Kate’s Review: “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me”

29981020._sx318_Book: “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell.

Publishing Info: First Second Books, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Laura Dean, the most popular girl in high school, was Frederica Riley’s dream girl: charming, confident, and SO cute. There’s just one problem: Laura Dean is maybe not the greatest girlfriend.

Reeling from her latest break up, Freddy’s best friend, Doodle, introduces her to the Seek-Her, a mysterious medium, who leaves Freddy some cryptic parting words: break up with her. But Laura Dean keeps coming back, and as their relationship spirals further out of her control, Freddy has to wonder if it’s really Laura Dean that’s the problem. Maybe it’s Freddy, who is rapidly losing her friends, including Doodle, who needs her now more than ever. Fortunately for Freddy, there are new friends, and the insight of advice columnists like Anna Vice to help her through being a teenager in love.

Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell bring to life a sweet and spirited tale of young love that asks us to consider what happens when we ditch the toxic relationships we crave to embrace the healthy ones we need.

Review: Teenage love is rough. True, I married my high school sweetheart and we haven’t really had any rough patches, then or now, but hey, I had my fair share of awkward pining and heartbreak before all that. While romance isn’t really a go to genre for me, when I do read it I like seeing how the love story aspects of a book portray romance and relationships, especially when a book is Young Adult. This brings me to “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, a YA graphic novel about the tumultuousness of a teenage romance. I’ve always found Tamaki to be honest and realistic when it comes to her books, and therefore I was very interested in seeing what she was going to do with the story of Freddy and Laura, two teenage girls who keep falling in and out of a relationship.

Like her other stories, Tamaki really knows how to capture realistic and relatable teenage voices. Just about every character in “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” feels like a real teenager, both in how they act in situations and how they don’t always understand how their actions affect other people. Freddy is our protagonist, the lovelorn girlfriend of the fickle and manipulative Laura. When we meet her Freddy has had her heart broken by Laura once again, and is seeking advice from an online advice columnist. Freddy is absolutely being taken advantage of, but at the same time she is so caught up in her own miserable love life she isn’t able to see what is going on with her other, more loyal friends. She is both someone you can’t help but root for, as well as someone you want to shake for being so self absorbed. As a character she’s very well conceived, and her flaws and moments of unlikability make her an even stronger protagonist than I was expecting. Her relationship with Laura is toxic at its heart, as Laura’s interest is only in Freddy when it’s convenient to herself, and because of this you both feel pity for Freddy, as well as frustration. But that was one of the stand out themes of this book, in that toxic relationships, be it between teens or adults, romantic or platonic, don’t only affect those in said relationships, and how we can blind ourselves to the people we become while inside of them. But even if Freddy makes mistakes and can be hard to like at times, she doesn’t compare to Laura, who is just the worst. We don’t really get to see THAT much of Laura when all is said and done, as she flits in and out of Freddy’s life in fickle and self absorbed ways, but you definitely know the kind of person she is even in these moments. Tamaki is great at portraying how cruel and mean Laura is without going into heavy handed monologues or speeches, as well as how the toll it takes on Freddy ripples across her other relationships. It’s a great example of showing and not telling, something that is sometimes lost in books written for teens.

I also really liked that this book is very sapphic and LGBTQIA+ in it’s themes. Many of the characters, from Freddy and Laura to their friends groups, are LGBTQIA+, and the normalcy of it all is very evident from the get go. While sometimes these themes did fall more into a telling vs showing trap (a couple of kind of shoe horned in bits of dialogue that didn’t quite fit popped up here and there), I really liked that all of these characters were true to themselves and the majority of the conflict had nothing to do with their identities. Along with this, I liked that this exact normalcy made it so that Laura Dean could be a genuinely terrible person, and that it would be next to impossible to say that she is that way because of her sexual orientation, a them that is sometimes still seen in fiction stories, regrettably. This book also tackles other, harder issues that YA books aren’t always comfortable tackling in empathetic ways. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say that there is a side storyline involving abortion that did a really good job of not stigmatizing the procedure or the choice of having one. 

