Review of "American Fairytale" (Dreamers #2) by Adriana Herrera

Herrera, Adriana. American Fairytale. Toronto: Ontario: Carina Press, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $8.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1335215963 | 361 pages | Contemporary Romance

Adriana Herrera continues to prove herself as a rising star in diverse romance, and one with the potential for lasting staying power, with the release of American Fairytale, a second book that packs just as much of a punch as her debut. While we shift focus to Camilo “Milo” and Tom, this book also has Herrera’s hallmarks of a diverse and lovable cast and a balanced focus on both a sweet love story and weightier issues facing Latinx people, especially immigrants.

I also enjoyed the subversion of one of my least favorite tropes in this one, with Thomas being a self-made billionaire. But not only is his business rooted in his own family’s immigrant experience (he comes from a mixed White/Latinx family), he is a genuinely kind person with a focus on family, but he is for the most part self-aware of the power imbalance, even if he does have some blind spots he needs to work through later in the book due to his inattention that ruined a prior relationship.

I could understand Milo’s reservations, especially given the possibly professional implications, with Tom being a donor for his organization, and struggling to negotiate that with his feelings. But I like that, like the first book, the issues are always confronted in that moment, and it’s never something they let fester, even if it does take some bigger gestures, particularly towards the end, to truly demonstrate their commitment.

Herrera also has a great way of balancing (occasionally filthy) humor with the more serious stuff, and this one is no exception. One of my favorite bits was when Milo sent Tom a video of him participating in one of the organization’s dancing classes, complete with a text exchange showing how “excited” Tom was getting.

This a wonderful second book, and I can’t wait to check out book three and everything else to come from Adriana Herrera. And if you love diverse contemporaries with large casts of characters, and a lot of humor and heart, this book is for you.

Buy it here: https://amzn.to/36czPwb

Review of “American Dreamer” (Dreamers #1) by Adriana Herrera

Herrera, Adriana. American Dreamer. Toronto: Ontario: Carina Press, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback $8.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1335006875 | 376 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I finally picked up American Dreamer recently after seeing a lot of buzz about it over the last several months since its release. And it’s one of the most refreshing books I’ve read in a while. It provides a nuanced look at the Afro-Latinx experience in the U.S. today, highlighting both the issues and showing the way that characters triumph in the face of adversity.

Nesto and Jude are such fully realized characters, and I loved them from the moment they each apeared on the page. Each of them has their hurdles to overcome, and I love that, even though they do have issues that cause problems in their relationship, they ultimately come back together and make it up to one another each time one screws up.

Nesto’s character being a chef with dreams of expanding his food truck business led to a lot of opportunities to showcase Afro-Caribbean cuisine, and this yet another of those books that should have a warning against reading on an empty stomach. And I love that his business has its roots in family and their journey as immigrants from the Dominican Republic. He also has the most adorable relationship with his mother, and she’s probably one of my favorite characters in the book, with how much she supports him.

I was excited about Jude being a librarian, because I feel like I haven’t seen enough of them in romance (I know there’s a ton out there though…it’s just getting to them). And while the importance of his career isn’t as pronounced as Nesto’s, it does play a role, with him taking on an important project at some point in the book.

But what really struck me was how Jude’s arc revolved heavily around familial rejection for being gay, to contradict Nesto’s completely accepting environment. My heart broke when I not only read about his past of being rejected, but saw it come into play in the present when a family emergency causes him to come back into contact with them.

And the supporting cast is great, and I can’t wait to read the rest, to see how the rest of their friends find love. I took a peek at the books currently released, and the one still to come, and I’m already excited.

This is a wonderfully heartfelt book, chock-full with a great sense of culture and community, with a cast of the most endearing characters I’ve read in a while. I recommend it if you’re looking for a great diverse romance.

Buy it here: https://amzn.to/2tvZUZH

Review of "Faker" by Sarah Smith

Smith, Sarah. Faker. New York: Jove, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1984805423 | 327 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I hadn’t heard much buzz around Faker as I had some of the other 2019 trade cartoon cover books, so, on the one hand, I was happy to go in mostly blind, but on the other, I did have some doubts about why it wasn’t worth promoting…especially looking back on the books that did get promoted that I didn’t like.

