ARC Review: Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas

Title: Lost in the Never Woods
Author: Aiden Thomas
Pub Date: March 23, 2021

ARC was provided from publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas is a dark Peter Pan retelling. Five years ago, Wendy and her brother disappeared in the woods and only Wendy came back. She has no recollection of what happened to her or her brothers, but she keeps dreaming about a strange boy. When kids start to go missing in her town, Wendy must found out what happened five years ago.

This is going to be a rant review. I had hopes, not exactly highs, because YA mysteries and I don’t get along, but I hoped still to enjoy. If you would prefer to read the book, instead of my rant… Well, go ahead. I would not exactly stop you, but I can’t in good conscience tell you that I recommend this book. Anyway, let’s get to my problems with Aiden Thomas’s actual debut.

Aiden has talked before about how this was the first book they wrote and sold, and it shows. The writing was not great. And this is coming from someone who often enough speeds through books, not caring about repetition or clunky dialogue. But it was so noticeable in here that it kept pulling me out of the story. It felt very unpolished, it didn’t flow nicely and there were so many info dumps and inconsistencies in the plot.

One thing I adored from Cemetery Boys is how well Aiden managed to make their characters sound. They were sarcastic and funny, their voices felt honest and fully-dimensional. I’m sad to say that didn’t happen with Wendy and Peter. Maybe because I didn’t like the writing, but I found the dialogue incredibly stagnant and flat. Or maybe it wasn’t good dialogue, I don’t know.

The characters are so underdeveloped. It was incredibly frustrating when so much of the book is based on Wendy’s relationship with Peter, her friend, her parents and her brothers. We really don’t get to know anyone, spending more time with Peter because of love interest, but nothing gave me the impression these characters have depth. It was very underwhelming and deeply disappointing after how much we all enjoyed Yadriel and Julian’s love story. Peter and Wendy have nothing going on. 

Who’s Wendy as a character? I would have a hard time describing her to you, to be honest, she was easily forgettable. Cemetery Boys had so much heart to the story and it was impossible for me not to feel sympathy for Yadriel. But in Lost in the Never Woods, I felt at distance from Wendy and her history, I never reached that gap that made me cared for her. I was frustrated by her choices and frustrated by the circumstances of the story. Her relationships are so weak and her growth is not really there. I don’t understand why would Aiden placed so much value in Wendy’s connection with the other characters when we didn’t really see that in the story. Her parents are absent figures that suddenly Wendy wants to reconnect with. Her friendship with Jordan is not as strong as it seems, but it’s also never addressed fully. I love complicated friendships that get to grow stronger, but Wendy barely talks with Jordan about anything else except boys. Her character was a reminder that Wendy was into boys and nursing.

The romance was… the romance was not great. Peter was very underdeveloped and he also has zero character growth. Aiden has said this is a second chance romance but it just didn’t work. We never quite see them falling for each other, or even, getting to know each other after five years. Everything happened quite fast but not in a sweet or charming way like in Cemetery Boys. Or maybe because I didn’t like Peter, I couldn’t care less about this romance. I was also frustrated by how they never addressed the problems in their relationship (like the lying) and then move on quite quickly. It felt so stagnant, the stakes so low and with zero chemistry.

I kept questioning myself what was the point of this book? To be a character-driven story, it lacked character and to be a plot-driven story, well, it lacked plot.

Wendy is trying to figure out what happened to her in the woods and find her brothers while dealing with absent parents and some very annoying cops. Kids are disappearing in the town and then a weird boy, a boy that looks eerily similar to Wendy’s dreams, shows up.

The plot was predictable, nothing that challenged me, or took my breath away. I’m not saying this because Peter Pan retelling and we sort of can guess what’s going on, but because I didn’t find Aiden’s take of the classic as innovative or charming as I was hoping. Interesting? Yes, it had so much potential, and then, it kind of went nowhere. As I said, YA mysteries and I don’t usually get along very well. I find them pretty predictable, boring and frustrating. And yes, that was the case here, too. I knew what happened early on and I was right. That’s fine, that’s an aspect that didn’t work for me, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do think after all that built up about what happened in the woods, it wasn’t worth it and it didn’t pay off at all. Everything came down in a very expectable and disappointing ending that kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. It felt so anti-climactic? It was wrapped in such a nice and perfectly compactable way that felt wrong.

I understand how Aiden’s trying to deal with grief, mental health and trauma in this story but I don’t think they were quite successful. Maybe it was how underwhelming the characters’ relationships felt for me, or my problems with the plot, but I don’t think these themes were discussed in a thoughtful or smart way at all. Very hand-wavy world-building led to barely any direct mention of Wendy’s mental health. And even at the end, after the anti-climatic revelations, the book never truly mentions things by name. But to be quite honest, I can’t say Aiden said anything insightful about mental health. The ending was so intense and abrupt that it almost felt like cheating. I don’t know, maybe this is on me and my expectations, waiting for a clean-cut resolution that was never going to happen because I just don’t understand the point of this story.

I know, I’m sad to say that Lost in the Never Woods failed for me in every single aspect. Was it unfair of me to compare it to Cemetery Boys? Maybe, it also doesn’t stand on its own.

Review: Sia Martinez and the Power of Genre-Bending Stories

Title: Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything
Author: Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
Pub Date: August 11th, 2020

Add to Goodreads

Trigger WarningS

Sexual assault, PTSD, physical abuse, parental death, racist violence, xenophobic and racist slurs, grief, discussions of deportation and crossing the border.


Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe meets Roswell by way of Laurie Halse Anderson in this astonishing, genre-bending novel about a Mexican American teen who discovers profound connections between immigration, folklore, and alien life.

It’s been three years since ICE raids and phone calls from Mexico and an ill-fated walk across the Sonoran. Three years since Sia Martinez’s mom disappeared. Sia wants to move on, but it’s hard in her tiny Arizona town where people refer to her mom’s deportation as “an unfortunate incident.”

Sia knows that her mom must be dead, but every new moon Sia drives into the desert and lights San Anthony and la Guadalupe candles to guide her mom home.

Then one night, under a million stars, Sia’s life and the world as we know it cracks wide open. Because a blue-lit spacecraft crashes in front of Sia’s car…and it’s carrying her mom, who’s very much alive.

