Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett

Title: Alex, Approximately
Author: Jenn Bennett
Series: N/A
Pages: 391
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: April 4th 2017

      “Classic movie fan Bailey “Mink” Rydell has spent months crushing on a witty film geek she only knows online as Alex. Two coasts separate the teens until Bailey moves in with her dad, who lives in the same California surfing town as her online crush.
      Faced with doubts (what if he’s a creep in real life—or worse?), Bailey doesn’t tell Alex she’s moved to his hometown. Or that she’s landed a job at the local tourist-trap museum. Or that she’s being heckled daily by the irritatingly hot museum security guard, Porter Roth—a.k.a. her new archnemesis. But life is whole lot messier than the movies, especially when Bailey discovers that tricky fine line between hate, love, and whatever it is she’s starting to feel for Porter.
      And as the summer months go by, Bailey must choose whether to cling to a dreamy online fantasy in Alex or take a risk on an imperfect reality with Porter. The choice is both simpler and more complicated than she realizes, because Porter Roth is hiding a secret of his own: Porter is Alex…Approximately.”

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“My cheeks catch fire. I want to melt into a puddle and slide under the tacky orange carpet. I can’t look at him now, much less come up with a witty response. My mind has flipped on the autopilot switch and blanked out, and all I’m aware of is the sound of my own pulse throbbing in my ears.”

Jenn Bennett’s Alex, Approximately is the terrific summer read with a fun, beach setting and adorable first love story at its center. Bailey Rydell hates conflict. She’s more likely to retreat into herself than face any of her problems head on. The mounting tension between her mom and stepfather is almost too much to handle, but instead of sticking it out, she hops on a plane and travels across the country to move in with her father in California. This new town means new possibilities. It also means that Bailey might just get to meet her online crush, “Alex” with whom she shares a passion for old movies. Bailey doesn’t expect Porter Roth to ruin all her summer plans. Their chemistry is undeniable, but Bailey’s tendency to evade uncomfortable situations might derail their relationship.

I loved that even though this contemporary focuses on Bailey falling in love for the first time, it also gave the protagonist an important character arc that revolved around her alone. A traumatic past experience has caused Bailey to retreat into herself and as a result, she isn’t always good at forming new relationships. She’s used to compartmentalizing and this tendency to keep parts of her life separate makes it hard for her to open up to new people. Her online relationship with Alex that mostly revolves around their love of old Hollywood classics is only one facet to who she is and although I would have like to have seen more of this relationship, I think it was important to give Bailey’s real life relationship with Porter more of the spotlight. It is through this relationship that Bailey is forced to confront her propensity to bail when things get tough and though it’s a slow process, she does end up understanding that running away is the worst possible way to deal with her problems.

Porter was a really sweet love interest for Bailey. At first he does come across as a real jerk and though I don’t think this was really necessary, it thankfully doesn’t last long because it would have been really hard to root for this relationship if Porter had continually antagonized Bailey. I appreciated that Bailey wasn’t the only one hesitant about their relationship. Porter’s last serious relationship didn’t end well. These trust issues made him more relatable when he could have very easily been a cliché love interest. Several of his interpersonal relationships play vital roles in the story which gave him added depth.

The book does have some shortcomings. If you read the synopsis, the main plot twist isn’t meant to be concealed from the reader. I went into the novel knowing important information the characters didn’t. I thought the author would play with the idea of mistaken identity more, so was kind of disappointed that the identity of Bailey’s online friend really wasn’t much of a factor until the very end of the book. I also found it really hard to wrap my brain around Bailey’s mom’s complete absence. There is absolutely no contact between the two of them during the entire duration of the novel and although we’ve given a semi-convincing reason as to why at the end, I still found it hard to believe. I feel that this relationship was a missed opportunity. Part of the reason behind Bailey’s attitude toward conflict stems from what she’s learned from her mother, so it would have been interesting to actually explore this relationship rather than be told about it.

Bennett does a wonderful job of capturing those new, exciting feelings that come with your first serious relationship. I also appreciated that the author allows her characters to make mistakes and learn from these experiences. If you’re looking for a summer read that will have you swooning and agonizing over the ending Alex, Approximately is the one for you.

