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Books Reviews

ADHD Rep, Living Out Fanfiction Tropes, and More: Review of All the Feels by Olivia Dade + A Mini Review of Spoiler Alert

This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase using the link I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

All the Feels (Spoiler Alert, #2)

Synopsis

Alexander Woodroe has it all. Charm. Sex appeal. Wealth. Fame. A starring role as Cupid on TV’s biggest show, God of the Gates. But the showrunners have wrecked his character, he’s dogged by old demons, and his post-show future remains uncertain. When all that reckless emotion explodes into a bar fight, the tabloids and public agree: his star is falling.

Enter Lauren Clegg, the former ER therapist hired to keep him in line. Compared to her previous work, watching over handsome but impulsive Alex shouldn’t be especially difficult. But the more time they spend together, the harder it gets to keep her professional remove and her heart intact, especially when she discovers the reasons behind his recklessness…not to mention his Cupid fanfiction habit.

When another scandal lands Alex in major hot water and costs Lauren her job, she’ll have to choose between protecting him and offering him what he really wants—her. But he’s determined to keep his improbably short, impossibly stubborn, and extremely endearing minder in his life any way he can. And on a road trip up the California coast together, he intends to show her exactly what a falling star will do to catch the woman he loves: anything at all.

Review

Content warnings will be included at the end of the reviews.

e-ARC provided by publisher through NetGalley in exchange for review.

All the Feels truly gave me all the feels.

This might be one of my new favorite romances of all time. I flew through this and saw so many parts of myself in the main characters that I couldn’t help but root for both of them. All the Feels follows Alex, an actor with ADHD, after an incident at a bar leads him to be assigned a minder to keep him out of future trouble. Lauren, the woman who has been tasked with keeping Alex out of trouble, is an emergency room therapist who hopes that after her previous work this job will be a welcome break. What neither of them expects are the feelings that begin developing between them and the scandal that threatens to break them apart.

I feel like I shouldn’t focus my entire review on the ADHD rep in this book but genuinely I felt so seen that I absolutely won’t hesitate to scream my praises for this aspect. The impulsivity, the rage, the rejection sensitivity. Yes, there were also all of the aspects that had to do with the inability to focus or the hyperfocusing but it really got to me seeing all of the other parts included too. Plus seeing how that played into first his friendship, and then his relationship with Lauren had me remembering so many little aspects of relationships I’ve been in in the past and realizing how much my own ADHD factored in. Seriously though, absolutely can’t emphasize enough how spot on the ADHD rep was.

In terms of the story, I liked the way it progressed. From an almost disastrous meeting to friendship to scandal and more I was loving every minute of it. All the Feels was angsty but funny and I enjoyed the dynamics between Alex and Lauren. I’m a fan of relationships where one person is constantly bugging the other and that other person tries their hardest not to give in and acknowledge it because they actually do find it funny and that’s exactly the dynamic that Alex and Lauren had. She tried so hard to keep up this no nonsense demeanor that when it would crack I couldn’t help but laugh. And when she would join Alex and they would banter it made it all the better.

Another thing that I really liked about this book was that Alex and Lauren challenged each other. They both had growing that they needed to do and I liked seeing how they both taught each other things. It was refreshing to see another book where both of the characters needed to work on themselves a bit and as I will always say, yay for book characters going to therapy!

Oh, and the fact that Alex not only reads fanfiction, but takes a stab at writing it?? Coupled with the absolute sheer joy he gets upon realizing he gets to live out the “only one bed” trope made my entire week when I first read this! I’m already contemplating rereading this before the year is over just because I enjoyed it that much. Five stars to All the Feels.

Since reading All the Feels, I did also end up picking up the first book in Dade’s series, Spoiler Alert so I thought I’d add a mini review of that before I sign off.

Spoiler Alert (Spoiler Alert, #1)

Dade has created such fun stories in this series that I can’t wait to see what sort of scenario she creates next. I really enjoy seeing how the characters connect and I so appreciate that friendship is a big aspect of these books.

I will say that I thought that Marcus and April had significantly less chemistry. It was harder for me to read their relationship as genuine because it felt more like lust instead of genuine chemistry. With that being said, I know that’s a very *me* opinion and I still completely understand why people adore this book. There was also character growth in this book and it was nice to see both characters open up to each other as the story progressed. Overall, I enjoyed Spoiler Alert and ended up giving it three stars.

I would highly recommend either of these books and will happily pick up Dade’s next book too. I think that these are so much fun and I’m so glad I picked them up!

Content Warnings (this is a combined list from both books): fatphobia/fat shaming, domestic abuse, emotional manipulation/abuse (from parents)

Now, if you’re interested in picking up a copy of either book, you can find them at the following places:

All the Feels: Bookshop // Barnes & Noble // Book Depository // Libro.fm // Amazon

Spoiler Alert: Bookshop // Barnes & Noble // Book Depository // libro.fm // Amazon

Or if you’re interested in finding a local store to shop through, you can find one through Indiebound, linked here.

And if you’re interested in connecting with me elsewhere you can find me:

On Twitter: nihilisticactus

On Readerly: sideofadventure

On Goodreads, profile linked here.

For review requests or other inquiries my email is adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

And if you’d like to buy me a coffee, my Ko-fi is linked here.

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About Me

The Month of October: Well, That Happened

Content Warning: Discussion of mental health

I always have big plans for October. So many blog posts I want to write, books I want to read, things I want to do; but I always end up doing none of them. October is a weird month. The weather begins to change and the leaves are bright and colorful. It’s my favorite time of year but at the same time, it’s the hardest time of year for me.

I’ve done a lot of work in the past year and half to get back on a path that makes me happy. I feel like I’ve made huge strides in some areas but other areas I’m stuck. Trauma is weird. It doesn’t matter how much I love fall, how happy it makes me, I still freeze and spend most of the season getting through each day because I’m unable to truly focus on the things that usually bring me joy. I’m thinking next year I might write all my October posts in August, but we’ll see 🙂

With that being said, it’s November! This semester is simultaneously dragging and flying by. There’s only one full week of classes left before finals and I’m amazed that I made it this far. Once the semester is over I think I’m going to try and write a more thorough post about my return to school but for now, I’ll just say that despite all the challenges I’ve had to deal with I’m really proud of myself for getting to where I am.

October was a good month. I got to see my best friend and

Went on a hike and took a bunch of pictures. This was the first time in a long time that I’ve pulled out my camera and it was nice to get excited about taking photos for once. (All the pictures in this post are ones I took with my phone because I haven’t gotten the other ones off my memory card yet.)

I haven’t read many books over the last month but I am working on a bunch of partially written posts so hopefully I’ll have some up over the next week or so.

And now that I realize it took me a month to actually write this post and I didn’t really say anything, I’ll sign off with well, November happened too.

If you’re interested in connecting with me elsewhere you can find me:

On Twitter: nihilisticactus

On Readerly: sideofadventure

For review requests or other inquiries: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

You can add me on Goodreads here.

And if you’d like to buy me a coffee, my Ko-fi is linked here.

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Books Reviews

A Fantasy Duology That Finally Fulfilled the Enemies to Lovers Sized Hole in My Heart: The Bridge Kingdom by Danielle L. Jensen Review

This post contains affiliate links, if you purchase something through them I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you.

I mentioned a a few posts back in my review of Radiance by Grace Draven that I was working on a review of The Bridge Kingdom duology and here it finally is!

