Monday, 24 February 2020

Book Review: This Is Kind Of An Epic Love Story by Kacen Callender

This Is Kind Of An Epic Love Story follows Nathan Bird, who no longer believes in happy endings. His mother certainly didn’t get one – she’s still grieving the death of his father years ago, causing her to be overprotective of Nathan. And his relationship with Florence, his bff-turned-girlfriend-turned-unrequited love interest, didn’t get one. She found a girl she preferred to him, and Nathan’s trapped trying not to let her see he still loves her. And his friendship with Oliver James Hernandez, many years ago, didn’t get one either. Inseparable as kids, one rash act ended everything between them and Ollie moved away.

But now Ollie’s back. Looking gorgeous, and wanting to be friends with Bird again. Could he FINALLY get a happy ending this time?

Oh, wow. I’ve heard lots of praise for this one but nothing prepared for quite how gloriously, messily wonderful it would be. Callender creates one of the most complicated but brilliantly portrayed friendship groups I’ve read about in ages – Bird is still in love with Flo, who thinks of him as her best friend. Ashley, the other girl in their group, is crushing hard on their other male friend Gideon, who seems to be completely unaware of this. And the addition of Ollie means that things get even more complicated. Throughout the book, they argue, they give each other advice – some of it good, much of it bad – and they angst over each other. It feels so fantastically realistic and even though there are times when most of them – Bird especially – are hugely frustrating characters they are amazingly well-rounded ones.

In addition to the really strong friendship group, there’s a wonderful portrayal of a grieving family. Bird and his mom are left at home when older sister Becca moves to Chicago, with Bird planning on leaving soon (perhaps sooner than his mom realises) and his mom having to face up to the fact that she’ll be left alone. Her protectiveness of him, and concern clearly triggered by the loss of his father, is a really strong thread and Bird’s gradual assertion of more independence is superb.

The main storyline of the book, though, is the tension and romance between Bird and Ollie, and the chemistry between them is incredible. They’re a couple I desperately wanted to end up together, even when Bird was self-sabotaging himself, because it’s so clear to see WHY he’s finding it hard to see a positive future for himself.

Another thing I really loved about the story was the setting in a place where people were respectful of each other's sexuality. None of the conflict here is based around homophobia or people having to hide who they are and it’s wonderful to read a book with several characters of different orientations who don’t have to deal with bullying or prejudice because of them.

Overall, this is an absolutely huge recommendation – it’s one of the best books I’ve read in what’s been an amazing reading year for me so far, and high up there with my favourite contemporaries ever. Superb, and I can’t wait to read more from Kacen Callender!

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Book Review: Like A Love Story by Abdi Nazemian

Like A Love Story follows a trio of teens in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Reza is newly arrive to the US from Toronto, and has a new stepfather and stepbrother. He's gay but struggling to come to terms with this, especially as he's fearful of HIV.

He meets a boy he immediately falls for, Art - an out and proud teen who's keen to join in protests advocating for better treatment for AIDS victims alongside his best friend Judy's uncle Stephen, who has the disease himself. But in turn, Judy falls for Reza and he tries to make a relationship with her work, despite his chemistry with Art.

I stumbled on this having read a summary online, but without seeing any reviews. Despite expecting the topic to be a moving one, I'm not sure anything could have prepared me for just what an emotional read this was - Abdi Nazemian creates an incredibly strong quartet of central characters (the three teens and Stephen, with narration split between the trio and a set of note cards about gay culture written by Stephen.)

The voices of all three are stunning, and very different. Reza is a sweet guy with internalised homophobia who's desperately trying to do what he considers to be the right thing; Art is justly furious at society, and his parents, for the lack of effort people are putting into trying to find treatment for AIDS, and Judy is staunchly supportive of her uncle; the loving bond between them is excellent.

The 80s setting is brilliantly described, bringing to life the climate of fear for HIV and AIDS-sufferers at the time, but also showing the supportive network Stephen has around him and the way the older people look out for the teens. (And the influence that Madonna has, as a gay culture icon who all three teens find inspiration from, is perfect!) I thought the families issues were exceptionally well-described here, with Reza's stepfather being a particularly interesting character and his brilliant but rebellious older sister having a great relationship with him.

It's a real tearjerker - the only book so far this year to make me cry hard - which never downplays the awfulness of Stephen's situation, and which shows the hard fight that LGBTQ+ people have always had to go through to get the freedoms they deserve, but it's an ultimately hopeful novel, which looks at friendship, forgiveness, romance and grief.

A new favourite contemporary for me, this is one I'll be recommending a LOT and makes Abdi Nazemian an auto-buy author.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Book Review: Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valour by Ally Carter

Huge thanks to Hachette Children's for NetGalley approval for this! 

