Today I have a couple of mini-reviews for ARCs I recently finished. It feels kind of odd to pair these two together as they could not be more different. One is a middle-grade sci-fi and the other is an adult horror novella. But both were amazing reads and if either of these are your genre, I highly recommend them.
Title: The Last Cuentista
Author: Donna Barba Higuera
Publisher: Levine Querido
Release Date: October 12th 2021
TW: death of a parent, eugenics
**Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review.**
"Había una vez . . .
There lived a girl named Petra Peña, who wanted nothing more than to be a storyteller, like her abuelita.
But Petra's world is ending. Earth has been destroyed by a comet, and only a few hundred scientists and their children – among them Petra and her family – have been chosen to journey to a new planet. They are the ones who must carry on the human race.
Hundreds of years later, Petra wakes to this new planet – and the discovery that she is the only person who remembers Earth. A sinister Collective has taken over the ship during its journey, bent on erasing the sins of humanity's past. They have systematically purged the memories of all aboard – or purged them altogether.
Petra alone now carries the stories of our past, and with them, any hope for our future. Can she make them live again?
Pura Belpré Honor-winning author Donna Barba Higuera presents us with a brilliant journey through the stars, to the very heart of what makes us human."
Donna Barba Higuera’s second middle grade novel, The Last Cuentista, is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring. Petra Peña and her family are part of the few who have been selected to board a space ship bound for the distant planet of Sagan. With Halley’s Comet on a collision course with Earth, humanity’s only hope is to find a new home. While Petra and those like are incubated for the 380-year journey, the Monitors are tasked with watching over them. When Petra eventually wakes, she quickly discovers that something has gone terribly awry. The Collective, descendants of the Monitors, is now in control and are bent on eradicating conflict by any means necessary. In their quest to save humanity, they have become inhumane. Differences in appearance or opinion have been eliminated. Every person must serve the Collective. Petra is a strong girl with strong opinions. Molded by her grandmother’s stories, all she’s ever wanted is to be a great storyteller. It is these stories that provide her comfort as she faces off against a foe far more powerful than herself. And it is ultimately the tales she shapes herself that help lead her and others toward a better future. The Last Cuentista is a unique sci-fi, spellbinding and unforgettable. A must read for any middle grade fan.
★ ★ ★ ★ (4/5)
Title: Nothing But Blackened Teeth
Author: Cassandra Khaw
Release Date: October 19th 2021
TW: gore, panic attacks
**Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review.**
"Cassandra Khaw's Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists.
A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.
It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.
But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.
And she gets lonely down there in the dirt."
Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth simmers with tension on multiple levels beginning with its cast of characters. Cat and her friends have known each other since they were teens and have made a game out of chasing ghosts. As years have passed, however, and relationships have evolved, there is both spoken and unspoken tension between them. The ghost of relationships past is always there, along with resentment and hate, boiling just below the surface. When things begin to go awry, all bets are off and polite facades disappear, giving way to anger and chaos. The mansion the characters find themselves in is steeped in horrid tales of women buried alive year after year. Their bones have become a different kind of foundation for this mansion. The residence sits empty, waiting and wanting. As trepidation builds, the mansion feels almost sentient. It relishes the animosity building between these friends. Khaw’s writing is lyrical and descriptive, raw and haunting. Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a deliciously unnerving novella infused with Japanese folklore, in which its characters and house slowly begin to unravel, revealing the enmity underneath.
I have a super-sized mini-review post for you today. I typically keep these posts two-reviews long, but when I was formatting this post, I remembered that I had written a review for Counting Down With You over the summer that I never got around to posting. It’s perfect because all three of these are contemporaries and I felt more or less the same about all of them. I enjoyed them and though there were certain elements that really stood out to me, I wasn’t completely blown away by them. I would still recommend all of these, so if there are things in my review that appeal to you, definitely pick these up.
Title: Counting Down With You
Author: Tashie Bhuiyan
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Release Date: May 4th 2021
TW: brief mention of forced outing and death of a child, anxiety attacks
"A reserved Bangladeshi teenager has twenty-eight days to make the biggest decision of her life after agreeing to fake date her school’s resident bad boy.
How do you make one month last a lifetime?
Karina Ahmed has a plan. Keep her head down, get through high school without a fuss, and follow her parents’ rules—even if it means sacrificing her dreams. When her parents go abroad to Bangladesh for four weeks, Karina expects some peace and quiet. Instead, one simple lie unravels everything.
Karina is my girlfriend.
Tutoring the school’s resident bad boy was already crossing a line. Pretending to date him? Out of the question. But Ace Clyde does everything right—he brings her coffee in the mornings, impresses her friends without trying, and even promises to buy her a dozen books (a week) if she goes along with his fake-dating facade. Though Karina agrees, she can’t help but start counting down the days until her parents come back.
