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A Love Letter to Queer & Questioning Teens & A Deep Look at Finding Your Own Identity: Review of Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie

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

Happy (belated) book birthday to Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie!

I was lucky enough to get an e-ARC of this amazing book and I have to say, it was probably my favorite book of 2021. I really hope that you’ll read my review and if you haven’t already been interested in picking this book up, that you’ll consider it now!

Ophelia After All
Image: Cover of Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie

Sidenote: I think this cover is so pretty! The colors are perfect and I love the subtle details, like Ophelia’s freckles. I will absolutely be getting a physical copy of this as soon as I’m able because I want this book on my shelves.

Summary

Ophelia Rojas knows what she likes: her best friends, Cuban food, rose-gardening, and boys – way too many boys. Her friends and parents make fun of her endless stream of crushes, but Ophelia is a romantic at heart. She couldn’t change, even if she wanted to.

So when she finds herself thinking more about cute, quiet Talia Sanchez than the loss of a perfect prom with her ex-boyfriend, seeds of doubt take root in Ophelia’s firm image of herself. Add to that the impending end of high school and the fracturing of her once-solid friend group, and things are spiraling a little out of control. But the course of love–and sexuality–never did run smooth. As her secrets begin to unravel, Ophelia must make a choice between clinging to the fantasy version of herself she’s always imagined or upending everyone’s expectations to rediscover who she really is, after all.

Review

If I could go back in time and give my teenage self one book, it would be this one. Ophelia After All is a stunning debut from Racquel Marie that I would recommend to queer and questioning kids everywhere. This is a book about growing up and learning how to accept yourself with grace and heart.

Following Ophelia in the lead up to prom and the end of her senior school year, she begins to wrestle with the feelings that she’s having for another girl. She has a fantastic group of friends and a close family but as she feels more and more inner turmoil she begins to find the relationships around her on the rocks. She struggles but she grows and in doing so this book reveals a really beautiful message of hope in confusing times. I truly loved every second of this book.

I found myself relating so much to Ophelia as she finds herself stuck feeling like she has to stay in this role she has always been in. She’s “boy crazy” Ophelia and along with the other attributes that her friends and family have assigned to her over the years, when she realizes that things might be changing she doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t want to let anyone down which is something that I think many people will be able to relate to. All of a sudden, Ophelia feels like she isn’t enough in every aspect. From her typical crush behavior, to even how she interacts with cultural aspects of her family. She feels like she’s floating at the edge of it all and for a high schooler who is about to hit adulthood and college, it quickly overwhelmed her. This is such a realistic story that weaves together friendship, family, and teenage emotions and it will hit close to home for many. Identity is confusing enough as it is, throw in feeling like you aren’t going to live up to the expectations that other people might have for you and it’s all too easy to feel like everything is going to fall apart around you.

The plot of Ophelia After All was unexpected and yet the messages that were laced throughout give a lasting impression. It’s hopeful and inspiring and I think that it will be a starting point for any number of young adults who find themselves lost. This is organic and full of the most satisfying friendships I’ve read in a long while. The connections between every character were so strong and I felt like I knew them all to their depths. As every aspect shifted and Ophelia slowly started to find her footing again, I was overwhelmed with how much I loved every single one of the characters in this book. They felt so real and I loved seeing how they all interacted with each other and how friendships and relationships fell apart and developed throughout the course of the story. I really appreciated that this plot took a different turn than I was expecting it to and I think that Racquel made all the right decisions with Ophelia. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop gushing about this book!

Now, I remember being in high school and maybe even younger and realizing that things felt different sometimes. Thinking back on that time of my life, I often wish that I would have been kinder to myself, but that’s something that I’m still working on as an adult. I’ve always said I was thankful for Tumblr because even though it is a hellsite for so many reasons, it helped me learn a lot about myself. It’s where I found out about asexuality and got to see many people post openly about their own identities. That being said, I would have appreciated to have a book like this in my life back then. Ophelia After All is raw and honest and it depicts a realistic story about wrestling with self-doubt and self-acceptance. I hope that young adults and adults alike will be able to pick this book up and find a message that supports and encourages them. I really can’t recommend it enough.