As Sia races to save her mom from armed-quite-possibly-alien soldiers, she uncovers secrets as profound as they are dangerous in this stunning and inventive exploration of first love, family, immigration, and our vast, limitless universe. 


Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases and still it took me by surprised. The story follows Sia, Mexican-American teen, grieving her mother after she was deported and tried to cross back, dying in the desert. The first half of the book explores Sia’s anger, sadness and pain, and also love when she starts falling for the new boy in town. The later half offers a genre-bended, when Sia stumbles onto a spaceship in the middle of the desert, forcing her in a race against time to save her loved ones.

Raquel wrote such a beautiful and honest story, quite daring and with some of the best characters that I have read. I finished this book and I had to sit down to grief and hope for a whole minute.

There is a tenderness and rawness in the discussions about grief, xenophobia, friendship and love. With the short chapters and the lyrical voice of Sia, this book feels like a conversation with a friend. There’s messiness and heartbreak, but also so much vulnerability that hits so hard and straight to my heart. I adore Sia and her voice, she’s fierce and honest, and she cares about her family with passion.

Without a doubt, this book has incredible characters. There are all in their way messy and complicated, they’re all trying their best and trying again. It doesn’t mean they don’t hurt each other and so much about Sia Martinez is about her relationship with other characters, be her dad, her love interest, her mom or her best friend. The relationships are strong because every characters feels real and I was so invested in them.

I adore the discussions about relationship, consent and love. I adore Sia and her best friend slowly drifting apart and the physical pain that brings to Sia. Her dad is hilarious and the funny and fierce love he has for his daughter, the way he trust her and listens always, it kind of brought tears to my ideas. SO much of YA books, especially contemporaries, is about parents that don’t respect their children and yes, I just love supportive parents.

But the best thing is, all these relationships are allowed to grow as the characters change. Nothing is stagnant in this book. And the plot, that starts with soft and slow-paced, suddenly picks up with the addiction of an science-fiction element.

2020 was the year I got more into Science-fiction and the year that Latinx authors showed me a daring reinvention of genre to discuss immigration. I talked about it a little bit on my review of Lobizona, how Romina Garber used the trope of coming of age and secret identity to talk about undocumented Argentine immigrants. In Sia Martinez, Raquel Vasquez Gilliland brings aliens, spaceships and secret government officials. When I heard about this book, I was so impressed by the subversion of the word alien. When immigrants are called aliens is with the purpose of alienating, of labeling something almost out of this world, unknown and dangerous, unwanted. It feels, at least to me as an immigrant, like a slap in the face. And then Sia finds real aliens in the desert that took her mother, aliens that have been hunted down and hurt and for a moment, I couldn’t quite breath.

The author explored with such a nuance immigration but also xenophobic governments, talking about the imaginable horrors that immigrants experience crossing the border and the ones created by systems that need us but treat us as a commodity. The almost fascination to immigrant culture because it feels so foreign, so out of this word. So much of our love for aliens and UFO is about that fascination for something that doesn’t belong here and the secrets to a new culture that we don’t understand. Even our media can’t phantom the idea of giving us aliens that are not labeled dangerous, that need to be investigated and battled against. And how many people can sympathize with fictional creatures, but won’t offer the same for undocumented immigrants.

And all of this, it’s violence, from the physical one retaining aliens against their will to learn about them to the empty promises given to immigrants that take advantage of how little society cares. The book looks straight to the eye to governments that perpetuated this violence, to the systems that benefit of it. So much of this violence is to make immigrants (and aliens) powerless, invisible, to make us feel like the world won’t care and there’s nowhere to turn. Because the world doesn’t care and we may not be dealing with spaceships in real life, but we’re dealing with immigrants incarcerated, separated from their families and abused in the hands of the government.

Sia Martinez is a layered and masterfully done storytelling that took me quite by surprised, as I said. Because this is also a story about hope, the borders that breaks up apart and the miracles that brings us together. I’m always seeking stories about grief because it’s very personal but also universal and my heart aches for that recognition of sorrow. Sia misses her mom but she’s also angry, angry at the system, angry at the xenophobic and racist people of town, angry at her mom for taking the decision of crossing the border. That intersection of anger and sadness because you have lost someone so essential in your life and now everything has shifted and you’re not quite sure where you stand was done so well. All these complicated and ugly feelings that Sia has are a full spectrum and she’s allowed to hold them close, to let them out and to heal at her own pace and her own way. The care and tenderness that there’s for Sia’s trauma, be her mom’s deportation and death or her sexual assault, brought tears to my eyes. There’s so much respect for her mental health and that’s so powerful to see.

I can say without a doubt this is one of the most thoughtful and gut-punching books that I have read, a story to keep close and to share with friends, deeply emotional but always so hopeful. Highly recommended, my friends.

Blog Tour: The Fallen Hero by Katie Zhao

Title: The Fallen Hero
Author: Katie Zhao
Pub Date: October 13th, 2020
Series: Dragon Warrior #2

Add on goodreads. Preorder your own copy on amazon.

Please note that this a sequel, there will be major spoilers of book one, The Dragon Warrior. but I will keep it spoiler free for The Fallen Hero.


Faryn Liu thought she was the Heaven Breaker, a warrior destined to wield the all-powerful spear Fenghuang, command dragons, and defeat demons. But a conniving goddess was manipulating her all along…and her beloved younger brother, Alex, has betrayed her and taken over as the Heaven Breaker instead. Alex never forgave the people who treated him and Faryn like outcasts, and now he wants to wipe out both the demons and most of humanity.

Determined to prevent a war and bring Alex back to her side, Faryn and her half-dragon friend Ren join the New Order, a group of warriors based out of Manhattan’s Chinatown. She learns that one weapon can stand against Fenghuang–the Ruyi Jingu Bang. Only problem? It belongs to an infamous trickster, the Monkey King.

Faryn sets off on a daring quest to convince the Monkey King to join forces with her, one that will take her to new places–including Diyu, otherwise known as the Underworld–where she’ll run into new dangers and more than one familiar face. Can she complete her mission and save the brother she loves, no matter the cost?