So I desperately want to love books that are marketed as “enemies-to-lovers” but until now I have yet to find any book that fulfills this trope to the extent that I always hope it will. Look, there’s nothing wrong with a book being considered “rivals to lovers” or even simply “we got off on the wrong foot to lovers” but when I say I want enemies to lovers, I mean enemies. I want my characters to be actively plotting how they’re going to kill each other before they finally realize that they actually don’t want to kill each other. Most of the time, enemies-to-lovers boils down to two characters who had some sort of miscommunication and once they finally talk to each other then they’re fine. Personally, I think that this trope fits in best in fantasy settings so when I was watching a video from Riley Marie about another trope I enjoy (video is hyperlinked through her name) and when she suggested The Bridge Kingdom duology I jumped at the chance to read it. And let me tell you, it was everything I was looking for in an enemies-to-lovers book. If you’re interested in hearing more of my thoughts on the books, keep reading!

The Bridge Kingdom Review

The Bridge Kingdom (The Bridge Kingdom, #1)
Image: Cover of The Bridge Kingdom by Danielle L. Jensen

Synopsis

A warrior princess trained in isolation, Lara is driven by two certainties. The first is that King Aren of the Bridge Kingdom is her enemy. And the second is that she’ll be the one to bring him to his knees.

The only route through a storm-ravaged world, the Bridge Kingdom enriches itself and deprives its rivals, including Lara’s homeland. So when she’s sent as a bride under the guise of peace, Lara is prepared to do whatever it takes to fracture its impenetrable defenses. And the defenses of its king.

Yet as she infiltrates her new home and gains a deeper understanding of the war to possess the bridge, Lara begins to question whether she’s the hero or the villain. And as her feelings for Aren transform from frosty hostility to fierce passion, Lara must choose which kingdom she’ll save… and which kingdom she’ll destroy.

This book was so much fun to read. I’ll admit that I thought the story was slightly outrageous at times but I’ve never read a fantasy romance before and I think that this might be a new favorite genre for me if I’m lucky enough to find more books like The Bridge Kingdom.

From the very beginning I was entranced by the plot, this book threw us almost straight into the action and while it wasn’t necessarily what I expected I was intrigued to see where the story went. Our main character, Lara, has trained for most of her life alongside a number of her sisters in order to one day potentially be chosen to wed the king of Ithicana, or the Bridge Kingdom. Ithicana is seen as a power hold because the bridge that crosses over it is an essential trade route and Lara has been trained to see this bridge as a way to save her homeland from ruin. For her entire life she has been told by her father and her mentors that Ithicana is a selfish kingdom that only cares about gaining riches for themselves and so when she becomes the daughter that will wed Ithicana’s king, Lara knows she will do anything in her power to destroy the Bridge Kingdom and save her home.

The Bridge Kingdom was a delightfully angsty slow burn romance. At times, I genuinely forgot that this was supposed to be a romance because of the way that Lara had been so thoroughly brainwashed by her father and mentors. There were so many moments where evidence showing her the opposite of what she was taught were right in front of her and yet Lara constantly fought against that. It was frustrating but so realistic to the power that being brainwashed can hold on someone. As I watched Lara and Aren dance around each other waiting for one of them to slip up but also both falling for each other I was delighted with their chemistry and the path the story took.

The angst in this duology is honestly next level. As the story went on I enjoyed reading Lara’s inner battle with her duty to her home kingdom, her personal mission, and her conflicting feelings regarding Aren and Ithicana. Aren trusted Lara long before she trusted him despite the fact that everyone close to him still warned against trusting her so much. Lara wants to take down Ithicana because ultimately she wants freedom and that’s the only way she sees a positive outcome for herself. She wants her home kingdom to be taken care of but after being trapped for so long by her father she wants to be free from it all. Seriously, so. Much. Angst. Basically, if you’re not into characters who are prone to the dramatic, this might not be the book for you!

One other thing that I wanted to mention that I really enjoyed about this duology is the setting. I’m used to reading fantasy books that take place in deciduous or coniferous forest biomes with mountains, etc. There are usually oceans and they do often sail in other books but I liked that this duology had such a large focus on water. Lara grew up in the middle of a desert and Ithicana is a tropical grouping of islands. Ithicana has to deal with a storm season that make water travel incredibly dangerous. On top of the storms the waters are also infested with sharks. The islands also have deadly snakes so honestly just loving the danger in these books.

The Bridge Kingdom hit every single mark in my dream enemies-to-lovers book and I rated it five stars.

You can add The Bridge Kingdom on Goodreads here.

And if you’re interested in getting your own copy you can find it at the following links:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // Book Depository // Amazon

The Traitor Queen Review

Heads up but this section will contain spoilers relating to the first book! If you haven’t read the first book feel free to skip down to the end of this post for my sign off and some extra links. Otherwise feel free to sign off here and I’ll talk to you in my next post!

The Traitor Queen (The Bridge Kingdom, #2)
Image: Cover of The Traitor Queen by Danielle L. Jensen

Synopsis

A queen now in exile as a traitor, Lara has watched Ithicana be conquered by her own father, helpless to do anything to stop the destruction. But when she learns her husband, Aren, has been captured in battle, Lara knows there is only one reason her father is keeping him alive: as bait for his traitorous daughter.

And it is bait she fully intends to take.

Risking her life to the Tempest Seas, Lara returns to Ithicana with a plan not only to free its king, but for liberating the Bridge Kingdom from her father’s clutches using his own weapons: the sisters whose lives she spared. But not only is the palace inescapable, there are more players in the game than Lara ever realized, enemies and allies switching sides in the fight for crowns, kingdoms, and bridges. But her greatest adversary of all might be the very man she’s trying to free – the husband she betrayed.

With everything she loves in jeopardy, Lara must decide who – and what – she is fighting for: her kingdom, her husband, or herself.

Review

I hopped into reading The Traitor Queen immediately upon finishing The Bridge Kingdom. If anything, these are great books to read back to back. The story is fast paced enough that you almost won’t realize that you’ve read about 700 pages by the end of them. The ending of the first book had me needing to find out what happened next so I devoured this book in about half the time it took me to read The Bridge Kingdom.

This book had so much action in it and I really enjoyed seeing how Lara’s sisters fit into the plot. Honestly all of the characters that we were introduced to in this book were integral to the plot and the way everything came together had me in shock more than once.

Now if The Bridge Kingdom was angsty, The Traitor Queen is on another level entirely. I definitely didn’t hate it but holy cow it was taxing to read at times. I just kept waiting for things to fall into place and stop having more things become something disastrously dramatic. Aren became a bit frustrating in this book because he had trusted Lara so readily in the first book and yet became so wishy-washy. I could understand his thoughts from the perspective of hating Lara but I also felt like he was heavily influenced by the people around him and at times it made me question his ability as a king. Obviously it’s important for him to be able to trust his companions but at the same time, he pushed them to trust Lara in the first book and I found it surprising that he took such a firm stance against her despite the fact that she tried to explain to him what happened.

Now Lara was dealing with the consequences of her actions from the first book and I could understand her feelings most of the time but I wished she had been stronger in her beliefs and her dedication to Ithicana. If this had been the case, I think that this book potentially could have been shorter and by the time I reached the actual ending I found myself thinking how much less taxing it would have been if this book were about 50 pages shorter. It seemed like Lara kept ending up in bad situations because she was in that same wishy-washy mindset as Aren and instead of dedicating herself fully to Ithicana from the beginning she kept getting in her own head. And don’t get me wrong, I loved this book, but again I warn you that if you aren’t a fan of angst or drama, this might not be the duology for you!

