Category: Young Adult

I’ll Be the One

by Lyla Lee

ISBN 9780062936929

“Only eight years ago, people only knew about Psy and the memeable moments in “Gagnam Style.” Now BTS is everywhere, and people from all sorts of different backgrounds are lined up to audition.”

As a fat girl, Skye Shin is constantly hearing about all the things she shouldn’t do. Don’t dance. Don’t wear bright colours. Don’t eat too much, especially not in public. Even her own mother is so embarrassed about her weight that they haven’t been back to Korea to visit their extended family for years. But Skye isn’t about to let any of that stop her from achieving her dream of becoming a K-pop star, and she knows she has both the voice and the dance skills to do it. With a permission slip signed by her father, Skye auditions for My Shining Star, the first K-pop reality TV competition to take place entirely in America. But in order to win, she’ll not only have to prove her skills to the judges and audience, but also overcome the stereotypes and misconceptions of an industry whose beauty standards don’t leave any room for girls like her.  

Skye is a confident protagonist is who secure in her appearance but we get hints that this has not always been the case. We learn that in the past her mother put her on a series of restrictive diets, and there is a passing mention of a school counselor who may have been instrumental in helping her throw off that attitude and live her life without constantly thinking about her weight. However, I’ll Be the One isn’t the story of her coming to accept herself, but rather what she does with confidence once she has grounded herself in it. There is one brief moment in the story, after a judge has been particularly nasty to her, that Skye considers resubmitting to a dietary regime, but in general she holds fast to her principles and doesn’t let people’s comments get to her. She literally wears rose-tinted sunglasses to her audition, and this is generally representative of her character and approach to the world.

Skye meets a cute girl in line for her audition, but when Lana turns out to have a girlfriend, Skye pivots just as quickly to being excited about meeting other queer Asian young women. The plot of I’ll Be the One does not focus significantly on Skye’s rivals. Rather, the main villain of the book is Bora, one of the judges of the show. She also happens to be the only woman on the judge’s panel, adding insult to injury. Bora repeatedly calls out Skye’s weight and appearance as being an impediment to her having a real career in the industry, but doesn’t seem to be able to see that this says more about the industry than about Skye or the market itself. With a sole vote, she cannot eliminate Skye single-handedly, but this brings the added pressure of knowing that in each stage of the competition, Skye must win the votes of both other judges every time in order to advance.

Because of the American setting, forbidden romance doesn’t play into I’ll Be the One in quite the same way that it featured in K-Pop Confidential or Shine. However, Skye does have a love interest in the form of Henry Cho, who also tries out for the show. Henry is a social media influencer who is the son of two people who are famous in the Korean entertainment industry, but who does not have a career there himself. However, my favourite part about their relationship is something that doesn’t come up until later in the book once they’ve gotten to know one another fairly well, which is that Henry is also bisexual, a nice bit of double representation. Henry is also the character who provides the window into the potential downsides of fame, and forces Skye into reckoning with the differences between a person’s public persona and their private self.

I’ll Be the One was the third K-pop YA novel I read recently, but I think it had a slightly different vibe while dealing with many of the same issues. Much of this is due to the fact that Skye is living at home and only periodically travelling to Los Angeles to take part in the show. It creates much less of an intense environment than stories in which the protagonist is enrolled in a full-time idol training program and mostly separated from their family. With the added aspect of the representation in this book, I think it might be my favourite of the three. This was a bit of a surprise to me as I initially started explore this genre looking for an analogue to the intense competition and drama provided by dance school books, but this lighter take really hit the spot.

Canada Reads Along 2021: The Midnight Bargain

Cover image for The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polkby C.L. Polk

ISBN 9781645660071

“Beatrice didn’t want to hear what she would have if she were a man. She didn’t want to be a man. She wanted to be a magician.”