T-minus twenty-eight days until everything returns to normal—but what if Karina no longer wants it to?"
Tashi Bhuiyan’s Counting Down with You is perfect for contemporary fans looking for stories with complicated family dynamics and page-turning romance. Karina Ahmed is a Bangeldashi-American teen on the fast track to med school. Nothing could make her parents prouder. The problem? Karina wants to study English, but admitting this to her parents would break their hearts, something she isn’t prepared to do. When her parents travel to Bangladesh for a month-long trip, Karina can’t help but feel a sense of relief. When her English teacher asks her to tutor Ace Clyde, her school’s resident bad boy, Karina can’t think of a worst idea. When he asks her to be his fake girlfriend, all her plans to have a drama-free month without her parents go out the window. The more time she spends with Ace, the more she starts to want the things she hasn’t allowed herself to really want. Counting Down with You does a really good job of showing the many facets of Karina’s life. We see her with her immediate family, her extended family, her friend group, and with Ace. All of these relationships require Karina to be a different version of herself and at the end of the novel, she has to choose whether or not to reconcile these parts of herself or continue to only to show part of who she is to those closest to her. I really enjoyed the evolution of Karina’s relationship with Ace. Aside from all the flirtation, they are great influences on each other. In many ways they are polar opposites, but both struggle to reconcile who they are with how their families see them. By far my favorite relationship was the bond Karina had with her grandmother. There is so much love and support here and I loved that it wasn’t her friends or her love interest who she truly needs in her corner, but it’s her grandmother. Counting Down with You will win the hearts of readers with its likeable protagonist and nuanced take on familial expectations.
★ ★ ★ (3/5)
Title: Simone Breaks All the Rules
Author: Debbie Rigaud
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: June 1st 2021
"Late bloomers unite! This fresh and funny #ownvoices novel from rising star Debbie Rigaud is perfect for fans of To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Booksmart.
Simone Thibodeaux's life is sealed in a boy-proof container.
Her strict Haitian immigrant parents enforce no-dating rules and curfews, and send Simone to an all-girls school. As for prom? Simone is allowed to go on one condition: her parents will select her date (a boy from a nice Haitian immigrant family, obviously).
Simone is desperate to avoid the humiliation of the set up -- especially since she's crushing on a boy she knows her parents wouldn't approve of. With senior year coming to a close, Simone makes a decision. She and her fellow late-bloomer friends will create a Senior Year Bucket List of all the things they haven't had a chance to do. On the list: kissing a boy, sneaking out of the house, skipping class (gasp!), and, oh yeah -- choosing your own prom date.
But as the list takes on a life of its own, things get more complicated than Simone expected. She'll have to discover which rules are worth breaking, and which will save her from heartbreak."
Debbie Rigaud’s Simone Breaks All the Rules is a fast-paced contemporary novel about learning to advocate for yourself. Haitian-American teen, Simone Thibodeaux, is tired of doing everything according to her parents’ rules. In an effort to take back control of her life, Simone and two classmates make a to-do list in hopes of breaking free from their parents’ overprotective natures. Simone calls herself a late bloomer, not because she didn’t want to date or go out partying but because her parents always had certain expectations of her and she acquiesced. As seventeen; however, she is thinking about adulthood: what she wants and what compromises she is now unwilling to make. She finds it difficult to find the words to tell her parents she doesn’t want to live at home when she goes to college. This bucket list for her senior year becomes a small way where she can rebel and declare independence. It also gives Simone the confidence she needs to finally tell her parents what she wants. Simone Breaks All the Rules is perfect for fans of contemporary books with an emphasis on family and friendship.
★ ★ ★ (3/5)
Title: Rent a Boyfriend
Author: Gloria Chao
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: November 10th 2021
TW: fatphobia, slut-shaming
"To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before meets The Farewell in this incisive romantic comedy about a college student who hires a fake boyfriend to appease her traditional Taiwanese parents, to disastrous results, from the acclaimed author of American Panda.
Chloe Wang is nervous to introduce her parents to her boyfriend, because the truth is, she hasn’t met him yet either. She hired him from Rent for Your ’Rents, a company specializing in providing fake boyfriends trained to impress even the most traditional Asian parents.
Drew Chan’s passion is art, but after his parents cut him off for dropping out of college to pursue his dreams, he became a Rent for Your ’Rents employee to keep a roof over his head. Luckily, learning protocols like “Type C parents prefer quiet, kind, zero-PDA gestures” comes naturally to him.
