Review: WHO I WAS WITH HER by Nita Tyndall (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Year Release: 2020
Source: Hard Copy purchased at Unabridged Books

Content warnings: Grief, alcoholism

This book starts with Corinne Parker learning of her girlfriend’s death and continues with Corinne processing that loss and the truths about herself that she was hiding from everyone else in her life during her one year relationship. It hurts as much as it uplifts, ending on a well-deserved hopeful note.

The writing in Who I Was With Her is simply elegant. The chapters alternate between moments of Corinne’s year long relationship with Maggie and the present, during which she struggles with an alcoholic mother and not being out as bisexual to those around her. Corinne is a character I desperately wanted to hug, because I definitely related to her fears about coming out and about choosing things for herself, from low stakes decisions to high stakes debates about whether or not to go to college. The tension in this novel stems from a feeling that this too shall pass, focusing on the journey there. There isn’t a dramatic reveal, the plot beats are soft to lend power to the feelings woven throughout.

Another thing that struck me about this book was just how sex positive it was. There are discussions of sex, both queer and heterosexual, but it’s presented as a normal thing teens consider and something that happens between partners. There isn’t any taboo in the discussions, there’s no scandalous connotation, consent is on the page, and most of it is focused as another fragment of Corinne’s interior journey, not a major event in and of itself.

A quiet, heart-wrenching young adult novel about grief and being true to yourself and the fear that comes with that truth.

ARC Review: EVEN IF WE BREAK by Marieke Nijkamp (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Year Release: September 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read a NetGalley eARC
Content warnings: Addiction, violence, transphobia

In this cabin-in-the-woods thriller, five friends reunite to play one last session of an RPG. Things take a turn for the worst as one of them goes missing and their game’s story beats turn deadly and real life.

There are 5 POVs: Finn (trans rep), Ever (nonbinary rep), Maddy (autistic rep), Liva, and Carter. Everyone has their secrets, and Nijkamp does a great job weaving the details of their RPG with letting the reader in, while also ramping up the tension. The problems these teens face feel more realistic than some of the trials I’ve read about in the back story portion of these thrillers. Two of them have to deal with being queer in high school, one has excessive pressure to succeed, another has to support their family. It’s very thoughtfully handled and presented, especially the darker aspects.

One of the delights that made this read almost-cute were two things:

  1. The friends-to-lovers romance
  2. The RPG itself

Gonfalon works really well as the string keeping the friends together both narratively and metaphorically. I thought it would be just a gimmick to get everyone in the same place, so I was pleasantly surprised that it threaded all the way to the end. There were interludes told from the point of view of a GM as well which worked as a meta-narrative.

Even If We Break reminded me a lot of the game Until Dawn, but with no supernatural elements. If that’s your thing, please give it a read when it hits shelves on 9/15/2020.

ARC Review: THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER (The Drowning Empire #1) by Andrea Stewart (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read a NetGalley eARC from the publisher
Content warnings: surgery, body horror

There are few things I love more in a story than messy families, magical constructs powered by bones, and mythological lore returning. The Bone Shard Daughter has it all and then some.

The main POVs are the emperor’s daughter, a governor’s daughter, her girlfriend, and a smuggler. Stewart expertly balances these POVs to tell a story about a falling empire. But they don’t just do that, they all have their own goals and aspirations. The places where they intersect are particularly exciting, the choices made there driving the plot.

Much of the interior journey for the characters have one thing in common: they focus heavily on identity. Lin lost a bunch of her memories and tries to discover who she in her father’s shadow, in competitive solidarity with foster-brother Bayan. Both Ranami and Phalue are trying to work through the fact that Phalue is the governor’s daughter and Ranami is a commoner. Jovis, meanwhile, is burdened by how much he misses his wife and the deals he’s willing to make to find her. There is so much pain, but so much hope throughout. I definitely won’t spoil the endings here, but wow the twists were all incredible, and could not be separated from the greater world of the Empire. Every choice has consequences big and small, and the intricacy is simply impeccable.

