Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

Title: Tash Hearts Tolstoy
Author: Kathryn Ormsbee
Series: N/A
Pages: 367
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: June 6th 2017

      “After a shout-out from one of the Internet’s superstar vloggers, Natasha “Tash” Zelenka finds herself and her obscure, amateur web series, Unhappy Families, thrust into the limelight: She’s gone viral.
      Her show is a modern adaptation of Anna Karenina—written by Tash’s literary love Count Lev Nikolayevich “Leo” Tolstoy. Tash is a fan of the forty thousand new subscribers, their gushing tweets, and flashy Tumblr GIFs. Not so much the pressure to deliver the best web series ever.
      And when Unhappy Families is nominated for a Golden Tuba award, Tash’s cyber-flirtation with Thom Causer, a fellow award nominee, suddenly has the potential to become something IRL—if she can figure out how to tell said crush that she’s romantic asexual.
      Tash wants to enjoy her newfound fame, but will she lose her friends in her rise to the top? What would Tolstoy do?

swirl (2)

“I wonder if this is how everyone is destined to live: hopping from familiar space to familiar space, until all the familiar spaces turn into one big blurry memory of nothing in particular.”

Kathryn Ormsbee’s Tash Hearts Tolstoy is the kind of book that quietly sneaks up on you and by the time you’ve finished, you realized you’ve fallen irrevocably in love with its characters. The only thing Tash may love more than Leo Tolstoy is filmmaking. Tash and her best friend Jack have been working on a web series adaptation of Anna Karenina and though they only dreamed of it being a success, nothing prepares the girls for what happens when they get a shout out from a popular vlogger. Overnight, they go from a few hundred subscribers to thousands. Handling Unhappy Families suddenly popularity is much harder than Tash ever expected and if she isn’t careful, it may cost her the most important people in her life.

Tash is like a breath of fresh air. Her voice comes across so clear on the page that it isn’t hard to imagine her as a living, breathing person. Ormsbee has created a character whose greatest strengths tend to work against her. Though driven and imaginative, Tash’s focus can sometimes eclipse the opinions of those around her. Her relationship with her sister Klaudie is a great example of this. Tash is used to being second best. She knows she’s not as smart as her sister and tends to use this difference in intelligence as a way to judge Klaudie. Throughout the course of the novel, Tash and Klaudie’s relationship slowly moves past sibling rivalry. Tash begins to see her sister as an individual with pressures and expectations of her own. She’s struggling just as much as Tash to find out who she is when everyone around her is so sure they know better than herself. This is also the first novel I’ve read with a asexual protagonist and Ormsbee addresses so many aspects of this identity. Tash is still working out how to express who she is while also dealing with feelings of inadequacy and isolation, as well as dealing with erasure and aphobia from those who around her.

The minor characters in Tash Hearts Tolstoy are so well-developed, but also leave room for further exploration. Jack is one of the most moody characters I’ve come across. In many way, she’s the opposite of Tash. More introvert than anything else, Jack isn’t one to let other people know how she feels, but she can also be incredibly abrasive and almost too ready to share her opinion. Her personality adds a lot of balance to Tash’s enthusiastic one. Jack’s brother Paul is also a constant in Tash’s life. More gregarious than his sister, Paul is the one that Tash finds it hard not to be honest around. I personally really liked the dynamic between these three characters. They grew up together, but are still figuring out how to relate to one another as each of them grows into adulthood. Aside from Tash’s family, Jack and Paul make up such a huge part of Tash’s world. Her growth as a person hinges on how she relates to these two just as much as how she relates to her sister or parents.

With a charming protagonist and a heavy focus on family and friendship, Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a must-read for the contemporary fan and those who love web series adaptations of classic novels.