In the end, I gave this book 4 stars because it was a genuinely fun read. I think the main reason I ended up knocking off a star was because of the length and the heightened dramatics towards the end of the story. This was such a fun duology though and I can’t wait for the next book in this series to come out!

You can add The Traitor Queen on Goodreads here.

And if you’re interested in picking up this book you can find it at the following:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // Book Depository // Amazon

If you’ve read the first (or both) book(s), what did you think of them? Also, if you have any fantasy romance recommendations feel free to leave a comment!

And with that, I’m signing off for the day. If you want to connect with me elsewhere you can find me:

On Twitter: nihilisticactus

On Readerly: sideofadventure

On Goodreads, where you can add me as a friend or follow my reviews. My profile is linked here.

For review requests, etc: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

And if you’re interested in supporting the blog financially, my Ko-fi is linked here.

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Books Reviews

I Sincerely Hope the Second Book is Better: Review of Lakesedge by Lyndall Clipstone

e-ARC provided by publisher through NetGalley in exchange for review.

When I first saw the cover reveal for this book I was entranced and couldn’t wait to pick it up. It was giving me Gothic romance vibes and I wanted to see how this might be incorporated into a young adult novel. That being said, I think that this might have done better as an adult Gothic romance but as it was I was bored with this book and found it lacking.

Lakesedge (World at the Lake's Edge, #1)
Image: Cover of Lakesedge by Lyndall Clipstone

Synopsis

There are monsters in the world.

When Violeta Graceling arrives at haunted Lakesedge estate, she expects to find a monster. She knows the terrifying rumors about Rowan Sylvanan, who drowned his entire family when he was a boy. But neither the estate nor the monster are what they seem.

There are monsters in the woods.

As Leta falls for Rowan, she discovers he is bound to the Lord Under, the sinister death god lurking in the black waters of the lake. A creature to whom Leta is inexplicably drawn…

There’s a monster in the shadows, and now it knows my name.

Now, to save Rowan—and herself—Leta must confront the darkness in her past, including unraveling the mystery of her connection to the Lord Under.

Review

This review will contain spoilers.

Lakesedge followed Violeta (Leta) Graceling and her younger brother, Arien, after they’ve been taken back to an estate with Rowan who is a boy known simply as The Monster of Lakesedge. As the story progresses, she realizes how entwined this estate is with the evil god the Lord Under. It’s a story about magic and seems very connected to a larger metaphor for mental illness and I can only hope that the second book improves upon the events of the first.

I thought that Lakesedge started off interesting enough. I will include a more comprehensive list of content warnings at the end of this review but I do want to start off by saying that this starts off right away with scenes depicting emotional and physical abuse. I’ll admit, I found large portions of this book to be really triggering and I almost DNF’ed it but when I set it aside for a few weeks I was already 60% of the way through and decided to just see if it got any better. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

When the story first opened it raised so many questions. I was so confused by the world and spent the entire book waiting for questions to be answered but only ended up with more questions. The world itself felt underdeveloped as a whole and I hope that the second book gives more explanation but saying that ultimately doesn’t fix this book. The woman who raised Leta and Arien was very religious and this seems to be how people are in the world overall. They essentially worship a goddess of light which is why the dark magic that Arien possesses is seen as evil. Leta has spent her entire life protecting Arien with a zeal that I think many older sisters could relate to. The Lord Under is the evil god that they have in this religion and he gets the main focus in this story which left me, again, with more questions because he was so tangible and yet the goddess was often an afterthought.

Past these aspects I found myself understanding next to nothing about the religion and culture of the world that these characters resided in. YA fantasy often doesn’t have the in depth systems that adult fantasy has and I’ve always been grateful for that because they’re easier for me to consume. This is one story though where I definitely needed more to understand what was going on. There was magic, and alchemy involved with said magic, but nothing really came of this. The powers were just mentioned and there and the story would move on. I understood that at the heart of it, Lakesedge was a character driven story but with the plot as it was, I didn’t feel like I was able to connect with any of the characters.

Our main character is Violeta (Leta) Graceling and I’ll come back to her later because I have a lot of thoughts about who she was as a person but first, the other characters. We also had Arien, Leta’s younger brother, Rowan, the Monster of Lakesedge, as well as an alchemist, Clover, and a housekeeper, Florence. I found all of the characters to be flat and too often they seemed to be there for no real reason at all. I was especially confused by Florence because as the only true adult in this group she didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Maybe if there was more explanation into the dynamics between her and Rowan or the culture I would have understood why she just sat on the sidelines while she watched these kids destroy themselves both physically and mentally.

The central conflict to this book is a corruptive magic that has spread through Lakesedge following an incident in Rowan’s past. Rowan is supposed to be this evil monster and yet there was next to no evidence of this outside of the stories from his past. So when Leta constantly tried to remind herself that she couldn’t possibly have feelings for him because he’s a monster, I got really frustrated. Their romance almost felt like it was supposed to be a take on the “grumpy-sunshine” trope though I’ve also read in some other reviews that it was a Beauty and the Beast retelling of sorts. I could see where the author wanted it go but neither character ended up being strong enough characters to make this work. I genuinely thought that Leta had more chemistry with The Lord Under than she did with Rowan (whoops).

Now on to Leta.

I know that the author probably meant to give Leta pure intentions in her actions throughout the course of this novel but she made me so sad. Her self-sacrificial martyr complex was genuinely too much for me. I kept waiting for her to find a different solution, or for the group to come together and actually stop her from taking the steps that she did and yet that never occurred. The heavy depictions of trauma and mental illness throughout this book coupled with the fact that the corruptive magic required a physical sacrifice from Rowan that took the form of self harm through cutting ate away at me. I have no idea if this overall portrayal of mental illness is something that the author intended to have going in but I don’t think that it was done justice if it was. And if it was unintentional I have to say I’m really disappointed with how it all came together overall.

Leta was characterized in a way that she was unable to think past the actions she was currently taking. She had been through so many traumatic things in her life and it broke my heart to she how she treated her own life and future as something that could be thrown away so easily. With everything she did, she took care of everyone else before herself. It got to the point where it felt selfish instead of helpful, the pain that Leta was causing the other characters, especially her brother, was too much.

A battle with mental illness often feels impossible. From my own experiences I can say that with every step forward I take it feels like I take ten steps backward. Reading this book I saw a lot of my own mental illness in the story and that worried me a bit. There have only brief periods of time where I have had a healthy journey with mental health and I have put in a lot of work to try and deconstruct from the beliefs that I held and still hold. Reading Lakesedge I thought my younger self would have loved the book but I also have to note that my younger self would also seek out books that perpetuated the bad beliefs because I didn’t want to get better. I didn’t think that any aspect of my life would ever get better. I kept waiting for Leta to realize that she was hurting others and when she didn’t I just felt numb.

Arien knew what he was getting into and I was frustrated that Leta did whatever she could to either sabotage his efforts or pull all the burden onto herself. This is an incredibly unhealthy mindset and I can only hope that something changes in the second book and things get better but I’m worried. I don’t want people to step away from this book and think that they have to suffer along or think that they have to sacrifice themselves for the good of others.

Lakesedge began dark and it was intriguing. I was looking forward to an angsty romance with a grand Gothic setting. There was angst galore but instead of something captivating and unique I found the plot to be depressing and repetitive and the characters to be two-dimensional. Everything about this book felt underdeveloped from the setting and characters to the plot and fantasy elements. I was disappointed by this and ended up rating it two stars.