This was an easy five stars from me!

For every queer or questioning kid, this is a love letter to you and I hope that you find some solace in these pages in the same way that I did.

To add the book to your Goodreads, I’ve linked it here.

And if you’d like to pick up a copy of your own, you can find it at the following links:

Bookshop // Barnes & Noble // Libro.fm // Book Depository // Kobo

Other Places You Can Find Me

My Goodreads is linked here.

Twitter: @nihilisticactus

Readerly: @sideofadventure

For review requests/inquiries: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

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

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Books Reviews

A Wholesome Holiday Novella: Review of Wrapped Up in You by Talia Hibbert Review

I actually have another post about a Talia Hibbert book coming up soon but I had to get this one posted before Christmas had passed so just ignore that these are posted out of order please and thanks 😉

Oh! And Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating and happy Saturday to everyone!

Wrapped Up in You
Image: Cover of Wrapped Up in You by Talia Hibbert

Synopsis

William Reid is nothing special, except for his billion-dollar acting career and his, you know, face. (Apparently, it’s a good one.) Winning ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ was nice, but this Christmas, he has more important goals in mind… like finally winning over his best friend’s little sister, the super-smart and kinda-scary Abbie Farrell.

When a blizzard leaves Will and Abbie alone at Grandma Farrell’s house (if bunking with 27 pets counts as ‘alone’), it’s the perfect opportunity to pull off a Christmas miracle. Convincing clever, frosty Abbie to give Will a chance will take more than mistletoe, but hiding his lifelong crush on her is no longer an option.

Review

Okay, I want to start this off by saying that I think the synopsis doesn’t quite represent what this story is about. There is a blizzard but it plays into the story a lot less than I expected it to and I assumed that they would be the only characters at Abbie’s Grandma’s house but they aren’t!

Now, with that being said, I adored this novella. Abbie and Will were such a cute pairing and I wish I could have seen more of them. I do think that this could have (and maybe should have) been a full length novel but I did enjoy the story that we were given. There was a depth that I wasn’t expecting and while I loved that aspect, I would have loved it even more if we had been able to see it play out in a longer narrative.

Abbie and Will (and Abbie’s twin brother) have been best friends since childhood and when returning to the UK for Christmas, Will has a hairbrained scheme to get Abbie to fall for him. Will had moved to the US to work as an actor in a Captain America type role. He’s got the personality of a golden retriever and his crush on Abbie was endearing. Abbie has become jaded to romance after having removed herself from an abusive marriage years prior. This was a slow burn back and forth between the pair as they both try to communicate to each other what they’re feeling and why.

I enjoyed the honesty that this couple had. It was nice seeing how Will did what he could to reassure Abbie that his feelings were true and that he cared about her and never wanted to do anything that could hurt her. To give her peace of mind after everything that she had been through was a priority for him and he was willing to have whatever type of relationship with her that she would allow. That was really lovely to see, that he was willing to set aside his own feelings in order to make her comfortable.

Following Abbie and Will as they were the first two to arrive at Grandma Farrell’s house, I found so many parts of this story humorous as they danced around each other. Another reason that I wish this would have been a novel is because I wanted to see more of the family interactions. Books where families are close are some of my favorites and I especially love eccentric grandmas which is exactly what Abbie’s was.

Wrapped Up In You was a cozy and sweet holiday romance novella and I enjoyed every second of it. With a lovely friends to lovers plot and some healthy doses of comedy I highly recommend this read. I would have enjoyed a longer version especially considering this was a slow burn but it was a story I’ll come back to again and again for some cozy feelings. I rated it five stars.

Place You Can Get the Book

You can add Wrapped Up in You on Goodreads here.

And this is a Kobo original and you can find the e-book linked here.

