Define ”Normal” – Julie Anne Peters

I wish I had read this book when it came out. Except, when it came out, in 2000, I was four years old. I’m holding in my hands what I believe to be the fourth edition, which shows just how relevant the story still is today. Actually, I think it’s more relevant now than ever. When it came out, it was probably one of a kind. A YA contemporary story that discusses mental illness, parental neglect, peer counselling and what ‘‘normal’’ means. Nowadays, we can find more stories exploring those themes—thank goodness—and a few ones that go even more into depth, but it was interesting to see how those topics were handled 21 years ago.

There is much less shame now regarding counselling, therapy and the overall idea of needing help figuring things out, controlling our temper, opening ourselves up to others and letting ourselves act our age. But for Antonia and Jazz, peer counselling is foreign, awkward and stilted. They don’t know what it means to be in a ‘‘safe space’’ and how to open up about what they feel on the inside. It’s very difficult in the beginning, since Antonia and Jazz don’t trust one another, but they slowly develop a bond that grows beyond their peer counselling sessions.

I’m writing this review not only because that’s what I do—I’m a book blogger, hey!—and because I genuinely enjoy sharing my thoughts on the stories I read, but also because I want to set the record straight regarding this title. This author is known for writing LGBTQIA+ characters, and I saw this one being shelves as ‘‘LGBT’’ quite a few times on Goodreads, but sexual orientation is not discussed. The main focus is the growing friendship between the two teen girls and how counselling helps them face their own respective issues. There is no romance, and though it’s a meaningful story, it is not a ‘‘fun’’ one. Hopefully, you get into it with better expectations, but by all means do go into it.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for an honest review.

Someone Else’s Summer – Rachel Bateman

Annie’s sister—the authentic and fearless Storm—dies in a car accident, leaving behind a devastated family… and a list of things to accomplish. Wanting to honour her sister’s memory and get out of her comfort zone, Annie embarks on a road trip with her childhood friend Cameron in the hopes of checking off every item on the list.

The list is actually the least memorable aspect of this story. What I loved most was seeing Annie and Cameron’s relationship unfold. Because Annie’s parents are grieving and absent, she has quite a lot of freedom to basically do whatever she wishes… as long as Cameron is also okay with it. He is the wisest of the two of them, so she is in good hands and unlikely to get away with too much.

I found Rachel Bateman’s writing very engaging and the storyline to move along nicely without being too predictable. In an interview with the author at the end of this novel, she actually mentions that she is a dedicated story outliner and I could certainly tell. A less than perfect aspect in this novel is the openness and niceness of the people Annie and Cameron meet. It’s not realistic.

Everyone treats them like they’re friends or family: worthy of attention, patience and care and that’s just not realistic. Someone vouches for them at the hotel; strangers hug Annie and show concern. I understand that her sister died and Cameron probably told a lot of people what their circumstances are, but she’s not the only one with a dead family member so I found the amount of love thrown their way to be idealistic.

Other than that, there is a lot of growing up being done and grieving as well. I’m really glad Annie had Cameron to help her; she especially did not deserve to be alone after her parents started physically and emotionally withdrawing from her. Truth is grief messes people up, it does, but it can heal over time, and Bateman captured that well enough.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

DNF Review: The Lying Woods – Ashley Elston

I am not with the majority here. Ashley Elston is a beloved author from what I’ve seen, with many praising her. I can too, I’ve certainly enjoyed her This Is Our Story and 10 Blind Dates, both of which I recommend. I also certainly commend Elston for being able to switch between genres, though she does seem to have a preference for mysteries.

But The Lying Woods was just… disappointing. It’s one of those books that has high ratings and praise… but a low readership. On Goodreads, at least, and the blogosphere too. I’ll tell you why I think that is. First of all, the premise is good but not great. Owen’s father commits a felony, and now they’re the enemies of the town. Owen wants to figure out what happened and where his father is, searching for clues inside of his memories and around himself.

It’s exciting in the beginning, and certainly I believe I read close to 80 pages in one shot because things moved pretty fast. The number of pages read is not necessarily an achievement for the bookish girl that I am, but I remember doing so while being in somewhat of a book slump, so that’s good overall. The problem is that the pacing is uneven. While it’s fast at first, it slows down when Owen starts working for this guy who is not unfamiliar with his family. There is back and forth—jumps in time. Usually, I am not a fan of those but sometimes they are done well and can truly be thrilling. Not in this case.

