Category: YA Romance


So, guess who got hit with a fun little dose of anxiety about actually starting her new job back on Wednesday. It’s me. I spent so much time getting up and looking for things to do that I got just about nothing done. All the same though, I’m happy to share this one with you all. The nice folks at Tor Teen sent it to me ages ago and I’m finally talking about it. By an author I’ve reviewed several times before, Ann Aguirre, this is Heartwood Box. Enjoy!

Heartwood Box cover

Araceli Flores Harper’s parents sent her to live with her great aunt Ottillie for her own safety. On paper, the town is safer than nearly anywhere Araceli could possibly be. No crime. No outward threats. But people, her great uncle included, have been disappearing for years with no trace found. That’s concerning enough on its own. But between her new pen pal from World War 1 and the disappearance of her best friend Araceli will need to dig deep into the town’s mysteries for the truth regardless of the danger.

Ann Aguirre’s Heartwood Box does an interesting job of balancing the mystery of what causes the disappearances and Araceli’s attempts to figure them out and the sort of romance across time between Araceli and Oliver.

Aguirre is one of those authors that I adore with major exception to how she writes romance, Heartwood Box is a fascinating exception to that. Something, I think, about how she balances the romance against the plot and Araceli’s feelings about other characters. The plot is allowed to happen without being entirely devoured by the romance. As the plot gets more serious it feels like Araceli leans more heavily on the impossible romance with Oliver. And yet, the only thing that feels lost to the romance was the possible love triangle with the boy next door class clown, Logan, which did not feel like a loss at all given the characters involved.

It actually becomes difficult to talk more about the plot, beyond going over how it balances with the romance, without spoiling the climax. Which is a bit frustrating because the real mystery only kicks in later in the book, the first half or so of the story is introduction and lead up. And yet, it is introduction and lead up that is done well enough that I was almost disappointed when the end started getting closer. I was enjoying seeing Araceli trying to figure out how she was communicating with Oliver, seeing her finding out more about the town, even her interactions with Logan made for good character work and made him feel like more of a character than just the third wheel guy. The character work over all is good actually, I enjoyed reading the interactions between Araceli and her friends. I wanted to see more of them, more of their stories, it made for great side characters because they felt solid and like they had their own stories going on off page.

My problem, if I had a problem at all, with Heartwood Box is the ending. Trying not to go too far into it, it feels way beyond Araceli’s scope. By nature of the narrative and the book to that point, the reader has to stick with Araceli for the ending but then the things that happened seem vastly out of step with what both the reader and Araceli herself know and could expect. It leaves her feeling unmoored in a way that could easily have been the start of a completely different story. This is definitely a matter of necessity, again the reader has to stick with her or it would be way too jarring, but the difference has to be tremendous enough for the reader to get the sheer magnitude of how much changed from the comparatively small scope of Araceli’s life in this small town in New York. It is a trade off that I’m not entirely sure works, but acknowledge had to be made.

Which brings me to this, I liked Heartwood Box a great deal. It falls pretty far from my usual genre preferences but the characters were interesting and the mystery was well constructed enough that I got hooked. It reminded me of the parts of Ann Aguirre’s writing that I really enjoy and made me want to check out more of her YA works. So it earns a four out of five from me. If I felt more confident with the ending it would have gotten a five.

So this is a review that I did not feel entirely comfortable with the writing of. I did not read the first book, Echos, so things felt more than a little disconnected. I do want to thank the nice folks at Entangled Teen for sending me an ecopy of this for review. This is Alice Reeds’ Fractures. Enjoy!

Fractures cover

Miles and Fiona survived the island. Survived a bear. Their rescue by the FBI should have taken them to safety, a new home and new identities. Instead they were taken to a villa in Poland where everyone has strange expectations for them. Instead they find themselves on a freighter in the middle of the ocean with no food or water. If they want to survive and maybe even stop whoever is behind all of this, Miles and Fiona will have to work together and remember all that has been done to them.

