living in. This might seem to be an odd sentiment, given that Emmie faces heartbreak and calamity for a decent portion of the book. I would argue, though, that a book with a certain amount of despair is fitting, given the current state of things (so long as all ends well). While Louis undoubtedly forces the reader to empathize with the protagonist, there is a certain hope found in seeing a character continue pressing on, even when things look bleak.
I think a great deal of charm in this novel comes from Emmie Blue herself. She manages to be strong and fragile, resilient and weary, all at once. More so than this, you truly feel for her throughout the book. Especially when she divulges the details of a sexual assault in her youth, and wrestles with her broken relationship with her parents, you can’t help but root for her. It’s hard to not be in Emmie’s corner, especially concerning her relationship with Lucas—a kismet meeting if ever there was one. Both Emmie and us as the reader see these two as so obviously destined to be together, and it’s beyond frustrating that they aren’t. Even characters that I didn’t find very likable, such as Rosie and Marie, were appreciated insofar as they related to Emmie.
Dear Emmie Blue is an important reminder that life is unpredictable, and that sometimes that’s the best thing about it. If everything stayed the same, there would be no way for things to get better. It’s a cheesy sentiment, sure, but true nevertheless. The only complaint I had about this book comes from the predictability of the ending, but I would argue that even this lends a certain charm—knowing how something ends doesn’t make the journey any less meaningful, right? I would recommend this book to anyone who needs a mental reset, or a reminder that there are sunnier days ahead.
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.
If Sense and Sensibility were a twenty-first century novel, Marianne would be the heroine, not Elinor. There is no way a woman with perfect composure who never offends anybody would take the spotlight. Marianne always speaks her mind, sometimes to the degree of incivility. She wears her heart on her sleeve and gets it broken. This brings a drastic change in her personality as she adopts discretion for the first time in her life. Elinor, whose perspective we have the most access to, and can therefore be considered the primary character, is politically correct from the beginning. She is fully functional when she’s down in the dumps and low-key patronizes her sister for indulging in a mourning period.
Granted, it’s Jane Austen. But even Thomas Hardy with his candid, earthy writing could not do worse than Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd, whose only fault is that she dares to run a farm without consulting a man. She is punished for it by being put through a series of toxic relationships that break her spirit and rob her of her independence until, spoiler alert, she finally submits to the man she spurns in the first chapter.
Many of our revered classics—The Picture of Dorian Gray, Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby for example—were highly controversial when they were first published and received mixed reviews. It had a lot to do with the fact that the main characters sinned repeatedly without obvious remorse, and that readers of that time could not stomach the acres of moral grey area that these fictional worlds presented. One could say that they were ahead of their time, like most great works of art. They paved the way for eminent writers of our time to create realistic characters with quirks, vulnerabilities, and impulses.
It’s more than just the artistic cliche of romanticizing pain. I think society became more accepting of imperfection as time went by—or at least less ashamed of it. We finally admit that we relate well to flawed characters because they give us hope that we too can experience amazing, extraordinary things, battered and dented as we are. The last thing the modern reader wants is a morally unscrupulous hero or heroine. What we want is to witness growth.
Publisher: Wednesday Books Genre: Contemporary, YA Fiction Pages: 384 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 4.95/5 stars
Written by well-known BookTuber Christine Riccio, Again, But Better is a story for anyone needing encouragement to find themselves and gain the confidence to live in the moment. The novel follows shy and awkward Shane, a 20-year-old pre-med major who decides to spend a semester in London on a limb. As Shane begins her semester abroad, she is determined to essentially re-do her college experience—this means not overthinking, being more outgoing, and having the confidence to go after her dream and her crush. However, as Shane begins to explore new experiences, she is constantly torn between her desire to be a writer and her parents’ expectations of medical school. When these two forces collide, Shane has a decision to make—but will she make the right one? Riccio frames the story so that we are not just reading about Shane’s development, but we begin to understand that everyone is just trying to find themselves. In the end, Riccio shows us that with some courage, faith, and strength we can live up to our personal expectations and desires, and that ultimately anything is possible.
I originally picked up this book because I strongly resonated with the description of Shane. I thought it was unique that a young adult novel focused on a 20-year-old rather than the typical 16–18-year-olds. Shane’s age, as well as the internal conflicts she deals with throughout the novel, is a subject that was close to my heart—Again, but Better is about a college student trying to find who they are and who they want to be, and I think this is something everyone can relate to, especially college students. The novel is great because the reader can feel the anxiety and struggle Shane experiences, but the struggles of the other characters are also evident. There is a beautiful balance in seeing not only how we can be consumed by our own worry, but also the great comfort of knowing everyone is sharing this experience.
One of the aspects which I greatly appreciated was how Riccio doesn’t sugarcoat the fantasy of having a crush or the fear associated with going outside your comfort zone. The initial interactions between the characters is awkward—especially as Shane describes not knowing how to stand in front of her crush, or not initially “clicking” with one of her roommates. The evident anxiety within Pilot (the male protagonist and Shane’s love interest) in making an incorrect decision is one which almost everyone can relate to, and Riccio doesn’t represent this agony as simple. People are oftentimes represented to us from what we outwardly see, but this book makes a good point in showing that what we outwardly express isn’t what we always are; it links the perception of who we are on the outside to who we want to be on the inside.
