YA, 5 star

ARC Review: Always Isn’t Forever by J.C. Cervantes

From New York Times bestselling author J.C. Cervantes comes a sparkling, unforgettable YA romance, perfect for fans of You’ve Reached Sam.

Best friends and soul mates since they were kids, Hart Augusto and Ruby Armenta were poised to take on senior year together when Hart tragically drowns in a boating accident. Absolutely shattered, Ruby struggles to move on from the person she knows was her forever love.

Hart can’t let go of Ruby either…. Due to some divine intervention, he’s offered a second chance. Only it won’t be as simple as bringing him back to life–instead, Hart’s soul is transferred to the body of local bad boy.

When Hart returns to town as Jameson, he realizes that winning Ruby back will be more challenging than he’d imagined. For one, he’s forbidden from telling Ruby the truth. And with each day he spends as Jameson, memories of his life as Hart begin to fade away.

Though Ruby still mourns Hart, she can’t deny that something is drawing her to Jameson. As much as she doesn’t understand the sudden pull, it can’t be ignored. And why does he remind her so much of Hart? Desperate to see if the connection she feels is real, Ruby begins to open her heart to Jameson–but will their love be enough to bridge the distance between them?

Overall Recommendation:

Bring your tissues because Always Isn’t Forever will tug at your heartstrings while you’re screaming at yourself to not let your heart beat with hope for Ruby and Hart. Reminiscent of You’ve Reached Sam, an unexpected early death throws a wrench in their plans for their forever future, but these two lovebirds find a way to connect with each other again even after death. Except Hart can’t tell Ruby he doesn’t appear as he used to! I loved the dual POV that gave insight into their love that defies the passing of time and their age. Their journey for even one more moment together had me hogging the tissues in a corner as I gobbled their story in one sitting. 100% worth the read!

**Always Isn’t Forever comes out June 6, 2023**

Thank you Netgalley and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review

It’s not a joke when the synopsis compares Always Isn’t Forever to You’ve Reached Sam. The cover gives even the same vibes. But where You’ve Reached Sam hit a little bit of a roadblock for me, this book blew past my expectations and opened my heart (and the floodgates) to Ruby and Hart’s story.

I’m a sucker for romances that hit you deep in the heart and this one is no exception. For a story about death and getting a divine second chance to potentially reconnect, whether you love the book or not hinges on how well you love the two protagonists. I’d say I’m sometimes pretty jaded when it comes to romance stories – I’ve definitely read a lot – but these two teenagers had such a woven and realistic story of love from childhood friends to something more.

The dual POV from Hart (in Jameson’s body) and Ruby gave so much insight to who they each were, but also who the other meant to them. Hart was a songwriter, and his soul was entwined with music and melody that dreamt of their love. While his memories were slowly disappearing, he held on desperately for his memory of Ruby and the music he was in the midst of writing for her at the time of his death. Ruby, on the other hand, loved the water, practically lived in it. After Hart’s drowning, she had to reconcile her love for the water and its hand in taking away the only boy she ever loved.

My heart is still beating rapidly just thinking of their story. The prose and flow had everything to do with it too. Cervantes carved their love story through quick chapters, little memories engraved in their souls, and raw emotions that aren’t always easy to deal with in the face of goodbyes.

Love doesn’t need more than one heart.

If there’s one thing that both Hart and Ruby learned, it was this quote. Oh, my poor heart suffered with Hart as he desperately tried to tell the people he loved, especially Ruby, that he was back. But regardless if she didn’t fully know who he was inside a new body, he knew. And love doesn’t require more than one heart.

Aside from these two whom I fell in love with, there were a few secondary characters making an impact. Ruby’s sister, Gabi, is exactly what I would want in a sister if I were to have one. She pushed Ruby when others may have given up when she went into a sad spiral. They bickered and they disagreed on things but you can tell love was the underlying motive for everything Gabi did for Ruby. And on Hart’s side, let’s just say there’s a fun divine being he befriends who ended up being a nice, more lighthearted character to throw into their mix.

Who surprised me most was Jameson. We can’t forget the boy whose body Hart took. This is NOT like The Host (aka my favourite book ever) where two souls vie for one body. The divine rules for body recycling is interesting, but a body can hold memories so getting to know pieces of Jameson was also amazing. Cervantes has a way of making each character feel real with their emotions and how they grapple with things like grief and guilt and joy.

