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The Anatomical Shape of A Heart by Jenn Bennett

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NB: This book is also known as Night Owls in the UK.

The Anatomical Shape of A Heart is a super super shippy, super super fluffy YA contemporary novel about a young artist named Bex who’s really obsessed with anatomy.

Which is a good 80% of why I’m reviewing this book. Bex wants to be a medical illustrator, and the book begins with her trying to get permission to draw cadavers at the teaching hospital to help her win a scientific art scholarship for college. When she’s forced to take the night bus home from her appointment, she meets Jack, who, she quickly discovers, is the now infamous golden-penned graffiti artist writing words all over San Francisco. In the world of YA contemporary, it’s a pretty unusual set-up.

And I have to describe the story that follows as fluffy, even if it does deal with some serious issues, like a plotline involving schizophrenia. It has dark elements, but it exists in a world where you know everything is safe and will turn out OK in the end. The book is structured around Bex’s scholarship competition, but the main focus is its cute romance, and it is cute, and written in a way that pulls you in. Bex and Jack stand out as protagonists — Bex as the talented artist desperate to draw cadavers, and Jack as the Buddhist vegetarian vandal — but they’re also both such teenagers, in a way that makes the book feel incredibly real. Bex means well, but she has a self-serving and rebellious streak, and when she fights with her parents, she can be downright cruel. Jack is painfully overconfident, even as he’s insecure, completely blase about the escalating potential consequences of his actions and the near inevitability of getting caught.

In fact, my main criticism of the book is that it might be too nice and fluffy, even despite the aforementioned schizophrenia plotline, because the potential conflict doesn’t really ever get ramped up into a plot. There are a bunch of problems and tensions lurking — Bex’s non-relationship with her father, Jack’s relationship with HIS father, Bex’s struggles to be able to afford to go to college, the fact that Jack is wanted on felony charges for vandalism — but none of it is explored in depth. The growing relationship has very few real obstacles, and it feels like there are many potential sources of conflict that pop up in the background, and then get resolved in the background as well. I really enjoyed reading the book while I was reading it, but when I looked back on it once I was done, I wanted more from it.

The book also suffers from a slight lack of female friends. Bex’s two friends are away for the summer and are basically mentioned twice — once to establish that, and once to say they sent her a joint text on her birthday. There’s a sense in that moment that Bex feels isolated from them, but again, that’s not really explored, so they’re mostly just kind of missing.

But despite that, The Anatomical Shape of a Heart is incredibly fun to read. It’s the sort of story to carry you out of a reading rut, to cheer you up at the end of a long winter, or to help pass the time on a long and fidgety plane ride. Definitely recommended!

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The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller

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Sharon Biggs Waller writes highly original, highly feminist historical fiction. Her debut, A Mad Wicked Folly, is one of my favorite novels, so I was incredibly excited to read her second book, The Forbidden Orchid, which came out at the start of this month.

In The Forbidden Orchid, Elodie, the eldest of ten daughters, must take care of her family when her flower-hunting father fails to return home from his latest adventure. When her father’s employer shows up at their house, demanding a huge amount of money in recompense for her father’s failed last adventure, Elodies decides she will do anything to save her family — including heading off to China to help find those promised orchids herself.

The novel is in three distinct sections: Elodie at home in Kent, on the ship sailing to China, and the adventure in China itself. The section on the boat was my favorite — it was probably the shippiest part of the book (no pun intended), and I’m a sucker for every plot twist that emerged. But every section pulls you in, presenting a richly painted, compelling world with great sensitivity and depth. Biggs Waller clearly did a lot of research for this novel: research on flowers and flower hunting, on clipper ships and tea races, on the second Opium War and on China in its immediate aftermath. The novel has a sense of danger and adventure, but it never romanticizes any of its darker subject matter. Because yes, at times, this book gets seriously dark.

But it’s also exciting and refreshing. I’ve never seen a book about a passionate botanist before, let alone one who is also a Victorian adventurer, and I loved Elodie as our stubborn and determined protagonist. The book also has loads of other great characters, especially Ching Lan, the blunt and fearless herbalist, and the ex-missionary doctor, Prunella Winslow.

The novel isn’t particularly fast-paced, but I found it completely addictive. It was one of those rare books that kept me reading past 3am because I just needed to read one more chapter, again and again. It has some romance, but mostly, it’s a book about family and flowers and feminism in Victorian England and 1860s China. If you want to read a historical novel or an adventure story that’s a little bit different, you should definitely give it a try.

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Getting Meta with Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

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Anyone who’s read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl will recognize Simon Snow. He’s that universe’s stand-in for Harry Potter, a magical Chosen One fighting an evil villain while attempting to attend a magic boarding school. Fangirl‘s protagonist Cath is obsessed with the series, and is the author of a very popular slash fic between Simon and Draco Malfoy stand-in, Baz.

