The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: The Beautiful Ones
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Series: N/A
Pages: 327
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Release Date: October 24th 2017

      “In a world of etiquette and polite masks, no one is who they seem to be.
      Antonina Beaulieu is in the glittering city of Loisail for her first Grand Season, where she will attend balls and mingle among high society. Under the tutelage of the beautiful but cold Valérie Beaulieu, she hopes to find a suitable husband. However, the haphazard manifestations of Nina’s telekinetic powers make her the subject of malicious gossip.
      Yet dazzling telekinetic performer and outsider Hector Auvray sees Nina’s powers as a gift, and he teaches her how to hone and control them. As they spend more and more time together, Nina falls in love and believes she’s found the great romance that she’s always dreamed of, but Hector’s courtship of Nina is deceptive.
      The Beautiful Ones is a sweeping fantasy of manners set in a world inspired by the Belle Époque.

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“Hector raised his hands, the candle flames rising with them, and with one movement of his arms they merged into a prodigious ball of fire that he then snuffed out with a clap of his hands, causing several spectators shriek because, for a moment, it seemed like he was about to scorch himself.”

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Beautiful Ones is a character-driven novel that combines fantasy and romance in a eloquent story rapt with emotion. Antonina “Nina” Beaulieu has been invited to stay with her cousin in Loisail for her first Grand Season. The city is a far cry from Nina’s home in the country, but she can’t help but see its appeal when she meets the mysterious Hector Auvray. A gifted telekinetic, Hector has risen to prominence performing for audiences across the globe. When Hector begins courting Nina, she’s convinced that they are meant to be. Hector, however, has a ulterior motive, one that will bring Nina’s world crashing down.

Moreno-Garcia juggles three perspectives and does a masterful job of fleshing out each character, making them feel real to the reader and allowing each to have their strengths as well as their faults. Nina is more comfortable trying to catch beetles and butterflies than a potential husband. Not the kind of young woman that suitors line up for in a city like Loisail, Nina finds rules regarding etiquette to be stifling. It doesn’t help that her telekinetic ability often manifests at inopportune times. While those in Loisail can appreciate such a talent as a means of entertainment, it is not something suitable for ladies to display. Nina is markedly younger than the other two characters and it very much shows. Hopelessly romantic and naive about the world, Nina is easily taken in. She believes the very best about people because she has never been exposed to those who would use others for their own gain. Her inexperience opens her up to plenty of heartache. Though her openness was one of the first things I admired about her, her growth as a character made me appreciate her even more. I loved that Moreno-Garcia took the most humble of the three characters and allowed her to develop and show strength unparalleled.

Hector is not a character that you immediately fall in love with. Yes, in some ways, he can be seen as simply a tragic figure. Coming from nothing, Hector has managed to accumulate the kind of wealth that people in Loisail are either born with or marry into. While trying to recognize this dream, he ended up losing his first love in the process. His choice to court Nina only as a means to get close to another instinctively made me bristle. That being said, his is a really rewarding character arc as he is forced to confront his own naivety. Even as a grown man, he still has a lot to learn. Hector learns to see the past and present how they are and now how he wishes them to be.

At times I wanted to dislike Valérie wholeheartedly, but Moreno-Garcia has created such a complicated character that it’s difficult not to admire her in some way. Valérie was pressured into marrying Nina’s cousin Gaeten in order to save her family from financial ruin. But lest you think she is some tragic figure, Valérie is also vain, resentful, and prone to jealousy. She often regards Nina with disdain because, unlike her, Nina has more freedom to choose who she marries. Nina also has the love of her cousin, something Valérie doesn’t necessarily want, but which her proud personality demands. She’s an incredibly manipulative person who is much more comfortable being cruel than sentimental. For her, loving someone means they have power over her and she refuses to be under another’s thumb. There’s no way to justify Valérie’s every decision, but because she is such a well-developed character, I understood why she did the things she did and this ultimately made her an exceptional antagonist.

