Book Review: Love from A to Z

love from a to zLove from A to Z
by S. K. Ali
Young Adult / Romance
342 pages
Published April 2019

I read S. K. Ali’s first book, Saints and Misfits, and quite enjoyed it, so I knew I’d be picking this one up eventually. I finally did – and this just solidifies S. K. Ali as a MUST READ author for me. Because this was excellent.

I complained in my last review that while the book was good, it was fluffy contemporary fiction, which is not where my current tastes lie. THIS is a much better book for me. While it’s still contemporary fiction, it has a heavier romance line, and it deals with issues of racism, islamophobia, chronic illness, and casualties of war.

It’s written in journal form, alternating between the journals of Adam and Zayneb. (The A to Z of the title!) Both of them were inspired to keep journals of “Marvels” and “Oddities,” individually, when they ran across The Marvels of Creation and the Oddities of Existence, an ancient manuscript in an Islamic museum. Adam sees Zayneb’s journal when they’re sitting near each other in an airport, which is what prompts their first meeting.

I really loved this book, and I adore Zayneb. She’s passionate and angry about injustice. Her ongoing feud with an islamophobic teacher drives her and her friends to take action, and I loved how her aunt encouraged her, but also encouraged her to be smart about it.

Zayneb wears a hijab, and the book actually goes into some detail on her feelings about it – who’s allowed to see her without it, what she does to make a makeshift hijab if she needs one unexpectedly, her daydreams about the special man who will get to see her hair. It was pretty special to get an inside look at hijab wearing; it’s such a personal thing.

Adam has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the disease that killed his mother, so there’s a lot of struggling to come to terms with that and what it means for his long-term health.

Some things, like hijab-wearing, get explained to the reader, but other things, like the three bits of Arabic script, the greetings, and a passage where Zayneb “takes a deep breath and says bismallah” are not. This is where I’m glad my husband was an Arabic linguist in the military, because they taught him a lot of the culture, as well. So now I know the Arabic script, repeated a few times in the book, all basically says “God Willing,” a standard Arabic phrase. I knew the greetings, but it was the bismallah that stumped me, so I asked him about it.

“Saying bismallah” is saying the name of God. It’s used as a beginning for many things, whether those are nice things, or difficult things, so in this case Zayneb was saying it before she started a difficult conversation with her mother. The book doesn’t explain it; it doesn’t need to, to understand the narrative, but I always enjoy learning the cultural underpinnings of things like this.

The afterword of the book is worth reading, as well. Ali explains that all of the discriminatory acts in the book were taken from real experiences; even the islamophobic teacher was taken from an incident three years ago in Toronto. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me at all.

Final verdict – this book is great. It’s going on my Best of 2019 list. It covers all kinds of important topics and holds a wealth of diversity, all wrapped around a sweet romance. I’ll be watching for more books by S. K. Ali, because she is wildly talented.

From the cover of Love from A to Z:

A Marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes – because they make french fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.

An Oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.

But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.

When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break. Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.

Then her path crosses with Adam’s.

Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam has stopped going to classes, intent instead on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister. 

Adam is also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.

Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals. 

Until a marvel and an oddity occurs . . . .

Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting. 

Book Review: House of Salt and Sorrows

house of salt and sorrowsHouse of Salt and Sorrows
by Erin A. Craig
Young Adult / Fantasy
403 pages
Published August 2019

First off (and I know this is a minor quibble) I think the title should have simply been House of Salt. As is, it falls into the recent trend of “Noun of Noun and Noun.” Children of Blood and Bone, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Queen of Air and Darkness, Girls of Paper and Fire, Ship of Smoke and Steel – it’s a common trope in Young Adult titles, it feels like, and House of Salt would have been a perfectly good title for the book.

Salt plays a heavy role in this tale; Annaleigh and her sisters, along with their father and stepmother, live in a manor house overlooking the sea, on one of several small islands that form her father’s duchy. The world as a whole has a pantheon of gods that are recognized everywhere – and often show up and interact with the people – but the islands mostly revere Pontus, the god of the sea. They call themselves the People of the Salt; from salt they came, and to salt they eventually return. Their religious rites involve ocean creatures and seawater – even to drinking a small swallow of it on First Night to remind themselves what they’re made of.