April accidentally sets fire to a museum and ends up living at the Winterborne house with fellow orphans Colin, Sadie, Tim, and Violet. They’re cared for by Ms Nelson and butler Smithers, who are still mourning the loss of Gabriel Winterborne, missing for nearly 10 years and about to be declared legally dead by his uncle Evert.
So when April finds Gabriel hiding out in the house, it’s something of a surprise, to say the least.
This drew me in from the opening few chapters, which pretty much explode onto the page. We have fake claimants to be Gabriel, a mysterious key that April was left by her mother which has a crest matching the Winterborne crest, and then the fire leading to a mysterious figure saving her. A really fabulous way to start a book!
April is one of my favourite MG heroines ever; in some way’s she’s similar to Cammie from author Ally Carter’s outstanding Gallagher Girls YA series – she’s smart, resourceful, brave and determined. However, in other ways she’s a very different character – brash, bold, and reckless. Teaming her up with Gabriel Winterborne (who is in many ways Batman, rich as heck and with a burning thirst for revenge) is a perfect match (although Gabriel himself probably wouldn’t agree with this!) and the supporting cast are fabulous, particularly inventor Sadie who creates hilarious contraptions which don’t always (or even often) work as planned.
The book is jam-packed with great action sequences, zipping along at a breath-taking pace, but there’s also lots of wonderful quieter moments between characters, and I really loved the way so many strong relationships were developed, especially between Gabriel and the orphans. It builds to a phenomenally exciting heist as a climax, brilliantly tense and full of great moments.
Ally Carter’s writing style feels perfect for MG. Obviously, I’m glad she started out writing YA as if she hadn’t we’d have potentially missed out on some incredible books, including the Gallagher Girls series which is one of my favourites of the last decade. But she makes the switch here superbly and I really hope that she’s going to be writing a ton more for this age range – preferably in this series, because it feels like there’s a huge amount of great opportunities set up by the ending to this book!
Absolutely massive recommendation for fans of fun, exciting action.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Book Review: Break The Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli

Break The Fall follows Rey - a gymnast hoping to be picked for the US Olympics team - as she tries to get gold in Tokyo. She's aware that this is going to be her last chance, with a painful back injury meaning that at just seventeen, she's reaching the end of her career, but with best friend Emma by her side, she's convinced she has a great shot at a medal. Then another team member, Dani, makes an accusation of sexual abuse against their coach, leading to a change in preparation, fracturing the team, and causing a scandal as the public, and the rest of the teammates, weigh in on whether they believe the accusation. Can the girls win gold despite everything?

From the summary there, I think this sounds like a heavier read than it actually is - and that's not meant to suggest it glosses over the important issues tackled. Rather, the book focuses firmly on the competition, and on the girls' determination not to let anything stand in the way of what they worked for. I loved the cameradarie between most of the girls - not just the US team, but also other competitors from different nations who came together to show Dani their support. It's wonderful to see them standing together and fighting for each other, despite their rivalry.

The competition scenes are brilliantly described and I was constantly holding my breath as Audrey, and others, stepped up to do their routines. They're also easy enough even for a relative rookie in watching gymnastics to follow. (I am that rookie!) The book builds to a breathtaking climax which kept me completely unsure how successful Rey was going to be.

In addition to the main focuses of the competitions and of the abuse allegation, there's a charming romance between Rey and childhood friend Leo, son of her new coach. This takes a back seat to everything else going on in her life but he's a supportive love interest and it's really great to see a budding relationship stay in the background rather than become the most important thing in a character's life - Rey is very clear that she's focusing on supporting her friends, and on going out and winning medals.

Oh, and lots of diverse representation here - Rey is biracial (Korean and white parents), as is Leo (Black and white parents), while Dani is Latinx and the rest of the gymnasts are from various racial backgrounds.

The perfect read for sports fans, or for anyone wanting to read a fiercely feminist book about a group of girls defying disruption to push for success.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Book Review: Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

(Thanks Hachette for NetGalley approval for this one! Only Mostly Devastated is published in the UK on 5th March.) 

Only Mostly Devastated is about Ollie, who has a short holiday romance with a guy called Will who seems perfect - until he ghosts him. When Ollie finds out they're staying in North Carolina to be near his dying aunt, and he's transferring schools, it's a shock - but an even bigger one comes when he finds that Will is a classmate of his. Who's very much not out to his friends. With help from his new friends, can Ollie rekindle the spark they had? And with Will acting like something of an asshole, should he even want to? 

I've been desperate to read this one ever since I initially saw descriptions along the lines of "Grease, but with two guys in love" and WOW, it didn't disappoint! Ollie is a lovely main character, sweet and kind and generally - if not always - thoughtful and I loved the trio of girls he becomes friendly with, particularly Lara, who starts off antagonistic towards him but eventually becomes a trusted friend. I also really enjoyed the portrayal of the family relationships; Ollie spends a lot of time looking after his two little cousins when his aunt is especially ill and they're wonderful characters, as are his parents and aunt and uncle. Sophia Gonzales pulls off an impressive feat here by weaving a really emotional storyline of Ollie's aunt's declining health, and the issues Will has with hiding his sexuality in a school where even generally kind-hearted teens are apt to make thoughtless comments about gay people, in with a delightful romance to make a funny and heart-warming book with real depth. I thought Will was a great love interest, by the way. He's a kind and sympathetic person but he's so worried about having his sexuality exposed that he can act in an obnoxious way; seeing the way he tries to deal with this fear really made me warm to him. 

