Don’t Expect Magic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Delaney Collins knows that happily ever after is a joke. Things don’t end happily and she certainly isn’t living in a fairy tale. Not when her mom is dead and she is being forcibly moved across the country to live with her life coach father “Dr. Hank” in California.

Some happy ending.

Life in California is not what Delaney expected.  Everything is bright and shiny. Keeping a low profile at school is impossible when everyone from head cheerleader Cadie to yearbook geek Flynn wants to be her friend. (Until she disabuses them of such notions at least.) And Dr. Hank is keeping a secret about what he really does to help his “clients” in need of life coaching.

A really big secret.

Turns out Dr. Hank is really a fairy godmother–granter of wishes, inhabitant of fairy tales everywhere. And the fairy godmother condition is hereditary. Meaning Delaney Collins, the girl with the fierce attitude and boots to match is a fairy godmother with wishes of her own to grant. If she can ever get the hang of her powers, that is.

As Delaney struggles to help her first client she realizes that sometimes even a fairy godmother needs a wish of her own in Don’t Expect Magic (2011) by Kathy McCullough.

Don’t Expect Magic is McCullough’s first novel.

This story is really sweet hold the saccharin. Delaney is a no nonsense narrator with great taste in footwear even if it does take her a while to develop her taste for good friends. McCullough’s writing is spot-on capturing Delaney’s initial surly mood as well as her transformation throughout the story.

Though I would have loved more background about fairy godmother-ness, Don’t Expect Magic remains a clever reinterpretation of one of the most ubiquitous fairy tale characters of all time. In addition to having a fun setting and premise, this book shines as a story about adapting and moving on–even when it’s the last thing you want to do.

Part modern fairy tale, part journey Don’t Expect Magic is a delightful book for anyone waiting for their happy ending. (And even anyone who already has their happy ending too.)

Possible Pairings: Waiting For You by Susane Colasanti, Donorboy by Brendan Halpin, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Reece Malcolm List by Amy Spalding

Every Other Day: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (2011)

After reading and loving Barnes’ Trial by Fire I decided to pick up Barnes’ latest (standalone) book even though the mechanics of Kali’s day-to-day change gave me pause. My expectations were probably too high and too reliant on comparisons to Barnes Raised by Wolves series.

Kali’s shift every other day between human and more than human was a great premise and made for an interesting premise. No one writes tough, action-ready heroines better than Barnes. That said, having Kali transform every other day into a super hunter made it really hard to connect with her character even as I wanted to sympathize with her feelings of being torn in two by the constant changing.

The pieces just didn’t come together as well as I wanted them to between slow pacing in the beginning and an ending that felt unsatisfying. While the alternate history Barnes created is genius, the characters and story did not stand up to the Raised by Wolves standard. This book does still have all of the pieces for a great action-filled, girl power-ed story. It will appeal strongly to fans of Buffy, adventure, and Barnes’ signature mix of sharp-tongued heroines and action.

Virtuosity: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Carmen Bianchi should have one thing and only one thing on her mind right now: winning the Guarneri competition. Technically, the Guarneri violin competition has already been on Carmen’s mind for years. She has fame, she has a Grammy. But victory at the Guarneri has always been the final target–the last step to confirm her ascent from talented prodigy to a true virtuoso, a real talent.

Except Carmen is losing focus.

Carmen’s mother channels all of her own career aspirations into managing Carmen’s professional life while micro-managing her personal life. That used to be fine. But now Carmen isn’t so sure why she is playing. Struck with painfully acute stage fright isn’t even sure she’s good enough.

Not after she hears Jeremy King play.

With the Guarneri finals fast approaching, both Carmen and Jeremy know the real competition is between two violinists: them. Carmen has every reason to hate Jeremy, every reason to stay away from him. She knows that. She also knows she can’t stay away when Jeremy is the one person who might really understand her.