Finally, I really really loved the artwork in this book. It has a muted and subtle quality to it, with some manga-esque traits that still felt unique to the artist, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. I also liked that while it’s mostly in black and white, there are little splashes of a soft pink throughout the story. It really made the images pop.

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“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is a bittersweet and hopeful look at the ups and downs of teenage relationships. If you haven’t checked out anything by Mariko Tamaki yet, I would say that this would be a good place to start.

Rating 8: A bittersweet story about the ups and downs of teenage romance, “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” hits you in the feels when it comes to love and toxic relationships.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lesbian Teen Fiction”, and “Sapphic Graphic”.

Find “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Kingdom of Exiles”

42366222Book: “Kingdom of Exiles” by Maxym M. Martineau

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, June 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: copy from the publisher!

Book Description: Fantastic Beasts meets Assassin’s Creed in this epic, gripping fantasy romance from debut author Maxym M. Martineau.

Exiled beast charmer Leena Edenfrell is in deep trouble. Empty pockets forced her to sell her beloved magical beasts on the black market—an offense punishable by death—and now there’s a price on her head. With the realm’s most talented murderer-for-hire nipping at her heels, Leena makes him an offer he can’t refuse: powerful mythical creatures in exchange for her life.

If only it were that simple. Unbeknownst to Leena, the undying ones are bound by magic to complete their contracts, and Noc cannot risk his brotherhood of assassins…not even to save the woman he can no longer live without.

Review: This has been a sad run for me lately in the urban fantasy arena. First, the Patricia Briggs’ “Alpha and Omega” series introduced a new aspect into a beloved character that has some pretty unfortunate consequences not only for that series but for the “Mercy Thompson” one as well (though I’m working my way through the latest, so check back soon to see how that fares!). And then my beloved “Kate Daniels” series finished up. So, naturally, I’m on the look out for a replacement urban fantasy series and when I saw “Kingdom of Exiles” pop up on NetGalley, I requested it right away.

Leena values her magical beasts above anything. But when things get dire, she finds herself exactly where she didn’t want to be: deep in the underbelly of society, trading away her beats. And things only get worse when an assassin shows up on her doorstep with an order marking her for death. Luckily for her, Noc is too intrigued to simply off her right then and there, and they both find themselves caught up between several rocks and hard places, with their growing affection and love putting the other at greater and greater risk.

For me, the largest appeal of this story was the unique “charming” ability that Leena possesses and the super cool magical beasts who surround her because of it. Like the book description implies, there are a lot of similarities with these animals and the ways in which Leena interacts with them and keeps them that feels very similar to the “Fantastic Beasts” series. So if you’re a fan of that particular aspect of that story, the same will be found here. But I was glad to see there were some added twists to this version of the concept, namely the idea that these beasts can be animal familiars, essentially. And it is this fact that makes them so valuable and Leena’s ability to gather and control them so important.

The comparison to “Assassin’s Creed” is a bit less on the money, and this is where things began to fall apart for me a bit. The action of the story was quite a bit less than I’m used to finding in my urban fantasy/paranormal stories. Compared to the two series I mentioned earlier, this one has very little going on in that area. There were a couple of action-oriented scenes, but they felt very fleeting. This also added to the uneven read of the book, with the balance between plot and character moments felt odd at times.

I also didn’t love Leena or Noc, particularly. I could see how on their own they might be better, but for a book that is a paranormal romance story, it’s pretty important that they work well together. Leena, who comes across as pretty competent in the beginning of the story, immediately falls into the trope hole of becoming useless and making stupid decisions once the love interest shows up. Noc, for his part, talks on and on about how important it is to keep one’s distance from one’s target and then promptly makes zero effort to follow his own advice, quickly falling for Leena.

The romance itself was also not to my taste. It was a bizarre mix of the type of romance you would typically find in YA stories, full of angst and unnecessary drama. But then all of the steamy scenes one can expect from adult romance novels. The two did not mix well together, in my opinion. But I’m generally not a fan of angsty or dramatic romantic relationships, so this was going to be a hard sell for me regardless of anything else.