Above all else, I loved how the central idea of the novel wasn’t consumed with the notion that if Shane only finds “love,” she will inevitably find herself. The romance within the book adds exceptional flavor, but it is in no way the main course. Rather, Riccio chooses to emphasize Shane’s discovery of herself in a time separate from Pilot. It is a book that goes beyond the stereotypical “find love and find yourself” narrative, but really focuses on the development of the characters and the development of yourself as a reader. This concept is so refreshing in a young adult novel.
Again, But Better is a fast-paced and personal read for those who want something lighter, but still deeply meaningful. No matter who reads it, the themes and development of the characters is something that can resonate with everyone. We overthink, we get discouraged, and we let others expectations of ourself get in the way of what we really want. The second half of the book allows the reader to acknowledge Shane’s mistakes and see where we ourselves tend to slip up. We see her struggle, and the struggles of those around her, as we try to navigate the world in relation to others and ourselves.
If you enjoyed Again, But Better, author Christine Riccio created a Spotify playlist to accompany the novel that can be found here!
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQ+
Buy Local My Rating: 3/5 Stars
In Exciting Times, Ava, Dublin born and bred, finds herself in Hong Kong teaching English to elementary school students while searching for happiness. When petulant roommates threaten to destroy her sanity, Julian, a wealthy financier, offers her the chance to live a much swankier life than her teacher salary can afford. More companions than romantic partners, they enter into an undefined relationship that Ava continually struggles to decipher and maneuver. When Julian goes out of town for work, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong lawyer. Edith upsets the strange balance, leading Ava to question her whole relationship with Julian and ultimately her own identity.
With a title like Exciting Times, I had page-turning high hopes, but overall the novel didn’t necessarily live up to the hype for me. I found myself frustrated with its central group of characters (although that could have been Dolan’s intent). I did agree with the back cover’s assessment of Ava having a cold personality—which is evident in some of her interactions with students and colleagues. However, I did not find Julian all that “witty”; his indifference and callousness with Ava is deflating. The appearance of Edith, the Hong Kong lawyer with whom Ava becomes fixated, gives the novel some drama, as she delivers where Julian cannot in terms of affection and commitment. For me however, the love triangle never quite takes off in a way that is very satisfying.
Dolan’s use of the characters’ careers as plot devices is fascinating. Her dive into the world of finance through Julian’s career was interesting to the point that I actually had to look up certain industry jargon. The peek into Ava’s career teaching grammar to Hong Kong children is also a fun aspect of the novel. This could have a lot to do with the fact that I am studying to be an English teacher, however the little “lessons” that Dolan interweaves into Ava’s inner monologues nicely punctuate certain scenes.
Dolan’s commentary on social class is also interesting, as the reader vividly experiences Ava’s struggle with fitting into Julian’s crowd of friends and colleagues. Their differences are not just financial, and Ava is made painfully aware of this during the course of their relationship. Anyone who has dated outside their tax bracket will find her dilemma relatable.
Ava deals with these insecurities and doubts by engaging in a quirky habit of composing text and email messages that she never intends to send. She reveals her true feelings through these “drafts” and they make for some of the more humorous areas of the novel. Dolan makes the choice to use an “accidental” transmission of one of the messages as a plot device, and it is effective in revealing Julian’s continued indifference.
The novel spends a lot of time inside Ava’s head, as she battles her own good judgement to leave what is ultimately a toxic, unfulfilling relationship. Ava’s opportunity for growth, I believe, was stunted despite all of her rumination, and when the novel concludes, she hadn’t really learned much about herself.
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.
Stephen P. Kiernan’s Universe of Two is a time machine back to the year 1943. The story takes place in the United States as the country is at war with the allied forces in World War II. Unlike many World War II novels, Universe of Two doesn’t follow the story of a soldier or officer fighting in the war. Instead, it focuses on the connection between two civilians who play just as significant a part in the war efforts as any man in battle.
Brenda Dubie is a spoiled nineteen-year-old girl who spends her time working at her family’s music shop and dating every soldier she can find who is home on leave. Her life changes when she meets a young mathematician named Charlie Fish who is at work doing calculations for the US government. As the pair build a romantic connection, Charlie is pulled deeper into the war efforts, eventually finding himself in New Mexico working as a vital piece of the Manhattan Project. His role in the project to create the atomic bomb riddles Charlie with guilt. Brenda, who pushes him so hard to pursue his work, shares the heavy moral burden Charlie faces when she finally realizes the consequences of his work. The pair are faced with the difficult task of trying to love each other while making up for the horrible destruction they helped to create.
What impressed me most about Universe of Two was the way it didn’t try to romanticize either war or love. Although it is a historical romance, the novel was utterly realistic about the moral challenges faced by its characters. The chapters alternate between Brenda’s narration and a omniscient narrator reporting on Charlie’s top-secret work. As a reader, I felt a deep frustration at how naïve Brenda was to the severity of Charlie’s situation. Kiernan was able to play with my emotions, drawing me into the story as if it were a train wreck that I could not look away from. Universe of Two is anything but the stereotypical romance novel—it is an honest look at the ways a relationship can be tested and morals overlooked in pursuit of victory. I would recommend Kiernan’s novel to anyone who relishes in the feeling of a bittersweet ending.
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.