This is kind of an odd review... apologies in advance. (Another case of it's not you, it's me.)
Mayhem had all the ingredients to be a book that I'd enjoy: speculative magic, ocean vibes, female protagonist, witchy vibes, 1980s aesthetic. But it didn't mesh with me, and I'm still not exactly sure why.
Described as a YA feminist mash-up of The Lost Boys and The Craft, this book follows its main character, literally named Mayhem, and her mother, Roxy, as they deal with secrets, hidden magic, and the ties that bind in families.
It's witchy, it's 1987, and it's Santa Monica.
Mayhem and her mother are on the run from her abusive stepfather, Lyle, and its gotten so bad that Roxy decides to bite the bullet and take them home to the Braeburn house. Roxy used to be a Braeburn, but she's spent all of Mayhem's life trying to forget her roots.
Mayhem doesn't understand her mom's reluctance to go home, because her aunt and cousins are awesome. Being a Braeburn means belonging, accepting, and a home of her own. It's a dream come true.
Being a Braeburn also means that Mayhem has a legacy, and one that her mother literally tried to squash out of her—the Braeburn women are magical.
When Mayhem, her cousins, and the Braeburn legacy all intertwine for the first time....things are about to get intense in a major way. And there's also the disappearing girls. That too.
As I said at the beginning, I think this novel wasn't for me. It was written well, the characters leapt off the page, and the plot seemed to mesh well with a lot of other readers, so I'm clearly not the core audience for this one—take my thoughts with that grain of salt.
It was just a case of the novel not fitting with my tastes of YA. I think I'll leave it with that to keep things spoiler-free.
If the description appeals to you, check this out!
Thank you the Wednesday Books for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
A Jewish girl finds her own voice in a Christian Southern community in the late 1950s. A meaningful look at what it means to accept your own identity, and an even more meaningful reflection on racism, bigotry, and the lessons from the past that are still relevant today.
In the Neighborhood of True is a novel that I think sits at the table with some of the many YA novels on racial discrimination in the 1950s South. The messaging is slightly different—our protagonist is a Jewish teenager, and the core themes are a 50/50 split on religious identity vs racial identity—but the overall story echoes others that tell a similar tale: when we Other another community, we breed hate and ignorance.
Obviously, this message is very important to our modern times. The author had no way of knowing this when this novel was written, but its coincidental timeliness was something I was hyper aware of during my read. But this novel stands on its own legs when it comes to quality and core resonance.
Ruth Robb has recently moved into her grandparents home in Atlanta in 1958. Her mother, a former Southern girl, had eloped with Ruth's Jewish father when she was young, so all Ruth remembers is her father's liberalism, her mother's outspokenness, and their welcoming Jewish community in New York.
Then Ruth's father dies, and her mother takes their family to live with her parents in their antebellum home in Atlanta. It's the land of sweet tea, "bless her heart," and the War of Northern Aggression. It's also the home of Ruth's grandmother, who believes Ruth could be her proper debutante granddaughter as long as the don't mention "the Jewish" stuff.
Ruth quickly falls in love with the glamour, the beautiful girls, and the lifestyle of the Southern way of life. So what if she has to hide her temple lessons and synagogue visits? She thinks it's worth it.
But as Ruth ends up discovering, the cost of hiding your true self is deeper than she initially thought...
As I said at the beginning, I loved this story's poignancy and messaging. This narrative, framed through the eyes of a teenager, was beautiful and relevant and heartbreaking at times. It was my first story regarding a Jewish person in the 1950s, and definitely my first story of that experience in the South. The themes of true self vs. the collective, religion vs religion, and truth vs the easy path were themes relevant to that time period and now. A powerful novel for teens and adults alike.
I also loved Ruth herself. Her desire to fit in, her desire to be loved and admired by popular boys... all of us girls can relate to aspects of that. I felt for her when she ignored her inner voice because when you're young, sometimes you don't follow that voice—and then you learn the hard way that the voice is there for a reason.
Great lessons, great plot, engaging characters, and a poignant theme of heart and truth.
Thank you to Algonquin for a copy of this title in exchange for an honest review.
If the title makes you shiver, this is the book for you. Fires, secrets, mothers and daughters and daughters and mothers, the ties that bind and the ties that break, and sinister overtones come out to play in Rory Power's tour de force sophomore novel.
Burn Our Bodies Down comes out on July 7, 2020!
Margot and her mother could be sisters, they look so much alike. Margot doesn't see this as a compliment. Her relationship with her mother, Jo, is anything but sister-like—it is one of flight, hiding, fights, and fear. Margot's mother has been running from something all of Margot's life.
