Time traveling is one of my favorite tropes in paranormal/SFF YA. The idea of people being able to move through the time-space continuum is a romantic one, and I always like to see stories that add a new twist to this time-tested beloved trope of fiction. Chelsea Bolbulski’s dazzling and suspense-filled debut novel, The Wood, adds a historical and ritualistic twist to time travel.
After the mysterious disappearance of her father, Winter becomes the guardian of the magical wood behind her house. During the day it is Winter’s job to make sure that lost travelers get back to where they belong. There are three rules: Do not travel from the paths, Do not linger after dark, do not ignore the calling. However, the appearance of a persistent traveler from eighteenth-century England and a mysterious disease attacking the wood’s magic call into question everything Winter has known about her duty, her family and the wood itself.
Lovers of strong female characters will quickly find themselves rooting for Winter. She doesn’t always make the best decisions, but she’s a girl who can fight, knows her fashion history and can speak multiple languages with ease. It was so much fun to read this book and see what she would do next to handle all of the obstacles that came her way.
I really enjoyed the other characters too. Winter’s understandably worried but devoted mother. Chivalrous and gallant Henry in his eighteenth-century British garb. The protective, but mysterious Joe. There were a lot of characters, especially the Council, the Old Ones and the other guardians, who I wish I got to read more about in this book.
Some of my favorite parts of the book were the world-building and the setting. Bobulski draws from various times and places throughout history in order to explain the various thresholds used for time traveling. I wanted more descriptions of these, too, because the moments we got to see Winter interacting with travelers were some of the best part of the book.
Description was such a strength of Bobulski’s writing. Readers who enjoy descriptive settings filled with fine details will enjoy this book. Fans of impossible love stories will also fall for the slow burn romance in The Wood. Equal parts poignant, amusing and intense, the writing is spot on and I enjoyed the read from beginning to end.
My only big issues were that the ending was ambiguous and the book felt a little rushed. The ending felt simultaneously too final and like it had too many loose ends for me to be fully satisfied by the time I reached the last page. I’m torn between wanting a sequel to find out what happens next and being content with the riveting tale contained within this one book. However, I wish that the novel was a bit longer, filled with a bit more context, dialogue and action.
Regardless, I really enjoyed this read and Bobulski’s style in general. The Wood doesn’t disappoint. It is an atmospheric paranormal thriller with perfect amounts of romance, monsters, difficult discoveries, action and more. I am excited to see what Bobulski has in store next for readers, be it a continuation of this world or a new dark tale.
3 Pros: Funny, Great, Diverse Characters, Easy Read
3 Cons: Humor Went Too Far Sometimes, Bit Too Melodramatic, Wish It Had More Substance
Become Best Friends Forever/Punch in the Face/Kiss on the Mouth: I would become best friends with Ashley because she’s weird, but loyal. I would punch Men’s Right because he’s an asshole (name says it all). I would kiss Gregor because he’s sweet but naive and he’s the MC so why not?
Describe this Book in 3 Words: Humorous, weird satire
ONE sentence to convince a total stranger to read/not read this book: If you’re into dark humor and looking for a fun break from the daily news cycle with romance and some soul-searching, this is the book for you!
I don’t like some books because they’re poorly written. I don’t like others because they are completely insensitive to the point that no amount of description or eleventh-hour redemption in the same of “character development” will save them for me. Billy Merrell’s young adult fiction debut Vanilla is an example of the latter.
The novel, written entirely in verse, is told from the perspectives of three gay boys who go to the same high school: Hunter, Vanilla and Clown/Angel. It centers around the development and destruction of a relationship between the title character and his boyfriend Hunter, who have been dating since middle school. All three of the boys go by nicknames that attempt to be allegorical, but just come off as stereotypical and mildly offensive. Vanilla is the boy who is uncomfortable with having sex. Hunter is the predatory boy thirsty for a hookup. Clown/Angel is a drag queen struggling with gender identity and unrequited love. The result of never really using their real names was that each character felt like they ultimately lacked a separate identity. It felt like a failed and insincere attempt at allegory.
I was willing to give this book a chance, but was worried about its content from the moment its controversial summary popped up on Goodreads, especially with its indirect mention of an ace main character. When I received an arc at Bookcon, I decided I needed to read this and offer my opinion as an #ownvoices ace reviewer. I went in hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as I feared it might be, but within the opening ten or so pages, my fears were confirmed. My verdict on the book is that it is potentially damaging and dangerous for vulnerable and/or questioning teen readers. I hope that we, as a book community, can agree that ace readers, and gay aces in particular, deserve better representation than this that doesn’t consistently imply that we are lying to ourselves, just afraid or “innocent” without properly countering those dangerous stereotypes in the text.