When Chloe rents Drew, the mission is simple: convince her parents fake Drew is worthy of their approval so they’ll stop pressuring her to accept a proposal from Hongbo, the wealthiest (and slimiest) young bachelor in their tight-knit Asian American community.
But when Chloe starts to fall for the real Drew—who, unlike his fake persona, is definitely not ’rent-worthy—her carefully curated life begins to unravel. Can she figure out what she wants before she loses everything?"
Chloe Wang would like nothing more than for her parents to stop insisting she get marry to the most unsuitable guy imaginable. In an effort to get them to finally back off, Chloe enlists the help of Rent for Your ‘Rents, a company that provides the perfect fake boyfriend to fool even the most hard to impress parents. Drew has been working for Rent for Your ‘Rents as a way to support himself after his parents cut him off for pursuing his dream of becoming an artist. Chloe is just one client on a long list of young women looking for help in dealing with difficult parents. Being her fake boyfriend shouldn’t be too hard, except the more time he spends with Chloe, the more the line between fake and real begins to blur. I really liked the opposites-attract aspect to Chloe and Drew’s relationship because of how knowing the other helps them overcome some of their biggest personal obstacles. Sometimes Chloe finds it hard to be herself in front of her parents. She wants to make them happy, but this often comes at the expense of her own happiness. Drew is terrified of sharing his work with others because if he fails, his decision to drop out of college and consequently, lose his family, wasn’t worth it after all. Chloe and Drew encourage each other not by taking on the other person’s problems but by supporting who they are and giving each other the space to take control of their own lives. Gloria Chao’s Rent a Boyfriend has an undeniably sweet romantic plot, but it is the complicated and fraught familial relationships that really stood out.
Title: Illusionary Author: Zoraida Córdova Series: Hollow Crown, #2 Pages: 368 Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Release Date: May 11th 2021
TW: mentions of alcoholism and self-harm
**Contains Incendiary spoilers**
“In Zoraida Córdova’s thrilling sequel to Incendiary, Renata embarks on a dangerous journey to bring justice to the kingdom — perfect for fans of Sabaa Tahir and Sarah J. Maas. Reeling from betrayal at the hands of the Whispers, Renata Convida is a girl on the run. With few options and fewer allies, she’s reluctantly joined forces with none other than Prince Castian, her most infuriating and intriguing enemy. They’re united by lofty goals: find the fabled Knife of Memory, kill the ruthless King Fernando, and bring peace to the nation. Together, Ren and Castian have a chance to save everything, if only they can set aside their complex and intense feelings for each other. With the king’s forces on their heels at every turn, their quest across Puerto Leones and beyond leaves little room for mistakes. But the greatest danger is within Ren. The Gray, her fortress of stolen memories, has begun to crumble, threatening her grip on reality. She’ll have to control her magics–and her mind–to unlock her power and protect the Moria people once and for all. For years, she was wielded as weapon. Now it’s her time to fight back.”
“We were given the power of a goddess, but we are still breakable things.”
Renata – Renata has been used my others her whole life. She’s been taught that her Robári abilities are dangerous, and her only value is as a weapon. Much of her agency has been taken from her. When she was young Justice Méndez manipulated her and exploited her. When she became a Whisper, she hoped she had found a place where she belonged, but the Moria rebel group never truly accepted her. In Illusionary, Renataś journey is one of self-discovery, learning to reclaim and value herself. She is able to find people who accept her for who she is, who help her in accept herself, and who trust her unequivocally.
Castian – If there was one thing I wanted more of in Incendiary, it was more Castian. He is probably the most puzzling and intriguing character in the first book, so I was very pleased that we as readers got to pull back the curtain and find out exactly who the Prince of Puerto Leones really is.
Second-love – I don’t want to give too much away, but it felt really refreshing reading a YA where someone’s first love may not be their be all end all. Renata is a different person than who she was at the beginning of the first book and as a result who she wants to be with and what she needs in a relationship has changed.
World-building expansion – I loved exploring Córdova’s world more in this sequel, meeting new characters, and seeing the magical system itself expand.
Epilogue – I can only recall one other book whose epilogue goes so far into the future. There are books that end that leave you wondering what happens next for the characters and I loved that we got to see what happens years down the road. We don’t always get that kind of closure as readers.
Dez’s storyline – With the first book’s revelation about Dez, I expected to see more of him in this book and felt that he deserved more page-time. Also connected to this is my desire to see more Margo. She is partially responsible for what happens to Renata at the end of Incendiary, and their reunion is a little anticlimatic considering all animus.