Margot is done with it. Now 17, she's decided it's time to find the family that her mother abandoned, with the hope that anyone—anyone—will accept and love her better than her own manipulative mother. When Margot finds the phone number in her mother's things, she doesn't hesitate. She gives it a ring.
Phalene is the type of Nebraskan small town in the middle of its decline. Once a booming farming community, there's almost nothing left. Margot's family, the Nielsens, used to be the source of the town's success. Now it's just Gram, and her weird golden corn that looks dead yet grows, and the secrets that the Nielsen farm keeps to itself.
Margot doesn't mind. Her mother has made her used to so many weird things. In her desperation for acceptance, Margot accepts everything about her Gram and slots herself into the Nielsen farm.
But Gram's not exactly normal, and Margot found a dead body of a girl who looks just like her on her first day in town. The town thinks Gram's hiding something, and Margot agrees.
Did she jump from the frying pan into the fire? There might be a reason her mother was so afraid after all...
This is a novel that will attract a certain type of reader, but keep only a few as it's not exactly what it appears to be. I think Rory Power might just be that type of author—which works for me, because I'm now 2/2 with her books. I've loved them both.
The story delivers on its advertising: this novel is SPOOKY, and the atmosphere was so taut throughout that I got a kink in my neck from holding myself so tense. If you like creeping suspense and lingering horror, this is the novel for you. There are no jump scares, no dramatic whodunits, but the lingering horror...is intense.
However, the main core of this story is not its plot, its genre, or even its character composition. It's in the character relationships. I make that nuance here because Margot, Jo, and Gram are not the most fleshed out characters. But their relationships with each other ARE, and that's where this novel sings. Mothers and daughters. Manipulation, secrets, and the ties that bind and break. This multi-generational character study of one family's method of parenting is singular in its focus and honestly fascinating in its rot. I would never want these relationships in my life—talk about unhealthy—but in their black and white reality it was easy to see the bones of fights I've had with my own mother, and vice versa. The growing pains of teenage girls versus their mothers is something most women can relate to, and in a way this is a horror novel about that experience amplified by a ton of speculative elements. Extremely cool, and extremely well done.
Thank you to Delacorte Press via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
What a FANTASTIC middle grade series. Wild woods, magical creatures, conflicts, and a girl with the power of a queen inside her - oh my!
Character development: ★★★★★
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
The Unready Queen is the sequel to Changeling, the first novel in the Oddmire series. Please read my review on Changeling here to avoid spoilers for the first novel.
So let's start of with a simple "wow," because this was such a great read. The Unready Queen picks up on the threads of the Wild Wood's story left behind at the end of Changeling and expands them in new directions. And not just any new direction, but toward a testy one: the Wild Wood's relationship with humans.
Fable is the daughter of the Queen of the Deep Dark, the protector of the Wild Wood and its magical inhabitants. At the end of the first book, when twins Tinn and Cole restore magic to the magical folk of the woods, they think their problems are over. Magic has returned, Fable can now be friends with humans, and all is well.
Well, not exactly.
There's a new man in town, and his name is Jacob Hill. He's interested in oil drilling—a topic instantly triggering for environmentalists, so I can bet you can see where this is going—and yep, you guessed it, he's decided to start crumbling away at the borders of the Wild Wood for financial gain. What could go wrong? To Hill, the woods are woods and the townsfolk's hesitation to go into the woods is a weakness he can exploit.
Rousing the town against the Wild Wood, Jacob Hill makes one very big, unforgivable mistake: he takes down an ancient magical tree.
Now the folk of the Wild Wood are pissed, and with their magic returned to them it is time for a reckoning—and the half-human Queen of the Deep Dark isn't to be trusted.
But what about Fable?
With the threads of destiny twining Fable, Tinn, Cole, and the usual cast tighter and tighter, it's only a matter of time before Fable has to decide who she's going to be and how that decision will impact those around her.
As this is a sequel, my initial reading experience was comparing it to the first one, and to answer the obvious, YES, this one was not only just as good, but better. I loved that this novel did not rehash the same messages or tropes—whereas the first novel deal with self-identity and ideas of family, The Unready Queen tackles concepts of responsibility, environmentalism, and finding your voice. This is very much Fable's story.
I will say that this novel is not as laugh-out-loud funny as the first one, but given the subject matter that makes a lot of sense. I appreciated the more somber tones interspersed with small moments of humor, love, and typical pre-teen antics.
My only real complaint is that it took a while for the story to get off the ground. I'm not sure if that was a pacing issue or just a personal thing for me as a reader, but I found the beginning much slower than the first book and extremely slow compared to its second half.
Thrilled to hear there will be a third book in 2021. Can't wait!