5/5

★★★★★

Advertisements

ARC Review: The Victoria in My Head by Janelle Milanes

Title: The Victoria in My Head
Author: Janelle Milanes
Series: N/A
Pages: 400
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: September 19th 2017
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review*

      “Victoria Cruz inhabits two worlds: In one, she is a rock star, thrashing the stage with her husky voice and purple-streaked hair. In the other, currently serving as her reality, Victoria is a shy teenager with overprotective Cuban parents, who sleepwalks through her life at the prestigious Evanston Academy. Unable to overcome the whole paralyzing-stage-fright thing, Victoria settles for living inside her fantasies, where nothing can go wrong and everything is set to her expertly crafted music playlists.
      But after a chance encounter with an unattainably gorgeous boy named Strand, whose band seeks a lead singer, Victoria is tempted to turn her fevered daydreams into reality. To do that, she must confront her insecurities and break away from the treadmill that is her life. Suddenly, Victoria is faced with the choice of staying on the path she’s always known and straying off-course to find love, adventure, and danger.”

swirl (2)

Janelle Milanes’s debut The Victoria in My Head is a feel-good contemporary with an easy-to-relate-to protagonist. Victoria Cruz doesn’t exactly live her life on the edge. As a scholarship student and the daughter of parents with Harvard aspirations, Victoria’s life is pretty much laid out for her. She’s good at going through the motions, of never taking a chance on anything, even if it’s something she really wants. When she gets the opportunity to audition for a rock band, Victoria isn’t sure she can overcome her stage fright in order to do so. Taking those first steps toward embracing her dreams won’t be the hardest decision she’ll have to make. Victoria will discover that finding her place in the world isn’t easy, and despite all the dissenting voices around her, only she can decide her own future.

The Victoria in My Head is an incredibly readable novel. I nearly finished it in one sitting, not because it went by particularly fast, but because I had to find out what happened next for the protagonist. Victoria is a really insecure character. She doesn’t readily share how she feels with other people and is more prone to imagining what her life could be like than actually taking steps to make these things happen. Her parents are Cuban immigrants who have sacrificed a lot in order to open doors for their daughter. They have grand ambitions that are constantly being reinforced by Victoria’s school and best friend. This added pressure is enough to get anyone to crumble, especially for someone who isn’t sure if her dreams are the same as those around her. Despite how it sometimes felt to Victoria, it’s clear that her parents only want what’s best and it’s their earnestness in wanting to be involved in her life that endeared them to me.

I loved the friendships in this novel. Victoria’s best friend Annie is incredibly driven and iat first it does feel like she isn’t quite hearing Victoria when she talks about what she wants in life, but it doesn’t take long to realize that Annie is an incredibly supportive friend. The budding friendship between Victoria and her new bandmates is also one of the highlights of this novel. They build a kind of family that looks out for one another and it was really nice to see the loyalty they show later on in the novel. I was a little iffy about the romance in this novel, but despite my first impression, I ended up really liking the person Victoria ends up with. It’s a relationship that grows overtime and felt earned because of all the hiccups along the way.

The Victoria in My Head is an important in that it’s a book written for teens still trying to find their own voice, who feel insecure in their own skin, or who grappling with the added pressure of parental expectations.

3/5

★★★

My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick

Title: My Life Next Door
Author: Huntley Fitzpatrick
Series: N/A
Pages: 394
Publisher: Dial Books For Young Readers
Release Date: June 14th 2012

      “The Garretts are everything the Reeds are not. Loud, messy, affectionate. And every day from her rooftop perch, Samantha Reed wishes she was one of them . . . until one summer evening, Jase Garrett climbs up next to her and changes everything.
      As the two fall fiercely for each other, stumbling through the awkwardness and awesomeness of first love, Jase’s family embraces Samantha – even as she keeps him a secret from her own. Then something unthinkable happens, and the bottom drops out of Samantha’s world. She’s suddenly faced with an impossible decision. Which perfect family will save her? Or is it time she saved herself?

swirl (2)

“One thing my mother never knew, and would disapprove of most of all, was that I watched the Garretts. All the time.”