If you want to check out the book on Goodreads, you can find it here.

Content warnings: Death of a parent, death of a sibling (neither on page, but mentioned), self harm in the form of cutting (for the purpose of sacrifice), vomiting, drowning, emotional and physical abuse, depictions of trauma and depression

If you’ve picked up Lakesedge, what did you think of it? Am I wrong for reading into the plot so much? I just know how I was as a teen and don’t want someone like me to pick this up and find it influential in a negative manner.

If you want to connect with me elsewhere:

You can follow my reviews or add me as a friend on Goodreads, profile linked here.

Readerly: sideofadventure

Twitter: nihilisticactus

For review requests, etc: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

And if you’d like to support the blog financially, my Ko-fi is linked here.

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Books Reviews

A Powerful YA Sci-Fi Novel: Review of Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

This post contains affiliate links, if you make a purchase through them I will receive a small commission with no extra charge to you.

Iron Widow (Iron Widow, #1)
Image: Cover of Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

e-ARC provided by publisher through NetGalley in exchange for review

Synopsis

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Review

Content warnings will be included at the end of my review.

This book was amazing. A futuristic sci-fi retelling of the only female emperor of China, Iron Widow took an already fascinating story and elevated it even further. Before I get into my review, I want to point you towards the author’s YouTube channel, linked here. Not only are the videos well researched, they’re all wonderfully scripted and I’m in awe of Zhao’s ability to weave in sponsorships from other companies as well as hype for this book.

So, as mentioned before, Iron Widow is a futuristic sci-fi retelling. Though a number of liberties were taken with the story I loved seeing how Zhao laced historical tidbits into the larger futuristic setting. There were Chrysalises, giant robots that are powered through a psychic link, that are used to fight off mecha aliens. But on the flip side, there is a stinging commentary on the harm of a patriarchal society. The story touches on things like the practice of foot binding and the dangers that young women face in terms of purity. It was scathing and heartbreaking at the same time.

Zhao wove together a fantastic narrative that balanced all of the complex elements perfectly. Looking back, I can see how hints about the finale were sprinkled in though in the moment I was so absorbed in finding out what happened next that I was shocked I hadn’t seen it coming. Without potentially giving anything away, I will just say that I absolutely can’t wait to get my hands on the second book.

Now a huge portion of why I loved this book was the characters. They were spectacular. Morally grey and scheming I think that if I ever started writing fanfiction it would be for this book. Wu Zetian is our narrator and at times she seemed to run solely on spiteful fumes but in the grand scheme of it all I was amazed at what she was capable of. Bitter and intent on avenging the death of her older sister, Zetian volunteers to be a concubine to a pilot of one of the Chrysalises. By surviving killing the man who murdered her sister, she ends up being paired with Li Shimin, a pilot known as the Iron Demon, as both punishment and test.

By surviving her link with Shimin, Zetian becomes something more powerful than the pilot system has seen before. This pair spent so much time dancing around each other that I really appreciated the addition of Gao Yizhi, a boy that befriended Zetian in secret when she lived in her family’s home. I think that the three of them ended up working together in such an unexpected manner I was surprised by how their personalities ended up differing from what I imagined them to be.

I have a lot of respect for how Zhao crafted these characters. Each one struggled with trauma in their own way and it was well shown that they have a lot to learn about not only themselves but each other and the greater world. And yet even with all of that, I adored watching the three of them come together. Zhao has marketed this as a book that steps away from the standard love triangle and instead ushers in a polyamorous relationship and I have to say, I think that this should be the new standard. No hurt feelings over sides being picked and I think that the representation of a relationship like this, especially in YA, is something that adds new depth to the genre.

Iron Widow was a dark and gripping narrative that kept me on the edge of my seat. It was unique and powerful and a spectacular book overall. I rated it 5 stars and I highly recommend this.

Content Warnings: murder, death, torture, violence, thoughts of suicide, a lot of abuse (including domestic abuse and parental abuse), talk of sexual assault, alcoholism, depictions of trauma, anxiety, depression, mentions of needles, forced body modifications including footbinding and stolen organs, misogyny and sexism

You can add Iron Widow on Goodreads.

Or if you’re interested in picking up a copy of your own:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // Book Depository // Amazon // Libro.fm // Indiebound (to find a local store to shop through)

If you’d like to connect with me elsewhere:

I’m on Twitter: nihilisticactus

You can add me on Goodreads or follow my reviews here.

I’m on Readerly: sideofadventure

For review requests, etc.: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

And if you’d like to support the blog financially, my Ko-fi is linked here.

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Books Reviews

I Understand Why Everyone Loves This Book Now: Review of Radiance by Grace Draven

This post contains affiliate links, if you make a purchase using that link I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

I am on such a romance kick right now, specifically fantasy romance. I’ve been struggling a lot mentally (thanks uni!) so diving into some books that give me all the warm and fuzzy feelings I could possibly want has helped immensely.

I’ve seen so many people talking about Radiance by Grace Draven recently so I checked it out from my library because I wasn’t sure how I’d end up feeling about it but let me tell you…. This was PHENOMENAL and I completely understand why everyone who talks about this book raves about it.

Radiance (Wraith Kings, #1)
Image: Cover of Radiance by Grace Draven

Synopsis

The Prince of no value
Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.

The noblewoman of no importance
Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.

Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.

Review

Radiance is a friends-to-lovers romance following Idilko and Brishen, two individuals pledged to marry one another in a strategic political move for their respective kingdoms. They’re both close enough to the throne to warrant an arranged marriage, but far enough away that their feelings were never considered before being betrothed. This was such an intriguing start to a book, these two kingdoms are vastly different, one isn’t even inhabited by humans, and I couldn’t wait to see where it went. Ildiko is human and Brishen is from a race of human-like creatures called Kai. The Kai have gray skin, sharp teeth and claws, and large dark eyes that better suit them for their nocturnal existence. I thought that this aspect of the story brought so much humor to the plot. I loved how they were both disgusted with each other in the beginning in terms of appearance and the fact that their insulting descriptions quickly turned into terms of endearment was amazing. The humor that Draven laced throughout this book really brought it to a new level from what I expected it to be. I won’t spoil anything but there are a few scenes where Ildiko and Brishen tried foods from the others kingdoms and oh boy, I actually laughed out loud reading about Brishen trying this particular human food.

Something else that I thought Draven did well with this book was the honesty that she fostered between the couple. It was refreshing and downright adorable at times. I swooned on more than one occasion while reading because I couldn’t handle how sweet Brishen and Ildiko were together. Brishen was respectful and caring and he complemented Ildiko perfectly. With the honesty that they harbored the chemistry was evident from their first on page interaction. It was such a joy to watch their relationship develop. Friends-to-lovers is such a joy of a trope to read!

Radiance is the first book in a series, the first three books are currently out. I thought that this gave a great set up to the story. I could see it being read as a standalone, however, the epilogue immediately had me wanting to pick up book two (I’ve got about a two-month wait before I can get a copy from my library). The reason that I do say that it could be read as a standalone is because it gave me everything I would want in terms of a fantasy romance. It set up the relationship and had some conflict that did largely get resolved and with the exception of the epilogue there was a happy conclusion but I am very excited to get absorbed into this world some more. Draven has written a superb romance with this book and I recommend picking it up if you’re looking for an engrossing fantasy read with a sweet couple and a healthy dose of humor. A five star read for me.

