Mini-Reviews [ARC Edition]: Wayward Witch + Never Look Back

August really snuck up on me and didn’t realize just how many ARCs I needed to get to. So now my month is devoted to tackling all these books. As a result, I am doing a couple of mini-review ARC editions. It lifts a little bit of the pressure off of me as I try to get all these read and reviewed before their release dates.

Title: Wayward Witch
Author: Zoraida Córdova
Series: Brooklyn Brujas, #3
Pages: 384
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release Date: September 1st 2020

**I received an ARC of this book from the author, which does not influence my review**

      “Rose Mortiz has always been a fixer, but lately she’s been feeling lost. She has brand-new powers she doesn’t understand, and her family is still trying to figure out how to function in the wake of her amnesiac father’s return home. Then, on the night of her Deathday party, Rose discovers her father’s memory loss has been a lie.
      As she rushes to his side, the two are ambushed and pulled through a portal to the land of Adas, a fairy realm hidden in the Caribbean Sea. There, Rose is forced to work with a group of others to save Adas. Soon, she begins to discover the scope of her powers, the troubling truth about her father’s past, and the sacrifices he made to save her sisters.
      But if Rose wants to return home so she can repair her broken family, she must figure out how to heal Adas first.”

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Wayward Witch, the conclusion to Zoraida Córdova’s Brooklyn Brujas series, transports readers to a world that is equal parts beautiful and deadly as the youngest of the Mortiz sisters, Rose, must find a way to master her newly discovered power or find herself lost to her family forever. Rose’s Deathday party should be one of celebration, but she can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t quite right. Her family has done its best to move on from their experiences with Los Lagos and the casimuertos, but Rose can’t let go of all the unanswered questions she has about her father and his missing years and her own new power. When Rose and her father are kidnapped and brought to the Kingdom of Adas, a fairy-land full of creatures both enchanting and cunning, she is ordered to help stop the Rot which has been spreading over its realm. On her journey, Rose grapples with her newly discovered power and the darkness within herself that’s getting harder and harder to deny. Rose’s love for her family and particularly her sisters, Alex and Lula, is apparent, but there is always that voice in the back of her head that says she isn’t as strong or resilient as they are. I loved that Córdova’s fairyland isn’t just a mythical place, but one that has ties to Rose’s realm as it was once an island in the Caribbean. I really enjoyed Rose’s relationship with Iris, the princess of Adas. She is everything Rose doesn’t believe she can ever be. There is a respect that builds between the two that is important to each of their arcs. The author also introduces a non-binary character who calls themselves a brujex and I would love to get another book with Lin at the helm. Wayward Witch is an imaginative and dynamic novel that gives fans of the series a satisfying ending but also a thirst for more books in this world.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)


Title: Never Look Back
Author: Lilliam Rivera
Series: N/A
Pages: 320
Publisher: Bloomsbury YA
Release Date: September 1st 2020

** I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review.**

TW: mentions of PTSD, suicide, sexual assault

      “Featuring contemporary Afro-Latinx characters, acclaimed author Lilliam Rivera blends a touch of magical realism into a timely story about cultural identity, overcoming trauma, and the power of first love.
    Eury comes to the Bronx as a girl haunted. Haunted by losing everything in Hurricane Maria–and by an evil spirit, Ato. She fully expects the tragedy that befell her and her family in Puerto Rico to catch up with her in New York. Yet, for a time, she can almost set this fear aside, because there’s this boy . . .
      Pheus is a golden-voiced, bachata-singing charmer, ready to spend the summer on the beach with his friends, serenading his on-again, off-again flame. That changes when he meets Eury. All he wants is to put a smile on her face and fight off her demons. But some dangers are too powerful for even the strongest love, and as the world threatens to tear them apart, Eury and Pheus must fight for each other and their lives.”

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Lilliam Rivera gives the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice an updated and fresh look with her newest novel, Never Look Back. Pheus, an Afro-Dominican teen from Manhattan, is never without his guitar and this summer while visiting his father in the Bronx is no different. There is nothing like the feeling of casting a spell over his audience, leaving them mesmerized and asking for more. Eury is visiting her cousin for the summer in the Bronx as well. Eury’s mother is hoping a change of scenery for the summer will help her daughter outrun her demons, not realizing that Eury is in fact running from a demon. Since she was a little girl, Eury has been haunted by a spirit determined to take her to El Inframundo, the Underworld. At first Ato was a companion, someone who helped her with her father’s abandonment, but as the years passed, he became possessive, his jealousy manifesting as violence against others. Eury is also dealing with PTSD. Never Look Back takes place in the Bronx, but its heart is Eury’s connection to her home. Puerto Rico is an island that has been ravaged both by natural and man-made disasters. Eury’s past traumas inform who she is but she is also more than her history. This is an important distinction Rivera makes. Puerto Ricans, though they have been subjected to tragedies, they are not defined by their suffering. They deserve to flourish in spite of these tragedies. Religion plays a vital role in Never Look Back, as both Eury looks for a way to protect herself and Pheus is faced with realizing that there is more to this world than what is on the surface. Rivera also pays homage to Latin music, recognizes the importance of knowing the history of the places you walk, and infuses Taíno mythology in this empowering new YA fantasy novel.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)

Snapshot Review: Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

Title: Ayesha at Last
Author: Uzma Jalaluddin
Series: N/A
Pages: 368
Publisher: Berkley Books
Release Date: June 4th 2019

      “A modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice for a new generation of love.
      Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.
      Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.”