4/5

★★★★

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Certain Dark Things
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Series: N/A
Pages: 323
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Release Date: October 25th 2016

      “Welcome to Mexico City… An Oasis In A Sea Of Vampires…
      Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is busy eking out a living when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life.
      Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, must feast on the young to survive and Domingo looks especially tasty. Smart, beautiful, and dangerous, Atl needs to escape to South America, far from the rival narco-vampire clan pursuing her. Domingo is smitten.
      Her plan doesn’t include developing any real attachment to Domingo. Hell, the only living creature she loves is her trusty Doberman. Little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his effervescent charm.
      And then there’s Ana, a cop who suddenly finds herself following a trail of corpses and winds up smack in the middle of vampire gang rivalries.
      Vampires, humans, cops, and gangsters collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive?”

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“The sand was red beneath her feet, and the moon had disappeared. She coughed, and this black, disgusting substance oozed from her mouth and she knelt upon the sand, a river of black bile and blood streaming out, and she tried to stop it but it would not stop. It. Just. Did not. Stop.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things is a gritty, complex vampire novel with rich world-building and an interesting cast. On the run from the vampires who killed her family, Atl is a fish out of water. Despite being a sort of refugee country for vampires, Mexico’s capital has been able to stave off the bloodthirsty clans. The streets of Mexico City aren’t exactly safe, but most people would choose gangs over vampires any day. Atl is desperate to find her way to South America before the rival vampire clan that is hunting her discovers where she’s been hiding in Mexico City. Her quest brings her into contact with a street kid named Domingo, who may be the only person willing to help her, but their unlikely alliance may get them both killed.

Moreno-Garcia’s world of vampires is vibrant and intriguing. It’s worth noting that in this world vampires cannot be made, but are born and brought up in a clan. Alt is a Tlāhuihpochtli, a vampire descended from the Aztecs. Her family has a rich history in north Mexico as do many vampire clans within the country, but the more recent arrival of Necros, vampires originating from Europe, has threatened their sovereignty. One thing that really stood out to me was that Moreno-Garcia’s take on vampires is much broader than what I’m usually used to seeing. Each subspecies of vampire has unique traits and are terrifying in their own ways. Necros most closely resemble the vampires we see in popular culture, equipped with sharp teeth and repulsed by sunlight. The Tlāhuihpochtli have bird-like characteristic from talons to the ability to fly. The Revenants are another subspecies we get a closer glimpse of and it is these vampires that I found the most unnerving. Instead of feeding on blood, a Revenant sucks the life energy from its victims, both human and vampire alike.

We get a few glimpses into Atl’s past, one that’s more carefree than anything else. She enjoyed all the luxuries of belonging to a powerful family without any of the responsibilities. Her sister Izel was much more levelheaded and equipped to deal with clashes between clans, but Atl is more impetuous and it is her lack of restraint that cost her someone close to her. I really wanted to know more about Atl’s clan and family. One of the distinct characteristics of the Tlāhuihpochtli vampires is the line of matriarchal succession. Atl’s mother had been grooming her older daughter Izel to take over and I think it would have been really interesting to see this through Atl’s eyes. Domingo felt like a very lost puppy for the most part. He’s immediately drawn to Atl and has a very romantic idea about what a vampire should be. I felt a bit iffy about any kind of romantic notion between the two because Domingo came off as really young and naïve at times while Atl couldn’t afford to be ignorant about the world.

Beside focusing on Atl and Domingo, the story also gives a glimpse at those hunting the young vampire. Nick is a particular nasty character, both impulsive and entitled. Atl got the better of him and now he’s determined to make her suffer. The Necros vampire is driven by both pride and a need to prove himself. It is his human victims that put Mexico City’s gangs on his and Atl’s trail. Detective Ana Aguirre transferred to Mexico City in hopes of getting away from the vampire infestation. All she cares about is keeping her daughter safe. When a local gang reaches out to her to help rid the city of the newly arrived vampires, she reluctantly agrees.

Though a little slow getting started, Moreno-Garcia’s novel is perfect for those looking for a well-rounded vampire novel. Certain Dark Things is a delight with creatures that will make your skin crawl and a perilous undertaking that will keep you on your toes.