The Beautiful Ones showcases just how versatile and gifted a writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia is. The world she builds is very easy to fall in love with and my only criticism is that I wanted to see more of the telekinetic aspect. Still, there are few books that leave me feeling completely satisfied and The Beautiful Ones is one of them.

5/5

★★★★★

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History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Title: History Is All You Left Me
Author: Adam Silvera
Series: N/A
Pages: 294
Publisher: Soho Teen
Release Date: January 17th 2017

      “When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.
      To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.
      If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

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“Is it weird to envy him for that, for witnessing something I would never want to see with my own eyes? I have all this history with you, Theo, but he has pieces of your puzzle that would destroy me if I ever had to put them together, and yet I still want them.”

Adam Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me is an roller coaster of emotions. As Griffin tries to cope with the loss of his first love, readers are taken on a journey that alternates between the past and present: from the Griffin and Theo’s first kiss where the future held nothing but happy possibilities to the devastation Griffin experiences losing the one person who understood him. Once upon a time Griffin and Theo were inseparable, but life got complicated when Theo gained early admission into a college across the country. Despite how much he loved Theo, Griffin broke things off. Time passed and while Griffin still held on to hope they would be together again, Theo moved on with his new boyfriend Jackson. When Theo dies unexpectedly, all that hope and the ever-present memories of the two of them together become unbearable. Now Griffin must deal with his loss and every mistake he made that led him to where he is, but no one seems to quite understand like Theo’s boyfriend Jackson. As the two grow closer, Griffin is forced to confront the memories of his first love, both the good and the bad.

There are novels that punch you in the gut by surprise and others that you go into knowing the punch in the gut is a catalyst for a broader story. Silvera hits readers with a freight train in the very first few sentences. Every chapter devoted to the past that is filled with love and hope is bittersweet to the reader who knows where the story inevitably ends. Chapters set in the present are heavy with grief, an abridged version of the truth as it needs the past to put things into context. Griffin spends a lot time thinking about alternate universes. This is not only a callback to conversations he had with Theo, but a way Griffin copes with Theo’s death. He imagines that in some different world, the two of them are both alive and happy together. Silvera excels at making the reader care about his characters through all these mediums, expertly weaving through the ups and downs, and never letting up until the very end.

Griffin is in an incredibly vulnerable headspace from the very beginning of the novel. It isn’t hard to see how much Theo meant to him and how the loss has made his whole world seem like it has imploded. It’s easier for him to retreat from those around him than to let them help him grieve. Jackson shares his grief  and even though there is a lot of resentment on Griffin’s part, there are still drawn together. Jackson will always represent an obstacle to Griffin and Theo’s hypothetical reunion. He will always hold precious memories of his ex-boyfriend that Griffin will never have himself. Whether he wants to admit it or not, Theo and Jackson were happy together. Griffin and Jackson’s connection is wrought with hurt and confusion. While it’s important for Griffin to work through his feelings, he tends to be self-destructive and this flaw hinders his own healing. Still, I found it really refreshing to read about a character who is allowed to be broken, misguided, and self-centered while working through his pain.

History Is All You Left Me is an emotionally complex novel about heartache and grief. Silvera continues to create multilayered stories and characters that the reader will not soon forget.

4/5

★★★★

ARC Review: By a Charm and a Curse by Jaime Questell

Title: By a Charm and a Curse
Author: Jaime Questell
Series: N/A
Pages: 300
Publisher: Entangled: Teen
Release Date: February 1st 2018
*I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review*

      “Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic isn’t like other traveling circuses. It’s bound by a charm, held together by a centuries-old curse, that protects its members from ever growing older or getting hurt. Emmaline King is drawn to the circus like a moth to a flame…and unwittingly recruited into its folds by a mysterious teen boy whose kiss is as cold as ice.
      Forced to travel through Texas as the new Girl in the Box, Emmaline is completely trapped. Breaking the curse seems like her only chance at freedom, but with no curse, there’s no charm, either—dooming everyone who calls the Carnival Fantastic home. Including the boy she’s afraid she’s falling for.
      Everything—including his life—could end with just one kiss.

