Review: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

Title:  Death Sworn

Author:  Leah Cypess

Publisher:  Greenwillow Books

Series:  Death Sworn #1

Other Reviews for This Author:  None

Leah Cypess has been a writer I’ve longed to read more of.  I read and enjoyed her debut novel Mistwood for the intriguing voice that came through in the prose.  Cypess has a knack for creating a world that manages to be romantic and tragic, political and magical.  I haven’t read the companion to Mistwood, but Death Sworn is exactly what I’ve been looking to read lately.   It’s a YA fantasy novel with a promising romantic arc, magic, and assassins.  Assassins in particular seem to be en vogue in YA lately, but Cypess’s latest fantasy world gives us a new spin on the moral ambiguity of the assassin.  Death Sworn is a rough, beautiful fantasy that balances a satisfying slow-burn romance with the determination of a heroine who is coming to terms with the fact that her powers are dwindling in a situation where she is expected to be one of the most powerful sorceresses in recent history.  In a cave full of training assassins, this means that every moment is about fighting for her right to survive.  

Ileni is a sorceress.  Trained from her youth, she knows how to execute some of the most powerful magic possible.  The manifestation of her powers heralded the possibility of her being one of the most gifted practitioners of magic in recent history.  Those powers put her on track for some of the most intensive training, the expectations growing from year to year as she razored her skills to deadly points.  Nothing prepared her for the inevitable fall that came with the slow dwindling of her powers.  Despite the fact that they are rarely ever wrong about the potential within students of magic, Ileni becomes one of the few exceptions.  She can still use the magic she was born and trained to use, but it comes at the cost of great exhaustion.  The worst part is that it can’t replenish.

At some point, Ileni’s magic will run out.  

That’s why she gets sent to the cave of the assassins.  The Elders give her the mission as a last resort, as a way to get some return on her education; that is, until the assassins decide to kill her as they did the previous two sorcerers.  Every assassin with the ability must learn magic; magic allows them to complete their tasks.  Ileni is willing to do what she can on her mission, though her loyalty to the Elders is minimal with the knowledge that they basically expect her to die.  Ileni decides to use her time in the cave to figure out the exact cause of death of the past two sorcerers.  In the mean time, she knows that she can’t truly teach the assassins.  The more magic they know, the more deadly they are to her and others.  

Sorin is an assassin.  Most of his life has been focused on the cave, the master of the assassins, and the duty of following his orders above all else.  Sorin has been taught to always follow orders even if it meant destroying himself in the process.  All of the assassins are told this upon entering the fold; Sorin’s obedience has always come with a hint of rebellion, but one that he’s shown only in the most subconscious of ways.  Ileni’s appearance seems to draw out that rebellion in Sorin.  This sorceress appears to be more than she proclaims, and her strength challenges him in ways that he never expects.  When Ileni begins to uncover some of the secrets of the assassins and the deaths of the sorcerers, she’s led to question the larger role of sorcerers and assassins in the politics of the world.  She’s also left to question right and wrong, and whether people like Sorin can be labeled as such in a world that seems impossibly in the middle.  

Death Sworn is the first in what I believe is a duology, and it sets up a world that has me weak at the knees as a reader (not in the other way - while the romance is hot, it’s not showing much super heated sexy times).  Cypess has hit a mark with this book that I never would have expected with her previous work.  It’s darker, it’s bolder, and it’s harsh.  It also manages to subvert some aspects of the YA fantasy/paranormal genre that have long been absorbed by many YA writers.  Not only does Death Sworn provide a great fantasy tale with a political edge hiding just beneath the surface, but it asks the question of what happens when someone really isn’t “the special one” anymore - when the YA heroine realizes that her special snowflake status gets revoked, shit gets real.  

Ileni is the perfect example of this.  Because she was given expectations from birth to be one of the best, the decline of her magical powers is something that makes a large portion of her character.  We see Ileni struggling with how her skills and her abilities can no longer perfectly coincide.  There is artful skill but no power; with Sorin, there is power but not so much artistic skill.  She becomes balanced by his presence in the narrative while also upset in other ways.  Ileni’s story becomes one of survival, as well as one of self-acceptance.  She has to learn to use her skills wisely as a teacher of assassins, as a spy, as a sorceress with a limited wellspring of magical gifts.  It becomes a tale of how Ileni learns how to deceive in her own way while still remaining powerful.  

It’s well done because Ileni is easy to relate to in these problems without necessarily being an easy person to like.  She’s not a super unlikeable narrator, but she’s resilient and tough because of the way that she grew up.  Sorin is similar.  Ileni knows that she has to fend for herself and make decisions based on her survival as an individual, which means that trusting someone inside that helps her with those decisions is difficult.  We see her blossom in how she begins to trust Sorin.  We also see her grow as a person with how she learns to defend herself physically.  Despite the moral quandaries she presents within the narrative on the subject of assassination as a profession, her need for survival allows her to be flexible and take on aspects of the assassins.  She’s never soft and fragile, instead hiding her weaknesses, yet her method of character growth yields her to a feeling of sensitivity that the reader can hold onto and appreciate.  Ileni manages to become inspirational in how strong she is in her survival skills.  They may not make her a morally perfect Mary Sue, but they make her a character that has agency and goals even in the most subtle of operations.  