Speaking of, the world-building filled me with glee. The incorporation of the constructs and the magical way shards powered them blew my mind. Stewart lays out the rules and programming for how the constructs work throughout, but in a deft way where it doesn’t interrupt the narrative. The concept of migrating islands also made me want to learn even more about the world. The fact that Book 2 is being worked on brings me so much joy.

On 9/8/2020, a empire begins its descent as the emperor’s daughter tries to uncover her father’s secrets and rebellion brews throughout migrating islands.

ARC Review: THE HELLION (Malus Domestica #3) by S.A. Hunt (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: July 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read a NetGalley eARC from the publisher
Content  and trigger warnings: domestic violence, dismemberment, gore, emetophobia, self-harm, misogyny

The Hellion picks up a few months after the end of I Come With Knives. Robin and her boo Kenway are on a road trip through Texas. On their way, a mother and daughter hide in their RV, away from an abusive father who may or may not be a shapeshifter. High octane violence ensues, and the witch hunter must harness new powers and protect friends new and old.

How Hunt keeps pulling off this pacing is truly outstanding. The book is split into an A side and a B side, like a cassette tape with a series of tracks. The first half definitely focuses on more human problems, while the second half goes full supernatural. The energy, however, does not let up at any step of the way. The denouement works so well because there is a hint of what’s coming next, but with enough breathing room for the characters to process the entire book that just happened

What I also greatly appreciated was that Robin was finally allowed to have some girl friends. The friendships here are spiky, but powerful. There is a lot of love, whether the characters want to admit it to themselves. The way Robin fights for those around her also strikes me as inspiring. Turns out this badass does have a soft interior, even if sometimes it is covered by a demonic exoskeleton (that’s all I’ll say about that.

On 9/15/2020, prepare for fans of Mad Max: Fury Road with shifters and even more found family feels and queer representation.

Review: THE LAST SMILE IN SUNDER CITY (The Fetch Phillips Archives #1) by Luke Arnold (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Audible

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Violence, drug use, fantasy gore, arson
I saw that Long John Silver from Black Sails had written a fantasy novel, and I was immediately interested. In this fantasy noir, Fetch Phillips is a human detective who doesn’t work for humans, investigating disappearances around town.

This city felt so alive. There is a deep sense of history and a contemporary culture. It manifests most obviously in the presence of a private school which teaches both magical and human students, and the various types of bars and tea shops. It feels modern in a way I don’t see too often, especially given the presence of cars and other non-magical technology. I found it interesting that perspective of the city came from a feeling of recent-history, not so much ongoing conflict. There is healing, there is trauma, and Arnold doesn’t flinch from any of it.

Fetch is also a compelling narrator. A depressed PI consumed by his regrets, he has insights into the city that ring true given its history. There’s a very self-inflicted kind of bitterness, and that kind of introspection lent the voice an authenticity. He doesn’t seem to feel that the world did him any wrong, but his view of things isn’t at all optimistic. Fetch, however, is also a bit of a disaster. He’s so nervous about repeating the mindset that set off his mistakes, at the expense of his own better judgment and safety.

The plot, however, is a bit slow, with not many action pieces until the very end. It meanders through the different worldbuilding pieces which help us get to know Fetch and Sunder, plus the things that ail both of them. It’s windy, but the bitter, darkly humorous voice helps bring it to life.

A fantasy noir about a city with as many regrets as our main characters, drenched in the aftermath of conflict.

ARC Review: THE SCAPEGRACERS (#1) by Hannah Abigail Clarke (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: Physical ARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read a physical ARC from Erewhon Books
Content warnings: Parental death (in flashbacks), blood magic

Outcast teenage lesbian Sideways Pike performs magic at a killer party and gains a coven. What ensues is an exploration of identity, magic, and female friendship while trying to do normal teen things like go to class, have crushes, and run away from witch hunters.

The voice in this novel is powerful. There’s a bit of stream of consciousness, but Sideways has such a distinct POV and way of phrasing that feels authentic. Clarke makes this look effortless, especially as bits of witch lore and plot have to happen. The way Clarke depicts Sideways griefs and traumas don’t flinch from either the details or the underlying emotional journey. It’s so raw. And I liked the way it showed up within the narrative. What really stuck with me was how Sideways opens up to the reader as her new friends let her further and further into their circle. It’s endearing, it’s powerful, it gave a kind of joy that can only come from finding family-like friendships.

