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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.

Categories
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

Readerly: sideofadventure

For review inquiries, etc: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

My Goodreads profile is linked here. You can add me as a friend or follow my reviews over there.

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

Categories
Books Middle Grade Monday

Middle Grade Monday: A Uniquely Crafted Graphic Novel, The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell

If you’re looking for a fun and entertaining graphic novel that should keep any youngster hooked then I’ve got the book for you!

The Cardboard Kingdom is a collection of short stories compiled into a graphic novel that follows a group of kids in their neighborhood throughout the course of one summer. Each story is written by a different collaborator and the whole book is illustrated by Chad Sell.

The Cardboard Kingdom
Image: Cover of The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell

It’s colorful and with the short story element this book is easy to read in small sittings or all at once depending on the reader. I appreciated this because I often struggle with feeling like I should be able to read a graphic novel in one sitting and this one allowed me to set it down multiple times and come back to it when I had more time to dedicate to this world! Each story begins with a title page that has more of a sketch style of art and interwoven in the stories are also pieces of art that bring to life the make believe aspects. Some are more concept art style while others are built into the panels as you find the children living the stories they’ve created. I found myself immersed in the storytelling and enjoyed seeing how each character was brought to life as the play acting became interwoven with the immense fantasy world this neighborhood made.

The characters within these stories are diverse and I appreciated seeing how many of the kids connected things that were going on in their real lives with their characters and storylines in the fantasy world. There was a variety of home lives represented. Kids with married parents, divorced parents, fighting parents, single parents, grandparents. And while nothing was expressly stated I could pick out characters that seemed neurodivergent or LGBT+. One notable character for this is that of The Sorceress, or Jack. Another thing I’ll note is that I would have appreciated seeing a physically disabled character, I think that’s one aspect where this lacked. I know it’s hard to fit every form of representation into a book but there could have been a lot of interesting storylines surrounding something like creating a costume for a wheelchair user, etc.

The Cardboard Kingdom celebrates creativity and imagination. It allowed children to choose characters they resonated with and bring them to life. And even as heroes squared off with villains and tensions ran high there were plenty of softer moments where it warmed my heart to see how this neighborhood of kids accepted one another. I think that kids will love the colorful and easy to read style of the comics. There’s a wide variety of characters that just about anybody would be able to find themselves relating to at least one. It’s an accessible short story style and I highly recommend this! I also think that older readers would find themselves enjoying this too. I know I for one felt nostalgic for the summers when I was younger and spent most of my days running around outside creating these dramatic scenarios with my younger sister.

And to add, on Chad Sell’s website there are free coloring pages as well as paper craft designs that can be downloaded and used to create costumes based on those in the book! You can find these at chadsellcomics.com

You can add The Cardboard Kingdom on Goodreads here.

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

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // IndieBound (if you’re interested in finding a local store to shop through!)

I’d also like to note that the sequel to The Cardboard Kingdom was released in June of this year. I haven’t read it yet but I’m definitely planning on picking it up so I thought I’d add the links for that book here as well.

Add Roar of the Beasts on Goodreads here.

And here are the purchase links (I didn’t include the IndieBound link because it’s the same as up above):

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop

And with that, I’m signing off! If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? I really can’t wait to pick up the sequel.

I’ll talk to you all in my next post though if you’re interested in connecting with me before then, here are my links!

Twitter: nihilisticactus

Readerly: sideofadventure

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

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

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

Categories
Books Reviews

A Twisted & Beautiful Folkloric Fantasy Debut: Review of The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

I swear, this post did not want to be published! I have been working on this for weeks now because every time I’ve saved it as a draft as soon as I come back to it all I get are error messages so I have to start all over again! This time I’m just going to try and get it all done in one sitting, including images and links, so that I can finally post this.

The Wolf and the Woodsman
Image: Cover of The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.

Reid provided content warnings for her book which will be included at the end of my review

First off, I wanted to thank William Morrow through NetGalley for the e-ARC of this book as well as Danielle at William Morrow for sending me a finished copy!

The Wolf and the Woodsman was everything I hoped for and more. This folkloric fantasy debut from Ava Reid follows Évike, a pagan woman who has been treated as an outcast in her village of “Wolf Girls”. Évike has not only been scorned because of the man who fathered her, but also because she’s the only girl in her village without any magic powers. When the Woodsmen come to take away yet another girl, it’s Évike who gets taken. A sacrifice for the protection of someone else in her village. As the plot unfolded and twisted itself down grim and harsh paths I read with bated breath and finished this in two sittings.