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One of the most appealing aspects of Jaime Questell’s By a Charm and a Curse is its carnival setting, but I could not help but want more from this backdrop. Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic is supposed to be a place where Emma gets a chance to forget all her problems for one night. No thinking about her mother, who is a world a way on a research project, or the fact that since she moved back with her dad, the easy friendship she had with her childhood best friend Juliet, can sometimes feel forced. When Emma is tricked and forced to bear a curse that links her to the carnival and its troupe, her problems go from bad to worse. The curse alters her entirely. An unshakable coldness settles into her bones, making all previous human sensations a distance memory. In exchange for Emma’s involuntary sacrifice, those who work for the carnival are protected with a charm that prevents injury or illness. But Emma is desperate to reclaim her freedom, but in so doing, she may have to ensnare someone else.

The curse and charm aspect of the novel created an interesting predicament for the protagonist. Not being able to leave the carnival and unable to feel like she can function normally, Emma is trapped in a strange place with no one to turn to. Her only out is to find someone else to take on the curse, but that would require her to condemn an innocent person. This novel had the potential to be darker than it was and it is the possibility of a darker character arc for the protagonist that had me wanting more. Emma is a really naive character in the beginning of the novel and accepts her role as the “Girl in the Box” a little too quickly. I really wanted to explore how this loss of agency over her own life alters her as a person, but the author never delves this deep.

The novel features a dual perspective; the second of which belongs to Benjamin. As a roustabout, Benjamin is not a performer himself, but someone who works behind the scenes. He often feels like an outsider himself. His mother is a really strong influence in his life, though not always in a good way. She’s determined to protect him, but her need to shield him from life’s woes is stifling. Ben longs to leave the carnival, to stay in one place for once and make himself a home. As a character, Ben felt more developed than Emma and a lot of this had to do with his relationship to the carnival folk. We never get to see Emma with her family and only briefly see her interacting with her best friend. With Ben, we get to know him through his interactions with his mother especially. There’s a power struggle between the two that ends up revealing a really interesting backstory for his mother. As much as Ben feels like the carnival isn’t his home, there are many members of the troupe that he has a close relationship with. I enjoyed a lot of scenes with sisters Whiskey and Gin especially.

By a Charm and a Curse lacks the kind of magic I was hoping for in a carnival setting, left something to be desired when it came to darker elements, but showed promise when it came to its characters.

3/5

★★★

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Series: Winternight Trilogy, #1
Pages: 346
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Release Date: January 10th 2017

      “At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind–she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
      After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
      And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
      As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed–this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

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“The moon was little thicker than a crescent, the light a glitter of blue. Vasya ran, with a panic she could not understand. The life she had led made her strong. She bolted and let the cool wind wash the taste of fear from her mouth.”

Katherine Arden captivates with her storytelling in her debut fantasy The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasya grows up in a family that belongs to two worlds. In a time where devotion to the old gods is dying, Vasya must hide her ability to see the old ones, but her gift may be what saves her as a darkness slowly descends upon the land. Her new stepmother and a recently arrived priest believe these creatures to be demons and are determined to rid the people of their devotion to said gods, but in so doing, they will put everyone in danger. As Vasya grows older, it becomes clear that her journey will bring her closer to Morozko, a demon of winter, but whether he offers help or death is uncertain.

Arden’s novel may be slow-paced for some, but for those who enjoy the journey of a tale and love an intricately woven story, The Bear and the Nighingale unfolds delicately and rewardingly. The novels opens before Vasya is even born where characters like her mother, whom she never gets to know, remain important players in a larger story. With eloquent descriptions that bring the bitter cold of Vasya’s world to life, allow the magic of old to seep through its pages, and takes the reader on an epic journey, Arden’s writing is an utter delight.

