Let’s Talk: The Challenges of Reviewing Diverse YA Books

When I first considered discussing this topic, I wondered whether it would be possible to do so, as a white, straight, cis, able, and mentally healthy woman, without sounding like an insensitive and privileged ass. Then again, the point of book blogging is to discuss opinions on book related topics and if we’re afraid to do that, then why blog in the first place? So, I’m going to give it my best shot. Diversity in YA books and how to appropriately review diverse reads is something I’ve thought about a great deal over the past year or so. While there is still a very long way to go, I honestly believe that in recent years there have been great strides made with regards to putting different ethnicities, cultures, sexualities, mental health conditions, and disabilities at the forefront of YA stories and representing them well. Yet, this progress also presents certain difficulties with regards to reviewing.

When an author takes the time to properly showcase the stories of people in a minority or stigmatised group or, better yet, writes an ‘own voices’ novel representing elements of their own experiences, it’s a pretty amazing thing. These kinds of stories deserve to be told and should be encouraged.

But.

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What happens when a novel wonderfully incorporates diversity, but fails to appeal in terms of plot, characters, setting or writing style? These books pose a significant challenge to reviewers. Critique the book heavily and you risk damaging public opinion/book sales, meaning a publisher may pull back on releasing these kinds of stories in the future. Downplay your doubts to focus on praising the book simply for being diverse, and suddenly you’re not being honest. I’ve found myself in this position numerous times since I began blogging and bookstagramming. I want to be able to read books about, and written by, people with different experiences, characteristics, and obstacles. Without them, fiction would be extremely boring. At the same time, I don’t want to boost an author’s work purely because it’s diverse.

In the past, my approach towards reviewing diverse reads has generally been, where possible, to treat the diversity elements and the quality of that representation separately from other major areas e.g. enjoyment of plot, development of characters, etc. Where the book succeeds on all fronts, reviewing is easy. Problems arise where the diverse components are good, but the book fails to satisfy on the other big elements. Having organic, realistic, and well-handled representation is considered a major positive in deciding my overall rating of a book, but at the same time, it’s only one part of the overall picture. Consequently, even wonderfully diverse reads can still end up with an average or not so great final rating.

Looking at book reviews on star ratings alone, this approach could be considered extremely damaging to efforts to expand YA diversity. For this reason, I believe it is extremely important that, as reviewers, we consistently make an effort to discuss diversity/representation in our reviews (where relevant), and to praise elements of good representation even if the review itself is largely negative. In doing so though, we do have to trust that readers will take the time to look at our reviews beyond just the hard number score. At least this way we ensure we remain honest yet still show support for a growing and diversified YA genre.

A few examples of books which have created this challenge for me over the last few years include:

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  • Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeymi: How often do we see West-African inspired YA fantasy books? Not very often, and aside from some confusion over the magic system, I loved the setting/world building in this book. My final rating was a solid 3.5 stars – not bad, but not the glowing highs of the hype train. In the end, this was due to my issues with irrational character behaviour, stretches of boring plot, and unnecessary/forced romance.
  • Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan: GoP&F is a YA fantasy set in a Malaysian inspired world. It features Asian leads and involves a lesbian romance. On that basis alone it ticks great diversity boxes, and yet, my final rating was 2.5 stars. I liked the premise of this book and so badly wanted to rejoice in something that put strong, Asian, lesbian women at the centre of a story. However, from an enjoyment perspective, I couldn’t get past my issues with the worldbuilding, pacing, and inability to connect with the characters.
  • Queens of Geek – Jen Wilde: QoG is a sweet and fluffy YA contemporary. It features a bisexual lead, a plus-sized lead with Asperger’s and anxiety, and a bunch of side characters who are racially diverse and suffer from disabilities. This is a book that screams diversity. Yet, there’s also minimal plot and very simplistic writing, which rendered it only a 3-star read for me.
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Being unable to give these kinds of books glowing reviews is extremely difficult because I genuinely want authors and stories like these to succeed. In many cases, this pressure has even discouraged me from wanting to write a review altogether, especially where the diverse elements are inextricably linked to the major components of the story e.g. American Panda by Gloria Chao. Stories like these make me wonder whether, as someone who does not write reviews for every book they read, I should perhaps direct my attention to reviewing only those diverse reads that I genuinely really enjoy. Then again, an approach like this seems to involve its own problems and depending on what I choose to read could result in reviews of little to no diverse books on my blog.