Overall, this book wasn’t for me. I think the world-building and fantasy elements were very interesting. And I could even wave away some of the pacing issues as simply the learning curve of a debut book. But my dislike for the main characters and the way their romance played out was enough to land this book solidly in the “meh”-to-dislike category. However, if you are more interested in this type of romance, this could potentially be a good paranormal romance series to get in on early! And to help you with that, make sure to enter our giveaway for a copy of the book!

Rating 6: More romance (and not my favorite kind either) than urban fantasy, this book was a miss for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Kingdom of Exiles” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy Romance” and “From Contest to Contract.”

Find “Kingdom of Exiles” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Bloom”

29225589._sx318_Book: “Bloom” by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, February 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Now that high school is over, Ari is dying to move to the big city with his ultra-hip band―if he can just persuade his dad to let him quit his job at their struggling family bakery. Though he loved working there as a kid, Ari cannot fathom a life wasting away over rising dough and hot ovens. But while interviewing candidates for his replacement, Ari meets Hector, an easygoing guy who loves baking as much as Ari wants to escape it. As they become closer over batches of bread, love is ready to bloom . . . that is, if Ari doesn’t ruin everything.

Writer Kevin Panetta and artist Savanna Ganucheau concoct a delicious recipe of intricately illustrated baking scenes and blushing young love, in which the choices we make can have terrible consequences, but the people who love us can help us grow.

Review: We’re getting near the end of summer (kind of?), and on the hot days sometimes you just need to have a cute, sweet, comfort read that you can enjoy in the sun… or air conditioning in my case. I saw “Bloom” by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau on a display at the library I was working at, and decided to pick it up on a whim. It had been a bit since I’d read a one shot graphic novel, and the look of it and the summer feeling the cover gave me stood out to me. I hadn’t heard of “Bloom” until I picked it up, and after reading it I wish I’d found it sooner. I really, really enjoyed “Bloom”!

The story involves two young adults who are both looking for some self discovery and paths for their future. Ari is determined to move away from his home and his family bakery to become a music star with his friends, while Hector is trying to wrap up his late grandmother’s affairs and move on from a needy relationship. While they are both starkly different, you can’t help but love both of them for what they are. Ari is over emotional and a little bit self centered, but also wrapped up in insecurities about those around him. You understand why he wants to go out and make his own life, but can’t help but feel for his parents, who want him to join the family bakery business. Panetta did a really good job of showing how people can be torn between by their individual dreams, and their familial expectations. Ari is complex and at times very frustrating, but he also is a character I think a lot of people can see themselves in. Hector, too, is a fascinating character, as while he isn’t as conflicted as Ari, he has his own insecurities, but is better at navigating them. That said, I liked the foil that he played, as his kindness and patience has led him to troubles in the past because of his compassion and empathy for people. I loved them both for who they were, and I loved seeing them interact with each other. The side characters were a bit more hit or miss for me. On the one hand you have Ari’s parents, who I really liked. Ari’s father was the strict and singleminded parent you tend to see in stories like this, who could have easily fallen into the box of being the ‘out of touch parent who doesn’t care about what their kid wants’. But instead, Panetta does a fantastic job of showing complexities there, and his worries and fears regarding his business, his livelihood, and his relationship with his son were definitely well defined, and brought tears to my eyes. Ari’s mother was a bit more of the supportive parent of the two parent dynamic, but I also liked that she had moments of stepping out of that box too and being stern and realistic. But while Ari’s parents were great and spot on, I thought that Ari’s and Hector’s friend groups were a little two dimensional. They tended to check off a lot of trope boxes (the aggressively quirky, the jerk, the snarky, etc), and while I didn’t mind seeing them I didn’t really get much interesting from them.

The romance and overall plot of this book was very sweet and rewarding. Ari and Hector get closer because of baking, and Panetta focuses as much on the slow burn of the love story as much as he focuses on the intricacies and art of baking. Passion, be it romantic passion of passions for hobbies, are a huge theme in this book, and you can see the passion of a number of characters, and how it drives them, and sometimes makes them forget about the potential consequences of said passions. You can’t help but root for Ari and Hector as their romance slowly blooms and comes to life. And you can’t help but think about the metaphors of baking and the patience that it takes, the time and care it can require, and how sometimes you have to restart when unanticipated problems arise. I loved every panel and every moment, and savored the story as it unfolded. And as I mentioned above, I definitely cried as I was reading it.