I confess that I did not realize that Alice Reeds’ Fractures was the second book in a series until I was around a third of the way through. I had assumed that the aspects that made it feel like a sequel were a deliberate stylistic choice to leave the reader as lost as the main characters were. I was about it, it felt like a cool idea that could have paid off really well. For obvious reasons it did not pay off, this is the second in a series and that realization was part of what started my path towards losing interest in what was going on.

Fractures feels very like a middle book in that everything feels like set up for something later in the series. It moves very slowly with long spans of Miles worrying over his relationship with Fiona or angsting over his brother or how poorly his father thinks of him. Those stretches of internal concerns made Miles a protagonist I just could not get into, he felt so whiny and constantly down on himself that it felt difficult to keep reading at times, like he should have had another solid book worth of character development rather than just retreading the same beats over and over.

Having missed the first book, the antagonists here seemed like their whole plot was poorly worked out. What the protagonists, and thus the reader, find out is interesting but thin. We get an end goal but not much on how the process is meant to work or why. That could work on a level of keeping the protagonists on their back foot until everything came together. But then things never so much come together as the solution gets dumped into the protagonists’ laps less through their actions and more because the book needed to end. It feels like the plot boiled down to nothing and then tied up far too quickly and too neatly for things to actually be over.

There was a lot that could have been interesting here or well done if given a little more attention. Miles aside, the characters show promise. The antagonists are this huge organization that has been picking out and buying specific teenagers to do military experiments on and everything is shadowy and mysterious and so much could have been explained better. The antagonists could have been so much more threatening if the reader was given more reason to believe that the characters were in danger or if the villa felt more locked down than it did. Even the romance could have been better if the reader was shown Miles making the effort to show Fiona that he cares rather than just thinking about how much he loves her over and over. The bit with their files could have had a much bigger effect if it actually affected the characters rather than Miles just talking about how worried it made him and how it was clearly affecting Fiona too.

Fractures winds up having a lot of things that should have been minor issues adding up to something unenjoyable. I found Miles utterly worthless as a protagonist. The antagonists were bland and flatly villainous. It is the kind of book that I am certain would have been more enjoyable if I had read the first in the series, but I also have no intention of going back and reading the first book. I could probably be convinced to read Alice Reeds again later in her career but for now, Fractures gets a two out of five from me.

It occurred to me while writing this that I really want to ramble about a few sub genres at some point. Not sure how well I would do with that, but it still might be fun. This one is from the nice folks at Entangled Teen, here’s Cindy R. Wilson’s Sting. Enjoy!

Sting cover

The Scorpion robs warehouses in the Light District. These raids help the denizens of the Dark District survive as more and more of the jobs they rely on disappear. But it only takes one person betraying her for the Scorpion to be killed off, replaced in the minds of the Enforcers with a teenage girl, replaced  in their minds with Tessa and thrown in jail to rot far from the people she cares for.  If she wants to get out, to even have the chance at revenge, Tessa will have to team up with the prisoner in the cell next to hers, an outcast from the very Enforcers she wants to stop, Pike. Will their escape allow them to pursue revenge or will the attempt doom them both?

In many ways, Cindy R. Wilson’s Sting feels very much like a book failed by its genre. It feels like a book that had romance ladled into it to avoid filling in the gaps in world building. Or like the author really wanted to dig into the basic social stratification ideas that are heavily used in cyber punk but then backed out for fear of really saying anything. But then it really seems to not know what to do with the romance angle either.

Throughout the first third or so of Sting the reader is introduced to the Dark District with its falling in buildings and denizens who can barely find enough to eat and the jail, Decay, which is being used to erase the jobs that people in the Dark District used to work, thus depriving them of a way to survive, but that has more regular meals and solid shelter than our protagonist can ever remember having had. Tessa wants out though, wants revenge, wants to get back to her sister and helping the people of the Dark District. To do that she has to follow Pike’s plan, which means that she and the reader wind up plopped into the Light District. The reader was shown the Dark District in ruins and told that the Light District was much wealthier, that they had electricity and excess food and all the industry. But then it winds up being so much more than that. The Light District is presented as this big glamorous thing with lights everywhere and brilliant colors on everything and expensive parties regularly.