On the flip side of this is the equally challenging situation of how to a review a book which does well on the enjoyment scale yet fails when it comes to realistic and good quality representation. Are we allowed to like and praise a book even though it handles the treatment of certain groups and experiences badly? While I may have said that good representation is not the ultimate determiner of a review rating, for most reviewers the reverse does not seem to hold true. Fail in your attempts at good representation and half the book reviewing community will roast you alive while the other half grab marshmallows. It’s situations like this in which I’m likely to avoid writing a review and to spend agonising time selecting a star rating on Goodreads. However, in saying this, my biggest worry is not that I’ll like a book that does certain groups a disservice, but that I’ll review it positively without even knowing or picking up on just how bad the representation is.

Despite my ability to sympathise with fictional characters, I do not have detailed knowledge of what life is like for every group out there. I have never experienced depression, I am not from an immigrant family, no one I know has experienced police profiling or brutality, and I have never had to deal with sexuality-based stigma. There are a multitude of things that I have no way of knowing anything about until I (a) meet someone who has first-hand knowledge of these things or (b) I read about them. Being able to pick out the realistic from the skewed is a challenge with diverse reads and makes it difficult as a reviewer to ensure we’re writing an informed review. This then begs the question, am I even qualified to write these kinds of reviews?

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Earlier this week I finished reading All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. This is a book that deals with suicide, depression, PTSD, survivor’s guilt, bipolar disorder, and bullying. At several points during the novel I found myself questioning the realism of how some of these issues were represented. And as usual, when in doubt, I went to Goodreads. Scrolling through the book’s page, I found that there are some people who relate heavily to MC Finch and his experiences with mental health while others who have also experienced depression and attempted suicide take great issue with how these are depicted. This leaves me with more questions than ever – if even those with first-hand experience cannot decide if the representation is good or bad, how in the world am I to know? The only solution I can see to this is to do my own research and determine whether what I’ve read represents the experiences and reality for at least a small component of the chosen represented group, even if it may not represent the majority.

At this point, I’m not entirely sure what the correct way forward is. Perhaps it’s more of a case by case type of issue. In the end, I suppose all we can do is review the books in front of us as honestly and constructively as we can with a sense of self-awareness. We also need to continue to demand better representation of minorities in the things we read and hope that writers continue to put these stories out there and that publishers will help them reach us.

Let’s Talk: What are your thoughts on the difficulties associated with reviewing diverse books? Do you have any similar experiences and if so, how do you deal with them?

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The Fellowship of the Ring Tag

This fabulous Lord of the Rings themed tag (and it’s lovely graphics) comes from Nandini @ Unputdownable Books. As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of the LotR books (too wordy and too much info dumping, although they do have some really wonderful individual quotes, as you can see from this post) but I looooovvveeee the movies so when I stumbled across this, I knew I had to do it. Nandini’s also added in Gollum just to round out the question total.


Gandalf – A Book that Taught You Something

The Harry Potter Series – J. K. Rowling

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I’m going to double down on Nandini’s obvious answer for this one with good old HP. I grew up with this series and I think I learned a lot about bravery, friendship and loyalty from it. Hermione, in particular, taught me a lot about having a great work ethic and not being ashamed of being smart. Luna showcased the fact that it’s okay to be a little bit quirky and not to worry about what others think of you when you have good friends who accept you as you are. From Neville, I learnt that you can still be brave even if you’re scared and that it’s important to call people out on things even if they happen to be friends. Honestly, I could keep going but better not otherwise we’ll be here all day. 

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Frodo – A Book that Left a Mark on You

Sadie – Courtney Summers

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Sadie was such a raw, emotional and unflinchingly honest read. The book goes to some pretty dark and deep places, and tackles some heavy topics. I don’t think I’ve read many things like it. As a result, it really burrowed its way into my thoughts and emotions. Even without the sudden and open ending, I still think this book would have been playing on me for a long time afterwards. It’s definitely not something I’ll easily forget for a long time.

