Book Review: The Belles

The BellesTitle: The Belles
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 434
Publisher: Freeform Books
Review Copy: Purchased from Amazon
Availability: Available Now

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

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

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

Review: I have to be honest that I struggled with what to say about “The Belles” because I found this book really disturbing. The novel has been described as “lush” and it is, with Clayton being extremely descriptive of the gowns, the setting, the food throughout the story, but for me after the initial few chapters, the excessive descriptions started to bother me. And then, midway through the novel I realized that this over-abundance of beautific descriptions was meant to be disturbing as to highlight how the notion of beauty has basically driven this society that Clayton created to madness, though they do not think they are mad. “The Belles” is a dark, disturbing novel that is a warning about what can happen when the desire to be beautiful reaches a point where reason is practically lost. The novel subtly explores the concept of slavery, yes that is what I feel the Belles are, even though they are celebrated, and the things people will do to keep making money off the backs of people. All in all, I realize that the point of the novel is to disturb the reader, to shake them up as the book is still with me days after I’ve finished it.

The strength of “The Belles” completely rides on the main character, Camellia (Camille) Beauregard’s, story. Camellia is a “Belle”, humans who have the power to make people beautiful, and has been trained since birth to harness her power with the intention of serving all the people the kingdom. She is one of six Belles of her generation who are debuting at the beginning of the book. She states that once she and her sisters debut, the previous generation leaves. This was my first disturbing thought – six Belles for an entire nation? Something wasn’t right. Soon, Camille realizes this exact notion when she first begins working at a tea house in the capital city. Then Camille replaces her sister Amber as the Queen’s favorite and she soon discovers how far people are willing to go to be beautiful, especially Princess Sophia. Clayton, I must say, wrote a perfect villain in Princess Sophia because it was clear that her desire to be beautiful, to mean something to someone, is what drove her to do the things she did, but her acts were so deplorable that I truly hated her. And this is where Clayton’s theme of slavery rings the loudest because Sophia has Camille to do some truly horrendous things and even though Camille knows they are wrong, she must obey. I truly felt for Camille and greatly wished she could stand up to Sophia in those moments but knew that for her, agreeing to perform those acts were all about survival. Camille does stand up to Sophia in her own way, but Sophia has ultimate power, which corrupts, and Camille unfortunately does not have enough power to truly fight Sophia. That power struggle was awful to read, butt also very real which truly added to this dark story.

I feel like “The Belles” is a true subversive book for our current time period as it hits on so many themes – the desire for beauty, power, slavery, exploitation, that it forces the reader to reflect on these themes that are uncomfortable but ones we need to ultimately examine. The Belles is the perfect book with which to have those conversations because it serves as a warning to us as to what can happen when we let our desire to be beautiful and our desire for power to get out of control.

Review: Let’s Talk About Love

Title: Let’s Talk About Love
Author: Claire Kann
Genres: Contemporary, Romance, LGBTQIA
Pages: 281
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: Alice had her whole summer planned. Non-stop all-you-can-eat buffets while marathoning her favorite TV shows (best friends totally included) with the smallest dash of adulting–working at the library to pay her share of the rent. The only thing missing from her perfect plan? Her girlfriend (who ended things when Alice confessed she’s asexual). Alice is done with dating–no thank you, do not pass go, stick a fork in her, done.

But then Alice meets Takumi and she can’t stop thinking about him or the rom com-grade romance feels she did not ask for (uncertainty, butterflies, and swoons, oh my!).

When her blissful summer takes an unexpected turn, and Takumi becomes her knight with a shiny library employee badge (close enough), Alice has to decide if she’s willing to risk their friendship for a love that might not be reciprocated—or understood.

Review: Note: The first chapter of LTAL is the breakup mentioned in the summary, and it includes aphobic and racist comments by the ex-girlfriend. In addition to these, LTAL also includes a brief sexual harassment scene.

The first time I saw the cover and read the summary of Claire Kann’s debut, LET’S TALK ABOUT LOVE, I knew I had to get my hands on it. A black, biromantic, asexual teenager in college? Yes please! Within the first couple of chapters, I knew I was going to enjoy going on this adventure with Alice. Alice has a distinctive voice filled with quirky commentary and parenthetical asides, which I generally enjoyed (though at points the pop culture references got a bit tiresome). Her narration was compelling and gave me a good idea of how she viewed the world and herself, especially in this tumultuous period in her life.

