Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

“But life, like Scrabble, is like that—you get the rack you get, and you just have to figure out how to make do.”

Queen of the Tiles is an entertaining mystery romp that belongs to that subgenre of YA books that combines a whodunnit type of storyline with the kind of teen dynamics at play in Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Similarly to a lot of these books, Queen of the Tiles takes place in a ‘confined’ setting, but rather than going for the usual prep school/high school type of backdrop, Hanna Alkaf freshens things up by having her story take place during the World Warrior Weekend, an annual Scrabble competition. This tournament takes place in a hotel in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a setting that, you must admit, we don’t get to see often in YA. Additionally, our lead is Muslim, and we also get a very casual non-binary rep with Shuba. The story definitely has some strong The Queen’s Gambit vibes and the author depicts the various Scrabble games in a really fun and dynamic way (so that they are anything but boring) and we can see just how devoted and ambitious some of the competitors are.
Najwa Bakri, our narrator, is taking part in this tournament, the first one she’s done since the very sudden death of her best friend.

“Every player knows that words can be twisted to suit your purpose, if the board allows it, and Trina knows this better than most. She is fantastic; she ignites fantasies. She is spectacular; she attracts spectacle.”

Trina Low died during the previous year’s World Warrior Weekend. Since her death, Najwa has distanced herself from the Scrabble world, but she finds herself going back to claim Trina’s former title, that of the Queen of the Tiles. She knows that people who didn’t like Trina, and who were in turn not liked by her, are also vying for that title, and Najwa isn’t ready to give them the satisfaction of winning. Competing again however proves harder than it used to be now that Najwa is struggling with anxiety and trauma caused by Trina’s premature death. The author is really thoughtful in the way she articulates Najwa’s grieving process, capturing just how suddenly grief can engulf you, regardless of how much time has passed since the person you cared for died. Alkaf also shows how grief manifests differently in different people.

Things get harder when new posts appear on Trina’s long inactive insta. Cryptic posts hinting that her death may have been very much not an accident. Joining a long tradition of kid-turned-detectives such as Nancy Drew and the Scooby-Doo gang (both of which get mentioned in the story), Najwa begins solving the posts’ ominous word puzzles and starts questioning the other competitors, most of whom were foes of Trina. There is the pompous boy she was competing against when she died, who seemed less concerned by her dropping dead than verifying whether her death meant he’d automatically won that final round. There is Trina’s ‘other’ best-friend, an ostensibly nice and obsequious girl whose subservience to Trina definitely gives off sycophantic vibes. There is that girl who was caught in a cheating scandal, and Trina may have been responsible for stoking those cheating rumours. And, of course, Trina’s off-and-on again boyfriend Mark, a possessive type who may have grown tired of Trina’s and what he perceived to be as her ‘blasé’ attitude. While Najwa has always been aware of Trina’s thorny character, and her need to prove herself and to one-up others, during the course of her ‘amateur’ investigation she will be forced to really confront the kind of person Trina was.

“That’s just how she was; she saw something she wanted and she went for it with a laser-sharp intensity that could border on the obsessive. All or nothing, perfection or perish.”

I liked the drama, the secrecy, the rumours and gossip. The Scrabble element was really well delivered and it worked really well for the mystery clues. My only quibbles are 1) throughout the story Najwa links words that are being used or were used in a game to her past or present situation. Sometimes this was effective, but the more this device was used, the less impactful it became, and at times I found the connection between word and situation to be a bit far-fetched 2) Najwa’s ‘tells’ got pretty annoying.
The characters weren’t particularly fleshed out or memorable, some were verged on being rather silly but this subgenre isn’t exactly known for having uber nuanced characters so it didn’t really negatively impact my reading experience. I would have however liked for Trina to have been portrayed in a slightly different light, as she ultimately seems a bit of a mean queen-bee cliché. I liked the lack of romance and Najwa made for a rather endearing protagonist. Their resolution to the mystery was a bit of a letdown, as I found the identity of the person behind those posts far too obvious. It would have been more satisfying to make someone else the culprit. There was also a metaphor about Mark being “a conquistador, trying to impose his will on Trina, colonize her spirit and reap her charms for himself, bend her to his definition of what a girlfriend ought to be” which struck me as a rather unhappy comparison to make.
In general, I did like the references we get, especially when they added a dose of humor and levity to the story’s ongoings (“Honestly. Murder. What do you think this is, an episode of Riverdale?”).
Still, I found this engrossing and fun read. If you are looking for a light-hearted whodunnit that focuses on a group of ambitious and possibly backstabby professional scrabblers, look no further.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


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Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk

If you like lyrical love stories such as Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, or books that give serious A24 coming-of-age film vibes such as All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques, don’t sleep on Nothing Burns as Bright as You. The author captures how all-consuming first love can be through the unnamed narrator’s non-linear recollection of her relationship with another girl who she addresses as ‘you’. We know their relationship ends in flame, but what has caused them to play with fire? There is an attempt at a countdown and a timeline, so each ‘chapter/section’ begins with x days before the fire. While giving specific dates in non-linear narratives can work, such as in the case of A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar(which actually has some similar vibes to this book so if you liked that one definitely check this one out), here it felt superfluous as the narrator doesn’t stick to the memories/experiences from that specific day. Anyway, we learn that these two girls share a really intense bond, one that causes some adults around them to worry they may be too ‘close’. They feel rebellious and seem to find their daily existence untenable. While their friendship does evolve into a more sexual relationship, ‘you’, and to a certain degree the narrator as well, seem unwilling to label themselves. Their love and affection for each other is clear, and the narrative zeroes in on the meaningful moments that make up their ‘history’ together.