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Legolas – A Book You Finished in One Sitting

The Selection – Kiera Cass

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I find it difficult to get enough time to read books in one sitting because of my schedule but also because the books I read are often a bit too big. So, instead, I’ve picked something I raced through like there was no tomorrow (which also happens to be very short). The Selection is not well written and its main character, America, can be extremely frustrating, but it’s just so darn addictive in its trashy-ness. I mean, it’s the dystopian Bachelor. I had an absolute ball reading this book and finished it in no time at all.  It’s comfort fiction at its best.

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Gimli – A Book that Features an Unlikely Friendship

Zelie & Amari (Children of Blood & Bone – Toni Adeyemi)

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While I didn’t absolutely adore Children of Blood and Bone in its entirety, one of the parts I really enjoyed was the development of Zelie and Amari’s friendship. These two are from very different worlds and part of a social structure that puts them at odds with one another. When the book starts out, Zelie is extremely judgemental and resentful of Amari, treating her like the snobby and useless princess she believes her to be. However, over time she comes to realise that Amari is a lot more than this. Zelie helps Amari to come out of her shell and be brave. In turn, at the end of the book when Zelie needs it most, Amari is there for her and pushes her to stay strong even when it seems like all hope is lost.

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Merry – A Book that Pleasantly Surprised You

Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

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I went into Fangirl thinking it’d be another cute, fluffy YA contemporary book that I’d enjoy but because of the hype would likely end up feeling a bit overrated. In the end, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it (a lot) but especially by the fact that it actually covered some more serious issues like mental health, broken families, and binge drinking. This book gave me some serious fanfiction nostaglia and while I’m not crazy about it like some people are, I wouldn’t say it’s massively overrated. Also, Levi = major love heart eyes.

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Pippin – A Book that Made You Laugh

The Hating Game – Sally Thorne

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Books rarely manage to make me laugh out loud beyond a casual snort, or maybe a slightly heavier breath, but as I mentioned in my recent review, The Hating Game did it on multiple occasions. I just love the banter and snark between Lucy and Josh – they have fantastic chemistry and although the barbs can be brutal on occasion, I can’t help cracking up when the real winners come out. Lucy, as a narrator, also manages to come up with some pretty funny commentary on events, while even some of the situations themselves are just amusing on their own (e.g. paintball warfare).

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Boromir – A Book/Series that You Think Ended Too Soon

Shades of Magic Series – V. E. Schwab**

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Okay, with already three books in this series I’m probably just being greedy. Also, considering the fact that a lot of series go on far too long beyond where they should have finished, Schwab likely did the right thing going out on a high. Still, I want MORE. *spoilers* A Conjuring of Light ends with Kell and Lila going off to explore the world together. Rhy has become king and is back together with Alucard. I would love to have read about Kell & Lila’s adventures, seen more of the world beyond the taste we got in book 3, and found out how Rhy rebuilt Red London/learned how to be a ruler. *end spoilers* I also feel like there’s a whole bunch of questions I’d really like to get answers for, in particular about Kell’s and Lila’s backgrounds.

** Okay, in the process of writing this post, I’ve actually just realised (HOW DID I MISS THIS) that last year Schwab signed a book deal for three more novels set in the same world as ADSOM. It’ll be called Threads of Power *jumps up and down and screams in excitement*. Okay, it’s not a direct sequel but I’ll take it!

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Sam – A Book with Memorable Side Characters Who Stole the Show

The Shadowhunters Books – Cassandra Clare

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Last year I re-read the first two books in this series (I will eventually re-read/read the rest, okay! I’m slow!) and realised that my favourite characters actually weren’t in them as much as I remembered. Over time, I think Cassie realised that although Jace, Clary and Simon were her leads,  people really loved Isabelle, Alec and Magnus, and as a result, they became much more present as time went on. Honestly, Magnus and Alec are so shortchanged in the early books, it’s almost criminal. I’m so glad that over time they got more page time to properly develop their stories and relationships.

