Posted in Book Tours, Reviews

“Scavenge the Stars” Book Tour and Review

I am thrilled to be hosting a stop on the SCAVENGE THE STARS by Tara Sim Blog Tour hosted by Rockstar Book Tours! Check out my post and make sure to enter the giveaway!

REVIEW

This book has been on my radar for quite some time now. I distinctly remember the moment I discovered that it would one day exist: I was on a bus heading up to the local university for an internship, absentmindedly scrolling through lists of upcoming YA releases on Goodreads, and stumbled across this one. A YA retelling of “The Count of Monte Cristo” (my favorite classic novel)? Sign me up. It’s been on my TBR ever since, so when I was given the opportunity to host a stop on the “Scavenge the Stars” blog tour, I jumped at the chance. And I wasn’t disappointed.

While it doesn’t cleave strictly to the plot of Count, a lot of the things I loved most about the story this book is based on are present: peril and treachery, adventure and romance, stakes and scheming, moral ambiguity and twists at every turn. “Scavenge the Stars” isn’t without flaws, but its fast-paced plot, compelling cast, and rich worldbuilding make for an excellent read. The worldbuilding of Moray is one point I want to touch on: every part of it, from its seedy underbelly to its glittering aristocratic homes, is fleshed out like a real city would be. I also loved the multiple cultures Sim chose to include; having different ethnicities and cultures added a touch of realism and interest that would have been absent otherwise. But all was not perfect: I personally don’t agree with the story’s sense of morality. I was expecting the revenge plot going in because…well, Count of Monte Cristo, duh…and to be fair, the immorality of the character’s actions (by my standards, at least) didn’t bother me as much as it might have if I hadn’t been familiar with the story. However, that’s one thing I wish would’ve stayed a little truer to the original: in Count, Dantes sees the destructive power of revenge, but in Scavenge, Amaya doesn’t get far past mild disillusionment after realizing that her revenge scheme isn’t as cut-and-dry as she thinks it is. I wanted Amaya to realize that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, but she never fully got there; it did seem from the way the end was written that there was a possibility of a sequel, though, so if that’s the case, developing Amaya in the next book would rectify that. I also occasionally felt as if a few too many twists were crammed into the last fifty pages; the pacing was a little haphazard and it took almost the entire book to get to every single major twist. Still, though, I would highly recommend “Scavenge the Stars” to readers with a taste for adventure, enemies-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-who-knows-what romance, and unique worldbuilding.

RATING: 4/5 Stars

About The
Book:
Title: SCAVENGE
THE STARS (Scavenge the Stars #1)
Author: Tara
Sim
Pub.
Date:
 January 7, 2020
Publisher: Disney
Hyperion
Formats: Hardcover,
eBook, audiobook
Pages: 336
When Amaya
rescues a mysterious stranger from drowning, she fears her rash actions have
earned her a longer sentence on the debtor ship where she’s been held captive
for years. Instead, the man she saved offers her unimaginable riches and a new
identity, setting Amaya on a perilous course through the coastal city-state of
Moray, where old-world opulence and desperate gamblers collide.Amaya wants one thing: revenge against the man who ruined her family and stole
the life she once had. But the more entangled she becomes in this game of
deception—and as her path intertwines with the son of the man she’s plotting to
bring down—the more she uncovers about the truth of her past. And the more she
realizes she must trust no one…

Packed with high-stakes adventure, romance, and dueling identities, this
gender-swapped retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo is the
first novel in an epic YA fantasy duology, perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas,
Sabaa Tahir, and Leigh Bardugo.

EXCERPT
Revenge. It was a simple word when spoken out loud, but it was so much bigger, like the hidden city under the atoll. It was a word of fire and blood, of a knife’s whisper and the priming of a pistol.
It was a word that consumed her, filled her entire being until she knew that she could no longer be Silverfish. Silverfish’s will was to survive, to simply make it to the next day, and hopefully the day after that. But that was no longer her will.
Now it was revenge.
Captain Zharo. Kamon Mercado. Moray.
They would all pay.
About Tara:

 

Tara Sim is the author of SCAVENGE THE STARS
(Disney-Hyperion) and the TIMEKEEPER trilogy (Sky Pony Press) and writer of all
things magic. She can often be found in the wilds of the Bay Area, California.
When she’s not writing about mischievous boys
in clock towers, Tara spends her time drinking tea, wrangling cats, and
occasionally singing opera. Despite her bio-luminescent skin, she is
half-Indian and eats way too many samosas.
Tara is represented by Victoria Marini at
Irene Goodman Literary Agency.

