Queen’s Quality 6 by motomi Kyousuke

I am so glad that Motomi took her story away from “here’s how to clean your house” and toward a more interesting urban fantasy. The series got off to a rocky start and it was clear the theme wasn’t working with QQ Sweeper. So while this new direction is fabulous, it still feels like she is working out the story as she goes. With this sixth volume, we really get a big world opened up and a new arc starting. Motomi’s really amped up the romance as well, which is starting to get intense and reminds me so much of the early days of Dengeki Daisy, before that series became so bloated and sidetracked near the end.

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Story: Fumi will be targeted for her hidden power – something the Genbu clan knows well. When the hidden and secretive Byakko clan takes an interest in her, she knows she must go to them and train/find out more about her forgotten past. With Kyu and Ataru coming along for ‘more training’, Fumi is about to learn what being a ‘sweeper’ is truly about.

With this volume, we get introduced to another clan and a wide range of interesting personalities. As well, Fumi is quite sure that this is her original home clan – and that she will restore more of her memories in the process of being there with the Byakko. Kyu, however, will have it the hardest: constantly having to hide his intense feelings for Fume, afraid she will regain her memory and remember his failure to protect her, and is sorely tested to ensure he is a proper consort for the dark grey queen. Motomi does like torturing her male protagonists.

Ataru is quite fun still and I love that he uses a female form when in the spirit world. I also really like that the cleaning element is all but gone – instead, it turns out that it was an entree into sweeping but that most of the clans use more traditional weapons.

There are hints that there are several big bads who are going to be coming after Fumi in order to use her and her power. There were a lot of ‘attempts’ on her and kidnappings that got a bit old after the first 3 or so. I am hoping that in future volumes, we have less assaults and more battles. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Ao Haru Ride 2 by Io Sakisaka

In this second book of Sakisaka’s slice-of-life feel good series our two protagonists get to know each other a bit better while we also get introduced to the main side characters. While there is nothing new here, Ao Haru Ride does have its own sweet flavor of genki teen girl and somewhat mystifying boy interest, along with their social outcast friendships.

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Story: When Kou offhandedly tells Futaba that she needs to be the change she desires, she finds her arm raised to head the event committee as class representative for the girls. Kou volunteers for no particular reason to be the class representative for the boys and then surprisingly, outcast Yuri, lightheared Aya, and loner Shuko also volunteer. What they don’t realize is that they all have to go on a retreat to hash out the school events for the year. Will these diverse personalities be able to pull together as a team?

Most of the story here is about Kou and Futaba dancing around each other, trying to figure each other out. A seminal moment in the story comes near the end, when Futaba says she doesn’t know if Kou is nice or mean and he doesn’t know if Futaba is brave or weak. Both seem to be trying to figure the other out and it is through the events of the retreat that we get to know them better and they get their answer.

Conflicts within the group are established here: Shuko’s infatuation with a teacher (Kou’s brother), Aya’s infatuation with Shuko, and Yuri mistaking Kou’s help in difficult situations for more than just being helpful. We’ll see these frictions play out over the next few volumes.

In all, Ao Haru Ride has all those special moments and feelings to satisfy those who love slice-of-life romances. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Willful Depravity by Ingrid Hahn

Unfortunately, this was a terrible read for me. Although set in historical England, in no way did the characters act, speak, or do anything from the period. Instead, we have all the mannerisms and dialogue of modern characters (and likely mid teen at best) but in that historical setting. It didn’t work and a lot of huge logic holes didn’t help. I didn’t believe in either of the main characters and certainly didn’t buy their ‘romance’ at all. Honestly, it felt like a fan fiction and one that wasn’t really well researched at that.

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Story: When Patience tells off two snotty debutantes in very graphic language, she catches the attention of the Marquess of Ashcroft. He wants to paint her and she is quite interested to be with a real man instead of having to settle for her ‘dream lovers’. Sex ensues.

So yes, while I do not expect too much of the erotic genre, I really do want to read something that at least attempts to use the historical setting remotely accurately. Otherwise, why not just make this a straight out fantasy setting, where the author can set her own rules. Or, better, just keep it in the present where it belongs. And yes, the cliches are all here – insta-attraction for no apparent reason and our BBW heroine giving her comeuppance while slim-shaming (irony much?) her foes. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Chasing Forever by Kelly Jensen

As with all Kelly Jensen books, here we have another story of two good people making their way in life despite the obstacles placed in front of them. However, this third (and likely last) in the series packs a stronger punch as we have two protagonists fighting to rise above especially daunting setbacks (Brian Kenway’s past and Malcolm Montgomery’s horrifying car accident). I think most readers will resonate with the emotional impact of the story and appreciate that this book was saved for last.

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Brian Kenway is stuck in a smallish Eastern town unsure what he will do with his life. Unable to understand his hurt over his former partner Simon’s happiness, he is resigned to being considered the ‘jerk’ who cheated on Simon repeatedly. Malcolm, meanwhile, is a high school teacher and is recovering from an accident that destroyed his legs. Constantly in pain from physical therapy, he is taking each day one at a time. When they meet, there is a mutual interest. But first Malcolm will have to come to terms with Brian’s past. And Brian will have to deal with the consequences of his teenage nephew showing up one day after being thrown out for being gay.

There are several threads in this last book: Josh, the young nephew of Brian, showing up half frozen and clearly having lived on the street in the Winter. Malcolm dealing with his physical therapy. And an historic building that the two want to try to save from being bulldozed. It makes for a good read and certainly these two protagonists are very nuanced characters whose emotional journey is well written.

I like that there are no super happy endings – things don’t always work out but it is how the characters deal with the successes as well as the disappointments that make this book a quick and diverting read. Throughout the series, Jensen explores themes of fixing past mistakes, getting second chances, and people not always being what they (or others) seem.

