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BOOK REVIEW: The Girl With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke (5 Stars)

Cover of The Girl With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke, depicting a painted red balloon on a grey background

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process. — Goodreads

Please see the end of the post for content warnings.

I suspected I was signing up for heartbreak when I picked up The Girl With the Red Balloon, and friends, it did indeed make me cry. The book is told from three different points of view: Ellie’s, first in present day Berlin and then in 1988 East Berlin, Kai’s in 1988 East Berlin, and Benno’s in 1941 in Łódź Ghetto. I usually find it hard to fully immerse myself in books with several POVs, but that didn’t turn out to be a problem here. The shifts weren’t too frequent, and the flashbacks narrated by Ellie’s grandfather Benno really tied the story together.

There was some great diversity, too. Benno is a German Jew who survived the Holocaust and later emigrated to the US, so Ellie is Jewish American with a German background. There are frequent allusions to her Jewishness and it is a strong part of her identity. Kai and his sister are Romani (CN for use of the g-slur, though it is primarily used as a descriptor in the flashbacks), and an important side character, Mitzi, is gay. I personally also read Kai as being on the ace spectrum. (“I’d never understood how people could get distracted so easily” — really, Kai? Sounds ace to me.)

“Magic and balloons,” I whispered, shivering from the cold and the dark. “And Walls and time.”
Kai’s voice was low and sad. “The things that get us out and the things that keep us in.”

I really loved the magical atmosphere of the book, and the idea of magic balloons that can transport people out of places that have imprisoned them. The writing was beautiful but simple, and I highlighted so many quotes that I couldn’t fit them all into one blog post even if I tried. The only thing that threw me off were the poorly translated German phrases here and there, but it wasn’t so egregious that it hampered my enjoyment.

The romance between Ellie and Kai was sweet with a tiny dash of sexy, but I also loved the friendship that developed between Ellie and Mitzi. The ragtag band of characters Ellie encounters in 1988 end up being a found family for her in a time and place she doesn’t belong, a home far away from home.

The theme of finding where you belong, of finding your home, isn’t only brought up with regards to Ellie’s time travel, but also by Ellie and Kai both belonging to peoples that have been historically persecuted and uprooted.

Fernweh, maybe. A longing for a home that didn’t exist. Too many outsiders thought of us Romani like that. Like every human needs the solidity of a place. I didn’t need a place. I wanted the solidity of my own mind, whether or not that required the solidity of a place.

But home and belonging aren’t the only themes that The Girl With the Red Balloon grapples with. It asks profound questions about faith in the face of evil, and about whether or not you could or should go back in time to change history, ultimately coming to the painful conclusion that you cannot save everyone. The book acknowledges the importance of doing what you can when you can, but it also addresses issues of white / gentile saviourism.

At the end of the story, the girl said, “Don’t you Jews have any happy stories? You’ve told me two sad stories. Tell me a happy one.”
“I’ve told you two stories that end in freedom,” I protested. “How much happier could you ask for?”
“But all of the story that comes before that tiny little bit of freedom is sad,” she said.
“If the story was happy, you’d care less about that tiny little bit of freedom.”

This was one of my favourite moments. It encapsulates something essential about this book. The Girl With the Red Balloon is a bittersweet story, and though it is heartbreaking at times, it always glows with the hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel. This book is not only a journey through time, but an emotional journey as well, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes their heartbreak with a dash of the fantastical.

CONTENT NOTES: This book narrates events in a Jewish / Romani ghetto during the Holocaust, including starvation, child death, parental death, deportation, and mentions the terrors of Stasi imprisonment in East Germany several times.

Have you read The Girl With the Red Balloon or any of Katherine Locke’s other books? Let’s chat in the comments below!

ARC REVIEW: Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy (2 Stars)

Cover of Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, depicting a glowing sowrd being grabbed by two hands in elegant armour

Rating: Rating of two out of five stars represented by bumblebees (2 out of 5)

I’ve been chased my whole life. As a fugitive refugee in the territory controlled by the tyrannical Mercer corporation, I’ve always had to hide who I am. Until I found Excalibur.

Now I’m done hiding.

My name is Ari Helix. I have a magic sword, a cranky wizard, and a revolution to start.

When Ari crash-lands on Old Earth and pulls a magic sword from its ancient resting place, she is revealed to be the newest reincarnation of King Arthur. Then she meets Merlin, who has aged backward over the centuries into a teenager, and together they must break the curse that keeps Arthur coming back. Their quest? Defeat the cruel, oppressive government and bring peace and equality to all humankind.