 

Giveaway Details:
3 winners will receive a finished copy of SCAVENGE THE STARS,
US only.
Giveaway ends February 14th at midnight EST.
Tour
Schedule:
Week
One:
1/13/2020
Excerpt
1/14/2020
Review
1/15/2020
Review
1/16/2020
Review
1/17/2020
Excerpt
Week
Two:
1/20/2020
Review
1/21/2020
Review
1/22/2020
Review
1/23/2020
Review
1/24/2020
Review
Week
Three:
1/27/2020
Review
1/28/2020
Excerpt
1/29/2020
Review
1/30/2020
Review
1/31/2020
Review
Week
Four:
2/3/2020
Review
2/4/2020
Review
2/5/2020
Review
2/6/2020
Review
2/7/2020
Review
Week
Five:
2/10/2020
Review
2/11/2020
Review
2/12/2020
Review
2/13/2020

 

Review
2/14/2020
Review

Posted in Reviews

REVIEW: “Loveboat, Taipei” by Abigail Hing Wen

SUMMARY 

When eighteen-year-old Ever Wong’s parents send her from Ohio to Taiwan to study Mandarin for the summer, she finds herself thrust among the very over-achieving kids her parents have always wanted her to be, including Rick Woo, the Yale-bound prodigy profiled in the Chinese newspapers since they were nine—and her parents’ yardstick for her never-measuring-up life.

Unbeknownst to her parents, however, the program is actually an infamous teen meet-market nicknamed Loveboat, where the kids are more into clubbing than calligraphy and drinking snake-blood sake than touring sacred shrines.

Free for the first time, Ever sets out to break all her parents’ uber-strict rules—but how far can she go before she breaks her own heart?

REVIEW

I am not completely sure why, but I love books set in Asia. Maybe I’m just fascinated by books that immerse me in a culture that is about as far from the one I was raised in as you can get, or maybe they satisfy my wanderlust; I’m not completely sure. Whatever the source of that fascination, though, it’s what led me to “Loveboat, Taipei.”

This one was a little but out-of-left-field for me because normally, I avoid anything racy like the plague. (Let’s just say I very much related to Ever, whose parents are so strict about the content she’s allowed to view that she can’t even watch a kissing scene in a movie, at the beginning of the book.) A book that’s almost solely about teenage rebellion is normally not my speed and I was a little skeptical going in that I’d be comfortable reading this, and in a way, those worries were justified. Ever’s behavior did make me uncomfortable at times, and there was a lot more adult content than I would have preferred, but she does (to an extent) learn from the mistakes she’s made in an attempt at rebelling against her parents in as many ways as she can. But I also enjoyed “Loveboat” immensely.

The characters, for one, all kept me on the edge of my seat with their unpredictable behavior. A lot of them aren’t fantastic people (I write this thinking of one particular character who’s set up as likable, only to dramatically betray another character and completely trash our opinion of her) or at least don’t seem like it (that would be another character who’s written off as a playboy at first but later turns out to be a sweetheart who merely has a lot on his plate), but Wen has done a superb job in making us want to know what happens to all of these people. Ever reminded me a lot of myself, Rick is the kind of guy I wish I knew more of in real life, and even the more complicated characters, like Sophie, Xavier, Jenna, and Ever’s parents, aren’t black-and-white. Everyone has layers, flaws, struggles…and redeeming qualities. I did not expect this book to get half as deep as it did at times, and it was through those multifaceted characters and their struggles that it accomplished that depth. Similarly, the fact that I loved both Rick and Ever individually made it much easier to love them as a couple when the romance kicked in – which I did. They were adorable, and I may or may not have had to stifle a squeal when I read certain scenes because it was 1:30 in the morning and I could not wake up my family screaming about how sweet Ever and Rick’s budding relationship was.

The setting was another aspect of “Loveboat” that completely sucked me in. This book really digs its claws into the culture and atmosphere of Taiwan (not just in Taipei – there are several scenes set in more rural areas that make use of the same superb scene-setting). From its descriptions of physical locations and cultural practices to the moments it touches on the class and ethnic divides in Taiwanese society, “Loveboat, Taipei” did a wonderful job of capturing Taipei through the eyes of an outsider (Ever) for people who have most likely not been to Taiwan (us).

All of that combined to make for a book I couldn’t put down. Though I often wanted to shout through the pages at Ever’s decision-making (a lot of it influenced by people she likely shouldn’t have listened to), she did learn from the consequences of her actions. Unfortunately, the fact that those actions were often a little more graphically described than I was comfortable with dulled my enjoyment of the book slightly, but nevertheless, no book I stayed up until 2 AM to finish could have been anything but worth it.

ENDNOTES

Favorite Scene: there were a lot of scenes in contention for this designation, but I think I’m going to have to go with the scene where Ever reads Rick’s confession/years-late reply to her letter asking for homework help. That was the moment I mentioned when I had to try not to squeal loud enough to wake the dead at 1:30 AM.