One of the things I really appreciated about LTAL is that Alice is explicitly biromatic and asexual, and Alice spends a lot of time thinking about and (sometimes) talking about her asexuality. (There’s even some discussion of asexuality as a spectrum.) Alice is out to just a handful of people, and after the disastrous end of her previous relationship, she’s reluctant to start a romantic relationship with Takumi even though she falls for him hard. Throughout the book, Alice pushes back against aphobic rhetoric that says her love isn’t “good enough” compared to someone who wants a sexual relationship with their partner.

As a young black woman, Alice also deals with a number of racial microaggressions on the page, from “you’re [x] for a black girl” to people asking questions about her hair. Her racial identity is just as important in this book as her asexuality, and it is a key factor in her conflict over college and career plans with her parents, as mentioned by her father:

“Black people have to be perfect, inhumanely good at everything, and even then we can fail, because that’s the way the system is set up. It is rigged against us. The environment, the opportunities we created gave you a leg up so you wouldn’t have to fight as hard.”

Alice’s relationship with Takumi was pretty cute. I had some specific-to-my-taste complaints, but overall, I enjoyed the long buildup of their friendship and watching the two of them become closer. (I do wish we’d seen more of their adventures together, though. There were some things I wanted to see play out on the page instead of being told about them later.) I’m rather fond of do-I-confess-and-risk-our-friendship romances, and the stakes felt even higher with Alice so recently burned by her ex-girlfriend’s reaction to Alice’s asexuality. Alice and Takumi’s relationship was filled with ups and downs, hurt feelings and happy times, but the ultimate resolution was satisfying.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you’re a fan of contemporary romance. Alice is an entertaining narrator with a strong voice, and you’ll quickly become invested in her getting a happily-ever-after. LTAL doesn’t shy away from addressing anti-black and aphobic microagressions, and it also tackles conflicts between parental expectations and children’s happiness. If you’re looking for a cute, sweet romance with some staying power, you should read Claire Kann’s debut.

Extras

Interview with Claire Kann

Let’s Talk About the LET’S TALK ABOUT LOVE Cover

Review: Shadow Girl

Shadow Girl by Liana LiuTitle: Shadow Girl
Author: Liana Liu
Genres: Mystery, Paranormal
Pages: 336 pages
Publisher: HarperTeen
Availability: Available now!

Summary: The house on Arrow Island is full of mystery. Yet when Mei arrives, she can’t help feeling relieved. She’s happy to spend the summer in an actual mansion tutoring a rich man’s daughter if it means a break from her normal life—her needy mother, her delinquent brother, their tiny apartment in the city. And Ella Morison seems like an easy charge, sweet and well behaved.

What Mei doesn’t know is that something is very wrong in the Morison household. Though she tries to focus on her duties, Mei becomes increasingly distracted by the family’s problems and her own complicated feelings for Ella’s brother, Henry. But most disturbing of all are the unexplained noises she hears at night—the howling and thumping and cries.

Mei is a sensible girl. She isn’t superstitious; she doesn’t believe in ghosts. Yet she can’t shake her fear that there is danger lurking in the shadows of this beautiful house, a darkness that could destroy the family inside and out… and Mei along with them. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: It’s only January right now, and I’ve found one of my favorite books of the year. For reference, my favorite last year was a belated reading of Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung. Like Lucy and Linh, Liana Liu’s Shadow Girl is another incredible read with a heroine from a low-income Asian immigrant background and strong narrative thread focusing on family. I read Shadow Girl in one sitting, staying up past 2 in the morning — which was not the greatest idea, considering it’s quite the spooky story.

What struck me right away was how real Mei felt as a character. Her inner life and voice, and the mix of guilt and protectiveness she felt for her mother were all too familiar to me. To top it all off, part of my Chinese name is Mei and like the heroine, I used to do tutoring as a high schooler to help pay the bills. The familiarity of Mei’s life made the paranormal aspects of Shadow Girl all the more scary.

Admittedly, I have a pretty low bar for scary. I skirt any piece of media that feels even the teensiest bit stressful, and I’m not a fan of ghost stories. But the cover and the Asian protagonist were a strong draw for me, so I gave this book a try, and I’m so glad I did. While people made of sterner stuff may not find the paranormal element as scary as they’d like, the suspense that builds from the shadows within the majestic mansion that Mei goes to tutor in and the Morison family tensions were enough to keep me up through the night.