The Fallen Hero follows Faryn and her friends in a quest to save the world (again). Along the way, she reunites with old friends, meets new deities (and demons), and grows so much. Once again, Katie Zhao delivers an action-packed story with the perfect heartwarming moments and best jokes. This is such a thoughtful and nuance series, at its core a story about family.

To say I was excited to read this series, it’s an understatement. So many twitter friends have loved it and it has some of my favorite elements; best friends turned rivals turned friends, messy sibling relationships, adventures, a sarcastic main character, and a world based on mythology. Book one was an exploration of the chosen one trope, Faryn making her way as a warrior with the help of her friends and family. So I was pleasantly surprised when Katie turned around the trope, making her protagonist not the great warrior anymore. It was such a great plot twist, with Alex betrayal right there, too.

What happens when you are not the chosen one anymore?

Although I appreciate and enjoy chosen one stories, I’m even more excited to see the journey of someone who’s ordinary, who has to work hard and needs help to accomplish their goals. See, this series is about family and relationships at its core, and Faryn was never alone like she thought. She may not be the Heaven Breaker, but she’s a warrior in her own.

I adore how this sequel developed more Faryn’s friendships, from her old and new friends. This one of my favorite things of the series, how complex and messy sometimes the relationships are. They tease and laugh, but also hold hands in hard times. Faryn’s love is so fierce and strong and it’s her relationships, her connection with her brother, father and ancestors that make her grow. I really liked the new siblings, Ashley and Jordan, and it was great to see REDACTED. Sorry not sorry, you will have to read book to scream with me about them.

I also appreciated how The Fallen Hero expands Faryn’s family, she’s reunited with her father and meeting her ancestors, but she also realizes that her friends are part of that family too. Found family makes my heart happy.

This story has such beautiful gut-punching moments because this such an emotional charged book, from fierce love to frustration, The Fallen Hero had me in tears many times. I would never say this is a sad book but it does have a melancholic tone as what Faryn wishes for (and what we wish for her), her reconnection with Alex, feels so far away and impossible.

Her voice, the narration, is something I adore, too. This book is genuinely funny, very charming and it feels like talking with a friend. Faryn’s conflicted feelings go beyond the page, bringing me to tears, and the next page she will make smile with one of her sarcastic remarks. I think this is just one my favorite things from middle-grade novels; the way they can make a joke after making very honest and raw comments and it feels natural.

And Faryn is such a charming main character. I adore her in book 1 and even more in here. She’s so unapologetic in her beliefs, with a big heart and to see her grow more confident in herself and her own strengths is incredible. The more we see of her messiness, the more I adore her. She can have quiet the temper and she likes fighting with her friends, she gets angry at the Gods and just wants to be do what’s right, even when it’s hard. Seriously, all the love to her.

It was great to see here more about the world-building in here. The series is based on Chinese mythology, where the Gods move to the west as people immigrated. In different Chinatowns across the United States, warriors are trained to protect society from demons. In book one we saw San Francisco’s Chinatown, home of the Jade City society, but book two is set in Manhattan and these new warriors are nothing like the ones Faryn knows. Throughout the book we got to see new deities like the Monkey King and King Yama. I love stories where the magic is set in contemporary times, hiding from society. There are all these small details to cover up this whole world and they’re justified as quirks of cities.

I’m going to be honest, I thought this was a duology. I was getting closer to the last chapter, I realized we would need a third book because there was not time for all the things I needed to happen. So I’m very excited to see how the adventures end. And I hope Katie doesn’t make us cry too much, please let our children have the happy endings they deserve!

Thank you so much to Shealea and Caffeine Book Tours for having me. Please check out my fellow hosts’s posts today, Between Printed Pages & Lyrical Reads. Full schedule on CBT website.

About the author

Katie Zhao is a 2017 graduate of the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and Political Science, and a 2018 Masters of Accounting at the same university. She is the author of Chinese #ownvoices middle grade fantasy THE DRAGON WARRIOR (Bloomsbury Kids, October 2019 & 2020), as well as a young adult author. She is a mentor for Author Mentor Match. She is currently open to freelance editorial services for young adult and middle grade manuscripts.

Mini-Romance Reviews #3: Rereads and New Favorites

Hello friends,

I haven’t done one of these Mini-Romance Reviews in a while and now I have a lot of books to catch up with. I mean, you’re getting a lot of romance posts in the future, so it isn’t too bad? Today I’m talking about five books, three were rereads and all of them were fantastic. So let’s talk about these books!

Undone by the Ex Con by Talia Hibbert

PLOT: She is supposed to seduce him to save her brother, not slowly fall for him. He didn’t stand a chance, she broke his world in pieces. 

TROPES: Dislike to lovers

WHAT I LIKED: This book has strong characters, beautiful writing, compelling plot, and a swoony romance. If someone were to ask me what I love from romance novels, this, this book right here.

Undone by the Ex-Con was this perfect combo of angst and we-can’t-be-together with sweet and funny moments. I laughed aloud a lot and this series gets pretty intense sometimes. I know comedy is very personal, but there’s something of Talia’s puns and banter that always brings a smile to my face.

I was in tears with the Type I diabetic rep, this is literally the second time I read about a diabetic character and there’s something about Lizzie’s own story that feels very close to mine and it’s impossible not to cry a little. The whole discussion of coming to terms with the change of your body and the anger and frustration of having to accept this is something for the rest of your life. Lizzie has all this space to explore her complicated feelings and it was so cathartic but also deeply heartbreaking to read.

There were a lot of heavy topics discussed in the book, please be aware of the trigger warnings: homophobic comments, sexual harassment, internalized ableism.

That Kind Of Guy by Talia Hibbert

PLOT: Two friends pretend to be dating in a book convention, what could it go wrong?

TROPES: fake dating, friends to lovers

WHAT I LIKE: Yep, another Talia Hibbert’s novel. As you may notice by now, she’s one of my favorite romance authors. I don’t remember exactly how I came to reread That Kind of Guy, but it was such a good decision. This series is just the perfect comfort spot for me. It has some of my favorite characters, with these very cinnamon roll heroes, and although the book discusses heavy topics, the happy endings are always so freaking satisfying.