No pressure. — Goodreads

Once & Future is a sapphic King Arthur retelling in space, and as much as that sounds like a recipe for awesome, I unfortunately didn’t enjoy this half as much as I thought I was going to.

The first half is a fun found family space romp that boasts an incredibly diverse cast. The main character Ari is Arab and queer, and her adoptive family consists of her brother Kay and her two moms. Once & Future‘s iteration of Merlin is as gay as a maypole, while Ari’s love interest Gwen is bi-racial white and Asian. Ari’s merry band of knights includes Lamarack, who is black, genderfluid, and an amputee, Val, who is black and queer, and Jordan, who is asexual, though I strongly disliked the way her asexuality was handled.

Jordan’s asexuality was revealed in a plot twist, setting it apart from all of the other queer orientations, none of which the authors felt the need to reveal through a coming out or otherwise treat as a spoiler. Additionally, Jordan’s asexuality was only revealed to explain that she was no threat to the main f/f relationship, regardless of the fact that asexuality does not equal not having any desire for a relationship, romantic or even sexual, or not having any attraction at all. Not to mention the implication that just because Jordan is asexual, someone else couldn’t desire her. Implying that there is no reason to be jealous of asexual people simply on the basis of their sexual orientation treats asexuals as automatically undesirable, and as an asexual reader I found this portrayal hurtful and upsetting, especially coming from two queer authors.

As delightful as the diverse representation otherwise is, the writing could use some work. The purple prose made this space opera veer into soap opera territory more than once. The pacing is off, especially with regards to the emotional arcs, which felt rushed and unsatisfying. Even the character deaths seemed more like an afterthought, so they didn’t have much of an emotional impact on me.

Despite all of the issues with the writing, I enjoyed the first half of the book well enough. However, a revelation early in the second half almost made me DNF Once & Future. MAJOR SPOILER — Ari finally visits her home planet, Ketch, only to find out that the entire population has been wiped out and she is the last the Ketchan, or Arab, in the universe. Even though one of the authors is part Lebanese, using the genocide of an entire planet populated exclusively by Arab people as a plot twist felt extremely gross to me. — END SPOILER

I decided to keep reading because I wanted to see where the story was going, but the book definitely started deteriorating after the major spoiler, and finishing the last third turned out to be quite a chore. The authors kept injecting unnecessary interpersonal drama, and the weird love triangle and its aftermath were particularly frustrating. And then there was the villain, the Administrator, the evil capitalist overlord of the universe, who unfortunately didn’t work for me at all. He was much too comical to actually be scary.

I’m bummed that I didn’t enjoy this more, especially given the super diverse cast. Unfortunately, the great premise was let down by the writing, but the major spoiler event mentioned above is what really, well, spoiled my enjoyment.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Little, Brown for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read Once & Future? What are your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: The Fever King by Victoria Lee (5 Stars)

Cover of the Fever King by Victoria Lee, depicting a bright silhouetted figure from which lightning is forking out all over the dark purple and blue background

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

In the former United States, sixteen-year-old Noam Álvaro wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of the viral magic that killed his family and made him a technopath. His ability to control technology attracts the attention of the minister of defense and thrusts him into the magical elite of the nation of Carolinia.

The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam has spent his life fighting for the rights of refugees fleeing magical outbreaks—refugees Carolinia routinely deports with vicious efficiency. Sensing a way to make change, Noam accepts the minister’s offer to teach him the science behind his magic, secretly planning to use it against the government. But then he meets the minister’s son—cruel, dangerous, and achingly beautiful—and the way forward becomes less clear.

Caught between his purpose and his heart, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in pursuit of the greater good. (Goodreads)

Please see the end of the post for content warnings. 

The Fever King is Victoria Lee’s explosive debut and the first book in her dystopian YA series, Feverwake. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s hard to believe this is even a debut. The author’s narrative voice is strong and compelling, and I enjoyed The Fever King from beginning to end.

I’m not going to lie though, it took me a while to digest what I’d read after I finished the book. The plot unwinds as a layered exploration of right and wrong, and of how far you can go in the service of right before it becomes a wrong of its own. The author combines modern dystopia with elements of Jewish storytelling and a strong theme of seeking to repair the world.

The main character, Noam, brings a fresh gust of air to the dystopian genre. He is both Latinx and Jewish, and openly and explicitly bisexual. The cast overall is ethnically diverse. Noam’s mentor and minister of defense Calix Lehrer is also Jewish, and Noam’s love interest, Dara, is also brown—his name suggests a Persian background—and was raised Jewish.