It’s not bad, insomuch as it’s meh. Bland. Not good enough. Maybe if it had been a debut, I would have been slightly more forgiving but it’s Elston’s fourth or fifth book and the truth is that she could have done so much better. I personally did not care for the romantic scenes. Even the cover is kind of… not enough. That summarizes the novel pretty well actually: not enough. Not exciting enough, mysterious enough, thrilling enough. It’s, I guess, decent if you’re new to the YA mystery world and have low expectations to begin with, but I’m not and I don’t. If you think I’m being hard on Elston, then so be it. I just know she can do so much more with her writing skills and creative mind.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

Trinkets – Kristen Smith

I love it. I love when a book that seems not to work for a ton of people ends up being the right fit for me. This book has pretty low ratings on Goodreads, and yet I could not help myself from requesting it. Normally, low ratings would discourage me from doing that, but the premise and TV show tie-in cover gripped my interest. Not to mention that this is a Little, Brown Books for Young Readers publication and in the past very few of those have let me down. Fun fact: I hope to get a book published by them in the future. I don’t know who edits these stories but they are doing a great job.

With this particular title, it’s definitely the original execution that kept me engaged the most. The plot is not necessarily new—though I certainly liked the idea of three girls befriending each other in a Shopaholic Anonymous group. Other than that, it deals with basic high school, boy and friendship drama. It’s not the most self-aware book either, with aggression, bullying and disrespect being made light of at times. I’m still on the fence about Moe’s love interest, who gives her attention when they’re alone but completely disregards her when they’re in public. That’s some shitty behavior right there and not something I felt Moe should have put up with at any point.

At the same time, it’s a very readable book. There are three narrators: Elodie expresses herself through poetry, Tabitha through blog posts-type chapters and Moe through diary entries. It’s a fast-paced story, and as cliché as it can get at times, it does deal with realistic issues that teens may go through in their daily lives. Frankly, I’ve never read a story about teen shoplifters before, and yet they do exist. Similarly, the concept of rehabilitation isn’t given a lot of attention in YA and doesn’t have the best reputation, and yet the author managed to make it seem worthwhile and… exciting. A rehab-centered group can become a place where you not only get to discuss something that others may judge you for in the outside world, but also to make friends and generally connect with people who are going through the same thing you are—thus making you feel less alone in the process.

I was taken by surprise by one of the three girls’ secret, which I absolutely did not see coming. Now it makes me want to watch the Netflix series as well, see how the girls and their addiction translates to the screen. TRINKETS is at times fun, at times dramatic, or sad, but never a bookish regret.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

My Last Summer with Cass – Mark Crilley

I love a story told through good art. I love it even more when the story is as good as the art. Such is the case here. Megan and Cass are two childhood friends who share a passion for making art. They meet every summer, along with their families, at a cottage, where they unleash their creativity in different ways. But Cass’s family falls apart, and those summers are no more. The girls grow apart for a bit, then reunite in New York, the place where dreams come true and every artist can find a home. While Cass seems to have figured out the type of artist she is and where she belongs and with whom, Megan is still unsure of who she is meant to be. Terribly afraid of disappointing her parents, especially her dad, she holds back and plays it safe. Cass can see through her friend, can see her buried need to express her true self, and pushes Megan to dig deeper and be braver. All is well… until she pushes too far, too soon.

I related to this story a lot, especially to Megan’s character. I think we’re all forced to grow up one day or another, but for some of us it takes time. If Cass hadn’t been there to introduce her best friend to new things and show her a side of the world she hadn’t seen before, who knows when Megan would have had the chance to experience these new things. Or maybe she would have, but with the wrong crowd, someone who doesn’t have her back. Cass’ aggressive way of throwing new things at Megan did rub me the wrong way, because I wonder, can you really force growth? Isn’t it supposed to happen naturally, over time? More importantly, should you force it? Too much, too soon can be overwhelming for someone who has lived a fairly sheltered life and has only just recently started voicing her own opinions and standing up for herself. The truth is that, whether you agree with Cass’ actions or not, and Megan’s responses to these actions, you are at least sure to be emotionally affected by them because the author and illustrator draws with intent and meaning. I was glued to this graphic novel until the very end. Con: I finished it in 15 minutes. Pro: Those were some intense 15 minutes that I wouldn’t mind repeating.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

The Last Beautiful Girl – Nina Laurin

After reading Horrid by Katrina Leno (whom I’ll be interviewing soon on my blog) I was ready for more gothic stories. Unfortunately, Nina Laurin has nothing on Katrina Leno. There certainly are gothic elements in this story, such as a dark, secluded mansion, ghosts, creepy hidden rooms, disappearances and deaths. BUT, one cannot solely rely on elements pertaining to a theme or genre to make the latter come alive. The main reason why, even though there is creepiness in this story, it never truly feels CREEPY to the reader (or to me) is because there is very little atmosphere.