At best, Vanilla is a misguided attempt by a gay author to understand asexuality. At worst, it’s an internally aphobic “love” story that exposes many aphobic critiques that ace people encounter on a daily basis. Merrell uses the word asexual frequently, especially in the last half of the book, and the representation is handled so recklessly and irresponsibly that it is powerless to mediate the aphobia rampant in the first half of the book.
What is aphobia exactly? It’s anything that expresses hatred, doubt, fear and/or dislike of aro and ace spectrum people.* It’s present throughout the book as a plot point, as a freaking plot point in the relationship between Hunter and Vanilla. Here are some examples from the text:
“I think of Vanilla and how vanilla he is
and I want to hold him and tell him
it’s okay if he says he isn’t ready,
even if I don’t believe him–
Or that if he isn’t ready,
It’s for all the wrong reasons.”
Okay, there is NO WRONG REASON not to want sex. None. Not wanting to have sex is a reason in and of itself. Plus, even if you don’t know a person is ace and the person doesn’t yet know they are ace, it does not erase their asexuality. They are still asexual. So this passage is just a shitload of aphobia and rape culture and the worst part is that Hunter isn’t ever really forced to change or change his beliefs. He kind of accepts Vanilla’s asexuality by the end of the novel, but it doesn’t feel like enough because of passages like this.
“He gets so into it
That pulling him back from the brink
Takes every part of me
And every part of him, it seems,
So we never part
On purely sweet terms anymore.”
Ugh, more rape culture/abusive relationship description that never gets properly dealt with later in the book to qualify as a good story.
“‘It’s the perfect name for him,’ he says,
Winking at me like I’m in on it.
‘Such a sweet thing. So innocent.’
And I know by how Clown says it
That he’s calling me a prude.”
I can’t even believe I have to explain this in a book review, but infantilizing asexuals by calling them sweet and innocent is a dick move. And even though Clown/Angel helps Vanilla realize he’s asexual later in the novel, 1) they could have done it a lot sooner and prevented a lot of damage and made this a better story and 2) it’s still a dick move.
“‘I’m sex-positive, too,’ Vanilla says,
Like he’s chasing me. When all I wanted
Was a boyfriend who wouldn’t need to.
‘You’re sex-phobic,’ I say,
Because it’s what I believe.
What he’s all but called himself,
Claiming not to be ready.
Even though he masturbates.
Even though he knows how he feels.
Even though he loves me.”
Spoiler alert: you can masturbate, love someone and understand your feelings and still be asexual. Again, this is blatant aphobia that is never really dealt with. When Hunter and Vanilla do break up, it comes off as like Hunter is doing a favor for the both of them, like he’s the hero that’s going to save both of them and it literally made me sick.
One last quote:
“It breaks my heart to think he’s as serious
As I am, that he’s so afraid of sex
That he’d toss our love to the wolves.”
This quote makes me so effing angry because I just don’t understand how Hunter can be so freaking hard-headed and how an author could write this book about this shitty, abusive relationship and pass it off as this poignant, heart-wrenching love story. Being who you are isn’t tossing your love to wolves. Hunter being an aphobic and judgy person is what ultimately destroys it, but the text never confirms or validates that.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, some of the worst of the worst that I found. There’s another poem in the book called “Queen of Hearts” that was so aphobic I actually started crying while reading it. This book’s representation of asexuality was handled like we’re some kind of freak show to be observed and helped, that we are an inconvenience in a relationship for the most part. Vanilla thankfully finds someone at the end of the novel who understands him, but it was given so little page time, adding more insult to injury.
Overall, this book was hard for me to read. The language is so unnecessarily physical and visceral. It felt more nostalgic than immediate. There were some parts that enjoyed, but overall this book is a hard pass for me.
I had other issues with this book. The way that the voice of each poem was separated was frustrating. Each character had poems in a different font. Not only did this strain my eyes while I was reading the book, but I often forgot who was who.
Moving into style, the poems were well written but some of them were so overly poetic and flowery that the characters’ voices got lost in the writing. The author should have spent more attention developing empathy for the orientation of one of his main characters than spending two stanzas developing some allegory or extended metaphor that ultimately didn’t make sense or contribute anything to the plot.
I usually don’t try to actively discourage people from reading a book, but if you are upset by rape culture and/or aphobia then I highly suggest you do not buy, support or pick up this book when it comes out in the fall. Spend your time supporting indie and self published asexual authors who are devoting their time to crafting well-rounded, multi-faceted ace characters with more empathy and compassion. And I know that by reviewing this book, I am largely shouting into the dark. Aces fighting against aphobia is comparable to David facing Goliath, but I will not put down my slingshot.