All this to say, Always Isn’t Forever blew past my expectations. Did I think I would cry? Yes. Did I actually cry? 100 times yes. But it held such a good balance of hope, love, and grief that I could only ever hope to find in a book. If you liked You’ve Reached Sam, I’d say you’d LOVE this one.

5 star

Review: Babel by R. F. Kuang

From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a historical fantasy epic that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British Empire

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel. The tower and its students are the world’s center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver-working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as the arcane craft serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.

For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide . . .

Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?

This was on my anticipated reads about a year ago, and two friends have highly recommended it to me since then, saying that I would for sure love it. Were they correct? I mean, obviously so.

Babel is a historical fiction with a touch of the fantastical. If you know anything about the biblical Tower of Babel, you already know a lot about this book. Babel takes place around the 1830s, following a young Robin Swift, who is brought from Canton to “Babel” tower at Oxford, taking over Latin, Ancient Greek, and Mandarin classes in his translational studies. This is of course, all happening at the height of the power of the British empire, who have amassed the world’s silver supply for their silver-working, which enhances the might of the empire to extraordinary heights. Robin eventually finds himself caught at odds between the colonialist goals of the British empire and his own conscience and those who oppose it.

I have so much I want to exclaim about this book, but I will start first with the characters. The characters and their relationships with each other were very well-developed considering this is also a part fantasy and the world is built around the historical Oxford as well. In terms of the university life vibes, it really reminded me of Ninth House in the way it was all set-up, which I also really enjoyed and rated at 5 stars. There were many detestable characters, but it felt like no character was there for no reason and although they came from all sorts of different backgrounds, somehow it felt like they were all connected, which I feel like is part of the whole “translation magic” in its own right.

The “magic.” I may not be a linguist or anything like that by trade, but I certainly love learning my languages. Silver-working essentially takes advantage of the meanings that are “lost in translation” between languages and manifests them through the silver to enhance things in the real world. As someone who has learned Latin and Mandarin, and even some Ancient Greek, this book really spoke to me on many levels. But that bias aside, Kuang’s work in explaining all the languages and providing all the context for understanding exactly how this power works was excellent, and this world-building was some of the best I have read recently.

This book was certainly a bit heavier than I expected compared to what I was expecting from the advertised premise. That being said, my bias for the world-building with a topic I love really distorts how I feel about what I wanted in this book, so take that with a grain of salt. I really wanted more of the world, and more of the exploration of linguistics and cross-language studies. However, ultimately this book is more about colonialism and the everlasting fight between those with privilege and power and those without. If that kind of political intrigue is not your cup of tea, you may want to avoid this book. However, if you are at all interested in the whole language thing and especially in translation like I am, it may honestly be worth it just to learn all about that. It was completely fascinating and enthralling and I definitely couldn’t put it down.

In terms of the plot, it was all really set up, and all the moral and ethical dilemmas that arose were excellently crafted and executed. Even as a third-party omniscient, it was impossible to swim through the murky murky waters of when you pass a line from moral to immoral, or from a good cause to revenge. That all being said, the plot was fairly predictable at many points, and there weren’t that many surprising twists. But this may be coming from a thriller/mystery-reader perspective, so take that for what you will. It really didn’t detract from the moment of when everything came to pass anyway, and there was a lot of heavy foreshadowing right from the beginning. Overall, just an excellent read that really made me think a lot, yet still a story I really got to immerse myself in and enjoy. I highly recommend this one.

Overall Recommendations

Babel follows a young Robin Swift as he makes his way from being orphaned in Canton to being part of the most prestigious faculty at Oxford handling the source of might of the British empire—silver-working. This allows meanings lost in translation to be harvested and manifested by the silver by using words in different languages to capture them. Soon it becomes clear that the British empire must expand ever outward, and it seems like their power knows no ends. However, there are certainly reasons why there are those opposed, and even the young students at Oxford may not be sheltered forever in their gilded tower…this is an excellent historical fiction with just a touch of the fantastical, and I highly recommend it.

5 star

Review: Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier

This is the story of three best friends: one who was murdered, one who went to prison, and one who’s been searching for the truth all these years . . .