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Aragorn – A Good Book with a Bad/Average Cover

Vampire Academy – Richelle Mead

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I’ve mentioned my eternal love for the Vampire Academy books repeatedly on this blog. It’s one of my absolute favourite series (exciting plots, fantastic characters, dramatic and funny writing, fab ships, and a great friendship at its heart) but the one thing I just can’t get behind is the covers. *sigh* Especially the first book in the series. What is it about YA books and their tendency to put random models on covers in awkward or weird positions? Worse, they’ve been recovered a couple of times and can never seem to come up with a winner. Even the 10th-anniversary edition is lacking a wow factor. Just because a book has vampires in it does not mean it has to look seedy.

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Gollum – A Book that had Great Potential but Disappointed You in the End

Sabriel – Garth Nix

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Sabriel is one of those books in fantasy circles that people seem to really talk up and Garth Nix isn’t exactly an unknown author either. The book has an interesting concept, too, and with all this in mind, I thought I’d be in for a really great read. Parts of it were good but on the whole, I had such a hard time getting into it and often found myself bored. The magic system that I’d heard so many amazing things about massively confused me and the world itself just felt a little odd. If there was one thing I did quite like it was Mogget, Sabriel’s massively powerful magical companion trapped in a cat’s body.


And there we have it. Done and dusted. You guys know I’m not one for tagging people but if you’re a LotR fan and would love to do this tag, I highly recommend it- just make sure to link back to Nandini’s original post.

Who’s your favourite member of the fellowship? Mine is definitely Sam – that sweet little hobbit, saving the world with his heart of gold and a frying pan. But if we’re talking movies,  I should also mention that I’m with you, Eowyn – Aragorn is a total dreamboat.

And That’s a Wrap: September Edition

Nine months of 2018 down, only three to go. Somebody pass me some chocolate stat, because I’m freaking out. Anybody got a timeturner? That’d be much appreciated too. No? Okay, well, I better get on with looking back at another month that went all too damn fast.

Books I Read

Other than my first read of the month, September was a bit of a bleh month with a lot middle of the road star ratings. I managed to get through almost all my sister’s TBR picks except for The Poppy War and added in Wildcard (which I was too keen to wait til October for). Overall, seven books isn’t bad and I’m satisfied with the effort for the month.

Sep reads

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – Taylor Jenkins Reid ★★★★★| Review

Gosh, I loved this book. Definitely one of the best novels I’ve read all year. The plot is interesting, the characters are layered and feel real, it’s diverse, the structure is well done…just everything really. A perfect example of fantastic historical fiction!

Howl’s Moving Castle – Diane Wynn Jones ★★★.5

My tendency to like whichever medium I come across first holds true with this one – it turns out that I’m more a fan of the anime film, which is very different to the book. I liked the book, don’t get me wrong, it just felt a little young in style at times and I often found my thoughts wandering. The characters are endearing though and the creativity of the world building is still great.

The Upside of Unrequited – Becky Albertalli ★★★.5

More proof that Becky knows how to write inclusive and sweet stories with relatable characters. The plot is slighly juvenile and it’s not the most compelling one I’ve ever read but with the characters the age they are, I can understand it. I really related to Molly and a lot of her thoughts were ones I’ve had, myself, in the past. The chemistry with her love interest, Reed, was also really adorable. However, the diversity was a little forced at times, a lot of the side characters felt kind of underdeveloped, and I really wish Molly had found her confidence without the help of a relationship.

My Oxford Year – Julia Whelan ★★★★

My sister & I  picked this one expecting it to be light, fluffy chick-lit but about half way through, the book completely changed tone with the reveal of a big secret about the male lead.  I quite liked both Ella, our American MC, and Jamie, her British romantic interest, and the chemistry between the two is great, but I have to say, this book broke my heart a little. The ending isn’t exactly break down in tears sad but it definitely leaves a hole in the chest. Still, I liked that the book encourages you to pursue your passions and make the most of important people and experiences in your life while you have them.

