Strike the Zither by Joan He // Book Review

Strike the Zither by Joan He // Book Review

Just so you know, I’m going to be listening to zither music while I write this review.

Here’s more about Strike the Zither

The year is 414 of the Xin Dynasty, and chaos abounds. A puppet empress is on the throne. The realm has fractured into three factions and three warlordesses hoping to claim the continent for themselves.

But Zephyr knows it’s no contest.

Orphaned at a young age, Zephyr took control of her fate by becoming the best strategist of the land and serving under Xin Ren, a warlordess whose loyalty to the empress is double-edged—while Ren’s honor draws Zephyr to her cause, it also jeopardizes their survival in a war where one must betray or be betrayed. When Zephyr is forced to infiltrate an enemy camp to keep Ren’s followers from being slaughtered, she encounters the enigmatic Crow, an opposing strategist who is finally her match. But there are more enemies than one—and not all of them are human.

An epic YA fantasy about found family, rivals, and identity, from New York Times and Indie bestselling author Joan He, inspired by Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Classics of Chinese Literature.

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My thoughts

I’ve been really getting into both C-dramas and books inspired by C-dramas. It first started off with Daughter of the Moon Goddess and Iron Widow, but now I’m anticipating some new ones in the new year. And what better way to celebrate this new genre of YA fantasy fiction than with another C-drama inspired story.

Strike the Zither follows Peacock or better known as Zephyr. She’s a strategist for Ren’s army who is currently fighting two other armies for dominance on the land. She’s a bit full of herself and a bit pompous, but you know how much I love an unlikeable female character. She thinks she knows everything, can think way ahead of anyone else and believes she has the best solution for any situation. And with that, she decides to infiltrate the enemy’s army by defecting and joining Miasma’s ranks. However, things don’t go so well for Zephyr and bigger secrets are revealed in the process. As a fan of military fantasies in general, I knew that I would really like Strike the Zither especially as its modeled off the famous Three Kingdoms story. But as someone who doesn’t know much about the tale, I found it to be intriguing, impassioned, and filled with so many of the things I love about military fantasies, except in YA form.

As a fan of C-dramas, this was seriously a play out of the book. I absolutely adored the different tropes Joan He uses to make this story her own. The big reveals just kept getting bigger and while I wasn’t a fan of how quickly the beginning half moved, I understand that it was to start the second half which truly deepened the world, the characters, and the story for me.

The surprises throughout this story were totally unforeseen and totally fun! I absolutely loved that this had that C-drama vibe with its big reveals, romantic entanglements, and battle scenes. I absolutely loved getting into this new book from Joan He and it’s a departure from her usual writing style (but for the better). Unlike her books in the past, this one felt more linearly structured with a clear idea of where the story is going. I absolutely adored The Ones We’re Meant to Find just because of its complexity and puzzle for two sisters to find each other, but I love Strike the Zither to allow He to explore a level of her writing that I personally haven’t explored (yet, Descendant of the Crane is still on my list).

And similarly to TOWMTF, this one has some sisterly love throughout. While they may not be related by blood, the bonds of war truly create a sisterhood that rivals a real one. I really loved the relationship Zephyr had not only with her battle sisters, Lotus and Cloud, but also with her ministress, Ren. It’s obvious by the way they treat and respect each other creating bonds between them that work beyond themselves.

I think the only issue I had is with the romantic elements. It was a little too instant for me and really wanted to see if it would play out similarly in C-dramas, but there are still books in this series to be written so I’m hoping these will develop more in the future.

Overall, this was so good and if you’re a fan of complex military fantasy with tons of subterfuge then this is for you. It isn’t perfect, but it’s truly the beginning of something perfect. I’ll definitely be continuing on with the series in the future.

Bloodmarked by Tracy Deonn // Book Review

Bloodmarked by Tracy Deonn // Book Review

When I first read Legendborn, I knew that Tracy Deonn was onto something really special. The story of how a young Bree finds out the truth of her ancestry has captured so many readers. People hesitant to read the book absolutely love it by the end. People who don’t normally read fantasy are compelled to read some more. It’s a book that continuously moves across the different things the characters come across and Tracy Deonn takes the Arthurian legend and turning it on its head. And you pretty much get more of that throughout Bloodmarked.

Here’s more about Bloodmarked

The shadows have risen, and the line is law.

All Bree wanted was to uncover the truth behind her mother’s death. So she infiltrated the Legendborn Order, a secret society descended from King Arthur’s knights—only to discover her own ancestral power. Now, Bree has become someone new:

A Medium. A Bloodcrafter. A Scion.

But the ancient war between demons and the Order is rising to a deadly peak. And Nick, the Legendborn boy Bree fell in love with, has been kidnapped.

Bree wants to fight, but the Regents who rule the Order won’t let her. To them, she is an unknown girl with unheard-of power, and as the living anchor for the spell that preserves the Legendborn cycle, she must be protected.