Other Places You Can Find Me

Twitter: @nihilisticactus

Readerly: @sideofadventure

For review requests/inquiries: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

To add me on Goodreads, or follow my reviews there, my profile is linked here.

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

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The GrumpyxSunshine Holiday Romance That Made This Grinch’s Heart Grow: Review of The Mistletoe Motive by Chloe Liese

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Roy Kent from Ted Lasso and Jessica Day from New Girl ran a bookstore together? Well, you’re in luck because The Mistletoe Motive by Chloe Liese is exactly that story.

The Mistletoe Motive
Image: Cover of The Mistletoe Motive by Chloe Liese

Synopsis

He loathes the holidays. She loves them. She’s full of festive cheer. He’s brimming with Bah, Humbugs. Besides unreasonably seasonable names, the only thing Jonathan Frost and Gabriella Di Natale have in common is a healthy dose of mutual contempt. Well, that and the same place of employment at the city’s most beloved independent bookstore, Bailey’s Bookshop. But when the store’s owners confess its dire financial state, Jonathan and Gabby discover another unfortunate commonality: the imminent threat of unemployment.

With the Baileys’ requests to minimize expenses, win new customers, and make record sales dancing in their heads, Jonathan and Gabby conclude—barring a financial Christmas miracle—one of them will soon be cut from the payroll. Neither are willing to step down from their position, so they strike a bargain: whoever has more sales in December gets to stay on in the new year; the loser will resign. With a lifetime’s worth of festive tricks up her sleeve, Gabby should easily outsell her nemesis, except the unreadable Mr. Frost’s every move seems purely designed to throw her off her game.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Gabby’s deceptive ex won’t quit pursuing her, and her anonymous online friend suggests they take a break. Worst of all, as the pressure mounts to save the bookshop and her job, Gabby meets a new, tender side of Jonathan. Is this the same man she’s called her cold-hearted enemy?

Maybe he’s got a motive she just can’t figure out—or maybe Jonathan Frost isn’t as chilly as she once thought. Maybe Jonathan and Gabby already know—and love—each other in ways they never thought possible.

Review

I’m a self-proclaimed Grinch. There are aspects of the holidays that I enjoy (ugly Christmas sweaters for one) but overall I always end up super grumpy when Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around. Usually I avoid any sort of holiday centered media but this year I decided I wanted to give some holiday romances a try. I’d seen a tweet about this novella, summarizing The Mistletoe Motive as a grumpyxsunshine couple and likening the pair to Roy Kent and Jessica Day. Now it might be because I just binged almost all of Ted Lasso and am also in the midst of rewatching New Girl but I said “bah humbug spirit, who?” and immediately bought the book. I then proceeded to read the entire thing in one sitting when I couldn’t sleep the night before one of my finals.

Jonathan and Gabby are a force to be reckoned with. The chemistry between them was instantly palpable and I knew that I was in for a fun read. I’ll admit, this book was cheesy as hell but I think that added to my enjoyment. It’s been a while since I’ve felt the type of warm and fuzzy feelings that this book gave me and I loved every minute of it. Gabby is autistic as well as demisexual and I liked seeing how these aspects of her life tied into the overall story. It was funny seeing how she was absolutely baffled by this attraction that she was feeling to Jonathan even though, from an outside perspective, it was obvious how much they were meant for each other.

Another aspect to this was Gabby’s own inner struggle with interpersonal interactions and her nerves over revealing that she was autistic to Jonathan. These nerves really hit home with me as I saw myself reflected in some of her thoughts. It can be terrifying telling someone that you potentially have feelings for about something personal that could end up changing their entire view of you. And adding in on top of that the ease with which one could misread social cues I could completely understand why Gabby reacted the way that she did time and time again throughout the novella.

The more that Jonathan and Gabby communicated with each and got more comfortable with each other, the more that my heart absolutely ached for them. This was a painful slow burn and I mean that in the best way possible. It was clear that Jonathan cared about Gabby because even though he was grumpy to the max, he would do so many little things that displayed how well he knew her. Like remembering her coffee shop order. One thing that always gets to me in romances is either main character simply remembering small things about the other. It makes me melt every single time!