In Chasland, magic is the realm of men. Among women, only widows and crones can pursue the arcane arts. Married women are locked into warding collars that shield them from magic in order to prevent spirits from possessing their unborn children. Problematic daughters may be collared even before their weddings. Young women with magical talent are valued only as the mothers of the next generation of male magicians. Each year brings bargaining season, when the ingénues descend on Bendleton for a series of balls, parties, and marriage negotiations. Beatrice Clayborn is about to make her debut in desperate bid to save her family from desperate financial straits, but in her heart she would prefer to pursue life as a magician, even if it means being called a thornback. At the beginning of bargaining season, Beatrice finds a grimoire in a bookshop that may hold the key to making the greater bargain with a spirit and staving off marriage forever. But the book is taken from under her by the wealthy heiress Ysbeta Lavan and her brother Ianthe, who have traveled from Llanandras for bargaining season. Ysbeta is as desperate as Beatrice for a solution to the marriage problem, but she will need Beatrice’s help to decode the grimoire.

Ysbeta and Ianthe come from Llanandras, a country with a more liberal policy towards women and magic; women are only shielded during their pregnancies. Nevertheless, their mother has brought Ysbeta to the Chasland marriage mart in hopes of brokering an advantageous alliance for their trading company, regardless of the cost to her daughter personally. Ysbeta would prefer to remain unwed, and as she and Beatrice get to know one another, it becomes clear that her plans for the future involve neither marriage nor children. Beatrice, by contrast, dreams of a world where she can have it all, while her younger sister Harriet has made her magic small in order to focus on her own future bargaining season. I appreciated that the book showed women with a variety of dreams for the future, and centered their right to make that choice for themselves rather than positioning a single outcome as the ideal. Although the book is currently a standalone, I would absolutely read a follow up from Ysbeta’s perspective.

In addition to marriage, The Midnight Bargain also explores the conflicts between women created by the patriarchal system they live under. Beatrice’s own sister betrays some of her secrets to their parents when she believes something bad may have happened to her, only to unleash a worse punishment. When Beatrice and Ysbeta seek help from a network of women magicians, the power wielded by their families and the potential backlash of aiding the escape of two ingénues is deemed too risky for the rest of the network. Both girls are facing potential betrayal by their own mothers, who are shepherding their daughters towards a terrible future. I was particularly curious to know more about Beatrice’s mother, who makes some difficult choices in the course of the narrative that show she is not entirely at peace with her situation despite outward appearances. I particularly liked that Beatrice and Ysbeta became allies rather than rivals, even though their alliance is often an uneasy one since their aims are sometimes at odds.

Ianthe is Beatrice’s love interest, and a more tolerant and liberal-minded young man that she is used to meeting with. For the first time, marriage doesn’t seem quite so unthinkable; Ianthe listens to her ideas and would clearly allow her more freedom than her mother has ever enjoyed. In some ways, however, this complicates the narrative. Beatrice would be free to hate a husband she took only to save her family. If she managed to make the greater bargain with a spirit and become a fully-fledged magician, she would never regret passing up the chance to wed any of the local men. Ianthe represents a compromise she must decide if she can make without coming to hate him, or herself. C.L. Polk adds depth to their relationship by acknowledging the sacrifice Beatrice would still be making in marrying Ianthe; though he might seem the obvious choice, it would still represent a loss of Beatrice’s freedom and self-determination to place the key to her collar in his hands.

The Midnight Bargain was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by Olympian and broadcaster Rosey Edeh. She touted her selection as an immersive narrative appropriate for a wide range of readers, and also highlighted the fast pacing and linear narrative as benefits in a time when many of us are stressed and distracted. However, she also urged readers to look to the complexity beneath the surface, for a story about race, magic, complex friendships, and self-determination. The book has a subversive undercurrent that might initially be missed beneath the romance, magic, and world building, creating a richly layered story.

Day Two of the debates opened a round table format that allowed each defender a one minute opening statement, followed by a discussion of their books by the other panelists. Each defender was then given a thirty second closing before the votes were cast. The Midnight Bargain first came under fire from Devery Jacobs, who also spoke against the book on Day One. She argued that the book had some problems with repetition that made her feel like the author was spoon feeding her. Edeh’s rebuttal focused on the importance of repetition and reinforcement in a journey of the mind where the character is setting herself against society in order to achieve what everyone says is an impossible goal.

Roger Mooking’s criticism of the book focused more on the believability of the fact that Beatrice would give up the grimoire to Ysbeta in the bookshop, the inciting incident for the entire narrative. He felt that this was implausible, while Edeh argued that this moment, in addition to setting up the conflict, is a powerful illustration of Beatrice’s social training, the very thing that she needs to overcome in order to reach her goal. She is keenly aware of the problems her actions may cause her family, and also of the power imbalance between the Clayborns and the Lavans in terms of both their wealth and their station in society. That she concedes in this moment both kicks off the story, and provides an important act of world-building while helping us understand her character.