When the Regents reveal they will do whatever it takes to hide the war, Bree and her friends must go on the run to rescue Nick themselves. But enemies are everywhere, Bree’s powers are unpredictable and dangerous, and she can’t escape her growing attraction to Selwyn, the mage sworn to protect Nick until death.

If Bree has any hope of saving herself and the people she loves, she must learn to control her powers from the ancestors who wielded them first—without losing herself in the process.

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My thoughts

If you haven’t read Legendborn, turn away now! This book starts right where the last one leaves off, so you’ll need to know the events of the last book in order to understand what’s going on in this one. I’m glad to have reread book 1 because book 2 just barrels right into the world and what’s happening.

If there’s one word to describe this book, I think it’s cinematic. I felt like I was watching an action film starring Bree and Sel and the others in the group and every move they made was to escape the villains (of which there are many). It starts off with the memorial for all of Bree’s fallen friends from the final battle in the first book. That leads right into the rite ceremony where Bree will accept her place as the Crown Scion and take up the sword that her family has bled to inherit. Of course, that’s when some big truths are revealed. After that, it is a whirlwind of events that will leave you with your jaw on the floor, a hand balled up in a fist, an inability to pick a proper romantic partner for Bree, and surprise you until the very last page of the book. If you’re planning to read Bloodmarked, then you’re in for a ride.

Much of this book tackles the topic of inheritance and the way Bree inherits her powers. I don’t want to say because that’s giving too much away, but for those who’ve read book 1 there’s a lot of Vera, the rootcraft, and the implications of Bree and her power meaning to not only the Order, but to her ancestors who have been punished time and time again for the misdeeds of one white man. It’s definitely one of the biggest parts of the story and a lot of Bree’s motivation to keep her autonomy especially over her own body. I loved how this is threaded through the book and as the story progresses, it becomes more clearly obvious that Bree needs to find control and power within herself.

Of course, the romance between Bree, Sel, and Nick come to a fever pitch! While Bree and the others are still on the hunt for Nick and his father, Sel takes center stage and the emotions are palatable. Yes, I need more Sel and I need it now! Not only are there those leading moments for us to devour, there’s also the bigger question that we are all dying to find an answer: who will Bree choose? I definitely have a team I’m siding with, but I can’t wait to see how that plays out in the next book.

What I also really loved from this book is the new villains that Bree has to face. There’s a lot of new faces and characters to note including Valec, a broker who trades special abilities for souls. There’s the other members of the Regent that all gather together for Bree’s rites ceremony. There’s Arthur who I was hoping would be a plucky sidekick inside Bree’s brain, but he turns out to be a much different character than I imagined and definitely worth finding out! And then there’s Morgaine, Merlins, and the villain that we are all fighting for. I honestly was on the edge of my seat by the end of this book with how much has happened, how many questions I was left unanswered, and all the possibilities of where this story can go.

And that’s what really opens up the world in this book. What I really loved is how much Tracy Deonn opens up this world. It’s more than just Legendborn and Rootcrafters and I loved that. The journey Bree and her friends take to find refuge and help to defeat her enemies widens the worldbuilding in away I didn’t imagine. It’s so interesting to find different beings who practice different kinds of magic and the new characters introduced in this book really bring a dynamic to the story that I didn’t anticipate. I can’t wait to see how Tracy Deonn incorporates these components into the next book. In many ways, there were bits and pieces that the story introduces but doesn’t dive into more, but you can tell immediately that they’ll be important in future stories and bring a level of excitement for the next stories in the world.

This will definitely a book I revisit in the future. Probably before book 3 comes out, but definitely a story that’s truly captured me and makes me pine to return some day soon.

Only a Monster by Vanessa Len // Book Review

Only a Monster by Vanessa Len // Book Review

A fantasy book that uses science fiction elements? Count me in.

Here’s more about Only a Monster

It should have been the perfect summer. Sent to stay with her late mother’s eccentric family in London, sixteen-year-old Joan is determined to enjoy herself. She loves her nerdy job at the historic Holland House, and when her super cute co-worker Nick asks her on a date, it feels like everything is falling into place.

But she soon learns the truth. Her family aren’t just eccentric: they’re monsters, with terrifying, hidden powers. And Nick isn’t just a cute boy: he’s a legendary monster slayer, who will do anything to bring them down.

As she battles Nick, Joan is forced to work with the beautiful and ruthless Aaron Oliver, heir to a monster family that hates her own. She’ll have to embrace her own monstrousness if she is to save herself, and her family. Because in this story . . .

. . . she is not the hero.