Other things that I really enjoyed about this were the inclusion of hockey in the plot and the side plot “mistaken identity” of the internet love interest. I love hockey so this was just fun even though it was a really minor part of the story. I also absolutely love books where the characters are unaware of the fact that the anonymous person they’ve been interacting with online is the person that they’re falling for in real life. It’s one of my favorite tropes so I loved that this was part of this story.

Overall I absolutely adored The Mistletoe Motive. It was so cheesy but I loved every second of it. I finished my marathon one sitting read with so many warm and fuzzy feelings that I almost wanted to immediately reread it. If you’re looking for a quick read with a bookstore setting and some good old holiday cheer with a grumpyxsunshine couple I highly recommend this book. I rated it five stars.

Image: White cup of coffee photographed from above on solid bright yellow background. Overlaid on the coffee cup are five white stars

You can add The Mistletoe Motive on Goodreads here.

And if you’re interested in buying it, this is a Kobo original so that’s the one place you can find it. The link to that is here.

Other Places To Find Me

Twitter: nihilisticactus

Readerly: sideofadventure

Add me on Goodreads (or follow my reviews there), profile linked here.

For review requests/inquiries: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

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

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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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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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Book Review: We Used to Be Friends by Amy Spalding

*** ARC was provided by NetGalley in exchange for honest review ***

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years it’s that relationships end. Romances, friendships, even acquaintances will fizzle, fade, or sometimes unluckily go out with an explosion.

Click the cover to head to the Goodreads page!

I’m not great with relationships of any kind and when I first read the synopsis for We Used to be Friends by Amy Spalding my heart hurt. It follows James and Kat, a best friend duo that met in kindergarten, as their friendship changes (and fizzles) over the course of their senior year of high school.

The pair are personality opposites but they’ve made it work. They’ve navigated life changes and growing up together and it seems like nothing could have broken them apart. The book opens with a chapter from James as she leaves for college and then the story unfolds in alternating chapters and storylines. James narrates her senior year from end to beginning and Kat from beginning to end. If you’ve ever seen the movie or musical The Last Five Years this book has the same sort of format!!

This was an easy five stars for me and I genuinely wish I had this story back in high school. It was extremely cathartic and had me reflecting quite a bit about a friendship that I had back in high school that reminded me a bit of Kat and James. I felt broken at times while reading this but I honestly appreciated being able to read a story from two perspectives because it reminded me that no friendship is one-sided and an ending friendship doesn’t necessarily stem from solely the faults of one person.

As a high schooler, especially a senior, you can feel on top of the world. Your future is bright and everything seems possible. Being a teenager is one of the easiest and hardest things to be because you can have your whole life laid out ahead of you and be none the wiser to all the changes that are going to occur. Growing up is intense and navigating the transition between high school and college can throw many obstacles in one’s path. James is a planner and thought nothing would change her 15 year plan and unexpected events in her family end up throwing her into a new mindset that she’s never had to deal with before. As her life falls apart she turns inward and begins to catastrophize the choices that she’s made and wants to make. In contrast, Kat is a bit of an eternal optimist, especially in regards to the people in her own life. She’s hesitant and anxious when it comes to changes but in the end all she wants is the best for anyone.

Despite being inexplicably linked, Kat and James were quite unique. Their approaches to navigating obstacles and changes were not only realistic but helped to illustrate how easy it is to allow differences to get in the way of friendships. Over the course of the book, Kat sees things falling together while James sees things in her life falling apart. The choices and events occurring in each of their lives caused a schism and the pair grew apart as neither girl truly acknowledged that they were both changing. Growing up is different for everyone and without realizing it, you can find yourself growing quickly apart from those “best friends for life”.