While I appreciated that the author did not paint either as the ‘bad’ influence, as they are both shown to feel ‘other’, different from their peers, unable and or unwilling to fit in at school and pretend at ‘normal’, here well, it just made their eventual conflict kind of forced. Also, their whole ‘we are so toxic for each other but’ thing they had going on reminded me a bit of new adult books such as the one penned by Anna Todd and Colleen Hoover, and I am not keen on those. While I could believe in the narrator’s internal monologue brimming with flowery and grandiose metaphors about love, girlhood, and ‘you’, there were instances where she describes her relationship with ‘you’ to others and she uses such lyrical yet the overwrought language that I had a hard time believing in those scenes. Even if she were a poet it seemed unlikely that she would just come out with such ott allegories on the spot. Maybe fans of allegedly ‘realistic’ teen shows like Euphoria won’t mind but I did. Anyway, while I did find this to be the kind of book that prioritizes language over character/story (the two girls have no distinct personalities, just vibes), I would be lying if I said I didn’t like this book. It was atmospheric, full of gorgeous scenes honing in on some sapphic moments with some vivid and sensual imagery. At times, as I said, I did find the writing to be trying too much, and in this way, I was reminded of the poetry of Ocean Vuong. I know there is an audience that will find these types of metaphors stunning, so do not let my criticism of this book dissuade you from giving it a read.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Anything But Fine by Tobias Madden

I had quite hopes for Anything But Fine and the first few chapters promised a ya coming-of-age in the realms of The Sky Blues, Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, and You Should See Me in a Crown. As the story progresses however I found myself growing weary of the unnecessary miscommunication. If you are a fan of Netflix teen comedies/dramas, Anything But Fine will likely be your next favourite read however, if you prefer more nuanced characters and more realistic scenarios/dynamics well, this may not deliver.

Set in Australia Luca Mason, our 16-teen-yr-old narrator has dedicated his life to ballet. His hopes of being accepted into the Australian Ballet School are thwarted after a bad fall results in a broken foot. After his doctors tell him that he is unlikely to ever be able to dance again Luca is more-or-less booted out of his fancy private high school. A lost and confused Luca distances himself from his ballet friends, three girls who do not seem to truly understand the irreversible consequences of his fall. At his new high school, Luca is befriended by Amina, an affectionate, dorky, genius. Luca also falls hard for Jordan Tanaka-Jones, the school’s handsome, popular and allegedly straight jock.
While the novel does rely on insta-love Luca’s crush/obsession with Jordan did strike me as fairly believable. Luca is a horny teenager whose life has recently experienced an unwelcome drastic change so he decides to focus his attention on the seemingly unattainable Jordan. Luca’s dad, who is still grieving the death of his wife, Luca’s mother, tries to reach out to Luca and talk about how his ballet-less life is affecting him but Luca is quick to shut down this conversation. He spends most of his time daydreaming about Jordan and only on occasion allows himself to think about ‘what-ifs’ where he is able to dance again or has never fallen in the first place.

Some positives: the writing was fairly engaging and there were even some well-delivered moments of humor. I appreciated that Luca was portrayed as flawed. He makes mistakes, he is rather self-involved, a bit desperate when it comes to Jordan, and could be a more attentive friend/son. The author also shows that while he is often at the receiving end of homophobic ‘jokes’ and verbal abuse, he has a lot to learn about other people’s experiences. He does grow aware of this and works to improve himself, which was nice to see. Amina, for 70% of the novel, was a very sweet lovable character. Yeah, she had the type of personality that is often given to secondary characters in teen movies, so some of the stuff she does/say is a bit ott but overall it kind of worked (or at least it did until that scene…). She had her own arc, which made her character more rounded.