Thank you to Algonquin Young Readers for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
I was primed to love this because I love creepy woods, magic, goblins, and fairy tales... but this still surprised me anyway.
Changeling was such a fun middle grade read. Obviously I'm not the target audience, but this story entranced me and stuck out regardless. Good writing is good writing.
We all know the changeling story: in the dead of the night, a magical creature steals your baby and replaces it with an identical copy—the changeling. You then raise the being as your own. You never see your own human baby again.
But what if the goblin in charge of the switch messed up?
Kull the goblin stole his goblin horde's last changeling and is determined to do it himself. Golbin magic is fading, and Kull knows he must perform the historic ritual of stealing a human baby to set magic's balance in order again.
But as Kull places the changeling in the crib, the human baby's mother wakes up and interrupts him, forcing Kull to leave BOTH babies behind. Uh oh.
Tinn and Cole grow up as twins, knowing that one of them isn't the "real" boy. It doesn't bother them much. Annie Burton, their mother, is amazing--a boy is a boy, and she loves both of her troublesome boys equally. So what if she only gave birth to one? Now she has two.
But Kull hasn't forgotten. He spends 12 years watching, waiting, and trying to figure out which of the boys is his boy, the goblin. And he's running out of time... when the changeling turns 13 years old, he NEEDS to be back home in the magical world or he'll be in a lot of trouble—deadly trouble.
But how is a goblin to convince two wayward boys to come to the goblin horde?
It's time to draw them into the Wild Wood. With a map, they'll make it through just fine. The woods are only dangerous if you don't know where you're going. But these are two 12 year old boys...
...and they've just lost the map.
Wow. I loved this. My favorite aspect was easily Annie Burton, the boys' mother. The author's description of her determined to find her wayward boys is surprisingly both heartfelt and hilarious. This is not fairy tale where the mother finds the note that her children are missing and spends it wailing - she's their mother, darn it, and she's going to find them and bring them home. The theme of resilient motherhood is extremely strong in this novel.
I also LOVED the humor. Like the best of the middle grade genre, this novel has humor for both kids and parents alike - the adult asides are funny for adults, and yet the jokes and antics are funny for the kids too. It's a delicate balance to strike, but the author does this really well as I spent a lot of time laughing.
Overall, a fantastic read. Looking forward to the next installment!
Thank you to Algonquin Young Readers for a copy of this title in exchange for an honest review.
In verse, gorgeous, slice of life yet not, amazingly heartfelt and surprisingly lighthearted coming-of-age.
The Black Flamingo totally shocked me. First it shocked me because I bought it and didn't realize it was written in verse. Then it shocked me because I read it in one sitting. And then it shocked me at how amazing it was—which shouldn't have been shocking, but to be honest as it was my first verse novel and I'm NOT a fan of poetry, I thought that would impact my enjoyment. WOW it did not. I loved it.
Michael is half-Jamaican and half-Greek, and growing up in London during the 2010s. His Greek mother raises him and his half-sister surrounded with love and expectations. (One of the most important things to pull from Michael's earlier life is the importance of his mother's presence in his life—I loved its realness and its love.)
As Michael navigates growing up gay and biracial in a predominantly white/straight school district, we as the reader are treated to individual scenes that peel back Michael's thoughts and feelings and simultaneously throw us at lightning speed through his early years, middle school, high school, and most memorably, college.
It's hard to go into the details as the verse format feels so brief and deep. But trust me - this novel is packed with positive messaging, raw emotions, coming-of-age goodness, and the enduring thread of finding your truth.
This was such a beautiful read. In particular, I think it's worth mentioning that this novel is about Michael, for Michael, and ends with Michael. I loved the window into his internal thoughts...this was probably a direct result of the verse format. It felt so intimate.
Also, talk about an important piece of the YA contemporary canon. It's important to have queer tales that focus on all aspects of the teen experience, and this was a wonderful piece of the pie. It was uplifting, lighthearted, filled with positive and loving family relationships, and full of the usual bits of teen life: am I liked? am I loved? who am I? who do I want to be? do I be what my family is, do I follow their path? can I do both? do I need to choose now?
Good questions, and Michael gives great answers. Fantastic debut.
I LOVED THIS. I wish this had existed when I was in high school. The girl I was could have used this happy, hopeful book.
Main character: ★★★★★
The ending: maybe controversial, but I LOVED the ending in particular
Winnie is ready for another summer spent in her grandma's small-town diner, waiting on tables and hanging out with her ungirlfriend. She's comfortable in her space, in her life, and she's just waiting of for the summer's good times to come before she goes off to college.
But the summer has other plans for Winnie.