The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam moonlights as a hacktivist for the immigrant cause. His affinity for technology causes him to become a technopath in the wake of surviving the magic virus, and while at times his abilities seemed maybe a little omnipotent, it was a fascinating take on magic.

But if Noam could use magic—Carolinia’s most treasured resource—for the Atlantian cause, then maybe being a witching wasn’t such a bad thing.

Noam is passionate about refugee rights. As a witching with access to the minister of defense Calix Lehrer, he plans to learn everything he can in his government training program and use it to bring the government down. But the closer he feels to achieving his goals, the more he starts to question whether he really is on the path to making the world a better place. He gets more and more caught up in Lehrer’s machinations until it becomes hard to distinguish between right and wrong.

GIF of Magneto saying
GIF of Magneto saying, “Peace was never an option.” Source.

Lehrer is a character that I felt and still feel very ambivalent about. He is, if not a clear-cut villain, definitely an antagonist. He certainly has some good intentions, but the methods he uses to achieve them are dubious at best. I was able to discuss some of the particulars about Lehrer’s character with some wonderful Jewish friends, whose perspective helped me contextualise Lehrer as a character, for which I am infinitely grateful. One of them compared Lehrer to Magneto, a very fitting analogy:

The cinematic Magneto was never a villain for villainy’s sake, along the lines of “Heh, heh, heh – and now for my malicious plan to take over the world!” He was a reasoned, charismatic villain; yes, he had an extreme agenda, but an understandable one. The new film – the prequel – further elaborates and buttresses Magneto’s backstory. Actually, he is the hero of the film; only later does he become the bad guy. (Source; CN: use of the g-slur)

This quote from the linked article in particular really helped me frame my feelings about Lehrer. He is not a villain for villainy’s sake either, and his villainy is borne of understandable and traumatic circumstances. I think he started out wanting to repair the world in his own way, but his view of the perfect world has become warped. While Noam wants to empower everyone through equal rights, Lehrer wants magic to dictate the distribution of power. (You know, kind of like Magneto wants to put the power in the hands of mutants only.) I’m a huge marshmallow, so I’m not usually very interested in villains, but I truly appreciate the way Lehrer’s character adds dimension to the story here and I’m so intrigued to see what direction the author will take him in the sequel.

A tarot card depicting Dara from The Fever King, captioned with the word
“He who holds firm to good.” Art by bbonbonss; source.

I cannot end this review without mentioning the romance between Noam and Dara, and that Dara owns my heart. He is what it says on the packaging: cruel, dangerous, and beautiful, but he is also so much more. In Persian, Dara means “He who holds firm to good”, and Dara has held firm to good through trauma and abuse as best he could. He is another complex character who, like Noam, is trying to work towards a better world while being tossed around by bigger political players. It’s heart-breaking to see him struggle and all I want to do is protect him.

I loved seeing him fall in love with Noam and Noam with him. They have a fraught relationship from the start because there are things that Noam doesn’t know and that Dara cannot tell him, but they start chipping away at each other’s defenses, opening up to each other in trickles. They are, underneath all of their protective armour, just two soft boys looking for love.

He exhaled softly, breath fogging the window glass. He looked so … happy, as if he’d swallowed one of those stars and it illuminated him from within. Noam was struck with the urge to capture this moment somehow, so Dara could relive it.

They had so many missed kissing opportunities that it made me want to scream, but the author definitely delivered on resolving that sexual tension. I don’t want to spoil too much, but they have a beautiful scene together. Of course, the ending tore my heart apart again—if Victoria Lee doesn’t let my boys be happy at some point in this series, I will have some strong words.

Either way, if you haven’t read The Fever King yet, you should run, not walk. But be warned: it’s not a light read and it will leave you reeling with emotion for a while.

CONTENT WARNINGS: parental death, suicide / hanging (past), substance abuse, physical and emotional child abuse, statutory rape (not explicit), mention of the Holocaust, mention of past medical experiments

All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof and might not match the published version.

Thank you to NetGalley and Skyscape for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read The Fever King? What were your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta (3.5 Stars)

Cover of The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, depicting a dagger with a feather as its blade on a vibrant orange background

Rating: Rating of three-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (3.5 out of 5)

For Teodora DiSangro, a mafia don’s daughter, family is fate.