So the mere existence of Carry On is a bit strange. Our universe already has a Harry Potter. We don’t another (fictional) universe’s Harry Potter too. It’s too many levels of meta. An actual bestselling novel inspired by a fictional bestselling series that was based on an actual bestselling series. Add in the fact that Cath’s story in Fangirl is called Carry On, Simon, and you’ve basically got an actual bestselling novel inspired by a fictional popular fanfic inspired by a fictional bestselling series that’s closely based on an actual bestselling series.

My head hurts already.

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Loveable Murderers and The Wrath and the Dawn

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Everyone loves a good hate to love relationship. It’s fun to watch characters who think they loathe one another finding out that they actually kinda like each other after all, and the shifting relationship can be a great way to explore character development.

But here’s the thing: the “hate to love” trope only works if the characters don’t actually have good reasons to hate one another. Either they’re just full of Han and Leia bickeryness, or they hate each other based on misconceptions that’ll all get sorted out once they’re forced to go on an adventure together. At most, the characters can get over their justified hatred by undergoing major character development and learning pretty significant things that they didn’t know before, but that’s only in the hands of a very gifted storyteller across several novels.

Which brings me to The Wrath and the Dawn, a Thousand and One Nights retelling by Renee Abdieh. The basic premise is that young King Khalid keeps murdering his wives, including our protagonist Shahrzad’s best friend, so Shahzrad volunteers to marry him in order to get revenge and kill him.

Obviously, Shahrzad is going to despise him for most of the book, and then find out what’s really been going on, and maybe feel a little bit of sympathy for him. And then, if the book insists on having those two get together, their relationship will grow from there. Right?

Actually, Shahrzad has known Khalid for about three days when she starts to think about how handsome and lovely and kind he is. She still thinks he murdered her best friend for no good reason, but he doesn’t seem like a murdering psychopath when she talks to him, and he hasn’t killed her yet, so she’ll start to fall for him instead. It’s basically Stockholm Syndrome: Arabian Nights edition.

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The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine

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The Impostor Queen is an amazing fantasy novel. It’s fast-paced fun, with a compelling protagonist, enthralling world-building, an intriguing magic system, and some great romance for flavor.

Elli has grown up knowing she’s fated to be the Valtia, the most powerful woman in the land, who uses her control over fire and ice to ensure peace and prosperity in the kingdom. Isolated from the rest of the world, she’s been taught to always trust her priests and to put her kingdom first. But when the old Valtia dies, Elli does not inherit her powers. After being forced to endure increasingly dangerous trials to unleash her magic, Elli learns that her priests plan to murder her, and she’s forced to flee the only life she’s ever known.

Although The Impostor Queen is epic fantasy full of magic and danger, at its heart, it’s very character driven — a story of characters figuring out who they are. As the story develops, it has lots of fantastic feminist themes: of self empowerment, of definition, of strength and courage in many forms. Elli isn’t the Valtia, so who is she? At first, she dismisses herself as a weak no-one, no use to anybody. The Impostor Queen is really about Elli learning to define herself separately from her title and deciding who she wants to be.

The book is also full of fascinating female relationships, particularly the one between the Valtia and her young successor, and the strong emotional bond they share despite other people’s attempts to control and isolate them.

Of course, all my favorite things about the novel are huge spoilers, as is often the case in books full of big plot twists and characters’ self discovery. But it is a wonderful, absorbing and compelling novel, with a lot of things to say. The first in a series, but a satisfying story in itself, and definitely worth a read.

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My True Love Gave To Me and Festive Recs

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It’s December! And I’m really feeling the need to snuggle down with a warm blanket, a few wintery candles, and some cosy festive stories.

Because yes, I am the sort of person who watches A Muppets’ Christmas Carol every year, plays All I Want For Christmas Is You on repeat, and will happily marathon all the festive episodes of Friends to get in the mood.

But I don’t really know that many festive books. I’d love to read sweet, fluffy stories, or bittersweet snowy stories, or… just anything Christmassy.

So, please share your festive recs! What should we all be reading this year?

For my contribution, I offer My True Love Gave To Me, a holiday anthology edited by Stephanie Perkins and including short stories from authors like Gayle Forman, David Levithan, Ally Carter, and Laini Taylor.

Pretty much all the stories are winners, but my favorites include Midnights by Rainbow Rowell (a really sweet New Year’s Eve themed story), Angels in the Snow by Matthew de la Pena (about two college students stuck in NYC in a snowstorm at Christmas), and It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown by Stephanie Perkins (hard to summarize, about a girl who’s expecting a non-existent Christmas until she wanders into the Christmas tree lot across the street from her apartment).

For less specifically-festive YA, I’d also recommend Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Both are incredibly adorable contemporary romances set over the length of a school year, the first at an American highschool in Paris, and the second during a girl’s first year of college in Nebraska. They have Christmas elements, but also just a general sweetness to them that I think is really festive.