And I now feel like people have been sleeping on this one. Granted, I do have some biases, when it comes to the material. While it’s not the setting, I love that the heroine, Emmie, grew up in Hawaii (although she grew up in Kona, a place I’m only marginally familiar with), and seeing discussions of the environment and the culture, not to mention the food (finally, someone who actually knows what a spam musubi is!) is always great to see in mainstream fiction published for the wider U.S. (and occasionally world) market.

And while I did have my doubts about the premise, as enemies-to-lovers could go either way for me, I ended up liking it. I liked seeing Emmie succeed in a traditionally male-dominated field and the exploration of having to “fake” a tougher persona as a result. And the way it plays into her evolving relationship with Tate, especially given some of the later revelations regarding his initial hostility, is incredibly well done.

This is a great rom-com, with a great infusion of culture and an awesome cast of characters that I hope will spawn sequels/spinoffs. I would recommend this to rom-com lovers and those looking for good Filipino-American rep in romance.

Review of "Queen of the Conquered" (Islands of Blood and Stone #1) by Kacen Callender

Callender, Kacen. Queen of the Conquered. New York: Orbit, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-031645933 | 391 pages | Fantasy

3 stars

Queen of the Conquered is conceptually awesome. Rooted in the idea of giving the African American perspective of slavery to a fantasy novel, this had a lot of potential, especially with its gritter tone and the nuance it discusses in terms of how, like in real life, an oppressed character will choose to be complicit and align themselves with their oppressor.

For the most part, I enjoyed Sigourney’s character arc. She’s not meant to be likable, but I found her thought process morbidly fascinating. For any other flaws, both with her decisions (acting rashly at times) and the other things, which I will get into momentarily, I feel it was worth it for this aspect.

But the world building didn’t feel particularly compelling. While I understand the author’s historical inspiration, I didn’t feel the world was that well developed to be its own thing. Inspiration is absolutely fine, and to be expected, but aside from the map, I didn’t get any sense of the world or its structures.

I also found myself struggling to engage with the story beyond that, particularly towards the end. Some others have noted the writing feels awkward and repetitive, and I felt the same. And despite the darkness of what was going on, I didn’t feel much for anyone apart from Sigourney, except from an objective standpoint.

This was kind of just ok, and I think some of these aspects will mean that it’s going to be a love-it-or-hate-it book for a lot of people. I think if you like stories with unlikable lead characters (a critic compared it toThe Count of Monte Cristo), you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Review of "Girls of Storm and Shadow" (Girls of Paper and Fire #2) by Natasha Ngan

Ngan, Natasha. Girls of Storm and Shadow. New York: Jimmy Patterson Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316528672 | 402 pages | YA Fantasy

3 stars

After finishing Girls of Paper and Fire, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted a sequel, both because of some of the issues I had with the portrayal of the blooming of a sexually charged romance in the midst of a situation where both are dealing with sexual assault, and because the story felt pretty self-contained. And while for the most part, I feel like Girls of Storm and Shadow did ok in proving its need for existence, I still feel very mixed, due to it falling into some of the issues of second books in trilogies, of upping the stakes but also feeling rather incomplete.

On the one hand, getting to see the world outside the “court” is great, grasping the wider world consequences of the Demon King’s rule and why it’s important to bring him down.

And I did like seeing more of the characters, especially Wren and the further exploration of her character. While it did mean the introduction of a rival who sort of comes between her and Lei (and I loathe most love triangles!) I enjoyed seeing more of her and the development of her relationship with Lei.

I also felt that the overall plot was going in a somewhat unoriginal direction, even within the confines of YA fantasy, which can be very tropey. A few compared it to the Hunger Games, and while I haven’t read that series, I kind of see similarities to those “bring down the corrupt regime” arcs of the dystopian subgenre, but within a fantasy “skin.”

