Review: A Chorus Rises (A Song Below Water #2) by Bethany C. Morrow

A Chorus Rises (A Song Below Water, #2)A Chorus Rises by Bethany C. Morrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**3.5-stars rounded up**

After the explosive conclusion to A Song Below Water, teen influencer, Naema Bradshaw finds herself for the first time vilified in the public eye.

As an Eloko, a magical being beloved by all, Naema has been treated as a quasi-celebrity in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, for her entire life.

Now pegged as the mean girl who outed classmate, Tavia, as a Siren, Naema is getting dragged in social media channels where she has always been respected and adored.

Once a movie releases purporting to tell the true story behind Tavia, her sister, Effie, and the event known as The Awakening, Naema only sees hostility towards her increase.

Growing more and more frustrated with her current situation and the fact that no one seems to understand her side, Naema decides to leave town.

Heading South, Naema goes to stay with extended family that she never sees. This trip is actually her first time leaving Portland and the bubble she has created there for herself.

Greeted at the airport by her cousin Courtney, Naema can tell immediately from his reaction to her, that life is going to be very different outside of Portland.

Her family couldn’t care less about her Eloko status. She’ll be treated just like everyone else; loved and cherished, but for herself, not for her Elokoness.

It is once she is separated from all the noise in Portland, that Naema is finally able to channel the connection to her ancestors and discover the true power of her voice.

This story was interesting and a tough one to rate. I really had to consider it once I was done.

We only get Naema’s perspective in this book, whereas the first book followed both Tavia and Effie.

This one does incorporate a lot of mixed media, however, and I always enjoy that. It makes the overall story feel more realistic in my opinion.

The bulk of the story focuses on Naema coming into her own. We really get to deep dive into her world.

While there is still an underlining examination of privilege, race, social media and the experience of black women in America, I didn’t feel that coming through quite as strongly in this volume as in the first. It’s definitely still here, it’s just overshadowed a bit by Naema’s day-to-day.

As far as Naema goes. I really enjoyed her perspective a lot. She is snarky, strong-willed, stubborn and funny. I loved her interactions with Courtney and the rest of her family.

I can see why some people may be put off by her, she can seem a bit of a princess at times, however, I think she feels real.

She is a product of her environment, but once removed from Portland, she was able to grow and evolve as a character, which we love to see.

I think Morrow created an important and timely story with both of these books. I would recommend them to anyone who enjoys YA Contemporary stories with Fantastical elements that tackle real life issues.

Thank you so much to the publisher, Tor Teen and Macmillan Audio, for providing me with a copy to read and review. I will definitely be picking up future work from this author!

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Review: A Song Below Water (A Song Below Water #1) by Bethany C. Morrow

A Song Below Water (A Song Below Water, #1)A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**3.5-stars rounded up**

Tavia is a Siren living in present-day, Portland, Oregon. Due to fear and discrimination against Sirens, Tavia is forced to hide her nature from those outside her home.

Navigating the world repressing her true-self presents a lot of challenges for her. It can be frustrating and often feels like the world is closing in on her.

Tavia’s best friend, Effie, was taken in by Tavia’s parents after suffering through some tough times.

Since then, the girls have come to rely upon one another. It’s them against world for the most part; at least it feels that way.

While Effie is not a Siren, there is definitely something magical about her. As she gets older, she begins to notice she is changing and she may not be able to hide much longer.

Effie works as a mermaid at a local Renaissance Fair, incorporating the lore of that job into her personality and thus, blending the lines between fantasy and reality.

When a murder trial making the national spotlight turns out to have a Siren as a victim, Siren’s existence is now a hot button issue.

Tavia listens as those around her discuss the case and the Siren’s fate and rights. From there we watch as the debates, opinions and stakes heat up.

Drenched in allegory, A Song Below Water includes lush, lyrical storytelling and is nuanced enough to provide a lasting impact.

Tavia and Effie’s relationship is beautiful to read. Their unconditional support for one another, set against a backdrop of a world that doesn’t guarantee them social justice. It was quite moving.