Y’all, I think that I’m realizing how much more I enjoy fantasy romance compared to contemporary romance because I can’t get enough of these types of stories. Since the stories are romance centered, the fantasy elements sometimes take a backseat but I think that’s why I enjoy them so much. I love to get immersed into these fun plots where fantastical events occur but I don’t always have the brain power to read intense fantasy tomes. I have another review that I’m hoping to post soon for The Bridge Kingdom duology by Danielle L. Jensen. Same vibes and I loved them. And with that I’ve got to get back to studying!

You can add Radiance on Goodreads at this link.

Or if you’re interested in picking up your own copy you can find it at the following:

Amazon // Barnes & Noble // Audible

Other places you can find me:

Follow my reviews or add me as a friend on Goodreads here.

Twitter: nihilisticactus

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Books Reviews

This Book Was Bad: As If On Cue by Marisa Kanter Review + A Book I Think You Should Pick Up Instead

As If on Cue
Image: Cover of As If On Cue by Marisa Kanter

Synopsis

Lifelong rivals Natalie and Reid have never been on the same team. So when their school’s art budget faces cutbacks, of course Natalie finds herself up against her nemesis once more. She’s fighting to direct the school’s first ever student-written play, but for her small production to get funding, the school’s award-winning band will have to lose it. Reid’s band. And he’s got no intention of letting the show go on.

But when their rivalry turns into an all-out prank war that goes too far, Natalie and Reid have to face the music, resulting in the worst compromise: writing and directing a musical. Together. At least if they deliver a sold-out show, the school board will reconsider next year’s band and theater budget. Everyone could win.

Except Natalie and Reid.

Because after spending their entire lives in competition, they have absolutely no idea how to be co-anything. And they certainly don’t know how to deal with the feelings that are inexplicably, weirdly, definitely developing between them…

Review

Reading the synopsis, As If On Cue sounded so cute. This prank war started between childhood rivals as they try to save their respective art fields at their high school? And a student created musical on top of that? It was too good to pass up!

After reading it, however, I kind of wish I had. Unfortunately, this book was boring and instead of focusing on a creative endeavor between high school art groups it recycled the plots of Frozen and Frozen 2 into some messy musical and added interpersonal drama between characters to spice things up. On top of that the writing was painful to read and the way that the main character, Natalie, tried to reassure herself that each bad decision she made would work out for the better was not only frustrating but I think had a negative impact on the plot overall.

The concept behind this book was solid. Budget cuts in schools are a sad reality that many students and faculty have to face and I think that this could potentially plant a seed in teens about ways they may be able to help save programs that they cherish. I was lucky enough to make it through high school with the worst budget cuts to affect me being transportation ones and I’m thankful that I had ways of getting to school without having to walk four miles every day. (I did it once in the middle of a rain storm that started to turn to ice and it was miserable!) Nowadays, however, I read so many stories of schools that cut important or cherished programs and I was looking forward to seeing how the students in As If On Cue worked to save the arts.

Right off the bat I found myself disliking the writing style and how Kanter introduced characters. I think that this book gave me the prime example of an author needing to “show” and not “tell”. Every character in this book was an overachiever and instead of introducing them in a smooth way it all was pretty cut and dry “this is NAME and they are in CLUB & SPORT & ETC” and a lot of the introductions happened back to back. I know it was important to give them their passions and show that these students had wide interests but I ended up not connecting to any of the characters and actually forgot who a number of them were. Our two main characters, Natalie and Reid, are into theatre and band respectively. As the story progressed I still found myself disliking the writing style and thought the story dragged on and I ended up being bored for quite a bit of it.

In terms of the plot itself, again, I thought it started off okay. Natalie and Reid are childhood rivals after setting themselves up against each other over their clarinet talents. Natalie’s father is the band teacher at their high school and Reid is his “protege” since he dreams of playing the clarinet professionally. After finding out that there are going to be major cuts to every art program EXCEPT the band, Natalie and her friends go behind the band’s back to try and find a way to save all of the clubs. This is the part of the plot that I truly enjoyed but unfortunately from there it went downhill.

Kanter seemed to want to fit as many topics as she could into one novel. See, Natalie had written a play that was essentially a parody of Frozen and Frozen 2 and this play would be what the students would be turning into a musical for their art program fundraiser. This parody (which Natalie kept treating as if it were original) was about a world being consumed by fire and thus became an insertion of a discussion on climate change. A timely discussion? Yes. However, it felt shoe horned into the overall plot and I think it detracted from the plot line about friends and microaggressions against Jewish people. See, Natalie’s younger sister is working towards her Bat Mitzvah throughout the course of the book and she was struggling with how her best friend (Reid’s younger sister) was beginning to treat her as she became closer to two other girls who consistently made micro aggressive comments towards them. I think that this would have had so much potential as a larger plot line but I don’t think it got the focus it really deserved. I also think that this may have helped to tie into some of Natalie’s own anger and frustration with the larger world because otherwise she seems to be consumed with a lot of rage for not very many reasons.

To go back to the musical that Natalie and Reid are working on, I wasn’t too pleased with how it fit into the plot. Natalie played it off as an original and while yes she wrote it by herself, it was a parody and I felt like it should have been referred to as such. There’s no shame in parodies, heck I got into musical theatre because of Starkid and their parodies, so I have a lot of respect for anyone who has the talent to create one. That being said I do think that without calling it a parody it just felt too on the nose for me.

I also thought that in terms of who Natalie was as a character, her passion was clearly in the arts and I think that the story would have benefitted from her wrestling with herself and her own biases about this. She has a staunch belief that creative jobs are not worth going into despite the fact that both of her parents work creative type jobs. I could see how she was mulling over her parents and their work and seeing how they struggled with certain aspects but every time she got close to a self awareness breakthrough she backslid into her little anger nest. I don’t think that it was wrong for her to think that she shouldn’t pursue a creative job for herself, I know plenty of people who will rationalize being “practical” with their futures because for most people that practicality will bring stability. That being said, it seemed like Natalie had a very stable life and I didn’t really see why she had such a large bias about creative jobs other than the fact that she would just think about the possibility of losing stability or she would watch her parents in a low spot in their careers and think that they were destroyed when that really wasn’t the reality.

I think that this was my biggest issue with As If on Cue overall. Natalie was a flawed character which is nice to see but her lack of self awareness had me scratching my head at the end of the book wondering if she had learned anything at all about what she had gone through. In short, I’ll just say that the choices that she made should have led to greater consequences than she ended up facing and it was a big disappointment. In the next section I’m going to talk more at length about these feelings but I am not able to do so without spoilers, so note that the next part of the review will contain spoilers for the plot.

This section will contain a major spoiler if you don’t want spoilers, skip to the paragraph that starts with “Overall”

I really didn’t understand how Natalie went through the entire course of this book with such severe lack of self awareness and yet ended up in a better place than she began despite the fact that she continually jeopardized the futures of not only Reid but also her father. From her perspective, I could see exactly how her resentment towards Reid and her father had grown over the years but once she started to participate willingly in things and accept the role that Reid had in her life I really had hoped that Natalie would have started to open up more and begin to accept herself and her passions more instead of continuing to interfere with other people. It upset me that she never fully grasped the fact that the main reason that Reid spent so much time with her dad was because he fostered Reid’s passion for music and he wanted Reid to succeed in ways that Reid’s own parents refused to support.