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My thoughts

I’m a huge fan of science fiction books that dive into physics theories; quantum physics, dark matter, string theory, etc. I like the idea of these theoretical topics and how they are incorporated into science fiction stories. We’ve seen countless stories of time travel in our lives, but what I haven’t seen in my reading life up to this point is a purely fantasy story use time travel in a way that really defies anything I’ve read before.

Only a Monster starts off with Joan spending her summer vacation with her family in London. She’s been volunteering at a historic home that’s been turned into a small museum with her biggest crush, Nick. When Nick finally asks her out on a date, Joan is ecstatic and on the day of the date, she’s more than ready to meet her crush and have that awkward teenager relationship. For all intents and purposes, I thought this was going to be just another YA contemporary romance where it will be a cute, sweet toothache and nothing more. That is…until she touches an old man on the neck and ends up in the same place 12 hours later.

And then realization dawned on me that this book was going to be entirely different than what I expected. Joan comes from a family of monsters. No, not like the gruesome kind that frighten young children. They look like your average human. Their monstrous ability is that they can travel through time and they do it by stealing time off the lives of humans. You want to go back a day? You need to steal a day off the end of someone’s life.

Crazy, isn’t it?

This book was one of those books where I may not have read the synopsis well enough to really understand what I was getting into. I followed the hype I saw on bookstagram and honestly, I was rewarded. This was the most creative story I’ve read in a long time. Of course it has your typical YA tropes; a love triangle, a grumpy/sunshine duo, a forbidden love aspect, and a whiny teenager who keeps fumbling through all her bad ideas, but it was also written by debut author Vanessa Len, who is now one of my favorite authors.

Joan is a half-human, half-monster born who has been pretty shielded by her monstrous family for her entire life. Her first time traveling through time came to a shock for her and her ignorance about the world, its politics, the people, and the families made it much easier for the reader to follow along and learn from her. While I did wish for the occasional info dump (I know, it’s weird), I did appreciate being kept in the dark and only learning more about the world as I went along. That being said, I do want a better understanding of what’s going on in this world. The book ends at a pretty satisfying ending, but there’s still a few loose ends that I can’t wait to read more about in the next book.

This is one of those books where the twist within itself creating a bigger twist than the twist before. Honestly, I was surprised by how often my jaw was on the ground with each reveal. I think that’s what drove me to read most of this book because one chapter would end with a cliffhanger and then I would need to read the next chapter to see what happens.

The world itself was incredible. I’ve never read a fantasy book that includes time travel the way that Vanessa Len described it. I literally clutched my neck worried that some monster would come and casually steal life from me. It had this interesting moral aspect to it, do you continue to time travel knowing that you’re shortening life or do you not worry about it? I felt like this was something Joan grappled with throughout the book. She’s compelled to travel because of who she is, but she doesn’t feel like it’s right to steal life from humans. There’s some monster families who see it as their privilege, but being brought up in the human world it does become something Joan must face throughout the book.

While most of the book is plot-driven, there was a lot of care given to Joan and the way she handled the grief of losing her family. While I won’t get into specifics to avoid spoiling things, it made sense for her to recall that moment often throughout the story. It really conveys how loss and how grief takes over in the most inopportune moments.

Overall, this was a fantastic debut and it’s made me a fan of Vanessa Len’s work for years to come. I can’t wait to read book 2 and see what happens to Joan and the others in this adventure.

Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz // Book Review

Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz // Book Review

This is the perfect gothic YA you’ll want to read this fall!

Here’s more about Anatomy: A Love Story

Edinburgh, 1817. Hazel Sinnett is a lady who wants to be a surgeon more than she wants to marry.

Jack Currer is a resurrection man who’s just trying to survive in a city where it’s too easy to die.

When the two of them have a chance encounter outside the Edinburgh Anatomist’s Society, Hazel thinks nothing of it at first. But after she gets kicked out of renowned surgeon Dr. Beecham’s lectures for being the wrong gender, she realizes that her new acquaintance might be more helpful than she first thought. Because Hazel has made a deal with Dr. Beecham: if she can pass the medical examination on her own, the university will allow her to enroll. Without official lessons, though, Hazel will need more than just her books – she’ll need bodies to study, corpses to dissect.

Lucky that she’s made the acquaintance of someone who digs them up for a living, then.

But Jack has his own problems: strange men have been seen skulking around cemeteries, his friends are disappearing off the streets. Hazel and Jack work together to uncover the secrets buried not just in unmarked graves, but in the very heart of Edinburgh society.

A gothic tale full of mystery and romance about a willful female surgeon, a resurrection man who sells bodies for a living, and the buried secrets they must uncover together.

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My thoughts

Anatomy follows young Hazel in 19th century Edinburgh with a dream to become a physician one day. Sadly, this wasn’t the greatest time for women and the dream she so dared to dream required a lot more work to achieve. She’s betrothed to her cousin (keeping it in the family) and made to conform to the position of young woman in high society. Reading manuals on human physiology, bringing dead frogs back from the dead, and disguising herself as a boy to attend classes at an all-boys physiology school, Hazel was determined to be a physician regardless of her sex.