It’s almost entirely impossible to truly enjoy a novel where you find the minor characters more interesting than the protagonist. This is unfortunately what I experienced when I picked up Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door. Samantha Reed is not used to stepping out of her comfort zone and much of her safe little world has been defined by her overly critical mother. The Garretts next door have always represented what her own family is not. When Samantha meets Jase Garrett and he introduces her to his unstructured family, Samantha begins to fall in love with all of them. But both her worlds are about to collide in the most heartbreaking way and Samantha comes to realize she may not be able to keep both families.

I really wanted to feel invested in Samantha’s story, but in the end, I felt very little for this protagonist. Compared to the larger ensemble of characters, Samantha was bland in comparison. Samantha’s older sister Tracy makes only a couple of appearances, but her willingness to challenge her mother’s impossible standards made her immediately more interesting than Samantha. As a state senator, Samantha’s mother is constantly busy. Much of her energy is focused on campaigning for her next term. She’s judgmental in a way that is hard not to cringe at and if there was a reward for worst mother in YA fiction, she’d probably win. Both these characters evoked more emotion from me than the protagonist. Samantha’s best friend Nan is a hard pill to swallow even from the beginning. I never bought into Samantha and her relationship and their entire dynamic made me wish Samantha had even one positive female relationship. She did not.

I appreciated that Samantha’s love interest Jase was such an individual with unique interests. His family is his biggest cheerleader and he in turn is incredibly devoted to them. That being said, there were times where I would have liked to see a more flawed version of the character. Characters who are too perfect can also feel really flat. Surprisingly, I felt the most invested in Nan’s brother Tim. His sister is meant to serve as a foil to him. In the beginning, I could not stand his character. He’s a completely disaster, but with the help of certain characters, he finds his footing. In the end, I found myself most invested in the budding friendship between Jase and Tim. I will say that Fitzpatrick does do a good job of defining three different families simultaneously, but it’s unfortunate that the Reeds were the family I was the least interested in knowing more about.

Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door is almost universally a favorite of YA contemporary fans. While Samantha does show some growth in the end, I never felt invested in her as a character. It also didn’t help that all of the characters in this novel who made mistakes never seemed to actually face any consequences. It made me wonder what the point really was when it came to certain storylines.

2/5

★★

ARC Review: Odd & True by Cat Winters

Title: Odd & True
Author: Cat Winters
Series: N/A
Pages: 368
Publisher: Amulet Books
Release Date: September 12th 2017
**I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “Trudchen grew up hearing Odette’s stories of their monster-slaying mother and a magician’s curse. But now that Tru’s older, she’s starting to wonder if her older sister’s tales were just comforting lies, especially because there’s nothing fantastic about her own life—permanently disabled and in constant pain from childhood polio.
      In 1909, after a two-year absence, Od reappears with a suitcase supposedly full of weapons and a promise to rescue Tru from the monsters on their way to attack her. But it’s Od who seems haunted by something. And when the sisters’ search for their mother leads them to a face-off with the Leeds Devil, a nightmarish beast that’s wreaking havoc in the Mid-Atlantic states, Tru discovers the peculiar possibility that she and her sister—despite their dark pasts and ordinary appearances—might, indeed, have magic after all.

swirl (2)

Cat Winters’s novels are some of the best, but underappreciated historical fiction I’ve ever read. Od and Tru grew up with stories about their mother and her siblings’ bravery. They grew up believing in the paranormal, that monsters exist and it was their family’s responsibility to protect the world from them. But life has taken many things from both Od and Tru. Their father disappeared when they were young and their mother hasn’t been in their life. Even their beloved Uncle Magnus hasn’t been seen for years. After being sent away, Od shows up at her sister’s window, begging her to come away with her and to accept their family’s legacy. But Tru no longer believes in monsters. Still, her love for his sister Odette will take them far from the safe haven of their aunt’s house and into a dangerous, unknown world. Using dual perspectives and shifting timelines, Cat Winters crafts a tale of two sisters whose lives are full of loss, but also perseverance.

