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ARC Review: A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

Cover of A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

Publication Date: October 4, 2022

Synopsis:

Award-winning author Malinda Lo returns to the Bay Area with another masterful coming-of-queer-age story, this time set against the backdrop of the first major Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage. And almost sixty years after the end of Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Lo’s new novel also offers a glimpse into Lily and Kath’s lives since 1955.

Aria Tang West was looking forward to a summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her best friends–one last round of sand and sun before college. But after a graduation party goes wrong, Aria’s parents exile her to California to stay with her grandmother, artist Joan West.Aria expects boredom, but what she finds is Steph Nichols, her grandmother’s gardener. Soon, Aria is second-guessing who she is and what she wants to be, and a summer that once seemed lost becomes unforgettable–for Aria, her family, and the working-class queer community Steph introduces her to. It’s the kind of summer that changes a life forever.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book was emotionally devastating. That’s the best word I can think of to describe it. I turned the last page and read the author’s note through my tears, and then I ugly cried for a while. It’s poignant and nostalgic and gorgeously written so that you feel everything Aria feels and live breathlessly in the moment with her. Every time I opened the book I was sucked in and forgot about everything else.

Malinda Lo is exceptionally good at capturing a moment in time, especially a moment where the character is right on the cusp of something. I don’t remember Last Night at the Telegraph Club being quite so devastating, but I think part of that is my own emotional resonance with this story.

For most of the book, it’s like she captured one perfect golden late-summer Northern California afternoon. The kind the stretches on and on, where the light showers everything in gold and you could believe that the moment could last forever. It meshes so well with that last endless summer between high school and college, when you’re just beginning to discover yourself.

Aria is on the cusp of adulthood, the cusp of realization that she’s maybe not as straight as she once thought. Her crush on Steph simmers just beneath the surface, warring with the impossibility of it all and the electric novelty of her newfound queerness opens up a previously unseen world to her.

At the same time she’s having her ideas of her grandmother, her parents, her friends, and her past reshaped as she grows out of her childhood assumptions about them.

The ending circles back to the beginning in a wholly satisfying way that makes everything seem more profound and gives every moment, every gesture weight and meaning.

I love the exploration of time and memories and grief and art, and how they interconnect and weave together. The characters leap off the page, so full of life and well-rounded are they, and I felt them tugging at my heart more insistently than many.

This is a book that everyone should read and that I will probably never read again, because I don’t think it would have the same breathless impact the second time through and I’m not sure my heart could take it.

The cover is stunning and complements the story SO well. The cover artist captured the essence of the story perfectly.

*Thanks to Bookishfirst and Penguin Teen for providing an ARC for review.

ARC Review: Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

Publication Date: May 10, 2022

Synopsis:

From award-winning author Nghi Vo comes a dazzling new novel where immortality is just a casting call away.

It was magic. In every world, it was a kind of magic.

“No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers.” Luli Wei is beautiful, talented, and desperate to be a star. Coming of age in pre-Code Hollywood, she knows how dangerous the movie business is and how limited the roles are for a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill—but she doesn’t care. She’d rather play a monster than a maid.

But in Luli’s world, the worst monsters in Hollywood are not the ones on screen. The studios want to own everything from her face to her name to the women she loves, and they run on a system of bargains made in blood and ancient magic, powered by the endless sacrifice of unlucky starlets like her. For those who do survive to earn their fame, success comes with a steep price. Luli is willing to do whatever it takes—even if that means becoming the monster herself.

Siren Queen offers up an enthralling exploration of an outsider achieving stardom on her own terms, in a fantastical Hollywood where the monsters are real and the magic of the silver screen illuminates every page.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Gods I love Nghi Vo’s books, and they just keep getting better. This one keeps the same vibe as the Chosen & the Beautiful but lays the magic and raw ambition on much thicker. I absolutely could not look away from the Siren Queen as she clawed her way to stardom on the silver screen, finding her limits and her people along the way.

The whole idea of the movie industry as a place steeped in magic, where stars literally rise into the sky and a kind of immortality can be wrested by those who want it enough, where the cameras steal a piece of you even as they capture you on film, is brilliant. More than that, it’s written in a way that makes it believable and real and true in a way that Hollywood and show business often isn’t.