Before I go on I did want to say that I did feel for Natalie and the resentment that she harbored. I could see that it was difficult for her to see that her parents supported her future decisions fully no matter what choices she made. They both chose creative fields and they would support Natalie if she also chose to follow her passion into the arts but they also respect and support her choice to want to pick a more “practical” job. I’ve personally wrestled with choosing my own future path because one of my parents would always say “I just want you to be happy” and sometimes growing up I almost wished that I would have had parents who were more outspoken about what I should or shouldn’t do. But then I did have an instance where that was the case and when my own passions didn’t align with what this person wanted me to do, it felt suffocating and heartwrenching. So I can understand why Natalie felt the way that she did but the fact that she took steps to actively sabotage Reid’s entire future gutted me. And the fact that she essentially committed a felony by tampering with his mail made me so mad that I had to put the book down for multiple days before I could finally bring myself to pick it up again and finish the story.

Now, I would have taken the third act conflict as it was IF Natalie had faced some consequences about the decisions that she made. But instead, it all ended with Natalie making up with her dad and Reid and the musical being such a success that they saved the arts programs. This was such a disappointment. I think that it leaned too far towards allowing someone (Natalie) to make a decision for someone else (Reid) without learning why it was really wrong to do so. I’m still really frustrated with this so I’m going to try and stop ranting now.

Overall, As If on Cue was not great. I think there will be an audience for this, as Kanter’s first book (which I also read and didn’t enjoy) had an audience, but I found this was poorly written with too many plot lines and characters thrown together which created an incohesive plot that lacked some of the nuance I think it could have had. I didn’t think that Reid and Natalie had enough chemistry to form a rivals-to-lovers relationship and their prank war was barely part of the overall plot of the book. The musical puns were aplenty but unfortunately I don’t think I will be picking up anything from this author in the future.

You can check out As If on Cue on Goodreads here.

And with that, I’d like to hop into a mini review about a book I would recommend picking up instead! I’m hoping to try and include something like this in any future book reviews about books I’m not a big fan of.

A Book I’d Recommend Instead

Tweet Cute by Emma Lord

Tweet Cute
Image: Cover of Tweet Cute by Emma Lord

Synopsis

Meet Pepper, swim team captain, chronic overachiever, and all-around perfectionist. Her family may be falling apart, but their massive fast-food chain is booming ― mainly thanks to Pepper, who is barely managing to juggle real life while secretly running Big League Burger’s massive Twitter account.

Enter Jack, class clown and constant thorn in Pepper’s side. When he isn’t trying to duck out of his obscenely popular twin’s shadow, he’s busy working in his family’s deli. His relationship with the business that holds his future might be love/hate, but when Big League Burger steals his grandma’s iconic grilled cheese recipe, he’ll do whatever it takes to take them down, one tweet at a time.

All’s fair in love and cheese ― that is, until Pepper and Jack’s spat turns into a viral Twitter war. Little do they know, while they’re publicly duking it out with snarky memes and retweet battles, they’re also falling for each other in real life ― on an anonymous chat app Jack built.

As their relationship deepens and their online shenanigans escalate ― people on the internet are shipping them?? ― their battle gets more and more personal, until even these two rivals can’t ignore they were destined for the most unexpected, awkward, all-the-feels romance that neither of them expected.

This book had exactly the right amount of banter and I adored the characters. I think that it balanced teen angst and family drama perfectly with a fun side plot of what would happen if two teenagers were the faces behind some restaurant Twitter accounts. Meet Cute was fun but I also think that it did a good job with illustrating how Pepper and Jack grew more into themselves as the story progressed. I enjoyed how social media and texting were incorporated into the story and part of it centered around mistaken identity, which is one of my favorite tropes. Pepper and Jack and were overachievers learning how to cope with that in their own ways and I think that if you’re looking for a book with some banter this one might be right up your alley.

You can add it on Goodreads here

And if you’re interested in picking up a copy for yourself you can find it at the following:

Bookshop* // Barnes & Noble // Book Depository* // Indiebound (If you’re interested in finding a local indie to shop through!)

*These are affiliate links, so if you purchase something through them I might receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Now that this marathon of a post is over, I’m signing off. I’ll talk to you all in my next post!

Other places you can find me:

Twitter: nihilisticactus

Readerly: sideofadventure

Add me on Goodreads or follow my reviews here.

For review inquiries, etc. my email is: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

If you’d like to buy me a coffee, or support the blog financially, my Ko-fi is here.

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Discussions

Let’s Talk Tuesday: Romance Reading & Asexuality

Content warning: Just a heads up, this post does contain discussion about sexual abuse

Before I start the actual topic for the post I wanted to introduce a new series for the blog called Let’s Talk Tuesday. I figured it might be helpful to put all discussion type posts in one place and it would give me a specific day to get these published when I wrote them! And I just randomly picked Tuesday because I liked the way it sounded for my title but I also wanted to shout out another creator who posts on Tuesdays (other days too but I realized my posts might take on a similar nature to her Tuesday videos) and that would be Jess Owens. I have loved watching her Book CommuniTEA videos as well as all her other videos (her Switzerland travel vlog was great and her blindfolded book challenge she made with her husband had me cracking up). Now on to my actual post.

The topic for this post kind of fell into my lap one day and was made even more relevant after some Twitter bullshit from this past weekend. On that day, I was sad and wanted to reread something that would make me feel good and when I went to reread Neon Gods by Katee Robert it hit me that I find a lot of comfort in romance books. Not only that, but those romance books tend to be spicier ones. For example, for years I would always reread A Court of Mist and Fury when I was in the midst of depressive episodes and I also used it to get myself out of more than one reading slump.

I’m on the asexuality spectrum and I was surprised when I realized just how enjoyment I’ve gotten from reading spicy books and fanfiction. And considering I don’t have a great track record with my opinions on romances that often have less explicit scenes I spent some time thinking about it. Why do I find myself enjoying these more explicit books when I have next to no interest in sex? Well, 2 reasons really.

The first reason is that I find the relationships in these books to be a lot happier and I think comforting to read. When I read a more traditional romance I tend to find myself annoyed with the characters more often than not and I find many of the relationships to have an overall lack of chemistry. I know that my opinion tends to lean towards the unpopular side of things when it comes to a lot of these romances (Get a Life, Chloe Brown is one example of this) and for a long time it upset me that I wasn’t able to get the same enjoyment as others were out of those books. But when I’ve read some of these more angsty and kink filled books I found that the characters had more chemistry and even when the plots potentially get crazy, I would find the relationships to feel more realistic. They felt comfortable and the pairings made more sense to me. In the same way that I have often found fanfiction to be comforting to me these books make me cherish the Happily Ever Afters or the Happy For Nows. They give me butterflies and make me swoon and I cheer for every romantic advancement throughout the stories. I like reading about people falling in love but I need them to make sense together before I find any enjoyment in their stories.

The second reason I think that I have found so much enjoyment in spicy or erotic books is that I think sex is hilarious. Like there are days where I get uncomfortable reading about sex or feel grossed out and then I skim read or completely skip over those scenes but on other days I like to read and potentially giggle at these scenarios that can feel so outrageous to me. Just a small reason but it’s often enough to make my brain get pulled out of whatever hole I’ve found myself in on that occasion.

For a while I was actually tempted to just stop reading adult romance books completely because I wasn’t finding any enjoyment in them. I was frustrated with the stories I was picking up and I kept wondering why I was subjecting myself to reading sex scenes in these books when all they did was gross me out and add to my disappointment in the overall stories. I try to review all books as objectively as possible but sometimes I had to separate myself from these plots for weeks or even months before I could write up my thoughts. I’m still trying to work on this with my reviews, especially rant related ones.