Sorin was a worthy foil to Ileni, in ways that will make readers fascinated.  His history with the assassins makes his characterization unexpectedly complicated.  He’s not this dark, brooding, mysterious character without real purpose in keeping his life a secret.  He broods because he is serious and loyal, deadly and (secretly) rebellious.  Cypess explores the idea of being raised with the concept of assassination as a necessity; as something that isn’t morally right or wrong, but something that simply is a part of life.  It creates a polarity between the two characters that explores the importance of assassination as a political mechanism as well as a way of life.  Sorin doesn’t totally buy into his teachings, but he also doesn’t come around to a big “teaching moment” wherein he fully buys into a black-and-white viewpoint of assassination.  Rather, he has active arguments with Ileni throughout the text that suggest moral ambiguity, complexity, and history to the act of assassination and how making a life out of it causes for a different lens on the matter.  I also liked that Sorin’s story was about the way rebellion can be subtle; it made his past and his connection with Ileni all the more powerful in many ways.  We can believe that he falls for Ileni because she represents things that he has never been able to do in large ways - and her mere existence rebels against the world in ways that Sorin can’t on his own.  

Cypess’s world as an entirety does feel very insular for most of the novel.  Death Sworn doesn’t pretend to have a huge globe-trotting plot, and I think it works for what Cypess tries to do, but it does make the world feel like it has more to offer in the next book that readers won’t see directly.  Cypess shows this in the way that the assassins occasionally interact with the outside world, whether for jobs or less approved purposes.  Sorin and Ileni also mention past experiences on occasion that suggest the world’s larger breadth.  Politically, I think Cypess foreshadows and hints at much to come with how and why Ileni and Sorin are in the cave of the assassins in the first place.  What it all boils down to is that we get a fabulous image of a concentrated part of the world that Cypess has envisioned, and it leaves us wanting for the world at large in a way that will make the sequel one of immense potential.  I did find myself wanting a bit more of the outside world of the fantasy that Cypess has created.  Not because the world building was lacking, but because it was so fascinating.  

The world of Death Sworn also has really great construction in the way the world works in terms of the magic system.  Not only does it work for Ileni as a character, but it works in that it provides a solid concept of checks and balances to itself without feeling overly complicated.  Cypess creates a system that lives and breathes in the way that it presents itself in the potential power of those that wield magic.  Some have more than others, and skill itself yields itself to separate but not always intertwined character traits.  I think Cypess’s discussion of skill versus latent power, and power versus intelligence, makes the magic system more complicated without making it about all of the technical bits and bobs.  Instead, it shows how magic is highly dependent on multiple variables with the user.  These variables combined affect how the magic shapes the user and is used by the user.  Ileni’s skill is so great that her waning power doesn’t totally diminish her; her intelligence also works to make up for where the power fades off.  Sorin has good magical power but doesn’t have the skill or lifelong training.  He has intelligence, but not inherent magical intelligence because of how it was introduced to him later in life.  It creates a system where the characters wielding the magic matter just as much as the magic itself.  It’s ingenious because it makes so much sense despite being deceptively simple in how it gets presented.  

I loved Death Sworn.  It’s an intelligent, dark fantasy that is embalmed with questions, resilience, and determination.  Ileni is a female protagonist that truly kicks ass with how real she is.  Sorin is a hero that is a wonderful match but never makes her feel incapable.  Death Sworn is a fantasy with a romantic storyline - it is not a story about a girl that needs a boy, but about a girl that needs to survive and a boy that gets challenged by her in the process.  Death Sworn is the type of fantasy that will have you waking up fearing a knife at your throat, a magical spell on the edge of your lips.  This book is so, so worth it.  

Cover:  I love this cover for the fact that it feels so ominous.  Some of the detailing doesn’t work for me 100%, but I think it’s a great representation of the book without using cover models.  

Rating:  5.0  Stars

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!!!)

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Review: Illusive by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Title:  Illusive

Author:  Emily Lloyd-Jones

Publisher:  Little, Brown

Series:  Illusive #1

Other Reviews for This Author:  None  

I have a secret love of novels featuring super heroes or characters with super powers.  Comic books have made me appreciate the tropes and triumphs that come with the modern idea of what it means to be a  “super hero”.  I’ve also loved what it’s been able to do in areas of subversive young adult fiction, such as in Hayden Thorne’s Masks series or Perry Moore’s Hero.  Illusive plays with the female super hero - or character with super powers - as well as other common themes in YA, like the thief protagonist and the dystopian/post-apocalyptic future.  Illusive is utterly brilliant with its mixture of capers, superpowers, friendships, and secrets revealed (and kept hidden).  

Ciere Giba is seventeen and a criminal.  She is one of the few with powers that are beyond that of the average human, all thanks to a vaccine thrown out into the world after the onslaught of something known as the MK virus.  Without proper testing and analysis, this vaccine had the downside of giving people these powers, or “immunities”.  Ciere’s is the ability to create illusions.  While far from perfect, Ciere can use her ability to disguise herself and to disguise areas around her if she tries.  Her past experiences are what keep her from unlocking the true potential of her strength.  

However, Ciere has always had potential.  It’s why she’s a criminal.  She works under a mentor who has her doing jobs that give her the chance to use her immunities.  Everything about Ciere Giba becomes an illusion.  Her name is created, her past is locked away, and the life she lives in public is a lie.  Which is why she sees nothing wrong with pulling a bank heist on the way back to her home base in Philadelphia with her best friend, Devon, which in turn sends her on a path where she owes a local organized crime group a substantial amount of money.  She gets back to Philadelphia where her mentor, Kit, awaits and avoids telling him because she knows that she has to fix things herself.

Kit may be like a parent to her, but, in their world, getting left behind in order to survive is a reality.  Criminals do not have the benefit of being endlessly compassionate.  Ciere and Devon return to Philadelphia while evading police only to get plunged into a new job; they have to help Kit hand off undisclosed information that may or may not discuss harsh realities involving the world that they all know.  It could mean uncovering new information regarding the MK vaccine and the family behind its inception.  It also means Kit bringing in a new Immune recruit named Magnus, someone with a lot of power and a lot of unresolved history with Kit that boils underneath the mission.  As the secrets and things left unsaid continue to build, Ciere realizes that Kit’s latest job is so much more.  