All her life, Teodora has hidden the fact that she secretly turns her family’s enemies into music boxes, mirrors, and other decorative objects. After all, everyone in Vinalia knows that stregas—wielders of magic—are figures out of fairytales. Nobody believes they’re real.

Then the Capo, the land’s new ruler, sends poisoned letters to the heads of the Five Families that have long controlled Vinalia. Four lie dead and Teo’s beloved father is gravely ill. To save him, Teo must travel to the capital as a DiSangro son—not merely disguised as a boy, but transformed into one.

Enter Cielo, a strega who can switch back and forth between male and female as effortlessly as turning a page in a book. Teo and Cielo journey together to the capital, and Teo struggles to master her powers and to keep her growing feelings for Cielo locked in her heart. As she falls in love with witty, irascible Cielo, Teo realizes how much of life she’s missed by hiding her true nature. But she can’t forget her mission, and the closer they get to the palace, the more sinister secrets they uncover about what’s really going on in their beloved country—and the more determined Teo becomes to save her family at any cost.

I’ve been yearning to read this book ever since I first heard about it a couple of months ago. Non-binary representation is still few and far between, and being agender myself, discovering a book has non-binary characters is like having my birthday and Christmas on the same day.

The Brilliant Death follows Teodora, who uses her carefully hidden magic powers to rid her family of their enemies. She’s her father’s eldest daughter, but being a girl, she can never inherit the title of family head, and her most fervent wish is to be a di Sangro son. She finally gets her wish when she has to transform herself into a boy and journey to Amalia as her family’s representative in the wake of her father’s poisoning, accompanied by another strega, Cielo.

I occasionally thought that the writing was a little bumpy, and especially in the beginning, the pacing was slightly off. The writing is still engaging though, and the further I got into the book, the less I wanted to put it down.

I really enjoyed Teo’s character development. She grows so much over the course of the book. Growing up as a mafia don’s child has left her with a warped sense of morality, but in her pursuit of power, she re-evaluates right and wrong. At the end of the book, she makes a pivotal decision that I didn’t see coming but cheered for nonetheless.

It felt like I had spent my entire life speaking a secret language and then stumbled on someone else who was perfectly fluent.

I also loved the relationship between Teo and Cielo. As they journey across the mountains and navigate court, they teach each other about magic and power, family and gender. They slowly fall in love, and while they often tease and bicker, they share some deep moments as well. Their attraction to each other is palpable, no matter which form either Cielo or Teo take, and there are a couple of really hot scenes between the two characters. Hoo boy, does this author know how to cook up some sexual tension.

“It’s true that I contain more than one thing,” Cielo said. “And sometimes the balance shifts.”

I do have some critical thoughts on the non-binary representation. I loved Cielo as a character, but the binarism and biological essentialism in the exploration of gender bothered me.

“I can’t figure out if I should be using the word he or she or something else entirely.” (…)

“Either will do,” Cielo said. (…) “Though all of those words feel a bit like coats that are too tight in the elbows.”

I feel like this was a missed opportunity to introduce either they pronouns or maybe even neo-pronouns, instead of pushing the narrative that there are two ill-fitting options to choose from. Cielo is genderfluid, and it rankles that Teo always uses she when Cielo is in their “girlish body” and he when Cielo is in their “boyish body”, reinforcing the idea that certain pronouns match certain bodies.

A true non-binary exploration of gender should challenge the idea that any one type of body has a certain gender, or that certain biological traits mark you as a boy or a girl. Considering the author is non-binary herself, I was expecting a lot better.

The queer representation was great. Neither Teo’s nor Cielo’s sexuality is ever stated outright, but it’s safe to assume from the text that they’re both some flavour of queer, and Teo makes her attraction to women quite clear more than once. Overall, I would have appreciated some more diverse representation, especially with regards to race and disability.

Even though it’s not perfect, I really enjoyed The Brilliant Death, and I’m glad that this book has put Amy Rose Capetta on my radar. I will definitely be checking out some of her other books, first and foremost Once & Future, since I received an eARC for that one. I’m excited!

Have you read The Brilliant Death or any of the author’s other books? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo (2 Stars)

Cover of Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Rating: Rating of two out of five stars represented by bumblebees (2 out of 5)

Welcome to the world of the Grisha.

Kaz Brekker and his crew of deadly outcasts have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives.

Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties.

A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets – a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world. (Goodreads)

Oof. I was hoping that Crooked Kingdom would redeem the series in my eyes, but instead it was a major letdown. Truth be told, I almost DNF’ed this, but I ended up pushing through because I wanted to see how the author would handle some of the things I was taking issue with.