When the time came to cast the ballots, Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against The Midnight Bargain, with Lee citing the fact that he felt it was the type of story he had read many times before. Devery Jacobs had also voted against the book on Day One. Both Rosey Edeh and Roger Mooking cast their votes against Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, creating a tie between two books. Scott Helman, who initially voted against Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, was called in to be the tie breaker. Helman was a free agent today after the elimination of his pick, Two Trees Make a Forest, on Day One. Citing the fact that he became a little bit tired with the Regency aspect, and the wealth of the characters, he elected to eliminate The Midnight Bargain, making it the second book voted off of Canada Reads 2021.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

K-Pop Confidential

Cover image for K-Pop Confidential by Stephan Leeby Stephan Lee

ISBN 9781338639988

“I’m starting to feel as if life inside S.A.Y. is the only real life—everything’s so intense and new and dangerous and exciting in there—and everything outside it, this vast, bustling country where my mom and grandfather are, where my ancestors are from, is just a distraction.”

Candace Park loves to sing, but for most of her life she’s been wasting her talent learning the viola to please her parents and help round out her college applications. Secretly she is a big K-Pop fan, an enthusiasm she shares with her best friends, Ethan and Imani. When Imani learns about an open call for talent from S.A.Y. Entertainment, Korea’s biggest K-Pop label, her friends encourage Candace to try out. To her surprise, she is offered a spot in Seoul, and a chance to compete for one of five slots in the girl group S.A.Y. plans to launch at the end of the summer. All she has to do is convince her parents that diving into their homeland’s most cut-throat industry is an opportunity too good to pass up.

The world Stephan Lee has crafted in K-Pop Confidential represents a strange mixture of truth and fiction. Lee invents S.A.Y. Entertainment for the site of his story, replacing one of the largest real companies in the industry with this fictional analogue. However, other bands mentioned in the book are real, and you could craft a fairly substantial playlist of K-pop girl bands just from the songs mentioned in the course of the book. For example, Lee mentions Girls Generation, the band that Jessica Jung—author of Shine—was a member of. In Seoul, Candace is surrounded by young women who have given up large chunks of their childhood for a chance to debut. One her group mates, Binna, has been training for a decade. If you’ve enjoyed books set in other competitive, high pressure environments like ballet school, or the film industry, idol training makes for an analogous setting.

We get a little bit of development of Candance’s relationship with her grandfather, since she is able to see him in person on her days off, but her family is largely out of the picture when she is ensconced at S.A.Y. Her relationships are focused around those she makes with the other girls in her training group, and her feelings for two boys, one of whom is already an idol in the company’s biggest boy band, and the other who is a fellow Korean-American trainee. Neither of the boys are particularly well-developed characters, and Candace’s relationships with her fellow female trainees are significantly more interesting. However, because romantic scandals and gender disparity play such a key part in the downfall of many female idols, the boys remain an important part of the story.

It’s a difficult line for Lee to balance making Candace resistant to the norms inside the idol school, while also having it seem at all realistic that her rebellion would not get her kicked out of the program. The manager who plucked her from the audition in New Jersey is invested in showing the company she made the right choice, which provides a little bit of cover to her behaviour. However, she also simply accepts the grueling hours and restrictive diet, hiding these facts from her mother when she is allowed to visit on weekends, so that she won’t be pulled out of training. Candace develops close friendships with some of her fellow trainees, but her interactions with even the people she likes can be fraught by the competition. Particularly interesting is her antagonism with Helena Cho, a fellow Korean American who believes the company will not select more than one American to be part of the girl group. Interestingly, it is Helena’s fate that ultimately shapes Candace’s biggest choices about her future.

The book reads well as a stand-alone, but according to the author, a second volume tentatively titled K-Pop Revolution will follow the girl group formed in K-Pop Confidential, due out in 2022.

You might also like:

Shine by Jessica Jung

Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Brown and Sona Charaipotra

Shine

Cover image for Shine by Jessica Jungby Jessica Jung

ISBN 9781534462519

“They’ll fucking ruin you and make it seem like you’re the one who destroyed yourself.”