Mei’s relationship with her mother and brother, and her struggle to understand herself and discover the freedom to pursue her dreams, are what make this book. This may be a fraction of the plot — most of it is devoted to Mei’s time spent at the Morison’s mansion and the slowly building mystery of its shadowy past — but it’s what makes this so worth a read. I loved the little details — Mei listening through the walls to her mother vacuuming around their small apartment, how Mei navigates a world of racist comments and wealthy, petty parents who want to hire her as a tutor, and the list goes on.

Finally, this is a small detail, but shoutout to how spoken Chinese is handled in this book. Mei’s mother speaks wholly in Chinese, and it’s done in a way that isn’t exoticized or whitewashed over. No clumsy attempts at incorporating translations through awkward clues, or tacky imitations of Chenglish, or randomly shoehorned-in lone Chinese words. Mei’s mother speaks Chinese, and it’s translated in a straightforward way, no decoration or smoothing over. It’s just there. And I loved it.

If you’re looking for a suspenseful, spooky story, or you just want to see some high quality Asian representation in YA lit (of course you do!), buy this now. I’m so happy I read this book, even if it kind of wrecked my sleep schedule. Totally worth it.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

Crystal’s 2017 Favorites

I am having a difficult time narrowing down my list. There were just so many fantastic books this year. Here are some that I would absolutely recommend over and over again. What earned a spot on your list of favorites for this year?

#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women
edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale
Annick Press || Review & Group Discussion

Summary: Whether looking back to a troubled past or welcoming a hopeful future, the powerful voices of Indigenous women across North America resound in this book. In the same style as the best-selling Dreaming in Indian, #NotYourPrincess presents an eclectic collection of poems, essays, interviews, and art that combine to express the experience of being a Native woman. Stories of abuse, humiliation, and stereotyping are countered by the voices of passionate women making themselves heard and demanding change. Sometimes angry, often reflective, but always strong, the women in this book will give teen readers insight into the lives of women who, for so long, have been virtually invisible.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
HarperTeen

Summary: On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
Simon Pulse || Group Discussion

Summary: A laugh-out-loud, heartfelt YA romantic comedy, told in alternating perspectives, about two Indian-American teens whose parents have arranged for them to be married.

Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right?

Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?

Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.

Dear MartinDear Martin by Nic Stone
Crown Books for Young Readers

Summary: Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray || Group Discussion

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, Khalil’s death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Starr’s best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Dancing Cat Books || Mini-Review

Summary: In a futuristic world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America’s Indigenous people, and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow, and dreams, means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a fifteen-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones and take refuge from the “recruiters” who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing “factories.”

Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds
Marvel Press || Review

Summary: “Everyone gets mad at hustlers, especially if you’re on the victim side of the hustle. And Miles knew hustling was in his veins.”

Miles Morales is just your average teenager. Dinner every Sunday with his parents, chilling out playing old-school video games with his best friend, Ganke, crushing on brainy, beautiful poet Alicia. He’s even got a scholarship spot at the prestigious Brooklyn Visions Academy. Oh yeah, and he’s Spider Man.

But lately, Miles’s spidey-sense has been on the fritz. When a misunderstanding leads to his suspension from school, Miles begins to question his abilities. After all, his dad and uncle were Brooklyn jack-boys with criminal records. Maybe kids like Miles aren’t meant to be superheroes. Maybe Miles should take his dad’s advice and focus on saving himself.

As Miles tries to get his school life back on track, he can’t shake the vivid nightmares that continue to haunt him. Nor can he avoid the relentless buzz of his spidey-sense every day in history class, amidst his teacher’s lectures on the historical “benefits” of slavery and the importance of the modern-day prison system. But after his scholarship is threatened, Miles uncovers a chilling plot, one that puts his friends, his neighborhood, and himself at risk.

It’s time for Miles to suit up.

Review: Wild Beauty

Wild BeautyTitle: Wild Beauty
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, LGBTQIA
Pages: 320
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: Love grows such strange things.

For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.

Review: So, it’s been a while since I ugly sobbed my way through the climax and resolution of a book, but here I am, wanting you to have the exact same experience. In a book where love can—and often does—bring tragedy, it goes without saying that there would be a lot of heartache in store. There’s bucketfuls of it, passed on from generation to generation, of lovers vanished or sent away before the Nomeolvides curse can take hold of them.