The artwork is understated and lovely. I loved the blue hues and the sketches, and how the art not only brings the people to life, but the food as well. The style sometimes looks like sketches that aren’t quite finished (with arrows denoting movement and bare boned sketches occasionally making appearances), but it only added to the charm of the story. Also, the occasional large splash panel would showcase both the people and their emotions, as well as the food that they were making.

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“Bloom” is an adorable and touching summer romance about finding yourself, finding love, and finding your passions. If you want a cute and satisfying love story, look no further than Ari and Hector!

Rating 9: A sweet, emotional, and mouth watering romance that has delightful characters, a lovely romance, and some tasty looking baked goods!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bloom” is included on the Goodreads lists “Pride Month! The Teen Essentials List”, and “Graphic Novels Centered Around Food”.

Find “Bloom” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Because of Miss Bridgerton”

25657772Book: “Because of Miss Bridgerton” by Julia Quinn

Publishing Info: Avon, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Sometimes you find love in the most unexpected of places…

This is not one of those times.

Everyone expects Billie Bridgerton to marry one of the Rokesby brothers. The two families have been neighbors for centuries, and as a child the tomboyish Billie ran wild with Edward and Andrew. Either one would make a perfect husband… someday.

Sometimes you fall in love with exactly the person you think you should…

Or not.

There is only one Rokesby Billie absolutely cannot tolerate, and that is George. He may be the eldest and heir to the earldom, but he’s arrogant, annoying, and she’s absolutely certain he detests her. Which is perfectly convenient, as she can’t stand the sight of him, either.

But sometimes fate has a wicked sense of humor…

Because when Billie and George are quite literally thrown together, a whole new sort of sparks begins to fly. And when these lifelong adversaries finally kiss, they just might discover that the one person they can’t abide is the one person they can’t live without…

Review: I don’t read straight up romance fiction very often, but when I do, it’s usually historical romance. And there’s no one better at writing historical romance than Julia Quinn at this point. She’s so successful that her “Bridgerton” series has been picked up by Netflix to be produced by Shonda Rhymes. I can’t say that that was my reason for initially starting this book, but I did discover that fact halfway through which made it feel a bit like fate, since I’ll definitely check out the show when it finally shows up.

The Bridgertons and Rokesbys have been neighbors for years, and as two of the most prominent families in the area, the children of both families have practically grown up together. None of them more close than Billie Bridgerton and Edward and Andrew Rokesby. Together, they’ve run wild throughout the countryside, often lead into the most trouble by Billie herself. Left out of these affairs has always been the eldest Rokesby, the serious and responsible George. But, as adults, when Billie’s bravery and gumption has translated into a sincere feeling of responsibility for caring for her father’s lands and George has come to appreciate the benefit of a bright smile and a joke, the two find themselves beginning to come to understand the other better and better.

I’m by no means a completeist of Quinn’s original Bridgerton series. I’ve read a few here and there. That being the case, it took me a bit to realize that this is essentially a prequel series to that one. The main chunk of Bridgerton books cover the exploits of the next generation, the children of Billie’s older brother. I’m not sure how many of these characters who up in that series, but I, at least, wasn’t familiar with any of them or their stories and backgrounds. But in this vacuum of my knowledge, I very much enjoyed what was presented here.

What stands out the most is the fact that this book doesn’t follow the traditional format of romance novels. The typical steps are as follows: 1.) Hero and heroine meet and while not understanding the other, sparks immediately fly 2.) Hero and heroine are compelled to marry for some reason or another 3.) Steamy scenes throughout the middle of the book while each character realizes they have feelings for the other 4.) Something happens to make the hero (typically) feel that he doesn’t deserve the heroine and he pulls away 5.) Heroine misunderstands this as the hero not truly having feelings for her and having just been forced into the whole thing 6.) Something occurs to force them to come clean to each other and happily ever after begins. The fact that these steps are often so predictable isn’t a criticism in and of itself. I know I, for one, reads romance novels like this exactly because I can predict what is going to happen for the most part. No nasty surprises or sad endings here! But what’s great about this book is that while still getting to the happy ending, it does so in a less traditional manner.