And the negatives (spoilers ahoy): we are told that Luca’s raison d’etre is ballet and while he does now and on occasion think about I didn’t really buy into this aspect of his character. Look, I get that he would avoid thinking about it too much but surely he would notice how different his everyday life is now. He only comments on this once or twice which isn’t entirely credible. Like, the guy dedicated most of his life to ballet, something that requires a certain amount of devotion. He would have been performing/practising daily and followed a strict diet etc., yet he seemingly adapts to his new life with no problem. Also, while he does one time acknowledge to his father that he is in pain due to his foot, the author seems to gloss over his physical recovery. He has physio but those scenes are all about developing his romance. I just would have liked for ballet (or lack of ballet) to play more of a role in his story. As things stand, we are told he love(d) it but there were few scenes showing this. His former ballet friends are portrayed in a very mean girl way. And sure, there are girls who behave like they do but I did not appreciate that Lucas is dismissive of them from the start. He uses certain terms that were low-key sexist and the story doesn’t challenge any of them. Even the popular girls at his new school receive a similar treatment, and even Jordan and Amina dismiss them and imply that ‘popular’ girls are promiscuous/bitchy/and-other-negative-descriptors-almost-exclusively-used-for-women which seemed a bit out of character if I’m honest. Also, while I am a fan of media that falls under cringe comedy, and I am aware that one’s teen years may be filled with plenty of embarrassing/awkward moments, here there were several scenes that just seemed gratuitous. I am not keen on adult authors going out of their way to embarrass their teenage characters. And here we have a major plot point involving a character doing something very unbelievable and utterly embarrassing themselves and the people around them. Amina has a crush on Jordan and suspects that Lucas is hiding something from her, possibly something that has to do with Jordan. Lucas tells her he has a girlfriend but Amina doesn’t seem to believe him and decides to declare her feelings to Jordan in front of his teammates who have bullied her and Lucas. Why…why would she ever do such a thing? While I am willing to believe that she would confess her feelings to Jordan despite Lucas’ attempts to stop her, I didn’t believe that she would do it publicly and seemingly on the spur of the moment. Her refusal to listen to Lucas’ pleas not to go ahead with her plan also struck me as inconsistent with her characterization so far. Sure, she is shown to be a tad naive and very wholesome, her fangirling over one direction comes across as a tad childlike at times but she is also portrayed as empathetic and in many ways more mature than her peers. I struggled to reconcile her actions at that party with her character. She’s obviously turned down and made fun of by the one-dimensional-jock-goons. Both Jordan and Amina take it out on Lucas, which wasn’t entirely fair. In fact, this whole section strings together scene after scene where Lucas is made out to be an ‘awful’ guy. The boy is not perfect sure but I didn’t think it was fair that he was blamed for so many things and rather than communicating/explaining himself to Amina, Jordan, or his dad, he just chooses not to. After being blamed by Amina and Jordan for making her embarrass herself, he inadvertently outs Jordan to his homophobic teammate. In an attempt to warn Jordan about this he forgets that he and his dad are meant to be celebrating his mother’s birthday (i think it was her birthday). Rather than explaining what was going on, he lets his dad think he is simply ‘boy obsessed’ and too busy to care. The dad also insinuates that Lucas ditched his old ballet friends, and the boy doesn’t think of telling him that said friends mistreated him and were racist to Amina.
Now, onto the romance. Jordan was a slightly one-note character, and I am a bit tired of lgbtq+ YA novels where the lead falls for the popular and ‘totally straight’ person who isn’t ready/or sure they want to come out. But rather than discussing this with our protagonists, they make them feel ashamed of who they are. While Lucas does call Jordan out, he is ultimately made into the bad guy because hey ho he outs him!!! Like…ugh. I am not a fan of that plot point, at all. It would have been more suited to a show like Glee or something. But here it just comes across as totally unnecessary. While I do acknowledge that the author does allow both Jordan and Lucas to have valid opinions on the whole being ‘out’ and dating someone who is not ‘out’, towards the end he seems to just dunk on Lucas. Amina too after that whole confession-gone-wrong thing is angry at Lucas. Surely, the following day or whatnot, once she learns that the two were in a secret relationship, she would understand why Lucas couldn’t tell her? Best friends or not, Jordan told him he wasn’t ready to be out, so Lucas respected that. And Lucas even tries to stop her from making a fool of herself…and she blames him? Argh. The drama and miscommunication really annoyed me.
I would have liked for this book to be less focused on the romance with Jordan and more on Lucas’ character growth. His personality was not particularly well-defined, and I would have liked some moments of introspection where he truly thinks about ballet, what it means to him, etc. His character instead is more or less defined by his crush on Jordan, which ultimately does his storyline a disservice.

I’m sure a lot of readers will love this but I am just not a fan of the latter half of the novel.


my rating:★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Right Where I Left You by Julian Winters

This is yet another one of my most anticipated 2022 releases that ended up missing the mark. Having read and enjoyed Julian Winters’ The Summer of Everything I went into this expecting something cute & wholesome only to be confronted with a generic coming of age ya about characters who are just out of high school and went to spend one more summer together. Miscommunication and the possibility of a love triangle drive the narrative, but these elements lacked oomph, and I found my attention wavering more than once. This kind of novel should make for a breezy read but my reading experience seemed closer to a chore. I debated DNFing this but decided against it hoping to see some character growth or for the story to pick up a bit but those things didn’t really happen. We get a lot of samey scenes that are angsty but in a rather vanilla way. The banter and chemistry between the various characters came across as forced, and sometimes even out of touch (despite its attempts The writing was okay, in a fanfiction-y sort of way but sometimes we get these subpar metaphors or lines of dialogues that really took me out (“I know she’s unaware that her words cut sharper than one of those handcrafted swords forged by Hattori Hanzō in Kill Bill.” / “Imaginary Isaac is a boss. But that’s not who I am.” / “My organs shift, realigning under my skin. ” / “Queer people don’t have to prove anything. We are who we are.” / “Little wrinkles like on the surface of Memorial Park’s lake crease his brow. ” / “We’re quiet for so long. Alix grabs her phone and starts typing. Holy Nightwing ” / “We’re not friends, but maybe we’re not really enemies either.” / “My mouth opens, then closes. I’m confused and sad and oddly relieved. Maybe Diego is my first Crush Syndrome. Maybe he’s my One True Disaster.”).

Right Where I Left You follows Isaac Martin an avid fan of a superhero comic a la young avengers. He ardently ships two characters (in a way that reminded me of the mc from rainbow rowell’s fangirl…which uhm…not my kind of character) and is very much a self-identifying nerd with social anxiety. He happens to have one single friend, Diego. They’ve been bff for the longest time and they spend most of their time together. Although Diego is more outgoing and is really into gaming the two always find stuff to talk about. But their paths will divide once summer is over, with Isaac going to college and Diego taking a gap year. An oversight on Isaac’s part results in them not getting tickets to go to Legends Con. Isaac feels guilty about it and plans to make it up to Diego. Here I thought that the story would follow Isaac finding a way into Legends Con but it doesn’t. We have a few scenes strung together featuring this very generic group of ‘friends’, most of whom are friends of Diego really. While I appreciated how inclusive this group was they ultimately seemed very much the embodiment of that meme (‘every friend group should include…’). They deliver these lines that were pure cringe in that they were trying desperately to make the characters sound cool and unproblematic but just made them sound inauthentic ( (ppl who talk like that exist only on tumblr and possibly certain twitter spaces. it’s not quite live-action-powerpuff-girls levels of bad but…). I can see these characters working for fans of Casey McQuiston, and I just happen to prefer messier young adults, such as the ones by Mary H.K. Choi. It didn’t help that what drove the story was this milquetoast jealousy subplot (as opposed to the legends con plot) where Isaac becomes sort of involved with Davi and Diego, for some ‘bizarre’ reason, starts to avoid him. It annoyed me that Isaac uses more the once the term mansplaining…as if he was ever on the receiving end of that.
There is an attempt at giving Isaac daddy issues because his dad cheated on his mom or something but that whole subplot is handled in such a daytime tv kind of way as to be utterly risible.
The humor and banter were painfully cringey, and Isaac was such an annoying main character. He was very much a clichè, and I become tired of the constant references to comic books…we get it, the boy is a nerd, we don’t need to be reminded every page or so, especially when said reminders come across as contrived. Diego is a boring friend and meh love interest. I couldn’t help but compare their dynamic to the one Felix has with Ezra in Felix Ever After. These two books share quite a few similarities (friends to lovers, summer setting, pride) and Right Where I Left You lacked the character growth and engaging storytelling that made Felix Ever After into such a compelling read. Even Winters’ The Summer of Everything (which is also a coming-of-age/friends to lovers type of affair) is far more enjoyable and nuanced than Right Where I Left You. Here the characters are so one-note as to be wholly uninspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ stars