But there was a lot more happening in this book than just her pursuit in science. Not only is there the plot about Hazel wanting to become a doctor, but there’s also a plague going around, bodies going missing, deaths occurring, and a marriage proposal. I loved that this story had so many aspects that wrapped itself together into one bigger story. I loved the mysterious aspects of the story and brought a little bit of suspense to it. I was wondering who might be the person who was causing all the deaths and the reveal was quite satisfying.

It also explored the gothic stories of the time period. I was getting Bronte sisters and even a little Mary Shelley with the descriptions, the strange science experiments and the like. The book taking place in Scotland also lended to the setting. I just imagined misty moors and abandoned graveyards. The atmosphere throughout the story truly set the stage for the events.

While I wish the romance was a tad bit stronger to match the end of the book, I did believe in Jack and Hazel and their wild duo would have been such a great ending. I felt like Jack and Hazel’s relationship didn’t really have the time to develop although I did appreciate their encounters and the way they worked with each other. I just wish the magic in their love story was a bit more prominent.

Just as an aside, but for some reason Jack’s part in the story reminded me a lot of Jack in another historical film that involved a big boat. I wanted him to have a much bigger part, but I also loved that he encouraged Hazel to pursue her dreams by digging up the bodies for her.

I will say, the ending really threw me and had a much different feel to it from the rest of the book. It truly surprised me and while it didn’t match the rest of the story, it did leave me hanging and hoping there’s a second book (there is!).

This is definitely the perfect book for the spooky season if you’d like something a bit spooky without it being all right horrifying. I will say that the level of gore may make you cringe, but I think you’ll also be captured by the story, the romance, and the interesting ending.

Three Kisses, One Midnight by Roshani Chokshi, Evelyn Skye, and Sandhya Menon // Book Review

Three Kisses, One Midnight by Roshani Chokshi, Evelyn Skye, and Sandhya Menon // Book Review

Three characters, three stories, one book. If you’re a fan of contemporary YA romance series and wish you can get three stories in one book, then this is the one for you. Thanks to Wednesday Books for the gifted read.

Here’s more about Three Kisses, One Midnight

The town of Moon Ridge was founded 400 years ago and everyone born and raised there knows the legend of the young woman who perished at the stroke of twelve that very same night, losing the life she was set to embark on with her dearest love. Every century since, one day a year, the Lady of Moon Ridge descends from the stars to walk among the townsfolk, conjuring an aura upon those willing to follow their hearts’ desires.

“To summon joy and love in another’s soul
For a connection that makes two people whole
For laughter and a smile that one can never miss
Sealed before midnight with a truehearted kiss.”

This year at Moon Ridge High, a group of friends known as The Coven will weave art, science, and magic during a masquerade ball unlike any other. Onny, True, and Ash believe everything is in alignment to bring them the affection, acceptance, and healing that can only come from romance—with a little help from Onny’s grandmother’s love potion.

But nothing is as simple as it first seems. And as midnight approaches, The Coven learn that it will take more than a spell to recognize those who offer their love and to embrace all the magic that follows.

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My thoughts

I honestly went into this book thinking that it was going to be an anthology of short stories. However, it’s a little bit more unique than that and really creates a unique experience. Three incredible YA authors write three separate stories all set at the same place, same time, and follow one of the main characters through their evening. I loved the concept. I loved the idea of writing a short story in a trilogy collection that’s set throughout the same night.

The first story is based off Onny. She’s the magical one of the group who’s made a love potion for the three of them to use sometime before midnight of the town’s Halloween ball. Onny was my favorite as she prepares her potion for the boy she has a crush on only to have her nemesis drink it instead. And as they try to make more of the potion, of course their feelings for each other changes as well.

The second story is based off Ash, who is a talented artist that’s terribly shy. He lives next door to a wondrous girl who plays basketball and runs with a much more popular crowd and while he may know every detail about her, she doesn’t really know he exists. That is, until her brothers break the fence between their two homes and Ash is recruited to help rebuild the fence with her. Of course, things start to change between the two of them from there.

The final story follows True, a straightforward no-nonsense girl who’s nursing a broken heart. Of course, she wouldn’t let on that she’s a bit heartbroken, but when she finds herself at the ball talking to a boy she’s never met before, things change for True and open her up to a possibility of love.

The three stories separately all had some favorite moments. I loved that each had its different trope and has a little bit for everyone. Of course, it’s a super fast read, but still such a darling set of stories. I most definitely loved Onny’s story the best, but each had me gasping and sighing at some of the romantic moments for each of them.