Kat and James are a bit of personality opposites, similar enough to make it work but when outside circumstances begin to come in between them it begins to cause a schism that ultimately changes their relationship entirely. Kat is a bit of an eternal optimist, using this to compete with anxiety about changes she experiences. James, on the other hand, experiences unexpected changes and ends up catastrophizing the events which leads to even more unexpected changes. As a teenager it’s easy to wish the best for life and to think that you have everything figured out. Being a senior can give you that invincible high on life feeling and having to accept the open endedness of the future is a struggle. It doesn’t help that high schoolers are immature, even those seniors that think they have it all figured out! When you begin to get caught up in your own issues, you can lose sight of what’s going on around you, often to the point of neglecting things you shouldn’t. I could see how people might look at Kat and James and see two immature girls and a very mismatched pair but friendship when you’re young is as easy as spending all your time together. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of effort if you’re lucky enough to go to the same school or live nearby. But being mismatched is what ended up leading to issues and that’s something that happens in many high school friendships.

Having a friendship end at any age is hard but when you’re in high school when things change with a “best friend for life” it can be absolutely heartbreaking. One of my favorite things about We Used to Be Friends was how open ended so many aspects of it were. Reminiscent of life itself it drove home for me the fact that there are no guarantees and there is always a chance for things to change. We want happy endings, we want things to turn out perfect, we want all of our plans to work out but that’s not something that we’re promised. This was a touching and realistic novel about growing up. It navigates those relationship changes and allows the reader to reflect on the choices that each character made. Friendships are a two way street and when you accumulate so many years with someone it’s easy to assume that nothing will ever get in the way of many more years. We might not all get the chance to reconcile or have the ability to make different choices. To put it frankly, losing friends SUCKS and this book illustrated an almost grieving process between a best friend duo. This is one of my new favorites and an easy five star rating at that. A highly cathartic read for anyone who has found themselves in a changing friendship I couldn’t recommend this more!

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Books Reviews

Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

This post may contain spoilers…

My Dark Vanessa

Synopsis:

Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood.

Rating:

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Review:

After completing this book, I was so numb I forgot how to cry. I crawled under my blankets in my bed and stared out the window as I watched the sky grow dark. To say this book was powerful is an understatement, at least in my opinion. I knew that it would be triggering, I knew it would be painful, and it was, incredibly so, but in the end I have nothing to say but praise for this novel.

As I mentioned, this is triggering and if you’ve read the synopsis you could probably garner that as well. The entire story stems from an incredibly abusive sexual relationship that has been created between main character Vanessa and her teacher Mr. Strane. When it comes to my own personal triggers, I’m not usually effected strongly by things that I read, my triggers tend to come from real life scenarios instead but this book hit me so hard in some portions that I had to take hours long breaks in order to feel fine enough to begin reading again. So if you are sensitive, I would highly suggest steering clear of this book. It is strong and it is dark and I just wanted to caution those of you that might be looking for something in depth with the trigger warnings.

This story was utterly haunting and a complete masterpiece that will follow me for years to come. Russell has written a complex and dark story that follows main character Vanessa as she navigates the lifelong consequences of an abusive manipulative sexual relationship with her former teacher. It is powerful and does so well at going into the lasting psychological damage that can be done to a person that has been placed in this situation.

The novel is broken into sections from the past, set in 2000 when Vanessa is in high school and then in 2017 when Vanessa is an adult. There are also a few chapters that take place while Vanessa is in college in 2007. It is intriguing to see how the story unfolds between these time periods and I think that the nonlinear chapter layout only helps to illustrate just how strongly the abuse that Vanessa endured burrows itself into her entire psyche.

I’ve seen a few reviews in which people have a critique over the story being repetitive and I agree, it is, but that’s exactly how it needed to be written to illustrate what was going on. Vanessa had her entire life taken from her because of Mr. Strane. He changed her memories, changed her behavior, he dug himself into every corner of her life and completely changed her. This is a story that happens to many. Abuse is repetitive. That’s exactly how abusers maintain their control. The repetitive nature is exactly why this story is so important. It’s not a one time offense, it’s not an obvious catastrophic “event”, it’s years of psychological manipulation and gas lighting and coercion. It’s seeing Vanessa’s entire life fall short in front of her eyes as she realizes that everything she has ever experienced is nothing like she had once imagined it to be.