When she was only eleven years old, Rachel Kim’s whole family gave up their life in New York City to move to Seoul so that Rachel could pursue her dreams of becoming a K-pop artist. Ever since, Rachel has been a trainee at DB Entertainment, spending her days at school, and her evenings and weekends dancing, singing, and competing with the other girls who share her aspirations. After six years in training, Rachel is starting to worry that she will never debut, because no matter how good she is at singing and dancing, she is still camera shy in an industry that is all about image. Then rumours begin to swirl that DB Entertainment is about to debut a new girls group for the first time in seven years, and Rachel will have to decide if she is willing to do what it takes to be one of the nine girls chosen.

Shine is set in the cut-throat world of the K-pop idol system, where young men and women give up their childhoods to train as entertainers, in the hopes of being debuted in one of the industry’s famous music groups. I’ve enjoyed novels set in the high-pressure environment of ballet school, so idol school seemed like an interesting analog for this type of setting. As a bonus, author Jessica Jung is a former member of the K-pop group Girls Generation, bringing insider knowledge of the industry to the table. I don’t have a lot of knowledge about K-pop or the idol industry, so a book written by an insider seemed like a good bet. Like Rachel, Jung is a Korean American who went to Seoul to become an idol, before breaking with her band and her label in 2014.

One of the strict and well known rules of the idol industry is that the stars are forbidden from dating. For Rachel, this rule is put to the test when she meets Jason Lee, a Korean Canadian idol who is the lead vocalist of DB Entertainment’s hottest boy band. Jung uses this relationship not only as a vehicle for romance within the story, but also as a way to examine the double standards of the K-pop industry for male vs. female artists, with an added power differential in that Jason is an artist who has already successfully debuted, while Rachel could lose any chance at a future in the industry if their relationship is revealed. Jason is a sweet character, but fairly blind to the additional pressures faced by the women around him.

While the difficulties of romance in the idol industry is a major plot point for Shine, the complications in Rachel’s other relationships are no less central. Her family has made many sacrifices for her career, and her sister Leah also seems to be harbouring K-pop dreams despite the reservations of their mother. At school and at training, Rachel has friendships and rivalries that shift with her fortunes. Success may mean working with girls she doesn’t like, while leaving behind those who have truly been her friends. Her relationship with her sister is a particular bright spot of comfort and mutual support, but Leah pays her own price for her sister’s choices.

The writing in Shine is a little bit uneven, with a number of awkward transitions, and a few scenarios that are overly contrived. For example, Rachel accidently runs into Kang Jina, a member of the girls group Electric Flower, not once but twice, first on a school field trip, and then again at a street food stand. Jina plays an important role in the story, in that she stands for the worst possibilities of the future Rachel has been fighting for, but her appearances can be a bit on the nose. Rachel is very focused on debuting, believing it will solve all her problems, but Jina’s story reminds the reader that new, bigger problems lie ahead for those who actually succeed.

Shine is the first in a duology, and a second novel called Bright is due out in October 2021, which will take the story out of idol school and onto the stage.

You might also like Tiny Pretty Things 

Wicked Fox

Cover image for Wicked Fox by Kat ChoKat Cho

ISBN 9781984812353

“Gu Miyoung’s relationship with the moon was complicated, as are most relationships centered around power.”

Gu Miyoung has recently moved to Seoul with her mother, and started school as a perpetual transfer student. Miyoung is half-human, half-gumiho, the nine-tailed fox spirit of legend, which preys upon men in order to retain immortality. Miyoung is used to being a loner, but something goes wrong her very first hunt in Seoul, when she encounters a dokkaebi, a sort of goblin. Only the interference of a human boy helps her save herself, although she also saves the boy. But in the fight, she expels her yeowu guseul, the fox bead that is the essence of the gumiho. The boy, Anh Jihoon, touches the bead, forging an unintentional connection between them. Miyoung hopes that she can ignore the boy, and focus on figuring out how to reabsorb her bead, but then she lands in class with Jihoon, forcing them to face their newfound connection.

