Shannon reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost is the first book in Zoraida Cordova’s captivating young adult series entitled Brooklyn Brujas, and it’s one I didn’t expect to fall head over heals for. In 2019, I picked the book up, but couldn’t seem to concentrate on the story. I eventually put it down, deciding it just wasn’t the book for me at that particular point in time. I went on and read other things until the fall of 2020, when I decided to give it another chance. The second time really was the charm, because the story grabbed me right from the start, and I ended up flying through the book in a little over twenty-four hours.

Alex can’t think of anything she dislikes as much as she dislikes magic. To her, it’s at the root of all of her family’s problems, and no matter how often her mother and older sister remind her of the honor that goes along with being a bruja, Alex just wants to get rid of her powers and live a normal life.

She thinks her Deathday celebration is the perfect opportunity to decline her magical abilities once and for all. True, most brujas look forward to their Deathdays, reuniting with deceased ancestors and honoring the deities who gifted them their powers, but Alex has a totally different plan. Instead of acknowledging and being grateful for her magical gifts, Alex plans to work a powerful spell to banish magic from her life forever.

As I’m sure you can imagine, things don’t go quite the way Alex anticipated. Suddenly, her family has disappeared seemingly into thin air, leaving Alex alone with Nova, a mysterious Brujo she’s not sure she can trust. He’s been kind to her in the past, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right person to help her reverse the harm she’s done. Still, she’s desperate to rescue her family from what has befallen them, and when Nova tells her he knows how to free them, she reluctantly joins forces with him and embarks on a quest that will change her in ways she never could have imagined.

Alex is a wonderfully complex heroine, with her fair share of flaws and idiosyncrasies. I sometimes found myself annoyed with her tendency for drama, but she does grow and change as the story progresses. The author does a fantastic job giving the reader just enough insight into who Alex is as a person without ruining the story arc. Her complicated relationship with her family feels completely relatable as does the uncertainty she feels about her sexuality.

Alex’s sexuality isn’t the main point of the novel, but it is an important element of her need to be accepted for exactly who she is. She’s known she was bisexual for quite a while, but she’s never been sure how to tell her family how she feels. She’s constantly torn between doing what she thinks is expected of her and being true to herself. You might think this sort of inner conflict would take away from the action and adventure of this fantasy novel, but it doesn’t do so at all. Instead, it adds an element of realism to the story, highlighting Alex’s struggle to fit into multiple worlds.

I didn’t end up loving Nova as a character. Something about him rubbed me the wrong way as soon as he appeared on the page. At first, I wondered if it was just because Alex herself wasn’t sure she could trust him, but as I continued reading, he started to fall the slightest bit flat for me. I wanted a better understanding of his motivations, and although some of my questions about him were eventually answered in the second half of the book, it felt like a case of too little too late. Even so, Labyrinth Lost has much to recommend it, and I definitely plan to continue with the series.

Shannon reviews The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

I don’t know about any of you, but reading has proven a bit tricky for me during the pandemic. I kind of flit from book to book, hoping to settle on something that will be the perfect escape from what’s going on in the real world, and no one was more surprised than me to find that escape in a zombie novel. Many of my friends are turning to romance and cozy mysteries, and I’m glad those things work for them, but for me, comfort this fall came from one of the most enthralling series starters I’ve ever read.

The novel opens with Jenni, a frightened wife and mother, fighting to escape from her husband and two young children, all of whom have contracted a deadly virus that eventually turned them into zombies. Jenni has managed not to be bitten by any of them, but she’s not sure how long she can stay safe and she’s desperate for a way out. Fortunately, a woman she’s never seen before arrives in a truck and urges her to jump in. Seeing no better option, Jenni hitches her fate to the stranger’s, a risky move even in the best of times. Fortunately for Jenni, her savior turns out to be Katie, a prosecuting attorney who has narrowly escaped from being bitten by a group of zombies not far from Jenni’s home.

As time passes and the two women search in vain for a safe haven, it becomes clear to the reader that finding one another is the best thing that could have happened to these women. Jenni, a domestic abuse survivor, struggles to relate to most people since her abusive husband systematically chipped away at her self-worth for years. Still, she’s desperate for a fresh start, and she finds herself drawn to the competent Katie who is mourning the recent death of her wife. In Jenni’s mind, Katie is everything Jenni herself can never be: strong, resourceful and smart, just the kind of person guaranteed to take charge and ensure the safety of those around her.

Jenni’s assessment of Katie is pretty spot-on, but it soon becomes apparent there’s more to her than her strength and compassion. As the story goes on and circumstances grow ever more dire for our heroines, we learn exactly who both Katie and Jenni are on the inside, and how important each will be in the forming of a new society full of survivors.

On the surface, The First Days is one in a long list of novels about the zombie apocalypse, but as I read, I discovered a deeper story filled with complex characters who will do whatever is necessary to stay alive. This is a tale of self-discovery and survival, of changing morals and the strong need to forge connections in an ever-changing landscape. It’s dark without being overly gross, and the author deals with issues of race, sexual orientation, and mental health with an abundance of sensitivity, weaving these themes into her plot in a way that feels utterly effortless.