Past that, there is a lot of mourning in this book, so salt, by way of tears, is important too. The book opens with the funeral of Annaleigh’s older sister, Eulalie. She slipped and fell off a seaside cliff to her death on the rocks below. Her death follows Elizabeth, (dead from a fall off a library ladder), Octavia (drowned in the bath), and Ava (dead of the plague at eighteen). All four of them preceded by their mother, who died in childbirth of the youngest daughter.

The deaths, and the setting, contribute to make this tale a very gothic one, which I loved. Mysterious deaths, questions of sanity, stormy seas, rocky cliffs, foreboding manor full of secrets – this is my JAM, and I was utterly entranced by it. The author does a fantastic job of creating the slow-building horror, the creeping feeling of doom, the questions of what is actually real, ramping up the pressure until the last few chapters come out in a rush of activity and reveals and consequences. It is EXCELLENT.

The book is loosely based on the fairy tale of the dancing princesses, where the princesses wear out their shoes each night, to the befuddlement of their parents, who offer a reward to anyone who can solve the mystery. (They’ve been escaping to the fairy realm each night to dance the night away.) Mix that tale with gothic horror, and you end up with this gem of a book.

This book absolutely belongs on my Best of 2019 list. If you like gothic tales, pick this one up. You won’t regret it!

From the cover of House of Salt and Sorrows:

Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters and their father and stepmother. Once there were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last – the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge – and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.

Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that her sisters’ deaths were no accidents. The girls have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn’t sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who – or what – are they really dancing with?

When Annaleigh’s involvement with a mysterious stranger who has secrets of his own intensifies, it’s a race to unravel the darkness that has fallen over her family – before it claims her next.

Book Review: Small Town Hearts

small town heartsSmall Town Hearts
by Lillie Vale
Young Adult / Contemporary Romance
324 pages
Published March 2019

This was a perfect summer read. Set in a tourist town on the coast of Maine, this was friend drama and summer romance and summers at the beach, mixed with coffee and baked goods and sand castles. Babe is that rare teen in a small town who has no desire to leave it; she loves her little community, lives in the lighthouse overlooking the town, and dreams of buying the coffee shop she works in and spending the rest of her life right where she’s always been. Her friends, however, are not so content with their lives, and her best friend’s narcissistic drama plays a large part in the plot of this charming little book.

I definitely wanted to shake Babe a couple of times, and tell her that her friend Lucy is SUCH a better friend than Penny, her “best friend” from high school. It’s definitely the boy in their little group of three that is responsible for messing it all up, but Penny blames Babe for it all, which is completely unfair.

But the friend drama is not what I loved about this book. What I loved was the charming romance that blossoms between Babe and Levi, the artist in town for the summer. He is sweet and direct and just perfect.

I also really liked how this book treated Babe’s bisexuality. So many books with bi main characters have the 95/5 version of bisexuality; where they’re basically interested in one gender, except one or two people of another gender. Some of them are a little more open, where the MC has been with many genders but is still primarily interested in one. I feel like it’s rare to see one that’s truly 50/50. Bisexuality does cover that spectrum of attraction, I just enjoyed seeing a book about this particular aspect. Babe falls in love with a boy in this book, but an ex-girlfriend plays a significant role. I really liked this passage:

I had gone on a handful of dates that never led anywhere beyond awkward “See ya arounds” and fended-off kisses at the end of the night. Most of them had been nice, cute and witty. Local boys who were salt of the earth, sunny girls who collected kisses like seashells.

I also really enjoyed the subtle theme of consent. In at least two instances, an action done with consent “Is this okay?” “May I…?” is received with enthusiasm, whereas the same action, done by someone else and without asking, meets with shock and betrayal. That’s a nice thing to see in YA.

I really enjoyed this charming little book, and it’s a great read for summer time. The bisexual main character is done really well, and issues of consent and being closeted are explored. Definitely recommend this one!