The government and the resistance groups are only the beginning.  Ciere, Kit, Devon, and Magnus enter into a situation that blows everything they knew out of the water.  They are criminals who become more than the middlemen, and this job is the one that changes everything.  

Illusive is the first book in a series (not sure if it’s a duology, trilogy, or something else entirely) but reads perfectly well on its own.  I fell in love with the way it defied my expectations.  Illusive is the type of book that could easily fall into genre trappings because of how exciting its packaging is.  The publisher’s comparison between it, X-Men, and Ocean’s Eleven made things rocky as well, as those types of comparisons are easily stretched in order to sell books to a reluctant audience.  Illusive instead holds its own by doing things its own way.  It features a wonderful female protagonist without a strong romantic arc that focuses both on her character development and her interactions as a highly capable criminal.  Not only that, but it does it all in a world that is crafted with excellence and a writing style that manages to pull off a limited third-person view in present tense.  Basically, Illusive does a lot of good shit you would never expect it to.

I loved Ciere from the moment she came on the page.  She’s the type of heroine that I fall for in all the right ways.  I admired her ability to play the game of being a criminal with the ability to create illusions; she’s not totally confident in her abilities on a larger scale, yet she continually pulls things off when she needs to and continues on with her mission despite her misgivings about herself.  Her lack of confidence was real to me because it felt relative to how many girls feel about their abilities on a regular basis.  Heck, I feel that way about myself all the time.  What I loved about her was her ability to keep going and stay true to herself while not always being one hundred percent confident.  It felt real despite the superpowers and the heists she was pulling off.

Another big aspect was her friendship with Devon.  Their dynamic is a solid friendship that puts Ciere in a place of knowing her own abilities and survival skills; Devon is a kid from a wealthy family whose parents expect him to be out of the country getting it on with girls in a ski chalet.  Their dynamic is intriguing because it gives Ciere a chance to be the one that knows what she’s doing in regards to her abilities and her skills.  Devon is a hacker, so he manages to bring his own skills to the story without coming across as being “superior” or the male savior.  They have a relationship that swings between levels of potential romantic tension and solid friendship, and it develops in a way that has them working together and focusing on each other’s safety without everything being about the protection of the female character from dangerous things.  I liked seeing a situation where the protection was a mutual act of friendship and not about keeping the “fragile female” safe.  Illusive’s lack of alpha male bullshit endeared me to the character dynamics quickly.  

What Lloyd-Jones also succeeds at in characterization is the balance of secrets and undisclosed information.  We’re told in one section of narration that, “{Ciere’s} mother called her name.  It wasn’t ‘Ciere,’ because that wasn’t what she was called then” (Kindle Location 1670).   The narration itself plays into the notion that some things are just unknown.  This is woven into all of the characterization.  With Ciere, it’s in her past relationship with her mother compared to her present friendships and pseudo-family relationships.  With Kit, it’s the way he avoids talking about his missions and his past with Magnus.  With Devon, it’s about the complexity of his feelings for Ciere.  Lloyd-Jones has mastered the art of showing the reader things by not saying them.  We learn just as much from these characters by what they never explain as we do by what they explain directly.  Even the observing narration has a limited perspective that prevents us from knowing the full truth.  Not only does it give a sense of intrigue, but it plays perfectly into the larger themes of the story.  I definitely wanted more from some of the character dynamics - Kit and Magnus were just fascinating, and I wanted to know more about what it was like for Devon, who is a character of color and doesn’t always get as much characterization as Ciere because of his “best friend” label.  He doesn’t feel like a caricature, but he also doesn’t subvert anything directly in this book.  Lloyd-Jones’s narrative seems to suggest that there is more to come, but it’s difficult to tell until the next book comes out.  

Illusive also has a solid sense of pacing.  Balance between a character-driven narrative and a plot that requires action, stealth, and heist-like scenarios is difficult.  Heist novels often get overtaken with the plot.  Illusive, being a futuristic novel regarding superpowers and science, has the added joy of adding world building to the list of things to balance in a big way.  Illusive makes it all work in a way that feels harmonious.  The reader gets dropped into the world in a way that allows for explanations that don’t feel like total info-dumps.  Lloyd-Jones writes using a style that keeps things effortlessly readable, yet it has a lot of tact behind the wording and the things that are observed within the exposition.  The scientific reasoning behind the vaccines felt real without being over-explained, and the way that Lloyd-Jones built the political ramifications came across as real.  It wasn’t a big “the government is pure evil and the rebels are pure good” scenario.  Instead, it showed how everything was manipulated and given a level of political agenda.  Even the criminals have things to fight for that may or may not fit with the philosophies of Ciere, Kit, and Devon, but they have to work within the world they stumble into or die.  It allows for the plot to ask questions of its readers while providing action sequences, fights, and standoffs between various characters.  I just love when a book has enough meat to it to keep me interested in action sequences, as they often feel unsatisfying when the author doesn’t seem to balance those aspects of the story.  Lloyd-Jones knows her stuff.  