There is a hunger to these characters that echoes and leaves you empty. Pain that leaves you with a phantom ache. The way the queer characters have to hide but still find each other, the way the studios can scrape you raw and remake you and sacrifice you if you displease them is desperate and true.

The writing is gorgeous and to die for. I read it in over a little more than 24 hours and fell absolutely, madly in love with it. It is absolutely going in my top 10, probably top 5 books of the year.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, and Bookishfirst for providing an arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

The trains had run the night before, and her hair, hanging over her shoulder in a braid, looked like a strip torn out of the world.

Women disappear, and even if you are famous, it can happen without a sound, without a ripple.

I liked being cold as the Atlantic, somehow monstrous and untouchable.

He looked like a man carved out of rock, like a mountain ready to fall.

Time stretched like a piece of taffy. I stood on Oberlin Wolfe’s rug, and names feel from my lips like rose petals, and then like rocks.

That was where I lost the very last of my Cantonese, and it died with a soft aspirate, a consonant rhotic.

“He was shrugging into a stiff, shiny new jacket, and though he’s still big, there was something different in his eyes. Maybe this was who he used to be, or maybe I chased him out, and something else came to live inside him instead.”

She couldn’t help what she was, and I couldn’t help what I was. We were stories that should never have met, or stories that only existed because we met. I still don’t know.

They were mostly terrible choices, and being smart and lucky only meant that they were ours. We made them because otherwise it was one more choice that the studios could take away from us…

He was kind though, and I remembered the glow in his eyes when he called me a monster. In his mouth, it was a compliment, and I would much rather be a monster than a victim.

The car slipped down the road as if it came on tiger’s paws, like a menace disguised in fog.

Would I be as brave now, in the light of day? I already knew that being brave didn’t mean anything unless you were willing to do it again.

I spent November haunted by October.

There was a cragginess to her features, her strong nose and her sharp jaw. It would crash ships rather than launch them, but I never knew a woman who didn’t want to crash at least a few ships.

The entire way to Jacko’s trailer at the back of the lot, my tall heels clacked a military beat. They still pained me, but I had learned years ago that there were things more important than pain.

When I drove north to San Francisco in a dead man’s car, the Pacific Coast Road was California’s dream turned flesh, the way Illinois dreamed of Chicago.

Beautiful but not pure, my mind whispered while I begged. Nothing we had done in the shadows of the Friday fires was pure. It was better than that. It was true. It was everything I was and everything I could be—was meant to be—if only I dared. It twisted inside me, hungry and vicious and clever.

It was worth dying for, it was worth living for, and now Nemo’s daughter was walking towards me as I writhed in the sand.

ARC Review: The Other Merlin by Robyn Schneider

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Synopsis:

Welcome to the great kingdom of Camelot. Prince Arthur’s a depressed botanist who would rather marry a library than a princess, Lancelot’s been demoted to castle guard after a terrible misunderstanding, and nothing is going according to plan. Then Arthur accidentally pulls the sword from the stone (in his defense, he was drunk and mostly kidding), and now everyone’s convinced he’s some prophesied hero.

Emry Merlin is stuck in her small town. Her father, the legendary court wizard, disappeared years ago, and Emry’s been peddling theater tricks to make ends meet. When a royal messenger arrives summoning her far less talented twin brother to serve as Prince Arthur’s right-hand wizard, Emry is understandably upset. But after Emmett becomes indisposed thanks to a bad spell, Emry disguises herself as her brother and travels to the royal court to impersonate him until they can switch.

Studying magic at the castle is everything Emry hoped for. But life in King Uther’s court is full of scandals, lies, and backstabbing courtiers. What’s a casually bisexual teen wizard masquerading as her twin brother to do? Other than fall for the handsome prince, stir trouble with the foppish Lord Gawain, offend Princess Guinevere, and make herself indispensable to the future of Camelot?

When the truth comes out with disastrous consequences, Emry has to decide whether she’ll risk everything for the boy she loves, or give up her potential to become the greatest wizard Camelot has ever known.

Channeling the modern humor of A Knight’s Tale, bestselling author Robyn Schneider creates a Camelot that becomes the ultimate teen rom-com hotspot in this ultra-fresh take on the Arthurian legend.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It’s obvious from the blurb that this is not trying to be a ‘historically accurate’ retelling of King Arthur, but rather a more modern version, with all the humor that entails. Which is a lot.

