Mini Reviews: Heartstone + By Your Side

MiniHave I mentioned how nice it is to write a couple of mini reviews during the month? I love writing reviews (mostly), but sometimes I don’t have the time to write down all my thoughts and sometimes I just can’t seem to find the words. It’s nice having this alternative way of sharing my thoughts on books. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Heartstone
Author: Elle Katharine White
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: January 17th 2017 

      “A debut historical fantasy that recasts Jane Austen’s beloved Pride & Prejudice in an imaginative world of wyverns, dragons, and the warriors who fight alongside them against the monsters that threaten the kingdom: gryphons, direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms.
      They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay—and Merybourne Manor has plenty of monsters.
      Passionate, headstrong Aliza Bentaine knows this all too well; she’s already lost one sister to the invading gryphons. So when Lord Merybourne hires a band of Riders to hunt down the horde, Aliza is relieved her home will soon be safe again.
      Her relief is short-lived. With the arrival of the haughty and handsome dragonrider, Alastair Daired, Aliza expects a battle; what she doesn’t expect is a romantic clash of wills, pitting words and wit against the pride of an ancient house. Nor does she anticipate the mystery that follows them from Merybourne Manor, its roots running deep as the foundations of the kingdom itself, where something old and dreadful slumbers . . . something far more sinister than gryphons.
      It’s a war Aliza is ill-prepared to wage, on a battlefield she’s never known before: one spanning kingdoms, class lines, and the curious nature of her own heart.

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“My breath rattled in my ears. I stared at the creature twitching at my feet. Even deep in it death throes, its talons raked the ground, reaching for me to rend, to kill.

If there’s one kind of retelling that I find hard to resist it’s Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Elle Katharine White’s Heartstone reimagines the classic in a world filled with dragons, gryphons, and adorable hobgoblins. Aliza is brave and opinionated, not easily intimidated and I really liked how important her family was to her. Alastair Daired, dragon Rider and far too arrogant for his own good, is standoffish and rigid in his opinions, but still has an unmistakable charm that’s hard not to fall for. It’s hard not to compare White’s characters to their inspirations. There were several characters whose reincarnations I found a lot more enjoyable. Aliza’s sister Leyda still retained the silliness I’m used to seeing in Lydia Bennet, but unlike her counterpart, who’s obsession with marriage is both infuriating and understandable, Leyda’s ambitions lie in her desire to be a Rider. She longs for adventure, to not be the sister everyone overlooks and I really sympathized with her character. Overall, Heartstone was a fast-paced and fun retelling that I’d recommend to those looking for a different take on the classic.

Rating: 3/5

★★★


Title: By Your Side
Author: Kasie West
Series: N/A
Pages: 342
Publisher: Harper Teen
Release Date: January 31st 2017

      “When Autumn Collins finds herself accidentally locked in the library for an entire weekend, she doesn’t think things could get any worse. But that’s before she realizes that Dax Miller is locked in with her. Autumn doesn’t know much about Dax except that he’s trouble. Between the rumors about the fight he was in (and that brief stint in juvie that followed it) and his reputation as a loner, he’s not exactly the ideal person to be stuck with. Still, she just keeps reminding herself that it is only a matter of time before Jeff, her almost-boyfriend, realizes he left her in the library and comes to rescue her.
Only he doesn’t come. No one does.
      Instead it becomes clear that Autumn is going to have to spend the next couple of days living off vending-machine food and making conversation with a boy who clearly wants nothing to do with her. Except there is more to Dax than meets the eye. As he and Autumn first grudgingly, and then not so grudgingly, open up to each other, Autumn is struck by their surprising connection. But can their feelings for each other survive once the weekend is over and Autumn’s old life, and old love interest, threaten to pull her from Dax’s side?”

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      “A voice in the back of my head told me to calm down before I made it worse. Everything was fine. So I was stuck alone in a library, but I was safe. I could read and jog the stairs and stay busy. There were plenty of distractions here.
      In my new quiet state, I heard something behind me. Footsteps on wood.”