I mentioned in my review of Six of Crows that I struggled with the amount of POV characters, though the frequent shifts ultimately made sense to me. The sequel, however, felt cluttered and incoherent with all of the different point of views. Kaz kept coming up with more and more convoluted plans in order for the crew to get their due, and things stopped making sense to me very early on. The eventual execution of the plan was brilliant, but I had to muddle through confusion for too long to be excited about the pay-off.

The author also repeats lines they deem important way too much in this book. It felt like I was repeatedly being hit over the head with a mallet that says “meaningful!”, while the constant repetition actually reduced the impact those lines and conversations had on me.

I was hoping for more explicit queer rep in Crooked Kingdom, and there was some, but I was pretty disappointed that it was all M/M. I’d heard there was queer lady rep in this duology, and there was at best the barest hint of that.

In my review of Six of Crows I said I hated the trope of a bigot being redeemed by falling in love with a member of the persecuted group. For that reason, I was hoping there would be less Matthias/Nina in the sequel, but instead the pairing became more prominent. Personally, this trope makes me a little nauseous, and it didn’t help that Matthias’s chapters were so woe is me. Being a bigot was really hard for him, y’all! But the real kicker was when the author compared unlearning bigotry to overcoming addiction, and finally Matthias saddling Nina with the task of reforming his fellow bigots.

There is also a white character who is tailored to look like a character with East Asian features. He stays that way for a good long while before he is finally changed back, but before his change, the author makes him experience racism on several occasions. I don’t even know what to say here, except: white authors, if you want to explore the racism people of colour experience, maybe don’t do it with a character who is, in essence, wearing yellowface. Especially not when your Big Bad is a Chinese-inspired country.

Overall, Crooked Kingdom left me feeling disappointed and icky. I wish I had been made aware of at least some of these issues prior to reading the duology myself, which is why I felt it important to write this review for other people who prefer to be forewarned. I understand that many people love the Grishaverse books, and while I don’t begrudge anyone their enjoyment, I will be steering clear of this author from now on.

Have you read the Six of Crows duology? (You probably have; I’m pretty late to the party.) What were your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!

ARC REVIEW: Descendant of the Crane by Joan He (4.5 Stars)

Cover of Descendant of the Crane by Joan He, depicting a woman looking up at a giant crane, surrounded by flowers

Rating: Rating of four-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (4.5 out of 5)

Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own.

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, dreaming of an unremarkable life. But when her beloved father is found dead, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of a surprisingly unstable kingdom. What’s more, Hesina believes that her father was murdered—and that the killer is someone close to her.

Hesina’s court is packed full of dissemblers and deceivers eager to use the king’s death for political gain, each as plausibly guilty as the next. Her advisers would like her to blame the neighboring kingdom of Kendi’a, whose ruler has been mustering for war. Determined to find her father’s actual killer, Hesina does something desperate: she enlists the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by
death, since magic was outlawed centuries ago.

Using the information provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of Yan at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high? (Goodreads)

Descendant of the Crane was completely different from what I expected, and at the same time so much more than what I could have imagined. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to read this book prior to publication, as I was lucky enough to receive an eARC from the author.

Due to the eARC being a PDF with no way to change the font type or size, I was only able to read it for about an hour at a time before I had to rest my eyes, but all in all it only took me three-ish sittings to finish it and I feel like I might have been able to fly through this in one sitting if it had been in a more accessible format. I’m not bringing this up in order to complain, only to say that I read this at what for me was unusual speed. It always took me a couple of pages to get back into the book after taking a break, but as soon as I was drawn in again, I was utterly entranced.

Hesina, the main protagonist, is a no-nonsense, at times even brash character, but she is also kind, very human, and very relatable. I enjoyed her narrative voice, and the way she viewed the world around her. Descendant of the Crane takes place in a Chinese-inspired setting that Joan He brings to life with her lush world-building without ever overburdening the narration with detail.

For a book whose premise is primarily based on political intrigue, Descendant of the Crane is very accessibly written, which really surprised me. The plot is complex and full of unexpected twists and turns, but the author effortlessly guides the reader through the story without being patronising. There is a natural flow to everything which makes it hard to put this book down.

The only thing I was disappointed by was the final plot twist, as it felt a bit anticlimactic to me, but I don’t think it takes away much from the story. I would love to see a sequel in which the author gets to expand on the possibilities she opens up in the epilogue. As it is, Descendant of the Crane remains unique and engaging, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy with a dose of politics, and even to those who don’t because Joan He’s writing might just be your gateway drug.