Readers will find a lot to enjoy about Illusive.  Its tropes (teen thief, superpowers, future/dystopia) are all ones that sell well in today’s market and appeal to people on a commercial level, yet its execution is above the expected and works hard to make the story a balanced one that delivers on all of its promised aspects.  I was enraptured by the story of Ciere Giba and the mission that changed her life, and I think a lot of readers will be the same and will clamor for another book in this world.  While I think Lloyd-Jones can do more to flesh out her PoC characters and characters of other intersections, I think the world of Illusive is one that allows for subversion and intellect because of its abilities in character development along with the plot.  Basically: this story works on many levels and has the potential to work even better, and it’s a great example of how popular tropes can be elevated and made exciting again.  Illusive is the book you want on your shelf if you like stories about superpowers and teen criminals.  

Cover:  I actually really like this cover.  I think it suggests a lot of dark action while still showcasing the strength of the female protagonist, and I like how it heralds to the criminal element of the plot.  

Rating:  4.5  Stars

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review.  

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Review: Fan Art by Sarah Tregay

Review:  Fan Art

Author:  Sarah Tregay

Publisher:  Katharine Teagan Books

Series:  None

Other Reviews for This Author:  Love & Leftovers

Sarah Tregay is the undiscovered gem of the YA contemporary world.  Her debut novel, Love & Leftovers, is a book written in poetry that follows a protagonist trying to deal with love, infidelity, and a father who has left her mother because he’s come out as gay.  It was a book I loved because it wasn’t simple or expected, and the writing blew me away with how it connected me to the character’s emotional struggles.  I was excited to read Fan Art when I realized it was Tregay’s newest book, but then I realized that this book could be The Book for me.  Fan Art follows a main character who is in love with his male best friend.  It’s a story about love, the complexities of coming out and fandom, and the importance of standing up for something when it’s not something easy to do.   Fan Art is my favorite book of the year so far - my unabashed love for this book makes me unable to shut up about it.  This book is a book that I needed.  

In the world of high school, senior year is the year that sparks change.  It’s the year that tells people that something else is coming, so why not shift and shake your world in honor of your upcoming new life beyond K-12 education?  Jamie Peterson’s senior year is one of editing the art in his high school’s literary magazine and being in love (secretly) with his best friend, Mason.   Mason and Jamie have always been the kind of friends that have ignored the idea of being gay.  That’s not what guys like Jamie and Mason are supposed to be - they’re supposed to like girls and go to parties and get wasted and play sports.  

Jamie’s not supposed to love Mason as more than a friend.  The guys at school have taken to saying, “I love you, man” in irony to each other.  It’s friendly, it’s fun, but it’s decidedly not supposed to be that affectionate.  Yet Jamie can’t help but say “I love you, man” to Mason with real feeling.  He thinks that he can ignore it and move on to college where things will be safer, where he can figure out a way to deal with himself without ruining the best friendship he has.  Jamie’s already out to his super supportive parents; it’s Mason that scares him.  The one place Jamie can find a sense of calmness is within art: his art class and the literary magazine are the few spaces in school that make him feel relatively safe.

Art class yields an art submission to the magazine that changes everything.  Challis, a well-known lesbian girl that’s always been popular with the art geeks, ends up submitting a graphic short about two boys that end up liking each other romantically.  It’s cute, it’s simple, and it’s something that promises to say a lot without saying much at all.  It’s also based on Challis’s observations of Jamie and Mason, but no one has to know that.  This dalliance with Challis leads Jamie to become hesitant friends with Eden, another lesbian girl that reaches out to him for some kind of friendship.

One comic is apparently enough to shake up the world.  Jamie decides he’s taking Eden to the prom in an effort to be like one of the guys, who all seem to be pressuring him to go.  At the same time as prom is gearing up, Challis’s comic gets rejected because the other magazine editors believe it acts substance - with the undercurrent being that a gay romance doesn’t “fit” in their magazine.  As Jamie struggles to accept this, he realizes that he wants to fight for this story.  Whether it’s for Challis, for the story itself, or what it means to him is another matter entirely.  Jamie has reasons to shake up the world: Challis’s graphic short and, more importantly, Mason.  

Sarah Tregay’s Fan Art is a book that sounds like it’s a regular coming out story and ends up becoming a true window into the world of being a queer cisgender kid in high school.  It’s not the usual story about a narrator that keeps suppressing himself until the climax of the novel and then finally admits his sexuality, only to come out.  It’s about a narrator who knows who he is, and who has accepted that enough to tell his family, but still struggles to reveal that part of himself to the person that he loves romantically (and therefore, the world at large.)  It’s a story about coming out in multiple forms.  What does it mean to come out again and again as a queer person?  What does it mean to come out depending on the level of acceptance in your home environment?  

Coming out stories are necessary because they reflect the contradictory nature of being queer in a world that assumes otherwise.  The coming out process is one that people still struggle to understand, and oftentimes it gets romanticized or stereotyped by straight people into being something that only can have a few limited outcomes depending on a few limited family stereotypes.  Fan Art shows coming out in multiple ways by having several characters of different family backgrounds.  We have Jamie, whose family is accepting to the point of discomfort with him (which reflects his discomfort with himself as a queer guy), and Challis, who seems comfortable with herself despite us never getting a major glimpse at her family.  Eden’s family is very religious and would rather see her “cured” of her lesbian “urges”, and Mason’s family is one with a patriarchal father that continually puts Mason down and reinforces specific gender roles for him.  These four queer characters react differently to being queer and coming out - or not, or maybe not being queer at all - and that allows the book to become more than the average coming out story.  I also think it helps that it’s not about Jamie questioning if he does or does not find himself attracted to guys; it’s about Jamie deciding if he can feel comfortable with himself and safe in his environment to be vocal about his sexuality.  