What Made This Book Stand Out: the expertly-portrayed Taiwanese setting and the rich, layered, real characters. (Oh, and the adorable romantic subplot didn’t hurt.)

One-Sentence Summary: strict parents + teenagers set loose in a foreign country = recipe for more tension than you’d believe.

Something that Bugged Me: Sophie’s entire story arc. She’s a scarily real portrait of how far desperate people will go to get what they want and while that arc was definitely well-written, it didn’t really endear her to me. (To avoid spoilers: let’s just say I’m not as forgiving as some of her friends.)

 Possibly-Questionable Content: implied sexual content, one semi fade-to-black scene, semi-bloody scene involving snake-blood sake that I personally found a bit gross but isn’t terribly gory, one character gets revenge on another in an extremely malicious way, discussion of suicide attempt by minor character, a little bit of cursing.

Overall Rating: 4/5 Confused Llamas

Posted in Interviews

An Interview with Sara Fujimura, on “Every Reason We Shouldn’t”

Hey, all! Super stoked to bring you a new interview – this one with Sara Fujimura, author of the upcoming figure skating rom-com “Every Reason We Shouldn’t”! (You can check out my review of that here: REVIEW: “Every Reason We Shouldn’t” by Sara Fujimura).

1. As a former figure skater who spent many years in the sport, I was extremely excited when I heard about this book, since figure skating is not the most common subject of YA novels (understatement). What made you decide to write about it – personal skating experience, or something else?

 

I love to watch skating (all kinds), but I am not particularly good at it. What inspired Every Reason We Shouldn’t was Apolo Ohno’s autobiography No Regrets. I was completely fascinated by the account of his teenaged years. Specifically, when Ohno was at the crossroads and wondering if he should quit the sport all together because his raw talent was no longer enough. Jonah’s character actually came to me first, and Apolo Ohno very much influenced him. I saved the crossroads story for Olivia though. I have two ultra-talented girls (now young women) in my life, and I got to see—thanks to their moms—what it’s like to be that one-in-a-million teen and all the unique challenges that come with being that high level of athlete/performer. One is a dancer and the other a singer, but I wanted a girl who was into ice sports to work better with Jonah’s character. As super cheesy as it is, I love The Cutting Edge. I wanted to write an updated (and much more realistic) version of the movie with teen skaters.

 

2. Again on the topic of skating: as a skater and avid fan of the sport, I’m extremely picky about how the technical side of figure skating is portrayed in fiction (okay, maybe I’m a little bit of a snob…), and in “Every Reason We Shouldn’t,” you absolutely nailed it! What did you do to research that resulted in such an accurate portrayal of the figure skating world?

 

Thank you! All of my books have a lot of “fact behind the fiction,” but ERWS had a steep learning curve for me. I started as a journalist, so I take my research very seriously. I read everything I could and watched countless videos and tutorials. I also sought out people who were experts (or at least experienced) in all the areas I am not. Do you know who has a ridiculous depth of knowledge on everything figure skating? Author Courtney Milan. Her remarkable, super nit-picky notes helped me take this book to the next level. Obviously, it paid off if I passed your test despite being a crap skater in real life myself.

 

3. What would you say your “mission statement” as a writer is, and how does “Every Reason We Shouldn’t” tie into that mission?  

 

“I write stories for adventurous, intelligent, globally-minded teens who aren’t afraid to love someone outside of their own ethnicity.”

 

One of the biggest compliments I’ve gotten for ERWS is that people feel like my characters are people they would want to be their friends. Yes, Olivia and Jonah are unique and sometimes straight-up “extra,” but I think they mirror my readers who are maybe unintentionally looking for someone like themselves. 

 

NOTE: Question #4 could get a little spoilery! Proceed with caution if you haven’t read the book yet.

 

4. After reading “Every Reason We Shouldn’t,” one of the things I’m most conflicted about is how I’m supposed to feel about Stuart (Egg), Olivia’s pairs partner. Given his actions at the end of the book, he comes off pretty strongly as a jerk, but he’s also, before that, a decent friend and partner to Olivia. Thus, I’m very torn between seeing him as the villain for abandoning her and seeing him as a sympathetic but flawed friend. Obviously, readers like me have to make that call themselves (I’m leaning towards “selfish jerk” right now), but what do you, as the author, think of Egg: sympathetic or deplorable?