I know zombie books aren’t for everyone, but I was especially pleased to see a bisexual heroine so well-represented here. Katie is one of the novel’s driving forces, spurred on by her enduring love for the wife she’s so recently lost and desperate to find a way to live without her. Her friendship with Jenni is beautiful to behold, and I loved the way these two very different women balanced each other out. This is a true testament to the power of friendship and determination, and even if books about  zombies aren’t your usual cup of tea, I urge you to give this one a try.

Shannon reviews Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, but the synopsis of Half Broke, a memoir written by Ginger Gaffney, peeked my interest. It’s not a story about being a lesbian. Rather, it’s a heart-warming story about a woman who loves horses and how she uses that love to change the lives of a group of convicted felons. Ginger is a lesbian, and although her sexuality doesn’t play a huge part in the overall story arc, it’s an important part of who the author is, and I’m so glad she didn’t choose to shy away from discussing it.

The story starts with a call for help. Ginger, a well-respected horse trainer, is asked to assist a group of prison inmates serving out their sentences on an alternative prison ranch in New Mexico. It seems the horses on the ranch have been exhibiting some strange and dangerous behaviors, and since no one on the ranch has much practical experiences with horses, they’re in need of professional help. Ginger, who is somewhat of an introvert, reluctantly agrees to assess the troubled horses and help out if she is able. She’s not sure what to expect when she arrives on the ranch, but it soon becomes clear she’ll be able to make a difference in the lives of both the animals and the prisoners.

The ranch is run almost exclusively by the prisoners themselves. There are numerous rules and policies that keep things running smoothly, and it takes Ginger some time to truly become comfortable in this new environment. Fortunately, her strong desire to promote healing for the horses serves as a sort of in-road for her, and she eventually comes to care deeply for a number of the prisoners and all of the horses.

This could have been a really sappy book, but Gaffney’s approach is wonderfully down-to-earth. She doesn’t paint herself as the white knight, sweeping in to save the day. Instead, she reflects on the numerous ways people and animals were able to work together, creating a better world for all involved. Her strong sense of personal responsibility toward those she works with shines through, as do her personal vulnerabilities. Her life hasn’t always been easy, and she’s quite candid about the mistakes she’s made along the way.

At its core, Half Broke is a love letter to horses and those who work tirelessly to partner with them. It’s an unflinching look at the American justice system and how it both helps and harms those who get caught up in it. Certain chapters proved painful to read, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. It was exactly the book I needed this fall.

Shannon reviews The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka

The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka cover

I’m constantly on the lookout for new mystery series that feature strong, independent female characters, and if they’re lesbian or bisexual, I count it as a bonus. For the past several years, I’ve been hearing all manner of positive things about Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary books, and so, I finally decided to give them a try.

Roxane is a private investigator who is pretty much going through the motions of living. Her police officer father died not too long before book one begins, and his lost has hit her hard. Plus, she’s struggling to make sense of her feelings for a woman she’s been seeing for quite some time, but who seems unwilling to take their relationship to the next, more serious level.

When Roxane is hired to take a second look at the long ago disappearance of teenager Sarah Cook, she throws herself into the investigation. Sarah’s boyfriend Brad was convicted of killing Sarah, but Brad’s sister isn’t convinced he’s guilty and she’s desperate for Roxane to find the real killer. Initially, Roxane isn’t sure the first investigation had any real flaws, but as time passes and she turns up far more questions than answers, she finds herself ever more convinced something went terribly wrong for both Sarah and Brad.

To make matters worse, her investigation into Sarah’s disappearance has a possible link to one of her father’s unsolved murder cases. In hopes of laying both matters to rest, she joins forces with Tom, her father’s former partner on the police force. The two have always gotten along well enough, but as they begin spending more and more time together, Roxane finds herself developing deeper feelings for the detective. Of course, a relationship with a man isn’t something she’s interested in. At least, that’s what she tells herself.

The Last Place You Look is a dark and gritty mystery with a plot that kept me glued to my iPad until I reached the end. I couldn’t wait to figure out what really happened to Sarah and how her disappearance linked back to the case Roxane’s father had been working on years before. The author does a phenomenal job sprinkling small clues throughout the text without giving the big twist away too soon. I’m often frustrated when I solve a mystery early on, but this one was complicated enough to keep me guessing right along with Roxane.

If you don’t like characters with self-destructive tendencies, Roxane might be a challenge for you. She’s strong, smart, and competent, but in many ways, she’s her own worst enemy. I found myself frustrated with her poor decisions on more than a few occasions. Fortunately, the author provides enough backstory to help readers understand why Roxane struggles the way she does, something I found extremely helpful. I don’t expect characters to be perfect, but I’m a lot more forgiving of their shortcomings if I have at least a basic understanding of their motivations and Kristen Lepionka definitely provides that here.

The mystery is wrapped up by the end of this first installment, but there are still quite a few questions about Roxane and those she loves. Fortunately, there are three more books in this series so far, so readers can continue to follow Roxane as she struggles to bring justice to those who need it while also attempting to put the fractured pieces of her life back together. Book one was a solidly enjoyable read, so I’m anticipating more of the same as the series continues.