Because of this, I loved the characterization.  Jamie’s not a totally likable protagonist, but he’s understandable.  He and Mason are openly expected to conform to gender roles in high school, which we see in how they get pressured to find dates to prom and ironically say “I love you” to other guys with implied “no homo” subtext, as awful as it is.  We see how Jamie would be totally afraid to tell his best friend about his romantic love when they aren’t taught that it’s okay to be open with each other about their emotions and feelings, and that these gender roles indicate if someone is not heterosexual.  As the story progresses, Tregay moves the narrative foreword both in terms of their friendship and in terms of the plot with Challis’s story in the magazine to show how those things we are taught to expect are harmful and wrong.  Jamie doesn’t find it easy to tell Mason things, and he doesn’t find it easy to fight for Challis’s story despite how much he loves it.  He’s a reluctant rebel until he finally becomes more comfortable with who he is.  Even then, we continually see how Jamie’s status as a more active queer person leads to anxiety and potential alienation from his peers.

Basically, we see that shit isn’t easy.  We see that it’s not like accepting yourself makes everything easier or simpler; we also see that coming out is a continual process.  Advocating for this story means that Jamie would be more open about who he is with a ton of people over and over again, and that’s stressful and scary in an environment he doesn’t like.  It also means that he becomes someone he’s not sure if he wants to be, because he’s taught that it’s safer to not say anything about his sexuality in order for it to be more acceptable.

Mason is a great friend to Jamie; Eden is kind of desperate at first in her attempts to connect to Jamie, but she grows into someone that shows him how queerness is complicated when your family isn’t so willingly accepting.  Even though Eden is out to some people and knows she likes girls, she can’t be who she is in many places and it makes her romanticize things that make Jamie uncomfortable.  He learns to appreciate her friendship because he can be out to her even if he can’t be out to Mason, which is something that he had no idea he needed as a queer teenager that was so focused on passing as straight.  Then we have a bunch of secondary characters, many with complex reactions and micro-aggressional reactions to Challis’s story that get shown rather than directly told.  We see that homophobia doesn’t have to be direct to be in existence, and that it can also be very direct at the same time.  Jamie’s parents are wonderfully supportive, to the point where it makes me cry thinking about it.  As a queer kid growing up in a small town, my parents were never that supportive.  I was told not to date (it would ruin the family reputation) and a host of other things that showed my parents as being unaccepting, even if they loved me.  Jamie’s parents are characters that give readers like me the opportunity to realize that there are good parents out there when it comes to accepting their kids for being queer, even if they do come with their own complications.

I also loved the depiction of being involved with a school magazine.  Jamie is an art editor for Gumshoe, a literary and art magazine that features short stories, poems, and artwork from the students at his high school.  As someone who is involved with his college’s literary magazine, it’s cool to read about magazine production and see it getting depicted with a level of reality.  Jamie talks about using Adobe InDesign (which is something to experience and curse if you’ve ever used it, even just casually) and about the needs of editing, production meetings, and working with printers and magazine proofs.  Tregay clearly knows what she is writing about.  I loved that it was depicted with a casual expertise and sense of reality.  We never feel overly inundated with information, yet we never feel like we’re reading a shallow depiction of a detailed activity.  

Tregay also shines a lens to fan culture, though it’s more subtle than one would anticipate with the marketing of the book.  Challis’s graphic short is essentially image-based fan fiction.  Fan comics and fan art are both popular online for a variety of fandoms (fan communities, for those unfamiliar with this terminology), and there are fandoms for people in real life as well as in media.  Oftentimes there are fandoms for historical figures or celebrities within the music and film industries, though a fandom could theoretically crop up for anything.  Tregay’s usage of fandom is seen both in the inspiration for Challis’s piece and the way she and her friends seem to “ship” Jamie with different guys in school.  We see how it’s a positive force in the sense that it makes them comfortable with queer sexualities and gives Jamie a way to know that people won’t ostracize him if he comes out publicly, yet it also shows how fandom inherently fetishizes queer people who may not be out, and how that is damaging and can make someone acutely uncomfortable.  Coming out is ultimately an individual’s decision - no one should come out for someone - and I think Tregay tackles that with her depiction of fandom in a way that works without being so direct about it.  

One thing I had trouble with was Jamie's way of discussing women in regards to how they acted.  I think Tregay could have done more to show how Jamie's usage of gender stereotypes there was harmful - because Jamie himself often stereotypes girls in this book to reflect his ideas of women being "more emotional" and "fangirls" when it comes to how he acts.  I think a lot of this got caught up in the thematic movement of the story and never got deconstructed the way it should have been, but I felt like there were attempts at addressing this more directly.  It also comes with the character voice, which is admittedly unlikable and uses stereotypes - some of which I didn't notice or read as being an attempt at pointing out the stereotyping of others.  (For a counterpoint, I found this discussion-review that brings up some valid points about Jamie's voice with its subtle sexism and racial stereotyping.  Click here to look at it if you want a comparison.)

Fan Art is a book that I wish that I had in high school, and one I’m thankful to have gotten in college.  It’s beautiful because it doesn’t make things simple.  It’s hopeful and romantic, but it’s also about how things are difficult and not always easy to come to terms with.  Tregay depicts her characters in ways that go beyond the usual stereotypes and caricatures.  She creates a read that is about coming out, but also about what it means to be queer in a world that doesn’t accept that on both large and small scales.  More than that, it’s a story that will get into your heart as you realize the difficulty that Jamie has with self-acceptance despite seeming to have it already.  Mason and Jamie are a romance worth reading every page for, and everyone else along the way makes the romance that much better.  Fan Art is a book that is as beautiful and rich as a freshly inked graphic novel.  There are clearly problems with it that others have addressed - sadly, problems that are seen far too often in books narrated by male characters - and I can agree with, but when I read this book, all I could be was happy that someone chose to represent a coming out story that showed how difficult it could be even in the best of circumstances.