Thank you so much to Joan He for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review!

Preorder or library request Descendant of the Crane by Joan He to receive some swag from the author! (Here’s how.) Also because you really want to, believe me. Have you read Descendant of the Crane yet or are you still eagerly awaiting the publication date? Let’s chat in the comments!

ARC REVIEW: Sparks of Phoenix by Najwa Zebian (4 Stars)

Cover of Sparks of Phoenix by Najwa Zebian depicting golden wings on a dark blue background with lightning bolts

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (4 out of 5)

In Sparks of Phoenix—Najwa Zebian’s third book of poetry—she takes her readers on a powerful journey of healing.

As the phoenix emerges from its ashes, Zebian emerges ablaze in these pages, not only as a survivor of abuse, but as a teacher and healer for all those who have struggled to understand, reclaim, and rise above a history of pain. The book is divided into six chapters, and six stages of healing: Falling, Burning to Ashes, Sparks of Phoenix, Rising, Soaring, and finally, A New Chapter, which demonstrates a healthy response to new love as the result of authentic healing. With her characteristic vulnerability, courage, and softness, Zebian seeks to empower those who have been made to feel ashamed, silenced, or afraid; she urges them, through gentle advice and personal revelation, to raise their voices, rise up, and soar. (Goodreads)

I only recently read and was rather disenchanted with Amanda Lovelace’s the mermaid’s voice returns in this one, and if I had to describe Sparks of Phoenix in one sentence, I would say it’s what the mermaid’s voice is trying to be. Najwa Zebian’s writing really spoke to me and my own experiences of emotional abuse, and it made my heart soar more than once.  The powerful theme of remaking yourself in the aftermath of abuse is matched by the author’s powerful voice.

For every broken soul,
there is a
once upon a happy soul.

Some of the pieces were a bit basic and formulaic for my taste, and I feel that the collection could have benefitted from cutting some of those pieces. However, I found myself bookmarking page after page, and there are enough pieces that show what Zebian can really do that I wasn’t too bothered by the more redundant pieces.

My hands melted into my face,
and all of my words transformed
into action.

One of my absolute favourite pieces was the poem Excuse me, sir. Zebian weaves her words into something stunning and defiant in this piece, and this was when I truly fell in love with her writing.

Excuse me, sir.
My body is not a place for your conquest.
I carry with my body
the cities of the world.
I have, carved, on my body
streets that you want me to hide
because you see them as scars.

Overall, the collection was beautiful, but just missing that last little bit of oomph and freshness. I would still recommend it if you want to be taken on a journey of burning and healing, and I think it would be accessible and enjoyable even to people who don’t usually read a lot of poetry.

All quotes are taken from the eARC and may not match the final release.

Thank you to NetGalley and Andrews McMeel Publishing for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review. 

ARC REVIEWS: the mermaid’s voice returns in this one by Amanda Lovelace, and Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility

Rating: (2 out of 5) The mermaid is known for her siren song, luring bedroom-eyed sailors to their demise. However, beneath these misguided myths are tales of escapism and healing, which Lovelace weaves throughout this empowering collection of poetry, taking you on a journey from the sea to the stars. They tried to silence her … Continue reading “ARC REVIEWS: the mermaid’s voice returns in this one by Amanda Lovelace, and Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility”

Cover of the mermaid's voice returns in this one by Amanda Lovelace

Rating: Rating of two out of five stars represented by bumblebees (2 out of 5)

The mermaid is known for her siren song, luring bedroom-eyed sailors to their demise. However, beneath these misguided myths are tales of escapism and healing, which Lovelace weaves throughout this empowering collection of poetry, taking you on a journey from the sea to the stars. They tried to silence her once and for all, but the mermaid’s voice returns in this one. (Goodreads)

I was vaguely aware of Amanda Lovelace prior to reading this as the author of the princess saves herself in this one, which I hadn’t read but knew had received some raving reviews, so I thought I couldn’t go wrong. Unfortunately, this poetry collection fell quite short of my expectations.

I don’t begrudge Lovelace her premise (this collection is part of a poetry series called Women Are Some Kind of Magic) or her intention of female empowerment, especially for victims of sexual abuse, but her writing isn’t for me. Her poetry lacks a strong voice and a distinct style. The language is for the most part bland and unevocative, as well as void of stylistic devices. Most of her poems consist of texts with line breaks after every single word while others don’t have line breaks at all; both of these are absolutely valid stylistic choices, however here they don’t seem to serve a clear purpose, and the lack of craft leaves me questioning whether any of these texts are really poetry at all.

