Source: eARC via NetGalley

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Review: Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

August 25, 2017 Diversity 4, Reviews 2 ★★★½

Review: Mask of Shadows by Linsey MillerMask of Shadows by Linsey Miller
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 29, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Fantasy
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
Source: eARC via NetGalley, print ARC from Amazon Vine
Goodreads
three-half-stars
Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal Leon steals a poster announcing open auditions for the Left Hand, a powerful collection of the Queen's personal assassins named for the rings she wears -- Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal -- their world changes. They know it's a chance for a new life.

Except the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. But Sal must survive to put their real reason for auditioning into play: revenge.

Diversity Rating: 4 – This Is Our World

Racial-Ethnic: ? (Elise is brown-skinned, there’s a Japan-expy country called Mizuho and some of its people are in the book)
QUILTBAG: 5 (they don’t have the words for any of these identities, but Sal is genderfluid with pronouns depending on Sal’s choice of dress for the day, Elise is either bisexual or pansexual, Ruby skips off with a guy at one point during a party, and there are same-sex relationships all over the place)
Disability: ? (Emerald of the Left Hand is missing an eye)
Intersectionality: ?

(The question marks are because my ebook of Mask of Shadows locked up due to graphic overload and I can’t access any of my notes/highlights. The only category I can completely recall is QUILTBAG, but the book is definitely worthy of a 4 rating.)

Since we heard the words “genderfluid assassin” about this book, pretty much the entire bookish community has been excited for Mask of Shadows. It’s hard enough to get genderfluid characters in contemporary YA, let alone, fantasy YA–and if you want to bring quality into the debate as we always should when discussing the representation of marginalized people, it’s probably going to end with someone crying. I’ve got a few small quibbles with the book, but Mask of Shadows is otherwise a solid debut. Read more »

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Review: Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody

August 18, 2017 Diversity 3, Reviews 2 ★★

Review: Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda FoodyDaughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody
Published by Harlequin Teen on July 25, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Fantasy
Pages: 384
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
two-stars
A darkly irresistible new fantasy set in the infamous Gomorrah Festival, a traveling carnival of debauchery that caters to the strangest of dreams and desires.

Sixteen-year-old Sorina has spent most of her life within the smoldering borders of the Gomorrah Festival. Yet even among the many unusual members of the traveling circus-city, Sorina stands apart as the only illusion-worker born in hundreds of years. This rare talent allows her to create illusions that others can see, feel and touch, with personalities all their own. Her creations are her family, and together they make up the cast of the Festival’s Freak Show.

But no matter how lifelike they may seem, her illusions are still just that—illusions, and not truly real. Or so she always believed…until one of them is murdered.

Desperate to protect her family, Sorina must track down the culprit and determine how they killed a person who doesn’t actually exist. Her search for answers leads her to the self-proclaimed gossip-worker Luca, and their investigation sends them through a haze of political turmoil and forbidden romance, and into the most sinister corners of the Festival. But as the killer continues murdering Sorina’s illusions one by one, she must unravel the horrifying truth before all of her loved ones disappear.

Diversity Rating: 3 – Closer to Reality

Racial-Ethnic: 1
QUILTBAG: 3 (Sorina is bi, one or two of Sorina’s illusions are QUILTBAG, there are plenty of QUILTBAG people in the background; I take issue with Luca’s asexual/demi identity as someone who is asexual)
Disability: 1 (Sorina has no eyes whatsoever but can still see)
Intersectionality: 1

Well, crud. What do I say about Daughter of the Burning City when I’ve already forgotten so much about it as I write this? I’ve gotta review it. Got a review copy, therefore must deliver review if possible–and it’s very possible. It’s just difficult. There’s plenty to like in Foody’s debut novel, but I have some issues too, particularly with Luca’s identity since we fall under the same queer umbrella.

Read more »

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Review: Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu

August 4, 2017 Diversity 2, Reviews 0 ★½

Review: Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer YuFour Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu
Published by Harlequin Teen on May 2, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Pages: 384
Format: ARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
one-half-stars
They're more than their problems

Obsessive-compulsive teen Clarissa wants to get better, if only so her mother will stop asking her if she's okay.

Andrew wants to overcome his eating disorder so he can get back to his band and their dreams of becoming famous.

Film aficionado Ben would rather live in the movies than in reality.

Gorgeous and overly confident Mason thinks everyone is an idiot.

And Stella just doesn't want to be back for her second summer of wilderness therapy.

As the five teens get to know one another and work to overcome the various disorders that have affected their lives, they find themselves forming bonds they never thought they would, discovering new truths about themselves and actually looking forward to the future.

Diversity Rating: 2 – It’s a Start!