Parent-child relationships form an important part of Wicked Fox, and Miyoung has long had a rift with her mother, Gu Yena, over the method of feeding that keeps gumiho alive. Yena extracts the life force, or gi, from men by consuming their livers. Miyoung will only hunt on the full moon, when she can siphon the gi painlessly from her victims, sparing them a violent death even if she must take their lives. She has also secretly begun selecting her victims with the help of a shaman, who can commune with ghosts, and help lay those hungry spirits to rest by having Miyoung avenge their deaths, ensuring that her victims are only the vilest of men. Still, Miyoung is not at peace with what she must do to survive. Although she has trusted her mother implicitly for most of her life, Miyoung cannot tell her the truth about what has happened with her yeowu guseul without putting Jihoon’s life in danger; Yena would not hesitate to eliminate him for knowing too much. Miyoung tries to solve the problem on her own, but she is limited by the secrets that her mother has been keeping from her.

Wicked Fox intersperses the narrative chapters with mythological interludes on the history of the gumiho in general, and Gu Yena in particular. Author Kat Cho engages with the complexity of the gumiho legend, and how it interacts with beliefs about women’s sexuality. When Jihoon asks his halmeoni how the gumiho became evil, she replies that “men fell in love with gumiho because they were beautiful. Then they blamed their adultery on the creatures instead of accepting their own mistakes. Maybe it happened often enough that it became normal to say gumiho lured men into cheating on their wives.” Cho also includes a chonggak dokkaebi, a male goblin that attracts women in a similar way, balancing out the mythologies.

Although Miyoung and Jihoon form a romantic attachment, Wicked Fox is about interpersonal relationships in many forms. Jihoon has a close relationship with his grandmother, but is estranged from his mother, who abandoned him when he was young, and eventually started a new family. He also contends with how the secrets he keeps for Miyoung impact his friendships with his human friends Changwan and Somin. Cho cautions that “love and lies do not mix well,” and this plays out again and again across all kinds of relationships. For her part, Miyoung has only ever been allowed to be close to her mother, but she is drawn into Jihoon’s group at school despite her efforts to keep them at arm’s length. Miyoung sees her own monstrousness in the things she must do to survive, but fails to consider that “isolation is the enemy of humanity. Loneliness is a threat to empathy.”

Wicked Fox builds to the climax I was expecting by the midpoint of the book, then takes a turn for the second half, widening in scope. The ending is left open for a sequel that explores the consequences of the choices Miyoung and Jihoon make, and the losses they have endured.

Spin the Dawn

Cover image for Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim by Elizabeth Lim

ISBN 9780525647010

“You will hold the seams of our family together, Maia. No other tailor in the world can do that.”

As the youngest child and only daughter of Master Tailor Kalsang Tamarin, Maia knows that she will never inherit her father’s title. Not only does she have three older brothers, but the title cannot be held by a woman in her own right. Nevertheless, Maia is the most dedicated to the family’s trade, while her brothers dream of other things. Then war comes to A’landi, and two of Maia’s brothers are taken, and the third severely injured. After five years of fighting, Emperor Khanujin strikes a marriage alliance with the shansen’s daughter, Lady Sarnai, to bring peace at last. In honour of their wedding, a new imperial tailor will be selected, and Kalsang Tamarin is summoned to the Summer Palace to compete for the position. Too broken by drink and grief, Maia’s father has not sewn in years, while her youngest brother is still recovering from the war, and cannot equal his father’s skill anyway. Disguised as Keton Tamarin, Maia answers the call to represent her family, plunged into a world of imperial politics, and impossible challenges set by a reluctant bride who has been sold by her father in exchange for peace. Only with the help of the Lord Enchanter may Maia have a chance to survive the intrigues of the court and prove her skill as the best tailor in the land.

Spin the Dawn in the first in a duology that follows the trials and adventures of Maia Tamarin. Elizabeth Lim has divided the novel into three parts, including The Trial, The Journey, and The Oath. The first part of the book focuses on Maia’s arrival at the imperial court, and the fierce competition for the position of imperial tailor. The incumbent died under mysterious circumstances, and the selection of his successor is looking to be equally fraught. As the youngest candidate without a reputation of her own, Maia is in a weak position despite her evident skill. She has also drawn the attention of the Lord Enchanter, who may know her secret, or have some other reason for watching her so closely. The other tailors are determined to win the post at any cost, and the Lady Sarnai has no interest in making the competition any easier. In fact, it seems that the shansen’s daughter will do anything to delay her marriage to the emperor. After setting a series of impossible challenges in the competition, she throws down the final gauntlet; the winner must gather sunbeams, moonlight, and the blood of the stars in order to sew the three dresses of the Goddess Amana for the imperial wedding.