The Dragon’s Promise by Elizabeth Lim

why are all my most anticipated 2022 releases so disappointing 😭

Please, let there be no love triangle

If you’ve read my review for Six Crimson Cranes you know just how much I loved that book. While I was concerned that the sequel would include a wholly unnecessary love triangle angle, I wasn’t at all preoccupied with the possibility of not liking it. And of course, 2022 being my underwhelming reading year, it turns out that plot twist I low-key disliked almost everything about this book. With a few modifications, Six Crimson Cranes could have easily been a stand-alone novel, and I actually think it would have resulted in an even stronger book. Alas, as this is a duology, we get The Dragon’s Promise, a lukewarm finale that came across as boring and repetitive. Characters I previously enjoyed reading came across as very one-dimensional, the villain was far less compelling than the (apparent) one from Six Crimson Cranes, and the meandering plot failed to grab my attention. One too many chapters end with Shiori falling and or possibly facing some other type of danger (being attacked etc.). While the story doesn’t include an actual love triangle it teases one, something that I almost found more annoying than having to put up with a proper love triangle.
If you, like me, loved Six Crimson Cranes I’d still recommend you check out this sequel as you might find it a more captivating read than I did.

If you don’t mind reading minor spoilers here is my more in-depth(ish) review:

The Dragon’s Promise picks up right after the cliffhanger Six Crimson Cranes. Shiori and Seryu have gone to the kingdom of dragons so Shiori can give the dragon’s pearl to the king of dragons, Seryu’s grandfather. But, Shiori doesn’t really plan on handing him the pearl as she promised her stepmother on her deathbed that she would return the pearl to its true owner. How she planned on escaping the consequences of not doing what she said she would is a mystery to me. Of course, the king is not pleased with her refusal to hand the pearl over to him and this results in a lot of back-and-forths where Shiori repeatedly believes that her newfound allies may or may not have betrayed her. Shiori is imprisoned, freed, imprisoned, freed, and so on. She comes across a character that will quite clearly play a role later on in the story but I didn’t find him as amusing as the narrative tried to make him into. Seryu’s character becomes rather unlikable and his bond to Shiori didn’t feel particularly believable. He confesses to having feelings for her (or something to that effect) but Shiori loves Takkan so she turns him down. She does now and again seem to entertain the possibility of being with Seryu but not in any serious capacity. For plot reasons, the two are of course forced into an engagement. It would have been far more refreshing to have their relationship as strictly platonic as I am tired of these YA novels where we have these two hot guys falling in love with the spunky clumsy heroine who has only very superficial and off-page friendships (here there is a weak attempt at giving her a positive relationship with a girl her age but funnily enough this friendship is mostly relegated off-page because of plot reasons).
After what felt like forever Shiori returns home and reunites with her beloved and her own family. Her brothers, who felt like such a crucial element from 1, are given very few lines and the remainder of the book sees Shiori and Takkan travel from place to place in an attempt to defeat the Bad Guy and are later on aided by a witty side character we met earlier in the book. I didn’t feel the stakes, the Bad Guy was very cartoonish, and the plot was just repetitive. In no time Shiori’s act-now-think-never attitude started to irritate me and while the story seems intent on portraying her as extremely special or whatever I didn’t feel that she was a particularly memorable or unique character. I missed the atmosphere of the first book as here that spellbinding magic is lost to samey action sequences.
Additionally, the dialogue was distractingly anachronistic. I don’t understand why the author randomly dropped archaic words into the characters’ dialogues as they merely stood out and consequently took me out of the story.
This was a deeply disappointing sequel. Not only did it make me fall out of love with the characters and setting of its predecessor but it was just a painfully ‘meh’ read. The content struck me as boorishly vanilla and Disneyesque (not in a good way as, so far as i remember, there were no lgbtq+ characters…).
I wish I could have loved it but as things stand the only reason why I gave The Dragon’s Promise a 3-star rating is out of my love for Six Crimson Cranes.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

The YA genre seems saturated by heroines who are (allegedly) neither beautiful nor intelligent but they are spunky and clumsy and bursting with goodness. Well, I have had my fill of these girls.