This is kind of just an “ok” sequel, which, given the way middle books can be, is kind of expected. I’ll probably still read book three, as there’s enough interesting stuff here that I want to know what happens, in hopes that it ends satisfactorily. And I feel like you might like this book a lot more if you enjoyed the first one more.

Review of "Song of the Crimson Flower" (Rise of the Empress #2.5) by by Julie C. Dao

Dao, Julie C. Song of the Crimson Flower. New York: Philomel Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524738358 | 272 pages | YA Fantasy

4 stars

I put Song of the Crimson Flower on my TBR without even thinking about it, as the Rise of the Empress duology was so good, I would pretty much read anything Julie C. Dao writes. Imagine my surprise when I found out this was a sort of spinoff of those books…HOW DID I MISS THAT?! That being said, while there are some recurring characters, this story completely stands on its own, and while I heartily recommend reading the duology as well, you can read this one as a standalone.

The fairytale vibe continues in this book, but while the duology was Snow White inspired, this one feels like an original story with a Vietnamese folktale feel, although it features archetypes from familiar stories, like the orphan hero and the curse that needs to be broken through true love.

I wasn’t sure about Lan at first, as she pretty much treats Bao poorly early on, because of his birth. But I did understand where she was coming from to an extent, with her higher status and expectations, and when she agreed to journey with Bao to find the solution to his curse, I felt my respect for her grow a lot more due to my growing understanding of the stakes she faced and her susequent willigness to go against them.

Bao is really sweet throughout, and I rooted for him to find out who his mother was and why she gave him up, and subsequently was torn up for him when I found out the path she had ended up on.

And for those who happened to read the duology, there is the special treat of seeing a key secondary character finally get a happy ending, given how a major part of his arc in those books was him falling in love and losing her.

The main failing of this book is that it is a long novella/short novel, and I did feel like things could have been fleshed out a bit more. However, it was just a lot of fun spending time in this world again, and I hope this isn’t the least time. However, Dao’s splendid world building and character development stands out, and, thus, it makes a great recommendation for fans of YA fantasy.

Review of "Internment" by Samira Ahmed

Ahmed, Samira. Internment. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316522694 | 386 pages | YA Dystopian

4 stars

I believe I heard about Internment through YA Book Twitter, and was intrigued at the premise of how it used historical examples of racism and xenophobia in the U.S. to predict the trajectory of the country’s current “handling” of immigration and Islamophobia, particularly as it resonates with my own family history and how other prominent Japanese Americans have spoken out at the disturbing parallels to anti-Asian laws and Japanese internment in light of government decisions like the current crisis at the U.S-Mexico border and the Muslim ban.

And the result is a sometimes bleak, but ultimately hopeful, read, as it depicts Layla, her family, and many others sent to an internment camp simply for their race and religion, and how while they at first endure, some, including Layla, choose to rise up and protest their release.

And Layla as a character is great. She presents a good balance between typical teenager focused on love and friendships and burgeoning resistance fighter, and I liked that Ahmed managed to find a way to get a healthy balance of both.

The one flaw I see is in its world-building and how it hinges on its sense of the “now.” It’s suggested in the blurb and in the note at the end that this is a “very near future” version of the U.S. While Ahmed plays with ideas that do recur due to persistent white supremacy, so the concepts may endure on that strength alone, she writes with the belief that the reader already knows about the state of the United States that led to the events of this book, and while I can assume many people today are aware, it lends itself to the question of whether it will endure the test of time. While I’m sure that’s not the writer’s first concern when writing a book, Margaret Atwood wrote with similar ideas in mind, leading to an enduring and relevant novel that still speaks to many readers, and the dystopian story has come and gone over the years with people being able to revisit those previous publications and still grasp meaning from them. However, I don’t know if that will one hundred percent be the case here.

However, I don’t doubt this is an incredibly important book for the moment, highlighting the issues that we as a nation need to fight against. I recommend it to people looking for hard-hitting YA books that tackle the state of the world today and help provide hope that there is a way to fix it.