First off, their small town's annual Queen selection (where one resident is chosen as "Queen" for the summer and has a volunteer "King" to attend events with) takes a twist. Winnie, who didn't enter and hates public speaking, wins. She's a plus-size black girl in a small town, and she DID NOT ask for the spotlight. But when it's thrust on her, there's no choice.
And then things get even more interesting when Dallas, one of the most attractive boys in town, volunteers to be her King.
Winnie and Kara, two partners who refer to themselves as ungirlfriends—also mentioned as "Queerplatonic" in the novel—now have to navigate the complexities of romance, friendship, bonds, and what it means for Winnie, who's attracted to Dallas, and Kara, who isn't sexually interested in anyone but is bonded to Winnie, to deal with the new layers to their life.
I have literally nothing negative to say, besides one tiny tiny spoiler (located at the bottom of this review in italic). Outside of the spoiler, I loved LITERALLY everything about this story. I loved the positive fat girl representation. I loved Winnie's strong sense of self, her purpose, her drive, and her unwillingness to compromise her moral compass for the weak personalities around her.
I also loved the romantic relationships and navigation of queerplatonic (which I learned for this book!) and, in a way, discussions of polyamory and the extremely different permutations of what that looks like. I also loved the strong happy messages at work in this novel. AND, before I devolve into endless streams of "love this love this love this," I also loved the negotiation of families, and how sometimes... you both can grow out of family and realize that family isn't the be all, end all. Very deftly done.
SPOILER: Winnie didn't put her name in the jar to be considered for Queen...and we never find out who put her name in. So that felt like an abandoned plot thread. But at the same time, that didn't matter in the scheme of the plot so I honestly forgot about it until I finished the book and tried to write this review.
5 unlimited stars
Riveting, heartbreaking, soul-mending, and ultimately a beacon of hope.
Black Girl Unlimited should be required reading. I wish I'd read it in school. I would have been a different person earlier, sooner. This was one of the most poignant reads I have ever read, and Echo Brown deserves every standing ovation, every "oh my gosh you have to read this book" friendly push, and every accolade. This was, simply, a showstopper debut.
Part coming-of-age novel, part fabulism, part reflection on the state of being black in America, and part story of female resilience in the heart of abuse and oppression—it's impossible to distill this novel down to a review that means something. I feel almost like a fool for trying, but I want you to read this so bear with me.
Echo lives on the East Side of Cleveland in the 1990s. It's world away from the West Side, at the rich white people school that she's allowed to attend. Her situation is a parable for many other young black women in the city, but at the same time a stunningly personal journey through her own life in and separate from those around her.
You see, Echo is a wizard.
She's not the kind of wizard with the wand and the hat. Her magic doesn't appear as a spell or incantation. This kind of wizardry is special—and allegorical. Echo, her mother, her female friends, and a memorable female mentor are all wizards. Black women are wizards. For being able to survive the pain, the circumstance, and the reality and still maintain the inner light that is their voice? That's wizardry.
Black Girl Unlimited is a story about a girl, named Echo, who's learning the steps to be a wizard. The steps are steep, she'll often fall back on herself. But she'll get there, and you'll cheer her on at every step and cry at every hurdle.
"Hard-hitting contemporary" fits in this context, but don't let that stop you. This is the story of a wizard who learns how to channel her own light in a world of darkness. It's beautiful.
Trigger Warnings: Parental drug use, overdose, violence, car accident, sexual abuse, triggering language around sexual abuse, rape, discussions of suicide.
So this is apparently an odd opinion... but this really, really worked for me. (I think half of that reasoning is because of the teeth.)
Twist on YA tropes: ★★★★★
Surprise factor: ★★★★
A mini rant: It's times like these where I really, really wish Six of Crows wasn't such a YA titan that is universally—and sometimes violently—loved. I don't mean ANY disrespect for fans of the duology as I am a fan myself, but I think that The Merciful Crow was prematurely dismissed by some in the YA community for its title, and the mere fact that it had to do with a caste of people called "Crows." Which is nuts, as this book was not even the same thing, at all.
Fie is a Crow, a chief-in-training, and she travels with other Crows from town to town. They are the lepers, the bottom caste, the forced nomads, the ones that everyone else can use and abuse. But the Crows have one thing that the other bird castes of the land do not—they are the only ones who are immune from the Plague. When someone gets the plague, the smoke is lit, and the Crows come calling.
They take care of the sick and dying and they honor the dead. The land may mock them, hurt them, and execute them, but when the people become ill it is the Crows to whom they beg. And the Crows always come, and they always show mercy.
