4 star, YA

ARC Review: This Place is Still Beautiful by XiXi Tian

Two sisters. A shocking racist incident. The summer that will change both of their lives forever. 

Despite having had near-identical upbringings, sisters Annalie and Margaret agree on only one thing: that they have nothing in common. Nineteen-year-old Margaret is driven, ambitious, and keenly aware of social justice issues. She couldn’t wait to leave their oppressive small-town home and take flight in New York. Meanwhile sweet, popular, seventeen-year-old Annalie couldn’t think of anything worse – she loves their town, and feels safe coasting along in its confines.

That is, until she arrives home one day to find a gut-punching racial slur painted on their garage door.

Outraged, Margaret flies home, expecting to find her family up in arms. Instead, she’s amazed to hear they want to forget about it. Their mom is worried about what it might stir up, and Annalie just wants to have a ‘normal’ summer – which Margaret is determined to ruin, apparently.

Back under each other’s skins, things between Margaret and Annalie get steadily worse – and not even the distraction of first love (for Annalie), or lost love (for Margaret) can bring them together.

Until finally, a crushing secret threatens to tear them apart forever.



**This Place is Still Beautiful comes out June 7, 2022**

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

There’s so much I can say about This Place is Still Beautiful but I’m not sure my rambling will do it justice. This is such a gorgeous story about sisterhood and dealing with racism in different ways as an Asian growing up in America.

Older sister Margaret and Annalie are half Chinese living in a town with very few visible minorities. Near the start of the story, we jump right into the heart of the plot: someone wrote a horrible racist slur on their home. That then brings the question that both sisters have to digest and wrestle with for the rest of the story – what would you do in the aftermath of such a brutal and directed attack from people who could be your neighbors, friends or coworkers?

The girls go about it in two different ways, which I very much appreciate the author taking the time to explore. Annalie wants to forget and move on from the whole incident, and I, as an Asian Canadian, feel that would be a big struggle for me too if this were to happen to me. Obviously one would want to seek justice and retribution for such a wrong done to them. But it’s another thing to be the face in the fight against racism.

And that’s exactly what Margaret does. She fights for what’s been done to their family, moving back home even though she had left town for college. While Annalie feels her sister is victimizing them, Margaret is taking control of a situation that wasn’t their choice to spread awareness and teach others this is NOT acceptable.

Reading this, it makes me reflect a lot too. Which sister would I be more like? I definitely liked Margaret’s side a lot more, especially when both Annalie and their mother wanted to pretend nothing happened and to not pursue more because no one would do anything about it. However, I understood why they would feel that way and it’s not such an easy answer if I were in their shoes.

While this aspect on racism I felt was fleshed out very well, there’s more to this story than just this. It’s really all about the sisterhood and family dynamic. Margaret and Annalie’s relationship is so fraught with tension and the inability to understand one another from their opposing viewpoints and personalities. To add to this dynamic is the typical Asian mother, but one who had to raise her daughters alone when her white husband walked out and left them all many years ago. The racism plot line surely takes up most of the story, but what connects it all is this deep exploration of family in an Asian household.

I also really loved the romance brewing in the background for Margaret and Annalie to kind of give some lighter reprieve around the heavier topics. Rajiv’s relationship with Margaret was my favourite. There was history there in this second chance love trope and I loved how it re-grew and matured in some way through the hardships she was facing.

I wasn’t sure going into this book how I’d feel reading about Asian hate and racism. It felt a little too close to home and personal, especially with the rise of anti-Asian views in the aftermath of the pandemic. But like XiXi mentioned in her author’s note, we may not intend to talk about it yet perhaps it’s exactly what we need to do instead of avoiding the very real problem at hand.

So that’s what I’m doing here. Please go read this book. It’s more than I anticipated and it’s worth reading regardless if you’re Asian or not.

Overall Recommendation:

This Place is Still Beautiful demonstrates how good storytelling can create such powerful messages that stays with readers. In the aftermath of an anti-Asian attack, sisters Annalie and Margaret explore what it means to be victims of racism as Asian women. I loved the honest struggle and reflection of what I’m sure Asians do feel and face unfortunately in today’s society at times. The interweaving of their specific family dynamic made the story all the more compelling as they individually and collectively grapple with the harm one action can leave behind. It’s a must read for sure.

4 star, YA

Review: 10 Truths and a Dare by Ashley Elston

Series: Messina Family #2

It’s Senior Week, that magical in-between time after classes have ended but before graduation, chock-full of gimmicky theme parties, last-minute bonding, and family traditions. Olivia couldn’t be more ready. Class salutatorian and confident in her future at LSU, she’s poised to sail through to the next phase of her life.