As what should be her finest hour approaches, Carmen has to decide if a win playing the violin is worth more than finding her own voice in Virtuosity (2011) by Jessica Martinez.

Virtuosity is Martinez’s first novel. Martinez began playing the violin herself at the age of three. She has worked both as a symphony violinist and as a violin teacher.

With a book so grounded in the main character’s passion there is always the risk of getting lost in technical jargon or simply atmosphere, particularly when the author is already an expert in the field. One of the biggest strengths of Virtuosity is that the story remains centered around Carmen as a character instead of Carmen as a violinist.

With snappy prose and competitive passion, Virtuosity is an interesting story about the difference between fostering a talent and quashing it. There are no easy answers for Carmen and the choices she faces throughout the novel which is part of what makes this book such a gripping read. Martinez’s characters are well-drawn and authentic from their talents and wants right down to their flaws. Virtuosity is as complex as it is engrossing.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, Where She Went by Gayle Forman, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach, Virtuosity by Hilary T. Smith, Rx by Tracy Lynn

You can also read my exclusive interview with Jessica Martinez starting April 2, 2012!

Lola and the Boy Next Door: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Lola Nolan’s New Year’s resolution was to never wear the same outfit twice.

She wants to attend the winter formal dressed like Marie Antoinette, but not quite. She wants a wig so big a bird could live in it. She wants a dress so wide that she’ll need to enter through a set of double doors. She also wants everyone to see that she’s punk-rock tough under the frills when they notice her platform combat boots.

She wants her parents to approve of her boyfriend, Max. Sure, Max is twenty-two and Lola is seventeen. But so what? Her father Nathan was significantly younger than her other dad, Andy, when they started dating. Isn’t that further proof that Max is the one? Not so much according to Nathan and Andy.

Lola also never ever ever wants to see the Bell twins ever again. Ever.

When a moving truck rolls up next door, Lola realizes she isn’t going to get what she wants. Not where the Bell twins are concerned anyway.

After steamrolling through Lola’s life two years ago, Cricket Bell–aspiring inventor and snappy dresser–is back along with his talented, figure-skating twin sister Calliope. While Calliope chases an elusive spot at the Olympics, Cricket is starting college and seems to be chasing . . . Lola.

But Lola doesn’t care about Cricket anymore. She wants different things now. Things like her boyfriend Max and her Marie Antoinette dress. And that’s enough.

Except it really isn’t. After years spent wanting to never see the boy next door ever again, Lola is starting to wonder if she’s been wanting all of the wrong things in Lola and the Boy Next Door (2011) by Stephanie Perkins.

Lola and the Boy Next Door is a companion to Perkins’ debut novel Anna and the French Kiss.* (Readers of both books might recognize some characters from the first book in this one but it’s most definitely a standalone if you want it to read this one first.)

As much as I enjoyed Anna and her story, I loved Lola so much more. With her vibrant outfits and quirky personality Lola is all win. With their witty banter (not to mention having style in spades), Lola and Cricket shine as a couple you’ll want to root for–even when Lola’s own feelings are mixed at best. Perkins vividly recreates San Francisco in the pages of Lola and the Boy Next Door with well-realized settings that complement her dimensional characters.

Without revealing too much, Perkins takes what could have been a conventional romantic story in a different direction with the pacing and structure of the story as well as some clever diversions with other characters. Combined with Lola’s obvious transformation throughout the story all of that makes Lola and the Boy Next Door a book well worth checking out.

*The final companion Isla and the Happily Ever After is due out in 2013 and if it goes the way I think it’s going to go–it is going to be soooooooo awesome!

Possible Pairings: North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, When It Happens by Susane Colasanti, Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, Don’t Expect Magic by Kathy McCullough, After the Kiss by Terra Elan McVoy, Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altedbrando

Bunheads: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward is not a ballerina, not yet anyway. A dancer with the Manhattan Ballet Company, Hannah knows this is her year to finally land a coveted promotion from corps dancer to soloist. It has to be. Recruited by the Company when she was fourteen, Hannah has been working toward this singular goal for her entire life.