4/5

★★★★

Mini Reviews: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1 & 2 + Trouble Makes a Comeback

MiniI finally picked up Ms. Marvel! This year I’ve picked up my very first graphic novels and I can’t believe I’ve waited this long. They’ve been perfect for whenever I’m really not feeling like picking up a traditional novel. I’ve been trying to decide what the best way to review graphic novels is. Should I dedicate a full review to each one or wait until after I’ve read a few? I figure utilizing the mini-review is the best way to do this for now. Below are my mini reviews for the first two volumes of Ms. Marvel and Stephanie Tromly’s Trouble Makes a Comeback. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Ms. Marvel, Vol 1: No Normal
Author: G. Willow Wilson
Illustrator: Adrian Alphona
Series: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1
Pages: 120
Publisher: Marvel
Release Date: October 30th 2014 

      “Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City — until she’s suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm! When Kamala discovers the dangers of her newfound powers, she unlocks a secret behind them, as well. Is Kamala ready to wield these immense new gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her be too much to bear? Kamala has no idea, either. But she’s comin’ for you, Jersey!

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“These powers mean something, something scary but good. And for the first time, I feel big enough for this, big enough to have greatness in me.

Story time: I inadvertently read the first two volumes of Ms. Marvel without knowing it. I checked out Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal and didn’t notice that the edition I received also included the second volume, Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why. So when I went to pick up my hold for volume two, it turns out I had already read it.  So this mini-review covers the first two volumes though it reads like I’m only covering the first.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal is the kind of graphic novel I would have loved as a teen. Kamala Khan is such a relatable character. She tries to please her parents, but at the same time is also trying to forge her own identity, which isn’t easy when she isn’t sure who she is herself. She wants to fit in at school, but it can be hard when you’re Pakistani and Muslim and some of your classmates don’t understand and won’t take the time to understand your culture or religion. When Kamala first gets her powers, she believes she needs to be someone else, but discovers through a series of mishaps and some sage wisdom from an unlikely source that she is brave enough and her heart is big enough do take on the responsibility of being a hero. With a lovable sidekick and a cameo appearance from none other than Wolverine, Kamala will experience all the ups and downs of what it means to be a superhero as well as trying to find the right balance between this new life and her personal one.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: Trouble Makes a Comeback
Author: Stephanie Tromly
Series: Trouble, #2
Pages: 336
Publisher: Kathy Dawson Books
Release Date: November 22nd 2016

      “Achieving high school “normal” wasn’t as hard as Zoe Webster expected, but she’s beginning to think Hollywood oversold how much fun it all is. Isn’t dating a jock supposed to be one long Instagram dream? Shouldn’t she enjoy gossiping 24/7 with her two BFFs? And isn’t this, the last year before the finish line that is Princeton, meant to be one of her best? If “normal” is the high school goal, why can’t Zoe get Philip Digby—decidedly abnormal, completely chaotic, possibly unbalanced, undoubtedly rude, and somehow…entirely magnetic—out of her mind?
      However normal Zoe’s life finally is, it’s about to get blown up (metaphorically. This time. She hopes, anyway.*) when Digby shows up on her doorstep. Again. Needing her help to find his kidnapped sister. Still. Full of over-the-top schemes and ready to send Zoe’s life into a higher gear. Again.
      It’s time for Zoe Webster to choose between staying in the normal lane, or taking a major detour with Digby (and finally figuring out what that stolen kiss actually meant to him).”

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      “Do you think it’s bad I’m disappointed no one’s turned up to murder us?

Stephanie Tromly’s Trouble Is a Friend of Mine is one of the most charming and funny debuts I’ve read. Zoe Webster and Philip Digby made quite the team as he managed to find trouble around every corner and she found herself going along with his schemes despite her better judgement. In this sequel, Trouble Makes a Comeback, Digby finally returns after a five-month absence. Since Digby left, Zoe has settled into a more normal life. She has new friends, a new boyfriend, and hardly ever thinks about her adventures with Digby. But once he’s back in her life, Zoe finds it hard to juggle these two very different parts of her life. After finishing the first book, I really hoped that we would get a sequel because I, like Digby, desperately wanted to know what really happened to his sister after she was kidnapped years ago. While we finally get some answers to this mystery, it did feel like there was no proper climax to the story and in this way, I’d say this sequel does fall into the sophomore slump trap. One of my favorite parts about Trouble Is a Friend of Mine is the undeniable chemistry and banter between the two lead characters. In this second book, their rapport didn’t feel quite as sharp and while I enjoyed seeing how their relationship had evolved, I kind of wish this part of the story could have been wrapped up earlier, so we could focus more on the mystery of Digby’s sister. Still, Trouble Makes a Comeback was a lot of fun and I look forward to reading the conclusion.