Of course, the book has all the fall vibes. The book is set around Halloween with a Halloween-themed ball to attend. The people in town dressed in elaborate costumes all sipping party drinks and dancing together is just the perfect mood for the story. Of course, there’s a little bit of witchy magic, which also ties into the Halloween theme without being spooky. I absolutely loved that this book is made for this season and if you’re looking to cozy up with a comforting YA romance, then this one is for you.

Dead Flip by Sara Farizan // Book Review

Dead Flip by Sara Farizan // Book Review

This had all the vibes of Stranger Things and Ready Player One. If you’re a fan of video games, monsters looking to suck your life out, and teenagers really learning a little bit about themselves in the process, then this one is for you.

Here’s more about Dead Flip

Growing up, Cori, Maz, and Sam were inseparable best friends, sharing their love for Halloween, arcade games, and one another. Now it’s 1992, Sam has been missing for five years, and Cori and Maz aren’t speaking anymore. How could they be, when Cori is sure Sam is dead and Maz thinks he may have been kidnapped by a supernatural pinball machine?
These days, all Maz wants to do is party, buy CDs at Sam Goody, and run away from his past. Meanwhile, Cori is a homecoming queen, hiding her abiding love of horror movies and her queer self under the bubblegum veneer of a high school queen bee. But when Sam returns—still twelve years old while his best friends are now seventeen—Maz and Cori are thrown back together to solve the mystery of what really happened to Sam the night he went missing. Beneath the surface of that mystery lurk secrets the friends never told one another, then and now. And Sam’s is the darkest of all . . .
Award-winning author of If You Could Be Mine and Here to Stay Sara Farizan delivers edge-of-your-seat terror as well as her trademark referential humor, witty narration, and insightful characters.

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My thoughts

The fast pace of Dead Flip threw me off a little. Granted, this is my first YA book in a really long time, so it surprised me how quickly things were moving right at the beginning, but one thing was obvious: Sam, Cori, and Maz used to be best friends. They used to hang out with each other and for all intents and purposes, they were kind of misfits who found friendship through a mutual love of pinball. But something happens, as things do when you’re a teenager, and their threesome split. When Sam disappears one day, the group also splits. Cori and Maz are left to pick up the pieces of their life without one of their best friends. Cori becomes popular and nominated for the prom queen. Maz’s family starts to do better than before raising his status among the folks at school. They make their ways in separate directions until Sam suddenly returns; except that he’s still the same Sam that left, young and a little bit different.

The rest of the book is a whirlwind journey of how Sam came back and what it all means. I don’t want to spoil it, but Sam’s whereabouts really shook me. I love stories like this and it reminds me a little bit of Stranger Things in that Sam has been in some inter-dimension that exists within the real unieverse. As you keep reading, the truth behind where Sam has been is revealed. This also felt like thriller/horror lite. If you’re not invested in reading something too spooky, but has enough to give you the vibes, then this might be a book to add to your Halloween reading lists. I know I will because it was a lot of fun, actually has a super hopeful ending, and the supernatural elements were not surprising, but still entertaining.

Sam’s return also brings Maz and Cori back together and while the two of them have been in separate circles and learning how to cope, it seems almost like Sam brings them together. I really enjoyed the friendship between Maz, Cori, and Sam. Without Sam, it felt like they were parts to a whole that no longer fit into each other. But it’s obvious that Sam is the glue of their relationship and with his return, something reverts back for both Maz and Cori; to a simpler time when all they had were each other and that sparks the changes they face throughout the rest of the book.

Overall, this was a fun and fast-paced story that would make for a perfect spooky season read! If you’re looking to get the feel of Halloween without it being too gorey, then I suggest picking this one up!

I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston // Book Review

I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston // Book Review

Shara freaking Wheeler. This is my third Casey McQuiston and I’m so excited to read their first foray into YA fiction. And let me tell you, it’s so good! Thanks to Wednesday Books for a gifted copy.

Here’s more about I Kissed Shara Wheeler

Chloe Green is so close to winning. After her moms moved her from SoCal to Alabama for high school, she’s spent the past four years dodging gossipy classmates and a puritanical administration at Willowgrove Christian Academy. The thing that’s kept her going: winning valedictorian. Her only rival: prom queen Shara Wheeler, the principal’s perfect progeny.

But a month before graduation, Shara kisses Chloe and vanishes.

On a furious hunt for answers, Chloe discovers she’s not the only one Shara kissed. There’s also Smith, Shara’s longtime quarterback sweetheart, and Rory, Shara’s bad boy neighbor with a crush. The three have nothing in common except Shara and the annoyingly cryptic notes she left behind, but together they must untangle Shara’s trail of clues and find her. It’ll be worth it, if Chloe can drag Shara back before graduation to beat her fair-and-square.

Thrown into an unlikely alliance, chasing a ghost through parties, break-ins, puzzles, and secrets revealed on monogrammed stationery, Chloe starts to suspect there might be more to this small town than she thought. And maybe—probably not, but maybe—more to Shara, too.