 

People may disagree with me, but I sympathize with Egg, who is at a crossroads in his life and makes a wise (if a bit jerky) decision to put himself first for a change. Egg knows he’s not good enough to skate at an Olympic level and for him to invest another four years of his life to live Olivia’s dream would be unauthentic. (On a smaller scale, think about the people who may sit first chair in their high school’s band, but don’t go on to study music at college. Music can still bring them joy even if they know they don’t have what it takes to play professionally.) ERWS wasn’t about Olivia winning a gold medal either, and not all my readers are on-board with that. I wrote it for all the teens standing at the crossroads in their own lives. For when the thing they love the most (and maybe have a ton of raw talent for) has suddenly gotten too hard and they are questioning if they are at the end of their journey or if they should push through the pain/frustration to see if they can make it to the very top. It’s one thing when you are injured or cut from a team. There the decision is made for you. It’s when YOU have to decide whether to continue or not that things get interesting (and more relatable to many people). That’s what I wanted to explore in ERWS. To keep Egg and Olivia together was the safe choice and wouldhave held both of them back from being the best versions of themselves. And as much as I would love to have gone all Cutting Edge with Olivia and Jonah, *every* skater (including former German Olympic pairs skater Mirko Goolsbey) said that it would be impossible.

  

End of spoilers! You’re safe again 😉

5. To wrap up, this is sort of a standby question for me in author interviews: how would you describe Every Reason We Shouldn’t in six words? 

 

Yuri on Ice meets Cutting Edge

POST-INTERVIEW PERSONAL CAVEAT:

Having gotten the author’s insight on her book, I can honestly say that I love “Every Reason We Shouldn’t” even more. Thinking about the theme of crossroads in this novel, I’m brought back to the moment in tenth grade when I had to make my final choice: whether to pursue skating even though I’d hit a plateau and had little time to train anymore, or whether to focus on academics as I had been doing my first two years in high school with the added bonus of being able to pursue theater with my extra time. Though I was never even close to Olivia’s level as a skater, it was an all-consuming passion for much of my childhood, and I’d given up a lot to pursue it even at the level that I did. I’d spent every single morning of each summer between 6th and 11th grade at the rink, put countless hours into training, and, sadly, probably wrecked any chance I ever had at developing a healthy body image by the age of 16. So that feeling of grasping at straws that you feel when you realize it might be time to move on from a dream is one I felt wholeheartedly. As you can probably guess, I quit skating, and if I’m honest, I don’t regret it. But I’ll always remember how hard those last months were, realizing I was never going to reach my childhood dream. (And that feeling kind of never goes away. Ms. Fujimura’s example of the musician in their school band was almost uncanny because I’ve also played the violin since I was nine. As I struggle with tricky runs in the Tchaikovsky concerto that most of my orchestra friends could play in their sleep, I face the realization that I have to figure out how music, a passion I’ve pursued practically forever and am never going to “make it” in, will play into my life as I prepare to graduate from high school.) For a senior in high school, that stuff is huge and never really lets up, so knowing that “Every Reason We Shouldn’t” was written about a character who feels the same way, with the intention of bringing comfort to teenagers who don’t know what comes next for their passions, makes me love it all the more. This book came to me at just the right time, and I hope those of you who choose to read it come March (and I hope all of you do) feel the same way.

Posted in Reviews

REVIEW: “The Perfect Escape” by Suzanne Park

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy. “The Perfect Escape” is projected to be released on April 7th, 2020.

I was elated to get this ARC because there are very few things in this world than I love more than niche YA rom-coms. Meaning: ones that take place in the context of some unusual interest, setting, or topic. (To give you an idea of what I mean by that, some niche rom-coms I’ve liked include “Hart & Seoul” and “Somewhere Only We Know” with K-Pop, and “Every Reason We Shouldn’t” with figure skating.) “The Perfect Escape,” with a zombie/survivalist focus, falls squarely in that category, but…didn’t really do it for me. Here’s why.

SUMMARY 

Nate Jae-Woo Kim wants to be rich. When one of his classmates offers Nate a ridiculous amount of money to commit grade fraud, he knows that taking the windfall would help support his prideful Korean family, but is compromising his integrity worth it?

Kate Anderson wants a fresh start, away from her controlling father. She fantasizes about escaping to New York, where she can pursue her dreams. But how can Kate get there when she can’t even buy dinner without his approval?

Worlds collide when Nate and Kate meet at the zombie-themed escape room where they both work. As sparks fly, fate steps in: a local tech company is hosting a weekend-long survivalist competition with a huge cash prize that could solve all their problems. The real challenge? Making it through the weekend with their hearts intact…

REVIEW

Without a doubt, my favorite thing about this book was the zombie/escape room/survival competition thing. Whenever Nate and Kate discussed their favorite zombie movies, planned for the survival contest, or worked at the escape room together, the book took on a whole new kind of energy. It was funny and fast-paced and enthusiastic and exactly what was promised by the book jacket.

Unfortunately, though, the zombie stuff took up very little actual page time.