Stormdancer – Jay Kristoff ★★★.5

Normally I’m a big fan of Jay’s books but this one was lacking in a lot of areas for me. I was even tempted to DNF after the first fifty or so pages. The world building is quite complicated and there’s a lot of mish-mashing of different asian inspirations which left me feeling lost. It also takes ages for the story to finally get interesting. After a while though, things did pick up and I ended up having a fairly enjoyable time. The best part is definitely the relationship between the lead, Yukikio, and Buruu, the legendary Arashitora (Thunder Tiger) which gave me major Eragon vibes.

Wildcard – Marie Lu ★★★| Review

I had high hopes for this one after really enjoying Warcross earlier this year. The plot is quite focused, complex and deals with some big ethical questions. Some elements, such as the resolution of the kidnapping storyline, were well done, while others ended up feeling messy and unbelievable. I was let down by Emika’s role, which is largely passive for most of the book, and the ending itself, which felt almost rushed and failed to attribute appropriate consequences to actions/events. The climax of the book managed to recapture some of the magic from book one but overall I was a bit disappointed with this installment. Darn, high expectations! Get yourselves under control!

Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi ★★★.5 or ★★★★ (Depending on End)

Okay, so technically I’m not finished this one yet but I will be by tonight! This book was HUGELY hyped but unfortunately, I just don’t think I’m as on board as everyone else. It’s certainly good in parts and the fact that the world is African-inspired is fantastic, but there’s just a few things that have bothered me. The book starts off really strong but after a while I started to get frustrated with the fact that the characters seem to change attitudes/ideas in the blink of eye – it’s giving me whiplash. I also don’t get why everyone in the core group of characters has to be in a romance with one another. The plot itself also seems to just hit points of being well…kind of boring. I keep varying between feeling like ‘eh’ and then perking up when something engaging, such as the gladitorial-boat sequence or prison break out, happens. Guess I’ll see how this ending goes – apparently there’s a twist.


Books I Bought

September Purchases

This month’s purchase total is a reasonably healthy figure of 6 (+ 2 comics). I’m not feeling too bad about this because I read two of them straight after purchasing and the rest are short YA contemporaries (okay, I’ll Give you the Sun is a little chunkier) so they shouldn’t take very long. I’ve got a few popular ones here and I’m looking forward to seeing what the fuss is all about.

Have you read any of these? Thoughts?


Blog Posts

Another light month. I’ve been low on time and focus.

Top 10 Tuesday

Books by my Favourite Authors, and Authors with the Potential to Become Favourites, that I Still Haven’t Read

Binge-Worthy TV Shows

Discussions

Picking Books to Review

Other Book Reviews

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Miscellaneous

WWW Wednesday | 19.09.18


Hiatus

As you may have seen in last month’s wrap up, I’ve been thinking about taking a hiatus for a little while now and have decided to take it now going into October. Work is quite busy at the moment and it’s been messing up my schedule so finding time to write and edit my posts has been challenging.

A hiatus will also be a nice break for me to think about looking at some of the writing ideas that have come to mind in the last few months which I haven’t had time to do anything with yet. I’m still unsure if I want to tackle NaNoWriMo again this year so this is the perfect time to figure that out. Plus, I think I’d like the chance to do a few other R&R activities for a bit to rest and recharge. I’ll definitely still be around the blogsphere though, reading your wonderful posts!

So until next month…maybe…

Ash

September TBR: My Sister Picks My TBR

I always have a bit of a hard time picking books from the mounds of things I have to read in my bookcase. So, for something different this month, I’ve taken the decision out of my hands and given it to someone else: my sister, Chloe.

Chloe does like to read but unless she’s on holiday, her pace tends to be more in line with a snail or a tortoise. I think she’s been a third of the way through Crooked Kingdom for the past four months. However, she’s got a good idea of the kind of things I like because I tend to talk about them with her. I gave her a list of sixteen of my books (none of which she’s read and some she hasn’t even heard of) and asked her to pick seven. This is what she came up with (using a little help from Goodreads):

Seven Husbands

Chloe says: The concept of this book seems really interesting and I’m partial to a 1950s setting. Also, I like the idea of the contrast between Evelyn and Monique.

Ashley says: I’ve heard so many amazing things about this book and I’m kind of looking forward to something a bit different from my usual YA and fantasy. Plus the cover is gorgeous.

