I’m sharing another instalment of my Mini Review Mondays, the most recent of which was last week. In case you haven’t seen any of my previous posts, I do ‘mini’ reviews of books that I’ve read, loved and usually promised to review ages ago.
Today, I’m talking about three summer releases that should definitely be on your radar.
First up, I’d like to talk about the exuberant Pumpkin by Julie Murphy. Thank you so much to Harper 360 YA for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Waylon Russell Brewer is a fat, openly gay boy stuck in the small West Texas town of Clover City. His plan is to bide his time until he can graduate, move to Austin with his twin sister, Clementine, and finally go Full Waylon, so that he can live his Julie-the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music-Andrews truth.
So when Clementine deviates from their master plan right after Waylon gets dumped, he throws caution to the wind and creates an audition tape for his favorite TV drag show, Fiercest of Them All. What he doesn’t count on is the tape accidentally getting shared with the entire school. . . . As a result, Waylon is nominated for prom queen as a joke. Clem’s girlfriend, Hannah Perez, also receives a joke nomination for prom king.
Waylon and Hannah decide there’s only one thing to do: run—and leave high school with a bang. A very glittery bang. Along the way, Waylon discovers that there is a lot more to running for prom court than campaign posters and plastic crowns, especially when he has to spend so much time with the very cute and infuriating prom king nominee Tucker Watson.
Waylon will need to learn that the best plan for tomorrow is living for today . . . especially with the help of some fellow queens. . . .
Publication Date: 27th May
TW: homophobia, bullying, fatphobia
Pumpkin is fundamentally about finding your place in the world and owning it. It’s a joyful, exuberant celebration of being out and proud and living your best life, despite the world around you trying to push you down.
This is a coming of age tale that deals with messy relationships, sibling bonds and trying to figure out where you want to go in life. It’s got that lightness of touch, adding fluffy and adorable moments into a story with real heart and soul. Plenty of people have stood in Waylon’s glittery shoes and been unsure as to what their next step should be. I loved how Murphy fully embraces that indecision and desire to be bigger than the small town you’ve grown up in.
Waylon himself is a fabulous protagonist. His voice is genuinely funny, producing some laugh out loud moments, but it’s also tinged with vulnerability and a desire to be loved for every part of himself. As a plus size gay man, there’s facets of his idenity that other s wish to diminish and push down. Murphy presents us with a celebration of himself in every way by the end. I also really enjoyed Waylon’s exploration of drag and references to a certain huge TV show. It exposes some of the flaws in the show and standards set within some of the queer community that are exclusive and demeaning. The criticisms are impactful and leave room for change to occur. The community that Waylon finds for himself with drag and local drag queens produced some of the most heart-warming moments of the book. He just feels totally accepted and his performance scenes were some of my favourite. You could just feel that love for the craft and sheer adrenaline explode off the page.
Around Waylon is a cast of exciting, three-dimensional characters that I quickly fell in love with. Murphy also cleverly brings together characters and plot threads from her previous books, making for some fun cameos and resolution to other storylines. It felt like a cohesive universe in this one small town, full of character, verve and tenacity. These are people ready to step out into the world and change it to be a better one.
Pumpkin leaves you with a spring in your step and an extra glow of warmth in your heart.
Next up, I’d like to talk about the stunning These Feathered Flames by Alexandra Overy. Thank you to both Laura Gianino at Inkyard Press and Harper 360 YA for sending me an eARC in exchange for an honest review.
A queer retelling of “The Firebird,” a Russian folktale
When twin heirs are born in Tourin, their fates are decided at a young age. While Izaveta remained at court to learn the skills she’d need as the future queen, Asya was taken away to train with her aunt, the mysterious Firebird, who ensured magic remained balanced in the realm.
But before Asya’s training is completed, the ancient power blooms inside her, which can mean only one thing: the queen is dead, and a new ruler must be crowned.
As the princesses come to understand everything their roles entail, they’ll discover who they can trust, who they can love—and who killed their mother.
Publication Date: 1st June
TW: Death of a parent, emotional and physical abuse, on page death, violence (full details here)
These Feathered Flames is a thrilling and utterly magical fantasy, unlike any other I’ve read. Overy is definitely one to watch and she has my full attention.