Before I sign off I wanted to be honest and say that I almost deleted this post before I finally decided I could make myself publish it. I learned about asexuality when I was in high school from a text post on Tumblr. Looking back, without that random post ending up on my dashboard I think it would have been years before I ever got a bit of explanation about who I am. It’s a key piece to my identity and yet the validity of this piece of me is something that I dwell on way too frequently. Over the weekend, a person on Twitter made a response to someone hoping for more romances with asexual characters by essentially saying the asexuality was a way for white people to act oppressed and then went on to say that asexual people should be shot. Not only does this completely erase every single BIPOC ace it’s an opinion that adds to the stigma that there is something wrong with asexuality.

This belief is one that causes ace people a lot of pain and potentially even harm. Years ago, I dated a person who was well aware of my asexuality but held the belief that if I didn’t have sex with them, then that meant I didn’t love them. Now, at the time I leaned towards referring to myself as demisexual and because of that this person held that over my head. For much of that relationship I was fed the belief that I had to have sex to prove I loved this person and so I did it. I cared for them, so therefore I should want to have sex with them all the time. I chose to ignore my own identity and my own feelings about the situation because I assumed that this was how sex in a relationship was supposed to work and how it was always going to work. Y’all, this is why we need ace rep in books. Not only because it could potentially save someone else from what I had to go through, but also because ace people deserve to know that they are worthy of love. We deserve to know that we can be loved and cared for outside of a sexual relationship.

When I first learned about asexuality, I didn’t think of myself as broken, I simply thought “wow this finally explains why I view sex differently than my friends” but I know that a lot of people, before learning about asexuality do wonder if they are broken in some way. We deserve to have romance books with ace main characters or ace love interests. Books that don’t have sex in them are not the same as books about asexual people. Asexual people do have sex and can enjoy it as can they enjoy reading about it. But we also deserve to read romances about ace people who are sex repulsed because they exist too. And we deserve books about ace characters that aren’t romances and we deserve their sexuality to be explicitly discussed. Books without sex aren’t the same as books about asexual people. I’ll keep saying that as long as I have a platform to say it on. And I’ll yell about aromantics and how deserving they are of books where their sexuality is explicitly spoken about. They deserve books with platonic joy or personal joy. Being asexual isn’t some pin to allow me to say “I’m oppressed” but I do think a lot of our pain stays hidden. And I don’t want other people to hurt the way that I have hurt. I hid the way I felt in my relationship years ago from everyone I knew. I kept trying to tell myself “it’s just sex” because for so many people sex isn’t a big deal and it hurt to ignore a big part of my identity in ways I’m still trying to heal from. I don’t want young ace people to grow up thinking that they are broken or that they owe people anything. And that is why we need more books with ace rep.

Honestly, spicy books take me out of the world I’m in and help distract me from everything that may be going on in my life. I like reading about the relationships within them as well as all the other aspects that go into them. But that doesn’t take away the fact that I am asexual. Anyways, before I rant too much about gender and sexual identity I’m going to sign off for this post.

If you’re interested in connecting with me elsewhere you can find some places below, otherwise I will talk to you all in my next post!

Twitter: nihilisticactus

Readerly: sideofadventure

You can add me as a friend or follow my reviews on Goodreads, my profile is linked here.

If you’d like to buy me a coffee, my Ko-fi is linked here.

If you’re interested in contacting me about reviews, or something else, my email is: adventureswithasideofespresso@gmail.com

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Books Reviews

A Timeless Sort of Story: Review of The People We Keep by Allison Larkin

The People We Keep
Image: Cover of The People We Keep by Allison Larkin

Synopsis

Little River, New York, 1994: April Sawicki is living in a motorless motorhome that her father won in a poker game. Failing out of school, picking up shifts at Margo’s diner, she’s left fending for herself in a town where she’s never quite felt at home. When she “borrows” her neighbor’s car to perform at an open mic night, she realizes her life could be much bigger than where she came from. After a fight with her dad, April packs her stuff and leaves for good, setting off on a journey to find a life that’s all hers.

As April moves through the world, meeting people who feel like home, she chronicles her life in the songs she writes and discovers that where she came from doesn’t dictate who she has to be. 

This lyrical, unflinching tale is for anyone who has ever yearned for the fierce power of found family or to grasp the profound beauty of choosing to belong.

Review

An E-ARC was provided by Gallery Books through NetGalley in exchange for review.

There was something simplistic and yet utterly fulfilling about this book. The People We Keep is a timeless sort of story about growing up and trying to find your space in the world. It’s a narrative that opens a few windows into the life of April Sawicki, a teenage girl from a small town in New York. She’s restless and has a longing for a life that would take her away from her tiny town and the path she thinks life is eventually going to lead her down. People don’t tend to leave her hometown and she saw life pulling her towards settling down with her high school boyfriend and essentially living life from there. Then a confrontation with her father pushes her over the edge and she leaves in an attempt to do something to save herself and change her future.

I’m not sure I realized how much of an emotional impact this book would have on me when I first started reading it. The writing style is simplistic but in my opinion that makes it more accessible since sometimes lyrical, prose heavy works keep people from picking them up. Since it was so easy to immerse myself into the story I flew through it and finished the book in one sitting. From the get go it could have been like any other book where a small town girl leaves to find her way but this was a lot different than I expected it to be. I plan on passing it on to as many people as I can. Honestly, it was profound to see April get so caught up in her negative experiences that she believes the only way to save herself is to run away again and again. It’s a self defense mechanism that I know all too well and I know other people may see it in themselves too. After I set the book down I ended up doing a lot of self reflection about my own life and all of the people that have walked through it over the years.

This book isn’t a romance. Yes, some romantic relationships did occur throughout and I honestly thought that in the end, April would settle down and be “happy” with whatever circumstances she ended up in. The more I read and the more that came to pass I realized that this was so much more than a romance. The title really says it all.

As characters were introduced throughout the book I ended up being surprised how they came and went and which ones ended up being the ones that April “kept”. By the end of the book everything began to tie itself together as April was forced to reconnect with people she had run away from. This was where everything began to hit me and I saw the full message of the story. Too often I think we focus on the people who we’ve lost. Personally I know I’ve spent plenty of time grieving for friendships and relationships that have ended. I also know that when I would run away from the negative experiences and places I always eventually come back to thinking about the people I left behind because I always wondered if they would have held out for me. This is a story that answers a question like that. April had such a unique found family and despite the fact that each person came from vastly different walks of life I adored seeing them come together to support her. This part of the story might not sit well with everyone because April was a messy person and she was dealing with a lot of trauma and not everyone will think that she deserves this type of love and forgiveness. But it was a surprising take on a coming of age story where a girl leaves her tiny hometown and I appreciated it.

To me, this was a reminder that we might not all get the love and acceptance we deserve. Especially when we make our own messes and run away because we’re too scared to fix them. But there are people that we have encountered that we will keep with us whether they stay by our side or they simply teach us lessons that we carry with us that sustain us through life. Sometimes we have to stop running away and I hope that if you do, you have your own people to remind you that you are loved and cared for.

This book was a five star read for me and if I were you, I’d add it to your must read list.

The People We Keep is a brand new release, it came out earlier this month and I’ll link below some places you can purchase it if you’re interested in getting your own copy!

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // Indiebound (If you want to find a local store to buy through!)

Or add the book on Goodreads here!

You can also find me at the following:

Twitter: nihilisticactus

Readerly: sideofadventure

For review requests, etc.: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

You can add me on Goodreads or follow my reviews here.