Rating: 3/5

★★★

A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

Title: A Crown of Wishes
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Series: The Star-Touched Queen, #2
Pages: 369
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Release Date: March 28th 2017

      “She is the princess of Bharata—captured by her kingdom’s enemies, a prisoner of war. Now that she faces a future of exile and scorn, Gauri has nothing left to lose. But should she trust Vikram, the notoriously cunning prince of a neighboring land? He promises her freedom in exchange for her battle prowess. Together they can team up and win the Tournament of Wishes, a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor. It seems like a foolproof plan—until Gauri and Vikram arrive at the tournament and find that danger takes on new shapes: poisonous courtesans, mischievous story birds, a feast of fears, and twisted fairy revels. New trials will test their devotion, strength, and wits. But what Gauri and Vikram will soon discover is that there’s nothing more dangerous than what they most desire.”

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“Light flared from creases of rock. I squinted against the brightness until we emerged from the cavern and into a valley that sprawled vast as a kingdom. My heart stopped. Day and night tore the sky in two, each half grabbing greedy fistfuls of clouds from the other. Stars glistened above.

Roshani Chokshi’s A Crown of Wishes is a dazzling display of masterful storytelling with three-dimensional characters and a setting that will leave you breathless. Chokshi’s writing shined bright in her debut A Star-Touched Queen and continues to do so in this sequel. Though A Crown of Wishes can be read as a standalone, reading the first book will help give you a foundation for this world and the character of Gauri. At the beginning of the novel we meet two vastly different people who are brought together for the mysterious and magical Tournament of Wishes. If they have any hope of surviving and finding a way to take control of their own fates, they must learn to work together. Vikram and Gauri’s journey is one heart-stopping trial after another and with a capricious Otherworld lord in charge of the tournament, winning the game may not be as straightforward as they thought.

I was really intrigued by the small glimpse we got of Gauri as Maya’s younger sister in A Star-Touched Queen and was ecstatic to hear that this novel was going to follow her story. Gauri, known as the Jewel of Bharata, is many things. Princess. Warrior. Monster. Gauri’s spent her life living for the people of Bharata, fighting and sacrificing for them. Her brother Skanda’s cruelty has forced her to compromise her own morals and guilt is a hard thing to outrun. When she meets Vikram, she is at her lowest point. Her plan to overthrow her brother has been thwarted, someone she believed she could count on betrayed her, and it is only a matter of time before her best friend is executed. At first she intends to use Vikram and his invite as his partner for the Tournament of Wishes as an excuse to escape her imprisonment in Ujijain, but she finds a worthy ally and friend in Vikram. Gauri has always had to be strong, she’s learned to hide any weakness and shut down any feelings that may interfere with her goals. Being vulnerable does not come easy for her, but she learns risking her heart may be worth it in the end.

Gauri and Vikram are two sides of the same coin. Where Gauri’s strength lies in her ability to wield a weapon, Vikram wields a different kind of weapon: words. Appropriately called the “Fox Prince”, Vikram is both perceptive and cunning. His intelligence is his greatest asset, though his natural charm goes a long way. But Vikram has carried a secret on his shoulders for most of his life, a secret that threatens his entire future as the next ruler of Ujijain. Though adopted, the Emperor of Ujijain has always regarded Vikram as his true son and intends for him to succeed him, but the Council of Ujijain, also aware of Vikram’s illegitimacy, is not so convinced of his competence. Destined to rule in name alone, Vikram jumps at the chance to change his fate. Instead of ordering the execution of an enemy princess, he offers her the chance to change her own future and in so doing, alters both their lives forever. Despite his better judgment, Vikram finds himself drawn to Gauri, not just to the girl with murder in her eyes, but the one who has been carrying the responsibility of her people upon her shoulders for years.

From the lush setting of the Otherworld to an enchanting but deadly population of mythical creatures, Roshani Chokshi beguiles readers with her world-building from start to finish. A Crown of Wishes will leave you with a heart full as you follow the rewarding journey of two young souls desperate for a chance to take control of their lives.

5/5

★★★★★

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Title: American Street
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: February 14th 2017

      “On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life.
      But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own.
      Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?”

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“This is the opposite of an earthquake, where things were falling apart and the ground was shifting beneath my small feet. Here, the walls, the air, the buildings, the people all seem to have already fallen. And there is nothing else left to do but to shrink and squeeze until everything has turned to dust and disappeared.