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“Because while it is a truth universally acknowledge that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.”

  • Diverse P&P retelling – I am currently on the hunt for more P&P and other Austen retellings by and about PoC. Ayesha and Khalid are both Indian-Canadian and Muslim. Both of these identities are essential to who they are as characters and how they move about the world.
  • Ayesha – Loved that this novel features an “older” young adult (Ayesha is 27) who hasn’t quite figured out what she wants out of life yet. She’s fallen back on teaching, but her true passion is her spoken-word poetry. Ayesha is opinionated, willing to go toe-to-toe with anyone who might disagree with her, and continuously pushes against conventional expectations.
  • Khalid – Khalid is incredibly pious, conservative in his beliefs, and feels a strong sense of obligation toward his family. He comes across as extremely judgmental, but he’s also incredibly honest, shy, and socially awkward. I loved every interaction between Ayesha and him, whether they were at odds or not.
  • Nana and Nani – Perhaps the best characters in the novel are Ayesha’s grandparents. These two made me laugh so much. I loved how recalcitrant Nana was, especially when it came to his health and how knowing, yet wise Nani was. Rather than interfering, they allowed the young people in their lives to make mistakes and grow from them.
  • P&P quotes sprinkled throughout – Jalaluddin sprinkles P&P quotes throughout her novel. Some of them are obvious like the quote above, but others you might not catch unless you are more familiar with the classic.

  • Certain aspects of the conflict – I might be a little vague here to avoid spoilers. I didn’t completely buy into the part of the conflict that required Ayesha to not only believe a rumor about Khalid’s family, but also somehow place blame on him when the alleged misdeed took place when he was barely a teen. I couldn’t reconcile what I knew of Ayesha and this sort of unfair judgement she had for what Khalid did or didn’t do when he was thirteen years old.

  • Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last pays homage to Pride and Prejudice without feeling confined by certain aspects. The characters’ struggles feel more relevant in a modern setting and Jalaluddin’s infuses just enough humor and romance to make this a must for P&P fans.

★★★★
(4/5)

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Title: Pride
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: September 18th 2018

      “Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable.
      When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.
      But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon, Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape, or lose it all.
      In a timely update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, critically acclaimed author Ibi Zoboi skillfully balances cultural identity, class, and gentrification against the heady magic of first love in her vibrant reimagining of this beloved classic.”

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up. But it’s not just the junky stuff they’ll get rid of. People can be thrown away too, like last night’s trash left out on sidewalks or pushed to the edge of wherever broken things go. What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first built out of love..”

Ibi Zoboi’s Pride reimagines Jane Austen’s classic in the modern world, making the story feel both familiar and new. Zuri Benitez is supposed to spend the summer before her senior year hanging out with her older sister Janae, back from her first year away at college. But Zuri’s summer takes an unexpected turn when the Darcys move in across the street and her sister develops a growing interest in the older Darcy son, Ainsley. Not exactly an ideal situation when Zuri can’t stand his judgmental brother Darius. With their fancy clothes, fancy parties, and fancy house Zuri can’t help but be wary of the Darcys. After all, rich people do not move into neighborhoods like hers without hoping to improve it and Zuri knows that means everyone who’s been there, even for generations, eventually gets pushed out.

Ibi Zoboi writes with a lot of heart and while a lot of Pride and Prejudice retellings focus heavily on the romance, Pride finds its stride with family and community at its center. Zuri is proud of where she comes from, she never pretends to be anything different than who she is, and is deeply protective of the people in her community. So while to many Bushwick might look a little run down with their dilapidated buildings and a little too loud with their block parties, Bushwick is always foremost Zuri’s home. I loved how much personality this community had, how it felt from the very beginning like a family rather than just a place you happen to live, and it wasn’t hard to see why Zuri loved it so much. We rarely talk about world building when it comes to contemporaries, but it’s an aspect that I’d love to see given more care in the genre. I want to get to know the characters, but I also want to see where they come from and how this has shaped the people they’ve become. This is very much what you get with Zoboi’s Pride. I really like that both American Street, Zoboi’s debut, and this novel have a subtle spiritual element to them. Zuri’s relationship to the character Madrina gives Zoboi an opportunity to bring Santería, a religion I hardly see explored in YA lit,  to life and added depth both to Pride’s characters and its world.