I found the story hilarious. I also found it to have great messages around gender and sexuality. Namely, it has a determinedly feminist heroine who knows she can do anything her brother can and do it ten times better and is also bisexual (or possibly pansexual) and thinks looking down on people for their sexuality is ridiculous.

The best part, I think, was the friendship that developed between Arthur, Emry (Merlin), and Lance. In fact, if I could have had the three of them adventuring for the entire novel I would have been happy. There’s a tease at the end of expanding their group to include Guinevere, Emmet, and Percival. I hope that continues in the second book.

Emry’s magical talent is astounding, especially compared with her brother’s, and I greatly enjoyed her penchant for cheekily showing it off.

I will definitely be picking up the next in the series as soon as it is available.

*Thanks to Bookishfirst and Penguin Teen for providing an advanced copy for review.

ARC Review: A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee

A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee

Synopsis

Two intrepid girls hunt for a legendary treasure on the deadly high seas in this YA remix of the classic adventure novel Treasure Island.

1826.
The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary Dragon Fleet, the scourge of the South China Sea, is no more. Its ruthless leader, a woman known only as the Head of the Dragon, is now only a story, like the ones Xiang has grown up with all her life. She desperately wants to prove her worth, especially to her mother, a shrewd businesswoman who never seems to have enough time for Xiang. Her father is also only a story, dead at sea before Xiang was born. Her single memento of him is a pendant she always wears, a simple but plain piece of gold jewelry.

But the pendant’s true nature is revealed when a mysterious girl named Anh steals it, only to return it to Xiang in exchange for her help in decoding the tiny map scroll hidden inside. The revelation that Xiang’s father sailed with the Dragon Fleet and tucked away this secret changes everything. Rumor has it that the legendary Head of the Dragon had one last treasure—the plunder of a thousand ports—that for decades has only been a myth, a fool’s journey.

Xiang is convinced this map could lead to the fabled treasure. Captivated with the thrill of adventure, she joins Anh and her motley crew off in pursuit of the island. But the girls soon find that the sea—and especially those who sail it—are far more dangerous than the legends led them to believe.

My Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this book SO much. It’s so much more than a retelling of Treasure Island — it’s the pirate adventure I’ve been craving, with a delicious side of f/f romance, found family, and a thorough grounding in Vietnamese and Chinese history and culture. I had planned to pass my copy along after reading it, but nope; keeping this one for sure.

I was annoyed with Xiang for the first quarter of the novel because she was SO naive. And she missed some really, really obvious clues about who her mother actually was. It was almost like she didn’t want to see, and so she didn’t.

But she grows SO much once she’s left to sail with Anh. That was the best part of the novel for me – the slow passage of time as Xiang grows more confident, more capable, and freer with every task she sets her willing mind and hands to. She comes into herself aboard that ship, and it gives her the confidence and courage she needs to face the events of the latter half of the book.

The romance was slow and subtle and hinted in the corners, and I loved it. It’s my favorite kind of romance in fantasy novels. The closeness that comes with familiarity and time spent together.

I would desperately love a series of Xiang and Anh’s adventures. The ending was excellent, but it definitely left me wanting more. And really, that’s the best kind.

*Thanks to Bookishfirst and MacMillan Children’s Publishing Group for providing an advanced copy for review.

ARC Review: Starfish by Lisa Fipps

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book surprised me. I won an ARC of it from bookishfirst after enjoying the sample, and thought it might make an enjoyable enough read, but it was so much more than that. It’s deceptively simple and very intense, and I loved the depiction of therapy. Ellie’s therapist is awesome. Ellie has endured bullying about her weight from her schoolmates and her family, and her journey to speak up and overcome that was empowering and emotional. Highly recommend to anyone who has ever struggled with their weight or had to deal with unhelpful critical remarks from family – those who should lift you up instead of drag you down.

I love a good novel written in verse, and this one really took advantage of the format to be sparse and cutting and pack a punch. I was crying rather a lot by the end of it, and came away feeling like I could hold my head up a little higher despite my oft-pointed out flaws.

Thanks to bookishfirst for providing an arc to review.