Wholesome, vanilla, inoffensive, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a relatively enjoyable YA read that tone-wise will definitely appeal to younger audiences (with very few alterations this could easily have been a middle-grade book). As usual, I was sold by the comparison, which in this case happens to be one of my all-time favorite films, Spirited Away. While The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea does present readers with some vivid descriptions of the Spirit Realm, the characters and world-building were not as nuanced as Miyazaki’s ones. Also, I couldn’t help but compare (unfavourably) this to other fairy-tale-esque YA books such as Daughter of the Forest and Six Crimson Cranes.
Anyway, the story is fairly plot-driven as we follow our ‘spunky’ heroine trying to put an end to the curse afflicting the Sea God, a god who once protected humans but for generations has been destroying her homeland by causing deadly storms. To appease him every year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea and becomes his bride. This year it will be someone from Mina’s village, the lovely Shim Cheong who happens to be the object of affection of Mina’s brother, Joon. Seeing how much they love each other Mina hijacks the ceremony and sacrifices herself instead. Once in the Spirit Realm, she discovers that the Sea God has been asleep for years and that only his ‘true bride’ can put an end to his curse. We don’t learn much about what happened to the previous brides, with the exception of one, and she doesn’t really get much page time. It would have been nice to know what these other brides got up to in the Spirit Realm but alas the plot is very much focused on Mina who is determined to save her people from future heartaches. She’s somewhat aided by the ‘mysterious’ Shin, and his two sidekicks, the funny one and the surly one. They do come into contact with other gods and spirits but these scenes are short-lived and rather rushed. Mina makes a few heedless choices because she just can’t bear not to do what’s right (le sigh), and she eventually develops feelings for someone.
Mina manages to make people help her left and right because her goodness is just that motivating. Eventually, we learn more about the Sea God and the identities of Mina’s newfound allies.
It would have been nice to have Mina think about her family more. She mostly thought of her grandmother when the plot needed it and it felt a bit unrealistic that she would so easily get over them. I was also tired of the narrative telling us that Mina was not beautiful or intelligent when it is quite obvious that she is the most special girl in the whole bloody book. The love interest was a bit bland and his sidekicks were rather cliched. The Sea God’s curse and the events that led to it were somewhat anticlimactic. The story tries to have Mina bring these gods and spirits to their senses by reminding them that there are humans who pray for them and need their help, but her arguments were so simplistic that it made it hard for me to believe that her words/actions would be so ‘touching’ to others. The ending could have easily been shorter as it came across as prolonged for no reason whatsoever. While there were certain elements that I liked and I did not find this to be an unpleasant story, well, it felt very mid. I guess I could see this book working for readers who enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow.
Sadly, I was rather disappointed by The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, as I was looking for richer storytelling, a more developed cast of characters and world-building, and a less predictable plot. Overall this was an easy if forgettable read and I’m not sure whether I would read more by this author.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Although I remember liking books by V. E. Schwab when I was a teenager the last couple of books I’ve picked up by her left me feeling rather underwhelmed. My reading tastes have definitely changed over the years but I hoped that I would always be able to appreciate her storytelling. I was sold on Gallant when I saw that it was being compared to Neil Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro and boy oh boy was I disappointed to discover that it was just a very tame take on the Gothic genre. I was hoping for something Dark a la Coraline or in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth but what we have here is a very cheesy and vanilla attempt at crafting a Gothic tale. The story stars the classic Schwab female protagonist, ie, Not Like Other Girls (Schwab’s books always leave me with the impression that they barely pass the Bechdel test). Olivia Prior is an orphan who has grown up in Merilance School for girls where she is mistreated by everyone for being mute. She also has a bit of a temper because she isn’t afraid of getting back at the mean girls and of ignoring her school’s rules. What a #girlboss. Anyway, Olivia’s only source of solace comes from her mother’s diary which details her descent into ‘madness’. Sections from her diary are interspersed throughout the narrative and these were truly over the top in their sensationalistic language and imagery. Olivia receives a letter from an uncle who says he wants her to come home to their family home of Gallant. When she arrives she discovers that her only living relative, her cousin Matthew, doesn’t want her there. Oh, I forgot, Olivia also sees ghouls. This aspect is sometimes forgotten and for the majority of the story appears only to crank up the Gothic mood. Nothing happens. Olivia’s inner monologue is as interesting as watching paint dry would be. She has no distinct personality even if the author tries to make her into this bold heroine who will not let people like those mean girls or her cold cousin tell her where she belongs. There are two other side characters who also live at Gallant and take care of Matthew and the property. Despite the small cast (you would think that more time was paid to developing these characters), the author doesn’t succeed in making these characters into compelling and or three-dimensional characters. Olivia is so vanilla as to be entirely forgettable. Her defining characteristic is that she’s an orphan and that she is mute. Personally, I don’t think it’s great that these things are made to be her ‘personality’ and Schwab incurs the risk of portraying mutism as a sign of ‘specialness’ (she can see ghouls, she’s not like other girls etc…). This kind of thing feels dated tbh. Olivia spends her time at Gallant being rather nosy about the past and Matthew and those two older characters are clearly keeping something away from her. Olivia re-reads her mother’s journal in an attempt to uncover the truth behind her ‘madness’ and the secretive behaviour of the last inhabitants of Gallant.