My favourite works in this collection were the guest contributions in the fourth part of the book, where Lovelace has curated some real gems, though sadly the comparison highlights the shortcomings in her own writing even more starkly.

Thank you to NetGalley and Andrews McMeel Publishing for providing an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Cover of Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility

DNF @ ~50%

Are there moments in your life when your femaleness is a source of power or hardship? When does your voice ring its clearest? When have you been silenced?

Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility brings together international poets and essayists, both award-winning and emergent, to answer these questions with raw, honest meditations that speak to women of all races, nationalities, and sexual orientations. It is an anthology of unforgettable stories both humorous and frightening, inspirational and sensual, employing traditional poetry and prose alongside exciting experimental forms. Feminine Rising celebrates women’s differences, while embracing the source of their sameness—the unique experience of womanhood. (Goodreads)

Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Visibility won’t be receiving a rating from me because I decided to put it aside at around the 50% mark, but I still wanted to share some thoughts on it.

The introductions by both of the editors, Andrea Fekete and Lara Lillibridge, as well as the foreword by Dr. Amy Hudock made me suspect the anthology would tend towards some trends in feminism that are anything but intersectional, but they were promising “to give a microphone to those who had never had a chance to have their voices heard”, so I wanted to give Feminine Rising a fair chance.

If you read the summary, you’ll see that something is notably absent from the equation here: disability. If you want to uplift the voices of women who have previously been silenced, it is unacceptable not to include disabled voices, considering disabled women have been some of the most disenfranchised, abused, and unheard, even in feminist circles. Additionally, any feminism that doesn’t even attempt to challenge the gender binary is far from revolutionary, and this anthology reeks of biological essentialism. I have to admit that I don’t know if there are any trans voices present, but I have my doubts, considering how strongly the relationship between womanhood and menstruation or childbearing keeps being drawn.

I think one of the pitfalls of Feminine Rising is that Fekete didn’t seek out a co-editor (or co-editors) who would have been able to cover some of her own blindspots. In her introduction, she details how the anthology came to be, and it sounds like she didn’t actively approach marginalised women for submissions, which is another issue. I also felt like one text in particular written by a white woman used people of colour, and specifically women of colour, as learning experiences. A more diverse editing team would almost certainly have balanced some of these issues, and it’s unfortunate that that doesn’t seem to have been a priority.

There were a select few pieces that stood out from the throng, but overall Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Visibility fails in what it set out to do.

Thank you to NetGalley and Cynren Press for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review.

MINI REVIEWS: Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo, Marriage of Unconvenience by Chelsea Cameron #FFFebruaryReads

Cover of Ash by Malinda Lo, depicting a girl in a white dress curled up on a black background

Rating: Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5)

Ash by Malinda Lo is a (sort of) Asian and lesbian retelling of Cinderella. I’ve read the book before, many years ago, and I remember being disappointed, but I wanted to give the it another chance for F/F February.

The book roughly follows the basic pattern of the original fairytale; Ash is orphaned and forced to live with her abusive stepmother and perform menial tasks around the house, wishing for a better life. During my first read, I was bothered by the lack of any sort of romance between Ash and the Prince, and I thought the romance developing between Ash and the king’s huntress instead was predictable. I didn’t feel this way at all this time around, and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s because I knew what to expect and went in very much wanting to read about Ash and Kaisa falling in love?

Either way, I loved their slowly blossoming romance. It was so cute and I really found myself rooting for them. The relationship between Ash and the fairy Sidhean felt somewhat superfluous and ended quite anticlimactically, but other than that, I was absolutely entranced. The book is slow-paced, but the writing flows so easily that it pulls you in and leaves you wanting to turn the page. I’m glad I gave Ash a second chance.

Cover of Huntress by Malinda Lo, depicting a young Asian woman holding a staff in a fighting pose

DNF @ 27%

Huntress by Malinda Lo was also on my F/F February TBR. It is set in the same world as Ash, though several hundred years earlier, but both books can be read as stand-alones. After enjoying Ash, I was really looking forward to delving into this book, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The story itself sounded interesting, and this book is again focussed on an F/F romance, but the writing threw me off. The point of view kept shifting without rhyme or reason, sometimes every couple of sentences, and it was driving me nuts. It’s bewildering, since Ash had none of these same issues. I wonder what happened here.