When she was sixteen years old, Angela Wong—one of the most popular girls in school—disappeared without a trace. Nobody ever suspected that her best friend, Georgina Shaw, now an executive and rising star at her Seattle pharmaceutical company, was involved in any way. Certainly not Kaiser Brody, who was close with both girls back in high school.

But fourteen years later, Angela Wong’s remains are discovered in the woods near Geo’s childhood home. And Kaiser—now a detective with Seattle PD—finally learns the truth: Angela was a victim of Calvin James. The same Calvin James who murdered at least three other women.

To the authorities, Calvin is a serial killer. But to Geo, he’s something else entirely. Back in high school, Calvin was Geo’s first love. Turbulent and often volatile, their relationship bordered on obsession from the moment they met right up until the night Angela was killed.

For fourteen years, Geo knew what happened to Angela and told no one. For fourteen years, she carried the secret of Angela’s death until Geo was arrested and sent to prison.

While everyone thinks they finally know the truth, there are dark secrets buried deep. And what happened that fateful night is more complex and more chilling than anyone really knows. Now the obsessive past catches up with the deadly present when new bodies begin to turn up, killed in the exact same manner as Angela Wong.

How far will someone go to bury her secrets and hide her grief? How long can you get away with a lie? How long can you live with it?

This was one a friend suggested, and she was totally right about it! This is such an exciting thriller, and even though it is a tiny bit longer than the typical thriller I read, it really provided the experience I wanted, and so much more.

Jar of Hearts revolves around the protagonist, Georgina Shaw, who is a witness to the murder of her best friend Angela when she was 16. She alone knows the truth, and the book starts off with her testimony to put Calvin James in jail for the murder of Angela. Geo ends up in jail for a reduced sentence and the novel follows her journey before, during, and after prison, as well as flashbacks of the past she held so close to her heart for years. When more bodies start turning up, Kaiser, who was best friend with Georgina and Angela when they were young, is on the hunt for Calvin when the bodies turn up the same way Angela’s did. More and more of the truth comes out about the past as Geo continues to make her way through life as an ex-convict.

The story starts off with such an interest premise, where the murderer is kind of made clear from the very start and there is not really a mystery there. Yet it is still thrilling as Geo has to navigate her life from the top of a financially well-off company into prison for five years. The book is split into different sections and each is a slightly different time period as she enters jail, until she finally is set free. The characters are all very interesting (and somewhat mysterious) as more and more knowledge of the past comes forth through Geo’s perspective. This eventually sheds more and more light on the nature of everyone involved, leading up to the final climax.

The suspense was great in this book. Despite it being slightly longer, I was definitely hooked from the very first few pages, wanting to know how it all turns out in a book where the beginning starts off with a trial and a murder conviction. Also, it is clear that the whole truth didn’t come out at the trial, just enough to convict Calvin. It is this mystery that we slowly learn more and more about until the end where everyone’s perspective finally comes together to form the complete picture.

The gruesome things that happen in this book were also nothing short of horrifying, so that really added to the drama of it all. There was a surprising amount of romance-related material in the book too, not that it ever really got super explicit but the way it focuses on their relationships is noteworthy. I definitely didn’t see the ending coming, though towards the end when more information was made available I did see a couple of things ahead of time. That being said I still wondered how it would all go down even if I knew the gist of what would happen, which for me is good enough.

There were some scientific(ish?) things in the book that really threw me for a loop, as a science major. There was just a slightly implausibility with the way it was handled, but putting my degree aside, assuming I can take what was said at face value, it is fine. I almost considered lowering the rating just for that, but decided to be more forgiving with it and gave it the full five points. I really did enjoy the story and it did have some nice twists and turns that really added to the drama, and it kept my attention all the way to the very end. It had very good pacing and the information came out at a good rate, which is the sign of a well-paced book.

Overall Recommendations

Jar of Hearts is a story of the past coming back to haunt our protagonist, Georgina, when the body of her best friend is finally found and she is forced to take a plea bargain to convict her former boyfriend and go to jail herself for five years. For years Geo had kept the secret of what happened deep in her heart, but the truth slowly re-surfaces, as more bodies are found, killed in the same manner as her friend all those years ago. Just how long can Geo run from the past, and what will happen when it all comes bubbling up to the surface? Full of intrigue, suspense, plenty of twists and turns, and a dash of romance, if those things are your jam, this is the book for you!