Instead of the rather quick build up to the mid-book steamy scenes, this one spends about 85% of the story building up the relationship between George and Billie. We get a bunch of casual scenes between the two where we can see the changes in their relationship slowly taking place. These characters have grown up knowing each other, so there’s a lovely balance of the familiar in their banter, but also the new wonder that comes with realizing that someone you’ve known forever isn’t necessarily the person you’ve always thought them to be. The romance is built more slowly and their relationship comes together much later in the book than I’ve typically seen, and I enjoyed this change very much.

Billie is an excellent character and she remains true to the heart of her character throughout the story. Often, when we get to the last two thirds section of the typical romance plot, even the most brave and confident heroine must fall prey to the insecurities that make her question the hero’s attachment to her. Thankfully, while Billie still has her doubts and misinterpretations, she also doesn’t wilt or fall prey to this typical arc. I was pleased to see these types of misunderstandings cleared up much more quickly through the type of frank conversation and steady sense of self that was originally built into both of these characters.

The book was also simply laugh-out-loud funny at times. The dialogue is fantastic. George and Billie’s conversations are great, of course. But George’s brother and Billie’s close friend Andrew really takes the cake for holding up the comedic side of things. I also really appreciated the strong friendship that was built between Billie and Andrew, one that remained solid throughout the book and wasn’t plagued with jealousy or unnatural rifts to serve some dramatic purpose.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book. It’s light, funny, and the romance took a less expected route when getting to the happily ever after that we’re all there for. Billie was one of the more fun romance heroines I’ve read in a while, and I liked George’s solid sense of self and responsibility to those he cares about. Fans of historical romance fiction will enjoy this. And if you’re looking to get ahead of the Netflix show, this is an excellent place to start (though it’s unclear how much of these prequel stories will make it into the series itself.)

Rating 8: A fun romance novel that truly made me laugh out loud at times.

Reader’s Advisory: “Because of Miss Bridgerton” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Humorous Historical Romances” and “Love/Hate Relationships.”

Find “Because of Miss Bridgerton” at your library using WorldCat.

 

 

Kate’s Review: “Assignment”

42956158Book: “Assignment” by Angela Howes

Publishing Info: Fine Tuned Editing, December 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The author provided me with a PDF copy.

Book Description: In a city divided between the workers who keep the economy going and the families who bolster the population, eighteen-year-old graduate Phoebe Ray is assigned to a solitary life as a newspaper delivery girl, forbidden from marrying, seeing her family more than twice a year, or ever having children.

But when childhood flame Noah and charming neighbor Sky enter the picture, Phoebe must decide whether a chance at love is worth risking imprisonment, banishment from society, and ultimately, death. And when a city-wide strike breaks out leaving everyone vulnerable, Phoebe has an even greater decision to make.

Should she turn her back on the fight to save her friends and family, or is it finally time to make a stand?

Review: First I want to extend a special thank you to Angela Howes for reaching out and sending me a copy of this book!

For better or for worse, my extensive list of not-so-guilty-reading-pleasures includes dystopic YA fiction. While I admittedly haven’t read the entire gamut, I’m always looking out for new titles. So when Angela Howes approached us and asked if we would be interesting in reading and featuring her book “Assignment” on the blog, I jumped at the chance.