Regardless, Vanilla is expected to be released October 10, 2017.
*Please note that the use of terms like aphobia is also technically incorrect. While I have left my usage of the word in the review, going forward I am going to try to use the word amisia more, which is more sensitive to people who deal with actual phobias in the mental health sense and not the discrimatory one. 🙂
In order to fully discuss this book, I had to include some spoilers. You’ve been warned! Also please note that I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 🙂
When I look for the perfect “summer” book, I try and find books with a few recurring motifs on the covers: sunny skies, ocean waves, seashells, footprints in the sand and girls in bathing suits. Lisa Freeman’s latest novel Riptide Summer, the sequel to Honey Girl, fits the bill. I read this sunny story about surfing, friendship and heartbreak and paving your own way on the beach and enjoyed its historical setting, Hawaiian MC and raw setting. I loved Freeman’s first novel, but had some issues with the sequel that I will discuss below.
In Riptide Summer, Nani has become an official member of the Sisters of Sand, a clique of girls who own the State Beach scene in sunny Southern California. However, after Nani’s illicit relationship with fellow Sister of Sand Rox implodes in the wake of a shocking secret, Jean’s alcoholism spirals and
One of the most effective parts of this book was its setting in the 1970s. There aren’t many historical fiction stories in YA that also read like a fresh and relevant summer contemporary novel. I loved Freeman’s descriptions of the clothes that Nani would wear and the general cultural attitudes of the time like women’s liberation. In fact, I wish that Freeman had brought this rich culture more to the forefront of the novel.
I also loved the book’s characters. Riptide Summer features a diverse set of girls with different attitudes and experiences. I liked Nani’s journey through her confusion and insecurities towards taking a step to becoming the girl she was meant to be. Rox wasn’t my favorite character, but she felt real, like girls I’ve known and had falling outs with. I loved Ellie (aka Ms. ERA) and her sassy feminism, and I hope I’m not wrong in her name being a reference to Eleanor Roosevelt. I loved Windy/Wendy and the way she connects to Nani through queer female writing. There were cute book boys too, but they all seemed like caricatures at times. The girls stole the show in this one.
There were parts of the plot that worked for me and part that didn’t. I definitely wish that Nani surfing had been a more major part of the book. I felt like some of the scenes with the girls on the beach were a little repetitive. I would have liked to see Nani’s relationship with Jean fleshed out more and more scenes with her and Windy during the end of the book. Overall, it was a summer book. It was a quick, breezy, drama-packed novel.
My biggest issue with this book is that it didn’t feel at times like it treated serious issues with the gravity and significance that they deserved, particularly domestic violence, abortion and sex. I wish that Freeman had taken a few more paragraphs or sentences to outline what is okay in these situations and what is not. That extra clarity would have been appropriate in a book targeted to young readers, and girls in particular.
I was also really disheartened when, at the end of the novel, it takes Nani losing her virginity to Jerry in order to fully realize that she likes girls. I feel that this scene, while only two pages, presents a dangerous idea that a girl has to have sex with a guy, a major, major emotional event, in order to confirm her sexuality for herself. Girls reading this review. Please know that you NEVER have to do that. What you label yourself as is valid. Your confusion is valid. But you never need to have sex with a guy to “confirm” your sexuality. While I recognize that the novel takes place in the 1970s, the idea that this scene gives young queer girls reading this book for its representation is potentially dangerous.
The scene also omits any mention of protection (again, this book takes place after women’s liberation so I find it unlikely the idea of birth control wouldn’t have at least passed Nani’s mind at some point, especially after her friend gets pregnant). The scene also rests on a very shaky, murky notion of consent. Nani even refers to sex with a guy as being like a riptide, a comparison I found, as someone who has been sexually assaulted in the past, as problematic and potentially harmful for young readers who aren’t getting the significance of this moment from this scene. Young adult authors have a certain level of responsibility when writing about certain issues for their readers, sex being one of them.
Overall, this novel felt like a transitional one in both content and style for this series. The writing style was choppy at points and beautiful in others. While the ending felt a little rushed and a bit too neatly tied up, I am anxiously waiting to hear if Freeman will be continuing Nani’s story. I would definitely love to where she takes her and the other Sisters of Sand after the end of this book.
