Content Guidance: This book contains grooming, on-page SA, and religious trauma related to purity culture and the patriarchy, and therefore this review includes discussion regarding the treatment of those issues.
I'm going to preface this review by saying this book is important. As someone from a similar background, I found the confusion and tension Emma feels throughout her sexual awakening and exploration relatable and portrayed well. Emma was raised to believe that her body was not her own and in order to be good, she had to deny her very natural feelings and bodily functions. So her choice to deconstruct those beliefs and search for a healthier relationship with her body, sexuality, and feelings is something I loved to see on the page, and I'd love to see more books explore this.
Generally, I loved the relationship dynamics in this book. They interweave and overlap in a way that is very high school. Tanner and Emma's romance is fast-paced and intense; Emma's friendships are loving and challenging; and Emma's changing relationship with her dad is frustratingly understandable. C.L Walters created complex characters with complex relationships, and the way the changing relationships challenge Tanner and Emma's beliefs and romance is the star of this book.
However, this book felt about 150 pages too long. I think Walters fell into the trap of wanting to tell all the stories in one book (a trap I know all too well). As a result, several side plots and backstories felt tagged on rather than integral to the story. Unfortunately, this includes the sexual assault and grooming backstories. I know from the author's note at the end of the book that Emma's #metoo backstory and her consequent struggle with her self-worth due to her religious background were especially important to Walters, and while I agree it's an important story to tell, it felt like it should've been part of a different story or novel. Emma's purity culture upbringing was enough for me to believe she would struggle with her desire for Tanner.
This is the same with Tanner's grooming backstory. While I agree it's important to show that all people can be grooming and sexual assault victims, it didn't feel essential to Tanner's story in this book. I think it would've been better represented with a different character and a different story.
Finally, the Tanner's-favorite-book subplot didn't feel essential to the story, and I didn't understand the excerpts throughout. I loved the scene where Tanner and Emma are reading it together, but I don't think Tanner's secret bookishness added any actual depth to his character or story. It could've been removed without harming their love story or the friendship and family subplots.
Since these stories felt more tagged on than essential, they distracted from Emma and Tanner's emotional journeys, which involve learning that their self-worth comes from, well, within. And while the underlying lesson is the same, each comes to the lesson differently and separately. I'm a sucker for a love story where fulfillment is NOT found in the romance, and Walters delivers. But Emma's journey to learn this was a little more frustrating than Tanner's. While I understand it may have been more difficult for her due to evangelical theology ingrained in her, I think the book's length detracted from her journey and character in the end.
That being said, I would recommend this book to those interested in purity culture representation and those who love sex-positive non-HEA love stories. If you enjoy Katie Cotugno's 99 Days, Erin Hahn's Never Saw You Coming, and open-door sex scenes, you'll enjoy this book.
You can purchase The Stories Stars Tell on Amazon (Amazon affiliate link) and learn more about C.L. Walters at https://www.mixedplatepress.com/
Book Review: Scattered & Breaking
In this sequel, Natalie Cammaratta teases out the tension and anticipation the end of "Falling & Uprising" creates while playing on the themes of knowing vs. feeling, friendship, trust, and societal backsliding. It seems that an uprising and seeming environmental disaster (Where did the ocean go? How does that even happen?) isn't enough for Kaycie and its islands to forgo their corrupt government and false sense of security.
Sounds familiar, right?
The complicated political climate of this dystopia reminds me of "Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith," in the best way. Serenity, like Padme, fights for a more fair world, and even with the amnesia shot, Serenity knows something is wrong with the Establishment, and she knows it's more than what she's told. Her sense of right is intact, despite the efforts of the people around her. She feels there is something wrong. The tension between knowing and feeling within Serenity builds out her character and makes it more interesting and complex than it was in Book 1. I liked Serenity in "Falling & Uprising." I LOVE the journey she goes through in "Scattered & Breaking."
Natale also expands the world for both the characters and the readers through Bram--and a third POV (which I am not going to name because I'm not sure if it's still a secret). Through Bram and the third POV, we see and learn more about the islands, how the uprising affected them, and why and how the sea disappeared. While their understanding of the world expands, friendships are tested, and they don't know who to trust. The interweaving of personal and societal relationships is intricate and, well, cool!
