Review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Anna: What would you do for love?

This is How You Lose the Time War is the most imaginative book I’ve read in a long time. It reminded me why sci-fi  is such an amazing genre that I need to explore more. It also has LGBTQ+ rep!

Summary: Red and Blue are change agents who work for rival time traveling agencies–Blue for the Garden, a vast organic consciousness. Red works for the Agency, a Technotopia. While traveling to different “strands” of history and time to change history, they start to write each other letters and slowly fall in love.

The actual rules and word building in This is How You Lose the Time War is super confusing at first and very slowly revealed to the reader. I didn’t know what was going on for a while, but that’s okay. This book is more about the lyrical writing and the vivid, visceral images of time traveling and Red and Blue’s romance that literally stands the test of time. This is ultimately a “star-crossed” lovers narrative, but it’s not tropey at all. This book takes work to get through, but it’s rewarding and worth it.

I also think it’s so cool that this book was co-written! As a writer, I can’t imagine creating such a complex world and story in the first place, but also doing it so seamlessly with another writer.

Verdict: 4 stars

Review: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

A paperback copy of Girls of Paper and Fire is being held in front of a pool.

Alexis:

Whew, this book was darker than I expected; it centers around sexual abuse.

As a member of the lowest cast, the Papers, Lei is human. But because of her golden eyes, Lei is stolen from her home to become a Paper Girl—a concubine for the Demon King. 

I liked the sapphic romance that developed, though it felt a little insta-love to me. The worldbuilding was interesting, but this book was definitely tough to get through at times because of the dark themes. That being said, the best thing about this book is how well Ngan handled the dark themes. She depicted the upper caste, called the Moon caste, well by making them grotesque and sometimes beautiful through Lei’s eyes. Reading about the demons/Moon caste was also uncomfortable at times, especially since they’re described as humanoid animals. But through the grotesque demons, the castes, and the horrors of the Paper Girls, Ngan hammered themes of survival, rebellion, and sexual abuse/violence.

While I liked the plot, some plot points would’ve worked better if revealed earlier. Because the main plot was introduced late in the story, the beginning felt a little slow and meandering in comparison.

If you can handle dark themes, and are looking for a sapphic YA fantasy with strong female characters, then I think this one will work for you.

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐/5

TW: Sexual abuse/violence/rape, sex trafficking, a forced medical exam, physical abuse, animal death, war themes

Review: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Alexis:

Cemetery Boys follows Yadriel, a trans teenager trying to gain acceptance from his family. His family are brujos, a group of magical Latinos who can summon ghosts and help them pass on to the afterlife. When Yadriel’s cousin, Miguel, dies, Yadriel tries to prove he’s a real brujo by summoning his ghost, but he accidentally summons Julian, a fellow schoolmate, instead.

I really enjoyed reading this book. The characters and dialogue are Thomas’ greatest writing strength. I loved getting to know Yadriel and his family, and the energetic characters of Maritza (Yadriel’s cousin) and Julian were so much fun to read. It’s hard to find stories with fully fleshed out characters, but I loved Cemetery Boys’ main characters.

The overall story gives me Coco and Gods of Jade and Shadow vibes. I enjoyed reading about the history, magic, and culture of the brujos, as well as the Día de Muertos. The themes of family, acceptance, and love shine on the page.

That being said, the pacing was a little slow, and the climax felt rushed in comparison; most of the plot was thrown into the last couple of chapters, and the action scenes aren’t quite punchy enough. Since I prefer character-driven stories, this didn’t affect my overall rating. However, it’s something to keep in mind if you prefer plot-driven stories over slow-burn and character-driven stories.

It’s also worth noting that while Maritza plays an important role in the book, the women are literally told in the beginning to stay home and cook. Yadriel makes it clear that he does not approve of this; however, the healing and cooking role of the women characters does not change throughout the book. So while the story focuses on breaking gender roles/stereotypes, I found it a little odd that Yadriel breaks stereotypes, but Maritza and the other women are still forced to be stuck in their traditional roles.

But bottom line, this was a fun, lively, and heartwarming read. If you’re looking for snarky characters, trans and LGBTQ representation, with a heavy dash of magic and ghosts, then I recommend picking this up!

VERDICT: 👻👻👻👻.5

Review: Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters

Alexis:

Synopsis: Ghost Wood Song follows Shady Grove, a teenage girl living in rural Florida. Like her father before her, Shady can call ghosts from the grave by playing her father’s fiddle. When her brother is accused of murder, Shady decides to play the fiddle to figure out what really happened, straight from the mouth of the dead.

I really enjoyed the overall Southern gothic vibes of this book. It’s creepy and haunted, dealing with ghosts, an evil figure that rises from the dark, a haunted house, and plenty of death. But in between the dark sections, Waters writes about a teenage girl trying to figure out her feelings for one of her best friends, Sarah, and a boy named Cedar. While I’m not one for love triangles, I found that this one didn’t bother me too much. 

I also enjoyed how Waters wrote about music. All of Shady’s friends play music, too, and I liked hearing about their playing styles; I felt like I learned a lot about bluegrass music. Waters’ love for music shone on the page and through Shady’s character.

My one main critique is that I feel like I didn’t get to know some of the secondary characters as much as I wanted to. We’re told that Orlando is Shady’s best friend, but I feel like he rarely shows up in any scenes. Near the beginning, we’re told what Shady is like from Sarah’s mouth, before I felt like I really knew Shady as a character. Throughout the book, a lot of the characters are kept at a surface level, which is a shame, because I enjoyed all of the characters and wanted to get to know them better.

Despite this, I like Water’s writing style. I enjoyed her imagery and descriptions, and the way she writes about the setting really allows it to come alive on the page. 