Shannon reviews I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee

I'll Be the One by Lyla Lee

If you’re looking for something to make you smile just as much as it makes you think, Lyla Lee’s debut I’ll Be the One is the perfect book for you. It’s categorized as young adult romance, but don’t let that put you off. I’m in my forties and I loved every second I spent with these characters.

Skye Shin has grown up knowing she wants to be a K-Pop star. She’s devoted every spare moment to practicing both her singing and dancing, and even though those around her haven’t always been as supportive of her dreams as she might like, she’s determined not to let this get her down. Sure, she’s a self-professed fat girl whose mother is constantly telling her to lose weight before taking the world by storm, painful to be sure, but if her deep love for K-Pop has taught her anything over the years, it’s that she has to believe in herself one-hundred percent, even if she’s the only one who does.

When You’re My Shining Star, a talent competition focused on K-Pop, holds auditions in her area, Skye knows she has to try out. So, she skips school and shows up for what she hopes will be her chance to totally wow the judges. Unfortunately, while her performance is one of the best she’s ever given, some of the judges aren’t eager to take a chance on Skye. Suddenly, in front of tons of other would-be contestants as well as a camera crew, Skye is forced to defend not only her lifelong dream, but the right for anyone who isn’t extremely thin to create art.

What follows is not only a behind-the-scenes look into the making of a reality TV show, but a deep and often heart-wrenching look into one young woman’s journey toward self-acceptance. Skye is a remarkable heroine, more self-assured than I could have even dreamed of being at her age, smart, resourceful, and unwilling to back down. She knows what she wants, and even when things get rough, she plows ahead, sometimes making mistakes, but always seeking the best, most fulfilling way to be who she’s meant to be, and lest she seem too good to be true, let me assure you that she’s not always sure of her identity. She considers herself bisexual, but because of her contentious relationship with her mother, she’s afraid to come out to anyone but her closest friends, and yet, her unwillingness to come out makes her feel hypocritical at times.

As the competition heats up, Skye throws herself wholeheartedly into a grueling schedule of rehearsals and performances. Plus, she’s still in school and letting her grades fall is not an option. Needless to say, she’s busier than she’s ever been, but things aren’t all work and no play for her and her fellow contestants. Fast friendships are formed, and Skye even gets a shot at first love, even if that love comes from a direction she never anticipated.

If you’re sensitive to fat-phobic commentary, I’ll Be the One might prove difficult for you to read. Skye is bombarded with anti-fat rhetoric from her mother, from the judges, and from several of the other contestants, so proceed with caution if you decide to pick this book up.

Nothing I can say can adequately convey my love for I’ll Be the One. It’s the kind of book I would have loved to read as a teenager struggling to fit into a world that didn’t always feel welcoming. Lee has created the perfect combination of lighthearted fun and introspective wisdom, making this a great book for readers both young and old.

Trigger Warning: Fat-phobia

Shannon reviews Amelia Westlake Was Never Here by Erin Gough

Amelia Westlake Was Never Here by Erin GoughErin Gough’s Amelia Westlake Was Never Here is one of those hidden gems I want the world to wholeheartedly embrace. On the surface, it’s a rom/com of sorts, with a delightful enemies-to-lovers romance, but if you look a little deeper, it’s message is timely and important.

Harriet Price is pretty sure she’s got her life perfectly planned out. She works hard, makes good grades, has a beautiful and ambitious girlfriend, and is just waiting for her chance to take the world by storm. So, if everything is going so well for her, what could have possibly possessed her to team up with troublemaker Will Everheart to bring to light some of the many problems experienced by students of Rosemead, the elite school the two girls attend? Harriet tells herself she’s seeking justice for those who feel powerless to speak up for themselves, but the reader is aware pretty early on that there’s more to it.

Will can’t stand Harriet. At least, that’s what she tells herself on a regular basis. Harriet is far too prim and proper for Will’s taste, and she takes life way too seriously. Still, she’s the perfect person for the hoax Will has in mind, and Will is nothing if not steadfast when she’s got a point to prove.

Together, Will and Harriet come up with a daring plan to create change in the hallowed halls of Rosemead. Using Will’s artistic talent and Harriet’s way with words, they create a fake social media profile for a student they christen Amelia Westlake. In Amelia’s voice, they recount the many injustices faced by various Rosemead students, and find themselves drawn closer together in the process.

Both Will and Harriet are well-drawn and likable characters. The author manages to give them distinct personalities with very realistic strengths and weaknesses. I loved getting to know them as they get to know one another. The novel is a fabulous reminder to look beyond our initial impressions of those we encounter, but the author doesn’t hammer the point home in an aggressive way. Instead, she allows the relationship between Harriet and Will to organically evolve, a much more subtle and meaningful way to get her point across.

I didn’t find much in the way of troubling content here. The story examines class differences and privilege in a way most readers should be able to identify with, though there is a bit of an emphasis on bullying. The descriptions aren’t overly graphic though, so I encourage you to give this delightful novel a try. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my summer reading so far.