If there is one contemporary author whose books always seem to lift my spirits, it’s Kasie West. Her stories are entertaining and her characters enjoyable. Her latest novel By Your Side is fun, fast-paced contemporary that had me smiling throughout. Autumn Collins thinks she knows exactly what she wants, but when she ends up trapped in her school library for a weekend with Dax Miller, their connection throws her for a loop. Autumn is a people pleaser, her friends tend to be more outgoing than herself, and she often finds it difficult to say no to them. She also has an anxiety disorder that can sometimes interfere with her social life. In Dax, she finds someone whose personality she finds calming and who she wants more than anything to help. But By Your Side is more than just about Autumn trying to figure out what she wants for herself. She also learns how important self-care is despite outside pressure from her friends. I really liked Dax, despite the parts of his personality that can be called cliché, but once again with West’s love interests, I wish we could have learned more about him and his situation. On my wish list: a Kasie West book with dual perspectives.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Series: N/A
Pages: 464
Publisher: Balzar + Bray
Release Date: February 28th 2017

      “Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
      Soon afterward, Khalil’s death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Starr’s best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
      But what Starr does—or does not—say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.

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“An earsplitting scream emerges from my gut, explodes in my throat, and uses every inch of me to be heard.

Angie Thomas has put together a debut novel that is staggeringly honest and raw in its heartbreak. The Hate U Give is unflinching as it takes on racism, police brutality, and injustice. Starr Carter’s life in Garden Heights isn’t always easy, but it’s home. Since she started attending Williamson Prep, Starr has had to juggle two different lives. One in Garden Heights and another at school. As one of the only black students at Williamson, Starr knows she’s judged differently and more harshly. Her friends and even her boyfriend don’t know everything about her life in Garden Heights. They don’t know that she lost a close friend in a drive-by when she was younger and that she continues to be haunted by Natasha’s death. When Starr’s childhood friend Khalil is shot and killed by a white cop, Starr’s carefully constructed worlds begins to unravel. As the only witness, Starr finds herself the center of an investigation. As protesters take to the streets, Starr must find the courage to speak up for her friend as well as herself.

Starr’s family is one of the most supportive and loving families about whom I’ve read. They argue, challenge one another, and begrudgingly compromise, but at the end of the day, there’s a myriad of people who have Starr’s back. Her parents are protective and always have their children’s best interest at heart. Her Uncle Carlos, despite having issues with Starr’s father and being a detective himself, would do anything for his niece. Starr’s brothers can be a pain, but she’d never trade them for anything. The community of Garden Heights is really well-developed. I felt the connections between characters who may not be related by blood, but still share in the common interest of the whole community.

The Hate U Give explores different forms of racism from microaggressions exhibited by Starr’s classmates to the institutional racism that contributed to the shooting death of an unarmed black teen. Starr’s once-close friend Hailey makes a lot of offhanded, racist comments. Instead of acknowledging her hurtful remarks and apologizing, Hailey is much more concerned about being called racist than being racist. This is the kind of racist behavior that goes largely unchallenged, so I was glad to see Starr and her friend Maya recognize that silence means you’re being complicit. The criminalization of black and brown people in our society, and especially of young black men, is one of the reasons why stories like Khalil’s occur. All too often we see the media reflect these biases by dehumanizing the victim and rationalizing the actions of the perpetrator. When the news of Khalil’s death first hits the airwaves, the coverage is more like a smear campaign. Khalil is portrayed as nothing more than a drug dealer while the media is all too eager to show a more sympathetic side of police officer. His father is interviewed on national television, telling his son’s story and garnering sympathy from the public while the pain of Khalil’s family and community is little more than an afterthought.

I went through a whole range of emotions while reading Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. I felt Starr’s devastation at losing a friend, the community’s anger at seeing another young person’s life ended too soon, the powerlessness of those wanting justice in such an unjust society, and the pain of realizing this probably won’t be the last time something like this happens. The Hate U Give is a call to give heed to the voices of those largely ignored in our society and a reminder of how necessary a movement like Black Lives Matter is. Everything about this book demands more attention than I could possibly give it in a review, but I’m hoping it sparks a lot of discussion that extends far beyond the book blogging community.

5/5

★★★★★

The Education of Margot Sanchez

Title: The Education of Margot Sanchez
Author: Lilliam Rivera
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: February 21st 2017

      “After ‘borrowing’ her father’s credit card to finance a more stylish wardrobe, Margot Sanchez suddenly finds herself grounded. And by grounded, she means working as an indentured servant in her family’s struggling grocery store to pay off her debts.
      With each order of deli meat she slices, Margot can feel her carefully cultivated prep school reputation slipping through her fingers, and she’s willing to do anything to get out of this punishment. Lie, cheat, and maybe even steal…
      Margot’s invitation to the ultimate beach party is within reach and she has no intention of letting her family’s drama or Moises—the admittedly good looking but outspoken boy from the neighborhood—keep her from her goal.