Basically, if you liked "Falling & Uprising," you'll love "Scattered & Breaking." It's STEAM-filled and passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. There are also several gay characters (one will surprise you!). I stand by my assessment that this series is for people who like "Downton Abbey," (Season 2!) and "Catching Fire."
And yes, Jase is still sketch. I also stand by that assessment.
Visit Natalie's website and purchase "Scattered & Breaking" through Amazon.
Book Review: Falling & Uprising
In "Falling & Uprising," Natalie Cammaratta skillfully combines the old Hollywood glamour and witty banter of a classic Marilyn Monroe film with the suspense and worldbuilding of "Catching Fire," all in an apocalyptical setting that is all too real after the recent UN report. Like most YA apocalyptical dystopian novels, "Falling & Uprising" touches on inequality, governmental control, and environmental issues, but Natalie veers from a typical YA dystopian by making the protagonist a privileged, rich, and famous teenage girl. Serenity's worldview crashes when she learns of the other islands, and we follow her as she uses her privilege to take down the system that created it. This switch in perspective is both interesting and challenging. It's hard to create a sympathetic character in a teen who has everything, yet Serenity's sense of justice and loyalty makes her relatable.
It helps that we also get the oppressed's perspective through Bram, a grumpy marshal who was mysteriously saved from the system. Bram expresses the reader's doubts toward Serenity, which pushes the reader to feel defensive. Serenity in turn keeps Bram uncomfortable; she forces him to see that most Kaycians are not the enemy but a duped people. The tension between Bram and Serenity adds dimension to their perspectives and their world.
While the lead characters are male and female, Natalie left plenty of room for the Bechdel test. Not only does Serenity recruit her best friend Vogue to the uprising but she also unites and befriends all the Kaycians working with her toward the end of the Establishment. Although there is romance in the air (team Bram), the girls in the cast brainstorm solutions and discuss societal issues and technology. It's definitely a STEAM-friendly book.
However, the one thing I didn't notice was any persons of color. Whether there is truly a lack of people of color in Kaycie or if it was my fault as a reader in picking up descriptions, I'm not sure. It will be interesting to see how the character descriptions expand as Bram and Serenity's worlds expand in Book 2.
Overall, this book made me think, and it also made me want to drink merlot and martinis while thinking. I enjoyed reading it and ruminating over it. I recommend it to anyone who loves the glamour of Downton Abbey and the first half of "Catching Fire."
Visit Natalie's website and purchase "Falling & Uprising" through Bookshop and Amazon.
Book Review: Hazel's Shadow
If you know me, you know this isn't a normal read for me. I'm easily spooked (I still contend that Jurassic Park is a scary movie.), and this book is SCARY. Shadow people are probably the most terrifying paranormal creature. If you don't believe me, listen to episode 59 of "Timesuck with Dan Cummins." But if I was going to read a paranormal thriller, it would be by Nicole MacCarron.
This book gave me all the feels. Sure, it gave me vivid nightmares about nonkillable zombies, but Nicole masterfully balances terror and horror with humor and heartfelt moments. In Hazel and her five classmates (ALL GIRLS. I don't think a boy is mentioned outside of a Coach, teacher, absent family member, or ghost. Bechdel Test Approved!), Nicole creates a diverse cast that includes both persons of color and queer characters. AND Hazel is a fat, talented athlete! Most of the girls I competed with as a teen were like Hazel, and I'd love to see this represented more in YA books.
These girls have clashing personalities and ideas. Some are more abrupt and some are more nurturing, but they are all well-developed with backstory, action, and dialogue. In their own unique ways, they comfort, mourn, and puzzle out solutions together. With them, I laughed, I cried, I had nightmares.
Nicole utilizes both plot and prose to create a well-paced book. There is just enough set up to make you care when all hell breaks loose. And it escalates quickly--it is a zombie apocalypses, after all--but then it deescalates, giving the reader (and characters) a short break while suspense and tension builds through subplots about friendship, sisters, and crushes (all of which I'm a sucker for.)
If you like "Hocus Pocus" and "Dawn of the Dead," I think you'll love "Hazel's Shadow."
BONUS: The sequel, "Hazel's Mirror," is being released tomorrow, October 21, 2021 and was edited by yours truly, so I can tell you it does not disappoint.
"Hazel's Shadow" is available on Amazon and Indigo (Kobo). Check out Nicole's website for more information.
Sarah Hawkins is a geek for the written word. She's an author and freelance editor who seeks to promote and uplift the authors around her.
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