The world of The Merciful Crow is divided into several bird castes. This is not a shape shifting novel—there are no actual birds involved. But each caste of bird is a different social class, and each caste has their own Birthright magic, which displays in some of their castes' witches. It's an intriguing finesse of some standard fantasy decisions, and if that was the only twist on this story's magic, I would have been disappointed. But it wasn't—there are also the teeth.
Fie and the other Crow chiefs have a special way with teeth and bones. But specifically, teeth. When Fie touches a tooth, she knows the life of its owner and can call on the innate Birthright magic of the tooth for her own use. So, in essence, if Fie is holding the right tooth.... she can use any of the realm's powers at her disposal. The Crows are ignored by everyone else, so this power goes relatively unnoticed by the other castes...at their own peril. [Example: The Sparrow caste witches are able to direct or deflect attention, so if Fie is hiding from someone all she needs is to wake up the magic of a Sparrow tooth to hide herself from view.]
Fie's life changes forever when one day, her chief decides to save the royal Phoenix son of the crown. The prince and his bodyguard are on the run from the prince's stepmother, the Queen, who's out to kill him and take the throne for her own. The Crows are trapped—if they don't help the prince, then the Queen will punish and kill the Crows for their involvement. If they help the prince, then its up to the Crows to avoid the punishment of the Queen while also trying to get the prince to his allies... and once they've finished their usefulness, they are forced back to their life of abuse and uncertainty. It's a lose-lose situation for the Crows, and they know it.
But Fie refuses to accept the terms, and she draws an oath from the prince: if the Crows do this, they deserve a seat at the table. They want to protected and respected. No more murders, no more abuse. To her surprise, the prince and his bodyguard agree.
Now they just need to get him to safety.
Things I loved:
The focus on the plague. I'm a morbid historian at heart, and this focus was great—it has its roots in the Black Death's plague doctors (complete with their masks, etc.) but there are also other elements in there too. I also loved (wrong word choice given the negative connotations...) the parallels between what happens to the Crows on the road with the dark American history of the KKK raids in the South—the parallels are intentional, and well done. Also, THE TEETH. Great magical element, thoroughly enjoyed its integration and how it was used consistently throughout the novel. Really nice, really unique, made it memorable.
Things I didn't love:
How short this was. I would have gladly read a novel twice this length.
Considering the fact that I hated the beginning of this, no one is more shocked than me that this is a damn good book.
First 100 pages: ★
Character development: ★★★★★
This is the second book in a series, so if you don't want to be spoiled for Wicked Saints, please check out that book first! (My review of it here.)
Wicked Saints was a surprisingly polarizing read in 2019, and I think Ruthless Gods will be similar—if not for the same reasons. Ruthless Gods, in my opinion, is LEAGUES better than the first novel, but only if you can pass through the first 100 pages of extremely vague writing, frustrating lack of explanation, and several wham-bam 180 degree flips that completely switch many things up.
THIS REVIEW WILL, OUT OF NECESSITY, SPOIL WICKED SAINTS.
I'M SERIOUS, PLEASE STOP IF YOU DON'T WANT TO BE SPOILED.
Nadya, Malachiasz, and Serefin are all having a bad time at the beginning of this book as the end of Wicked Saints left us with a LOT to unpack. Nadya's gods have left her and she's broken many of her homeland's laws to save the enemy. Malachiasz's last-minute betrayals left him with the powers of a god, but no way to keep his sanity and control them. Serefin was literally murdered and brought back to life, and now a god is whispering bad things in his ear.
Oh, and the gods we thought were scary in the first novel aren't even the ones we need to worry about.
Now, like I said above, the first 100 pages of this novel were ROUGH. We're talking, I was so frustrated I thought someone else had wrote this, rough. Considering it takes places very close to the ending of Wicked Saints, I was surprised to find the first bit of this book lagged. It seemed like an odd form of a holding pattern, as not much happened and yet lots was happening, and we were still primarily doing odd character-building scenes that also altered previous facts. I think all of the alterations were positive and made the plot stronger...but wish that they had been either included in the first book or brought to us later, because I was making audible frustrated gripes when the witch, Poletga (spelling is butchered, sorry) gave us these vague nothings over and over with each of our characters.
But, as you can see from my 5 star rating, this was a damn good book. I loved that it kept me on my toes, and the additions to the plot were exciting and made the story more original than I gave it credit for in Wicked Saints. In particular, I hope we see more of the Akolan politics in the third book, as it did give this fantasy world a fresh burst of diversity. AND I hope we continue to keep up the pace with this incredibly dark, mythic approach to old gods that really cemented itself in this installment.
It's unflinchingly bloody, twisted, darkly sensual, unrepentant, and surprising. I loved it.
Thank you to Wednesday Books via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.