The complexities of Vanessa’s own thoughts are hard to delve into, to see herself so strongly defend her former teacher, to so strongly believe what she was taught to believe. It’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating. And I can only hope that this story will get into the hands of people who need it. That as years go on, more people will find strength in their stories both fiction and not.

As a final thought, I have also seen people express disappointment at the ending and I can see where people could imagine this story taking a different direction than where it ends up. But I applaud Russell for how she wrote the ending. People can find power in simplicity, in finding the strength to start to mend from their broken pasts. Healing and change isn’t instantaneous, it is not the social media posts, the protests, the yelling and the crying, the complete 180’s in lifestyle. It can be this, but healing can be quiet. It can be healing relationships with those that you lost while you were trapped, it can be finding companionship in a new pet, or a new person. It is therapy and medication and spending weeks upon weeks asking yourself “what would my life look like if I had chosen a different path… If I hadn’t made this choice.” Healing is different for every single person that has gone through abuse or trauma. I mean the book illustrates that very clearly. Compare how Vanessa has lived her life compared to Taylor, the girl who publicly accuses Strane. Life is lived differently by everyone and I felt like the ending showed just a sliver of hope for Vanessa and that’s exactly what I needed to see.

Have hope. Find strength. Learn and live.

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Books Reviews

Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Can we all just be excited for a second at the fact that my most anticipated book of the year lived up to my own personal hype??

I’ve only read one of Leigh Bardugo’s young adult books, the first book in the Grisha trilogy, and it was right around the time when it was first released and I didn’t really love it. I’ve had no interest in reading any of her other books up until now and when I first read the synopsis for Ninth House I was immediately like “YES, I NEED TO READ THIS”

I like dark stories and oh boy, did this deliver on that. I’m going to say what everyone is saying about this book: it is an adult book and should be categorized as such. This is a very, very dark adult book and is not suitable content for younger readers.

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Before I get into my review, here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Like I had said at the beginning of the post, this was my most anticipated read of the year. I got nervous as I started to see more and more reviews of people reading this and rating it lower than anticipated and I kept stopping myself from starting it because I didn’t want to be disappointed. Luckily, in the end, I was so far from disappointed, I rated this 5 stars.

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This book was a behemoth and I read it over the course of about three days. Each chapter title gives you the time at which the events in the chapter are taking place. “Winter” and “fall/late fall” were the main ones and the perspective switched between our main character, Alex, and Darlington, Alex’s mentor in Lethe. Lethe is essentially a group that has been created to be guardians to the secret societies of Yale.

From the get go, I connected with Alex and her struggle with being a survivor. The fight for life and for survival is something I relate to deeply and it was emotional to see how strong she was in order to do anything. I also really enjoyed reading from both her and Darlington’s perspectives in order to get a more in depth view of the story. I personally felt like if we had only followed Alex, that we never would’ve learned some of the things that Darlington shared in his chapters.

I genuinely wish that I would have kept a tally of how many times I said “oh my god” or “wtf” while reading this because it was lot. Some parts of the book I totally saw coming, but others blew my mind. I think that I can say that I am a big fan of paranormal/fantasy type thrillers because unlike thrillers that take place in “real life” basically anything can happen. We can get those big twists and shocks because literally anything could happen. This whole book had me turning the next page thinking “what could possibly happen next?” It was compelling and devious and I adored it.

A lot of the reviews I’ve seen are from people who thought that this book was boring, or at least the first half was boring. I felt like this book was chock full of information but to me, it felt balanced. If it had all been jam packed with action, I think it would have been overwhelming. But with less action and more exposition, it would have been too dry. There really wasn’t any point in this that I felt like I wanted to skip sections or chapters because I genuinely wanted to see what every page had in store. If you’re looking for a simple read, this probably isn’t for you! It’s full of names and stories and is so layered that it takes a lot of brain power to really engross yourself in it. But let me tell you, it is well worth it if you like dark adult fantasy.