From the cover of Small Town Hearts:

Fresh out of high school, Babe Vogel should be thrilled to have the whole summer at her fingertips. She loves living in her lighthouse home in the sleepy Maine beach town of Oar’s Rest and being a barista at the Busy Bean, but she’s totally freaking out about how her life will change when her two best friends go to college in the fall. And when a reckless kiss causes all three of them to break up, she may lose them a lot sooner. On top of that, her ex-girlfriend is back in town, bringing with her a slew of memories, both good and bad.

And then there’s Levi Keller, the cute artist who’s spending all his free time at the coffee shop where she works. Levi’s from out of town, and even though Babe knows better than to fall for a tourist who will leave when summer ends, she can’t stop herself from wanting to know him. Can Babe keep her distance, or will she break the one rule she’s always had – to never fall for a summer boy?

Book Review: Wicked Fox

wicked foxWicked Fox
by Kat Cho
Young Adult / Romance / Fantasy
426 pages
Published June 2019

I loved everything about this book except the epilogue. But we’ll get to that. Wicked Fox is the story of Miyoung, a gumiho. Better known to most Westerners as a Kitsune, but this is Korea, not Japan. The difference is important, and evident. I really enjoyed all of the Korean culture included in this book; it’s not as common a setting as Japan or China. Americans often make the mistake of lumping all of eastern Asia together as far as culture, but they are very different. South Korea isn’t as unfamiliar to us as some East Asian cultures – like Mongolia, Taiwan, or North Korea – but China and Japan tend to overshadow the rest.

So in Seoul, we have Miyoung, whose nature drives her to absorb the life essence of humans to sustain her own. She tries to do this in the best way she can, by hunting evil men, but something goes wrong on one of her hunts, she saves a human boy’s life, and things unravel from there.

I loved Jihoon. The poor boy is thrust into the middle of an impossible situation, and tries to do his best by everyone involved. It’s easy to see why Miyoung is drawn to him, and I love the easy comradery between Jihoon and his friends, as well.

The book would easily be a perfect standalone were it not for the epilogue. I will probably just pretend to myself that the epilogue doesn’t exist, and be happy with the book as-is. I don’t think it needs a sequel, and it feels a little forced. Almost like the book was done and turned in and the publisher offered the author a sequel, and she decided she could make that happen and tacked on a few pages to lead us to the next book. It’s just – unneeded.

The epilogue aside, I adored this book.

From the cover of Wicked Fox:

Eighteen-year-old Gu Miyoung has a secret. She’s a gumiho – a nine-tailed fox who survives by consuming the energy of men. But she’s also half-human and has a soft spot for people. So she won’t kill indiscriminately. With the help of a shaman, Miyoung only takes the lives of men who have committed terrible crimes. Devouring their life force is a morbid kind of justice . . . or so she tells herself.

But killing men no one would ever miss in bustling modern-day Seoul also helps Miyoung keep a low profile. She and her mother protect themselves by hiding in plain sight. That is until Miyoung crosses paths with a handsome boy her age as he’s being attacked by a goblin in the woods. She breaks her mother’s cardinal rule – revealing herself and her nine tails – to save Jihoon from certain death. In the process, she loses her fox bead – her gumiho soul. Without it, she will die.

When Miyoung and Jihoon next meet, there’s no doubt they are drawn to each other. But their tenuous romance could be over before it even begins, as Miyoung’s efforts to restore her fox bead by the next full moon ensnares them in a generations-old feud, forcing Miyoung to choose between her immortal life and Jihoon’s.

 

Book Review: Tell Me How You Really Feel

tell me how you really feelTell Me How You Really Feel
by Aminah Mae Safi
Young Adult / Romance / LGBT
309 pages
Published June 2019

This book was alright. There was a lot of hype around it before it released and I…don’t really agree. I liked both characters. I enjoyed the plot. Okay, I enjoyed the entire book, except. Except. Rachel BLINDLY hates beautiful people. Which is ridiculous, given (at least on the cover) she’s far from ugly herself. I just don’t get her blind hatred of beautiful people. She’s spent the last three years hating Sana because, what? Sana had the guts to ask her out while being pretty? That plot point just kept pulling me out of the story. Which was otherwise really good! But two pretty girls on the cover and one of them hates pretty people but has no self-awareness that she is ALSO pretty? I don’t recall the text actually saying whether Rachel is pretty or not, but Sana obviously thinks so.