Cover:  This cover is fucking adorable and I want to hug it.  I think it will stand out on shelves beautifully and capture the feeling of the story’s romance perfectly.

Rating:  5.0  Stars  (Could it be anything else??)  

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review  (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!!)  

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Review: Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

Review:  Faking Normal

Author:  Courtney C. Stevens

Publisher:  Harper Teen

Series:  None

Other Reviews for This Author:  None

Faking Normal is a contemporary YA novel that promises to deal with some dark issues.  Naturally, I wanted to read it because it got a fair amount of praise when it came out and seemed like (from the blurb and the general reception) a fresh take on a difficult topic covered in a lot of Young Adult and New Adult books in the past few years.  I wanted to like this book with its southern background and the way it tackled the issues presented, but most of the time I felt bored and as if the characters were hollow.  Faking Normal is a book that will enchant readers looking for this type of story, but the overall construction didn’t strike me as doing anything new for the particular issues addressed in the story.  

Everything starts with a funeral.  Alexi Littrell is dressed for mourning as she watches Bodee Lennox, the shy kid who dyes his hair with Kool-Aid, lose his mother all over again.  There’s no going back in Bodee’s life.  When he runs out of the funeral home, Alexi follows him because she knows.  It’s not simple, and it’s not something that she tells him, but she knows.  Looking at Bodee reminds Alexi of the way that she feels when she thinks about the past summer, the way that she feels when she scratches the back of her neck raw.  

This connection gets intensified when Bodee comes to live with Alexi’s family.  Bodee’s father is out of the picture because of how he destroyed Bodee’s mother; Alexi’s mother was friends with Bodee’s, as both were involved in a prayer group.  The Christian thing to do - the friendly thing to do - was to offer him a place to stay.  As Alexi gains a (temporary) new family member, she is also subjected to her sister Kayla’s controlling nature.  Kayla finally becomes engaged to her longtime boyfriend, the guy she’s been dating since high school, and the impending wedding only seems to emphasize Kayla’s abrasive nature.  

Quiet, contemplative Bodee is an escape.  Alexi’s friends seem determined to have her end up with a football player or someone similar.  They want to see her dating someone again - someone who will be good for her.  Out of the hallways, the piercing metal lockers and the friendships that seem to shudder in the school air conditioning, Alexi finds solace in Bodee because he understands.  He observes her and knows that something is going on with her beneath the surface.  

As Bodee and Alexi become closer, she has to confront her past.  She has to confront what makes her afraid of her sexual side.  The memories that Alexi has suppressed lead to darker and darker truths.  Alexi has no idea what will happen when she dusts off the memories she shoved away to survive; she has no idea if she’ll be able to handle it, or if she’ll lose herself (and Bodee) in the process.  

Faking Normal addresses the story of a girl who has a past that makes her afraid.  She’s afraid of sexual contact in a way that makes it clear that something is up with her, and she references past events in a way that clearly shows something amiss.  Alexi’s fear is coupled with an inability to speak up with things are happening, making her feel even worse because she can’t fight back the way that she believes (unfairly) that she should have to.  Then we have Bodee, someone who rarely speaks up out of personality rather than fear, at least on the surface.  These two create a story that’s centrally focused on romance and healing. 

I found Alexi as a narrator to be good enough with her development and voice.  Stevens’s writing style feels honest in its portrayal of a teenager’s mindset, although there are times wherein the book clearly feels censored (such as when a character calls another character a name over loud music) and it breaks the feeling of reality.  That could be editorial, so it’s hard to pin that on Stevens specifically.  Alexi also just has a general way of making her story seem accessible.  My biggest problem with Alexi’s narration was the general feeling of aimlessness.  I don’t think narration inherently needs a path or a pattern, but other than the chronological events, I never felt connected to what was going on in Alexi’s life.  Several of the events felt extended, and the memories she slowly began to remember felt very convenient.  It was hard to tell if she just never wanted to remember these things and repressed them, or if she just never thought of the idea that some of her fears could have roots in the past.  

What annoyed me about this was that it felt too convenient.  While it is fully possible for someone to do this on their own, it’s hard to accept that a character can do it on their own without thought of therapy, or about the ways to safely deal with repressed memories.  It wasn’t so much Lexi as was the way I felt like Lexi’s past was more of a manipulated way to keep the mystery going rather than following a path that matched her mentality as a character.  Lexi as a character seems aware to me - too aware to be so ignorant of these things until Bodee talks about them with her - and I think I would have liked deeper reasons for her repression of the memories because of how they seemed to feel disjointed with the rest of the narrative.  

I did like how Lexi still participated in a lot of her life.  The portrayal of her coping mechanisms, which were small to those outside but were deeply ingrained to her, felt realistic and more in-tune with her character.  I also loved how many of her interactions with Bodee seemed to reflect these methods of comfort, as if they were constantly creating ways to share in each other’s pain until they could deal with it in a more healthy manner.  Stevens also has a great plot with a secret admirer that seems to leave song lyrics for Alexi on a desk in one of her classes - and while the way it’s dealt with isn’t fairy-tale perfect, it’s also not surprising.  I still liked the idea that Alexi would build up an image of someone that was unrealistic, even if the message felt very heavy-handed.  

Bodee didn’t feel that real to me, in all honesty.  I liked the idea of his character; I liked that he was quiet and that he bonded with Alexi.  On the surface, the idea of Bodee is fabulous for this story because he goes against the grain of the people who never notice what is really going on with Alexi.  On the flip side, I felt like the actions he was shown doing never fully characterized him.  I would have liked more insight into him as a person beyond his dark past, and I would have liked him to have more push and pull with Alexi.  Their relationship struck me as so perfect despite both of their issues.  It’s a situation wherein they needed each other, so some level of Bodee being the kind, caring one makes sense, yet it’s also a situation where the ease of their relationship didn’t seem to come with substance.  