I foolishly thought that this was going to be a parallel/portal fantasy but this doesn’t come into play until the 60% mark or so. Which…by then my interest had already waned and died. The ‘villain’ has barely any page time and because of that I did not really feel creeped out by them. I did not feel the stakes and found myself skim-reading the last couple of pages just so I could be done with it all.
The tone was very Middle Grade which could have worked if the author had gone for a more ambiguous overall tone (like Gaiman does in Coraline) but I found her portrayal of her heroine and the villain simplistic indeed. The blurb makes it sound as if Olivia is taken by them but that was not the case at all. Even a Disney villain has more nuance than this one.
We have a poorly established setting (vaguely historical period in…england? i think? they name a few english counties/towns but if it was it was not convincing at all, the characters express themselves in a very un-English manner) and Gallant itself lacked oomph. There were too many descriptions that relied on very predictable imagery and the language too drove me up the walls. Whisper here, whisper there. Metaphors involving smoke, secrets, whispers, and shadows abound. There was no subtlety or variation whatsoever. The house(s) did not feel ominous or atmospheric.
While I can get behind books that are very aesthetic focused (such books by Holly Black and Seanan McGuire) they have to have the prose to back that up. But here disappointingly enough given Schwab’s usually stylish storytelling, the writing was flat. Because of this, the atmosphere felt flat too and the Gothic mood never truly convinced me.
I also have a bias against books where the main female characters have no meaningful relationship with other girls her age. And in fact, they are shown to be jealous, petty, and mean towards her even if she’d done ‘nothing wrong’. Like, can we put a stop to this girls-hating-girls trend in YA? Thank you.
A dull heroine, a slow-moving and predictable storyline, poorly developed secondary characters and setting…Gallant proved itself to be a milquetoast affair. I was hoping for a more mature tone and a more complex world-building and Gallant offered quite the opposite. A cheesy take on Gothic and the kind of flowery writing that is kind-of-pretty only if you post random quotes with no context on tumblr.
This was a forgettable and lacklustre read but just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it a try.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie

While Ophelia After All wasn’t quite the cute & wholesome read I wanted it to be it still made for a better than okay read. The in-group drama, avoidable miscommunication, and one too many love triangles detracted from an otherwise compelling coming-of-age. If you are reading this expecting it to be a HEA romance, I recommend you adjust your expectations as Ophelia After All was more focused on Ophelia’s character arc and her coming to terms with her sexuality.

Ophelia Rojas is a Cuban-American teen who is known as the girl with the green thumb and a propensity for crushing on cute boys. The novel follows her during her last year of high school as she has to reckon with ongoing and new drama changing the dynamics of her friendship group and the possibility that she is not solely attracted to cute boys. Cute and shy Talia, the best friend of one of her friends, has caught her eye. Ophelia tries to fight her feelings, fearing the ‘ramifications’ of what this means. How will her friends and parents react if she ceases to be the ‘boy crazy’ girl they know and love? Initially, this line of thinking seems a bit questionable but as the story progresses her anxiety becomes better articulated. People have an idea of who she is, and Ophelia fears the possibility of not being the person they think she is. It was a bit odd that she would truly believe that her friends and parents (whom she is very close to) would see her just in terms of her crushes on guys but I could relate to her apprehension about ‘coming out’ and how that would lead her to make certain assumptions about the people around her.
There are a few ‘key’ events that change the dynamics between the characters. Ophelia and her mother are for a long part of the book at odds with each other after the former does something very uncharacteristic and refuses to tell her mother why (but tells her dad). The guy who causes this was a throwaway one-dimensional bigot who…I mean, he was a bit on the nose (not that people like that do not exist but that he was in a very short scene and managed to tick all of these unsavoury boxes…given that he was a college student it seemed weird that he would be so public about his trash opinions especially since he surrounded by faculty and adults). Ophelia was 100% valid in what she did (the whole being ‘the bigger person’ is overrated if you ask me) but I found her treatment of her mother frustrating. Ragazza mia, just talk to your mum!
In addition to the story’s focus on Ophelia struggling to reconcile herself with her attraction and feelings for Talia the story is also sadly very much about the drama going on in her friendship group. Her neighbour and best friend are in love with another friend. Talia’s best friend, who also happens to be a friend of Ophelia, is in love with that same girl. That girl is portrayed as kind of a bitch but she happens to have a best friend who isn’t (i can’t remember her name but if you’ve read this you know, she’s the most sensible and decent character in this whole book…i wish that she’d been given more page time). Anyhow, things are obviously awkward and tense. I found the miscommunication within their group stupid and not always believable. It also annoyed me that Ophelia called her bf and that girl he is in love with ‘promiscuous’ and implied that this made them less nice than that other guy who is also in love with her.
Still, I loved that we get so many lgbtq+ characters, even if the ‘reveals’ at the end were cheesy (but i am all for it at the same time so there ya go). Some of the discussions around being queer and or part of the lgbtq+ community did feel a bit…patronising? They were vaguely… at one point I felt like I was watching an instructional 101 lgbtq+ video. There was this scene with Ophelia asking this other character why people used ‘queer’ when she heard it was a controversial term and something about it felt very studied. At one point a character starts rattling off different labels and identities and I felt that I was scrolling on the lgbtq+ wiki. The narrative in these sections seemed more intent on being informative and unproblematic than ‘real’.
Some of the characters struck me as one-dimensional, especially the ‘unlikeable’ ones such as Talia’s relatives, Ophelia’s ex and her mother’s dick of a student. I did not find the love polygon interesting and in fact, it was tiring, especially since much of it hinged on a character that is for most of the narrative portrayed as having exclusively bad traits.
Still, I liked that the author didn’t make Ophelia immediately accept her queerness and that her self-denial leads her to make quite a few bad choices. Her treatment of Talia was kind of horrible if you think about it but she owns up to it (which doesn’t cancel out what she did but it results in some solid character growth on her part). I also liked that her mother isn’t depicted as being horrible, which I feared she would be for a good portion of the book. Her talk with Ophelia towards the end was very touching.
I just wish the story had focused less on the drama and fights between Ophelia’s ‘friends’. Her best friend in particular is done a bit of a disservice as his character seems reduced to him taunting his love rival. But I did appreciate how inclusive this group was. I would have liked for them to have more distinctive personalities (rather than a few chosen traits) but it isn’t that kind of novel so it worked all the same.
There were some compelling discussions on Ophelia’s dual heritage and her struggle for self-knowledge in a society that is very either/or in its view of identity and sexuality. I also appreciated that Ophelia dismisses the idea of a monolithic Latin American culture, however, later mentions of her heritage do at times risk doing exactly that.
While some of the discussions did feel a tad too American for my liking in that they simplified certain issues (i can’t explain but if you know you know), I did enjoy Ophelia reflections of Lacan and the nature of desire.
Anyway, although I didn’t quite love Ophelia as a character and I didn’t particularly care for her in-group melodrama, Ophelia After All makes for a refreshing YA in that it prioritizes Ophelia’s coming of age over any potential romance she may or may not have along the way (more of this please and less of the ‘i met my OTL in high school’). This story managed to subvert romance conventions which were unexpected in the best way possible. Still, other aspects were more predictable. Similarly to other contemporary YA novels Ophelia After All tries to be more self-aware of the cliches of the ‘teen coming of age’ genre but then they end up incorporating those tropes anyways.