There are some tropes I will never get tired of in YA. One of them is the trope of secret communication bringing unlike-minded people together. It’s even better when they exchange handwritten notes or letters. The use of that trope as the keystone in Brigid Kemmerer’s new novel Letters to the Lost made me super excited to read it, and I was not disappointed.
Kemmerer’s novel is about Juliet, a teen girl grieving the loss of her famous warzone photographer mother, and Declan, a boy assigned to community service after one tragic night that spiraled out of his broken past. At its heart, the novel is a beautiful, complex, funny and sad story about loss, grief, redemption and love. I also want to note that, in service of not spoiling anything because this is a book that truly reveals itself over time, my review might come off as a little bit vague.
I loved these characters. Juliet wasn’t the most “likeable” character but as someone who has lost a very close relative and spends a great deal of time with their gravestone I was really able to connect to her emotion and pain. I was also able to connect to Declan’s regret and pain over his past. I really loved how Kemmerer showed that the reckless actions and irresponsibility of adults have heartbreaking consequences on their children, which I think she captures with great complexity, depth and skill in his narrative.
I was also really able to connect to Juliet’s realization that the adults we look up to in our families aren’t always what they seem. This turned out to be a theme in the novel that connected Juliet and Declan’s story. I thought that was a great lesson to be inserted into a YA book and one that I wish more books would tackle.
Interestingly, one of the best parts of this book for me was the relationship that Juliet and Declan had with the adults around them. I was rooting for Juliet to sort out her emotions with not only her dead mother, but also her father who she’d been having difficulty communicating with since her mother passed away. Seeing their relationship unfold was one of my favorite parts of this book. I also loved seeing the friendship between Rowan and Juliet, and would have liked to see that developed a little more.
In Declan’s narrative, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how intricate and not-surface level his relationship was with his mother and stepfather. Kemmerer really pushes Declan beyond the trope of the “secretly sensitive bad boy.” His emotions towards his family and his best friend, Rev, came off the page. In short, Declan is one of the most complex male characters in YA that I’ve read in a while.
I also really, really loved how Kemmerer developed Declan and Juliet’s relationships with the teachers who helped them. I still remember the teachers who I felt saw and understood me in high school, the ones who helped redirect my path as a somewhat troubled teen into the success I’ve had today. It was a joy to see that unfold on the pages of this novel. I found myself hoping that teachers will pick up this book and understand how important it is to have empathy and understanding for students, especially the ones with a “reputation.”
Of course, Letters to the Lost was not without its faults. The writing style was a little clunky throughout, which occasionally took me out of the story. I also really wish that Kemmerer had been more specific and paid more attention to Juliet’s panic attacks and the specific symptoms of her complicated grief, as I felt that would have added more dimension and emotion to the novel. Honestly, this is the type of book where I keep realizing new things that I love about it.
However, these minor issues were largely easy to look past and admire all the beauty and strength that this story contains. Fans of Kasie West’s novel P.S. I Like You, who also enjoy the darker side of YA, will love this book that explores romance, friendship, family, grief and more. I could go on and on about it more, but I think it would be better if you read it or picked it up right now. You won’t regret it.
Have you read Letters to the Lost? Do you also like stories where the main characters get to know each other through secret messages? Let me know below!
We should all know by now that diversity and accurate representation are super important in YA. However, diversity in books also makes for kickass storytelling and is a way to start learning about and understanding various types of people. Also, intersectionality is key, meaning showing layered diverse experiences. If you’re looking for a place to start, I can’t recommend Whitney Gardner’s diverse debut You’re Welcome, Universeenough.
Julia, the main character, is a Deaf Indian girl with two moms. Oh, and she’s a kickass graffiti artist. After tagging her school to defend her best friend Jordyn’s honor, Julia is expelled and sent to public school in where she struggles to make friends and relies upon Casey, an interpreter, to communicate with those around her. Her only outlet is graffiti, which she must keep a secret, and even that seems like it may be taken away from her by a rival.
One of the parts I loved best about this book is its representation of Deaf culture. I can’t speak to its accuracy because I’m a hearie and thus not Deaf, but I felt like I learned a lot about the experience of being Deaf, signing and some of the struggles of living without hearing through reading this book.
Building off of that, I loved Julia’s voice. She’s a teenage girl who doesn’t take any shit, but she’s also vulnerable and still coming into her own. I loved her descriptions of working with her art and her sarcasm. Her personality jumped off the page and I liked feeling like I was going on this journey with her, as she learned what it meant to be both a friend and an artist, no matter the cost.
If you’re looking for a contemporary read where romance isn’t the central plot line or even a sub plot line and isn’t totally sad, this is the book for you. It has so much heart and at its core is a tale of friendship and reaching one’s potential, whatever that might mean.