This book was whimsically dark as Reid knit together Jewish mythology and Hungarian history. I’m not Jewish though I ended up picking up on a number of references that were made throughout the book. I really enjoyed seeing how Reid tied everything together. The writing was absolutely beautiful. Rich descriptions of the world woven throughout fantastical stories and Évike’s own stinging inner dialogue. I was so immersed in the story that I didn’t want to drag myself back out until I was finished reading. I’d like to note that the body horror and gore described throughout are not for the faint of heart. The Wolf and the Woodsman is an adult novel and I would heed that warning. If you’re a person who is sensitive to graphic descriptions this might be a book that needs to be passed on. It was all pertinent to the story itself and added to the dark nature. This was a dark story and it was unexpected because I find that many fantasy stories I’ve read tend to lean towards a “happily ever after” ending. And obviously I love those too but I appreciated that this book felt so realistic in terms of characterization and life consequences of horrific events.

The grim fairytale-esque sheen that covered the surface of the story revealed thought provoking horrors once peeled back. A corrupt kingdom, filled with impoverished peasants who stood atop the backs of the pagans and the Yehuli because they believed themselves to be more worthy of an upward climb. An impending war that has caused a turning tide in the kings own men. It was fascinating and terrifying to read it all unfold because I was so invested in Évike and her survival. Over the course of the book, Évike put every ounce into protecting such fragile relationships that developed over the course of the story. As she interacted with her peers and eventually her father I couldn’t help but hope that these characters would hope for the best for Évike just as I was. For her to want to save anyone but herself was heartbreaking because even after years of being treated as less than and fighting for her survival she still revealed a caring nature in these moments.

Now, not only was Évike caring but she was powerful in her own way. The self discovery journey she went on through the course of the book proved to be beneficial in numerous ways. Her power in bringing men to their knees was hands down one of my favorite parts of this book. She intimidated a king but her enemies-to-lovers relationship with Prince Gaspar was perfection. They were never meant to be and yet as their banter and curses turned to something more I couldn’t stop reading. As I reached the end of the novel I couldn’t help but see all the beginnings that could unspool from it.

This was a standout read and will definitely be one of my favorites for the year. Hands down a 5/5 star read! Links to purchase the book for yourself will be included underneath the content warnings.

CONTENT WARNINGS (as provided by the author)
– Gore, including graphic descriptions of dismemberment, amputation, mutilation, and immolation
– Torture, including whipping
– Self-harm, including self-amputation 
– Animal death (graphic; the animals are not pets)
– Antisemitism
– Cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing
– Physical abuse by parents and parental figures
– Graphic descriptions of vomiting

If you’d like to pick up your own copy of The Wolf and the Woodsman you can find it at any of the following links:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // Indiebound (you can find a local indie to purchase through there!)

And as of writing this post, Sierra Elmore has a book box available for preorder for September. You can find that here!

And if you’d like to connect with me elsewhere:
I’m on Twitter: @/nihilisticactus

Readerly: @/sideofadventure

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

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

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

I’ll talk to y’all in my next post!

Categories
College

So The World Is Burning & I’m Going Back To School

I dropped out of university in 2017. It wasn’t exactly something I planned on doing but it happened. 2017 was a tough year for me, my mental health started to go downhill more than it ever had before and I went through two really bad breakups. Most of the time, when I think back on that year all I see is the bad because it was a turning point in my life that I never saw coming but I also had so many experiences that year that I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to have. I studied abroad in London for three weeks, I saw totality of an eclipse, and I even designed a book cover! That year was a turning point in my life because even though there was so much bad, it also started to teach me about myself and helped me get to the point I’m at now. I’m nowhere that I ever expected myself to be at 24, almost 25 but this is my reality and I kind of hope that in talking about it that maybe it’ll get to someone else who needs it.

Just a note before I get further into this post, I will be talking candidly about mental health and other possibly triggering topics so if you’d like to tap out of this now feel free!

The other day I was on Twitter and read a tweet that said something along the lines of “the ocean is on fire and you’re going to grad school??” and I had a panic attack. Natural disasters and climate change cause so much existential anxiety for me that it’s been difficult to find motivation to keep moving forward. (Shout out to my teachers in elementary and middle school that showed us movies like Twister, The Day After Tomorrow, and the one about Yellowstone erupting.) In the past year and a half I’ve done a lot for my mental health and for my future. I found a new therapist and I’ve recently started EMDR with her in order to start reprocessing trauma. I got diagnosed with ADHD. I got back on medication and found a psychiatrist that I don’t hate. I applied to go back to school and I got in.