So when it comes to recommending this, I want to preface this with this book is really disturbing at times. One scene in particular made me physically gag and many others left me feeling drained. It was dark, definitely not quite what I expected, but in the end I was left with overwhelming hope for this group of characters that had been beaten down and broken more times than I could count. I adored the characters in this book, flaws and all and I genuinely can’t wait to get my hands on book two. But please be careful when picking up this book and if you are interested in content warnings I’ll have those at the end of the review.

I think that if you’re a fan of dark stuff, give this a try. If you like a unique cast of characters and a wild story, pick this up.

If you’re interested in purchasing a copy, you can find it here.

Content warnings:

Sexual assault (child rape and date rape), murder, gore, drug abuse, drowning, death, suicide, forced consumption of human waste. 

 

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Books Reviews

Review: The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

As is the case with so many of the books that I review, I got this at my library! I was super pumped that they had it and even more pumped that it had no wait time. 36478784._SY475_

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary takes quite the unique twist on the “there’s only one bed” romance trope.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Tiffy and Leon share a flat
Tiffy and Leon share a bed
Tiffy and Leon have never met…

Tiffy Moore needs a cheap flat, and fast. Leon Twomey works nights and needs cash. Their friends think they’re crazy, but it’s the perfect solution: Leon occupies the one-bed flat while Tiffy’s at work in the day, and she has the run of the place the rest of the time.

But with obsessive ex-boyfriends, demanding clients at work, wrongly imprisoned brothers and, of course, the fact that they still haven’t met yet, they’re about to discover that if you want the perfect home you need to throw the rulebook out the window…

This book has been a bit hyped up and I was hesitant to start reading it as I haven’t had the best rapport with hyped up books this year. By the end of it though I was pleasantly surprised with how much I had enjoyed it! I actually rated it 5 stars!

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Tiffy and Leon were such distinctively different characters and one of my favorite things about the book was how vastly different the writing styles were between their chapters. It gave them both a unique voice and it seriously made the book for me. When there are more than one narrator in a book I will sometimes get mixed up with who is speaking and this kept them so separate that I never got them mixed up.

I think that all the branched off plot lines in this actually held weight within the story which is not often the case in romance novels. Though I would have loved to see more with Leon’s patients, Holly and Mr. Prior, just because I adored them. Each portion of the felt tied up by the end and I was left feeling satisfied overall.

The characters were unique but not overly done which I really appreciated. I feel like it’s far too easy for side characters in romance books to fall into stereotypical roles. From the beginning I was a bit worried with the introduction of Kay but she ended up being so minor that I kind of just brushed my thoughts of her to the side (I could say a lot about her but I think I’ll refrain from doing so).

One of my personal favorite parts of this book was Tiffy’s job! She works as an editor for craft books and one of her clients crochets and knits and it honestly brought me so much joy to read all those parts. DIY should be included in more books.

I also really enjoyed the romance in this. Seeing the relationship between Tiffy and Leon unfold between notes left around the flat was perfect. I’m a big fan of unconventional relationships like this! Leon has a good chance of being my new favorite love interest. He was so gentle, sweet, and caring and I quite enjoyed reading his chapters (this is definitely not always the case when it comes to dual perspectives with males and females). He was so respectful and just genuine, loved him.

Minor spoilers ahead in terms of trigger warnings and discussing those plots points:

As a warning there is a stalking abusive ex in this book and if you are at all triggered by stuff like that I would probably pass on this book. I felt that the author handled this quite well and this is coming from someone who has been in an emotionally abusive relationship similar to the one Tiffy had been in. By putting her in therapy I felt that was one good step forward but I also felt like this didn’t completely lean in to the whole “love can fix everything”. Tiffy was still uncomfortable with falling into a new relationship but still felt more secure with her new relationship. I don’t know, it just felt good to me.