Lady Sarnai is one of the more interesting characters in the book, but not one that we get much chance to explore deeply, as she disappears from the narrative when Maia leaves on her journey to gather the materials to make the legendary three dresses of Amana. Honestly, I would have been more interested to see what could have come from an alliance between Maia and Lady Sarnai than the romance that is developed in the second half with Maia and the Lord Enchanter. A fierce huntress with ideas of her own, Lady Sarnai has been betrayed by her own father, who promised never to marry her off. She is reportedly in love with Lord Xina, but has been forced into a marriage alliance instead, with a man who has been the enemy of her people. Biased by the differences of a five year war, she and Maia are set at odds where perhaps they could have been allies.

The second part of the book takes Maia out of the palace to gather the magical materials demanded of her impossible task. She is accompanied by Edan, the Lord Enchanter, who has become an unexpected ally but one she does not know much about or have a great deal of reason to trust. However, she needs his magic and knowledge to accomplish her impossible task. Over the course of their journey, Maia comes to understand the nature of Edan’s binding to Emperor Khanujin, and how he has been forced to serve the throne of A’landi for generations. On the road, the two fall in love as they face the dangers of the Halakamarat Desert, Rainmaker’s Peak, and the Forgotten Isles of Lapzur. They are racing against time, as the Lady Sarnai has declared the dresses must be complete by the time the Red Sun rises on the ninth day of the ninth month.

The final part of the book wraps up the challenge of the dresses of Amana, but opens a new challenge for Maia and Edan, surrounded by the circumstances of his oath, and the consequences of the choices they made on their journey. As I was not particularly invested in their relationship, I think that I will be unlikely to finish this series.

You might also be interested in The Star-Touched Queen 

Vampires Never Get Old

Cpver image for Vampires Never Get Old edited by Zoraida Cordova and Natalie C. ParkerEdited by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker

ISBN 9781250230003

“There is no one way to write the vampire. After all, a being with the power to shape-shift should wear many faces and tell many tales.”

Vampires Never Get Old brings together a variety of stars from the world of young adult fiction to provide fresh takes on the vampire story, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion. The collection consists of eleven short stories, each with their own spin on the vampire mythology. To each story the editors add a quick note on the aspects of the vampire tradition used, transformed, or subverted in that tale. The stories include a wide variety of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC protagonists, as well as a fat slayer and a vampire with a disability.

For unique form and dark and creepy vibes, I want to call out “Mirrors, Windows & Selfies” by Mark Oshiro. The story is written in the form of an online diary or blog, but the commenters perceive it as a work of ongoing fiction, which gains in popularity over time. The writer is a young vampire who was born, not made, and although I really hate this trope, I still enjoyed Oshiro’s execution. Cisco has been moved around the country his entire life by his vampire parents, but as he nears adulthood, he begins to question the secrecy and the rules, and wonders why exactly his parents have been keeping him hidden and isolated from vampire society.

Perhaps the most chilling tale is “In Kind” by Kayla Whaley, a dark revenge fantasy in which a disabled teenage girl is murdered by her father, an act which the press dubs a “mercy killing.” Grace then faces the choice about whether to use her new powers to punish her father for what he has done. The story is also notable in that while becoming a vampire makes Grace stronger and more powerful in many ways, it is not able to restore her ability to walk. Her vampirism is empowering, without being a miracle cure for her disability, which is a core part of her identity.

The funniest story belongs to Samira Ahmed, who contributes “A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire.” A brand new vampire wakes up alone in a dark warehouse, and has to undergo Vampire Orientation 101 by Vampersand, a newly minted vampire tech start up for young Indian vampires who have been unexpectedly turned by careless British vampire tourists. Filled with snark and anticolonial bite, this was the only story that made me laugh out loud.