The premise of “Assignment” is a fairly familiar one. A teenage girl named Phoebe lives in a society where people can be assigned to two facets of the community: you can be a One, who works and creates and keeps society and the economy going, or a Two, who doesn’t work but marries and reproduces to bolster the population. But what I liked about “Assignment” was that while the set up is familiar, I enjoyed the path that was taken for most of the narrative. Phoebe, who didn’t expect/ want to end up as a One, has to learn to adjust to a life she never saw coming. While you get the sense that things aren’t right in Cerenia, with the hints of corruption and strict, oppressive rules, most of this book is watching Phoebe start to find self-actualization, and how that eventually puts her in a place where she starts asking questions. I liked seeing her work her way up in her career, seeing her learn to take care of herself, and liked seeing her have to interact with people she wouldn’t necessarily interact with. Watching her character change and grow was a real fun treat, and I really liked how her path took her and where she ended up. Seeing the world she was in grow around her as the story went on was also enjoyable. The focus right now in the books is building the world, and I felt like we got a really good sense of why Cerenia has become the society that it is, and in turn how conflicts are handled within the society because of its core ethos. This is seen in a couple of ways. The first is the ‘strike’ that the Ones partake in, and how Phoebe and her fellow Ones become targets of violence, intimidation, and raids. This was a creative plot device, and it not only made the suspense fly high, it also laid out the stakes. But the second is far more personal to Phoebe, as her brother Milo became a One before she did, and now she’s having a hard time getting a hold of him. The question of where her brother is, and what it means that he’s seemingly disappeared, is every present and effective.

That said, there is one big trap that “Assignment” falls into, and this is perhaps based more in personal preference than anything else. We have The Love Triangle, a trope that I cannot stand. Our two players are pretty typical in their roles. There’s Noah, the boy that Phoebe has known since childhood and whom she has loved for a long time. They assumed they would both be Twos and get married and have a family. But since Ones and Twos cannot fraternize, their love in a star crossed one. The other is Sky, a One that Phoebe meets at the assignment ceremony and ends up being her neighbor. Noah is sweet and loyal, whereas Sky is cocky with a heart of gold. I’m just going to put out there I am Team Sky, because Noah not only has a lady friend named Darya he’s been matched up with who is super sweet and understanding, but he is a complete coward who wants to have his cake and eat it too. In this case, that means shacking up with Darya and fulfilling his responsibility with her, but sneaking around with Phoebe when she drops off his newspaper every day. PHOEBE, YOU CAN DO BETTER. I liked Sky because while he did checkbox a number of familiar bad boy tropes, I DID appreciate that he respected Phoebe’s wants and needs, so when she just wanted to be friends, he was satisfied with that. It’s a healthier love triangle moment to be sure. But it’s still going strong by the end of the book. On top of that, we get a very HUGE cliffhanger right at the end. I can handle a cliffhanger ending if it ends with ambiguity, but when it’s a smash cut in the middle of a scene or conversation, that’s a choice I don’t particularly care for.

Those qualms aside, I enjoyed “Assignment”! I will definitely be looking out for the next book in the series, because Phoebe has me fully invested at this point. Fans of dystopia romance should give it a whirl!

Rating 7: While love triangles aren’t my cup of tea and cliffhangers rankle me, “Assignment” was an addictive dystopia with some sound and well done world building, and likable characters!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Assignment” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists, but if you like books like “Divergent”, “Matched”, or “The Testing” you will probably find this one fun as well!

“Assignment” isn’t in very many libraries as of now, but you can find it in WorldCat, and on Amazon.

Book Club Review: “Sky in the Deep”

34726469We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Sky in the Deep” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, April 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate got it from the library,

Genre Mash-Up: Fantasy and Romance

Book Description: Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

Kate’s Thoughts

I went into this book with hesitance, if only because it’s described as ‘fantasy’ and you all know how I am about fantasy books. I had remembered that Serena had read it and enjoyed it, and I do have to admit that the idea of Viking based mythology was a tantalizing thought. Still, I was nervous. But it turned out that I had nothing to be nervous about, because “Sky in the Deep” ended up being a really fun read for me!

The greatest appeal of this book was Eelyn, as not only is she a fierce and strong warrior, she is also a complex character who is still a relatable teenage girl. She loves her family and she is very set in her beliefs, and when her belief system is questioned she has to reconcile that life isn’t as black and white and straightforward as she previously thought. But even in the face of these changes to her opinions and realizations of nuance, she still remained true to her self, and it didn’t feel like she strayed from her character in ways that seemed unbelievable. I also really enjoyed seeing how she had to relearn about, and learn to forgive, her brother Iri after his perceived betrayal. I felt that while her relationship and eventual romance with Fiske was an interesting dynamic, I was more invested in whether or not Eelyn would be able to reconcile with Iri.