Despite my mixed feelings, I liked Ophelia After All more than not. It has its flaws sure and the tone was a bit juvenile and moralistic at times but I could tell that the author had good intentions and the story she tells does have heart.
I would definitely recommend this to younger audiences and or YA devotees.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Red Palace by June Hur

“I wanted to love and be loved. I wanted to be known. I wanted to be understood and accepted.”

The Red Palace makes for a fairly suspenseful read, one that will definitely appeal to fans of YA mysteries where the lead girl goes all Nancy Drew trying to figure out who the culprit is. And of course, given the setting, Korea in 1758, The Red Palace will likely appeal to fans of historical K-dramas. Personally, I think The Red Palace is the kind of book I would have loved 10 years or so ago. Now, I am a bit more nitpicky and there are a few things that prevented me from being fully immersed in Hyeon’s story.

“We are women,” she continued, “and nothing short of death stops us from doing precisely what we wish to do. That is what the laws and restrictions binding our lives breed: determination and cunning. The likes of you will not obey me. You will tell me that you intend to be as still as a rock, and yet I know you will dart from shadow to shadow like a fish.”

Hyeon is the illegitimate daughter of Lord Shin, who refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter. In their kingdom, Hyeon is seen as ‘belonging’ only to her mother, one of Lord Shin’s concubines, and therefore belongs to the ‘cheonmin class’ which she describes as ‘the lowest of the low’. Hyeon refuses to grow up into her mother however and dedicates herself to the study of medicine, eventually earning the coveted position of palace nurse. Hyeon hopes that her hard-work and ambition will result in her father’s approval but he continues to largely ignore her existence.
Hyeon’s life is upended when four women are murdered at the palace, most of whom were nurses like her. After her beloved mentor is accused and arrested for these murders Hyeon is determined to clear her name. Concerning rumours around the city claim that the Crown Prince is the killer, and Hyeon has no choice but to pursue this lead, even if doing so could potentially result in her ruin. Thankfully, Hyeon doesn’t have to navigate this world of dangerous court intrigues alone as she is aided by Eojin, an actual police officer. Eojin has some personal reasons for wanting to find the real killer so the two decide to combine their efforts. As they confront various people of interest they slowly begin to untangle the truth…of course, not everyone is happy with that and Hyeon risks losing what she’s worked so hard for.

The stakes were certainly high in this novel so I found myself reading this in quite a short amount of time, wanting to find out how our leads would manage to bring the real killer to justice.
The historical setting is the most well-developed aspect of the narrative. While there were some interactions that had slightly ‘modern’ dynamics (especially between the two leads), overall I liked the amount of detail that went into the setting. The author does use Hyeon as an ‘intermediary’ to the Joseon period (she sometimes forget certain key factors of her society, and asks someone to fill her in, other times she explains about Confucianism or other things that she would not really need to ‘explain’ to herself) but it kind of works as Hyeon does function as an extension of the reader. Her Daddy Issues™ and her role as a nurse are her main defining characteristic, which didn’t make for a truly fleshed out and fully dimensional character. All of the characters, in general, were fairly one-note, even Eojin. The story was more interested in establishing and exploring the setting and the mystery than in developing its characters. I am the type of reader who prefers character-driven stories (rather than plot-driven) so I wasn’t quite able to love this as much as I hoped I would. The mystery itself was a bit predictable, but that’s probably because I have read a ton of thrillers and whodunnits…(and watched one too many scooby-doo episodes/movies). Still, even if the storyline was vaguely formulaic I liked learning more about the Joseon era and I appreciated that the story isn’t romance heavy. Hyeong struggle for self-worth and self-actualization in a society that sees her as ‘less than’ was compelling, and the author also does a good job in regards to her conflicted feelings towards her father (wanting his love and respect while at the same time resenting what he stands for and the way he has treated her and his mother). The writing was at times a bit too dramatic and cheesy for my tastes (“silence fell, as chilling as the shadows enveloping us”, “a thought lurked in the far shadows of my mind”, “we seemed to have, in that moment, merged into one mind with one purpose: find the killer, find the truth”, “revenge begets revenge […] we become the monsters we are trying to punish”, “[her] mouth parted as though in a silent scream”). Still, I recognize that this type of style may very well work for other readers.
The romance was surprisingly cute. In fact, the ‘partnership’ between our leads was one of the most enjoyable things about the story. During their shared scenes Hyeon character became a bit more rounded and interesting.