Don’t get me wrong. I was mildly entertained and I was certainly happy to be reading a novel by an author living in Montreal and who went to Concordia (whose Webster Library, by the way, is *chef’s kiss!). I really was looking forward to seeing what Nina Laurin had to offer and went into this book with the best of intentions and attitude. Nina Laurin has a very accessible writing style that I find appropriate for teens and engaging as well. She wrote here a fast-paced story that, despite lacking atmosphere, did include enough mystery content and drama to keep me want to keep reading. If you like super dramatic stories, this one can be for you.

I think one of the main reasons why it lacked atmosphere was because of the characters. They all pretty much seemed to be one-dimensional, and while that’s appropriate in this case when considering the storyline—a girl dying to be someone and have more attention creates an Instagram account with the help of an aspiring photographer and together they take lavish, glamorous, mature, sexy pictures that generate the account lots of followers—I think the author could have gone deeper. Could have made us understand the depth of Isa’s pain and Alexa’s skill better, so that even if they remain selfish and vain, we understand where those weaknesses come from better. I also think that this story could have benefitted from some slowing down. As I mentioned, it is pretty fast-paced and that’s basically always, even during moments that would have impacted me better if they had had more slow-burning intensity.

To recapitulate, I was entertained by this fast-paced novel that did have some engaging elements, but overall it’s a story that I will forget in a few weeks and whose characters have not managed to steal my heart in any way. If everyone had died at the end, I would not have shed any tears.

Thank you Raincoast Books for the copy in exchange for a review. On sale September 2021!

Creatures of the Night – Grace Collins

I have diaries. I’ve been writing them since middle school, on and off, and I took a 5-year break from sharing my most personal everyday thoughts on paper. But I got back to it a year ago and it’s been helpful. A few days ago, I started writing about things that I’m grateful for every single day. When I started this book, I wrote this: ‘‘I’m grateful for stories that I think I won’t enjoy but that end up surprising me.’’

There’s little very enticing about this book. I almost didn’t request it, because come on. Look at that unoriginal title, cover and premise. Hunters. Creatures. Secrets. Been there, read that about a hundred times.  The more I looked at it, the more I considered getting rid of my copy without even finishing the first page. But then I remembered that I’m a book blogger and that nothing and no one can force me to love a book or even finish it, so I opened it with the idea in mind that I would read enough of it to be able to review its negative aspects and then donate it.

Talk about pre-reading judgement. But admit it, we’re all guilty of it. Skipping over a cover that isn’t attractive enough or reading a premise and finding it too similar to past stories we’ve read and deciding that this thing is not worth our time. Well, I’m grateful for this book because it has reminded me that some people are able to surprise me and that sometimes the content of a book is much, much better than the way it is presented, marketed, publicized.

Grace Collins writes with a lot of intensity. This is as much a character-driven story as it is an action-driven one, my favourite combination in the entire world and something Sarah J. Maas excels at. Grace Collins may not be Miss Maas but she has delivered here a sympathetic and relatable heroine whose character-development is felt and makes me want to see what she’ll do next. The world-building she has created relies on its creatures – hollowers, wispers and shifters, oh and humans – more than its environment. The politics of the world are not heavily nuanced, but what Collins does share about the world is accessible. There is a war brewing between the hollowers and the others, who have been in conflict for a long time, mainly because hollowers kill stuff to stay alive. They ‘‘hollow’’ people out.

Milena thought they were the good guys, but she had no idea who she was living with until her 20th birthday, when her family and friends decided to murder her. She was rescued by shifters who enlightened her on the world she lives in and its real ‘‘creatures of the night.’’ What I like most about this story is that there is a lot going on. Milena doesn’t spend 5 chapters not doing anything. She’s constantly thinking, planning and moving forward. At first on her own, then with friends she’s made. The worst element is the romance, which confused the hell out of Milena. Her love interest is dealing with some stuff and does not have the capacity to be open and honest – two important qualities if you want a long-lasting and healthy relationship. But if you just want something dramatic to entertain the reader, sure, let your heroine and her love interest enter in some unhealthy push-pull type of dynamic.

So in some ways it is a cliché story, but in other ways it is surprising, super entertaining and simply a decent addition to the YA fantasy genre with a heroine who has a lot of growing up and learning to do.

Thank you Raincoast Books for the copy in exchange for an honest review.

Scavenge the Stars – Tara Sim

I knew I needed to read this series when I noticed that it was written by Tara Sim, who also authored the Timekeeper trilogy and whom I had the chance to interview a few years ago. She’s one of those authors that inspire me to keep writing and keep trying. She got her debut novel published after winning a writing contest and, I for one, love those types of success stories.