This novel is particularly relevant to the climate of the United States over the last few years. I love YA Contemporary stories that provide such social commentary.

The fact that this one mixed in fantastical elements with black girl magic made it that much more enjoyable.

The sequel to this novel, following different perspectives is now available. I am currently reading it and actually enjoying it even more.

I cannot wait to see what magic Morrow creates next!!

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Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Last StopOne Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Casey McQuiston!!!

I’m going to find it close to impossible to write this review without swooning like a fangirl, but I’ll give it my best shot.

In One Lost Stop, we follow 23-year old college student, August, who has recently moved to New York City.

Amongst the hustle and bustle of the city, August is on a journey of self-discovery. She’s on her own for the first time and is a little desperate to find her place.

Securing a room in an apartment with three other people and taking a job at a 24-hour pancake diner seem like steps in the right direction.

August is establishing herself as a functioning adult, no matter how meager her resources, yet she still feels alone.

The stars align one day, however, as she meets a girl on the Q. The sexy and mysterious, Jane, gives August a scarf in her hour of need. After that, August cannot get her out of her mind.

Subsequently, she runs into Jane every time she is on the train and a relationship develops. It very quickly becomes clear that something about Jane is a little off.

Jane’s not just a random punk rocker, razorblade girl with a cotton candy heart, taking her style inspiration from the 1970s. She’s actually from the 1970s, and somehow, someway, finds herself trapped on the Q-line.

I know this seems like a bit of a trippy idea, but it was such a phenomenally fun and creative way to frame this story.

August coming to the revelation that Jane cannot leave the train and trying to figure out what exactly that means and why; it was bloody fantastic and so incredibly entertaining.

August’s roommates, Myla, Niko and Wes, all become involved in the relationship, as well as their neighbor, Annie. Together this vastly diverse group of souls evolve into one of the most beautiful found-families that I have ever read.

Each person had their own unique story, voice, personality and contribution to August’s growth and maturation. I absolutely adored the way they interacted and supported one another.

Friendship goals, for sure. McQuiston packed so much into this book and watching the evolution of August’s character was immensely satisfying.

There were so many moments when I laughed, a few when I felt my heart-breaking and times where I was just left contemplating this thing we call life.

The release date for this book coinciding with the 1st day of Pride month, couldn’t be more perfect!

The representation includes a plethora of Queer identities and romances. I particularly enjoyed how OLS is just a story of Queer individuals living their lives in the way they choose.

It didn’t really have individuals having to hide who they were, or having to come out to anyone in a dramatic way.

They all just were living their day-to-day lives in New York City; dealing with family, work, relationships, LIFE. There was a certain sense of peace to be found in that, even when the narrative got a little crazy!

I think August learned a lot from her new friends. Particularly how to open up, be herself and allow herself to need other people in her life.

That it was okay if things were complicated, what with her love interest being trapped in time and all.

Jane was a fascinating character as well. I loved how her life was pieced together through her continual interactions with August.

It was particularly clever how McQuiston used Jane’s character, in a way, as a plot device to compare the experiences Jane had, as a Queer woman, in the 1970s, versus the experiences that August and her friends have in the present time. It felt like a subtle, respectful nod to those who came before.

At the end of the day, this book has it all. If you enjoyed Red, White & Royal Blue, you should love One Last Stop. It’s next level. This book made me overflow with feeling!

Thank you so much to the publisher, Macmillan Audio, for providing me with a copy of this to read and review. I greatly appreciate the opportunity!

A new favorite!!!

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Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Black Water SisterBlack Water Sister by Zen Cho
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**3.5-stars rounded up**

After graduating from Harvard, Jessamyn Teoh, finds herself broke, unemployed and still unable to come out to her parents.

Following her father’s recent illness, her parents decide to move back to Malaysia and Jess is going with them. Having grown up in the United States, it’s going to require some adjustment, but Jess also feels like she doesn’t have much of a choice.