In all, a very pleasant series – perfect for Winter reads by the fire or on the beach in Summer. You won’t need to have read the previous books to enjoy any in the series, though of course the cameos are payoffs in each book. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Evolution of Jeremy Warsh by Jess Moore

The title here is appropriate: The Evolution of Jeremy Warsh is a slice-of-1990s-life story of a young man and and how he deals with the big changes that come with the teen years. Author Moore articulates the savageries and confusion of the teen years with surgical accuracy; at times, it was hard to read or even like these characters as they deal with their lives. For me, the story felt flat and somewhat inert – perhaps too true to life.

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Story: Jeremy Warsh is your every-day Ohio teen from the 1990s – working at the local grocery store, helping his single mother make ends meet, dealing with school bullies, and trying to keep up with his capricious best friend Kasey. Jeremy is conflicted though – when he kisses a boy at a party, he starts to understand more about himself and can move on again after the death of his grandfather last year. Things are about to greatly change fro Jeremy in the coming months.

Perhaps for me, I really did not want to remember the high school years of confusion, alcohol, drugs, parties, confusion, and stupid pranks. It’s the part I always hated about teens and reading it again just shut me down. At the part where Jeremy’s best friend is figuring out the best prank ever against the high school and Jeremy just goes along for the ride for want of something better to do, I kind of started to tune out. Perhaps this lacked the impact of e.g., the stoners of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But it is also one of the most candid and realistic portrayal of teens I’ve read in a long time. If for no other reason, this should be a classic because it accurately nails the zeitgeist of the 1990s teen.

There are several side stories that resonate. Most notably, Kasey coming out to her very uptight parents and how, unlike with Jeremy’s mother, it doesn’t go so well. As well, there is best friend Stuart who is hell bent on destroying his last year in high school by spending all his time coming up with stupid prank ideas. In between, Jeremy is bullied and harassed.

It is perhaps in the work setting that this book really feels so grounded. From the slacker coworker who doesn’t remember he has a joint in ear to the manager who is fairly ambivalent. It feels like we have all worked jobs like that at some time or other, though this one is so distinctly 1990s in setting. Life is a big shrug for Jeremy and he’s quite content to let it take him along for the ride.

I think most readers will love the interactions with Jeremy and his overworked but highly caring mother. An early sentence in the book about Jeremy giving her a hug (that she deserves and doesn’t get enough from him) really said a lot about their relationship. It’s a contrast to Kasey’s more conservative parents and we can see the reason why he is so calm and she is so edgy most of the time.

In all, it is a good read but admittedly one I did not enjoy for the reasons given above. It was a bit too painful to remember high school so accurately. As well, seeing teens drinking to oblivion, doing drugs, partying and casual sex – yes, it happens but it’s just not what I am interested in reading about. Others, however, will likely enjoy this book quite a bit because it is one of the few books I’ve read to so accurately capture the 1990s. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Blissful Land 1 by Ichimon Izumi

Blissful Land is a gentle slice-of-life manga set in 18th century Tibet. It features the usual slice-of-life ingredients: sweet main characters, a community/village of gentle souls supporting them, and the dealings with every day life. Yes, it is idealized; but this is manga and you aren’t reading for the realism.

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Story: 13 year old potential herbalist Khang Zhipa is surprised to find a girl brought to the village on the back of a tradesman – the traditional way of transporting a potential bride to her new home. The girl, Rati, is sweet and pretty and very helpful around the house. Zhipa is curious about her but really, he is completely obsessed with his medicinal herbs and succeeding his father as the village doctor. Zhipa may be oblivious to girls but there is always something going on in the village that will help him to get to know his Rati better.

The premise of the story is simple: Zhipa is completely preoccupied with his herbs and then finds he has been affianced to Rati and she is staying with the family until the wedding. So the two will slowly learn about each other: Rati’s love of dyes and textiles and Zhipa’s obsession with herbs. Meanwhile, Zhipa will care for the villagers and they will bring all kinds of slice-of-life issues he will have to solve/cure.

The illustrations are lovely and although no one is going to take this as a true historical, it is an enjoyable read. Sometimes, it is nice to get lost in another time and era and the simpler times therein. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Renewing Forever by Kelly Jensen

This second book in the The Time Forever series is just as good as the first, featuring Frank (best friend of Simon from the first book) and his boyhood best friend Tom. Once again, we have a recurring theme of second chances and protagonists not being what we initially thought – and the ability to look on things differently later in life than when young. I especially liked Tom’s very conflicted character here and how complicated we can make things that are already problematic.

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Story: 30 years after he left, it is the death of his beloved Uncle that brings him back to the resort built by his family and run by his uncle. It is there that he reunites with Tom – the childhood friend who drove him away when he tried to deepen their relationship. He thought he had left it all behind – living a cosmopolitan life of movie stars and travel as a famous journalist. But Tom brings it all back: that and the need to find a ‘home’ amidst all his wanderings.

Frank appeared to be a happy-go-lucky character in the first book – someone with a fond relationship with Simon but who enjoys the parties and travel. What we find with Frank in this book, however, is that he is hiding a broken heart from Tom when they were teens. Tom, meanwhile, is struggling to stay above water: the only child of a capricious and often drug/drink addled single mother, he has always known that the wealthy Frank was meant for better things than him. The heart of the book is Frank coming to understand why Tom chased him away – and Tom being honest with Frank about his true situation.

Because we have complicated characters with a lot of nuance, this made for a great read. As with all of Jensen’s books, we have a characters with a good heart who are dealing with the complications of life. Because both protagonists are older, they are given a different perspective and the chance to fix what they could not when they were younger.

In all, a very enjoyable read and I am looking forward to book three. I always have such a warm and happy feeling after having finished Jenson’s books. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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