Secondary characters – Incendiary and Illusionary have some great secondary characters like Nuria and Leo, but there were a few characters that I really wanted to get to know more about and we didn’t. At the top of my list is Queen Josephine, wife of King Fernando. I feel like she would have made a great ally or enemy. It’s hard to say as we learn so little about her.
Zoraida Córdova concludes her Hollow Crown duology with Illusionary, giving Renata the space to unlearn harmful beliefs about herself as well as the means to reclaim herself as her own.
I am back from my blogging hiatus which means I am back with some reviews I wrote while on a break. I’m late with my review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet Was the Night, but kept reminding myself while away that it was okay to be late. It’s funny because we as bloggers internalize so many expectations for ourselves and forget that this isn’t a job or school. No one is going to punish us if we are a little late posting a review. I’ve only been book blogging for seven years and it’s finally starting to sink in that the only person who is watching to make sure I review an ARC before publication is myself. Going to sit with that one for a while. Does anyone else have a similar relationship reviewing ARCs?
Title: Velvet Was the Night
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Del Rey
Release Date: August 17th 2021
TW: contains a gay slur and slur for Romani people
**Disclaimer: I received a copy of this ARC from the publisher which does not influence my review**
"From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a 'delicious, twisted treat for lovers of noir' about a daydreaming secretary, a lonesome enforcer, and the mystery of a missing woman they’re both desperate to find..
1970s, Mexico City. Maite is a secretary who lives for one thing: the latest issue of Secret Romance. While student protests and political unrest consume the city, Maite escapes into stories of passion and danger.
Her next-door neighbor, Leonora, a beautiful art student, seems to live a life of intrigue and romance that Maite envies. When Leonora disappears under suspicious circumstances, Maite finds herself searching for the missing woman—and journeying deeper into Leonora’s secret life of student radicals and dissidents.
Meanwhile, someone else is also looking for Leonora at the behest of his boss, a shadowy figure who commands goon squads dedicated to squashing political activists. Elvis is an eccentric criminal who longs to escape his own life: He loathes violence and loves old movies and rock ’n’ roll. But as Elvis searches for the missing woman, he comes to observe Maite from a distance—and grows more and more obsessed with this woman who shares his love of music and the unspoken loneliness of his heart.
Now as Maite and Elvis come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, they can no longer escape the danger that threatens to consume their lives, with hitmen, government agents, and Russian spies all aiming to protect Leonora’s secrets—at gunpoint.
Velvet Was the Night is an edgy, simmering historical novel for lovers of smoky noirs and anti-heroes.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest, Velvet Was the Night, is a mystery-driven noir that made me want to smoke a cigarette while reading and I don’t even smoke. Set against the backdrop of student protests in Mexico City in the 1970s, Velvet Was the Night unfolds at a leisurely pace shifting between two different POVs as characters converge on the truth behind a missing art student. Maite Jaramillo, a bored secretary whose biggest thrill is her weekly consumption of a tawdry romance comic, finds herself swept into her neighbor’s seductive world. El Elvis is nothing better than a hired thug, a member of an unofficial government-ran group tasked with quelling student activists. It’s a way to survive and nothing more. Both characters are playing parts, keeping reality at bay as best they can, but neither can hold on to their distorted and often naive view of the world. Velvet Was the Night will be enjoyed by those fond of the noir genre and those looking for sharp dialogue and antiheroes.
★ ★ ★ ★ (4/5)
Title: The Wolf and the Woodsman
Author: Ava Reid
Publisher: Del Rey
Release Date: June 8th 2021
"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.
In the vein of Naomi Novik’s New York Times bestseller Spinning Silver and Katherine Arden’s national bestseller The Bear and the Nightingale, this unforgettable debut— inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology—follows a young pagan woman with hidden powers and a one-eyed captain of the Woodsmen as they form an unlikely alliance to thwart a tyrant."
Ava Reid’s The Wolf and the Woodsman is a stunning and dynamic fantasy with rich world-building. Évike is an outsider in her own village, without family or magic. When the Woodsmen come to take another girl as a sacrifice to their king, magicless Évike is turned over as a ruse. But the scheme is short-lived as Évike and the Woodsmen are attacked. Now Évike and the Woodsman, Bárány Gáspár, must put aside their mutual contempt if they are to survive. Reid does a phenomenal job of painting a complex world of human prejudice and the negative side of religious fervor. There is a lot of juxtaposition between different religions and cultures. We see this play out in the relationship between Évike and Gáspár, whose world-views often clash. However, as they begin to rely on one another, they also begin to see each other as more than the enemy. They have both been defined as interlopers in their own societies, but despite the cruelties they’ve endured, still have a sense of loyalty to their people. With a mercurial lead, The Wolf and the Woodsman, takes off at a swift pace and is entertaining at every turn.