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.

Not Our Summer – Casie Bazay

I started this book after coming out of a book slump that went on for a long time, and yet I only finished it a couple of minutes ago. It took me about three weeks to read because it’s the type of book that has an adequate amount of good things—things that I like in my reads—but never enough to really keep my attention for a long time or to make me want to pick it up again after I put it down. For example, it has nice writing, family relationships, some mystery, adventure, deep talks, energy, realistic characters and scenes… but none of these elements really stand out.

In other words, it’s a debut novel through and through. I don’t like to say this, because some debut novels are actually pretty spectacular, but there is a lot that this author can improve and I’m sure she has the ability to. I would say that one of the things that kept me from being too intrigued was how planned the story seemed to be. From the beginning, we know which activities the two cousins will be doing. Why not keep those a secret until they have to happen? There is one revelation that I did not see coming, but overall it is not a story that keeps you on your feet.

That does not mean that it doesn’t have value. As mentioned in the first paragraph, it contains various elements that can give meaning to a story or make it enjoyable to read. I do admit that there is quite a lot of teen angst, which makes it hard sometimes to emotionally connect with the heroines, since they are often driven by their own anger, ego, annoyances and hormones to be in touch with their more humane and vulnerable thoughts, emotions and welcome the input of others around them. With that being said, I was touched by their grandfather’s letters to them and their slowly growing connection. We have here an enemy-to-friends type of dynamic, so if you enjoy those this could work for you. On the other hand, if you have no patience for lots of teen angst, you might want to skip it. My last point is that the author managed to wrote a beautiful ending. Everything comes together rather nicely. Well done!

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

Kingdom of the Wicked – Kerri Maniscalco

I have to say, I am pleasantly surprised. I did not detest this author’s debut series – Stalking Jack the Ripper – although I am not a big fan of Historical Fiction and overly cheeky, immature and game-playing love interests. This is why I am a little surprised by how much I did not mind the love interest in this one. He is a bad boy, definitely over-confident and quite manipulative. But as bad and wrong as he may be, there is quite a mature side of him that is shown throughout the story, which made me like him more than Stalking Jack the Ripper’s love interest.

I also enjoyed the storyline more, though that comes as no surprise, since I have always been a fan of fantasy, witches and mystery. Those elements combined feel like Heaven to me, even in this hellish world Emilia inhabits. Things are particularly bad when her sister is murdered and she cannot quiet down her need for revenge. Emilia will stop at nothing to find her sister’s murderer and rip his heart out like he/she/it did her sister’s.

I have to say that I see a lot of dark-sounding premises out there in the YA Fantasy world. You know, the princess charged to murder the prince but ends up falling in love with him and such. Although there is some sort of romance in this one, Emilia is quite deadly, that you can believe. Of course, she has her human side, but she is very overcome by grief and other dark emotions that blind her from too many feelings of compassion, understanding and empathy towards others, especially since there are various suspects on her list of heart-rippers.

One weakness that this book possesses is its development and overall presentation of the world-building. I understand the connection and hard history between witches and devils, but the rest of the creatures featured, such as werewolves, vampires and other hellish things, were a little harder to wrap my head around. Were werewolves and vampires really necessary? What do they actually bring? Is it worth including them if their history is not going to be unfolded correctly? Perhaps more information about them will be given in the sequel but I would not hold my breath. Otherwise, I had fun following Emilia’s descent into darkness and I’m sure the sequel will prove to be just as thrilling and BAD hehehehe.

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

Fence: Striking Distance – Sarah Rees Brennan

You’ve probably heard of the comic series Fence by C.S. Pacat, the author of one of my all-time favourite series, Captive Prince. This story in novel format is in the same world as Fence, with chapters featuring Seiji, Nicholas, Harvard and Aiden. I myself have not had the chance to read the comics, a situation I have to remedy quite soon, so I cannot tell you how it compares with the comics, but it is publicized as an ‘‘original novel’’ so I’m assuming the content is fairly new as well.

There are three different story arcs that are brought together at some point or another but mainly different characters are dealing with their own various issues. Harvard started dating, which makes Aiden jealous and lonely and ready to suggest something to Harvard that might change their long term friendship together. Seiji and Nicholas are also roommates but not friends, and yet they might need to become cordial with one another if they want to progress, Nicholas in the fencing department and Seiji socially. There is more involved, but basically this is a story about teammates realizing they are stronger when they are working together and slowly breaking down the walls between them.

If this didn’t already have its comic adaptation, I would have probably suggested that, just because the way the author describes scenes at times reminds me of comic book panels. The characters have just enough of a cartoonish vibe to them to belong in a comic. All four main characters actually have exaggerated traits: Aiden is a big flirt, Harvard responsible to a fault, Nicholas innocent and Seiji super serious. Yet, it works. And while these exaggerated traits do seem to keep the story from reaching deeper waters at times, overall I have enjoyed spending time with these four boys and I’m looking forward to reuniting with them in the next book.

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

B*WITCH – Paige McKenzie & Nancy Ohlin

To my slight surprise, I enjoyed this. I don’t typically expect to dislike a book, or even hate it, but this title in particular has few readers and few stellar reviews, so I really was not predicting love at first sight or love of any kind. At the same time, I do find myself usually excited about giving under-the-radar stories a try and I am a fan of witches and magic in general, so perhaps I should have had higher hopes for a positive reading experience.