I adore how we see Rae and Zach’s friendship, their fun dialogue and easiness and how that slowly grows to something different. I adore that this book has a demi hero and the way the story talks about romantic and platonic relationships. I just freaking love Rae and Zach so much. 

Final note: Just read Talia Hibbert, I beg you.

Trigger warnings: discussions about emotional abuse and controlling behavior.

American Sweethearts by Adriana Herrera

PLOT: Friends turn to lovers, Juan Pablo and Priscilla can’t seem to find common ground in the last sixteen years. But in their friend’s wedding they come to realize maybe their romance does deserve a second chance.

TROPES: Second chance, childhood best friends to lovers

WHAT I LIKE: This was such a phenomenal note to finish the Dreamers series. These books have been sexy, adorable, and unapologetic Latinx. Adriana has shown me time and time again that she can tackle difficult topics, power dynamics and consent while delivering the perfect romantic bits with satisfying happy endings.

What I mean is, I was incredibly excited for Juanpa and Pris’s story, their second chance romance, and yes, the happiness they both deserve. I was not disappointed. Actually, I was surprised by how close I felt Pris’s journey, her relationship with her parents as an immigrant and the way she puts her dreams aside because she feels like she has to. Her conversation with her mom was one of the most emotional moments of this series and I cried so much with her.

I appreciated so much all the discussions about sex positive, especially when talking about the Latinx community. And the pegging! I knew but OH MY GOD YES! All of this to say, the chemistry of these two was so good but they still have work to do. American Sweethearts shows that therapy, growing and open communication is so important for a relationship and we have to stan.

I mean, all the exclamations points. That’s what I mean, you know. I just had the greatest time reading about these two dummies, cried a lot because because pure emotions and damn it was hot! Like I said, perfect way to finish this series, what a blessing.

The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare

PLOT: He needs a wife, she needs the money, they agree to a marriage of convenience that slowly grows to friendship and love.

TROPES: Marriage of convenience, grumpy/sunshine dynamic

WHAT I LIKE:  I truly like Tessa Dare’s writing. I know it doesn’t work for everyone because it’s pretty modern in historical terms, but it’s charming, witty and gives me the greatest time. This was a reread for me and I greatly enjoy going back to Emma and Ash’s relationship. Their banter and fights, the way they slowly grow comfortable and start trusting each other, how they slowly fall in love. Emma is such a delightful heroine, very Tessa Dare, and I adore her. Ash is harder to love but he still grows on me, that grumpy duke. 

I’m still troubled by the internalized ableism and the language of this book. The way everyone talks about Ash’s disfigurement is quite frankly, pretty awful, and it’s never really called out.

Trigger warnings: emotional abuse, internalized ableism, talk of a past war

A Prince in Paper by Alyssa Cole

PLOT: Ledi struggles to keep up with work and school, plus she’s getting these weird emails about being engaged to a prince??? Thabiso is looking for his bride, he was not expecting Ledi at all.

TROPES: Royalty, fake identity, 

WHAT DID I LIKE: This was another reread that I enjoyed way more this time. Don’t get me wrong, I adored A Princess in Theory when I read it the first time, but the fake identity trope made it hard for me to love it. This is a trope that I don’t exactly like and I kept expecting for that moment that everything would be ruined… That’s why I think this reread was such a different experience, I came with the knowledge of everything happening before and after and I understood Thabiso’s decision better. All that to say, this reread was a fantastic experience.

I adored falling in love with these two, the way Ledi slowly opens up, her relationship with her cousin. There were so many great conversations, a lot of great banter and some good adorable moments. I just love these characters at this point, they’re so dear to my heart and coming back to Reluctant Royals feels like a perfect comfort. 

Trigger warnings: loss of loved ones in the past

Mini-Review: Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Maximiliano Córdoba loves stories, especially the legend Buelo tells him about a mythical gatekeeper who can guide brave travelers on a journey into tomorrow.

If Max could see tomorrow, he would know if he’d make Santa Maria’s celebrated fútbol team and whether he’d ever meet his mother, who disappeared when he was a baby. He longs to know more about her, but Papá won’t talk. So when Max uncovers a buried family secret–involving an underground network of guardians who lead people fleeing a neighboring country to safety–he decides to seek answers on his own.

With a treasured compass, a mysterious stone rubbing, and Buelo’s legend as his only guides, he sets out on a perilous quest to discover if he is true of heart and what the future holds.

Add to Goodreads

Maximiliano Córdova belongs in my messy kids with big hearts club. You see, Max wishes to be a fútbol (soccer) star, it runs in his family. But new rules about the team makes Max’s plans for the summer go awry. He is disappointed and frustrated, sad that his friendship is changing. When the opportunity to follow his Buelo’s stories to find Mañanaland come knocking at this door, he takes it. He doesn’t understand that this journey is not an adventure. And he quickly learns that his family’s legacy is much more than athletic stars.

My heart was filled with joy for Max, for his ambitious dreams and bravery, for his fierce love. He’s so compassionate and caring, and he makes such honest connections with the other characters. It’s impossible not to admire him when as a child, he understands better than adults to respect other’s people’s choices. Even when these choices hurt him.

He’s making a dangerous journey, following his Buelo’s story, because he doesn’t fully grasp what it means to be afraid for your own life, to wish for a better future, to risk everything for that chance. He learns so much, in such a short period of time (this book is quite short), but it didn’t feel rush or underdeveloped. Pam Muñoz Ryan clearly understands her characters, understands the way children are forced to grow up and she shows it in such an endearing way.

In the end, Max comes to realize that his family true legacy is their love for the community.

This is something I love from Mañanaland, the way it depicts refugees, immigration, and community. Without losing sight of her audience, the author gives us such an honest look at the dangers of crossing borders, the personal stories of these refugees and the value of a community that stands up to care for the most vulnerable. There’s a moment where the book talks about the stories lost forever and the way people try to leave their mark, in any way they can, so their memories stay, that just broke my heart. It says so much about the loss of so many lives at the hands of cruel governments and made-up borders.