Wild Beauty starts off with a bang, when Estrella and her four cousins discover that they have all fallen (a little) in love with Bay Briar, a queer non-binary girl whose extended family owns the land they live on, La Pradera. The girls’ rush to sacrifice their precious things to La Pradera in an attempt to keep Bay from vanishing is what causes a boy called Fel, who has no memory of who he is or where he came from, to appear in their enchanted garden. And while Fel tries to figure out who he is, the girls, their mothers, and their grandmothers all have to wrestle with what Fel means as the only person to have ever been given back by La Pradera.

Anna-Marie McLemore tackles love in its many forms, and there is an abundance of queer characters, young and old. The tragedy of the Nomeolvides family isn’t in who they love—it’s in the curse that steals anyone and everyone from them without warning. There is a wide range of love in this book, and some of my favorite moments were when love and caring and gratitude were given physical form through the cooking and sharing of food. Another major theme in the book is how privilege and the lack of it both radically shape opportunities and lives. Reid’s character in particular is a close-up examination and condemnation of powerful men who believe they are above others, and the heroes’ confrontations with and strategies to manage him were all too real.

Continuing the pattern established by McLemore’s previous books, Wild Beauty has duel protagonists who alternate chapters. Estrella and Fel were excellent narrators, and the richness of their inner lives is a great fit for the lush prose. I really enjoyed the way the two of them connected and grew together.

While there were occasional moments where I felt the story got bogged down by description, the meandering pace and lingering on the details generally enhanced the story and was a good reminder that the setting—La Pradera—is just as important as any of the people. This world is a fantastical one, with curses and women who grow flowers with their hands, and it is also a familiar one, where injustice and blood leave lasting scars that shape future generations.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you want a big dose of queer characters and magical realism. McLemore’s newest offering is another great addition to any home or school library. Fans of McLemore’s previous work will find more of what they loved before in Wild Beauty, and the book will be just as welcoming to new readers. I’m looking forward to reading it again.

Extras

Better Know an Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Anna-Marie McLemore’s ‘Wild Beauty’ Is A Magical Story Of Love, Loss, And Family Curses

Interview with Anna-Marie McLemore, author of “When the Moon Was Ours” and “Wild Beauty”

Review: You Bring the Distant Near

Title: You Bring the Distant Near
Author: Mitali Perkins
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Genres: Romance, Contemporary & Historical
Pages: 303
Review copy: Digital ARC via Netgalley & personally purchased final copy
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Five girls. Three generations. One great American love story. You Bring the Distant Near explores sisterhood, first loves, friendship, and the inheritance of culture–for better or worse. Ranee, worried that her children are losing their Indian culture; Sonia, wrapped up in a forbidden biracial love affair; Tara, seeking the limelight to hide her true self; Shanti, desperately trying to make peace in the family; Anna, fighting to preserve Bengal tigers and her Bengali identity–award-winning author Mitali Perkins weaves together a sweeping story of five women at once intimately relatable and yet entirely new.

Review: In You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins created a beautiful story of family, love and identity. Sonia, a writer and reader, mentions Little Women on more than one occasion. I can’t help but make comparisons. These women have so much love for each other and they show that as they work through their individual challenges.

The relationships of Sonia, Tara and their mother Ranee are the primary focus of more than half of the book. These young women and their mother share many things like genes, culture, and having adapted to multiple countries over time. This is the magic of families. We often share so much, but our personalities and individual experiences shape us and our identities become distinct from each other. As the young women are trying to live their dreams, they are also separating from their mother and the past she clings to. By offering this story from so many perspectives, readers are able to see the diversity present within one extended family. Ranee has an obvious bias toward the Black people in their neighborhood yet she rebels against some of the confining requirements from her own culture. She pushes her husband and provides for her family. Sonia uses her voice and pen to fight for women’s rights and Tara focuses on being a star and keeping peace between her sister and mother. All hold onto and honor aspects of their culture that match their own beliefs. They are at work blending the many parts of themselves on a palette and making their unique mark on the world.

Every part of this book made me want to crawl into the story with this family. Even when certain characters weren’t speaking to each other, I could still see the love there and the belief in one another. The original group of women set the stage and then we get to see the children. The cousins add another layer to the story. I loved seeing how tightly each young woman clung to what and who they valued. These are teens who have doubts and fears, but move forward through them. Like with Little Women, I think readers will likely see bits and pieces of themselves within these characters and will want to cheer them on every step of the way. It sounds seriously sappy, but this book made my heart happy.

Recommendation: Get it now especially if you enjoy realistic fiction involving families. I did not want this book to end.

Extras: Our Interview with Mitali Perkins