Fierce, funny, and frank, Casey McQuiston’s I Kissed Shara Wheeler is about breaking the rules, getting messy, and finding love in unexpected places.

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My thoughts

I picked up this book because I was desperately in need of something different to read than the heavy fantasy books I was reading. I’m so glad I did what I did because this was such a wonderful story with an exploration in identity, persona, and really finding and being your authentic self.

Chloe Green is one of the top students in school. She’s been head-to-head with her biggest school rival, popular and pretty Shara Wheeler. But one day Shara kisses Chloe in an elevator and then disappears a few days later. In hopes of finding out what happened to her, Chloe sneaks into Shara’s bedroom only to meet Rory, another person Shara kissed. From there, they find the first note in a series of letters that lead them to Shara’s whereabouts.

I loved the level of mystery this book had. Shara wasn’t kidnapped. Nothing terrible happened to her. She ran away and created a puzzle for Chloe, Rory, and her ex-boyfriend, Smith, to uncover. With each letter they find, they learn a little bit more about where Shara may be as well as a little bit about Shara.

The story itself was super lighthearted with some serious conversations throughout. I knew that there would be big laughs and joking moments, but I also really appreciated the honest parts discussing gender identity, sexual identity, and just truly finding out who you are.

Another part that I truly appreciated was the consistency in the story. I always read YA stories where the characters are in school, but they never go to class. I loved that Chloe was still going to class everyday, showing up for final exams, and that part of their world was incorporated into the bigger story. It felt genuine for the kids to juggle their real lives with the mystery behind Shara.

This is definitely one of those propulsive books that make you keep reading. You want to find out what happened to Shara. You’re on this big scavenger hunt with Chloe, Smith, and Rory. You want to see what the next letter says and learning more about the kids (as well as the adults) in this book makes it feel more realistic. Although, I will admit there were some parts that really require you to suspend your disbelief, but it still made you laugh.

There’s a lot of play on persona in this novel and I commend Casey McQuiston for diving deep into Jungian psychology throughout the book. I think the only person in this book who didn’t have a persona was Chloe, who came to the school much later than the rest of the main characters in the story. Shara Wheeler was most definitely a study in persona and even Chloe was fooled by the multiple masks she wore. I won’t go any further into it because it might spoil the story, but once you think you’ve figured Shara Wheeler out, a new little twist appears revealing deeper layers behind her.

An Arrow to the Moon by Emily XR Pan // Book Review

An Arrow to the Moon by Emily XR Pan // Book Review

The long-awaited sophomore book from the writer of An Astonishing Color of After. It was beautifully written, deeply discusses themes that young Asian Americans face, delivers a beautiful retelling of Chang’e and Houyi, and even has a cute rabbit.

Here’s more about An Arrow to the Moon

Hunter Yee has perfect aim with a bow and arrow, but all else in his life veers wrong. He’s sick of being haunted by his family’s past mistakes. The only things keeping him from running away are his little brother, a supernatural wind, and the bewitching girl at his new high school.

Luna Chang dreads the future. Graduation looms ahead, and her parents’ expectations are stifling. When she begins to break the rules, she finds her life upended by the strange new boy in her class, the arrival of unearthly fireflies, and an ominous crack spreading across the town of Fairbridge.

As Hunter and Luna navigate their families’ enmity and secrets, everything around them begins to fall apart. All they can depend on is their love…but time is running out, and fate will have its way.

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My thoughts

The story first starts off like you’re reading Romeo and Juliet: two teenagers from families that hate each other fall in love and want to be together forever despite their parents’ wishes. But the conflict in the story felt less about being from two warring families and more about the romance between Luna and Hunter, the unexplained happenings in the town, and the eventual ending that both these characters were fast approaching.

While this book is marketed as a Romeo and Juliet meets Chinese mythology retelling, it felt less like Romeo and Juliet and more like a story of Chang’e and Houyi. I actually much preferred it being more about the Chinese myth than the Shakespearean play. As much as I love both, Romeo and Juliet is such an overdone trope, especially in YA so I’m glad it seldom showed up throughout the story. However, the book is most definitely a YA romance story more than it was a fantasy story. To be honest, it felt like a YA romance where the magic just made the love between the two main characters even more special. I found myself fawning over their romance, sighing at the little things they did for each other.

The writing here is just as I remember Emily XR Pan writing. It was lyrical, poetic, and lush in description. I couldn’t get enough of her writing and wished that I could read more! Her writing is always done with a great amount of care, making sure that the reader never worries about how something looks, acts, or require extra explanation. It was subtle and injected the bits and pieces of the Chinese mythology into the story. I loved how she treated Hunter and Luna. Their traits as individuals were well described and executed, but their relationship together was tender and sweet making it the kind of couple you want to root for. In many ways, they complemented each other bringing different parts of themselves into their relationship making it much deeper and sweeter than other romantic YA couples I’ve read.