This book never names countries or communities, the only town we know is Santa Maria, but of course it’s not hard to draw parallels to the stories of immigration to the US. This is why I believe this is one of the most powerful books that I have read: it takes such care to humanized these stories of immigrants and gives us a beautiful message of hope that makes the darkest days in real life bearable.

Mañanaland is a tender exploration of everyday heroes, friendship and family, and the journeys we make for our futures. A beautiful story that I will treasure forever.

“He hoped it all came to pass-sunshine, blue skies, flowers and fruit trees, waterfalls and rainbows. A different tomorrow, one without fear and filled with kindness, safety, and hope.”

Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Blog Tour: Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud

Title: Court of Lions
Author: Somaiya Daud
Series: Mirage #2
Pub Date: August, 4th

Add to Goodreads

Following the events of Mirage, Court of Lions follows two identical girls with very different lives. Maram is a princess, the heir to a powerful empire. Amani is a rebel, the daughter of farmers, kidnapped to be Maram’s body double.

I read Mirage just a couple of months ago and I was hooked from the first chapter. The introduction to this world,  a well-lived and complex world set in space inspired by Moroccan culture, kept me reading. But it was Amani who settled this book as a favorite. From that first chapter we see her bravery and strength, she’s a survivor, and there’s nothing that she wouldn’t do for her people and family. That’s the kind of character that I love with all my heart.

Court of Lions is a story of resistance and power sprinkled with sapphic longing and beautiful writing. Hands down, one my favorite conclusions.

credit to me (iamrainbou)

Like I have said, something I keep coming back to Mirage is the writing. This series talks a lot about poetry and the power of words, and the writing almost feels poetic. It’s lyrical and beautiful, it flows so well. 

There’s almost a sad tone to the story; we feel Amani’s fear for her family and herself, her pain for everything lost by the hands of the colonizers. And we feel Maram and her grief, for her mother and her culture. These themes of colonization, resistance, grief, identity are complex and painful, but Somaiya always gives us hope.

This series is not exactly character-driven, we have an entire revolution plot going around, but it is character focus. We have such a great insight into Amani’s, and now Maram’s, mind, about their personal stakes and thoughts. Revolutions are for the community, the greater good, but rebellions happen with individuals and they have their own personal fears and dreams. That’s something I deeply adore with books that deal with resistance; looking at the whole picture and then all the little pieces that make it. I love when we are reminded that revolutions are more than ideas.

We follow these two girls, sisters, and their everyday resistance. I love it.

But don’t worry, the action was great and the pacing is just perfect in the story. Every chapter would leave me at the edge of my seat, turning the next page to make sure everyone was safe.

The plot, the writing, the world-building, I adore everything but for me the characters and their relationship are what makes this book shine.

In Court of Lions we get dual points of view, both Amani and Maram get to tell their own story. I adore the insight to Maram’s character. In the first book, I could see her personal conflict, but just glimpses between her relationship with Amani. Here, hearing her feelings, hopes and pain, was incredible. 

I loved Amani from that first chapter: she’s resilient, loyal and fierce. She’s more powerful that she realizes and in this book she grows so much. But it’s also very painful for her, realizing she’s not the farmer girl from the beginning, that she’s almost unrecognizable to herself. I felt that. We do what we have to survive, but we also grief for our past selves, for our past lives. As an immigrant, I felt Amani’s heartbreak in my soul.

Now Maram, Maram is my queen, I loved her too. Sure, when we meet her it is hard to know if she would be an ally or an enemy. She’s so much more than that. There’s a lot of growth and healing she has to do. It was incredible to see Maram slowly opening up to relationships, to love, to vulnerability. To survive, she had to lock her emotions, her grief for her mother, turn her back from her heritage. To see her in this book embracing her feelings, falling in love, reconnecting with her culture, it was my favorite part of the book.

credit to me (iamrainbou)

I mentioned the characters’ relationships before and I thought I would dedicate a separate space for the sisterhood and romance, as there’s a LOT to talk about and I have a LOT of love for these familial and platonic relationships. 

The sisterhood, for sure, is one of the most important things of this series. Siblings can change your life. They make you grow, they push you to be the best version of yourself, they get into your nerves, they fiercely love you, they stand by your side. This is the kind of relationship I have with my brothers, I know not everyone is privileged as me to have supportive siblings, please know I see you ❤

Amani and Maram’s relationship is complicated for sure: Amani’s a slave in Maram’s household and their lives couldn’t be any different. But unlikable friendships are my favorite thing, and unlikable friendships that keep growing to sisterhood? YES YES YES.

It’s through their relationship that they both grow and the plot moves along. They push each other to confront their ideas, to fight for their dreams, to do the impossible to protect the other. And yes, I refuse to think of their relationship like nothing less than sisterhood.

The romance, oh the romance! All the screaming I did when I found out this book would be sapphic. I did a lot of screaming for sure. A lot. Like I mentioned, I love Maram and here she gets a girlfriend! Aghraas is wonderful: a warrior, who is not afraid of being honest or vulnerable. The longing! The slowly falling for each other! Chef’s kiss all around. If you think here it’s where I lost my mind, you would be corrected. The 2020 sapphics not only saved the year, but also fixed my soul and cleared my skin. Thank you.

Mirage by Somaiya Daud is, hands down, one of the best YA SFF series that I have ever read. I mean, you may have guessed it after all the rambling I did. Stories about resistance, revolution and hope are so important and powerful. Combined with a beautiful f/f romance and one of the best sibling relationships, it makes this series a perfect read.

Somaiya Daud is the author of Mirage and holds a PhD from the University of Washington in English literature. A former bookseller in the children’s department at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., now she writes and teaches full time.

Thank you so much Caffeine Book Tours, I was honored to be part of this tour. Please take a moment to check out my follow hosts blog posts in this thread!

What did I just read: Burn Our Bodies Down

I have been doing so many of these “What did I just read” posts lately, it’s kind of funny that I said at the beginning of the year that I don’t rant. I guess, I have been feeling inspired and I have a lot of things to say. Or maybe this reading year has been full of books that have left me screaming.

Today I’m reviewing slash ranting about Rory Power’s newest book, Burn Our Bodies Down that came out July, 7th.

