Review: Don’t Date Rosa Santos

Review: Don’t Date Rosa Santos

Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)

The Santos women are cursed by the sea, and Rosa Santos knows better than to get involved with anyone involved with the sea. As her college deadline looms over her, she is caught between the town she calls home and the island of Cuba, a familial past her abuela refuses to talk about. But when her town falls into trouble, Rosa must work fast to save her town and face her fear of the shore before it swallows her whole.

It has been a while since I’ve picked up a book with little expectations, only to have them exceeded way beyond my imagination. From the description, I have to admit I wasn’t too sure about this one but, wow, I really liked Don’t Date Rosa Santos.

The world-building was rich and vibrant. Port Coral really opened up with each new chapter. The community was so unique and its residents were so lively. The community of Port Coral truly felt real and not just a static background for Rosa’s story. The main theme of Don’t Date Rosa Santos is how Rosa struggles to connect with her Cuban roots, and through the entire novel, she worries that her connection is not enough and she can’t access more of it due to her family’s past. Her experience is very rooted in Cuban culture, but I found myself really relating to her thoughts about diaspora and her disconnection to her family. Moreno did a really great job here, evoking such strong emotions in such a digestible way.

The people around Rosa make their mark as much as Rosa herself. Her grandmother, Mimi, whose loss in the past leads her to close her heart when Rosa comes calling with questions. Her mother travels to run away from the grief that always seems to follow her. The family trauma runs three generations deep, and Rosa tries to get her family to finally face their fears together. Her neighbours are sweet, her schoolfriends hilarious, and a love interest that I actually really loved and rooted very strongly for.

I was not expecting to be so emotionally affected by this book. Rosa’s monologues, her worries about her future and her own self-imposed expectations, it all hit really close to home. Rosa undertakes an internal journey to better understand a culture she yearns to learn more about. And while doing that, she works towards understanding this so-called “curse” on her family that follows the women in her family. If I’m being honest, the curse is a hit or miss aspect because it frustrated me a lot as it concealed so much information, so watch out for that. But everything else was brilliant.

Overall, Don’t Date Rosa Santos was delightful and moving. Its emphasis on family and community makes it such a touching read, and one of my most surprising reads of the year. It really was something special.


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Review: Defy Me

Review: Defy Me

Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

This review is not spoiler-free

Juliette thought she had everything under control until she didn’t. And now she’s alone with no one but herself as she’s forced to rediscover the world around. A lifetime of lies unravels before her and Juliette has no choice but to remember the past she had long forgotten. Narrated by Juliette and other familiar faces, the fifth instalment brings to light information that continues to shake the very foundation of the world they thought they knew.

A lot of people love this, and a lot of people hate this. As a reader who despised the original trilogy, my expectations for these new books were extremely low, but I was fairly impressed by Restore Me and I could say the same things for Defy Me: entertaining yet at the same time, so, so disappointed.

In term of story, there’s not much to unpack. Juliette discovers the truth behind her family, her parents and sister, and it is heartbreaking. Hearing about her sister and the truth behind her past was a standout moment, especially in a powerful scene between the sisters at the end. On the other end, we follow Warner and Kenji as they scramble to pick the movement back up after Juliette’s sudden disappearance. Memories of certain characters are restored and suddenly, they all don’t know what’s happening. I really enjoyed Restore Me, but Defy Me felt like it’s filler counterpart.

In my (poorly written) series review, I named Kenji the series saver. But I don’t know if he truly gave this story the pick up it sorely needed. I really enjoyed his chapters despite my overall feelings. He was always so hilarious and relatable, and often the only person who made any sense in the series. That Juliette and Kenji reunion was enough to save the book for me. I found it weird that Mafi decided to pair him up with Nazeera. In Restore Me, it was so cringey and embarrassing, especially when Mafi basically pulls an almost insta love on the readers with them. But I really did enjoy their overall dynamic in Defy Me. Do I love it or do I hate it? I don’t even know. I’ll withhold final judgements until Imagine Me.