What would you recommend people read this holiday?

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I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

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Meet my new favorite novel.

I was a huge fan of Jandy Nelson’s first book, The Sky is Everywhere, but for some reason, I was really slow to pick up her second book after it was finally released last year. On the bright side, this means I got the emotional-rollercoaster-esque pleasure of reading it now, at just the time I needed it.

I’ll Give You The Sun is the story of two twins who grow apart, before and after a tragedy. The “before” story belongs to thirteen year old Noah, an aspiring artist and outsider who sketches constantly and dreams of going to art school. He used to be inseparable from his twin sister Jude, but recently she’s turned into a popular surfing daredevil, scornful of his “weirdness” and jealous of his talent and closeness with their mom. When the charismatic stargazer Brian moves next door, Noah instantly falls in love, but does Brian feel the same way?

The “after” belongs to the sixteen year old Jude, a superstitious, closed-off sculptor who’s failing out of art school and has barely spoken to her more-popular brother in years. When she decides that she needs to create a stone sculpture to send a message to her dead mother, she sets out to convince a local unpredictable artist to mentor her. In the process, she meets Oscar, a blatant “don’t go near him, he’s trouble” guy who tests her self-imposed boy boycott.

As the back of the book says, Jude and Noah each only have half of the story. They know half of what happened to their family, half of what happened to their mom, half of what happened to their relationship with one another. They moved seemingly irreparably apart, but they need to move past their guilt and resentment and talk to one another in order to piece the truth together.

I’ll admit, when I read the first page, my main thought was, “I can’t read this.” Nelson’s writing is very metaphorical and poetic, and it takes a couple of pages to get used to it. But once I did, the writing style felt emotional but natural, and made perfect sense in the context of melodramatic tortured-artist-soul Noah and closed-off, guilt ridden Jude. It’s very artsy, but the whole book is about the emotional power of art, so somehow, it works.

And when I say it works, I mean it really, really works. This book is beautiful and emotionally devastating and revealing and uplifting and generally wonderful.

It’s not flawless, of course. I had some issues with the romance, in particular — not with how they’re written, as it’s very easy to get swept up with both stories, but in an objective, “seriously, Jude, this guy may be charismatic but he’s also 19 and this is not a good idea” way. But beyond a little frustration in the moment, this didn’t really affect my feelings on the book.

I’ll Give You The Sun absolutely captivated me. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, flaws and all. I’m completely in love.

Please read it.

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We Are the Capitol: Thoughts on the Hunger Games Theme Park

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A couple of weeks ago, Lionsgate announced that they would be opening several Hunger Games theme parks — one in Atlanta, one in Macau, China and one in Dubai. According to the Guardian:

Guests will be greeted by actors dressed as District 12’s downtrodden inhabitants and get the chance to visit locations such as the Hob black market and Peeta Mellark’s bakery. Other rides will include a “lavish” rollercoaster, built to imitate the train in which Katniss and Peeta make the journey to the Capitol and their meeting with almost certain death.

Sounds… fun?

The media discussion on these theme parks is slightly unclear, but it seems like this won’t be a “Hunger Games Land,” so much as part of a larger Lionsgate-themed entertainment park, including other franchises like Twilight. Even so, the decision to make the dystopian world of The Hunger Games into an interactive visitors’ attraction, like Harry Potter World or Cinderella’s castle in Disneyworld, is troubling to say the least, if also rather unsurprising.

But this theme park is simply one more piece in an extended marketing campaign that conveys the book’s dystopian message far more clearly than any book series could do in isolation. The whole point of dystopian fiction is to hold a magnifying glass to the darker parts of our society, and the media reaction to The Hunger Games feels like our society jumping under that magnifying glass, waving its arms and shouting “look at me!” The Hunger Games mirrors the perversions of our own media, and our media responds to the Hunger Games by acting out those perversions even more intensely. At this point, the media around The Hunger Games feels like particularly depressing performance art, with us all playing the role of the Capitol.

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The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

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The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a strange, strange book.

I suppose that’s given away in the title, really. It’s strange, and it’s sad, and it is, at times, beautiful. And although I didn’t love it as much as the rest of the world seemed to, it is definitely worth a read.

Ava Lavender is a very literary novel — probably the most “literary fiction”-esque YA novel I’ve ever read. I originally wanted to write that it has a detached omniscient narrator, but I just checked, and it’s written in first person. The fact that I thought it was in third person omniscient should tell you how detached it is. Ava Lavender tells us her experiences, but she also tells other people’s stories, describing events she didn’t witness, telling us stories of things before she was born with details she couldn’t possibly know. The story isn’t grounded in Ava like you might expect a first person narrative to be — and in fact, it doesn’t really feel like her story, not completely. It’s the story of three generations of her family, all of whom are “unlucky” in love — for “unlucky,” read tragic in an almost magical way — and Ava is only one piece of it.