Basic plot: Burn Our Bodies Down follows Margot and her discovery of her family’s dark past. Margot lives with her negligent mom, who has a terrible temperament and many secrets. She dreams for a supportive family that will unconditional love her, so when she finds her grandmother, she truly believes this her chance. Sadly, things don’t turn out very well for Margot.

Maybe she should have freaking google this weird town before running away by herself. I don’t know, just a thought.

Here this is the thing, this book heavily relays in convenience to move along. Margot never asks or wonders for the things that would give us answers, she conveniently forgets about details she herself pointed out to us before, and she never cares about talking with people.

Don’t get me wrong, Margot has a very neglectful mother and she’s looking for love and support. I’m not frustrated by her communication by these women who are so important to her but also terrify her. No, I’m frustrated by how little she talks with the secondary characters that we’re supposed to care for, characters that we are to believe have a deep relationship with Margot. WHERE?

So if you’re keeping count these are the things I disliked of this book:

  1. The writing
  2. Underdeveloped characters
  3. Convenient plot

Burn Our Bodies Down was marketed as YA horror, but where was the horror. We don’t know, not here definitely. I’ll give it to the book: the ending was upsetting, but it also felt very anticlimactic. The thing is, we spent most of the book trying to find what happened to Margot’s mom, what’s happening in this weird town and who’s this grandma that everyone hates. And fine, it’s fair that the story has some mysteries to unravel, but never feels like it’s building up for the horror. Maybe the book is too short and that’s why I have this feeling of missing content. Or maybe the writing is just so freaking bad, it’s SO repetitive and it goes nowhere. It’s like we’re stuck in this never ending loop of Margot wondering about her grandmother, the farm and her mother. Now I’m thinking maybe that’s the whole point of this story, maybe that’s exactly what Rory Power was creating but it doesn’t feel purposeful. Actually, it just felt underdeveloped and poorly planned.

You know I love character-driven stories, but this novel is not that. So what’s exactly Burn Our Bodies Down about? I have no idea. It had an interesting concept: exploring the relationship of mothers and daughters, but it takes that to… well, nowhere. The ending was so anticlimactic and disappointing, really, because we already knew??? Kind of??? It just feels like we spent so little time with the secondary characters and their relationships with Margot were so bland and superficial. I didn’t care about the plot twists because I didn’t care about what was happening to these characters.

This book has an interesting concept, the plot twists are upsetting, but the characters and writing are so underdeveloped that I closed this book feeling disappointment only. And a little bit of anger because this was such a waste of time.

Also, I just realized that I never mentioned this so adding at the end: Margot is lesbian, which makes this book another case of gays not saving boring plots (check out my review of The Circus Rose). Sorry Margot.

*ARC was provided through Netgalley in exchange of a honest review.*

ARC Review: Lobizona by Romina Garber

Trigger Warnings: menstruation, ICE arrest, discussions about immigration and fear of deportation, homophobia (called out by the characters)

Lobizona is about Manuela Azul, an undocumented Argentinian immigrant living in Miami, whose discovery of a magical world turns her life upside down. When I saw this book, ownvoices Argentine rep, I was cautiously curious. I mean, internally, I was screaming of excitement, but I didn’t want to place my expectations too high. Oh, but friends, this book climbed out of my expectations chart and broke it into pieces. This book!!

Romina Garber has created a beautiful and magical world that feels like going home. I have read this book twice now, and both times, I have kept it close with tears in my eyes. This is a story about an undocumented teen girl, about identity, about Argentine myths. 

I have such a difficult time talking about this book without adding ten thousand exclamation points. This story left me eternally screaming; it’s beautifully written, the world-building is fascinating, Manu is one of my favorite characters, and the themes of immigration and identity were well done.

I will keep this story close to my heart for a long time, and I’m so excited for everyone to read it soon (come out August 4th). Yes, Lobizona is so worth the hype, and let me tell you why.

“No matter how many borders we cross, we can’t seem to outrun the fear of not feeling safe in our own homes.”

Lobizona by Romina Garber

It was my first time reading Romina Garber, and it will not be the last. Her writing was beautiful, it is not poetic necessary, but it evokes emotions so well. The story has a very emotional undertone because, as an undocumented immigrant, Manu always fears deportation or separation from her family. She has to hide herself to survive, and it is scary, frustrating, and so exhausting. 

I highlighted so many quotes. Manu’s internal monologue felt like an open conversation with a friend, so raw and unfiltered, it brought tears to my eyes. You cannot look away from Manu’s reality as an immigrant. Lobizona is a story about immigration, yes, but from the perspective of one girl. This story is deeply personal, these are her feelings and thoughts. There’s so much power on that.

Also, a small side note that means nothing in the big scheme of the story, but the way they described Buenos Aires? I love it! Leather, coffee, and old paper. So nostalgic! 

“I think I was born waiting to see the stars.”

Lobizona by Romina Garber

Manu lives in Miami with her mom and her surrogate grandmother, Perla, with the number one rule of never call attention to yourself. As undocumented immigrants, their best chance to survive is to be invisible. To protect them, Manu has to hide inside their building, dreaming of a better future and the stars. Because you see, Manu’s irises are yellow suns and her pupils are silver stars. Then one day, Perla is attacked and Manu’s only option is to leave her and find her mom at work. This sparks a series of events where she ends up finding a new, magical world in the middle of Miami where she actually may belong.

As Manu learns about witches and lobizones (werewolves), she learns about her own identity. This is a coming of age story, she comes to her power and strengths throughout the book. But there’s also a distance from the world-building because Manu doesn’t feel like she quite belongs in El Laberinto. As an immigrant, all her life she has felt like other, always foreign in all the spaces she occupies, never at home because she doesn’t belong anywhere. That was so powerful and heartbreaking.

As she unravels this world of Argentine myths, she learns about how rigid and gender binary it is. 

The story is also about resistance because Manu’s entire existence is an act of rebellion in this society, but she’s also pushed to see how the system hurts everyone. I really appreciated some of the discussions the characters have about gender roles, misogyny, and homophobia in this society. I do hope we get to see more in the next book, but this was a great starting point.

This world feels like Argentinian society in many ways, both good and bad, and I found it so powerful that in this fantastical setting we can still discuss how, although we have progressed, Argentina’s gender roles are still so rigid and harmful. Manu and her friends’ challenge feels like a direct challenge to the country and I appreciated that.