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“Everyone in this house hides behind closed doors. We build fortresses to bar people from scaling the walls and getting in. But even with the amount of time we spend sheltering ourselves there’s no way of concealing our problems.”

Lilliam Rivera’s The Education of Margot Sanchez is story about a girl finding her voice even amongst the chaos that surrounds her. Rivera has written a multi-faceted debut that tackles topics like family, gentrification, and identity. Margot knows that a lot has been invested in her in order for her to succeed. She’s spent months trying to fit in at her new school Somerset Prep, but in order to do so, she’s had to reinvent herself. She’s desperate for her new friends Serena and Camille to accept her, so impulsively takes her father’s credit card and runs up a $600 bill. Her plans to spend the summer at the Hamptoms all but fall apart, as she’s forced to work at her family-owned supermarket in the South Bronx. Now she feels out of place again. She doesn’t fit in the other cashieristas, her family is driving her crazy, and she finds herself attracted to a boy she has no business being interested in. Margot is desperate for a way out, but she may discover that the world she’s so desperate to leave behind is the one she belongs in after all.

When the book opens, Margot’s understanding of her situation is very narrow. She doesn’t quite get how her actions have such harsh consequences and blames her parents for her missing out on a great summer. While Somerset does offer her more opportunities, Margot has also lost sight of who she is. Her mind is in constant overdrive: how can she impress her friends, what can she change about herself in order to feel more accepted, how does she spin the fact that she’s being forced to work at Sanchez & Sons in a neighborhood her friends would never be caught dead in. She sees herself through other people’s eyes and finds it easier to blame other people than accept her own culpability. Her friendship with her childhood best friend Elizabeth is a great example of this. They’ve been growing apart ever since Margot started Somerset and Elizabeth, a new art school. Margot resents the fact that her best friend found it really easy to fit in and the more they grow apart, the more Margot begins to realize that Elizabeth has found a way to be happy without her. It takes Margot time to see things from her friend’s perspective, to see that it was Margot who changed and many of the things that defined their friendship got thrown out the window as Margot took on a new persona.

One of the first people to challenge this new Margot is Moises. A community activist working for the South Bronx Family Mission, they meet while he’s collecting signatures to stop the building of a new high-rise which will force residents from a local apartment building out. I fell in love with Moises during their first interaction. He’s both a playful and serious character who helps Margot broaden her perspective, though at the beginning she’d rather stay in her tiny, safe world. We only get small glimpses of Moises’s past and while I’d like to know more, I thought his present actions were more telling than the mistakes of his past. Family plays a huge role in this novel. Part of Margot growing up is seeing her family for who they are and not what they pretend to be. There’s a lot of hurt in the Sanchez household and they all cope differently with their problems. This all comes crumbling down when secrets get out and there’s no easy solution for any of them.

The Education of Margot Sanchez has a very messy ending. Much like life, the storylines in this novel aren’t wrapped up with a pretty bow at the end. There are hard times ahead for several characters, but I still found it to be a hopeful ending for Margot, who is taking the first steps to rectify her wrongdoings and reclaim who she is.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

aristotle-and-dante-discover-the-secrets-to-the-universe-by-benjamin-alire-saenzTitle: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Series: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, #1
Pages: 359
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 21st 2012
*This review is based on the audio version of this book, narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda*

      “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

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“There were so many ghosts in our house – the ghost of my brother, the ghost of my father’s war, the ghost of my sisters’ voices. And I thought that maybe there were ghosts inside of me that I hadn’t even met yet.”

Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is compelling coming-of-age story, infused with both touching and tragic moments in the life of Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza. The summer of Ari’s fifteenth year, he meets Dante and while the two could not be any more different, they quickly become friends. Over the course of two summers, both their lives are irrevocably changed by this friendship. This is the very first audio book I’ve listened to and although I was apprehensive about whether or not it would be able to hold my attention, I could not ask for a better narrator than Lin-Manuel Miranda. In fact, I might have been spoiled and need every audiobook I listen to to be narrated by him.