If you’re looking for a murder mystery with themes of family, grief, love, and music, with LGBTQ representation, then pick this up!

VERDICT: 👻👻👻👻/5

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Alexis:

What a beautiful love story. Because at the core, this is a love story. Because anyone who knows Greek mythology knows that Patroclus was Achilles’ lover, not “friend.”

Millers’ love for Greek mythology shines in this book. And she knows the ins and outs of it. She captures the Ancient Greek culture and society so well, including the Ancient Greek definition of honor, that I felt like I was being transported back to my three years of Latin class. Everything stays true to Homer, even her creative liberties.

And Miller’s writing is just beautiful, even when it’s brutual; she doesn’t sugarcoat the Trojan War. Even her similes are steeped in the culture, and Patroclus often compares things to olives (which makes my half-Greek self happy!)

I think writing from Patroclus’ POV was a brave choice, but it worked really well for the story as a whole. And I loved how Miller filled in the gaps of he and Achilles’s story. And their relationship is really the shining star of the book. Miller just poured emotion and chemistry and characterization into them.

The only thing that bothered me ***(small spoiler, but really, this story has been around forever) is that Achilles’ heel was taken from the story, and he dies in a different way. I understand why Miller changed it, but I think it’s such an iconic part of Achilles’ story that it felt a little off.

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Review: Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Book Review: Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Gracefully Grayson is a great example of the magic of middle grade fiction. Grayson’s parents died in a traumatic car crash, and he now lives with his aunt and uncle and cousins. Grayson has always wanted to be a girl. He knows that acting this way means getting in trouble and getting bullied, so he just daydreams. That is, until he tries out for the part of Persephone, the lead part in the school play.

This book is heartbreaking because Grayson feels lost both in his gender identity and an outsider in his adopted family. Grayson is caught between many adults who believe they are acting with his best interests in heart. When Grayson’s teacher, Mr. Finn, casts Grayson as the lead female role in the play, his Aunt Sally thinks Mr. Finn overstepped his boundaries. In their own household, Uncle Evan disagrees with his wife’s actions, and hints that Grayson’s aunt and uncle might know more about Grayson than they let on. There are lots of opinions from the adults in Grayson’s life about who he should be, which made me think critically about a parent’s role in their children’s identity.

At the end of the book Grayson is still using female gender pronouns, but wears clothes meant for girls. I can’t speak from experience of course, but I think this is a believable account of a young transgender child’s journey. I say this because I also recently read George by Alex Grino and it had hardly any conflict. Everyone was instantly accepting of George and her transition, which is great, but didn’t feel realistic.

This book is everything beautiful about middle grade fiction and more. Grayson faces bullying, he’s outcast by a friend, and he’s ridiculed for his identity. The end of the book also doesn’t wrap everything up perfectly but points Grayson in a hopeful direction, which I think is important in middle grade fiction for a slightly older audience, like this one.

VERDICT: 4 books

 

Review: Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

This review is spoiler-free and from both of us!

There is a dog in this book, so that’s our excuse for featuring a very confused Indy in this.

Alexis:

I’m thankful I had the opportunity to hear Mesha Maren discuss her book, because I feel like I really understood her vision. In Sugar Run, Jodi, the main character, is just released from prison, where she served eighteen years. She enters into a relationship with a young mother named Miranda, and their lives become tangled together. It’s a story of hope and hopelessness.

I love Maren’s lyrical writing style. Her writing has such a hard realness to it. She writes lush descriptions as she paints life in West Virginia. As Maren discussed in her talk, her book is hard to categorize. It’s a noir, crime, Southern Literature, and LGBTQ novel. But this is one of the great things about it: it’s a collage of genres, and it works.

This is a dark book that deals with vices to the max. It deals with crime, murder, sex, and lots of drugs. All of the characters are flawed, and make really bad decisions, yet I cared about them. The first half of the book is more character driven, while the second half is more plot heavy. The chapters alternate between the present (written in past tense) and the past (written in present tense) which I thought worked really well.

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books

 

Anna:

Like Alexis, I’m so happy we had the opportunity to meet Maren at the Fountain Bookstore here in Richmond. Hearing an author discuss her book and writing process always enriches my understanding of it as a reader. The way Maren described her characters before I’d read about them made me more invested as a reader.

Maren’s writing is exactly what I love about literary fiction, even though, as Alexis said, this is a blend of genres. It is so dark and violent, but it is beautifully and breathtakingly written and full of nature imagery. The characters are well drawn out and real.

The violence in the lives of all the characters contrast so starkly with Jodi’s obsession with the rural landscape of her homeland. Her love of West Virginia mirrors themes of stability and nostalgia in Jodi’s life. It also offers commentary on the ways humans inflict violence on the earth, as the horrors of fracking is something frequently discussed.

The ending of books is something I’m constantly disappointed by, and, happily, this was not the case with Sugar Run! I thought the conclusion of both the interwoven timelines is so well done, and, most importantly, believable. Maren’s pacing is perfection.

During her talk, Maren touched a bit on the book she’s writing next, and you can bet I’ll be picking that up when that comes out!

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books

We Met Sugar Run’s Author, Mesha Maren!

Yesterday, we visited the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond to hear author Mesha Maren talk about her new book, Sugar Run.

Sugar Run has already gotten a lot of attention in the book world, and we loved hearing her talk about her book. Maren discussed her research, writing processes, and inspirations. She discussed how West Virginia, where she grew up, was her inspiration for the book. She even told a story about building a log cabin with her dad when she was 17, a log cabin that is now her writing space.

We enjoyed listening to her talk about identity and how she and her main character, Jodi, navigate being LGBTQ in West Virginia.

We look forward to reading and reviewing Sugar Run!