The world that Young built also kept me interested in the story. I have very little working knowledge of Viking lore and history, so I went into this with little to no expectations. This worked in my favor in two ways: one, I had no idea of anything stood out as ‘inaccurate’ (though as a fantasy that doesn’t necessarily need to enter into it), and it was still exciting enough that it  kept me going. I liked the world building and the explanations of the different cultures and how they were similar and dissimilar, and felt like they were distinct from each other. The action sequences and conflicts were also very well written, and I found myself on the edge of my seat with worry for all the characters I liked. Investment in characters is always a huge plus!

“Sky in the Deep” was a really fun read and a great exception to my usual lukewarm feelings towards fantasy. It makes me feel like people who may not like fantasy will find things to like here!

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited when I heard that this book was chosen for one of our bookclub picks. Yes, I had already read it, but I had liked it the first go around and was more than happy to revisit it. On a second read-through, my feelings remain pretty much the same. The short and sweet of it: I liked the main character quite a lot, the story could be predictable at times, but the awesome action and subdued romance all hit the right marks for me.

Again, this re-read, the thing that really stood out to me was just how badass Eelyn is. This book is the epitome of showing and not telling as far as warrior skills go. All too often, readers are simply informed that the main character is “such and such incredible fighter” but we either never see it in action, or only get a brief glimpse. This could partly be due to the fact that writing good fight/battle scenes simply isn’t as easy as one would think. But Young rises to the challenge and again and again we see Eelyn’s abilities on display, both in larger battles scenes (like the ones at the beginning of the book) to the smaller skirmishes that Eelyn gets in throughout the story. What’s more, we’re free from having to read through any moral hand-wringing about all of this violence. This is the culture and world that Eelyn has grown up in. It’s brutal and bloody and it simply never occurs to her to question her own role in taking part in this. Through a modern lens, we can have our questions. But through a realistic portrayal of a character living in this world, she wouldn’t have these same thoughts.

Beyond this, one thing that did stand out more for me this re-read was just how beautiful some of the turns of phrase were. Much of the book is action, but there are a few quieter moments throughout the story that are really quite gorgeous, either in the depth of the reflections taking place (especially Eelyn’s struggles to understand her brother and his choices) or simple descriptions of a winter-y scene. The title of the book draws from one of these moments. I think these quieter moments really worked well to balance out what was otherwise a very fast-paced story.

Obviously, re-reading this, I knew what was coming when, so my original criticism of its being a bit predictable is harder to evaluate a second go-around. I do think that that thought remains true, however. Much of this probably has to do with the length of the book. It’s a standalone (yay!), but it also doesn’t have a terribly long page count on its own. Within these restrictions, plot points need to be gotten through fairly efficiently, and the manner in which this is accomplished is, yes, fairly predictable to readers familiar with this type of story.

Overall, however, I still very much enjoyed this book, and it’s definitely one worth checking out if you’re looking for a standalone story that mixes fantasy, history, and romance in an action-packed book.

Kate Rating 8: An action packed adventure with a compelling set of characters and distinct world building, “Sky in the Deep” was a fun surprise!

Serena Rating 8: I’m going to actually up my rating a point after this re-read. I think the strength of the writing as a whole stood out even more this go-around, and it deserves that edge up.

Book Club Questions

  1. This story mixes several different genres all together: fantasy, historical fiction, romance. Did one of these areas standout for you?
  2. Eelyn must grapple with a lot of prejudices and preconceptions in this book. How well do you think her growth in this area was handled?
  3. There are two primary relationships at the heart of this story: Eelyn and her brother, Iri, and Eelyn and Fiske? Were you more invested in one or the other and why?
  4. The book covers a host of dark themes and can be quite violent at times. What did you think about how these aspects of the story were handled?
  5. The story also focuses a lot on found families. Were there any notable elements in this area that stood out for you?

Reader’s Advisory

“Sky in the Deep” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA Vikings” and “YA Fantasy Standalones.”