I loved how we as readers get to see Vasya grow up. As the world around her is concerned with more dire matters, Vasya grows up wanting to be a part of her older siblings’ lives but is always being told she is too young. Even as a child, she is willful and astute, her eagerness and unabashed openness is sometimes regarded with offense. Her stepmother regards her with barely contained scorn. Her potential beaus are shaken by her audacity and strength. The pious priest Konstantin, takes every opportunity to remind Vasya that she must turn to God and forsake old beliefs. Vasya, despite the disapproval of those around her, remains a strong and able heroine. Brave and selfless, Vasya is a character who is hard to forget and one worthy of admiration.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a wondrous tale of one girl’s strength in the midst of a cruel world and the power of sacrifice. Vasya is a protagonist who is easy to love and with every step she takes, you as a reader feel like you are taking it with her. Characters like the enigmatic Morozko are both dangerous and magnetic, making you want more. With this debut, Arden has secured herself as an author to pay attention to.

4/5

★★★★

ARC Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Title: The Hazel Wood
Author: Melissa Albert
Series: The Hazel Wood, #1
Pages: 368
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Release Date: January 30th 2018
**I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: Her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: ‘Stay away from the Hazel Wood.’
      Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.

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Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood brings dark fairy tales to life with beautiful writing and eerie tales that leap off its pages. Alice is not used to staying in one place for long. Her mother has often whisked her off at a moment’s notice and so Alice is not used to putting down roots. Even her mother’s new marriage feels temporary as bad lucks seems to follow them everywhere. When Alice discovers that her mother has been kidnapped and that her disappearance may be tied to the recluse grandmother she’s never met, Alice sets out in search of her grandmother’s estate the Hazel Wood. But the closer Alice gets to the mysterious home of her mother’s youth, the more she begins to realize that the book of fairy tales written by her grandmother years ago may not just be stories.

One of Alice’s defining characteristics is the underlying darkness she’s constantly trying to keep at bay. I wanted the author to explore this more as I felt that those scenes where this darkness takes momentary control came across as Alice being more bratty than trying to quench this inner hostility. What I did find fascinating about who Alice is is the way in which the author showed how one woman’s life experience trickled down through generations and impacted all their lives. Althea had shut herself in the Hazel Wood years ago with her daughter Ella. This means for years Alice’s mother was essentially trapped in a make believe world of her own mother’s making. This explains a lot about Ella and her flightiness. Alice has adopted a similar mindset. Her world is very small because she’s only ever had her mother to love. When she finds out her mother is missing, it isn’t a matter of just calling the police, she must physically find her or else her whole world will come apart. It is this kind of desperation that would have had me more invested in this character, but scenes between Alice and her mother were too few considering the importance of this relationship to Alice’s character.

Aside from Alice, the novel spends most of its time on her classmate Ellery Finch. A bit of an outcast, Finch recognizes something familiar in Alice that he sees in himself. A fan of Althea’s work, Finch becomes a window by which Alice is able to connect with the grandmother she never knew. I really liked Finch, but felt that there were so many more layers to his character that we didn’t get a chance to explore. His own storyline seemed to end far too abruptly and his arc’s resolution didn’t feel justified based on the level of development his character received. We were often told there was a side to his character that he didn’t let other people see, but we were never given enough insight into this for certain choices he made to feel authentic.

I can’t say enough about the writing in The Hazel Wood. Albert’s imagery shines best when she narrates the dark stories from Tales from the Hinterland. With titles like Twice-Killed Katherine and The Door That Wasn’t There, these stories are unique and compelling and sometimes sinister. I enjoyed these strange fairy tales so much that there were times that I wish I was reading Althea Prosperpine’s novel instead of this one. As much as I enjoyed this aspect of the novel, Albert’s writing seemed to falter when it came to characterization and most notably that of her lead.