Now she needs to add the stress of a long-distance relationship with her secret girlfriend into the mix.

It’s a lot of pressure, so when Jess begins to hear voices, she thinks she may actually be losing it.

As it turns out, she’s not really hearing voices, plural. She’s hearing one voice, that of her deceased Grandmother, Ah Ma.

When she was alive, Ah Ma was a spirit medium for a mysterious, local deity, known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma’s spirit is restless, unable to cross over, until she seeks revenge against a powerful man who has offended the God.

Ah Ma plans to use Jess for this mission.

Black Water Sister was like no other Contemporary Fantasy novel that I have ever read. It was modern, magical, fast-paced and full of over-the-top family drama!

I really enjoyed watching the evolution Jess made as a character. She was smart, intuitive and adaptable from the very beginning, but it also felt like she was holding herself back.

Once she meets Ah Ma, even though the two butt heads in a lot of ways, that pressure made Jess grow and find a strength within herself that she didn’t realize was there.

The Malaysian setting and cultural background were so refreshing to read. That backdrop is an important part of the story and I truly became immersed within it.

Overall, I was very impressed with the complexity, nuance and fantastical elements included in this story. While this is my first Zen Cho novel, it certainly will not be my last!

Thank you so much to the publisher, Berkley Publishing, for providing me with a copy to read and review.

I truly appreciate the opportunity!

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Review: Amari and the Night Brothers (Supernatural Investigations #1) by B.B. Alston

Amari and the Night BrothersAmari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes, yes, yes!!! Middle Grade Fantasy at its best!!!

I love Amari. I love the world. I love the magic system and humbly request at least ten volumes for this series.

Is that too much to ask? I think if you pick it up, you’d agree.

13-year old, Amari Peters, lives with her Mom in the Rosewood housing project. She had an older brother, Quinton, who was smart, fun and brave. He meant a lot to Amari. He was her best friend.

Quinton has gone missing and Amari doesn’t understand why it isn’t a bigger deal. Why isn’t it on the news? Why do the police act like if something happened to him, it was probably because he was up to no good?

Amari knows better. She doesn’t care what they insinuate about him, Quinton is the best person she knows and she is going to find out what happened to him, whether others believe her, or not.

Upon arriving home after an especially trying day, Amari is surprised by a visitor who gives her a clue that may help; the answer to which lies in a briefcase hidden in her missing brother’s closet.

She can’t believe what she finds. The Bureau of Supernatural Affairs? Is this for real?

Quinton has nominated her for a try-out? The prospect is sort of scary, but Amari knows this may be her best, perhaps only chance, of getting to the bottom of her brother’s disappearance. She’s got to go.

Thus begins Amari’s introduction to the hidden supernatural world around her. She also discovers the power within herself.

Under the guise of attending a ‘leadership camp’, Amari is able to stay at the Vanderbilt Hotel with the other Bureau trainees. There she is fully immersed in learning, training and competing. Did you hear that? Learning, training and competing.

It’s a MAGIC SCHOOL trope! I know, it’s called ‘camp’, but it’s a magic school, only one of the best tropes ever created.

The Reader learns along with Amari the ins-and-outs of the world and magic system. The good guys, the bad guys, the history. It’s all beautifully constructed and paced out.

I was totally engrossed in this while reading it. As first books in a series go, this is top notch. It definitely left me wanting more and I can’t wait to see how Amari grows in future books.

If you are looking for that good old-fashioned, kid discovering they are actually part of a magical world, then learns about it, competes within it, and fights evil forces, kind of book, you NEED to pick this up. There’s not even an option.

You can thank me later.

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Review: The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, Edited by Jesmyn Ward

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about RaceThe Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race by Jesmyn Ward
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Powerful, powerful, powerful!!!

This is an incredibly moving collection of essays speaking to race, humanity, human rights, family, identity and the Black experience in America, both historical and present-day.

Easily, one of the best collections of this type that I have ever read; each author/artist/thinker wrote with such strength and grace. I could not put this down once I started.