I feel really bad that I could not, for the life of me, remember anything significant about the Omega Point group. Tahereh Mafi withholding Brendan and Winston from getting together made no sense. I legit forgot about Castle for most of this book. I am glad he got his family back. I feel like Adam was a completely new character. It’s like Tahereh really didn’t need him in this book, and kept him being an ass in the background.

I have to say Tahereh writes this series in such an addicting way, that’s only in this series alone. In all her other works I’ve read was good, but none really had that pacing that the Shatter Me series has that whether you love it or hate it, you find yourself speeding through. I feel like this whole series is just one big adrenaline rush. But note, this book is like 80% rambly flashbacks and a lot was missing. Especially when Juliette was locked away, there was a huge potential to develop those scenes further, but we lose a lot of valuable information. The dialogue was so melodramatic. And I wasn’t a huge fan of that. To be honest, this book could’ve been shortened, and split back into Restore Me and added onto Imagine Me. Everything was stretching a little thin for me in this book.

I have to say this: I didn’t get the engagement scene. I knew it was coming up and it just didn’t feel right. And don’t get me started at that sex scene. I’m all for making more sex-positive YA books but I’m pulling out that iconic Pokemon line, “There’s a time and place for everything, but not now.” Was this an attempt at fanservice because I was lost for words at how lost I was when I was reading it.

Overall, I don’t know even know what to expect for this series and how it will actually end. I felt bad for Tahereh at first because adding three new books to a beloved YA series that had ended ages ago was a bold move on her part. But I feel like, in that time, the actual fans of this series have consolidated their own thoughts and ideas of what happens next and the past two books so far have thrown a lot of them off. I personally enjoyed the general direction this series has taken after Restore Me but I feel like Tahereh’s decision to write three more Shatter Me books has polarised her own reader community a lot. I would say if you loved the series, then go ahead continue the series, but if you were never a fan of the originals, then stay away, this won’t do any good for you.


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Review: I Wish You All The Best

Review: I Wish You All The Best

Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)

“Whatever happens, I wish you all the best, Ben De Backer.” 

Just three words have Ben De Backer kicked out of his family home and living with their estranged sister and brother-in-law. After coming out as nonbinary, they are forced to start life anew in a different school, aiming to keep a low profile. But any attempts by Ben to live their life unnoticed is quickly interrupted by Nathan Allan, a charismatic student, who decided to take Ben under his wing. Slowly, Ben comes out of their shell and what began as a horror story could very well have a happy ending. 

When Ben is rejected by their parents, they are taken in by their older sister, Hannah, who has also left home suddenly due to their parent’s judgemental behaviour. With ten years lost between them, they begin to work fixing the gap they have between them. I appreciated Hannah and how she finally had enough of her parent’s actions and decided to make a move to leave. Deaver portrays her struggle well, and I enjoyed how it intertwined with Ben’s life, and her actions still resonate in the current story. Hannah and Thomas, her husband, try their best to help Ben get settled into a new school and create a healthier and affirming environment for Ben to thrive in. They’re learning, and doing their best to do it right. 

A shining point in this story is Ben’s support system. It begins with Hannah, but it doesn’t stop there. Mariam is their online nonbinary mentor who provides much-needed support, but the online space creates some disconnect. They also meet with a therapist who allows Ben to address what they’ve faced in a safe environment, allowing them to tackle their anxiety in a space that suits them. Ben also meets unlikely friends in school, including Nathan who brings in his friends and Ben thrives in their new environment. Ben still has trouble, but that’s okay because for once, they can think of a future that isn’t so unstable. 

I managed to get this book down in under three hours, and it was time well spent. Ben’s story is a much-needed one. Ben’s fear felt so real, and it showed on-page. They may have left their home, but their parent’s reaction isn’t far off from their mind, reminding them that everything they have now could go in an instant. Deaver’s debut begins with a tragic outcome but ends with a wholesome promise of a new beginning on one’s own terms. 