Yes, Lobizona is a coming of age story with discussions of immigration but it’s also a story about revolution. When your existence is not wanted, everything you do is an act of resistance. Manu understands this better than anyone else. And yes, maybe she also gets some wonderful new friends who want to start a little revolution in their world. Sometimes that happens!

I know I’m being very vague about the plot, but I think that’s the best way to get into this story. I was so pleasantly surprised, it has been a while since a book left like this. The reveals and plot twists were perfect, and that ending may be one of my favorites.

There’s a magical school, witches, werewolves, dangerous forests and a lot of Argentine folklore and I love every single thing about it. I don’t want to spoil you, so I won’t go into the particulars of the school just yet, maybe after the book is out.  

This is one of the fantasy books where culture is part of the world and we see glimpses of Argentine life everywhere; they eat carne al horno, drink mate, play futbol, dance tango…These things are part of the world, of course, they are because a magic system that exists at the par with society will be heavily influenced by it. 

Such a small thing, a detail that in the overall plot is nothing, but I’m still thinking about it: they use their magic to cook asado, Argentinian barbecue. I mean!!! 

Manu funko pop designed by Melanie

I adore Manu a lot. A LOT. Her love for space and books, her bravery and fierce love, her frustration, and anger. My heart broke for her and her happiness brought me so much joy. She finds her voice during the story. And I know, that’s something we have seen in YA books before, but not with an undocumented Argentinian immigrant and there’s a lot of value in that story. 

I adore the secondary characters, especially Manu’s new friends. Tiago, Saysa, and Cata are the best and I adore how they all slowly become team Manu, ride or die kind of friends. Especially love the rivals to friends, my favorite kind of trope. This story has a little bit of found family and you know I love that too. Oh god, my little found family, tears to my eyes! I love them.

Also, a big shout out to Perla, Manu’s grandmother, I adore her so much. She teaches Manu’s literature and she’s so strong. Perla left Argentina escaping the horrors of the dictatorship and this is something that keeps coming back to the story. I appreciate that a lot because that’s something that never leaves my mind, the ways the dictatorship affected my grandmothers and the way it indirectly affected me. That trauma that Manu doesn’t completely understand because it wasn’t her reality, but she also sees in her own trauma… Anyway, I thought it was such a small detail that made a great point in the story. 

This has been a long review and a lot rambling, I feel like. I’m sorry, I tried to be coherent, I wanted this to be a good review, but I just have a lot of love and I just want to keep screaming. But please, if there’s something I want you to take away from this post is LOBIZONA IS NOT MAGICAL REALISM.

Okay, that and also, this is a phenomenal story with so much heart and vulnerability, and an incredible world-building and characters. Romina Garber redefined, for me, the boundaries of fantasy and created a story that deserves to be loved and admired. 

Also, have you seen the finished copies of this book? Yeah, you need your copy!

Important links

Add to Goodreads

Preorder here

Lobizona virtual launch with Tomi Adeyemi

Link to Melanie’s shop, commission your funko pop!

What did I just read: when the gays can’t save plots

I was incredibly excited for The Circus Rose when it was announced, I very much enjoyed Betsy Cornwell’s debut when I read it the first time. And this book is set in the same world, where magic and technology coexist. Sadly, the things I liked from Mechanica and its sequel, Venturess, weren’t there in The Circus Rose.

Mechanica handled, in my opinion, very well emotional abuse and queerplatonic relationships. The characters were charming and the world-building, the conversations about technology and magic, had me at the edge of my seat.

So let’s start there because I really didn’t like this story BUT I went with all the good intentions, hoping to really like it at least. It was a disappointing read and this review, although negative, deeply pains me. But god, sometimes gays can’t save terrible plots.

The Circus Rose follows two very different sisters: Rosie, the performer, and Ivory, the stagemaster. They were raised in their mother’s circus, between acts and tricks, traveling all around the world. When the circus is back to Esting City, the place where their fathers are from but not really their homes, things start to go all wrong. Now it’s up to Ivory to do something? It’s not very clear what the plot is, actually.

The synopsis is very misleading, talking about an accident and Ivory and her crush solving a mystery, when that happens, not kidding, in the latter half of the book. So what’s this book about? I have no idea. Ivory is, apparently, wondering about her role in the circus and about if she wants to do something else. Apparently, because it’s mostly telling at the end but never really discuss?

The writing doesn’t help, the book is told from a dual point of view: Ivory’s chapters are written in prose while Rosie’s are written in verse. Rosie’s chapters were bad, like really bad. Not only they didn’t add anything to the story at all, but the poetry was also pretty terrible. And I love novels in verse! But here it was a mix of metaphors that did absolutely nothing for me except confused me. Ivory’s chapters at least had substance, I guess, but the dialogue was so cringing? I can’t enjoy a book where I don’t like the writing or the plot or care about the characters at all.

Okay, I’m making a mess of this like the book, so let’s go in parts.

The Missing Plot

Like I said, we don’t really see much about the hints of religion and hatred until the latter half of the book. Which it’s ridiculous, there’s no set up for the “mystery thing” about the missing people. In this world, we have the Faerie, who have magic and were colonized by humans. Many humans, of course, still resented the idea of living alongside the Faerie, especially the religious leaders of the kingdom. Faerie has a completely different culture, they live in polyamorous and platonic families and everyone is non-binary.

These are some of the themes Mechanica, especially its sequel, discuss. But if you haven’t read the books, you’re missing a great deal of context here as the author doesn’t really spend a lot of time talking about the events in the past. And then we’re supposed to believe The Circus Rose is about coming against hatred and discrimination? Okay…

I really think it was terrible handled, there wasn’t any built up and the resolution was so anticlimactic? The main villain was a caricature, truly, a ridiculous figure that had nothing.

The big thing with Bear? Boring, predictable and kind of eye rolling as it was, again, never built up.