I loved how important family was in this book, not just for Ari but for Dante as well. Much of Ari’s resentment toward his parents comes from how closed off they are around him and this is never more apparent than with regard to his older brother, Bernardo, who is currently incarcerated. Ari wants so badly to know why, to be able to utter his brother’s name, but there’s a lot of hurt and shame that keeps both his parents tight-lipped. Ari’s father is also a veteran who continues to deal with the psychological effects of war. Ari is desperate to know his father, to have a real honest conversation, but this isn’t always possible for his dad. There is so much to love about Dante’s parents and it’s obvious right off the bat that they are meant to be a contrast to Ari’s. Dante’s father shows more affection in one interaction with his son than Ari has ever witnessed from his father. I thought it was still really important that Dante still finds it hard to open up to his parents. When he is contemplating telling them he is gay, he confesses to Ari that he doesn’t want to be a disappointment.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Dante is more sure of himself. He’s curious about the world and himself and isn’t afraid to share his feelings about both. He’s one of those people who lights up a room and his optimism is infectious. Ari’s feelings for Dante are gradual. Unlike Dante, he isn’t so sure of himself. He has a lot of internal dialogue that can be messy, contradictory, and evasive. He hides behind a lot of sardonic comments, but there’s so much happening underneath the surface, you can’t help but feel the weight he carries around. Of course, there were still times when I wanted to slap him upside the head to knock some sense into him. Ari feels more for Dante than he’s willing to admit, but still has to deal with his own internalized homophobia before being able to label what his relationship with Dante really is.

Both Ari and Dante are Mexican American and I found it really interesting and insightful how the characters deal with their ethnic identities. Dante never feels quite “Mexican” enough and is often convinced that other Mexicans don’t like him because of it. Ari makes snide remarks about what it means to be Mexican, even going so far as to say he’s more Mexican than Dante because of his darker skin. When you grow up in a society that stereotypes your culture and places less value on you because of your background, it can really do a number on how you perceive yourself, not just your place in society, but your place within that group. These stereotypes are often perpetuated within the community and I’ve known plenty of Mexican Americans that feel not quite American and not quite Mexican either and it’s a hard line to walk. That being said, I do wish the characters had come to a resolution regarding their identities or at least had a continued discussion about this part of who they are.

Sáenz does a fine job of capturing the pain and uncertainty of growing up when you’re on the brink of adulthood. Ari’s journey of self-discovery is incredibly moving and will have you rooting for him till the end.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

allegedly-by-tiffany-d-jackson Title: Allegedly
Author: Tiffany D. Jackson
Series: N/A
Pages: 387
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: January 24th 2017

      “Mary B. Addison killed a baby.
      Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: A white baby had died while under the care of a church-going black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it? She wouldn’t say.
      Mary survived six years in baby jail before being dumped in a group home. The house isn’t really “home”—no place where you fear for your life can be considered a home. Home is Ted, who she meets on assignment at a nursing home.
      There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary must find the voice to fight her past. And her fate lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But who really knows the real Mary?”

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“I’m dizzy from holding my breath for so long, maybe for years. And something ugly, hidden deep inside me is threatening to erupt. I can’t hold it back anymore. How do I make it stop before it’s too late?

Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly is one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever read. Mary B. Addison’s life is run by the state. Convicted of manslaughter at age nine, Mary has been in the system for nearly seven years. The group home she currently resides in is a living nightmare. The adults she is surrounded by are apathetic at best and the other girls in the group home can be ruthless and cruel. Mary just tries her best to survive, but when she discovers she is pregnant, she has more than herself to worry about. Mary wants to keep her baby, but with the kind of conviction she has on her record, Mary will be lucky to even hold her baby before its taken away. In order for her to even have a chance to raise her own child, Mary must confront her past and speak up when so many have wished to silence her.

Mary’s story is both compelling and heartbreaking. Mary is adamant about her innocence, but she’s also torn between telling the truth and condemning the one person in her life she’s always felt protective of: her mother. The author does an incredible job of holding the reader’s attention, not only by using Mary’s appeal to overturn her case to push the story forward, but also by weaving in excerpts from interviews and various officials’ notes in order to give a clearer picture of Mary’s past. With the entire system stacked against her, it isn’t hard to root for Mary, to hope that she could somehow have a happy ending. But there are instances when Mary’s credibility is brought into question. It isn’t that she is necessarily lying, but that she isn’t telling the whole truth. What happened the night little Alyssa died is shrouded in mystery and while I wanted to hear the whole story from Mary sooner, it was the secrecy and uncertainty of that night that kept me reading.