But when the tiny hiccup of an unsigned off-campus P.E. form puts Olivia in danger of not graduating at all, she has one week to set things straight without tipping off her very big and very nosy extended family. Volunteering to help at a local golf tournament should do it, but since Olivia’s mom equipped her phone with a tracking app, there’ll be no hiding the fact that she’s at the golf course instead of all the graduation parties happening at the same time. Unless, that is, she can convince the Fab Four–her ride-or-die cousins and best friends Sophie, Charlie, and Wes–to trade phones with her as they go through the motions of playing Olivia for the week.

Sure, certain members of the golf team are none too pleased with Olivia’s sudden “passion” for the game. And sure, a very cute, very off-limits boy keeps popping up in Olivia’s orbit. But she is focused! She has a schedule and a plan! Nothing can possibly go wrong . . . right?



After the surprising success with book one, 10 Blind Dates, I knew the Messina family could both be messy but also fun. I wish my family was more like them sometimes, with relatives living close by one another and being close enough to just drop in at the matriarch’s house whenever they wanted for some breakfast or family gossip. Clearly my Asian family didn’t meet the traditional large family sizes that I know others have, but if it did, I sure would love that it would feel the same way in love and mess as the Messinas.

Going into 10 Truths and a Dare, I wasn’t sure if this book could live up to the hype that was its predecessor. While I liked Olivia enough as a secondary character and cousin in the first book, was she enough to pull off her own story? That thought carried itself around when I first picked this book up. Fortunately, I read this as an audiobook and oh boy, this made all the difference I think. Let’s break my thoughts down, shall we?

Storyline

Did this plot really make the most sense? I mean, what kinda cruel principal and PE teacher would hold back a senior graduate, someone who we all know puts in the effort everywhere else, from graduating based on a half credit of physical education? I’m literally the same as Olivia. I cared about my academic standing wayyyy over whatever I did for anything physical. So sue me. But to not sign a form that is LITERALLY standing in the way of her graduating? That’s just heartless. And the only way to make up for it is to volunteer for a whole week without missing a single hour? Feels a little over the top to me.

Also, what kind of self-respecting teen would allow their mother – one whom clearly has some boundary issues – to track their every movement on their phone? I mean, sure, it’s nice to know where your kid is but do you not trust them at all times and need to constantly be checking what they’re doing? It’s bound to send some message to them that you need to go hide things from them by leaving your phone elsewhere if you just want some privacy.

Okay, clearly this tells you what kind of teenager I was. Or would’ve been if my parents and school did this to me.

So while the major plot points were a little wonky to me, that didn’t mean it wasn’t fun. I rolled with it and so did Olivia’s best friends/cousins. Hilarity is definitely going to ensue when you leave your phone in the hands of your male besties. Wes, but particularly Charlie, clearly had no idea what was coming to them when a mother asks what kind of bra you should wear underneath a specific dress for that party you’re going to. Talk about some laughing moments!

Romance

Did I fall head over heels for Leo, the bad boy who is friends with the enemy, the Evil Jo’s? No, not really, and not because he was friends with the cousins no one wants to deal with in any family.

I like my off-limits/forbidden romance as much as the next person but I’m not sure there was anything driving the romance for me. He was nicer than they anticipated for the fact that he socialized with the cousins who shall not me named. Keeping it a secret from Charlie, Wes and Sophie for a while was loads of fun and made the chemistry seem to spark more, but I definitely didn’t feel anything particular about it.

Where the chemistry really lies

And that brings me back to why I still really enjoyed this book. I can understand why some may not have loved it as much because it definitely lacked the romantic chemistry that propelled the first book. But listening to this banter cemented even more in my mind how much books about family, the ones with a little less dysfunction in it, is a refreshing perspective. That’s not to say I ignore the reality and need for books to dive into serious family issues because those are definitely present and real for many people. But there’s just something nice to be able to be a part of this big old family who love one another even with – or perhaps because of – their individual quirks.

Olivia spent this whole time trying to hide what was happening this week from her family, which was meant to be full of fun and partying to reminisce 4 years of high school. She was afraid to let them down. Yet it’s in those moments when she realizes maybe she never had to hide it from them in the first place that really got my heart melting. And that’s the kind of feel-good story I need sometimes. I hope 10 Truths and a Dare may also give you that if you ever need it.