At the heart of this story are two sisters who hold very different views of the world. As the oldest, Odette has always felt that she needed to protect her younger sister. Her stories of monsters and the heroes that slay them have been the only way in which she has been able to help shield her sister from the realities of life. What goes unsaid is that Odette is also in need of these stories. Being older has exposed her to the flaws of the adults in her life and it’s been easier to embrace a story about these people than to accept who they really are. Unlike her sister, Tru no longer holds fast to these myths. Ever since her sister was forced to leave her aunt’s home, Tru has grown up to resent these tall tales and the letters from her sister that speak of harrowing travels. While life with her Aunt Viktoria has been stifling, Tru isn’t sure she’s brave enough to step outside into the great unknown. Though she’s suspended any belief in the paranormal, she’s taken to reading tea leaves in secret because a part of her still wants to believe in her sister’s stories.

Odd & True takes its time separating fact from fiction as the girls embark on a hunt for Leeds Devil which has been terrorizing the people of New Jersey. From the cover and synopsis, I expected an action-packed novel about monster hunting, but instead was treated to a slow-paced narrative about a flawed family, two sisters who survive despite injustices done to them, and the power of a story to weave magic if only one takes a leap of faith and believes.

4/5

★★★★

ARC Review: Black Bird of the Gallows by Meg Kassel

Title: Black Bird of the Gallows
Author: Meg Kassel
Series: N/A
Pages: 300
Publisher: Entangled Publishing
Release Date: September 5th 2017
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review*

      “A simple but forgotten truth: Where harbingers of death appear, the morgues will soon be full.
      Angie Dovage can tell there’s more to Reece Fernandez than just the tall, brooding athlete who has her classmates swooning, but she can’t imagine his presence signals a tragedy that will devastate her small town. When something supernatural tries to attack her, Angie is thrown into a battle between good and evil she never saw coming. Right in the center of it is Reece—and he’s not human.
      What’s more, she knows something most don’t. That the secrets her town holds could kill them all. But that’s only half as dangerous as falling in love with a harbinger of death.

swirl (2)

Meg Kassel’s Black Bird of the Gallows is your average, run-of-the-mill fantasy novel with a predictable plot and lackluster characters. Angie Dovage’s life takes a turn when Reece Fernandez moves in next door. Almost immediately, strange occurrences begin to happen. The closer Angie gets to Reece, the more she begins to realize that these strange events are tied to her new neighbors. As a harbinger of death, Reece can sense when death is near and he’s come to Angie’s town because disaster is imminent. But there are even darker players who have descended upon Cadence with their own nefarious plans and Angie is about to be caught in the middle.

When it comes to fantasy novels and especially ones that showcase a romance, I always feel that it’s better for an author to establish the world and protagonist first before introducing a love interest. This was not the case with Black Bird of the Gallows and it was difficult from the first page to care about Angie and Reece as a potential couple when there was no time to grow to like them as individuals. While I wouldn’t necessarily class this as an insta-love story, Angie is taken quite suddenly with Reece that I almost put down the novel. In one conversation, specifically with one look, Angie already thinks she can understand him on a “deep level.” She notes a couple of lines later that it was a six minute conversation. If there relationship had progressed rapidly from this point, I wouldn’t have been surprised. The story saves itself somewhat by allowing these two characters to be in each other’s presence for a more appropriate amount of time before a relationship between them begins.

Harbingers of death are really interesting entities in this world as they don’t cause calamities themselves, but they feed off the energy of the dead. There was apt opportunity to explore these creatures more in the novel, but readers are limited to only learning about Reece at length. Because of this, I never felt like the world-building was fully realized. The Beekeepers are another nonhuman creature in Cadence, one more diabolical than harbingers of death. Using a bee sting to infect humans, Beekeepers cause chaos by driving those stung into doing horrendous things. What bothered me the most about the Beekeepers is the fact that the story seemed to rely on them only preying on the “mentally unstable.” The text does not make it clear if this is in reference to those with mental health problems or just those who have problems controlling their anger. Either way I found it be a really unsettling premise, especially when later the Beekeepers proclaim that they don’t like to sting strong people.

Black Bird of the Gallows fails to really delve deep into its characters, its relationships lacked the kind of emotional depth that would allow me to feel invested, and the world-building felt too small when it came to its imaginary creatures.