The most interesting and powerful relationship in Allegedly is Mary’s complicated dynamic with her mother. Though Mary has been through a lifetime of pain, she’s still in many ways very young. Her emotional age is never more apparent than when discussing her mother. Though she blames her mother for what happened to Alyssa, she still wants to protect her. She still worries about her mother’s mental health when she isn’t around, whether she’s been taking her pills and if she’s been having as her mother phrases it “a day.” She wishes more than anything to be able to talk to her mother when it comes to her pregnancy, but her mother remains antagonistic toward the very idea, so Mary remains very much isolated. Mary is starved for motherly love, but is also understandably distrustful of strangers. For her, it isn’t a matter of if the people in her life will disappoint her, but a matter of when.

Allegedly examines minors in the justice system, systemic racism, mental illness, teen pregnancy, and a myriad of other important topics. Jackson has crafted an amazing debut that is both moving and thought-provoking and one that I will not soon forget.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★

ARC Review: The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti

Title: The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett
Author: Chelsea Sedoti
Series: N/A
Pages: 400
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release Date: January 3rd 2017
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher, which does not influence my review*

      “Hawthorn wasn’t trying to insert herself into a missing person’s investigation. Or maybe she was. But that’s only because Lizzie Lovett’s disappearance is the one fascinating mystery their sleepy town has ever had. Bad things don’t happen to popular girls like Lizzie Lovett, and Hawthorn is convinced she’ll turn up at any moment-which means the time for speculation is now.
      So Hawthorn comes up with her own theory for Lizzie’s disappearance. A theory way too absurd to take seriously…at first. The more Hawthorn talks, the more she believes. And what better way to collect evidence than to immerse herself in Lizzie’s life? Like getting a job at the diner where Lizzie worked and hanging out with Lizzie’s boyfriend. After all, it’s not as if he killed her-or did he?

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Chelsea Sedoti’s debut novel The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett has a really unique protagonist, but for most of the novel, I was confused by the direction of the narrative. Hawthorn cannot fathom why former cheerleader and homecoming queen Lizzie Lovett could just go missing. Her town is completely torn over the twenty-one-year-old’s disappearance and Hawthorn tries to convince herself that she’s not just as obsessed. But as days pass with no sign of Lizzie, Hawthorn can’t get all the possibilities of what happened to Lizzie out of her head. Unable to shake off one implausible theory after another, she sets out to find out more.

Hawthorn is not always a likable character. She found it easy to disregard other people’s feelings and was apathetic when it first came to Lizzie disappearance, at times flagrantly callous to those who did care. Jealousy and resentment played a major part in how she felt about Lizzie and while it is explained later why Hawthorn felt this way, her attitude largely came across as immature. All that being said, Hawthorn had a really unique voice. She lives largely in her head, her imagination often getting the best of her. Bullied for being different, Hawthorn feels safe in her own shell and isn’t one to take chances. This changes the more she feels compelled to uncover the truth behind Lizzie’s disappearance. I really liked the evolution of Hawthorn’s relationship with her brother. Being so different has not helped either in understanding the other, but by the end of the novel, both begin to see the other differently. Hawthorn’s relationship with her best friend Emily has its rocky moments and I appreciated that there was someone in her life to call her out when she was acting ridiculous.

There were many choices that Hawthorn made that felt like really bad ideas, one of the most prominent was her growing relationship with Enzo, Lizzie’s boyfriend. This relationship made me feel really uncomfortable from the get go and not for the most obvious reason. The age gap between the two had me squirming (Hawthorn is seventeen, Enzo, twenty-five) and when it became clear that Hawthorn was starting to develop feelings for him, I kept expecting something to happen to put a stop to it. While Hawthorn’s behavior could be attributed to her lack of maturity, I was really disappointed that the people in her life (including her parents) didn’t object more to this relationship. I didn’t get the impression that I was meant to feel so uncomfortable, which actually made me feel even more uncomfortable. I’m not sure if the author ever expected readers to root for these two, but I was firmly against anything happening from the very beginning.

From reading the synopsis, the direction of the story seems pretty clear, only the story never really explored Lizzie’s disappearance enough and the more plausible explanations for it. While Hawthorn is convinced that Lizzie could have taken off on her own, aside from visiting a couple of places that have to do with her, Hawthorn really doesn’t do much investigating. If the novel had focused more on Lizzie, why she changed so much after high school, the things she kept hidden from the rest of the world, and Hawthorn discovering the truth behind the mask Lizzie showed the world, I believe this would have been a more interesting and rewarding novel.

Rating: 3/5

★★★