Overall, I Wish You All The Best is quiet but satisfying. A story about a nonbinary teen by a nonbinary author; this is a story that celebrates life amidst terrifying circumstances and is a shining example of what future contemporary YA literature has to offer. 


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Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow

Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow

Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

*I received a copy via the publisher and NetGalley in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

Casiopea Tun dreams of a life beyond her small Mexico town until she accidentally releases a God of Death and her time is soon limited, as she is now bound to the Mayan God, Hun-Kamé, and must help him regain his missing body parts in order to reclaim his throne in Xibalba (Mayan Underground) from his thieving brother. Failure means Casiopea will lose herself and with the clock slowly ticking, together, they embark on a life-changing journey that has Casiopea leaving the clutches of her strict grandfather and experience an adventure of a lifestyle.

The central tale focuses on Casiopea and her journey from sheltered girl to a confident person who rediscovers the world beyond her small village. Her determination to go beyond what is expected of her is entertaining and thrilling. A tale of a young woman and a God with their fates tied so close together, the world they discover takes centre stage. Casiopea and Vacub-Kamé hurry though Mexico in the 1920s, beginning in Yucatán and onwards into northern Mexico. The bright lights of a changing world is a brilliant contrast with the darkness of Xibalba, crafty magic and the mischievous demons that reside beside the civilians. I really enjoyed the level of detail as you can really imagine the world unfold in front you as Casiopea experiences it all for the first time.

I really loved the inclusion of Casiopea’s cousin. Like Casiopea, he is forced to embark on a journey to bring his cousin back home. I love that it gave deeper depth to how he has come to hate his cousin and where is narcissistic tendencies comes from, and how easily things could’ve been different between them if it wasn’t for their upbringing. I wasn’t a massive fan of Vacub-Kamé, Hun-Kamé’s brother, and his chapters, but appreciate how it showed a difference in leadership between the brothers and added a lot to the major theme of family that runs through this novel.

In terms of pacing, it was quite even between the journeys to each body parts, but I do have to admit, each obstacle does give up rather easily which was quite jarring considering the stakes and risks presented to us. However, I did really enjoy each side character that we meet. Most we don’t ever meet again but were definitely memorable enough to enjoy. I especially really adored the lull moments between each trip where Casiopea and Hun-Kamé get to know each other. I’ve never been a big fan of romances where one person is like a thousand years older than the one, but each to their own, I guess.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, and I think any other reader will enjoy how Moreno-Garcia’s blend of mythology and history. Gods of Jade and Shadow was an enchanting story of self-discovery with an ending that is satisfying but could hint at a potential sequel. If so, I would gladly read whatever comes next.


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Review: Verify

Review: Verify

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

*I received a copy via the publisher in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

Meri Beckley is forced on the run when she discovers the world she lives in isn’t as truthful as she was thought it was. Months after the death of her artist mother, Meri tries to understand her mother’s thoughts in her unfinished pieces. Then one day, someone thrusts a piece of paper in her hands with one world: verify. There she discovers questions no one is willing to answer and learns a history that she didn’t know existed. However, the government is close on her tail, and she has no choice but to fight back. 

This book is a mess. I’m actually surprised that this book is being published in the state that it is in. If this was 2013, Verify could have stood a chance in the dystopian young adult market, but right now, it’s nothing new and falls exceptionally flat. I really wish I could say this book just wasn’t for me, another reader might like it, but I honestly can’t in good faith recommend this book to anyone. 

Meri Beckley discovers the government is censoring anything that doesn’t align with their views. She learns of a secret organisation whose primary role is to remind the world of the history they have forgotten, but their work is continuously halted by secret government agents which snatch members off the street, never to be seen again. Meri meets Atlas, whose father ran [org name] but went missing, and takes the risk of reaching out to Meri in hopes that her mother might’ve passed some information before her death. 