Racial-Ethnic: 2 (Clarisa is Asian, but I don’t believe her identity is clarified any further than that)
QUILTBAG: 0
Disability: 3 (Everyone is mentally ill, but not everyone’s mental illness is written well)
Intersectionality: 2

I would have loved attending a camp for mentally ill teens like the one presented in Four Weeks, Five People when I was still a teen. Not the being-mentally-ill part, of course, but spending a couple of weeks in the wilderness learning coping mechanisms and interacting with other kids who understood what I was going through. So how in the world did a story idea I was completely open to go so wrong in Four Weeks, Five People?

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Review: Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

March 17, 2017 Diversity 1, Reviews 1 ★★★★

Review: Letters to the Lost by Brigid KemmererLetters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on April 4, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Pages: 400
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
four-stars
Juliet Young always writes letters to her mother, a world-traveling photojournalist. Even after her mother's death, she leaves letters at her grave. It's the only way Juliet can cope.

Declan Murphy isn't the sort of guy you want to cross. In the midst of his court-ordered community service at the local cemetery, he's trying to escape the demons of his past.

When Declan reads a haunting letter left beside a grave, he can't resist writing back. Soon, he's opening up to a perfect stranger, and their connection is immediate. But neither Declan nor Juliet knows that they're not actually strangers. When life at school interferes with their secret life of letters, sparks will fly as Juliet and Declan discover truths that might tear them apart.

Diversity: 1 – Tokenism

Racial-Ethnic: 1 (Declan’s best friend Rev was adopted by black parents; Declan’s community service supervisor is Hispanic; Juliet’s friend/photography rival has the surname Cho, presumably marking him as Asian)
QUILTBAG: 0
Disability: 0
Intersectionality: 0 (Juliet’s thoughts on the refugees her mom photographed are… ew)

Brigid Kemmerer made her name and developed a cult with her YA paranormal Elementals series, but I still haven’t gotten around to reading my copy of that series’s first book Storm. Funny how I end up reading her foray into YA contemporary first thanks to the TBR jar! Maybe it’s setting me up for disappointment to read an author’s most recent work first and then go backwards, but Letters to the Lost was pretty darn good.

Read more »

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Review: Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

February 6, 2017 Diversity 4, Reviews 0 ★★★★★

Review: Piecing Me Together by Renee WatsonPiecing Me Together by Renee Watson
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on February 14, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Pages: 272
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
five-stars
A timely and powerful story about a teen girl from a poor neighborhood striving for success, from acclaimed author Renée Watson.

Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.

But Jade doesn’t need support. And just because her mentor is black doesn’t mean she understands Jade. And maybe there are some things Jade could show these successful women about the real world and finding ways to make a real difference.

Friendships, race, privilege, identity—this compelling and thoughtful story explores the issues young women face.

Diversity Rating: 4 – This Is Our World

Racial-Ethnic: 5 (the vast majority of the cast is black)
QUILTBAG: 0
Disability: 0
Intersectionality: 5 (the book is 100% focused on the realities of black girlhood; Jade’s family is also extremely poor to the point of barely getting by)

To a class of creative writing students, half of whom were Those Guys and cited Hemingway as one of their favorite writers, I described Renee Watson’s 2016 novel This Side of Home as “a punch in the face–in a good way.” Saying I’m a big fan of what Watson writes? THAT WOULD BE AN UNDERSTATEMENT. But as much as I loved Watson’s debut, I think I love Piecing Me Together even more. Read more »

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Review: Underwater by Marisa Reichardt

April 29, 2016 Diversity 1, Reviews 0 ★★

Review: Underwater by Marisa ReichardtUnderwater by Marisa Reichardt
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux on January 12, 2016
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Pages: 288
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
two-stars
“Forgiving you will allow me to forgive myself.”

Morgan didn’t mean to do anything wrong that day. Actually, she meant to do something right. But her kind act inadvertently played a role in a deadly tragedy. In order to move on, Morgan must learn to forgive—first someone who did something that might be unforgivable, and then herself.

But Morgan can’t move on. She can’t even move beyond the front door of the apartment she shares with her mother and little brother. Morgan feels like she’s underwater, unable to surface. Unable to see her friends. Unable to go to school.

When it seems Morgan can’t hold her breath any longer, a new boy moves in next door. Evan reminds her of the salty ocean air and the rush she used to get from swimming. He might be just what she needs to help her reconnect with the world outside.

Diversity Rating: 1 – Tokenism

Racial-Ethnic: 1 (Evan is Native Hawaiian)
QUILTBAG: 0
Disability: 2 (Morgan is deeply agoraphobic; her father is an alcoholic)
Intersectionality: 0

Contemporary YA has somehow become My Thing despite my preference for the paranormal. It took looking through my reading of the past 2-3 years to realize it, honestly! It can run the gamut from formulaic to genuine to everything in between and beyond and it generally has an easier time than genre fiction (paranormal, sci-fi, etc.) Underwater is the kind of contemp YA that puts me in a reading funk. It just doesn’t feel real. Read more »

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Review: The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

April 7, 2016 Diversity 0, Reviews 0 ★★★½

Review: The Darkest Corners by Kara ThomasThe Darkest Corners by Kara Taylor, Kara Thomas
Published by Delacorte Press on April 19, 2016
Genres: Mystery, YA, YA Thriller
Pages: 336
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Goodreads
three-half-stars
The Darkest Corners is a psychological thriller about the lies little girls tell, and the deadly truths those lies become.