This might be an issue with whoever designed the cover not understanding the plot of the book; I know authors don’t always have full control over their covers. But it REALLY made that particular plot point confusing.

This book is also another example of the cover description being misleading. Rachel doesn’t “realize” that Sana is perfect for the role and try to cast her; her supervisor informs her that Sana will be in that role and she’ll just have to make it work. It’s a bit of a different dynamic.

Sooooo I don’t know whether to recommend the book or not. It was good, but I was annoyed by that plot point. Rachel and Sana were the only developed characters; everyone else was only there to further their story. Which is not always a bad thing; but I generally like the supporting cast to be a little bit more developed. They are people too, they shouldn’t solely exist to drive the romance between the two main characters.

As a lesbian romance, this was great. As a well-rounded book, not so much.

From the cover of Tell Me How You Really Feel:

The first time Sana Khan asked out a girl – Rachel Recht – it went so badly that she never did it again. Rachel is a film buff and an aspiring director, and she’s seen Carrie enough times to learn you can never trust cheerleaders (and beautiful people). Rachel was furious that Sana tried to prank her by asking her out on a date.

But when it comes time for Rachel to cast her senior project, she realizes that there’s no one more perfect than Sana – the girl she’s sneered at in the halls for the past three years – to play the lead role. And poor Sana – she says yes. She never did get over that first crush, even if Rachel can barely stand to be in the same room as her.

Told from alternating viewpoints and set against the backdrop of LA in the springtime, when the rainy season rolls in and the Santa Anas can still blow, these two girls are about to learn that in the city of dreams, anything is possible – even love.

Book Review: Technically, You Started It

technically you started itTechnically, You Started It
by Lana Wood Johnson
Young Adult Romance / LGBT
374 pages
Published June 2019

So the biggest reason for my recent hiatus was that I was having trouble reading. If I can’t read, I can’t review! And every time I tried to read a book, I fell asleep. I just couldn’t pay attention to pages of text. I knew, however, that this book had a demisexual protagonist, and I thought that might be enough to keep my attention. I opened the book, and found that the entire thing was written in text message format with speech bubbles, instead of giant blocks of text. Which was EXACTLY what I needed to hold my interest!

This is a precious book, told entirely via text messages between Haley, a demisexual girl, and Martin, a bisexual boy. Which, hi, that’s my life? Most of the bisexual men I’ve been reading lately have been in M/M relationships, so it’s nice to see a bisexual boy in a relationship with a girl. AND that they address the viewpoint of many people towards bi boys – that they’ll cheat. (That’s a biphobic attitude that is aimed at bi people of all genders, but it seems especially prevalent from women towards bi men.)

I love both of these characters; I love that they bring up that things can be so much easier to say via text than face-to-face. I love the far-reaching, random conversations the two have, and the in-jokes they create.

You’d think a romance would be hard to tell without description – only text is similar to only dialogue. But Johnson manages, and does it superbly.

This was the perfect book to break my reading slump, and I love it so much.

From the cover of Technically, You Started It:

Is This Haley Hancock from Mrs James’s US History class?

Yeah.
Who’s this?

Martin Nathaniel Munroe II

Which one?
You’re both in my US History class.

The good one.

When a guy named Martin Nathaniel Munroe II texts you, it should be obvious who you’re talking to. Except there’s two of them (it’s a long story), and Haley thinks she knows which one is “the good one.”

A question about a class project rapidly evolves into an all-consuming conversation. Haley finds that Martin is actually willing to listen to her weird facts and unusual obsessions, and Martin feels like Haley is the first person to really see who he is. Haley and Martin might be too awkward to hang out in real life, but over text, they’re becoming addicted to each other.

There’s just one problem: Haley doesn’t know who Martin is. And Martin doesn’t know that Haley doesn’t know. But they better figure it out fast before their meet-cute becomes an epic meet-disaster . . .