There are also many themes in this book directly related to the experiences of Asian American teenagers. Not only did she discuss the overbearing nature of immigrant parents, but she also touched on the differences between Chinese and Taiwanese culture, the usage of bound feet as a beauty statement, and being slung between two very different worlds with very little navigation. I honestly felt seen and all the things that I felt as a kid growing up in the U.S. and also being the kid of immigrant Asian parents were spot on.

There were so many different narratives in this story. While the bulk of the story derives from Hunter and Luna, you also get the perspectives of their parents, Hunter’s brother Cody, and a mysterious man named Rodney. I loved the way that this was setup because there was a lot going on and all of it is slowly explained as you progress in the story. You see a little bit of Luna and Hunter’s romance, but then you see the difficult dynamics between them and their parents. Then you see how Rodney fits into this whole story and it definitely pulls you in, begging you to continue reading for that ultimate ending.

As much as I loved reading this story, there were a few things that bothered me. First off, the world building. I know that I shouldn’t be trying to criticize a YA fantasy for not having enough world building, but I felt in the dark a lot of the time. There were a lot of strange things happening in the small town that they lived; cracks in the earth, an indescribable funk that permeated the emotions of people in town, a strange stone with mystical powers being hunted down by a gangster, fireflies that kept following the characters, and money just being found randomly. Maybe it’s because of my ignorance and I don’t know enough about Chang’e and Houyi, so I wanted some explanation about that. It was never explained.

The second part were all the things happening to Luna and Hunter’s families. There was a lot of backstory for both of their families; where they came from, the lives they lived before Hunter and Luna came along, their hopes, dreams, and wishes are also very realized here. However, nothing really came from it. I actually loved these perspectives because they gave you such a deeper look at these families and what they’re going through, but the ending really lacked any kind of resolve and leaving you with a lot of unanswered questions. At the same time, I understand why Emily XR Pan did that. Because destiny doesn’t wait for you to resolve everything; sometimes destiny does what it wants to do and the rest takes its cues from that.

But the legend of Chang’e and Houyi ended the way that it did as both Luna and Hunter relive the tale right at the very end. I absolutely loved that part of the story and I didn’t see it coming to that conclusion. I was so bogged down by all the questions I had about everything else that when it finally did happen, it took me by surprise. It was a beautiful ending for a beautiful book.

Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer // Book Review

Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer // Book Review

The Hugo Award finalists have been announced and I’ve already got a head start on my reading. While I wait for the other books to finally come in from the library, I’ve already finished the first book on the list. And let me tell you, it’s a sleeper success.

Here’s more about Catfishing on CatNet

How much does the internet know about YOU?

Because her mom is always on the move, Steph hasn’t lived anyplace longer than six months. Her only constant is an online community called CatNet—a social media site where users upload cat pictures—a place she knows she is welcome. What Steph doesn’t know is that the admin of the site, CheshireCat, is a sentient A.I.

When a threat from Steph’s past catches up to her and ChesireCat’s existence is discovered by outsiders, it’s up to Steph and her friends, both online and IRL, to save her.

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My thoughts

I didn’t know what to expect from this YA sci-fi thriller. I don’t think I’ve read anything set in the real world with real technology and a tiny tinge of fiction in there to make it all impossibly possible. And yet, here we are with a book that I would have picked up years ago if I knew anything about it.

It follows Steph Taylor, a teenager whose been on the run with her mother from her estranged father. They’ve been running for the last ten years worried that Steph’s father will find them again. And it’s definitely messed with Steph’s mental health; trouble with making friends since they move so often, trouble with stability because they don’t stay in one place long enough. It felt like for much of the novel Steph was looking to find somewhere to belong, which is why she loved CatNet.

CatNet is an online community of people who love to share cat photos. Steph was able to find a specialized chatroom filled with friends she can always talk to regardless of where they lived. They don’t know her real name, what she looks like, or where she lives because her mother forces her to keep that information under lock and key. Much of her mother’s paranoia leaks into Steph’s life, but at the same time she just wants to be a regular teenager.

The technology in this story was probably the scariest part because it felt so real. While I don’t know if there’s conscious AI out there, I do know that the idea of sentient AI makes me nervous. What I know from similar sci fi movies (like the Terminator, I, Robot), you don’t want to be hanging out with these kinds of inventions. However, the AI in this book felt more like Haley Joel Osment in AI than it did Arnold Schwarzenegger and it made it more palatable.

In fact, the AI in this story reminded me a lot of Murderbot from Martha Wells’s series. Instead of a soap opera loving killing machine that protects its humans, it’s a sentient AI technology that loves cat photos and protecting its humans. Seriously, this book was Murderbot Lite for young people, so if you’ve ever loved Murderbot, then you’ll like this one as well.