On a rare night off, Hannah meets a pedestrian–a non-dancer–named Jacob. A free-spirited musician, Jacob’s life is everything Hannah’s is not, filled with freedom from the regimen and commitments being a professional dancer entails.

As Hannah spends more time with Jacob and moves closer to her ballerina dream, she starts to wonder if ballet really is enough. It always had been before, but now Hannah isn’t so sure. Ballerinas are supposed to dedicate themselves to dance, but Hannah might be ready to dedicate her life to other pursuits in Bunheads (2011) by Sophie Flack.

Bunheads is Flack’s first novel. It was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction.

As a novel, Bunheads falls short in several areas. Informed by her own experiences as a professional dancer (Flack danced with the New York City Ballet from 2000 to 2009) much of the novel feels indulgent and more like an exercise in wish-fulfillment on the author’s part than an actual story.

Hannah and Jacob’s immediate connection never feels authentic which raises questions about both character’s behavior throughout. Combined with a meandering, slow-paced plot the book often lacks the verve to keep things interesting.

With Hannah and her friends being wholly consumed by dance, there is little room for character development. There are even fewer opportunities to make the characters distinguishable from each other as all of the dancers, Hannah included, feel interchangeable for much of the novel.

Where Bunheads really shines is in setting the scene for Hannah and her world. Flack brings a professional eye to the story, expertly conjuring the narrow world of a corps dancer that is filled both with grueling monotony and brief moments of wonder found on the stage.

Bunheads is a moderately entertaining reminder of both the passion andthe commitment that being a professional dancer demands. It is easy to admire the glitter and tutus of a ballet. This book reminds readers to remember the stamina and strength that makes every ballet look effortless on stage.

Finally, and perhaps unexpectedly, Bunheads is a beautiful example of the bravery it takes to dedicate years to a specific plan only to choose a completely different path leading into uncharted territory. A must read for ballet enthusiasts, athletes, and anyone trying to strike out on their own–even if they don’t know exactly where they will be striking just yet.

Possible Pairings: So Much Closer by Susane Colasanti, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten, Starry Nights by Daisy Whitney, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

Exclusive Bonus Content: How cool is that cover? I love that at first glace it looks like a geometric pattern until you realize it’s actually many ballet dancers. So clever.

Stupid Fast: A Review

Felton Reinstein is not stupid funny much as he would like to be. Even people who like him don’t laugh at his jokes, forget the people who don’t like him. Until his voice dropped and he hit a major growth spurt, Felton wasn’t anything special.

Then he started growing. The he got fast. Felton Reinstein is not a fast name. But Felton is stupid fast all the same.

In the span of one surreal summer Felton has a chance to remake himself. He can stop being the kid with the weird mother and the prodigy-piano-player little brother. He can stop hanging out with the Peter Yangs of the world and show everyone (especially that jerk Ken Johnson) what he’s really made of.

Maybe Felton can even impress the beautiful girl he finds on his borrowed paper route. He might even be able to find his place in his miniscule town and his own family. This is the summer Felton Reinstein finally knows he’s fast. This is the summer Felton Reinstein goes from joke to jock in Stupid Fast (2011) by Geoff Herbach.

Stupid Fast was a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction. It was also selected as the winner for the 2011 Cybils in YA Fiction by myself and my fellow judges.

This is one of those books that has the potential for strong appeal along with a unique voice. The atmosphere of the book is top-notch conveying both a sense of small town pride** and team camaraderie that, I imagine, is what a sports team is supposed to look like.

Unfortunately, it also took a really long time for the story to actually start. Felton talks a lot in the beginning about growing hair and growing taller. Instead of the emphasis on that it would have been nice to get right to the plot soon instead of having Felton tease readers with foreshadowing or coy asides.