3/5

★★★

Not Now, Not Ever by Lily Anderson

Title: Not Now, Not Ever
Author: Lily Anderson
Series: N/A
Pages: 320
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Release Date: November 21st 2017

      “Elliot Gabaroche is very clear on what she isn’t going to do this summer.
      1. She isn’t going to stay home in Sacramento, where she’d have to sit through her stepmother’s sixth community theater production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
      2. She isn’t going to mock trial camp at UCLA.
      3. And she certainly isn’t going to the Air Force summer program on her mother’s base in Colorado Springs. As cool as it would be to live-action-role-play Ender’s Game, Ellie’s seen three generations of her family go through USAF boot camp up close, and she knows that it’s much less Luke/Yoda/”feel the force,” and much more one hundred push-ups on three days of no sleep. And that just isn’t appealing, no matter how many Xenomorphs from Alien she’d be able to defeat afterwards.
      What she is going to do is pack up her attitude, her favorite Octavia Butler novels, and her Jordans, and go to summer camp. Specifically, a cutthroat academic-decathlon-like competition for a full scholarship to Rayevich College, the only college with a Science Fiction Literature program. And she’s going to start over as Ever Lawrence, on her own terms, without the shadow of all her family’s expectations. Because why do what’s expected of you when you can fight other genius nerds to the death for a shot at the dream you’re sure your family will consider a complete waste of time?
      This summer’s going to be great.

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“I opened my mouth to laugh, but it died in my throat, threw itself a funeral, and dug graves for every ounce of joy that I could ever feel again…”

Lily Anderson’s companion novel to The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is inspired by Oscar Wilde’s jovial play The Importance of Being Earnest. In Not Now, Not Ever, seventeen-year-old Elliot Gabaroche concocts a plan to attend Camp Onward in an effort to win a scholarship to her dream college. The only problem is she has to do it without her overprotective family finding out. But as Ever Laurence, Elliot gets to be whomever she chooses, without the expectations of her parents hanging over her head. Winning one of the few scholarships at a camp full of geniuses and keeping her scheme a secret becomes increasingly more difficult when Elliot’s annoying younger cousin Isaiah shows up, hoping to win a scholarship himself.

Elliot is a character who is easily relatable. On the verge of adulthood, Ellie needs to decide what path her life is going to take. This isn’t easy when she’s been born into a family where her choice of career means choosing one parents over the other. Her mother expects her to attend the Air Force Academy over the summer, to follow in so many Laurences’ footsteps. Her father and stepmother are hoping she takes a different route — the former hoping she chooses to study law like him. Elliot on the other hand has dreams of her own. At Rayevich College she’d have a chance to study her all-time favorite authors like Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin. Even though Elliot’s family is a point of contention in the novel, I loved how important a role family played in the story. It’s easy to see how much Elliot loves her parents and how much she doesn’t want to disappoint any of them. I also loved that this novel has a positive portrayal of a blended family where Elliot’s stepmom is an important part of her life. Elliot’s relationship with her cousin Isaiah has been defined by a childhood where her own accomplishments were always overshadowed by his own. I wanted more for the two of these characters in terms of their relationship. In the end, it felt like Elliot had more of a chance to mature, but this is her story, so it’s somewhat understandable.

The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is filled with nerdy references and Anderson does not disappoint in this department when it comes to Not Now, Not Ever. A camp full of nerdy geniuses provides plenty of opportunity to celebrate all things geeky. Anderson has a way of writing settings where the cast of characters gets to celebrate their nerdiness in a fun and unapologetic way. One of my favorite things about her books is how authentic and relatable these incredibly intelligent characters end up being. Fans of the first novel will recognize some familiar faces and rediscover others. Elliot’s love interest, Brandon, for example, is a character that I didn’t know I wanted an update on. Their relationship is sweet with just enough realism to feel authentic.

Not Not, Not Ever is the perfect contemporary for those who love nerd culture. It can be read as a standalone, but I highly recommend everyone pick up both of Anderson’s novels as she continues to impress me with her writing.

4/5

★★★★