In this world, there are various witches but these witches live among non-witches. This specific society half tolerates them and half wants to see them gone. So while Greta’s coven wouldn’t necessarily get executed if their witchy status was found, Greta and her friends still prefer to keep things on the low. Now more than ever, since an anti-witch president was elected and the girls fear for their lives. Their fear is tragically validated when one of their own is found dead.

The truth is that it’s not particularly well-executed. The writing is amateurish, the characters very immature (with the exception of Ridley I would say) and the world-building vague and not convincing. This means that I understand people who are turned off by this book. It’s okay—maybe even good—to have a specific criteria and look for reads that match that criteria as best as possible. I have criteria as well for ‘‘keep’’ books, those that I know I’ll want to forever preserve on my bookshelves. This is not one of them, but it is an ‘‘escape’’ book regardless. It has energy and the characters’ silliness and cartoonish personalities were entertaining. This may not be one of those stories I’ll be interested in revisiting in a few years, but it has served its brief purpose and I have no regrets.

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

Horrid – Katrina Leno

She ripped a corner from the page and put it into her mouth.

The house creaked again.

She imagined the paper re-forming in her belly. She imagined the words dissolving off the paper and sinking into her bloodstream. She imagined her body filled with words. Made up of them. Words instead of blood, words instead of organs.

This is a deeply atmospheric story. After Jane’s father dies, she and her mom move away, back into her mom’s childhood home, now empty. New town, new school, new friends and even a new job. Jane’s new life in Maine isn’t so bad, except for the fact that she’s somehow managed to make an enemy. Oh and there’s something strange going on at the North Manor.

Katrina Leno definitely managed to convey the creepiness of the manor to the reader. Even the town itself seems to be an extension of the manor, as though all evil comes from this specific isolated spot. Her writing is also surprisingly elegant. Not the adjective I would typically have used to describe the writing style of a horror/suspense story, but there you have it. Its elegance actually contributes to the atmosphere and I personally had an enjoyable reading experience.

The cast of characters is limited, and no one plays as big a role as June. No one really holds a candle to her, seeing that we really see and feel everything through her. The author doesn’t hide that there are paranormal forces at play at the manor. The word ‘‘ghost’’ even appears in the book’s description, so it will not come as a shock to anyone. There are, however, some surprises and I certainly liked the Agatha Christie reference, which I found smart and fresh. It’s also one of those books that does not aim to please and whose story seems to gradually take a life of its own. I recommend it to all fans of slow suspense and horror books.  

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

The Other Side of Perfect – Mariko Turk

This is the hard story of Alina, a young ballerina who broke her leg and saw her dreams of becoming a professional ballerina melt away. She has no idea how to navigate her new life, post-ballet, at a school where she doesn’t quite feel like she belongs. Her mood is down, she’s short with people, but luckily she has one good friend who’s been through something as well and understands Alina’s walls. But Alina’s walls are slowly coming down as she joins her high school musical, reconnects with her love of dancing, and develops new relationships with people in her life.

It is quite a beautifully-told tale. I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone to have their passion taken away from them in a slip second. I couldn’t picture what my life would look like without my ability to read. I guess I could turn to audio books, which can be enjoyable, but I certainly would miss the amazing feeling of starting a new story, getting to the end of a page and being excited about turning it, and even enjoying the visual qualities of a book. I’m also volunteering as a reader right now, so I read books to more isolated people in my region, and I wouldn’t be able to do that if I lost my sight or anything that enables reading.

All that to say that Alina’s ups and downs were very understandable. Despite her initial refusal to dance again if she can’t be who she used to, she gives herself a chance to be happy again and see the beauty in non-pointe dancing. I watched a YouTube video yesterday in which a overweight woman artist was worried about dating another artist because she assumed that artists loved beauty and she did not consider herself to be ‘‘classically beautiful.’’ Then I read the comments and someone said that being an artist is not about liking beautiful things, but about being able to recognize beauty in things. That really touched me and I am mentioning it because Alina is trying to see the beauty in things that she wouldn’t normally have found ‘‘classically beautiful’’ or as aligning with her vision of who she’s meant to be. I found that to be quite admirable. Though this story has its hard moments, it is ultimately uplifting and very human.

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

Truly Madly Famously – Rebecca Serle

TRULY MADLY FAMOUSLY is the second book in the FAMOUS IN LOVE series. Is it the final book? I don’t know. I sure hope not. It is not the best YA romance series ever to be published, but it sure has an additive quality to itself that makes you want to turn the pages, even when doing so is a little painful.

Paige has made her choice. She thought she would be at peace with it, since it seemed like the more reasonable choice to make, but her heart certainly is not in agreement. Though she is happy—or perhaps ‘‘content’’ would be a better choice of words—she cannot help but miss someone else in her life, someone who has chosen to keep his distance and even start dating another girl. Paige becomes especially unsure of her love situation when her boyfriend begins to act a little distant at times as well.

In the beginning, it is slower but once the drama really starts, it moves faster. There are also way more emotions involved. More scenes. More reactions. More entertainment, of course. Frankly, Paige is a mess in this book. Yes, she is figuring celebrity out, so she is allowed to have her moments, but her feelings and thoughts all over the place. What I do like is that she does grow confidence, especially in her skills as an actress but also in herself. Love-wise, I’ll admit that at some point I had no idea what she would do or who she would ‘‘definitely’’ pick. I’m not unsatisfied with the ending (heh, it’s typical YA stuff), but to be honest I would not have been displeased if she had made a different decision as well. On the contrary, I would have admired her strength. I do so hope there is a third book, because I would love to follow Paige as she is catapulted even higher in the entertainment industry. I’m now curious to read this author’s adult stories.

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