I love Sophie Gonzales's writing style - it's fresh, really readable, and she makes all of her characters, and their hopes and fears, feel brilliantly alive. She also builds to a truly gorgeous climax which felt incredibly satisfying. Massively recommended as one of the strongest YA debuts I've read for ages, and one that I can definitely see myself rereading several times. (Also I have to give a shout-out to Jim Tierney's cover which is BEAUTIFUL.)

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Book Review: Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds by Annabelle Sami with illustrations by Daniela Sosa

(Thanks to Stripes for NetGalley approval to read this one!)

Agent Zaiba is about aspiring sleuth Zaiba, who admires her Aunty Fouzia, a professional detective, and wants to follow in her footsteps. When a celebrity's dog goes missing, followed by some diamonds disappearing, at her cousin's pre-wedding party in an exclusive hotel, she has the chance to save the day, along with her best friend Poppy and brother Ali. 

There are SO MANY great MG mystery series out there (Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens is my absolute favourite, Katherine Woodfine's books are glorious, and there's dozens more) that it can feel hard for a new one to stand out, but the writer/illustrator team of Annabelle Sami and Daniela Sosa definitely make this one do so. Sosa's full-page illustrations certainly have a real impact here - she's a stunning talented artist who I'm eager to see more from. And she makes a perfect pairing with a fabulous debut author who's created an excellent central character in the brave, resourceful, and determined Zaiba. 

It's great to see such strong representation of British-Asian characters here; I loved Zaiba's family - in particular her detective aunt, who's wonderfully supportive of her! Add in a beautifully-described Mehndi party - a setting which I've never seen before - a host of interesting supporting characters as suspects, and a clever plot which kept me guessing at the eventual solution, and this ranks up there with High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson as one of the top MG series starters of recent years. I especially loved the climactic scene, which is a standard going back to the Golden Age of detective stories, and is brilliantly handled here. 

Massively recommended, and I'm really excited for The Poison Plot, second in the series, coming this summmer!

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Double Book Review: Dread Nation and Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation is set in a world where the dead began to rise during the American Civil War, leading to the nation being changed forever - and to laws like the Native and Negro Education Act forcing certain children to go to combat schools to learn to put down the dead. Central character Jane McKeene, a star student - even if she's not a popular one with some of the teachers - is ready to finish her education there and return to her Kentucky home. But then she gets caught in a conspiracy and finds there may be worse things to deal with than the shamblers she's trained to defeat...

I recently reread this one in preparation for the sequel Deathless Divide and it's still one of my all-time favourite alternate history novels. The world is brought brilliantly to life by the talented Justina Ireland, the pacing is phenomenal and the central pairing - Jane and her rival-turned-reluctant ally, fellow pupil Katherine are a stunning duo, with a brilliant relationship that develops superbly over the course of the book. (Also great representation, Katherine is one of the few aro-ace characters I've seen in genre YA while Jane is a bisexual with a roving eye, although the book is light on anything more than flirtation for romance - there's far too many shamblers to try and put down, even when Jane's old flame Red Jack is around!)

It's a gripping plot with lots of thrilling action, and twists and turns that definitely kept me guessing, and a host of characters who Jane struggles to know whether or not to trust. It's also an incisive look at racism and the way that the people in charge are perfectly happy to use people they see as inferior to try and deal with the problem of the shamblers, although there are other white people who prove to be allies for Jane and Katherine. We also see the different experiences of Jane, who's dark skinned enough that her race is clear to all, and Katherine, who can pass for white and who Jane encourages to do so.

An exciting read which builds to a stunning and satisfying climax, this is a massive recommendation from me.

(Note for review of book 2 - I've tried to avoid spoilers as far as possible, but obviously I've had to give away a couple of things - like who's left alive!)

I'm fairly glad I didn't realise that rather than being purely from Jane's POV like the first book was, Deathless Divide is a dual narrative between Jane and rival-turned-friend Katherine. They're two of my absolute favourite characters in all of YA and I think that the knowledge they were both narrating would have made the long wait even more unbearable than it was!

Jane, Katherine, Red Jack and his sister are on a journey from early on in this book, with Jane trying to find her mother. But the shamblers are coming in ever-stronger groups, and some of them are behaving rather differently, while there are still human monsters who are just as much of a concern for our two heroines as the creatures they're so adept at fighting are.

I love that we got to read both POVs here and Katherine, like Jane, has a distinctive and wonderful voice. This shares lots with the first book - superb pacing, a great look at racism, and some exciting action scenes. However it also adds in more romance and even bigger twists, with a couple of scenes leaving my heart in my mouth. What's perhaps the best thing about the book, though, is the further development of the friendship between Katherine and Jane, which goes from strength to strength - Katherine is loyal to Jane but will call her out when she thinks she needs it, to the point of physically fighting her because she knows that Jane needs the adrenaline rush this will provide. They are a truly sensational team. There are also some fantastic new characters, in addition to several favourites from the first one returning. The villain here is a really memorable one, in particular. 

As a book, this is superb. As a duology, it's a strong contender for one of my favourite ever speculative series. The ending we get is a fantastic one, but it leaves open the potential for further adventures in this world in the future. Will we get them? I'm not sure, but I really hope we do!