This was such an unexpected joy to read. It had me feeling all warm and fuzzy by the end and I really want to get my own copy so that I can read it whenever I want to. If you’re looking for a sweet slow-burn with a very happy ending, I would definitely recommend this to you!

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Books Reviews

Mini Reviews: Sheets & Ghosts

Found out a very important thing when I was at the library the other day… All the good graphic novels are in the kids section!!! I’ve been going to this library for my entire life (I still have my original library card with my barely legible childhood signature) and once I moved up to the YA and adult sections I kind of stopped going to the children’s section. But now that my brothers are old enough to be getting into chapter books, I’ve started to venture into the middle grade section more and more. For one, it’s super fun to reminisce over all of the books that I recognize over the years, but also I’ver realized that there are so many good books that I’ve wanted to read that are hidden over there!

The graphic novel section in the YA part of my library holds almost exclusively manga (which I’ve never really gotten into) so I was super excited when I went to get my brother a graphic novel from the kids section and I stumbled upon Sheets by Brenna Thummler and Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier! I read them both in one night and was surprised that they carried pretty similar themes so I’ve decided to group them together in this post to review!

So first off is Sheets by Brenna Thummler. This book follows a girl named Marjorie. She’s thirteen and is not only navigating the difficulties of school (boys and P.E. are stressful, definitely relatable) but she’s also running her family’s laundry business completely on her own. Now take in the fact that a ghost named Wendell is starting to cause problems behind the scenes of the store and a conniving “businessman” that’s trying to take the business out from under them this story dives a lot deeper than I ever expected it to.

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First off, I want to say that the artwork in this is stunning. The colors are absolutely gorgeous. I mean look at these!

 

And apart from that, the story is great. The parts with the rude customers hurt my heart but were so highly realistic (and this is coming from someone who works at a dry cleaners so it was very relatable). This book was about healing and growing. While both Marjorie and Wendell have experienced death in one way or another (Marjorie lost her mom and Wendell himself is dead) it was touching to see how they grew into themselves as the story progressed. This was incredibly different than I expected it to be from when I’ve heard people talk about it but I absolutely loved it all the same.

Now the second graphic novel I read was Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier. Raina is a favorite author of mine and I was really excited to finally be able to read this. Ghosts is about a girl named Catrina (Cat) and her sister, Maya. Maya has Cystic Fibrosis (CF) so their family is moving to a coastal town in order to try and see if the sea air will help her lungs. After moving, the sisters find out that there is more to the little coastal town than meets the eye. Spoiler alert: It’s ghosts 😉

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This book was also a lot deeper than I expected it to be and there were a few scenes that got me tearing up. It was a really touching story about a town that embraces those that have died and celebrates their ghosts as they come back. A lot of this story centered around Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and the town enjoying their time with those that have passed away.

I read a number of reviews that I found myself disagreeing with because in the end, I don’t think that this book was supposed to be a history lesson. It was a story in which two girls were trying to learn how to come to terms with the fact that one them is sick. Now CF is slowly becoming less and less of a fatal disease, but it is a lifelong illness that people have to deal with. No matter how much the technology improves, there’s still a chance that someone could die. I mean I closely followed Claire Wineland‘s journey on Youtube while she tried to get a lung transplant and then she ended up passing away from a stroke that was caused by a blood clot after having a successful transplant. The scene in Ghosts where Maya asks Cat if she would be scared of her ghost if she died tore me up inside. And that’s what this story is about. It’s about seeing the inevitability of death and understanding that we can be scared of it, but that doesn’t mean that we have to forget about or be saddened by the people we have lost. We can celebrate and cherish our loved ones for as long as we live.

And maybe this story could have done with the Dia de los Muertos aspects (I personally didn’t read into it as much as some reviewers did) but I think that having those allowed the characters to celebrate their heritage and traditions that not everyone gets to learn about.

I thought that this story was great and although it wasn’t my favorite of Raina’s (Smile still takes the cake) I did really enjoy this story!

I gave both of these books 5 stars and I highly recommend them both.

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