While I am aware that cities exist with this level of social stratification and that there are people like the Enforcers who want to hurt others seemingly just because they can, it just seems comical here. There is a literal closed off border between the two districts of this one city, a closed off border with armed guards all hopped up on propaganda and undeserved power ready to hurt the Darksiders who might try and go to the Light District for a job or something. It winds up being one of those things that, I am certain that something like it exists, but as presented in Sting it all feels like short hand for actual world building. It feels like the differences needed to be made as stark as possible so that the plot could be remembered through all of Tessa’s random moments of angsting over falling for Pike or over the feelings she had for River.

I confess, a lot of my frustrations here are made much worse by the ending. It feels far too tidy. Too like Wilson was dedicated to that ending from the start and refused to adjust it in light of how dark her antagonist wound up being. It sort of casts everything that came before it in a very artificial light. It feels unearned in a couple of ways.

From a genre angle, as much as I want to compare it to cyber punk, the comparison does not fit well. It is not technology making the Darksiders’ lives worse. Technology really fails to feature heavily, Tessa’s scorpion bots aside. Everything that makes the Darksider’s lives worse is down to one single antagonist and his underlings. The romance plot is certainly key to Sting’s word count, but manages to feel unnecessary and over done. It tends to feel more like filler than important to the character’s arcs. The scenes where Tessa thinks about her feelings for Pike were, at best, frustrating interruptions to what felt like the actual plot even as it feels like the reader is never properly let in on what Pike’s plan is. I kept waiting for something about that to come up, for us to get a better look at how they were planning to deal with the antagonist and show that Pike is as clever as the reader is told he is, but then it never came up.

There was so much here that had the potential to be well done if only given more room for development. So much that should have been given another pass or two before this was sent to the presses. And it just makes the finished book so much more disappointing that the potential was there and not given the development it needed. It took me multiple weeks to finish Sting, not because it was terrible or insulting, but because it was so easy for me to just put it down and do something else. I found other things to do because Tessa getting torn up over her feelings got old just so, so quickly. I came closer to just not finishing Sting than I have any other book in the past three years. For that, it gets two stars.

I’m later than I wanted to be on this. No excuses there, I just didn’t get it done on time. That aside, this one is thanks to Entangled Teen. Here is A. M. Rose’s Breakout. Enjoy!

Breakout cover

Lezah doesn’t know what landed her in prison, or really much of anything else about herself. With six days left before her execution the only chance she has to find out is to escape. And her only chance of escaping requires relying on strangers, possibly dangerous ones, and her former school rival. Can she trust anyone long enough to get out or will they all fall prey to the prison’s formidable defenses?

A. M. Rose’s Breakout is a book that I bounced around on how I felt about it, especially early on in reading it. But once it hit its stride, it worked really well.

The start was a little rough, with what’s nearly a new world entirely in the form of a California that’s been separated from the rest of the US by earthquakes. Special standouts on that were the WALTERS or Walking Computers, essentially robots that are meant to have free will, and the SOULS that everyone is supposed to have that are ID and phone and personal entertainment all rolled into one. SOULS do everything from let their users keep in contact to changing their appearances pretty drastically to being the main way the government kept tabs on citizens. It was all fed to the reader pretty bluntly at the start, which was necessary to a degree but also felt incredibly clunky.

I had a bit of a similar issue when the male characters, Trip and Seph, were introduced.  It quickly became clear that Seph was our designated love interest, with his history with Lezah and his sad sad eyes and super competence. The build up to that felt like it took away from the immediacy of escaping the prison for a good bit. It felt like there were big neon signs telling me that this was going to be a huge part of the experience.