Find “Sky in the Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History” by Sam Muggs.

Serena’s Review: “Radiance”

24473763Book: “Radiance” by Grace Draven

Publication Info: self-published, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: THE PRINCE OF NO VALUE

Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.

THE NOBLEWOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.

Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.

Review: This book showed up on some list or another that focused on lesser know romantic fantasy stories. I had already read many of them but was intrigued by the list author’s description of this one which focused on the incredibly positive romantic pairing at the heart of the story. All too often with romance novels, I find myself having to hold back my eyerolls or intentionally speed read through sections where one member of the central pairing (or both) is exhibiting behaviors that are pretty unhealthy and sometimes border on abusive. It’s one of the main reasons that I tend to avoid books where romance is too much of the focal point at the heart of the story. But since its healthy romance was at the heart of the list author’s reason for including “Radiance,” I thought that this one was worth giving a shot!

Brishen and Ildiko come from to very different races. Ildiko is a human, born to live during the day. Brishen is a Kai, a human-like being who lives at night, possesses certain magical powers, and looks terrifying to most humans with his dark skin, white eyes, and sharp teeth. Unlike the book description above would imply, both know they are destined for a marriage that would align their people and have resigned themselves to this fate. Together, they face the challenges of skepticism from their own people who resist seeing a bond such as theirs and threats of violence from outside nations who feel threaten by the increased tie between human kind and the Kai.

It was difficult to write even that short synopsis above because this book is definitely a character-driven story. There is a story arc, but it is one that is only sprinkled in here and there and comes into play only at the very end of the book. Instead, most of the story is devoted solely to getting to know Ildiko and Brishen and portraying their blessedly realistic (and devoid of instalove!) relationship.

Through them, we get some interesting world-building. Ildiko’s people seem to be standard humans. We don’t spend much time in her world, however, as the story quickly shifts to the land of the Kai, as Ildiko and Brishen travel their to establish their home. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Kai culture, their dress, food, and lifestyle. It was all very different from humanity, but also struck closely enough that a marriage between the two peoples still makes sense.

Some of the more intriguing portions of these descriptions, the cultural norms and the physical appearance of each race, came from the blunt evaluations offered up by Brishen and Ildiko. In the very first few chapters, they establish a strong, trust-based style of communication that allows them to express their bewilderment and sometimes fear at the other’s way of life and looks. See, right off the bat, healthy relationship norms! Communication, it will do wonders! These descriptions and conversations also highlight the witty dialogue that makes up much of the book and was incredibly enjoyable. Brishen teases Ildiko about her “horse-like teeth” and Ildiko points out some the disturbing aspects of Brishen’s all-white eyes.

As I said, much of the story is simply focused on these two characters and how they slowly build a friendship and romance over the course of the book. They are also, at the heart of things, both just very good people. It seems like a weird thing to have to highlight, but this aspect of the story, their inherent goodness and the healthiness of the relationship they build, is what makes this book stand out as so satisfying. There are real challenges they face and neither simply brushes off the disturbance they feel at the other’s physical appearance, but mutual respect, friendship, and trust is slowly laid out as the foundation of their growing attachment. It’s just a lovely example of how you can write a romance novel without having to make your main characters brooding, bizarrely non-communicative, or just constantly misunderstood.

It looks like there are follow up books to this story, but it can also mostly be read as a standalone novel. It’s definitely a light, romantic read, so don’t go in expecting epic world-building or elaborate magical systems. The fantasy elements are all clearly there as support systems for the character-driven story at its heart. I very much enjoyed this book, and I agree with the author of the original list (I can’t seem to find it or I would link it!): this book is rare for what it is doing right with its romance.

Also, a quick note. This is a self-published novel, but I was able to check out an ebook at the library. Just another plug for all self-published authors out there: libraries are often willing to stock your ebooks, especially if you’re local and can point to some interest in your story. There’s definitely no harm in asking!

Rating 8: A magical unicorn of a romance novel where the main pairing is based on healthy relationship norms!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Radiance” is on these Goodreads lists: “Slow-burn romance” and “Fantasy Romance.”

Find “Radiance” at your library using WorldCat!