2/5

★★

Mini Reviews: Woman in Cabin 10 + Wesley James Ruined My Life

MiniI have one more mini-review from my July reads to share plus another book I picked up in August. You probably won’t see another set of mini-reviews until the end of September, possibly October. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: The Woman in Cabin 10
Author: Ruth Ware
Series: N/A
Pages: 340
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Pres
Release Date: July 19th 2017

      “In this tightly wound story, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…

swirl (2)

“A hand grabbed at my wrist, the grip far stronger than mine. Blind, mad with panic, I groped in the pitch black with my free hand, searching for something, anything, to use as a weapon, and my hand closed over the bedside lamp.”

Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 did not have as many thrills as I would have liked, but is still the kind of novel that reminds me that I need to give this genre another go. The novel opens with a bang as the protagonist undergoes a traumatic experience with a burglary. Ware does a great job of showing the aftereffects of Lo’s experience as she tries to regain a feeling of security. Still in an emotionally fragile state, she boards The Aurora, an upscale cruise liner, on its maiden voyage. Lo never gets a chance to catch her breath as she stumbles upon what she believes to be a murder, but with everyone on the boat accounted for, no one is taking her seriously. Lo’s growing sense of isolation is what drives the story forward as she is determined to find answers. She doesn’t know who to trust and begins to doubt herself. There are plenty of suspects in this one and I would have liked the author to have given more time to different players beside Lo. With mysteries, I always feel like as a reader I need to be a part of the unraveling portion of the story, so would have appreciated knowing more about the other people on the cruise. Overall, The Woman in Cabin 10 was a decent psychological thriller that has me contemplating what other books from the genre I need to pick up. Give me your book recommendations in the comments!

Rating: 3/5

★★★


Title: Wesley James Ruined My Life
Author: Jennifer Honeybourn
Series: N/A
Pages: 256
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Release Date: July 18th 2017 

      “Sixteen-year-old Quinn Hardwick’s having a rough summer. Her beloved grandmother has been put into a home, her dad’s gambling addiction has flared back up and now her worst enemy is back in town: Wesley James, former childhood friend—until he ruined her life, that is.
      So when Wesley is hired to work with her at Tudor Tymes, a medieval England themed restaurant, the last thing Quinn’s going to do is forgive and forget. She’s determined to remove him from her life and even the score all at once—by getting him fired.
      But getting rid of Wesley isn’t as easy as she’d hoped. When Quinn finds herself falling for him, she has to decide what she wants more: to get even, or to just get over it.

swirl (2)

“Unfortunately. I will never not see him because he’s everywhere. And that has to change, because I just can’t take it.”

I wanted to enjoy Jennifer Honeybourn’s Wesley James Ruined My Life so much. It had all the makings of a really entertaining, fast-paced contemporary, but as soon as I got more acquainted with Quinn’s animosity for former friend Wesley James, it lost me. In truth, the only reason I ended up finishing this one instead of setting it aside was because it was so short. Quinn hatches an immediately plan to get rid of Wesley from her life as soon as he reenters it. He may be over their falling out that took place five years ago, but Quinn isn’t. While I can buy into an eleven-year-old Quinn hating Wesley for revealing a secret that ended up being the last straw for her mother, ending her parents’ marriage, I found it really silly that a sixteen-year-old Quinn would still use the same kind of flawed logic. While I understand that Quinn needs someone to blame and for her it’s hard to see her father as the catalyst for the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, it still bothered me that she needed this spelled out before she could even begin to forgive Wesley. I will say that I enjoyed both the complicated and rich familial relationships in this book. Quinn is incredibly close to her grandmother and has been struggling to come to terms with her Alzheimer’s diagnosis and what it means for their relationship. Quinn’s father has a gambling addiction that the protagonist isn’t always sure how to deal with. I do think it would have been nice to see her mother take a more active role in helping Quinn cope with having a father with an addiction, but she was mostly absent.

Rating: 2/5

★★