There are ghosts around every corner in Fayette, Pennsylvania. Tessa left when she was nine and has been trying ever since not to think about it after what happened there that last summer. Memories of things so dark will burn themselves into your mind if you let them.

Callie never left. She moved to another house, so she doesn’t have to walk those same halls, but then Callie always was the stronger one. She can handle staring into the faces of her demons—and if she parties hard enough, maybe one day they’ll disappear for good.

Tessa and Callie have never talked about what they saw that night. After the trial, Callie drifted and Tessa moved, and childhood friends just have a way of losing touch.

But ever since she left, Tessa has had questions. Things have never quite added up. And now she has to go back to Fayette—to Wyatt Stokes, sitting on death row; to Lori Cawley, Callie’s dead cousin; and to the one other person who may be hiding the truth.

Only the closer Tessa gets to the truth, the closer she gets to a killer—and this time, it won’t be so easy to run away.

Diversity Rating: 0 – What Diversity?

Racial-Ethnic: 0
QUILTBAG: 0
Disability: 0
Intersectionality: 0

In my spare time, I read about things like the OJ Simpson case or general unsolved mysteries while crime documentaries and docudramas play in the background. Maybe Forensic Files will be on instead if I can’t find a program or documentary to my liking at the time. In other words, I’m a massive true crime junkie. The author proved herself to me with her Prep School Confidential series (written as Kara Taylor), so combined with the premise, of course I was going to read The Darkest Corners. It is a fantastic read, but I’m a bit disappointed as well.

Fellow true crime junkie will find catnip and callbacks to infamous cases on every page. A clear West Memphis Three inspiration, a Serial and Making a Murderer-esque national obsession with finding the truth behind the Ohio River Monster’s identity, a major plot point I can’t discuss because SPOILERS,… Were the Ohio River Monster and the associated murders real, I have no doubt whatsoever that the nation and our central characters would be exactly as obsessed as Taylor writes them. She nails the small-town vibe perfectly and makes Fayette, Pennsylvania one of the most vivid settings I’ve read in a while.

Tessa and Callie’s dynamic as former friends, decisive co-witnesses in the Monster’s conviction, and two girls badly hurt by their part in the case is utterly fantastic as they run into red herring after red herring and try to get comfortable with one another again. The lack of romance is refreshing too! I’d like to headcanon Tessa as aromantic asexual like me because she comes off as more disinterested than simply not thinking about it, but I don’t like to do that. Imagining my identity on other characters just hurts me and obscures how much representation I actually have.

ANYWAY. Here begins the criticism.

Tessa is a very bland narrator from the very start. Her one standout trait is that she’s so obsessed with the Ohio River Monster case that you wonder if she’s hiding something more than “I didn’t actually see his face, the police badgered me into saying I did.” Spoiler alert that’s not actually a spoiler: she’s not. She’s written right along the lines of an unreliable narrator but isn’t one. If it gets in your head early on that she’s unreliable, throw it out because you’re thinking too hard from reading more expertly crafted thrillers. I fell in that trap too.

The novel is full of twists and turns to keep readers wondering what the truth is alongside Tessa and Callie, but a mix of my experience and overly clear clues led to me calling quite a few twists I wasn’t supposed to. An incredibly weak ending didn’t make me feel much better.

The last chapter or two are exposition-heavy and spent solely on wrapping up every single loose end in one of the most unsubtle ways I’ve ever seen. At the end of a thriller, we’re all going to get stuck with a little bit of boring exposition to explain what happened afterward. Still, I’ve seen it done much better than this. Even in a book, not every plot thread will be wrapped up because life doesn’t work that way. There’s a character we’ll never learn the truth about, for instance. One event that can’t quite be explained. The Darkest Corners answers every possible question, leaving nothing for readers’ brains to stick to. As quickly as someone finishes reading, the book will already be out of mind and on its way to be forgotten.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still an deeply absorbing novel. I read it in a single day with my feet propped up on pillows with a view of the Las Vegas Strip from my hotel room window. But I’ve read mystery-riddled thrillers with much more honed craft–and two I can think of came from Thomas herself when she wrote as Kara Taylor. I know she can writer much tighter works, so I’m a bit disappointed. Oh well! I still recommend The Darkest Corners as well as her Prep School Confidential series if you haven’t read those books. For real, read that series. It’s great!

Spring Bingo 8 The Darkest Corners

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