This is a spell-binding and gorgeously told tale. Every page felt like it was infused with some spell to keep me glued to its pages. The level of detail and immersion was excellent and I felt like I was totally swept up in this vast, dangerous world.
I really liked how much this book dealt with the intricacies of court politics. You never really felt like you could trust anyone and for good reason with the amount of backstabbing, duplicitous deals and betrayal on show. I liked how often dialogue sounded like one thing but really meant another. This feels like the type of book I want to pour back over to appreciate every detail over and over again.
A large focus of the book deals with embracing your power in a world that seeks to contain it. Both protagonists face challenging decisions that corrupt their morality and make them question what they’re willing to do in order to survive. This leads to some shocking moments and huge plot twists. Overy excels in this, as she makes both protagonists so compelling that you want to love and support them no matter what. They’re complex, fractured sisters torn between love and duty. The roles prescribed to them from a young age seek to restrict them, but they are so much more than their respective titles.
I also cannot talk about this book without delving into the topic of romance. In a world such as this, romances often come with a tinge of political powerplay. People rarely do something without expecting a favour in return. This makes real romance rare to see, but we do get a glimpse into some beautiful, heartfelt scenes that made me feel all gooey inside. This particular pairing has such great chemistry, brilliant banter and an undeniable connection. The path of true love does not run smooth however and there are plenty of twists and turns found in that story too.
These Feathered Flames is an incredibly strong debut with a gorgeous story of power and love in its many forms, with an ending that will make your jaw drop. All I can say is that the sequel needs to be in my life as soon as possible.
Finally, I’d like to delve into the heartwarming A Pho Love Story by Loan Le. Thank you so much to Louisa Danquah at Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.
If Bao Nguyen had to describe himself, he’d say he was a rock. Steady and strong, but not particularly interesting. His grades are average, his social status unremarkable. He works at his parents’ pho restaurant, and even there, he is his parents’ fifth favorite employee. Not ideal.
If Linh Mai had to describe herself, she’d say she was a firecracker. Stable when unlit, but full of potential for joy and fire. She loves art and dreams pursuing a career in it. The only problem? Her parents rely on her in ways they’re not willing to admit, including working practically full-time at her family’s pho restaurant.
For years, the Mais and the Nguyens have been at odds, having owned competing, neighboring pho restaurants. Bao and Linh, who’ve avoided each other for most of their lives, both suspect that the feud stems from feelings much deeper than friendly competition.
But then a chance encounter brings Linh and Bao in the same vicinity despite their best efforts and sparks fly, leading them both to wonder what took so long for them to connect. But then, of course, they immediately remember.
Can Linh and Bao find love in the midst of feuding families and complicated histories?
Publication Date: 24th June
TW: loss of a loved one, racism, stories of war
A Pho Love Story is an absolutely adorable contemporary romance that you need on your shelves. It just filled me with so much joy and delved into deeper topics amongst the fluffy romance.
I absolutely loved the premise of two competing restaurant families and their children who fall in love, Romeo and Juliet style. I felt like the character dynamics were amazing, with a supporting cast that was fully fleshed out and lovable. There’s an emphasis on wanting to pursue your dreams but being limited by familial expectations and aspirations. It cries out against being forced into a certain box and instead is a rallying cry for breaking free.
The strength and courage needed for this is fully on display in our incredible protagonists. I loved how much both Bao and Linh grew over the course of the story. They weren’t dependent on one another, but they did learn from each other and were so supportive. I felt like their romance grew at a believable pace and the chemistry was natural but undeniable. The complex family history that surrounds them goes beyond duelling restaurants, but I liked how it wasn’t an instantaneous rivals to lovers dynamic. It took time for them to trust each other and unpick what they’d been taught about the other person and their family.
This was such an adorable and lovable story, complete with romance and plenty of mouth-watering food. Every single food description was filled with so much love and warmth. Food is an important staple of cultural heritage and you could feel the pride for the community radiating off the page in each of these descriptions. I felt like I needed the recipes for every dish, but I know they’d be a closely held secret to each family. This book just felt like a warm hug disguised in the shape of a book. It spoke hard truths about the immigrant experience and racism against Asian communities, which were impactful, but it also felt like a love letter to family, heritage and the wider community.
At its core, A Pho Love Story is a story about first love, pursuing your dreams and family. It’s a beautiful book filled with hopes, dreams and wonderful characters.