Felton and the plot pull themselves together during the second half of the story, but whether that is enough to hold a reader’s interest is a matter of personal taste. I’m still not sure I would have been invested enough to finish had I found this book on my own time.

Stupid Fast really does have a lot going for it though. A sports story told by a boy who doesn’t think he’s an athlete* this book never gets lost in sports jargon. The book remains approachable even when the focus shifts to football during key scenes. Felton is a fun narrator with his own quirks and occasional charms. Stupid Fast has a lot of heart after its rocky start.

*Despite the raw talent, Felton does not actually know how to play football. Shh, don’t tell the coach!

**Eventually, granted.

Possible Pairings: Bunheads by Sophie Flack, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill, Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber, Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith

Everybody Sees the Ants: A Review

There are some things you need to know about Lucky Linderman.

First: His mother is a squid. She swims more than two hundred laps every day. No matter what. Even when Lucky has some new bruises courtesy of Nader McMillan or her husband once again flakes on his familial duties.

Second: His father is a turtle. Lucky’s grandfather never came home from Vietnam and Lucky’s dad never recovered. He spends all of his time hiding in his shell or working at the restaurant instead of actually being a father.

Third: Lucky doesn’t smile. Ever. Not since asking one stupid question for one stupid project in Social Studies (the class actually isn’t stupid–Lucky kind of likes it). He is definitely not going to smile since that one stupid question brought him nothing but trouble and the renewed hatred of Nader McMillan.

Fourth: Ever since Lucky was seven he’s been having strange dreams. Now the dreams are his only refuge as he spends each night in the war-torn jungles of Laos trying to finally bring his grandfather home from the war he could never leave.

But even dreams that seem as real as Lucky’s can only last so long before it’s time to really wake up in Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King.

Everybody Sees the Ants is King’s follow-up to her Printz Honor book Please Ignore Vera Dietz. It was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction which is how I came to read it.

There are certain books that I enjoy upon first reading them. But the more I think about them, the more I really look at all of the little details, the more problems I have. Everybody Sees the Ants was that kind of book.

While not actually a mystery, Everybody Sees the Ants is structured in such a way that readers do not initially get a linear story nor do they get the full story. Anyone looking for a puzzle to put together will enjoy the multiple angles of this book. Lucky is a shockingly authentic* narrator with a voice and story all his own. King’s writing is painfully intense and quirky as Lucky drags readers through dense Laos jungle and the even deeper problems of his own life.

Unfortunately these strengths are not complemented by the book’s plot which is filled with numerous holes and seemingly random details that added little to the plot itself. Without delving into specifics, King never fully explains the nature of Lucky’s dreams which creates a fundamental problem with the structure of the book. Similarly, readers never really understand why one teenaged boy is able to not only bully but literally terrorize an entire town with absolutely no intervention from any adults or the authorities.** Other moments were easily predicted or simply heavy-handed as King was at pains to make certain points about Lucky’s relationships with his parents and the world at large.

If you aren’t looking for a book that needs to answer all of your questions or stand up to a close reading, Everybody Sees the Ants might still appeal.

*Unlike me, you probably already knew that King was a female author. I didn’t know that while reading the book and was completely floored to find out A. S. King was not a man. That’s how authentic Lucky’s voice is in this story.

**I maintain my stance that Nader should have been institutionalized as a psychopath long before the events of this book started.

Possible Pairings: Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, A Trick of the Light by Lois Metzger, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

Exclusive Bonus Content: One of the biggest problems I had reading this book is one most readers will not have. Fantastical things happen to lucky throughout the course of the story. These things are called elements of magical realism but, for me, they pushed the book firmly into the fantasy genre. While judging this book as a potential winner in the Cybils’ YA Fiction category, that became a problem for me. I struggled with whether something fantastical was really happening or if Lucky was just delusional. Because if Lucky is really that delusional, how can a reader believe anything else he says? If you expect an answer to that kind of question this is not the book for you.