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.

3.5 star, YA

ARC Review: Rise of the Vicious Princess by C.J. Redwine

Series: Rise of the Vicious Princess #1

The first in a YA political fantasy duology about a fierce princess determined to bring lasting peace to her kingdom regardless of the cost to her heart.

Princess Charis Willowthorn is the dutiful sword of Calera. Raised to be ruthless and cunning, her only goal is to hold her war-torn kingdom together long enough to find a path toward peace with their ancient foe, Montevallo, even if the cost is her own heart.

When violence erupts in the castle itself and an unseen enemy begins sinking Calera’s ships, Charis realizes a threat much greater than Montevallo is coming for her people. So she forms a plan. By day, she is Calera’s formidable princess intent on forging an alliance with Montevallo. By night, she disguises herself as a smuggler and roams the sea with a trusted group of loyalists, hunting for their new enemies. And through it all, there’s the one boy she can’t have—who guards her life but steals her heart.

But her enemies are much closer than Charis realizes, and her heart isn’t the only thing she has left to lose.



**Rise of the Vicious Princess comes out June 14, 2022**

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

A solid book 1 in the latest from C.J. Redwine, Rise of the Vicious Princess truly lives up to its name.

MC characterization

Princess Charis Willowthorn is someone to reckon with. Groomed by her mother to be as ruthless as she is in leading a war torn country that is divided on their opinions about continued war, Charis has no choice but to rule while never trusting a soul and walking the loneliest road.

I personally took a little while to warm up to Charis. I understand her characterization and it was written well. But she’s not the most empathetic character to like because she does make the hard decisions, although I appreciated seeing the inner struggle she had while remaining impassive and poker-faced on the outside.

I grew to like her in the end for her savvy mind and courage in the face of danger. Someone is out to kill her, and with enemies both known and perhaps unknown, it’s hard to know who and if she could trust anyone.

World building

What made this book REALLY stand out was the world created. The different kingdoms on the map are actually described and we really get to learn a little more about each as Charis tries to make allies with the other kingdoms surrounding hers.

While we don’t get to really explore the other places on the map as we mainly stick to Charis’ country of Calera, the other side of world building is incorporating the culture and people from such places. The representatives in the court from the various lands and the ways of the people shone through in this writing. At first it was a little confusing trying to keep names of people and places straight, but once the familiarity settled, I was intrigued by the politics of it all.

The synopsis is very true to word describing this book as a political fantasy. I wasn’t sure what that meant at first because I don’t think I’ve read many, but it does remind me of Laura Sebastian’s Ash Princess trilogy with the similarity of a protagonist trying to outmaneuver war tactics from the enemy. In fact, by the end of the book, this was my favourite part of it! I think Redwine wrote this amazingly, I was so swept up with the political games and trying to determine the moves and secrets the other kingdoms held.

Romance of course

Obviously a YA fantasy isn’t complete without a cute romance. I love stories where the protagonist falls for their bodyguard. There’s just something so genuine and sweet about it, appreciating the one who literally chooses to die for you. Of course, some do it because it’s their job, but it’s all the more romantic when it’s by choice from love or care.

I really enjoyed seeing the relationship unfold between Tal and Charis. I wasn’t quite feeling it at first, much like how I was feeling about the book, but after the one-third mark, I was really starting to get into the story after familiarizing myself with everything. He’s the sweetest, and won’t let her surliness get in his way of taking care of her needs, whether she wanted his help or not.

I will say I’m looking forward to whatever may unfold between them in book 2, but I’m not 100% sure where everything is going after that explosive ending.

Bottom line

So why isn’t this a 5 star rating? I’ve so far glowed about everything that I typically look for in a book. And it was good! Don’t get me wrong.

The issue definitely was the pacing. Learning all the politics and the details of the court, who to trust and who represented what kingdom, was taxing. It was necessary to get to the heart of the story but it took a while.

Speaking of a while, the whole synopsis bit about Charis being a smuggler at night also didn’t happen until closer to the halfway mark. There was a lot of set up so we could get to know Charis, her kingdom and her predicament before things went further haywire. Did I want it to happen a little faster? Sure. But I can also see the sense of taking a bit more time so things happened organically.

I think this story will amaze anyone who loves fantasy, the bodyguard romance trope, and secrets that aren’t initially predictable. If you don’t know what a political fantasy is, I would recommend checking it out to see if it’s for you. What I learned from reading this? I guess I really do enjoy political fantasies because it’s what made this book stick out.