All in all, I liked The Red Palace well enough! I would definitely recommend you check this one out for yourself and make up your own mind about it.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

Enthralling and haunting, Caucasia makes for a dazzling coming-of-age story. With piercing and heart-wrenching clarity, Danzy Senna captures on the page the psychological and emotional turmoils experienced by her young protagonist. Similarly to her later novels, Symptomatic and New People, Caucasia is a work that is heavily concerned with race, racial passing, and identity. But whereas Symptomatic and New People present their readers with short and deeply unnerving narratives that blur the lines between reality and the fantastical, Caucasia is a work that is deeply grounded in realism. Its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes. Birdie’s world and the people who populate are brought to life in striking detail. Senna’s prose, which is by turns scintillating and stark, makes Birdie’s story truly riveting and impossible to put down.

Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the city’s efforts to desegregate schools was met with white resistance and exacerbated existing racial tensions. Enter Birdie: her father Deck is a Black scholar who is deeply preoccupied with theories about race; her mother, Sandy, is from a blue-blood white woman who has come to reject her Mayflower ancestry and is quite active in the ‘fight’ for Civil Rights. Birdie is incredibly close to her older sister Cole, so much so that the two have created and often communicate in their own invented language. Before their parents’ rather messy break-up the two have been homeschooled, something that has sheltered them somewhat from the realities of the world. Even so, they both have been made aware of their ‘differences’. Whereas Cole resembles her dad, Birdie is paler and has straight hair, something that leads people to assume that she is white or perhaps Hispanic. During their rare visits to their maternal grandmother, Cole is completely ignored while Birdie receives all of her (unwanted quite frankly) attention. Later on, Deck’s new girlfriend is shown to be openly intolerant of Birdie for not being Black enough. When the girls begin attending a Black Power School, Birdie is teased and bullied. While Birdie is in awe of Cole and dreams that she could look like her, she’s also peripherally aware of the privileges afforded to her by her appearance. We also see how Sandy, their mother, for all her talk, treats Birdie and Cole differently (there is a scene in which she implies that unlike Birdie Cole should not be worried about paedophiles/serial killers). Sandy also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration with each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When Sandy gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities her relationship with Cole sours further.
Birdie’s life is upended when Sandy, convinced the FBI is after her, flees Boston. In pursuit of racial equality Deck and his girlfriend go to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie is forced to leave Boston with Sandie.
Sandie believes that the only way to escape the feds is to use Birdie’s ‘ambiguous’ body to their advantage. Not only does Birdie have no choice but to pass but it is her mother who chooses her ‘white’ identity, that of Jesse Goldman.
The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to new life. While the two spend some time in a women’s commune, they eventually move out and into a predominantly white town. Sandy’s paranoia leads her to distrust others, and secretiveness and suspicion become fixtures in their lives. Being forced to pass and being forced to pretend that her sister and father never existed alienate Birdie (from her own self, from Sandy, and from other people). She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to pretend that she is a white Jewish girl. She eventually makes friends and in her attempts to fit in emulates the way they speak and act. Because the people around her believe she is white they are quite openly racist, and time and again Birdie finds herself confronted with racist individuals. other people’s racism.
Senna captures with painful clarity the discomfort that many girls experience in their pre and early teens. For a lot of the novel, Birdie doesn’t really know who she is and who she wants to be, and because of this, she looks at the girls and women around her. But by doing this, she is merely imitating them, and not really figuring out her identity. In addition to having to perform whiteness, Birdie denies her own queerness.
As with Symptomatic and New People, Senna provides a razor-sharp commentary on race and identity. While Caucasia is easily the author’s least disquieting work, it still invokes a sense of unease in the reader. On the one hand, we are worried for Birdie, who is clearly unhappy and lost. On the other hand, we encounter quite a few people who are horrible and there are many disquieting scenes. Yet, Senna doesn’t condemn her characters, and in fact, there are quite a few instances where I was touched by the empathy she shows towards them (I’m thinking of Sandy in particular).
It provides a narrative in which its main character is made to feel time and again ‘Other’, which aggravates the disconnect she experiences between her physical appearance and self. The people around her often express a binary view of race, where you are either/or but not both. Because of this Birdie struggles to define herself, especially when she has to pass as white.
Senna subverts the usual passing narrative: unlike other authors, she doesn’t indict her passer by employing the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope. Throughout the narrative, Senna underscores how racial identity is a social construct and not a biological fact. However, she also shows the legacies of slavery and segregation in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ America as well as the concrete realities that race have in everyday life (Deck being questioned by the police, the disparities between the way Cole and Birdie are treated, the racism and prejudice expressed by so many characters, the way Samantha is treated at school).
Throughout the narrative Senna raises many thought-provoking points, opening the space for in-depth and nuanced discussions on identity, performativity, peer pressure, and sexuality.
The realism of Birdie’s experiences was such that I felt that I was reading a memoir (and there are some definite parallels between Birdie and Senna). If you found Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Dog Flowers: A Memoir to be compelling reads I thoroughly recommend you check out Caucasia. I can also see this coming of age appealing to fans of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While they do not touch upon the same issues, they both hone in on the alienation experienced by young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence make them aware of painful truths and realizations (that they are not necessarily good or beautiful, that the people around them aren’t either, that adults and parents can be selfish and liars, that not all parents love their children). I would also compare Caucasia to Monkey Beach which is also an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age. And, of course, if you are interested in passing narratives such as Passing and The Vanishing Half you should really check out all of Senna’s books.

The novel’s closing act is extremely rewarding and heart-rendering. Curiously enough the first time I read this I appreciated it but did not love it. This second time around…it won me over. Completely. Birdie is such a realistic character, and I loved, in spite or maybe because, of her flaws. Her story arc is utterly absorbing and I struggled to tear my eyes away from the page (even if I had already read this and therefore knew what would happen next). Senna’s dialogues ring true to life and so do the scenarios she explores. Birdie’s voice is unforgettable and I can’t wait to re-read this again.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★