I really loved Zuri as a character. She’s independent, unapologetically opinionated, and fiercely protective of her family. While her older sister Janae has taken on the role of a second mother to her sisters, Zuri as the next oldest has become their defender. Though she shakes her head whenever her mother and younger sisters get a little too excited when it comes to gossip or boys, she loves them and has no room in her life for anyone who disrespects them. Zuri has big dreams for herself, to attend Howard University, to travel, but to always come back home and help the community that raised her. She’s a poet at heart and I loved all the poems sprinkled throughout the book. Words are a way for Zuri to work through her feelings and gives her an outlet for her emotions. Darius is a harder character to like. Like Zuri, you feel his disapproval of her family and her neighborhood from day one and you can’t help but feel protective of it. The two characters do not get off to a good start and part of this is Darius’s bad attitude, but another part is Zuri’s instant animosity of anyone rich moving into her neighborhood. For her, Darius and his family represents change–a familiar change that has happened to one too many neighborhoods like hers–the rich move in, soon people are forced out, and the neighborhood eventually becomes unrecognizable. By the end of the novel, I’m not sure I have the best grip on every facet of Darius’s character, but like Zuri, I don’t mind finding out more. 

Ibi Zoboi’s Pride is the kind of retelling I’d like to see more of. It centers a Haitian-Dominican character surrounded by a strong community, allows said character to be both confident and sometimes wrong, and there’s a strong undercurrent of hope present even in the most catastrophic of circumstances.

4/5

★★★★

ARC Reviews: Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Pérez

Title: Sweet Black Waves
Author: Kristina Pérez
Series: Sweet Black Waves, #1
Pages: 448
Publisher: Imprint
Release Date: June 5th 2018
**I received a free eARC of this novel through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “Two proud kingdoms stand on opposite shores, with only a bloody history between them.
      As best friend and lady-in-waiting to the princess, Branwen is guided by two principles: devotion to her homeland and hatred for the raiders who killed her parents. When she unknowingly saves the life of her enemy, he awakens her ancient healing magic and opens her heart. Branwen begins to dream of peace, but the princess she serves is not so easily convinced. Fighting for what’s right, even as her powers grow beyond her control, will set Branwen against both her best friend and the only man she’s ever loved.
      Inspired by the star-crossed tale of Tristan and Eseult, this is the story of the legend’s true heroine: Branwen. For fans of Graceling and The Mists of Avalon, this is the first book of a lush fantasy trilogy about warring countries, family secrets, and forbidden romance.”

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Kristina Pérez’s Sweet Black Waves promised to combine a whirlwind romance and breathtaking magic in her novel inspired by Tristan and Eseult. Unfortunately, the romance was barely tolerable and the magical elements did not come into play until the latter part of the novel, but by this time, I had already lost interest in the characters. As a lady’s maid to the princess of Iveriu, Branwen knows all about duty to the crown and her kingdom. She’s grown up hating Kernyv, a rival kingdom, whose people are responsible for the death of Branwen’s parents. When Branwen saves the life of a mysterious stranger, she has no idea that her one act of kindness will change the course of her life and her kingdom’s.

There are a lot of elements of the novel that should have worked for me, but ultimately didn’t. At the heart of Sweet Black Waves is Branwen’s relationship with her cousin Essy, the princess of Iveriu. Though Branwen’s role is to serve Essy, they have grown up as close as sisters. These two characters could not be more different and while I wanted to appreciate each for their strengths and weakness, there were aspects to both of these characters that I could not stand. Essy has never fully embraced all the responsibilities that come with being the next queen on Iveriu. She is at times frivolous and selfish. I never felt that she fully appreciated Branwen and when it came to Branwen, it felt like she would let Essy get away with everything. For most of the novel, this relationship comes across as very one-sided where Branwen would give and give and Essy would take without a second thought. I really wanted to see these two build one another up and help one another grow because it’s these kind of female relationships that I like seeing.

My least favorite aspect of the novel was the romance. If you hate insta-love, stay far away from this novel. Branwen jumps from hating the mysterious man she rescues because he’s from Kernyv to wondering if he will notice her in a pretty dress after a single encounter. Still, I might have been able to get past this if we as readers had gotten the chance to see these two get to know one another. There is, however, a time jump of “weeks” that prevents this. I really wish I could have gotten to know both characters through these off-the-page interactions and I’m sure I would have been more invested in their relationship as well. Later when the novel hinges on Branwen’s feelings for a Kernyvmen and how she struggles to reconcile this with her duty to her kingdom, it was hard for me to empathize with her sense of longing and anxiousness.

It took far too long for magic to make a concrete appearance in the novel. There is a really interesting religious element to this world that is present throughout. Branwen talks of the Old Ones and the Otherworld; the queen herself has a tie to this other realm that influences how the kingdom interacts with outsiders. I found this really interesting and wished the novel had delved in deeper and sooner. By the time Branwen discovers that she may have abilities that far exceed the healing skills her aunt has taught her, I had already lost interest in the novel. In the end, not even the twist could elicit any kind of emotional response from me, save vague amusement.

1/5