If you’d like to buy me a coffee, my Ko-fi is here.

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Books Reviews

Again, But Better: Rereading Christine Riccio’s First Book & Reading Better Together Too

It’s so weird to think that it was back in 2019 that I got sucked into book blogging. I had recently gotten back into reading after a years long slump and the book that pulled me fully into the reading community again was Again, but Better by Christine Riccio. I reread my original review and it was a bit of a mess but it was a book that I was honestly incredibly excited to read and I can tell how caught up in my feelings I was about it. I remember when I started to get views on that post and then likes and even a comment I was shocked! My blog has always felt so small and insignificant that I still tend to forget that actual people read my posts and I’m not just shouting into the void.

For this post, I wanted to reflect upon that original reading of Christine’s first book and then review it a second time with some updated thoughts. After that I’ll dive into my review of Better Together which is her second novel and I’ll finish with a small wrap up on this experience.

Just a note before I begin, this post will contain spoilers.

Again, But Not Better

Again, but Better
Image: Cover of Again, But Better by Christine Riccio

I read Again, But Better at exactly the time I needed to read it. It made me sad and nostalgic for people that I no longer had and life opportunities that either passed me by or that I wish I could experience again. Reading it in such an emotional mindset I think I chose to overlook a lot of things that bothered me more this second time around.

One of the first things I noticed while rereading this was that there were constant references to Harry Potter. Not only did these age very poorly, I don’t think they were necessary in the first place. When it comes to contemporary books I know that there will be pop culture references but authors need to tread carefully because the more specific they get, the easier it is for the book to lack a timeless nature. In terms of the writing itself after years of watching videos from Christine it was obvious that she wrote this. It was enthusiastic and awkward with a sprinkling of quotable lines throughout. This book was also a self insert to the extreme. With the recognizable writing style coupled with the FrenchWatermelon19 blog name of the main character I was shocked that Christine was okay with this book going out into the world… I can only hope that if Pilot was based off of a real person that he did not read this book. Pilot was such a weird character for me because I actually liked him more than Shane at times because he was subdued compared to her but he also had seemingly no autonomy and I don’t want to speculate on things simply because of the self insert nature but it seems to me like Pilot was a 20-something who wasn’t interested in something serious and the do-over put him in a tight spot that ended up causing people a lot of pain. As a person who heavily romanticized relationships because of books and “happily ever after” I just have to wonder.

Overall, a lot of the issues I mentioned in my original review remain the same. I disliked Shane’s family. The fact that her father threw a hissy fit in front of an entire restaurant of people and promptly disowned her was appalling. Families are messy but there’s a fine line between a messy family and abuse and I think that Again, but Better lacked the nuance to have been written about an abusive family. In the end I did appreciate that Shane had something of a self discovery journey over the course of the plot and it was nice to see her make her own decisions. In terms of the romance in this book, the codependent nature of Shane and Pilot’s relationship upon getting their do-over was annoying and I actually enjoyed when they broke up. I don’t think either of them had enough self awareness to do the right thing and during this reread I thought that there was a lot less chemistry between the two than the first time I read the book. I’m also still incredibly uncomfortable with the cheating aspects of the story.

Again, But Better was an awkward debut novel and despite being a book I read at the right time, the second time around revealed a lot more flaws after realizing this was rated 4 stars on my Goodreads I changed my rating to 2.

Please Stop Vomiting: My Review On Better Together

Better Together
Image: Cover of Better Together by Christine Riccio

I’m not going to do it. Like really I will not go back and count how many times the characters threw up on page…

Okay, I think it actually only happened 5.5 times (the half time being a spit take and not actual vomit) but I still think this is too much vomit for this book!

Anyways, the quickest way to sum up Better Together would be Parent Trap but with significantly more trauma.

Like really, sisters Siri and Jamie were separated by their parents messy divorce at the ages of 4 and 6. They both end up attending the same self help retreat over a decade later and with the help of some more unexplained magic they swap places. Here’s the kicker though, Siri thought that Jamie was an imaginary friend. Seriously, their mother told Siri that Jamie wasn’t real and sent her to therapy in order to FORGET HER SISTER. So this ended up leading to a very dramatic scene at the retreat where Siri panicked over her “imaginary friend” appearing in front of her.

I’ll admit that Better Together, while not amazing, ended up impressing me more than I thought it would. It was obvious to me that Christine had grown slightly as a writer although it still had much of the same enthusiastic and awkward nature that Again, but Better had. I thought that Siri and Jamie ended up feeling like much more realistic characters than Shane did, however that doesn’t mean huge improvement since I really didn’t find Shane to be a well written character. With that being said I thought that Jamie was frustrating as hell and without the anger I felt while reading her chapters I’m unsure I would have been able to distinguish between the two narratives.

The main issue that I had with Better Together (other than the whole traumatic imaginary friend thing) is that there was so much conflict and so much angst that could have been played into but Christine barely scratched the surface. Both Jamie and Siri had personal struggles that they were trying to deal with and I wish that we could have seen more of how their switch allowed them to cope with and work through what was going on in their real lives. For this to be a standalone it didn’t give me the resolution that I was hoping for by the time I had reached the ending. Though I will say I appreciated that Christine had both girls attend therapy throughout the course of the book. It wasn’t perfect but it was a start.

I’ve gone back and forth a few times now about how I wanted to rate this and I think I’ve settled on 2 stars. It was okay and while it did have improvements from Again, but Better it wasn’t great. I was uncomfortable with how the divorce was handled by the parents and I felt like a lot of aspects to this book felt underdeveloped. I’ve watched most of Christine’s videos about her writing process and I know that she overdrafts when it comes to word counts. That being said I have to wonder what she ends up cutting out.

But Will Her Next Book Have Better in the Title

Christine’s books seem geared towards a younger audience and I think that they could be good transitional books as young adult readers look for adult books to pick up. That’s kind of the path that I took with them anyways. They are very surface level in terms of conflict and overall character growth and I think that younger readers would find them enjoyable. However, I would just hope as these readers grow up and read more that they could look back on these two books and eye them a bit more critically. They’re not great examples for how families and relationships should work and while no family or relationship is going to be perfect I just don’t want young readers to end up being set on a path where they normalize things they shouldn’t.

And one last random point… Something that I’ve noticed with both of Christine’s books is that she isn’t consistent with the things that she changes about the real world or the characters. In Again, but Better Shane didn’t seem to swear and instead used things like “fudge” instead of “fuck” but then there were moments when she did swear and there wasn’t necessarily a rhyme or reason to it. Then in Better Together with the changes about the real world there were numerous references to things and people that were unchanged, like Timothee Chalamet just randomly being included in the plot, but then in other instances Christine would do something like change a dating app name from “Hinge” to “Hunge”. The inconsistency was a bit confusing at times. Siri was also another character that “didn’t swear” so there were even more nonsense words in her chapters. Seriously, authors either use actual swear words or refrain from using any at all.

Even though I wasn’t a fan of either of these books, I thought that this was actually an enjoyable experience in the end. It was interesting reading the two books back to back because I was better able to see how Christine grew as a writer. At this point, I’m unsure if I’ll pick up her next book outside of potentially using it for blog content. Or just to see what outrageous unexplained magic she decides to throw into that plot.

The biggest thing that I have to think about though is, will Christine end up having the word better in the title of her third book??

And with that I’m signing off. I’ll talk to y’all in my next post, though if you’re interested in connecting with me before then you can find me at the following:

Twitter: nihilisticactus

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