Ibi Zoboi delivers a truly emotional story in her debut novel, American Street. Though born in America, Fabiola Toussaint has only known one home–Haiti. Upon entering the U.S., Fabiola’s mother is detained by immigration and Fabiola is sent ahead to her aunt and cousins in Detroit. Desperate to get her mother back and struggling to adjust to this new world, Fabiola learns that America is not everything it’s promised to be. She finds herself in morally ambiguous situations that might cost her the only good things she has found since coming to America. Stuck between two impossible choices, Fabiola must decide how far she is willing to go to be reunited with her mother.

Fabiola spends the first few months in America pulled in different directions. Her cousins all have different ideas on how she can adjust to this new land while Fabiola tries to hold on to both her language and religion, both foreign and strange to outsiders. America demands a lot from those who immigrate to the country. A common theme throughout the novel is how people and America itself talk out of both sides of their mouths. Ideally, American is a melting pot, but in reality assimilation is necessary. The Creole language is part of Fabiola’s cultural identity and like her aunt before her, there is tremendous pressure for her to shed this part of who she is in order to fit in and feel more accepted. This new country comes with new rules for how to maneuver through the world and while there are aspects that Fabiola has encountered before, the line between right and wrong becomes more and more blurred as the story goes on.

Family is the most important aspect of Fabiola’s story. The absence of her mother is a weight she continually carries around. Any happiness she feels getting to know her cousins or falling in love for the first time is counterbalanced with the hole in her heart left behind by her mother. Though it is only briefly touched on, the possibility that Fabiola’s mother knew what would happen after the two of them entered the U.S. is something I continue to wonder about. We are not given a definitive answer, but I believe Fabiola’s mother isn’t a stranger to sacrifice and if she believed telling her daughter they were both meant to start over in America was the only way to get her to leave Haiti, I believe she would have done it. Fabiola’s loyalty to her family is tested throughout the novel. She loves her aunt and cousins, but they don’t always make good decisions. She wants to protect them, but this isn’t always easy when they don’t want her protection or when other people with more power than her can easily throw a wrench in her plans.

I do wish we could have spent more time individually with Fabiola’s cousins Chantel, Primadonna, and Princess, but I still think Zoboi did a good enough job defining who they are individually. A nice touch were the different character-driven sections sprinkled throughout the book that gave readers a little more insight into minor characters’ stories. With an engaging protagonist and an heart-stopping ending, American Street is a debut not to be missed.

4/5

★★★★

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Title: We Are Okay
Author: Nina LaCour
Series: N/A
Pages: 234
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 14th 2017

      “Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

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“I wonder if there’s a secret current that connects people who have lost something. Not in the way that everyone loses something, but in the way that undoes your life, undoes your self, so that when you look at your face it isn’t yours anymore.”

Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay explores one girl’s emotional journey as she grapples with loss, grief, and ultimately the first steps toward closure. It’s been months since Marin’s grandfather passed away, since she lost the only family she had left. Months since she walked away from her old life, leaving behind a best friend who had only begun to be something more. Now at school in New York City, Marin has been trying to forget her past, but one visit from her former best friend Mabel will change everything.

There are books you walk your way through and ones you feel your way through. We Are Okay falls into the latter category. LaCour’s novel focuses heavily on internal conflict as readers follow Marin as she copes with seeing Mabel for the first time in months. At first Marin is desperate to hide how she is, but her relationship with Mabel makes it impossible for her to put up a convincing front. Using various flashbacks, LaCour pieces together the protagonist’s past, giving context to not only her relationship with her grandfather but to Mabel. There’s an underlining tension to every interaction between the two old friends. More important than what is said is what isn’t. When Marin skipped town without a word to anyone, she left Mabel hurt and confused. Their romantic relationship was just in its beginning stages, they hadn’t yet defined what they were, but it’s clear they were in love with each other. These past feelings are made even more complicated by Mabel’s new relationship and the fact that Marin herself hasn’t been able to move on.

Marin’s relationship with her grandfather was unconventional at best. Though she remembers his lectures fondly, there was always something missing between the two of them. The only true link she had with her mother, Marin’s grandfather has never been very open about his daughter. Marin lost her mother at a very young age and her memories of her are not concrete. It’s clear that many people loved her, but these are strangers and Marin would rather hear about her mother from someone close. Marin and her grandfather function more like roommates and though their separate lives may seem unusual to everyone else, it’s all Marin has ever known.

Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay is an emotionally gripping novel: quiet in its intensity, but still manages to pack a punch.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★