At the end of the day, I just had trouble connecting with the story.  Faking Normal does many things right.  It features characters listening to each other, paying attention to each other, and learning to battle their demons with love and care for themselves.  The execution isn’t inherently problematic to me.  Something about the writing of this story on the whole just didn’t sit well, and I can’t put my finger on it.  Maybe it’s the names (which just don’t work for me, and it’s a shallow reason to find the book frustrating).  Maybe it’s the religious culture the book presented - something in no way offensive, yet still felt insular to me to some degree.  Maybe it was how Lexi still managed to call a character a bitch.  I don’t know.  The book has a lot of bright sides, such as the great twist towards the end.  Stevens manages to leave a lot of clues that point to one thing, yet the way she uses them towards the end of the book is inventive and worth reading.  That saved the book from being a total flatline for me.  I also appreciated the nod towards familial love and togetherness towards the end in respecting Alexi, yet I also felt like it brushed a few things up a little too quickly with how people were characterized early on.  

What it comes down to is this: Faking Normal is a perfectly adequate book and will have many readers that love it.  Many of its elements are ones I love.  Yet this time, the quiet relationship, the way the voice and the setting come across, the execution of the darker elements, and the characterization just didn’t work for me.  They either bored me or felt like retreads of other books that dealt with similar issues.  Faking Normal is a great contemporary book for readers who need to read a book dealing with issues of sexual violence and its aftermath, but, for me, the book felt message-y in some of the subplots and expected in the main one.  I’m just not the reader for this book.  

Cover:  I like the trees and the way they fade on the cover, as well as the smattering of freckles on the model.  It makes the book feel less polished than some other covers.  In a good way.

Rating:  2.5  Stars

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review  (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!) 

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Review: Lies My Girlfriend Told Me by Julie Anne Peters

Title:  Lies My Girlfriend Told Me 

Author:  Julie Anne Peters  

Publisher:  Little, Brown

Series:  None

Other Reviews for This Author:  This is Our Prom (So Deal With It)

My first introduction to Julie Anne Peters was with her book This is Our Prom (So Deal With It).  Peters is considered a staple in queer YA literature, specifically in regards to her stories featuring lesbian protagonists and her book Luna, which involves a character with a trans sibling.  Despite finding my first attempt at her books to be mixed, I had wanted to try her as an author again because I felt like the book I tried was outside of her element.  Peters’s most acclaimed books seemed to be more serious, and Lies My Girlfriend Told Me seemed to be in that nature - serious rather than light.  I also liked the idea that it involved grief and deception that didn’t involve a character being in the closet.  All of the presented queer characters are out in this book, and that was a huge reason for why I requested it.  Lies My Girlfriend Told Me is a great example of a YA book that will resonate with teenagers and educators that need it, though a few of its elements weren’t as fleshed out as one would expect.  

Alix has found the girl of her dreams.  Dating Swanee has given Alix a chance to breathe, a chance to think of herself while her parents focus on a new baby boy and a world of responsibilities.  Nothing could break them apart.  Swanee is perfect - consuming, adventurous, and every bit the free spirit that the rest of her family is, too.  There is so much assurance in their relationship despite its fairly short time span.  Alix already knows that she wants to plan on spending a long, long time with her girlfriend.  One morning, Swanee is gone.  Dropped dead in the middle of her morning run.

There is no moving on.  Alix’s parents try to reach her, but she’s sullen and loses all sense of time.  She doesn’t see the point of being a part of her family, of caring for baby Evan (who probably hates her anyway), when life can’t move forward.  She mourns Swanee with every cell in her body.  After the funeral, she goes into Swanee’s room in order to find her again.  Alix knows that Swanee is dead, yet there’s a strange sense of hope, even as Alix gathers up all of the possessions she lent to her dead girlfriend.  The room search leads to uncovering Swanee’s cellphone.  The phone itself isn’t unusual, but the slew of voicemails and missed phone calls following Swanee’s death are.  

Snooping has a way of snowballing.  Alix takes one look at Swanee’s phone and starts wondering - and wondering leads to reading those unanswered text messages.  After digging and digging, Alix finds out that the person texting Swanee is more than a casual acquaintance.  Her name is Liana, and she had been dating Alix.  Liana’s relationship overlapped with Alix’s; between the two of them, they find a begrudging connection in their shared deceased girlfriend and her deceptions.  Alix wants to learn more and more about Liana to piece together the truths and lies of Swanee.  The more that she learns, the more that she finds herself falling for Liana.  

It may be a revenge relationship.  It may be true love.  All Alix wants is to figure it out and feel something.  

Lies My Girlfriend Told Me is in parts unravelling and stitching things back together.  Peters writes a novel that balances a heroine that first finds herself in a dark, low place and then brings her into a better understanding of the world because of that dark place.  It showcases a character that is unlikable, self-centered, and hurt.  It’s proof that there is definite value in sticking through a book with a narrator that isn’t the nicest person - but it also has some of the inevitable issues that come with that, and I think that’s what makes it a book worth thinking about.  

Our vision of Alix as a narrator is pretty mixed in sympathies.  Swanee dies pretty early on - we get that from the blurb and from the construction of the book.  This leaves her in a position where she’s extremely sensitive and feels alone.  We also learn that she has slowly left her best friend, Betheny, due to Swanee’s advice on the uselessness of cheerleaders.  So, from the beginning, there’s a clear sense that Alix hasn’t been a nice person because of her relationship, but that the relationship seemed to far outweigh any problematic elements.  The narration continues through to the discovery of Swanee’s deception and Alix getting introduced to Liana, and it also contains various interactions with Alix and her parents.