I applied to go back to school and I got in.

Honestly, after dropping out in 2017 I wasn’t sure if I’d ever go back to school. Every time I started to think I was working my way back uphill I fell down again. When I look back at that time period I know I was running on fumes just trying to survive each day. I was desperately trying to figure out who I was and that struggle made me hurt not only myself but a lot of other people. My roommate at the time was honestly the main reason I stayed alive and I’m forever grateful for her. It’s the little things but she kept me fed and there were so many nights that we would stay up hysterically laughing about the weirdest things or watching American Horror Story. We created a home for ourselves and even though it was a difficult time period for both of us I look back on it fondly. (I know she still reads at least some of my posts so if you’re reading this, thank you for everything, seriously. Ugh, our neighbors must have hated our middle of the night shenanigans lol)

Leaving school was my own choice. I was overwhelmed financially and mentally and got caught up in trying to make other people like me because I couldn’t figure out how to like myself. Even though I had just switched to a new advisor and was excited to finally have an idea of what I wanted for my future nothing I did felt like it was enough. My therapist at the time and I discussed it in depth and decided a break from school would be beneficial. I just didn’t expect the spiral that came afterwards. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly happened. Piecing together my memories from that time period have been more difficult than I expected.

Now fast forward to this year. I knew I needed to do something to move forward with my life. My job was sucking the life out of me and I was desperate to move forward. Not everyone needs to go to school but ever since I dropped out I felt the need to go back. I love learning and school used to be a place I thrived and I wanted to get back to a place where I felt productive again. The biggest problem I had was that I had no idea what I wanted to do. Let’s be real, I still don’t know what I want to do but I’m working on it. When I first went to university I was majoring in religion… And then education and history… Then history… Then history and communications… And finally communications with a focus in media studies. I have a lot of interests but I had no idea what I wanted to do with my future. Growing up every time someone asked me what I wanted to be my answer changed frequently. The only thing that ever stayed consistent was that I wanted to write. But I wanted to be a teacher, lawyer, zookeeper, youth minister, librarian, artist… The list goes on. I battled constantly with my passions and being “practical”. There were plenty of my classmates who pursued artistic degrees, I just wasn’t brave enough to follow in their footsteps.

When I finally started looking into reapplying for school I sat down and made a mind map of all of my interests in order to narrow down what I might want to do. As the map got bigger and bigger I realized how important to me that nature was. I’ve always loved being outside but it was my first backpacking trip in 2015 that sparked a hunger for adventure in me that seems insatiable. So I spent a few weeks watching videos from Kristina Lynn on YouTube, she’s a wildlife biologist and has made numerous videos about jobs within that field and more. Those videos as well digging into lists of majors and classes at any university that I was even remotely interested in attending started to get me to form a small seed of a future working in nature in my head.

The first time I went to university I applied to two schools and got into both. This time I also applied to only two schools but I only got into one. Luckily, it was my top choice. I’m going to be attending a state university in Minnesota and will be majoring in biology with a focus in ecology. Classes start in just over a month and I’m getting more anxious by the day and my brain is starting to shut down. I had just registered for classes when I saw that tweet about grad school and the ocean and I wanted to give up. In a matter of weeks I had a lot of new stressors introduced and then the more that I thought about the world and life as a whole I wanted to stop moving. I was back to feeling the same sort of hopelessness and loss that I had been experiencing on a regular basis since 2016-2017. I’ll be honest when I say that some days I spend hours in a state of dissociation because I don’t understand anything.

Even though I’ve finally started to take steps forward for myself, it feels like the world is taking steps backward for me. I’m a nihilist even on my best days. I often struggle to find meaning with my life because “we all die in the end anyways”. This is why I’m thankful to have a therapist who can help to hold me accountable. I have to assign myself goals each week and my desire to please people almost always overrides my need to do nothing so I slowly work towards goals that I come up with during those sessions. Which basically means the world is on fire and I’m going back to school.

It doesn’t help that I’m a returning student and even though I’ve knocked out essentially all of my generals I still feel like I’m behind. I know that there’s no reason to follow a standard path for school and even though I was never exactly pressured to jump straight to college after high school there are still frequent moments when I feel terrible for dropping out in the first place. And every time I get a letter or email addressed to the “Parents of” me it knocks me down one more peg. I don’t think they should require parental interaction or even assume parental interaction with university because it’s not a given, ever, but I understand why they do assume it.