In terms of thriller, this one is pretty mild. In fact, the story read more contemporary YA than it did sci fi or thriller. You read a lot of Steph’s POV; how she wants to make friends, how she finds Rachel to be a kindred spirit, and how she loves bats and photography. In fact, I really loved Steph throughout the story. She reminded me of so many people I knew in high school; the artsy weirdos who had a found family among their friends and never felt self-conscious around them. But the thriller elements were there and provided a level of suspense that kept me reading. It does get much deeper as the story progresses (sorry, no spoilers here) and I couldn’t put the book down without knowing what happens at the end.

And I loved how it ended! The story here definitely wraps up, but it opens it up for something bigger in book two. The second book, Chaos on CatNet, is the one that’s up for a Hugo award this year, so I’ll definitely grab that from the library and read it soon!

A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I Lin // Book Review

A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I Lin // Book Review

I’m seriously going to write this review with my head and not my heart. Because my head noticed a few little things that I wanted more clarity on, but my heart just wants to give it five stars. I might just split the difference and call this 4.5 stars, but that always rounds up.

Here’s more about A Magic Steeped in Poison

For Ning, the only thing worse than losing her mother is knowing that it’s her own fault. She was the one who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that killed her—the poison tea that now threatens to also take her sister, Shu.

When Ning hears of a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shennong-shi—masters of the ancient and magical art of tea-making—she travels to the imperial city to compete. The winner will receive a favor from the princess, which may be Ning’s only chance to save her sister’s life.

But between the backstabbing competitors, bloody court politics, and a mysterious (and handsome) boy with a shocking secret, Ning might actually be the one in more danger.

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My thoughts

I think the star of this book is the tea. I mean, you have to consider the fact that the book uses metaphor as a title, the main character is a tea-making apprentice, and she’s on her way to a tea competition to be the royal tea master. Tea plays a vital role in this story and the culture of this story expertly combining with real world tradition including the use of medicinal herbs is just fantastic. There were moments throughout the story where I worried that this tea business would take a backseat to the rest of the plot, but it didn’t. It was prominent and it was bold like a really well brewed cup.

But the story is about young Ning, a physician’s assistant who’s sister is summoned to the palace and win a coveted position as the princess’s “shennong-shi”. This isn’t some simpleton position making tea everyday of your life, but you’re a wielder of magic and using that magic not only for its medicinal purposes, but also to guide the hand of the kingdom. I mean, this position is important and comes with the ear of the princess at your beckon call. However, Ning has her reasons for going in her sister’s stead; her sister has been poisoned by tea and she needs the help of the princess to save her.

What Ning doesn’t know is that there’s some bigger problems brewing (pardon my pun) within the kingdom. There’s word of a rebellion and an old banished prince who wants to claim the throne for his own. And as Ning spends weeks in the capital city earning her place as the Shennong-shi, she learns that there is much more at stake for the entire kingdom.

Ning was my kind of main character. She doesn’t have it completely together and easily able to insult the leaders of the country by accidentally reciting the wrong poem, but she’s smart. She may stumble and perhaps make the wrong deduction from time to time, but that’s what I love about her. And what I love about the writing in this story. Judy Lin is able to really lay the character out for you through her almost poetic tone. I felt like I knew Ning and following along with her as she finds out more truths within the palace. I loved that I was seeing what was happening rather than being told or worse, being left behind while the characters go off to carry out some truth the reader doesn’t even see.

The royal and political drama was palatable and I really loved the pacing here. The competition stages weren’t rushed, but you also get an idea of what’s happening beyond that. I found it so difficult to see where Ning’s loyalties lie, which is great because that level of mystery kept me reading. Is it with the princess? Is it with the mysterious boy, Kang, who’s somehow captured her heart? Is it with her sister and ensuring that she can save her life? A lot is held back and even as I approached the final pages of the story, I found more of it unfolding in front of me. Judy Lin holds a lot close to the chest only revealing enough for you to know who really is behind the mysterious deaths throughout the kingdom, but doesn’t give you the resolution you crave.

Because this is a duology and the cliffhanger is nasty. The second book hasn’t come out yet, but oh yes, I’ve already requested it.

I think the only things I found issue with is the magic and world-building. Probably like every other review I write on here, I’m looking for that well-developed magical system that doesn’t leave me with a bunch of questions. This did leave with a few questions especially with how the magic worked. It was a bit…confusing. At one point, I thought I understood it; the shennong-shi are magical people who imbue their powers in the cups of tea they brewed. But then it got confusing when Ning started Shifting and drinking cups of tea I thought were brewed for other people. It was difficult for me to really get my head around, but I think I got it through context.

Overall, this book captured me and after a month of pretty meh reads, I’m so glad to finally have a five-star read again. I can’t wait to see what happens at the end.