The interactions between Alix and her parents have immense amounts of strain.  The reader can tell that they have some aspects of restraint and expectation, and those get vocalized by Alix numerous times.  Yet, there is also a strong dissent from Alix that is purposefully mean.  We see it primarily within her reactions to responsibility, both towards her parents and towards her younger brother, Ethan.  Ethan’s status as the family baby (and therefore, the family focus at times) brings a constant stream of negativity to Alix’s relationship with her family.  For instance, here’s a scene where Alix is lying to her parents in order to get out of the house and investigate the stuff with Swanee’s secret life, and makes it impossible for her parents to leave the house without Ethan:  

“Nothing happened.”  Swanee happened.  I add, “We have to do it at her house because it’s on her desktop.”  Where do I come up with this crap?  Who uses a desktop anymore?  
“Do you think Betheny would mind if you took Ethan with you?”  
“Mom, we wouldn’t get anything done.  He’s a total distraction.”  
Her smile dissipates.  “Fine.  We won’t go.”  
Kindle Location 899

What proceeds is an explanation of how Alix, with Swanee, nearly had a disastrous babysitting venture with him.  Alix blames herself to the point where she avoids any responsibility and projects a hatred of her onto her sibling that is clearly too young to hate her.  This constant negativity bogs down the narrative despite its honesty.  It’s a plausible thing with her character, yet it also presents her as someone with consistently flawed reasoning that doesn’t see the larger damage she’s doing to her relationship with her parents.  The attitude that Alix gets around her family is just one that’s hard to stomach as a reader that can see where it can go wrong - yet it also speaks to a teenage perspective, especially one with a character that’s struggling with the stuff that Alix is in this narrative.  

The narrative regarding Alix and Liana felt less troubling to me.  In some ways, it feels too expected.  It’s hard to tell if that’s apparent because of the way the characters both clearly need someone, or if it’s because it feels like they get paired up because they are both lesbian and don’t share that with many people in their lives or in their general areas.  Either way, getting past that general feeling led me to appreciating how Peters grew the relationship and gave it a chance to go from obscurity and wariness to love.  It happened fast, and I felt like Peters did that because these characters needed it instead of implying that it would be a forever-romance.  Readers will probably still find it jarring.  

While Peters has a great writing style, it’s sparse, concise, and relies more on the reader’s perceptions of the nuances than a lot of exposition.  I think it serves to create a character voice that feels real, yet it also means that the story moves fast without adding in some internal monologue that would help flesh out the other characters and actions in the story.  For instance, Liana is Latina and Catholic, and she doesn’t seem to progress much beyond having that as a background.  We don’t learn much about her family life, her life at school - really, we just see her in relation to what she was with Swanee and the few things Alix learns about her early on.  Swanee’s family is also classic “hippie family” stereotyped, complete with one child who is very Buddhist and one who “acts out” to seek her parents’s attention.  I think that it created some conflicts worth exploring, but the narration and the length didn’t do much true exploration with them.

Open relationships are one thing that seem to come up a lot yet get only the surface treatment.  Swanee’s parents have an open relationship, as Alix finds out towards the middle of the book, and that seems to get subconsciously attributed to Swanee’s behavior with Liana and Alix.  

“Jewell.”  I twist in my seat.  “Can I ask you a question?”  
She stops and checks her watch.  “I have a hair appointment in twenty minutes.”  
“Um, did you know Swanee was seeing another girl?”
Jewell laughs.  “Only one?”
I don’t laugh.  She lifts her cup to her mouth, sips, and then licks foam from her upper lip.  “I told Swanee she was too young to be serious about just one person.  At her age, I had guys lined up.  Girls, too.”  She winks.
Kindle Location 1373

There’s the consistent sense of connecting open relationships to Swanee’s behavior, as if all open relationships have this sense of distrust about them.  I felt like Peters introduced this into the story without a more thoughtful examination about the importance of open relationships being consensual and discussed.  What I sensed instead was that Swanee’s parents were supposed to be comparable to Swanee’s own actions, which felt misleading and like a result of Peters’s lack of further detail on the subject.  Because there seemed to be an acceptance with these characters playing these expected roles and Alix “growing to learn who they really were”, I felt like they lacked dimension and instead served the purposes of the plot first and foremost.  

But the book also deal with very real attitudes regarding grief and the way that teenagers can seek out help in venues that aren’t with their family.  It’s important, even if it’s frustrating, to show how family can feel like an angry place for a teenager.  It’s also important to show that teenagers can find real relationships out of necessity - that people can do that in general, really.  Peters knows how to convey emotional interactions in ways that hit the reader close to home without overblowing them in the excessiveness in the writing.  I just think that the book needed more to it to bring the side themes and characters into a light that didn’t feel so stereotypical. These characters could have been jaw-droopingly amazing if they had more depth.  This is the kind of queer YA book you see in libraries and classrooms a lot.  It has some tough stuff, but the writing style and plot-based narrative work better with an audience that more directly relates to the situations and emotions of the first person narration.  Lies My Girlfriend Told Me showed me why Peters has become a staple in the YA world, though I think that I expected more from it than I necessarily got.  

Cover:  This cover is angsty, and I think it goes with the book well.  I also am in love with the typography - it’s beautiful and captures a wonderful mood.

Rating:  3.5  Stars

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review  (Thank you, Hachette/Little,Brown!)

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