The Undeveloped Characters

So this another big thing for me, as I’m a character-driven reader. Maybe it was the nonexistent plot or the bad writing, but I didn’t care about the sisters at all. I didn’ feel like I knew them at all, especially Rosie as I hated her chapters. Sure, we get some descriptions about their personalities and a lot of telling of their relationship but we never really see it. It was very frustrating because characters in Mechanica were so charming and sympathetic and I cared a big deal about them. Meanwhile, I just felt a lot of nothing with Ivory and Rosie.

And that included Ivory’s personal conflict about what to do with her life and her space in the circus, I didn’t care.

I’m so sad to say The Circus Rose failed me at every level: terrible execution, vague world-building, and poorly written. Not even the f/enby romance could save it. It was a very cute and adorable romance, but it didn’t erase the frustration. And you know what, if this book has been a romance instead, if we hadn’t had all that ridiculous thing at the end, I would have enjoyed this a lot more.

Read this book or not, it’s fine. I don’t hate hate it as much I want to forget I read it. Please brain, let’s forget it and move on.

What did I just read: two YA messes

Hello friends,

Bringing back my What did I just read series, where I talk about books that I didn’t like. I don’t really rant that often, but sometimes books just deserve it. Or maybe I just have too many thoughts that I need to share. I’m lucky that this year I have read MANY wonderful books, sadly, I have also 1 star a couple. So here we are today, with two YA books that I really disliked. Oops.

One of my summer projects is to read and review backlist eARCs. Yes, I’m trying to improve my Netgally ratio, don’t judge me. I’m going to be reading a lot of books that I requested and then I put off. Okay, you can judge me, I deserve it.

I knew I wouldn’t enjoy all these titles, there’s a reason why I haven’t even touch these books, but I didn’t really want to start with two bad ones this project. Too late now, I guess. These books are not necessary terrible, I just didn’t like the writing, plot, characters or like you know, anyt

hing about them. Maybe they are bad after all.

So let’s talk about Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan and You’d Be Mine by Erin Hahn.

Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan follows Athena Graves, a high schooler who loves to listen to punk rock and create mixtapes. Although she and her sister don’t share views, when Helen needs her help, Athena and her friends won’t turn away. They all go to this very conservative Catholic school that is taking very seriously the rumors about Helen’s supposedly abortion during the summer. She could be expelled! The girls team up to defeat the rumors and to let everyone in school know that it doesn’t matter what Helen did or did not (but she did not, okay?!). Revolution!

I’m sorry, this is a poor summary of this book but I did not like this story at all, so I don’t really know how to objectively tell you what’s about without screaming a little. I had high hopes for this book, before I learned about how stories sold as “YA feminist” are just white feminism at its peak.

Literally, there was nothing about this story that I enjoyed. And sure, I didn’t start this with high expectations. I requested this ARC last year and never read it, I should have realized my procrastinator brain was trying to protect me.

I mean, Rebel Girls is badly written. Like one of the worst books I have read type of badly written. It had too many annoying repetitions and a lot cringy dialogue. I felt at arm’s length from the characters, maybe that was for the best because I hated Athena.

Athena is so judgmental and hypocritical that it’s almost ridiculous, I couldn’t care about her boy problems less. One could argue she learns about this throughout the book but I don’t think it was very well done. And it infuriates me so much because one girl Athena keeps judging is her own sister, Helen, and I do not want to sympathize with a pro-life girl. Ugh.

This book has many of my most hated tropes: girl hate (some of it is challenged), mean girls trying to ruin MC just because, and a brown girl having to teach the whites everything. Actually, I’m not sure if she’s brown… she’s described with “olive skin” but that really doesn’t mean anything… Whatever, because Rebel Girls feels extremely white. 

Also, I get this is a 1990s book, an historical YA, but all the references to movies and music just went over my head and kind of annoyed me a lot. I get it! I promise I do! But come on, this nostalgia is for the author only, we already know.

So yes, disliked the writing, Athena, the whiteness, and how this book handled abortion. Sure, it had a good heart but I didn’t like the final message? Like I get it, but at the same time, I don’t like it. 

Or maybe I just really disliked how cheesy and kind of dumb that ending was, so it didn’t sit well with me how it was handled. There were so many moments in this story that made zero sense and were just plain laughable.

Yeah, I don’t have anything good to say about it and I actually read just the first half and skimmed the rest and read the last chapters. And I didn’t feel like I missed anything at all. What a waste of time.

You’d Be Mine by Erin Hahn follows two country stars: Clay, the rising superstar, and Annie, American’s sweetheart. They have no choice but to work together for their musical future, the label wants them together so together they go in tour. Opposite attracts and a lot of media speculation about their relationship, Clay and Annie do get closer. But they’re both dealing with grief, their building romance needs more than chemistry.

Ok, I knew from the first chapter I wouldn’t enjoy this book at all, but I push through anyway because of some many good reviews. Yeah, my bad. I completely understand why people have enjoyed this… but it didn’t work for me at all.

The writing is not particularly good, repetitive and some very ridiculous (almost funny) dialogue. But the thing is, I really didn’t care about the characters. And I’m a character-driven reader, I need to care about my characters to care about the book… Besides, you know, I found the plot kind of bland but that’s another point.

I didn’t have any sympathy for these two teenagers. I understand they both were dealing with trauma and grief, but besides their pain, they really didn’t have any personality. I finished this book knowing two things about them: Clay pretends to be a bad boy, but inside he’s not, and Annie is a superstar who doesn’t want to be like her parents. And although I think it could be a good starting point, the book does nothing about it. Or better said, nothing I cared enough about. For example, the resolution with Clay felt very anti-climatic, after waiting for pages. Maybe it’s that weird time jump that lost me along the way. 

Besides that, the romance was just bland and boring. I didn’t get why they wanted to be together and that ending instead of cute, it was just kind of dumb? I mean, if I can’t root for the couple in a romance, there’s something very bad happening there. 

I can’t really put my finger on it, but there was something that I just didn’t like how this author talked about addiction. Also, the evil ex-girlfriend trope was eye-rolling. But I guess my biggest annoyance was how white this story feels, there’s no excuse for a book published in 2019 to feel so white. Especially when talking about country music. And no, having one token side-character who’s Latinx and very insufferable doesn’t count, okay?

It was a pain to read it. And I’m just going to be honest, I don’t care about books about musicians/superstars. I just don’t.