Each of these essays/stories/poems are thought-provoking, heart-felt, captivating, well-written, distinct and incredibly important. I highly recommend picking this one up. The audiobook is fantastic as well!!

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Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

When No One is WatchingWhen No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Needing a distraction from her life, Sydney Green, decides to take one of the over-priced historic walking tours of her Brooklyn neighborhood.

She’s a history buff and is curious to find out what the tour guide will cover. While on the tour she quickly realizes that the community she has lived in her whole life isn’t being represented.

It’s hard to understand the history of a place while simultaneously ignoring the people who have lived there for generations.

Sydney decides to create her own, truly historic, walking tour of the neighborhood. With encouragement from her neighbors and friends, she begins to research the events and people she would like to cover.

It’s a big task, however, and she can’t do it all alone. Help comes in the form of a most unlikely source. A new neighbor, Theo, who just moved into the brownstone across from Sydney’s offers to be her assistant.

She’s hesitant to accept help from Theo at first. She doesn’t really trust him, or understand what his motives may be. As Sydney sees it, him and his Lululemon-loving live-in girlfriend are part of the problem.

Gentrification, they call it. Wealthy people swooping in and taking over urban neighborhoods; raising home prices, tax assessments and rents for all, thus displacing the long-term residents in the process.

Sydney can see it happening around her, changing everything. Theo’s persistent though and in a sort of dorky, yet charming way, he works his way through Sydney’s defenses and into her life.

Before she knows it, the two of them are working together on a daily basis. Also, as it turns out, the girl Sydney assumed to be Theo’s girlfriend, is actually his ex; it’s complicated.

As they dive into their research, events in the neighborhood are beginning to snowball. People are disappearing and both Sydney and Theo encounter strange things happening in the night.

It appears that something more sinister is going on than Sydney initially assumed, but who is going to believe her? Is she just paranoid, or is someone, or something, actually behind her neighbors mysterious disappearances?

I loved this story! I started out reading the paperback, but ended up switching to the audiobook and loved the narrators.

When No One is Watching has a lot of layers. It is a rare type of Thriller that I would actually read again.

I’ve noticed the reviews are mixed and I totally get that. The narrative heads in a direction that won’t be for everyone.

It definitely toes the line of Horror. I would comp this to Get Out meets Lock Every Door. If you loved either of those, I think you will enjoy this just as much!

Additionally, this story played to one of my biggest fears; knowing the truth about something and having no one believe you.

I guess it boils down to a feeling of helplessness. I love how Sydney fought back and how Theo supported her. Their relationship was great to read.

Overall, I found this to be a fast-paced, mind-reeling, horrifying modern-day Thriller and I loved every minute of it. Crossing my fingers this gets adapted into a film. It would be fantastic!!

Highly recommend!

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Review: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and YouStamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America was first released in 2016.

Kendi, a Boston University Professor and founder of the BU Center for Antiracist Research, was awarded the National Book Award in nonfiction for the title. It’s also close to 600-pages by a man who can certainly run intellectual circles around me. For that fact alone, I find it intimidating.

Luckily for me and the rest of the world, Kendi decided he wanted to find someone who could take his ideas and write it in a way that would be more agreeable to a younger audience. Hence, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You was born.

It sounds like it took a little cajoling, but eventually Reynolds, a well-loved author of Children’s and Young Adult fiction, agreed to take on the project.

I chose to listen to the audiobook because I knew that it was narrated by Reynolds. I’m so happy that I did. I would have enjoyed it had I read a hard copy, but hearing it from him, in the way he felt it should be read, was a really special experience.

This book offers a concise history of racism, and the racist ideas that have been used to justify slavery and oppression of black people in the United States, from the time of the first slaves arrival to the country, up through the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s framed through three separate schools of thought: segregationists, assimilationists and antiracists. It explains how racist ideologies were constructed in a way to gain and keep power; how they led to the systemic issues prevalent today.