Up until the 62% (I’m pretty sure) mark, when the survival contest started, we got a lot more of their personal lives than we did of the zombie thing. Instead of spending time at the escape room (I’m pretty sure there are only two scenes that take place at work – it was almost like the author forgot about their jobs after the plot no longer needed them), we’re taken to a high school party at a roller rink. When I was expecting the two to be geeking out over zombies and plotting for the contest, Kate was fighting with her father – who might be the worst father in all of YA, mind you – and Nate was juggling his chaotic family life with his classmates’ insistence that he commit grade fraud on their behalf. Certainly, those issues had a place in this story, but they took up so much of the book that I felt myself missing both the zombies I was promised and the rom-com that this story was marketed as.

That was all the more sad because when those things were in the spotlight, I really enjoyed them. This could have been so fantastically unique and hilarious had it been okay with being a little…lighter. Oftentimes it felt like the book was trying so hard to be deep and substantial that it forgot that it was a rom-com. Had it let loose in a few more places, it would likely have been one of my favorite reads in recent memory. “The Perfect Escape” was an example, to me, that it’s okay to have fun with a story. It’s certainly noble to try to say something with your work, and I commend Park for doing that. But sometimes, a story can exist just because it makes people happy. A story can exist for the joy of it. “Escape” got a little depressing at times, and though everything sort of gets its magic band-aid in the end, I wished that I would’ve spent more of the time it took me to read this laughing. Because if the bright spots in this book showed me anything, it’s that this book knows how to be absolutely hilarious. 

I just wish it would have been more often.

ENDNOTES

Favorite Scene: the scene where Nate visits his sister’s kindergarten class as her show-and-tell. Small children saying weird things in front of crowds because they have zero filter is honestly a recipe for comedy gold (see: children’s messages at my church) and I was dying of laughter this entire scene. DYING. I wanted more of that in this book.

What Made This Book Stand Out: the uniqueness of a rom-com about zombies.

One-Sentence Summary: what it says on the tin, with a few less zombies and a little more crying.

Something that Bugged Me: the tonal whiplash whenever the story switched from rom-com to family drama and back – see literally my entire review.

 Adult Content: a LOT of cursing and, like, two kisses, but that’s pretty much it.

Overall Rating: 3.5/5 Confused Llamas

 

Posted in Reviews

REVIEW: “Renegades” by Marissa Meyer

I must confess, dear reader, that as far as hyped-up YA series go, my readership is positively dreadful. I’ve read the Selection series, the Illuminae Files and An Ember In the Ashes (the latter two are some of my favorites), but other than that, I have not read many of the best-known YA series. Not Throne of Glass, nor any of the many highly popular Cassandra Clare offerings, the Lunar Chronicles, or the Raven Cycle – heck, I haven’t even read Harry Potter, of all things. So my experience with popular series is extremely minimal.

Hence, when I downloaded “Renegades” – a book I didn’t know much about other than that it had superheroes in it and was wildly popular – as an e-book on a boredom-induced whim during Christmas break, I had no idea what to expect. I’d heard good things, and I will read absolutely anything with superheroes in it, so…not a bad way to spend a break, right?

So. Here are my thoughts on a rare foray into Hyped-Series-land.

SPECS

Author: Marissa Meyer

Series Position: first of three books

Page Count: 566

Summary: 

Secret Identities. Extraordinary Powers. She wants vengeance. He wants justice.

The Renegades are a syndicate of prodigies — humans with extraordinary abilities — who emerged from the ruins of a crumbled society and established peace and order where chaos reigned. As champions of justice, they remain a symbol of hope and courage to everyone… except the villains they once overthrew.

Nova has a reason to hate the Renegades, and she is on a mission for vengeance. As she gets closer to her target, she meets Adrian, a Renegade boy who believes in justice — and in Nova. But Nova’s allegiance is to a villain who has the power to end them both

REVIEW

Let me start by saying that “Renegades” has a ridiculously compelling story. Post-apocalyptic (ish) world ruled by superheroes? Morally-murky government machinations? Divided loyalties? Teenage superhero teams? It would be very difficult to mess up such a promising premise, and Meyer more than cashed in on the potential for action and tension and emotion in those concepts. After taking almost a week to finish the first half of the book, I finished the second half in two days. A truly compelling story can feel almost addictive, and this one hit that mark with flying colors. (Am I mixing metaphors? Yes. Do I care? DOES IT LOOK LIKE I DO, DEAR READER??? Okay. Anyway.)

That was also my issue with this book. Because while that last half was a rip-roaring 250 pages of pure adrenaline, the first half made me consider putting the book aside.