Most of the stories stand alone well, but several had strong potential as novel starters. In particular, I would definitely read a f/f novel with a vampire and a slayer, something that Julie Murphy explores in “Senior Year Sucks,” and which Victoria Schwab also features in her tale, “First Kill.” However, the stand out in this regard was absolutely “The House of Black Sapphires” by Dhonielle Clayton, in which the Turner women return to New Orleans’ Eternal Ward after centuries away. Descended from vampires, but distinct, Eternals can only be killed by Shadow Barons, but none of the Turner girls have ever met one until they return to their mother’s home in New Orleans, and discover that their mother was once in love with a Shadow Baron herself. This story had atmosphere and world-building potential galore, and I would dearly love to read an entire novel set in this world.

Vampires Never Get Olds marks a delightful return to the mythology of vampires, filled with unique tales and fun little extra nuggets. Read through the author bios to find out each contributor’s favourite vampire, and check out the copyright page for a vampire-themed book curse! If like me you’ve been missing vampires, this collection might just quench your thirst, at least for a while.

For more vampires, you might also like:

Urban Fantasy Vampires

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Certain Dark Things 

I Kissed Alice

Cover image for I Kissed Alice by Anna Birchby Anna Birch

Illustrated by Victoria Ying

ISBN 978125021986-2

“The fact that life is just throwing us together should feel like fate, but instead all I have is an impending sense of doom.”

Friends. Lovers. Competitors. Rhodes, Sarah, and Iliana are all students at the Alabama Conservatory of the Arts and Technology, a speciality high school. Rhodes is the award-winning model student, and Sarah is her roommate. Sarah and Iliana have been best friends since childhood, and they transferred to the Conservatory together, even though they don’t share the privileged background of most of the school’s students. But their friendships are challenged by one complicated fact; Rhodes and Iliana hate one another, and they are in fierce competition for the Capstone Award, which includes a scholarship to the local college of art and design. Hard-working Iliana is furious that rich, talented Rhodes might snatch the scholarship she so desperately needs. What she doesn’t know is that Rhodes is battling depression, and a creative block that is threatening to destroy her academic career and her future. Unbeknownst to them both, they share a secret online life on Slash/Spot, a fanfiction site where Curious-in-Cheshire and I-Kissed-Alice are co-creators of an Alice in Wonderland-inspired comic. But their feelings for one another might go beyond creative collaboration, if they were ever to meet in real life…

I Kissed Alice is told in alternating first person chapters, switching perspectives between Rhodes and Iliana. The chapters occasionally conclude with a comic by Victoria Ying, capturing the story of Alice and the Red Queen that Iliana and Rhodes are unknowingly collaborating on. The comics were amazing, and would have loved to see more of them included in the book, preferably in colour! Birch also uses, chat, the Slash/Spot comments, and text messages to flesh out the story. I enjoyed the fandom aspect of the book, and the intense connection Rhodes and Iliana both feel to Alice in Wonderland, as well as their f/f take on it in their comic.

The tone of this book was a little bit heavier than what I expected from the publisher’s summary and the cover art, all of which suggested a light enemies-to-lovers romp. However, the book deals with complex themes including unhealthy relationships of various types, and a protagonist who is battling with significant depression. Rhodes is wealthy and seems to have everything Iliana wants, but beneath the well-polished surface, she is dealing with a mother who is a functioning alcoholic determined to control her future, and stifling a depression that has choked off her ability to create any art other than her comic with Curious-in-Cheshire. She is drowning in the expectations of others. Meanwhile, Iliana has lost out on one scholarship after getting into trouble with Rhodes and Sarah, making for a bitter competition for the Capstone Award, which she desperately needs to afford college. Both Iliana and Sarah work part-time at a diner in addition to their studies, struggling to purchase the necessary art supplies for all their classes. Studying art at college seems even further out of reach.

Although I Kissed Alice is an enemies-to-lovers story, it is lacking in sizzle, tension, and banter. Iliana and Rhodes mostly make themselves, and Sarah, miserable with their bickering and in-fighting. The narration alternates between Iliana and Rhodes, but the perspective I felt was really missing was Sarah, who is the real life bridge between the two, and often caught in the crossfire of their arguments. Given the significant role she plays in the story, I really wanted to understand her point-of-view better, particularly towards the end of the book. Friendship is just as important to this book as romance, so Sarah not having a voice in the narrative somewhat limits that exploration.