Reynolds states numerous times that this is not a history book, and you know what, it doesn’t feel like one. The way this is presented makes it feel like you are talking with a friend. It’s engaging, it’s forthright and it’s a must read.

The entire way through I was jotting down ideas, people and events that I want to learn more about. After reading this, I am no longer intimidated by Kendi’s original work. I want to read it and plan to by the end of the year!

I cannot recommend this enough. Particularly the audiobook. If you haven’t read this one yet, you absolutely should.

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Review: Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

Ring ShoutRing Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Ring Shout audiobook is an experience. I loved it!

The historical elements were so well done. The SFF elements were fantastic. The body horror and gore were top notch. The narration was PERFECTION!

Maryse Boudreaux is a Georgia-bootlegger with a magic sword a taste for hunting monsters.

The monsters in question, Ku Kluxes, are plotting to unleash hell on Earth, using D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to channel their message to the masses.

Maryse, along with her fellow monster-hunting friends, think the world is already tough enough, they don’t need any more challenges to overcome.

They set out to rid the South of this blight and save the world from the hate that wants to consume it.

Clark packed a lot of punch into this novella. There were so many important, and timely, details to consume. The narrator helped to channel life and emotional power into it that I’m not sure I would have felt on my own had I read a hard copy.

I loved the historical feel of the story and how there were strong elements of the fantastical mixed with real life horrors.

I thought it was balanced really well to provide maximum impact; especially towards the end when the final showdown ensues.

Maryse and her friends were fantastic, but Butcher Clyde was such an incredible villain. He stole the show in my opinion.

My goodness! He was horrifying. Well, him and his minions.

I highly recommend this novella, particularly the audiobook. It’s a quick read, but so worth picking up. If you’re not sold yet, perhaps a few of my favorite lines will entice you:

‘This one carries the anger of her people. Pure, yet untapped. We could do much with this.’

‘What we owe this world? Why save it, when its never done a thing to save us?’

I can’t wait to read more from this author. This was all-around fantastic.

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Review: Take It Back by Kia Abdullah

Take It BackTake It Back by Kia Abdullah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

**4.5-stars rounded up**

((me: reads final scene))

Blushing and looking around, I think to myself, she got me. Kia Abdullah got me good!

This provocative legal thriller was a non-stop guessing game. My head was reeling the entire way through trying to decipher who to believe.

I hate to say that, but I have to be honest. The reason I don’t like to say that is because the case central to this story is that of a sexual assault.

This would be an enticing book club read. I can see a lot of great discussions stemming from the deep content of this book that was expertly crafted for maximum impact by Abdullah.

Zara Kaleel, a former lawyer, is now a sexual assault counselor. When 16-year old, Jodie Wolfe, arrives in her office, Zara is stunned to hear her tale of assault by four male classmates.

Jodie has a genetic abnormality that has given her severe facial deformities, which makes her difficult to understand at times. In spite of any slight communication issues, Jodie’s pain is pouring off of her. She is traumatized and Zara vows to help.

We follow the investigation into the case through multiple perspectives and then get front row seats to the subsequent trial.

The four young men accused are Muslims, from immigrant families, while Jodie is a white girl. As you can imagine, this adds an incredible amount of tension to public reception of the case.

It all becomes a bit of a circus, with even Zara beginning to fear for her safety.

As a Muslim woman herself, also from an immigrant family, she is branded a traitor and must push really hard, both personally and professionally, to continue with Jodie’s case.

I really loved how Abdullah chose to tell this story. The pace was spot on and the little reveals and clues along the way left me constantly guessing at the truth. I had no idea what the final outcome would be until it was on page.

Additionally, I loved the cultural elements that were included through Zara’s perspective, and a few of the accused boys. I thought those aspects made this one stand out in comparison with other books in the genre and will make this story, overall, more memorable for me.

I loved this. Very compelling, suspenseful and thoughtful. I will definitely be picking up more books from Kia Abdullah in the future.

Thank you so much to the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for providing me with a copy of this to read and review. I love discovering new authors to enjoy, so thanks for adding another to my auto-buy list!

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