Now, it’s not as if I had an actual problem with the first half. It was just…slow. So, so slow. And when the slow first half is as long as some entire books are (this already-long book definitely felt longer than it was), that’s kind of a mood-killer. I’m incredibly glad I held out and waited for the story to pick up steam, because as I said, once I’d had time to get to know the characters (Honey and Danna have my ENTIRE HEART) and the story picked up, it was !!!!. But I thought that the book could’ve been shorter because of that. A lot of the establishing scenes probably could’ve been cut with little narrative consequence. Most of them focus on establishing Nova’s relationships with the Anarchists, and while a little bit of that is necessary to clarify who her loyalty is so divided when she joins the Renegades, we probably didn’t need a hundred pages of it. Getting to the Trials faster would’ve improved my reading experience. But the story was still insanely compelling, the characters were fleshed-out and lovable, and the world-building was fresh and interesting. Now that the story’s picked up steam, I can’t wait to spend more time in this world in “Archenemies.”

In the end, this one is not without flaws, but I believe it deserved the hype.

ENDNOTES: 

Favorite Scene: hmm…probably when the Renegades are giving Nova a tour of their headquarters, which was really fun and an example of a good and necessary and interesting “establishing shot.” That, or the scene in the library, which I can’t say much about because spoilers – it’s a great action sequence (probably what movie people would call a “set piece”…SOMEONE GET ME A RENEGADES MOVIE ASAP).

What Made This Book Stand Out: the underlying complexity of an action-y story, which is only just alluded to and promises to be built on in the next books.

One-Sentence Summary: great if you want to be convinced that there really is no such thing as a good government.

Something that Bugged Me: the pacing, as I’ve said on eight thousand occasions.

Adult Content: surprisingly, this one is actually very clean. There’s quite a bit of comic book-ish violence, but it’s not gratuitous or gory, and there MIGHT be a handful (literally a handful – no more than five, probably) of curse words but I can’t remember if there are or aren’t – that’s it. Seriously.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5 Confused Llamas

 

Posted in Reviews

REVIEW: “Above All Else” by Dana Alison Levy

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for this advance copy. “Above All Else” will be on sale October 13th, 2020. [Side note: I will be IN COLLEGE when this is released. WHAT? I’m not okay with this guys  a h. Okay anyway. Back to the scheduled programming of book reviews!]

Summary 

Rose Keller and Tate Russo have been climbing for years, training in harsh weather and traveling all over the world. The goal that kept them going: summiting Mount Everest, the highest point on earth. Accompanied by Tate’s dad, the two will finally make the ultimate climb at the end of their senior year. But neither Rose nor Tate are fully in the game—not only is there a simmering romance between them, but Rose can’t get her mind off her mother’s illness, while Tate constantly fails to live up to his ambitious father’s standards.

Everyone on their expedition has something to prove, it seems. And not everyone is making the best decisions while short on oxygen and physically and mentally exhausted. The farther up the mountain they go, the more their climbing plans unravel and the more isolated each team member becomes. Rose and Tate will have to dig deep within themselves to determine what—or who—they value above all else.

REVIEW

This is it, guys – my last ARC of 2019. Whoa. Crazy, right?

Okay, first off. That cover! Easily one of the prettiest covers I’ve seen this year. That was what initially drew me in but it was the premise – when else are you ever going to find a YA book about teenage mountaineers climbing Mt. Everest? – that made me request it. And to that end, it definitely lived up to my expectations. But in other ways, it really didn’t. Let me explain:

Starting off with the good, the author clearly did her homework. In the author’s note, Levy mentioned having taken several research trips to Nepal (where this book is set) while writing “Above All Else,” and it seriously shows. The setting is incredibly well-captured with the kind of detail that only someone who’d seen the places they were describing firsthand would be able to capture. And although I don’t know enough about mountaineering to say whether the process of the climb was portrayed accurately, it certainly seemed to be. It was obvious that the author’s research on Nepal, mountaineering, and Mt. Everest had been exhaustive. That level of detail made for a great sports/adventure novel even when other aspects of the plot fell short.

I also liked that it struck a balance of life issues and climbing issues. Though Rose and Tate’s quest to climb Mt. Everest was obviously the driving plotline, Levy did well in incorporating the kids’ real-life issues into the central conflict. Both have very believable issues with their families (Rose’s mother is ill, Tate constantly clashes with his father) and in their personal lives (Tate has ADHD and mild PTSD from a climbing accident, Rose and Tate have feelings for each other that they don’t know how to process) that get in the way of their focus on climbing the mountain. And I loved the exploration of what going though such a grueling experience does to you not only physically, but morally and psychologically. I’d never thought about this, but Levy makes in an excellent point in emphasizing that accomplishing a goal that requires so much of you, and that carries such a high risk, really does change you in that it requires absolute self-centeredness. The constant refrain of “is any achievement really worth becoming a person you hate for?” is fascinating. And none of this felt like a distraction from the plot as a whole. But…there was ONE subplot that absolutely did not earn that distinction.