Review of "Realm of Ash" (The Books of Ambha #2) by Tasha Suri

Suri, Tasha. Realm of Ash. New York: Orbit, 2019.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316449755 | 450 pages | Fantasy

5 stars

Tasha Suri is one of my favorite new discoveries this year, and while I wasn’t massively wowed by her debut, I found it enjoyable as a new romantic fantasy with Indian influences. But with Realm of Ash, while the trajectory is slightly different, given the different characters, I felt much more connected to the story and the world.

I enjoyed seeing a new facet to Ambha through the eyes of the widowed Arwa, given that this status comes with a different set of expectations, as well as the different ways other facets of her identity, like her difference of birth and color of her skin contrasted to Mehr’s experience.

I could also empathize with her character growth from someone who feels compelled to make herself small, and there’s this wonderful growth to finding her strength over the course of the story as she’s thrown into the court intrigue and solving the curse on the Empire.

I also was quicker to warm up to her romance with Zahir than I was with the romance in the last book. There was nothing ultimately wrong with that one in the end and both were gradual, but I liked the development of Zahir as a character and counterpart for Arwa in this one, and that made the story much more convincing.

This is a wonderfully sumptuous fantasy with great world building an complex characters. I recommend it to all romantic fantasy fans.

Review of “Tell Me How You Really Feel” by Aminah Mae Safi

Safi, Aminah Mae. Tell Me How You Really Feel. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250299482 | 312 pages | YA Contemporary Romance

4 stars

Tell Me How You Really Feel is pure fun, queer rom-com goodness. The two protagonists are charming, and I couldn’t help but root for them as they went from not really getting each other to falling in love.

Sana’s a great character, and while I’m sure there are others that I haven’t read about yet, it’s nice to see a cheerleader in fiction who also have a strong academic focus, breaking the stereotype of so many high school movies. I could empathize with her struggle to decide what her future plans were, and how it was so entrenched in the sacrifices both her parents and grandparents made for her.

Rachel’s character growth is great as well, and I really liked seeing her opinions about her film being challenged by Sana’s perspective, even though her film teacher is encouraging her to stay on the same path she originally intended.

I did feel like I wanted a bit more exploration of the “why” they supposedly didn’t like each other. It’s mentioned once or twice in-text, but I feel like the backstory with Sana originally asking Rachel out got more attention in the blurb, and is all but ignored in the book itself, in favor of the other things they don’t have in common. While I don’t agree with some that this isn’t a strong enough case of enemies-to-lovers (especially since some people’s idea of the trope crosses into the point of no redemption for me), I just feel like that one facet should have been more fleshed out.

This is a great read with a great f/f romance. I recommend it to other lovers of sweet YA romances.

Review of “A House of Rage and Sorrow” (The Celestial Trilogy #2) by Sangu Mandanna

Mandanna, Sangu. A House of Rage and Sorrow. New York: Sky Pony Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1510733794 | 248 pages | YA Science Fiction

5 stars

It’s beginning to feel increasingly rare that we have second books in trilogies that not only deliver, but actually exceed their predecessor in terms of quality as opposed to falling into the dreaded “second-book syndrome.” But A House of Rage and Sorrow is one of the few exceptions to this trend, actually functioning as a second book in terms of both building on the first and building anticipation for the third, without feeling too much like filler.

And one of the technical things that made it better was that the connection between characters were made more clear with a character guide, while still leaving room for suspense, as the lack of one left me feeling a bit confused with book one. And since these can feel a little info-dump-y, I love the stylistic choice to convey it through the voice of Titania the warship, who also gets a few chapters from her perspective. She’s my favorite character from book one, so I enjoyed seeing her utilized in such a fun and creative way.

I also enjoyed getting a much more intense look at the relationships between characters this time around. As the title implies, there is a lot of “rage and sorrow,” and the fact that it’s centered around family and politics makes it all the more heightened. I could sympathize so much with Esmae’s rage, especially toward her brother following the events at the end of the lat book, and the way things come to a head in this one.

I enjoyed this sequel, with all its twists and turns, and can’t wait to see how it’ll all come together in book 3. I would recommend this to fans ofYA SFF with great world-building and complex family-centered politics.