The plot’s conflict was all over the place, and it doesn’t really settle on anything. It felt somewhat stretched out to become a duology because there is no shred of resolution that felt like the first novel was finished. This world is ridiculously dull, and the lack of stakes just made me laugh. Nothing really keeps you rooting for Meri, and we’re told how to feel, rather than seeing. The book’s climax where Meri and the others spread their message all over the city felt uninspiring. Meri is hopeless, she learns of a secret organisation where certain words can trigger the police to come after you, but she continues to act reckless, and we’re supposed to believe in the space of like a week, she is suddenly a key player in this “revolution” when she’s done nothing but cause trouble.

She’s a paper lead, with no personality, no reason or spark to root for her. The secondary characters were so forgettable, existing for scenes where they’re needed and quickly discarded. A love interest that I just felt terrible for, honestly, and there was zero connection between them. I had to laugh when they kiss in the middle of their vital life or death mission. Honestly, this entire book was so underwhelming that nothing could really save it. 

Verify is set far enough in the future that the government can easily remove everyday words from our vocabulary to the point where no one knows how to pronounce them. Paper usage is frowned upon and illegal to own. In this universe, much of the world’s darkest history is erased. But the only thing parts of history the book relies on is the Underground Railroad and WW2. I would’ve loved to see Meri reflect on the history and what happened during those times. But it’s very vague and doesn’t even talk about them at all. If you’re going to use specific elements from history, the least you could do is acknowledge them in your books, rather than being vague.

Overall, I can see what this book is trying to do, in a digital era, information is distorted and unverified information has the potential to do great ruin in our lives. But this entire book was unclear and not at all enjoyable to read, which is such a shame because its premise is so important. I don’t think this book is worth reading. 

If you want to read a YA book about the power of information and censorship, I’d suggest The Great Library series by Rachel Caine. (It’s not at the forefront like Verify, and it’s more fantasy aligned)


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Review: Slay

Review: Slay

Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

*I received a copy via the publisher and NetGalley in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

A teen game developer finds herself facing an online troll after her Black Panther-inspired game reaches mainstream media and is labelled as exclusionary when a young Black boy is murdered over an online dispute. No one knows that Kiera Johnson, an honours student, runs the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY. So when her game’s existence is thrown out into the open, she must save her game while also protecting the safe community she has created for Black gamers. 

SLAY comes to life when Kiera Johnson’s experiences of being a Black gamer means she is ostracised and faces continuously racist abuse. SLAY becomes her refuge where she can put aside her fears about college and whether her future with her boyfriend is the one and, simply put, slays in her self-made game environment. I loved the gameplay detail a lot. For some, it can feel overwhelming, but I loved the detail Morris put into bringing SLAY to life! The gaming culture is one of the book’s strongest point. 

When word of SLAY leaks to the media, Kiera is devastated to see what was a safe space for so many people suddenly branded and portrayed in a negative light, this book is a discussion of the importance of space spaces, and they have the right to exist without being labelled racist. 

In my opinion, the book struggles to make me feel like Kiera developed this game. I thought we’d get a better explanation to how she manages to run SLAY, a VR MMORPG, but we get so little that it made the reading experience disappointing. SLAY is Kiera’s baby, but to maintain a game like SLAY for years with no one in your family realising and only having two people moderating a game with 500k users doesn’t make sense. I would’ve loved to have seen Kiera actively working on SLAY rather than pushing it to the side and with little to show of her skill in game development. Also, the ending was rather disappointing as well, and a lot is glossed over, and not developed. So it’s a shame the side characters weren’t as impressive as they had the potential to be better. Kiera deserves better friends after everything she’s been through. 

Overall, despite my own shortcomings with SLAY, Morris’s debut is a sweet love letter to Black gamer girls. SLAY is born out of Kiera’s wish to promote Black culture from across the diverse diaspora. Collectable battle cards are grounded in Black culture, each with a deep meaning and can kick ass on the digital playing field. SLAY was a good read, and I’ll happily check out anything else Morris will release in the future.  

Here are some #OwnVoices reviews from Black book bloggers: Leila and Liselle Sambury


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