Overall Recommendation:

10 Truths and a Dare highlights family at the centre of it all. While there was plenty of fun and weirdness going on as Olivia hid her mandatory volunteering to graduate from her massive family, this story focused on love in other ways than just romantic. From her cousins who handled her mom and the parties Olivia was invited to (in the most hilarious ways) to the serious manner her grandmother and uncles always asked about her well-being, there’s something special about a large family who holds one another in support. If that’s what you’re looking for, with a side of romance and craziness, this is the book for you. There’s no other family that makes my heart grow 1.5x its size than the Messinas it seems.

4 star, YA

ARC Review: These Deadly Games by Diana Urban

Let’s play a game.

You have 24 hours to win. If you break my rules, she dies. If you call the police, she dies. If you tell your parents or anyone else, she dies.

Are you ready?

When Crystal Donavan gets a message on a mysterious app with a video of her little sister gagged and bound, she agrees to play the kidnapper’s game. At first, they make her complete bizarre tasks: steal a test and stuff it in a locker, bake brownies, make a prank call.

But then Crystal realizes each task is meant to hurt—and kill—her friends, one by one. But if she refuses to play, the kidnapper will kill her sister. Is someone trying to take her team out of the running for a gaming tournament? Or have they uncovered a secret from their past, and wants them to pay for what they did…

As Crystal makes the impossible choices between her friends and her sister, she must uncover the truth and find a way to outplay the kidnapper… before it’s too late.

Author of All Your Twisted Secrets, Diana Urban’s explosive sophomore novel, These Deadly Games, will keep you riveted until the final twist is revealed.



**These Deadly Games comes out February 1, 2022**

Thank you Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

Fast paced, exhilarating and full of twisted games, These Deadly Games had me on the edge of my seat the whole time as we race with Crystal against the clock to save her sister.

This is Diana Urban’s second novel and I fell in love with this one even more than the first. Written in the same storytelling method I have come to expect from her, we are not given too much information about certain aspects of the protagonist and friends’ past that only slowly unfolds as we move forward in the present time. How this impacts the present day characterization of the main group of friends we are following is brilliant as it shaped who they each are.

Besides characterization, the mystery flows super well that it’s very hard to put down. Right from the get go, we know Crystal’s group is up for a gaming tournament with high chances of winning the team component. Is someone hunting them down one by one so they wouldn’t qualify for it? There are plenty of motives and suspects who may not want to see any of them succeed. Guessing who the culprit(s) may be was fun, though I will admit I had a sneaking suspicion who it was around the 50% mark, but that didn’t lessen how much fun it was to see it all being pieced together.

This book is also aptly named because, oh boy, those sure were some DEADLY games this unknown entity put Crystal through. What seemed like innocent enough gestures alone soon became separate ways that were hurting people she loved. And if the “truth” of these deadly acts came to light, all the evidence would point to Crystal alone, wouldn’t it? It was such a brilliantly devised plan and this evil mastermind had me applauding their, well, genius the whole way. They were so creative, and I have to praise Urban for devising up such things.

There was a lot to love about this book. I felt the secondary characters, all of Crystal’s gaming group, were unique enough although we don’t get to spend a lot of time with each since we really are just following Crystal during this 24 hour period. It also explored some of Crystal’s family life and the feelings she had about the dysfunction present there, along with her instinct to put her little sister above all else. Unfortunately I couldn’t quite give it a 5 star rating. I felt like it was just missing a “wow” factor, but that really could only be me since I might’ve guessed whodunnit rather early on.

However, how the ending wrapped up was pretty solid and amazing. I can’t give away much, but let me just say it made a lot of sense and still had me gripping my seat until the very last page. I think Urban couldn’t have written a better ending for this story with the perfect amount of allure and openness. It was definitely far better than the dumpster wreck ending of her debut.

I would definitely recommend you pick this one up when it comes out if you’re looking for a fast read that takes some turns you may not expect. These Deadly Games is sure to thrill and have you flipping through the pages to find out how it would all resolve.

Overall Recommendation:

These Deadly Games is a wonderful mystery/thriller that features a cunning mastermind tormenting Crystal and her friends on the weekend eve of a big gaming tournament they’re posed to win. Its fast-paced storytelling set in a 24 hour period as Crystal races against the clock to save her kidnapped sister had me rushing to get to the bottom of it. I enjoyed the characterizations of Crystal’s friend group, but particularly learning who Crystal was and the lengths she’d go to juggle the hardest decision she’d ever have to make: save her friends or her sister. The ending was spectacularly handled, although I kind of guessed who the mastermind was some time earlier. Overall this was a solid mystery but may have missed a little wow factor for me to reach 5-star. Diana Urban’s sophomore novel definitely set the bar and I look forward to seeing where she goes next because it’s only getting better!