The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Inside cover blurb:

Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong. ”

-from publisher

Thoughts:

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Plus:

The Hazel Wood is dark, like pitch black. The stories written by Alice’s grandmother are very Brothers Grimm- the original ones where everyone dies in gruesome ways to teach children lessons. But don’t worry they’re included within the narrative, so you’ll get to read all about them.

I had no idea what was going on most of the time. Alice is being chased by what seem to be creepy characters from her grandmother’s stories. That part all made some sort of sense. But it was the why that I didn’t see coming.

The Hazel Wood was unexpected, I will give it that. People die and they stay dead. You don’t often see that in YA books, which tend to lean toward the happy ending.

It’s like if Neil Gaiman wrote Inkheart. That’s the best way I can think of to describe The Hazel Wood. Definite Coraline vibes.

Plus: It will definitely give you the creeps, if you’re into that kind of thing. Maybe just don’t read it before bed.

Minus: I didn’t like some of the plot choices, but that’s part of what made it so unpredictable. The author doesn’t at all take you where you want to go.

If you like this book, try:

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman- I meant it when I said Coraline vibes. This easily could have been one of the Hinterlands stories.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Inside cover blurb:

Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.”

-from publisher

Thoughts:

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Oh my god. I am so glad that I purchased this book on a whim last weekend.

My first experience with Becky Albertalli was last year when I attempted to read her second book, The Upside of Unrequited. I didn’t get very far before it was relegated to my Did Not Finish pile.

So imagine my surprise when I picked up Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and finished it in about 3 hours!

It’s really quite enthralling- Simon is a wonderful narrator, his friends and family are very entertaining, and the plot is actually not as bad as it sounds. Mm no it’s still bad, Simon is genuinely being blackmailed about his sexuality, but what I mean is that the blackmailer and other less educated characters seem to show growth. And that’s what’s important.

So the story manages to make us empathize with it’s characters who may or may not be different than ourselves, and it’s a flippin’ adorable coming of age story. What more could you want?

And did I mention the sequel just came out?? Sign me up. I might even give The Upside of Unrequited another chance.

Plus: Great characters, cute plot points, an overwhelmingly enjoyable read.

Minus: Heavy on fluff, light on the substantial issues. This book poses interesting ethical questions for me…read it and see what you think!

If you like this book, try:

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Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy- Another fantastic coming of age story that also happens to have a sequel on the way!

American Panda by Gloria Chao

Inside cover blurb:

At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?”

-from publisher

Thoughts:

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I had actually said to myself that I would never read this book because the cover and title were so unappealing. But I saw it available for checkout from the library on my Kindle and thought, “Eh, why not.”

And for the most part, I ended up really liking it! But man, does this book really need a different cover/to be marketed entirely differently.

Everything I’ve seen about this book makes it out to be a fun, romp of a novel. There are some funny parts sure, but it’s mostly pretty heavy. Mei’s parents are very intense and she’s under incredible pressure to make them happy. They’ve completely disowned her older brother, for crying out loud!

I liked Mei a lot, and I thought she was a very compelling character. She’s also extremely germophobic, to the point of OCD, which the book doesn’t take much time to address, since there are so many bigger fish to fry.

Honestly, I’m surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this book and I fully recommend it. But I really thought the overwhelming majority of the book was sad, especially toward the end. The cover really does it no justice.

Plus: An in-depth look at culture clash between first generation children and their parents. Diverse reads! Taiwanese culture. A YA book set in college- there really don’t seem to be many of them.

Minus: That cover. So bad.

If you like this book, try:

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Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi- SO AMAZING!!! Aspiring nerdy writer meets aspiring spiraling documentarian. Check out my review here!

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Inside cover blurb:

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.”

-from publisher

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Thoughts:

The Belles was kind of a let down.

The premise sounds totally amazing- a  dystopian setting where the girls competing for the crown’s favor have the power to manipulate beauty.

I loved the idea of the opulent court setting, but it went a little far for my taste, with miniature exotic animals and tiny balloons that deliver news and gossip…

I felt like the whole book was overselling itself. Everything was so grand and luxurious, but it never actually delivered on anything. I was left disappointed at the end of it all.

Camellia was a boring and rather unperceptive main character. She stuck around way longer than anyone with sense would have, although somehow her best friend managed to be even more dense. I just wasn’t very invested in what was happening to her.

I honestly thought the evil princess girl was more interesting.

Having read the author’s note, I can appreciate the reason why the book was written. But The Belles just didn’t click with me.

Plus: There’s a worthwhile message here about the dangers of worshiping beauty and appearance above all else.

Minus: While the message is deep, the story feels shallow.

If you like this book, try:

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Uglies by Scott Westerfeld- The pinnacle of dystopian novels about physical appearance. Basically a modern classic in my book.

Dreadnought by April Daniels

Inside cover blurb:

“Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero.

Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, Danny was trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender. But before he expired, Dreadnought passed his mantle to her, and those secondhand superpowers transformed Danny’s body into what she’s always thought it should be. Now there’s no hiding that she’s a girl.

It should be the happiest time of her life, but Danny’s first weeks finally living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined. Between her father’s dangerous obsession with “curing” her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he’s entitled to date her, and her fellow superheroes arguing over her place in their ranks, Danny feels like she’s in over her head.

She doesn’t have much time to adjust. Dreadnought’s murderer—a cyborg named Utopia—still haunts the streets of New Port City, threatening destruction. If Danny can’t sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.”

-from publisher

Thoughts:

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THIS IS THE ONLY YA SUPERHERO BOOK WE WILL EVER NEED.

Not only is Deadnought a fantastic action/adventure story, it is one of the best coming of age novels I have ever read.

Imagine getting superpowers as a teenager…that would be hard enough. But getting superpowers and finally becoming the gender you’ve known you were all along- so your friends and parents no longer recognize you? And they willfully refuse to recognize you? Sheesh.

The relationship between Danny and her parents literally killed me. Her dad is infuriating, refusing to accept that she’s trans and outright bullying his own child, while her mom takes the much more insidious route, claiming that Danny is only thinking of herself when she refuses to give up the Dreadnought mantle and resume her life as a boy.

And I have not in recent memory wanted to smack a character more than I wanted to smack Danny’s childhood friend when he reveals what a chauvinist jerk he is.

The strongest aspect of the book is Danny and her personal journey, however. The superhero part is good, but it’s just not as good. I mean how can any sci-fi/fantasy plot compete with the raw emotion of Danny’s complex interpersonal relationships? That sounds like sarcasm, but it seriously isn’t. A superhero book has never made me feel this many emotions before.

I would like to enthusiastically applaud April Daniels (and then give her a giant hug), for writing a trans superhero novel, and one that was so spectacularly well done!

Plus: Trans superhero. Seriously, do I need to say more???

Minus: The fight/action scenes were often waaaaay too long and drawn out.

If you like this book, try:

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Sovereign by April Daniels- DID I MENTION THERE’S A SEQUEL?? I’m a bit hesitant to read it because sequels often fall short. But I loved the first one so much, I will at least have to give this one a shot.