I’m not sure when it will hit me that I’m really going back to school and that this is a huge step forward for me. Even though I’m years off the timeline I had tried to create for myself this is the first time that I ever truly feel like I’ve made some decisions for me and me alone. Finding the motivation to move forward is hit or miss and I’m trying to give myself some grace when it comes to my bad days. I’m also striving to keep my pessimism away from other’s successes. Just because I find everything I do to be pointless doesn’t mean I should make someone else feel bad. It doesn’t always work out that way but it’s important. We shouldn’t hurt other people mentally just because we’re hurting.

When this post goes up I’ll be touring my new school and getting some things set up for the new semester. I’m stressed about it, especially because I have a long drive there, but it finally feels like things are moving forward.

I hope you all have a nice day. I’ll talk to you in my next post.

If you’re interested in connecting with me elsewhere:
I’m on Twitter: @/nihilisticactus
Email: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com
Or if you’d like to financially support the blog, my Ko-fi is linked here.

Categories
Books Middle Grade Monday

Middle Grade Monday: Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Song for a Whale
Image: Cover of Lynne Kelly’s Song For A Whale

The story of a deaf girl’s connection to a whale whose song can’t be heard by his species, and the journey she takes to help him.

From fixing the class computer to repairing old radios, twelve-year-old Iris is a tech genius. But she’s the only deaf person in her school, so people often treat her like she’s not very smart. If you’ve ever felt like no one was listening to you, then you know how hard that can be.

When she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales, Iris understands how he must feel. Then she has an idea: she should invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. How will she play her song for him?

Lynne Kelly’s Song For A Whale was a beautiful book about a young girl’s need to belong and her determined journey to help a whale also find a place to belong. Iris is deaf. Her grandparents are deaf and she has a friend, Wendell, who is also deaf but she attends a hearing school. On top of all this, while her mom and older brother have learned sign language to easily communicate with Iris, her father has never put in the effort instead relying on her lip reading skills and other people to translate. This book centers on her discovery of a whale called Blue 55 who sings in a frequency that other whales can’t understand. Iris immediately relates to Blue 55 and she sets out on a journey to give him a song that might finally make him feel heard.

In both high school and my first round of college I took ASL classes. I spent three years learning it in high school and was actually planning on minoring in it in college. For a really long time I was interested in becoming an interpreter and while my career goals have ultimately changed since then I think that learning sign language is something that everyone should do if presented the opportunity. The Deaf community is wonderful and I’ve met a lot of great people over the years that have pulled me out of my shell from my time learning ASL. It’s an incredibly expressive language and it taught me a lot about communication so I was excited to pick up a book featuring a deaf main character! I feel like if I let myself talk about it too much I would take up the entire post but I’ll just say that while communication and school and everything surrounding that is up for individual families to decide it is incredibly important for deaf children to be able to communicate. ASL has its own structure and grammar but it is a language and it opens the world up so much more than relying on lip reading and speaking.

Song For A Whale was emotional. Iris feels misunderstood and often floats through life feeling like an outsider. At school she has to rely on an interpreter and with interactions with Deaf (uppercase D means individuals who identify with the larger Deaf community) people she feels like she’s getting left behind because she isn’t around fluent signers all the time. My heart hurt for her because she had so much passion that I wanted everyone else in her life to see that too. So when she begins to create a song for Blue 55 after learning about the whale in science class I couldn’t help but cheer her on as she began to make unlikely friends along her journey. I think that this book is a perfect one to help young readers begin to step into the shoes of those that have different abilities to their own. Being deaf does not define a person and I really enjoyed that Kelly fully made Iris her own person because that will help readers understand that too.

One of my favorite things about this book was that not only was it a story of belonging but it was also one of healing. Before the events of this story took place, Iris lost her grandfather. So on top of everything she was navigating her grief for one of the few people that fully accepted her as she was. Her grandmother was grieving the loss of her husband and life long companion and I loved seeing the support and hope she had for Iris. She stepped up for her granddaughter and ended up beginning to move with her grief as well. As they both opened up to each other and the outside world I was really proud of both characters for being so strong.

This is a very character driven book. Interspersed between a few of Iris’s chapters were some written from the perspective of Blue 55. They were moving and brought me hope that the two would be able to interact in some way before the story ended. I loved how Kelly tied the passion Iris felt for radios to this mission to create a song for a whale. It was unique and I think it added so much to the importance for everyone to be able to communicate with those around them. I also thought that it was cool to find so many educational tidbits sprinkled throughout about whales and whale song. It was well worth the read and whether you’re hearing or deaf I couldn’t recommend this book more.

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

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // IndieBound (to find a local indie to shop through!)

And with that, I’m signing off for the day. I’ll talk to you all in my next post!

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