You’ll almost never hear me say this, but I honestly thought this book would have been stronger without the romance.

I know. I KNOW. Me, who will literally always be in favor of a romance being shoehorned into absolutely everything, not wanting one? Shocking. But seriously. For a few reasons, I really wished Rose and Tate had just been friends.

Firstly: their personal issues were poignant enough without the romance that it wasn’t needed to give the book emotional depth. Plain and simple, it was unnecessary, and there was almost no way in which it actually served the plot. It may have been a contributing factor to a big fight they had late in the book, but there were so many other reasons that happened that I can’t very well say that their burgeoning romance caused it. Basically, it accomplished nothing – I felt like it was there just to be there.

Secondly: it came out of nowhere. I know they were best friends, but other than one description of Rose blushing at an accidental touch, there had been absolutely no indication that their love for each other extended beyond a deep platonic bond until Tate kissed her out of the blue around the 40% mark. It was just…weird. They had a great friendship, and I was really hoping it would stay that way because there was no indication that it wouldn’t before that kiss (except in the summary that I didn’t read carefully enough), but nope. I’m almost never the “just let the girl and guy who obviously care deeply about each other be friends” person, but this book was an exception.

And lastly: the way the romantic subplot was written sort of fell into the “stereotypically hormonal teenagers” trap so much that, I’m sorry to say, at times it kind of read like fanfiction. It’s not that it was badly written; the comparison is more just in that this book took every possible excuse to get them in bed together. Even if I wasn’t Super Uncomfortable with sexy stuff in books (I gravitate towards adventure stories partly because they have less of that since you can’t very well get scandalous when you’re fighting for your life…I was wrong), that would have been weird. There was a good 20% in the middle that I had to skim because it got so much more graphic than I was comfortable with. I’m not sure how realistic it was that they went from childhood besties to Uncomfortably Physical after ONE KISS while FACING CERTAIN DEATH? Idk man. It was weird.

All of that sounds super harsh, and I feel bad for being so hard on this book when I actually did really enjoy it. I love sports and adventure books, and the setting was novel and excellently-realized, and I liked the characters (especially the supporting cast), and really, the romance didn’t kill it because *SPOILER* they get separated right after they get together, so it’s not that much of the book *END SPOILER*. And there was one scene at the end that genuinely made me want to cheer. “Above All Else” was a gripping adventure that I greatly enjoyed – its only major flaw was that it tried to be a romance when it really wasn’t.

ENDNOTES

Favorite Scene: at the end, when Tate conquers his internal demons for long enough to rescue some dying climbers who no one else was willing to help – that was the best moment of this entire book by far.

What Made This Book Stand Out: the novelty of the setting and premise, and its impeccably-researched descriptions of Nepal and mountaineering.

One-Sentence Summary: man, this mountain is really out to get these kids…

Something that Bugged Me: …didn’t I already beat that dead horse enough times?

Adult Content: quite a bit of language, TONS of making out (described pretty graphically), and at least one sex scene that’s sort of described but I’m not really sure to what extent because I skipped over that section.

Overall Rating: 4/5 Confused Llamas

Posted in Lists and Rankings

Year-End Rankings: My Favorite 2019 YA Releases

What a year it’s been! With over 130 books read and most of them YA, I had my work cut out for me when I decided to rank the top 10 YA reads of the year. Granted, I split that ranking into two posts – one for 2019 releases, one for everything else – but these 10 were still narrowed down from a list of about 30-40 books. So yeah. This was difficult.

But I stand by my choices!

10. Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury

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Reviewed?: no

Why?: “Last of Her Name” was an absolute blast. It’s essentially a retelling of the Anastasia legend In Space™, and since I am an absolute sucker for both Anastasia and space opera, this was one I knew I had to read. And I loved it as much as I thought I would: its Space-Russia(!) worldbuilding, compelling story, and eminently root-for-able protagonist just about guaranteed that. I would absolutely LOVE a sequel to this. (Oh, also! It’s CLEAN!)

9. Hart and Seoul by Kristen Burnham

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Reviewed?: Yes! and I also interviewed Kristen Burnham about this one.

Why?: more than any other book on this list, “Hart and Seoul” came out of NOWHERE. Despite surveying the Goodreads shelves of upcoming YA releases for months, I had no idea this was coming out until it became available on NetGalley. I requested it on a whim, expecting…not much, since I hadn’t heard of it. And lo and behold, it scored the 9th-place slot in my year-end book ranking! (That’ll teach you not to underestimate an indie release!) I’m pretty sure that of all the books on this list, this one made me laugh the most; it had one of the best romances I’ve read this year; and I just generally want 86 more books of Merri and Lee’s adventures in love and psycopathic K-pop fan-avoidance. (Also, Kristen, the author, was my first interview and is generally a sweetheart who deserves the world. So go buy this book pls?)