Here’s the thing though, both the rough bits from the start and Seph and Lezah’s whole thing, both worked out. The blunt early explanations felt weird because it was stuff that Lezah knew and wouldn’t have had much reason to explain to, essentially, herself but that smoothed out later once the characters were more in the action and things felt more focused. As to Lezah’s crushing on Seph? It wound up feeding character stuff for both of them as well as feeding in some bits of Lezah’s missing memories. The book hit a point in the action where the mystery and the full cast were more important than just those two characters, so it made the moments between Lezah and Seph feel more impactful. It wasn’t just the two of them and a world of card board cutouts.

This all said, the thing that made the book for me more than anything else was one of the antagonists. They were written in so well that I was genuinely caught off guard at the reveal. It was built in really well and makes me want to see how Rose handles other antagonists.

That’s about it. While I’m left wanting to see where things go for Lezah and company from the book’s ending on, it was still a satisfying ending that worked for the story. The things that didn’t work did well by the things I enjoyed. And, at the end of the day, I even wound up appreciating the romancey bits. So, Breakout earns a four out of five from me. I’m interested in seeing what A. M. Rose does in the future.

Not much to say here this time. It was really hard to write this without including spoilers and I have enough left that I want to talk about that I might do an “And Another Thing” post about it some time. That said, this one is thanks to the nice folks at Entagled Teen. Here is Rachel Rust’s 8 Souls. Enjoy!

8 Souls cover

Villisca, Iowa is known for murder. For the deaths of eight people in 1912. For the Ax Muder house.  The house that seventeen year old Chessie has been dreaming about her entire life, sometimes new and lived in, sometimes as it is now slowly falling in on itself across the street from her grandparents’ house. Across the street from where she’ll be spending the entire summer while her parents work out the details of their divorce. Amid nightmares and ghostly voices, Chessie finds herself stuck trying to figure out her connection to the Ax Murder house and David, the mysterious boy who knows more than he lets on and so, so many secrets.

So, I make no secret of the fact that I love haunted house stories and horror in general. The promise of a small town with dark secrets and a house that can’t forget pulled me to Rachel Rust’s 8 Souls. It’s a book that was pretty good for what it is and than just misses the mark for what I wanted it to be. Notable differences there.

This being a book published by Entangled Teen, I knew to expect a fairly large romance side plot. That’s just what they do as a publisher. The mysterious boy is mentioned in the blurb. It’s something that I was going to have to roll with. My issue, of course, comes not from the existence of this romance plot but from how much feels underdone in the face of and about it.

There were a lot of ideas that could have been fantastic if they’d been given more room or if they’d been introduced earlier. Most of the stuff about the haunting and David’s whole deal could have worked fantastically if they’d been worked in earlier and given more page space. Make that a thing alongside Chessie thinking that David and Mateo were pranking her with the whole ghost hunting deal. Spend more time with Chessie trying to figure out what’s going on instead of avoiding David and watching Netflix instead of looking into the thing haunting her. Even the romance itself felt rushed along once Chessie decided that she could trust what David was saying.

The antagonist gets hit with this harder than most other details. There’s a thread throughout the book about these little girls having gone missing and that there’s more disappearances and strange deaths in Villisca than most cities its size. But there isn’t much done with that until right at the end. It was almost to the point that I’d forgotten about it in a couple of places. There were a couple of characters who might have been antagonists or, in a more horror focused book, solid red herrings. But nothing came of them and the antagonist was left feeling like they’d been brought in out of left field. A last minute, one more thing, secret that David hadn’t bothered to mention yet. It was an idea that got introduced and used within pages so the story could rush on to the climax. That was frustrating for me, because the antagonist and the climax both could have been so, so good with a little tweaking and a little more page space.

That’s pretty well where I land on 8 Souls. Rust did a good job with the setting, a small town that’s losing people as time goes on. The real world Villisca, Iowa was actually the scene of an ax murder of eight people, so that’s something that could be interesting to look more into after reading this. But it is very much a book that wants for a little more. A little more to the horror, and the characters, and the buildup. As a YA romance with supernatural elements, it’s functional. With more time to percolate it could have been fantastic, and for that I give it a three out of five. I would be willing to read Rachel Rust again, but I also want to see what she would do in another genre.