Upside

Chloe says: Becky Albertalli is really good at creating relatable YA characters with contemporary issues that readers can relate to. If this is anything like her other two books, then I’m sure it’ll be good.

Ashley says: I’ve been putting this one off for months now – I keep adding it to the TBR and then not reading it. It’s only a short YA contemporary and I’ve loved both of Becky’s other books so it’s probably a good thing that Chlo’s picked this one.

The Poppy War

Chloe says: I like the idea of the historical setting and the specific aspects of history included in the plot itself. I love an underdog and Rin seems like the best kind of underdog. Screw the elitists. This book also kind of makes me think of Mulan, and I love Mulan.

Ashley says: I haven’t read a lot of Asian inspired fantasy and this one seems really interesting. Chloe and I both love history so it’ll be cool to see how those elements are woven into the narrative. And yes, underdogs are great.

My Oxford Year

Chloe says: Who doesn’t love a good romantic comedy in book form? Also, Oxford. I don’t know why we romanticise high-ranking universities like Harvard, or Cambridge, but I like the idea anyway.

Ashley says: Can’t go wrong with some good chick-lit. I’m hoping this will be a cute one and like Chlo, I kind of like the idea of the British university setting. They are pretty romantic looking old buildings, I guess?

Howl

Chloe says: HELL FUCKIN’ YEAH!

Ashley says: Chloe and I both love the anime adaptation of this book. We quote it constantly so I’m not at all surprised she’s picked this one. I’ve been interested in reading the book for a while so I’m looking forward to seeing how it differs.

stormdancer

Chloe says: You love Jay Kristoff so it makes sense that you’d like this book. Also, I like the title and Australians represent.

Ashley says: I do love Jay Kristoff and I’ve been delaying reading this one for forever. It’s another one I keep adding to my monthly TBRs and then losing motivation for. Time to finally do it.

Children

Chloe says: I’m going to be honest, I love the cover and that’s the main reason I chose this, but having read the description I think it fits the list well, too. I chose quite a few light-hearted ones and I think this adds a little more intensity to the list. Plus, the name Zélie is pretty sounding.

Ashley says: It’s definitely an awesome cover – super badass looking. This is another one I’ve heard rave reviews about and you know I can never resist a popular YA-fantasy. I think it’ll be nice to read another book with non-white leads as well.

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That’s seven! Hopefully Chloe’s picked a few winners but only time will tell.

What’s on your September TBR?

New Additions to my Goodreads To-Read Shelf

I’ve added a few new books to my good reads to-read shelf lately. As usual, so many books and not enough hours in the day, week, month, LIFETIME.

I read recently that we’re likely to die without having read all the books we want to read. How damn sad is THAT *cries* but it’s a perfect reason not to waste time on things you aren’t enjoying or don’t want to read. In other words, DNF all you like!

On that depressing note, here are some of the most recent additions to my virtual shelf (notice I haven’t bought them yet, because I’m being good this month.)


City Of BrassYou guys know I can’t resist good quality fantasy. Plus, pretty cover.


Song of AchillesI’ve heard so many good things about this and Circe, and it pops up on bookstagram all the time. A bit of Greek history, a little romance, some battles – seems like a good combo to me!


Dread NationA badass female lead, another historical setting, and zombies. I am so there.


WinterOne more book to go! I’m so close guys. This one is the biggest of the series but the books are so much fun that time flies by. Here’s hoping for an enjoyable conclusion.


To Kill a Kingdom

Sirens. Little Mermaid re-imaginings. Sounds pretty damn cool. Also, 4.1 average GR rating. So yep, doing it.


Children of Blood and Bone

Alright. I cave to peer pressure. It’s happening. I’ll do it. I can’t deal with everyone going on about how amazing it is. Stupid FOMO. Also, magic.


The Lady's GuideThe Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was a lot of fun. The sequel should be just as enjoyable. Plus, Felicity was definitely the brains of the operation in book 1 so it’ll be good to see her on her own adventure. Unfortunately this one doesn’t come out until October so there’s still a while to wait.


What was the last book you added to your Goodreads to-read shelf?

Love Ashley