8. Dangerous Alliance by Jennieke Cohen

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Reviewed?: sadly, no

Why?: I am a passionate lover of historical fiction and classic literature, so a YA romance about an Edwardian-era Jane Austen fangirl? SIGN ME UP. “Dangerous Alliance” was an absolutely delightful story that, while it revolves around romance, is not particularly romantic until the last third or so. It’s got sisters(! I LOVE GOOD BOOK SIBLINGS) and 19th-century-British-socialite scheming and fancy dress balls and all that good stuff but also attempted murder, sabotage, and all manner of skullduggery. And I’ll give you a spoiler: justice is served and everyone gets a happy ending. This one was a lot of fun.

7. Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

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Reviewed?: yes, but not by itself.

Why?: to be completely honest, the majority of my love of this book came from the fashion design contest bit. The idea of a Medieval Chinese (I think? The setting reminded me of Han Dynasty China) monarch staging some sort of Ye Olde Projekte Runwaye is absolutely irresistible and both the descriptions of the clothes, and the machinations of the competitors, are amazing. I loved that. And then Maia, our eminently lovable Fashion-Design-Mulan protagonist (she essentially does the exact same thing that Mulan does but instead of going to war in her father’s place, she goes to compete in the design contest), goes on a Quest with her not!boyfriend, and by this point I’m eating it all up with a spoon, and by the end I JUST WANT MORE. This was my exact favorite kind of everything.

6. Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

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Reviewed?: here

Why?: Descendant was not necessarily the book on this list that I enjoyed the most, although I did love it (hence the low-ish rating), but it is absolutely the best-written. Joan He is incredibly gifted at crafting plots that’ll leave your head spinning and prose that will make you weep at the realization that you will never write a single sentence half as well as she wrote this entire book. (Or is that just me? Eh, you get it.) Descendant of the Crane‘s quality is undeniable, and it reminds me a lot of a Chinese-inspired version of Megan Whalen Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series (which includes my all-time favorite YA novel, The King of Attolia). That’s a pretty high compliment.

 

5. Aurora Rising by Jay Kaufman and Amie Kristof 

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Reviewed?: yup!

Why?: I’m not ashamed to admit that “Guardians of the Galaxy” is my all-time favorite movie, and that is exactly the kind of vibe I got from this book…except that this space-traveling team of misfits is made up of teenagers, and instead of Thanos, their unseen Big Bad is a government cover-up that could threaten all life in the universe. (Does it really? I’m pretty sure we don’t know yet. But it’s Kaufman and Kristoff, so it’s probably going to be a galaxy-wide threat kinda deal. It’s sort of their thing.) “Aurora Rising” perfectly blends peril and comedy, romance and suspense – and I ate it up with a spoon. No, seriously, I read this nearly-500-page book in a day. And I can’t wait for “Aurora Burning” next year! Eep!

4. I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn 

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Reviewed?: pretty sure I talked about it briefly here.

Why?: this book was just…PRECIOUS. The romance is the sweetest thing ever, Kimi’s passion for design is infectious (what is it with me and fashion design books?), and watching Kimi explore Japan felt like doing so myself. But really, what stood out to me about this book was that it’s very…idk, visual. I felt like I was watching a movie the entire time – I could picture almost every scene, and some of those scenes (the sewing shop scene, the scene at the Temple at Nara where Kimi and Akira feed the deer…and the alleyway almost-kiss after…) were so strongly visual that I can still picture them, seven months after reading the book. It takes a certain type of writer to bring that strong of a visual association to their writing – Sarah Kuhn is such an author.

3. Somewhere Only We Know by Maureen Goo

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Reviewed?: very gushily, I might add.

Why?: see review. Basically says it all. Or, tl;dr: I loved everything about it and it was COMPLETELY worth the five-month wait.

TIE: “Lovely War” by Julie Berry and “The Fountains of Silence” by Ruta Sepetys

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Reviewed: “Fountains” – no, “Lovely” – yes: REVIEW: “Lovely War” by Julie Berry

Why?: 

My co-winners had a lot in common.

Both are historical fiction and set either during or shortly after a war. (I am such a sucker for wartime romances…it was kind of inevitable.)

Both have prose so beautiful it makes you cry and some of the most moving romances I’ve ever read.

Both have gorgeous covers!

And both are among the best books that I have ever read. I cannot recommend either of these two absolutely beautiful novels enough.

So…do you agree with my rankings? What would have been on yours? Let me know in the comments. And merry Christmas to those who celebrate 🙂