We start with Ava’s grandmother, Emilienne, who moves with her family from France to New York and watches all of her siblings suffer and die for love in very dramatic, fairy tale ways. One sibling feels so invisible she turns into a bird. Another rips out her own heart in the agony of heartbreak. And so on it goes.

When Emilienne moves to Washington, we get a side glimpse of the legendary girl who used to live in Ava’s house, and again, it’s a fairy tale like Brothers Grimm, or perhaps a horror story, depending on your perspective.

And this sense of magic is continued with our three main characters. Emilienne sees omens in everything. Her daughter can smell things like emotion and danger. And her granddaughter Ava is born with wings. The story follows them through the years, as they struggle to figure out life and love.

But don’t be tricked by the fairy tale feeling of it — or perhaps do, but accept it for what it really is. This is a dark, dark story. The tagline on the front of the UK version is “Love makes us such fools,” but that’s far more whimsical and bittersweet sounding than the story’s actual message. Although that seems more fitting at the beginning of the book, I should repeat that Emilienne’s sister rips out her own heart before the end of chapter two. And while the book retains its sad-but-beautiful, whimsical tone, the deeper we get into the story, the darker “love” and its effects become.

Sadly, I think all the marketing and packaging for this book is quite misleading. The blurb tells us that “on the night of the summer solstice, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air and Ava’s fate is revealed,” and that has a far more positive and magical tone than the actual tale. This book is very dark and violent, and some readers may find it disturbing.

Also note the “fate is revealed” part of the description — it’s all very passive on Ava’s part. This is the story of three generations of women who struggle against the travails of love and lust and rejection, not the story of a girl with wings who finds herself, and Ava’s decisions and agency count for very little in the end. Her mother and grandmother are far more important figures in the story.

This passivity and detachment is, I think, one of the reasons I didn’t love this book as much as everyone else in the world seemed to. The other reason is simply that I don’t enjoy “literary”-style writing as much as I probably should. I can appreciate the beauty of it, but it doesn’t pull me into the story as I would like.

That said, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is definitely a book worth investigating, especially if you like your novels, as the title says, “strange, sad and beautiful.” Just be prepared for some violence too.

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The Cahill Witch Chronicles by Jessica Spotswood

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Jessica Spotswood’s Cahill Witch Chronicles is a YA attempt at The Handmaid’s Tale… with magic.

The series is set in an oppressive version of 1890s New England, where society is run by the Brotherhood, a group of religious extremists who insist that all women either marry at 18 or join their nun equivalent, the Sisterhood. Once, New England was run by witches, but they were almost all killed in a religious uprising, and now any woman suspected of “impropriety,” or accused of witchcraft, is sent to work on a prison ship, locked up in the infamous Harwood Asylum, or simply disappears without a trace.

Cate Cahill and her two younger sisters are all witches. They practice magic in secret, but as their mother died when they were young, they know very little about their powers or magic’s past. Cate has sworn to protect her younger sisters from the Brotherhood, but her eighteenth birthday approaches, when she must either find someone to propose to her, or be married off at the Brotherhood’s behest — and they don’t like quiet, strange girls like Cate at all.

Religious oppression runs deep in this book, and it reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale multiple times, but, as I said, this is very much a YA version of that theme, both in the sense that it has romance that’s central to the story, and in the sense that it has hope. Things get pretty grim, but they’re never hopelessly grim, in part because magic is real, the girls do have power, and we always get the sense that they’ll be able to do something about their oppression in the end. It’s that YA dystopian “the world sucks, but teenagers might be able to fix it” thing, and it helps the book feel far more fun than it otherwise could have been.

The initial plot set-up is very marriage-plot-esque — Cate must declare her intention to marry in a few months time, or her husband will be chosen for her. And this does play a significant role in the story. But this plotline is quickly overtaken by Cate’s discovery that her mother didn’t tell her everything about her magic, and that protecting her sisters may not be as simple as she once hoped.

At its heart, The Cahill Witch Chronicles is about the relationship between these three sisters. Although it has a couple of love interests and a dead-mother trope, it’s full of vibrant female characters and their many complicated relationships with one another. It’s also a very diverse book, embracing the idea that if this alternate history can have actual witches, it can definitely have people who aren’t white. So the richest and most influential people in the town are the Ishida family, with Brother Ishida as a major antagonist and his daughter Sachi playing an important role in Cate’s story. This basic principle of “if you can have magic, you can have diversity” is found throughout all three books, and it’s a refreshing change.

Also, lesbian witches!

This is a great book series for fans of Libba Bray, Robin LeFevers, or any “Victorian magic!” style fiction. I devoured all three books in about two days, and I can’t wait to see what this author writes next.

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