Scavenge the Stars is a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, and though I have not read that classic, I do know it deals with revenge, which is something equally present in this story. Amaya, a teenage girl, had her childhood stolen away from her a long time ago when she was basically sold to slavery on a ship. Now that she managed to get away from the debtor’s ship, she seeks revenge—it drives her as much as it consumes her.

What I liked the most about this book were its action scenes. One thing that I noticed early on with this author, from her Timekeeper series, is that she is good at developing a world-building. I really felt like I was in the city of Moray and a part of Amaya’s revenge journey. If I’m being honest, I read this book more for its action/adventure side than its characters. I do prefer when it’s the other way around, so I can’t encourage you to prioritize this dark YA fantasy if it’s on your TBR pile, but I can tell you that its secrets and intensity are worth experiencing.

When it comes to the characters, they did have their own respective personalities, but I never quite felt like I could reach them. It’s like there was always this thin-veiled curtain in front of them that never parted. I knew information about them and how they felt at times, but a huge part of them was still hidden from the reader. I don’t remember feeling this way, to this extent, when reading Tara Sim’s Timekeeper, so it’s unfortunate but not reason enough for me to not wish to see how the story ends.      

Thank you Hachette Book Group for a copy in exchange for a review.

Blood Like Magic – Liselle Sambury

I am so proud of Liselle Sambury. Not just because she wrote a wonderful dark debut novel here, but also because it’s so nice and motivating to see Canadian authors publishing fantastic stories. I’m Romanian-Canadian and one of my dreams if to one day publish a story that is meaningful to me as well. So reading this and taking in Liselle’s words felt particularly important to me.

This is not a commercial book. I think of those as stories that are written to be sold, written because that’s what’s trending and that’s what readers want to read. Though there is more emphasis on diversity in YA and stories with POC do sell more than 10 years ago from my understanding, everything in this book felt like it came from a place that truly believes that this content is worth sharing and has a place in the world.

It’s a big book—close to 500 pages—and it is slower than most fantasy books I read. I won’t deny that there is too much description for my usual liking. However, and this is important, Liselle does take the time to lay down the foundation for our understanding of the world-building, magic system and characters themselves. It quickly became clear to me that the author spent a lot of time thinking of and developing her characters—bringing them to life. They are each peculiar and human in their own way, even the magic-wielding ones. I especially enjoyed Voya’s interactions with her cousin Keis, whose magical ability is to read thoughts, and Luc (the love interest) certainly intrigued me.

Voya will only earn her powers if she completes a task given to her by one of her ancestors. The problem is that there is more at stake than just her power ascension, and she is not used to making decisions on her own. She must learn to trust herself better and embrace the path that her instincts direct her towards. It’s hard not to feel for Voya, since she is vulnerable and insecure but also caring and determined. She does not exist to entertain or please the reader. She really does have a story to tell, and I for one felt honoured to be privy to her storytelling.

Thank you Simon & Schuster for the copy in exchange for a review.

Bunheads – Sophie Flack

As much as I enjoy reading and reviewing new releases, which can be very exciting, especially if there’s hype associated with those releases, I also find pleasure in plunging into older books that most people have completely forgotten about.

This is one of those forgotten releases. Bunheads tells the story of 19-year-old Hannah Ward, who trains to be promoted as a ballerina and have her own solo performances. So far, so good. She works hard: lives and breathes ballet. But when she meets a cute guy at a bar, the world outside of ballet tugs at her and she grows resentful of the limited life of a ballet dancer.

First of all, the cute guy Hannah meets makes her feel guilty for working hard at her goal since she can’t spend much time with him, which I’m really on the fence about. Second of all, I was frustrated with Hannah’s unsettled mind. She’s dating two guys because she can’t decide on one. Also, one week she’s dedicated to ballet, the next one she takes it easy and repeat x 10. Basically, Hannah has a lot of growing to do, which she wasn’t able to do while focusing solely on ballet and now she’s considering what other options are out there that would be more appropriate for the person she wishes to become.

Yes, it’s frustrating at times. Emotional turmoil can be exhausting. And yet, and yet, I finished this one in two sittings. As eye-roll-worthy as it could get, I found it pretty interesting. I recently read a book about a ballet dancer who got injured – The Other Side of Perfect – and really liked it, so I was excited to know more about the world of a ballet dancer, especially a professional one. While part of me wishes Hannah Ward had made different decisions, I understood where she was coming from and I appreciated her openness about her feelings and thoughts with the reader. By the end of this book, I really felt like I knew her, whereas some characters remain strangers until the very end. So, yes, there are elements that should have been worked better – and certainly Hannah could have been less judgmental of others and of herself – but like most coming-of-age stories, there is real development happening and I appreciated being witness to Hannah’s.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.