Cover of Marriage of Unconvenience by Chelsea M. Cameron, depicting a young white woman in a wedding dress on a pink background

DNF @ 30%

I’m sorry to say that Marriage of Unconvenience by Chelsea Cameron was another disappointment. I’d been excited to read it ever since I first read the summary of trope-y goodness, but I couldn’t force myself to keep wasting time on it after the first few chapters.

The writing is in desperate need of editing. It just drags on and on, and the author keeps contradicting herself. The most egregious example is the main character’s need to marry for money, while she is also spending money left and right seemingly without a second thought. She splurges on not one, but two engagement rings (both for herself and her prospective wife) while at the same time worrying that she won’t be making rent. It was confounding.

I had also been expecting this to be white, but not quite so painfully white. There is of course queer / wlw representation, and one of the side characters is a trans man, but unfortunately that didn’t make up for the lackluster writing.

What have you been reading lately? Have you read any books mentioned in this post? Are you participating in F/F February? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand (4 Stars) #FFFebruaryReads

Cover of Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, depicting a young woman with a mass of hair falling in her face and white moths crawling over her

Rating: Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5)

Who are the Sawkill Girls?

Marion: the new girl. Awkward and plain, steady and dependable. Weighed down by tragedy and hungry for love she’s sure she’ll never find.

Zoey: the pariah. Luckless and lonely, hurting but hiding it. Aching with grief and dreaming of vanished girls. Maybe she’s broken—or maybe everyone else is.

Val: the queen bee. Gorgeous and privileged, ruthless and regal. Words like silk and eyes like knives, a heart made of secrets and a mouth full of lies.

Their stories come together on the island of Sawkill Rock, where gleaming horses graze in rolling pastures and cold waves crash against black cliffs. Where kids whisper the legend of an insidious monster at parties and around campfires.

Where girls have been disappearing for decades, stolen away by a ravenous evil no one has dared to fight… until now.

I’m not usually a horror reader because I don’t enjoy gore, violence, or even just being scared. I mainly picked up Sawkill Girls because of the promise of queer girl representation to read as part of my F/F February Reading Challenge, which I’m also using as motivation to read outside my usual confines. The promise of queer girls was more than fulfilled, and I ended up enjoying this for what it was as well, so this was a definite success.

However, this book does contain some pretty dark and heavy stuff. I’m putting all of the trigger warnings I can think of after this paragraph in transparent text. If you want or need more detail, feel free to hit me up on Twitter. SPOILERS TW parental death, sibling death, suicidality (parent and other), abduction and brutal murder of teenage girls, gore, sexual abuse (implied), emotional and physical abuse (parental and other) END SPOILERS

Sawkill Girls treads the line between horror and magical realism, and especially at the beginning, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real and what isn’t. Marion’s visions and dreams are confusing and unsettling, but they are consolidated into a terrifying reality. I do think that the mystery would have been more compelling if it had been more contained, both in terms of POV and location. I feel that including Val’s POV took away some of the mystery, and the reveal of a world-spanning battle against evil, complete with a secret organisation, was a bit much.

I did love the girls and their relationships though. I found it really refreshing that Zoey immediately believed Marion when she shared her experiences with her, and that the girls didn’t invalidate each other even when confronted with the unbelievable.

All three girls were wonderful, strong and interesting in their own ways. The book accompanies all three of them on a journey of finding their strength and standing up for themselves, while navigating friendship and love. The romance between Marion and Val was really sweet. Their attraction to girls is quite clear in the text, and there’s a lovely sex scene between the two of them. They are both explicitly WLW, although neither of their sexualities is spelled out. I believe that Marion, at least, is bisexual, and the author actually mentions the word, and not in a derogatory manner! I wish that wasn’t still so exceptional, but since it is, I felt it important to mention.

And speaking of spelling out queer orientations: Zoey is explicitly asexual, and it’s great. There is some acephobia in the book, and even though it is thoroughly called out, I couldn’t help but feel a bit upset by it. I’m ready for more asexual acceptance rep! We can be just as happy with and proud of our orientations as everybody else is, and I’d like to see more of that. I would also have loved to see some more ethnic diversity because even though Zoey is black, she and her father are the only people of colour in Sawkill Girls as far as I am aware.

Nevertheless, this was really enjoyable and I was surprised by how much I didn’t want to put it down! It was also upsetting for my sensitive little self, so please heed the content warnings! Overall, this was an amazing story about female friendship, wlw romance, and finding and combining strengths.

Hope, she thought, breathing with the tide, was a choice that only those with resolute hearts dared to make.