Magic within this novel implied stricter rules and more world-building, but since we’re discovering it as Sideways uses it for party tricks and later, teaching Daisy, Jing, and Yates how to cast spells, it made sense to me that it was mostly shown through the experience. The way Clarke ties it into the experience of queerness and teenhood felt powerful, especially as it relates to the trials and tribulations of leaving oneself vulnerable to let friends in. There was never a doubt that her friends would be her life line, even if Sideways herself didn’t quite know it yet.

On September 15th, join a coven of queer disasters as they discover magic and the power of friendship, told through a ferocious, fun voice all its own.

August 2020 Reading Recap


Summer is coming to an end, I guess. The autumn equinox doesn’t hit until September 22nd, but we can already get pumpkin spice lattes, so I’m saying summer is over. A few more books read this month. No interviews, but I have so much excitement coming in September. Continue reading

ARC Review: THE FOUR PROFOUND WEAVES by R.B. Lemberg (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: Edelweiss eARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read an eARC from Edelweiss

In the Birdverse, weaves carry magic and four are the most profound: change, wanderlust, hope, and death. Having mastered three of them, Uiziya goes on a journey with her close friend the nameless man to learn the fourth from her aunt.

What really makes this story stand out is how often we don’t see older protagonists get to go on an adventure. There is a sense of recovery and a continued exploration of identity even at older ages. The nameless man is searching for a name, and in a world where magic stems from the number of syllables in a name, this ties in the world-building to a character arc. I won’t spoil how it ends, but it left me with light in my heart.

In addition, the villain worked so well because he represents an opposite theory . There is melancholy in that to weave from death means weaving from bones, but the framing Lemberg establishes throughout infuses the book with brilliant, resistant hope (in addition to hope being one of the weaves). The novella takes its time in these explorations, especially as it relates to connections both familial and platonic.

A delightful debut about identity, art, and friendship.


Review: RAYBEARER (Raybearer #1) by Jordan Ifueko (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Parental emotional abuse, blood magic, child death

Having to pause this book as I was listening to it brought me a reader’s pain that I hadn’t felt in a while. In this West-African-inspired fantasy, Tarisai has been sent to the capital by her absent mother, the Lady, to join the prince’s Council of 11 and kill him once she gains his trust.

The world of this novel feels so lived in. There are glimpses and snippets of all twelve nations within the Aritsar empire. Their shared histories make them feel like characters. The craft that went into highlighting and exploring generational grievances and traumas, connecting them to the choices the characters have to make as part of their own arcs.

Throughout the story, Tarisai navigates friendships and first loves in a political setting. Watching her try to wrangle her agency and identity from the task assigned her by her manipulative mother. The way her relationship (or lack there of) with her mother was handled with all its complexities. My heart ached for Tarisai because all she wanted was a family. Most of the emotional journey of this book is watching her navigate her found family versus her legacy. It’s an emotional and a very interior journey which shine through the action and magic through all the big events and major plot points.

In addition, magic plays a very big role. The king and his council, as well as the prince and his council, are all connected by the Ray. It causes sickness when council members are too far apart, and allows them to communicate across great distances otherwise. Moreover, each member represents a way the Raybearer can die. The way this weaves through the plot is masterful and never feels like a deus ex machina, especially during pivotal decision points both for Tarisai and Aritsar as a whole.

Speaking of relationships, the way this made-family comes together for each other. There is so much compassion among them all, even throughout betrayals and misunderstandings. The love triangle is also impeccably set-up, providing two possible avenues of Tarisai’s choices. You’ll have to read the book for yourself to see how those play out.

In terms of other delights, the storytelling traditions featured throughout include songs and new-to-me sounds. The audiobook narrator clearly had fun bringing these to life throughout my listening experience—I highly recommend listening-as-reading.

Raybearer is an ownvoices Black fantasy with impeccable plot twists and complex characters, an utter delight from start to finish.