The other characters were all depicted in a way that was nuanced and intriguing. YP was one of my favorite characters. I found Jordyn and Donovan to be super annoying, but I can relate to having a fallout with a friend who you felt closer to than they did to you. I also loved Mr. Katz, as I found that my art teachers were always some of the most supportive when I was in high school. Mee and Ma, Julia’s moms, were also highlights.
Gardner spun a tale that was pieces funny and sad, but always honest and unflinchingly real. I loved the little details that exposed some of the character’s struggles in a way that was impactful even if they were only a sentence or two. From the discrimination Mee and Ma face to comments Julia must endure at her job at McDonald’s,
The design of this book was also phenomenally done. The girl on the cover actually matches the description of Julia in the book, down to her signature yellow Docs. I also liked that the cover uses Julia’s tag in the book and shows that she’s a WOC. The chapter headings were adorable emoticon faces, which Julia uses throughout the book as well. Finally, the illustrations are gorgeous. I just wish there were more.
This isn’t to say the book was without its flaws. A little bit more background on graffiti culture was needed, as Julia’s concerns didn’t always seem to line up with the situation. Additionally, there were some parts of the book that fell flat for me. Julia should’ve just ditched on Jordyn right away and the drama between Kyle and Julia didn’t come to any kind of satisfying conclusion. The bad guy who turns out to be kind of a good guy trope is getting old. Parts like this felt a little forced, but they didn’t overpower what was otherwise a very strong book.
This book is super worth the read. It’s quick, it’s fairly light and it’s super good. You’re not going to want to miss out on this gorgeous contemporary. Plus, the last scene is super, super cute, but you have to read it yourself to find out why. 😉
As a self-professed lover of all books contemporary, I need to stop opening up every fantasy review I write with: “I don’t often read fantasy but when I do…” However, it works here so…I don’t often read fantasy, but when I do, the books I pick usually blow me away with dazzling world-building, high stakes, swoony romance and nail-bitingly juicy adventures. I got all of these things from Stephanie Garber’s debut YA high fantasy Caraval, the first book in a new duology that will capture adventurous readers from the first page.
Caraval is a scintillating tale of sisterhood, devotion, determination and mind-bending games. Scarlett and Donatella are sisters in near captivity under the gaze of their abusive father. Scarlett thinks the only escape for her and her sister is an arranged marriage until they get the opportunity to travel to a magnificent performance and game called Caraval. Scarlett has been yearning to go to see the spectacle since she was a child. But when the sisters take a leap of faith to see the show, things quickly go terribly wrong, turning their story into a race against time, odds and madness. A beautifully written performance in and of itself, Caraval is a gorgeous display of verbal splendor and nail-biting narrative.
However, please note that I’m keeping this review intentionally on the vague side. I went into this book with little background and I was amazed at how good it was. I heard the hype, but didn’t know details, and I want my review to keep that experience in tact for other readers.
If you like strong, multi-faceted female protagonists, then Caraval is the book for you. I was struck by dutiful but fierce Scarlett and bubbly, mischievous Tella from the beginning. Their personalities jumped off the page and I quickly became invested in their story. Scarlett and Tella surprised me again and again and again with their strength and wit as well as their vulnerabilities. Their closeness was also endearing and the relationship between them made the book feel a little bit like Phantom of the Opera meets Frozen.
The love interest (name redacted to make this review as spoiler free as possible), whose role in the story was predictable, but enjoyable. He was actually one of my favorite characters-brooding, snarky and surprising. Fans of slow burn romance or romance that is there but doesn’t take over the entire narrative arc will want in on this book as well. I’ll leave it at that. You’ll have to read the book if you want to know more. *wink*
In terms of premise, this book rocks it. In terms of world-building, this book hits it out of the park. Think Cirque du Soleil, but better and with magic. Garber is a master at describing colors and visual detail. You will feel like you are there in the story. Every detail was nuanced and careful. This book is just damn good storytelling and description. Garber is a talent and I can’t wait to read what else she writes in the future.
I did have a few qualms about the book. The very end gets very explain-y. I read some parts three times and I’m still not sure exactly what happened and who I can and can’t trust going into the second book. My other complaint is the fact that there’s a second book. I started this book thinking it was a standalone and was a bit mad when I found out I now have to wait for a sequel. But that’s a matter of personal preference.
Overall, this book was dazzling, a rare new gem in my library. The cover is amazing, the page design is beautiful, but it’s the story contained within the pretty package that’s the best part. Enjoy! And remember, it’s only a game. Or is it?