Overall Recommendation:

Rise of the Vicious Princess defines the YA political fantasy genre, something I’m newer to, as we dive into this world full of conflict and enemies known and unknown. With a protagonist who has to hide her true feelings inside in order to present the ruthless outside she needs to rule a divided kingdom, I’m sure Charis will get your hearts to soften as she did to mine with time. The bodyguard romance trope is also present to sweeten the deal as they try to root out traitors and assassins from among them. The only downfall was the pacing, but once you get past the foundation laying, this story was intriguing to the end. A great introduction to political fantasy for those who are on the fence.

2.5 star, YA

Review: Steelstriker by Marie Lu

Explosive action and swoon-worthy suspense collide in this riveting conclusion to the Skyhunter duet from #1 New York Times–bestselling author Marie Lu

As a Striker, Talin was taught loyalty is life. Loyalty to the Shield who watches your back, to the Strikers who risk their lives on the battlefield, and most of all, to Mara, which was once the last nation free from the Karensa Federation’s tyranny.

But Mara has fallen. And its destruction has unleashed Talin’s worst nightmare.

With her friends scattered by combat and her mother held captive by the Premier, Talin is forced to betray her fellow Strikers and her adopted homeland. She has no choice but to become the Federation’s most deadly war machine as their newest Skyhunter.

Red is no stranger to the cruelty of the Federation or the torture within its Skyhunter labs, but he knows this isn’t the end for Mara – or Talin. The link between them may be weak, but it could be Talin and Red’s only hope to salvage their past and safeguard their future.

While the fate of a broken world hangs in the balance, Talin and Red must reunite the Strikers and find their way back to each other in this smoldering sequel to Marie Lu’s Skyhunter.



That’s the thing about evil. You don’t need to be it to do it. It doesn’t have to consume all of you. It can be small. All you have to do is let it exist.

The grand conclusion to this latest duology by Marie Lu, back in dystopian fiction which was the genre that propelled her to fame, I kind of expected more from Steelstriker. Obviously the ending of book 1 left a lot hanging in the air. Yet it doesn’t move forward at a very fast pace, a characteristic I noticed even in Skyhunter.

We’ve been introduced to the Big Bad of the story, Premier Constantine, previously. Now we’re up close and personal with him as Talin has to deal with his every whim. He’s evil, let’s be clear on that, but I do love how Marie doesn’t make him so black and white for a villain. He’s covered in shades of grey for we start understanding his fears and mind more while unearthing the past that perhaps made him into the ruthless dictator he is.

Yet the plot moves so slowly. While Talin spends most of the book figuring out how to escape the Premier so she can thwart his plans for one United federation, Red and the other Strikers are on the run, making small attempts where they can to stop Constantine. It’s lots of planning, minor action, and minimal world building.

Yes, I felt there was a missed chance to have explored more about the different countries that were once independent and now forced into the federation. Talin and friends are no longer stuck in their own country because now it’s been claimed by this regime and they’ve been forced to go to the capital. But I still have no idea what these other places are or even the relevance of half these countries listed on the map since they’re hardly or never mentioned at all.

I also didn’t feel much for the romance. This is probably my fault for having read book 1 so long ago. It was such a slow burn romance where all the chemistry and tension were set up there, leaving only the aftermath and response in book 2. Since I barely remember those moments, it’s kind of hard to feel the same sense of elation at actual romance budding between Red and Talin now. I mean, they didn’t even kiss in the first book so this should be a win in my books but I felt almost nothing. Ah, I wish I could push out feelings with a button but alas that wouldn’t be very organic.

Not wanting to end off with so much negativity, I did really appreciate one thing: found family matters, especially in a world torn up by war. With so many families broken apart and even witnessing fellow comrade deaths, the ties that bring those who remain together are even more important. I loved the Strikers from day 1, this band of elite fighters who were brave and disciplined when it came to protecting those they loved against the monsters from the federation. I’m so glad some of my favorite secondary characters were back and being their lovable, courageous selves.

Marie writes this at least very well, and sums it up even better in her own words.

Goodness is friends who stick by you, even when they fear you’re lost. It’s mothers who fight for their daughters. It’s believing in something better – and taking action to make it reality. It’s love, untainted and pure.

Goodness is a garden that provides life to thousands of blooms. It does not rule. It gives.

Overall Recommendation:

Steelstriker fell a little flat when it came to pacing for what I had hoped would be an epic conclusion. Now facing the evil ruler of the federation that had destroyed their home country, Talin and her friends are separated and still trying to fight the good fight against the greatest odds stacked against them. I had hoped for more action and less internal thinking/planning so it was hard not to put it down a lot. While there were certain memorable moments, I can’t say this is among the best dystopian books I’ve read.