The Strange Maid: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“In a week and a half I’ll be seventeen. It’s a decade since I climbed the New World Tree, since Odin Alfather, god of the hanged, named me the next Valkyrie of the Tree, and still I have not won my place on the Valkyrie council.”

The Strange Maid by Tessa GrattonSigny Valborn dedicated herself to Odin when she was seven years old. She was told one day she would join Odin’s Valkyrie council and fill the long vacant place of the Valkyrie of the Tree. That was before she read the riddle. Before she left her Death Hall and her sister Valkyrie behind.

The Valkyrie of the Tree will prove herself with a stone heart. Signy knows that is her riddle. But after traveling far and wide through New Asgard for years, she is no closer to finding an answer.

Until a mysterious troll hunter named Ned Unferth appears with a proposal. Ned speaks in riddles as well as ancient poetry and truths that feel more like lies. But he promises Signy that a greater mountain troll holds the answer to her riddle and offers to train Signy to hunt them. Signy has never been so close to her future and has little choice but to accept Ned’s help.

Their winding journey will take Signy to the wilds of Canadia and beyond. Along the way she will cross paths with a lone berserker named Soren Bearstar, a monstrous troll mother, and the truth behind the destiny she was promised so long ago in The Strange Maid (2014) by Tessa Gratton.

The Strange Maid is the second book in Gratton’s Songs of New Asgard (United States of Asgard) series. It is preceded by The Lost Sun. Both books function very well as stand-alone titles however, because of timeline and character overlap, The Strange Maid does include some spoilers for The Lost Sun if you choose to read the books out of order.

Gratton once again delivers a perfect blend of myth and fantasy in this engrossing tale. Signy is a sharp, wild narrator with strong opinions and a vibrant love of poetry that comes through in every word of her frank narration. Ned, Signy’s mysterious companion for much of the novel, is a perfect foil as Signy is forced again and again to re-evaluate what she knows (or thinks she knows) about her chosen path.

The Strange Maid is a vivid story about the power of choice as well as an ode to the strength of well-chosen friendships. References to Beowulf and other Norse tales will bring these older myths to life for new readers.

Ideas of causality as well as free will are also artfully explored in this remarkable second book in a trilogy that promises even greater things to come.

Possible Pairings: Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Curiosities by Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater and Brenna Yovanoff, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Clariel by Garth Nix, Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Beowulf

You can also check back for my interview with Tessa starting tomorrow!

Afterworlds: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Afterworlds by Scott WesterfeldDarcy Patel has put everything on hold to be a writer. A real, published writer. She moves to New York City with a contract to publish her novel “Afterworlds” and its as yet unwritten and untitled sequel, part of her advance, and the dazzling title of soon-to-be debut author.

Darcy does not have plans for college. She does not have an apartment. She does not have any idea what happens next.

But somehow, in the world of writers–both seasoned and new–Darcy finds her people. Over the course of one tumultuous year in the city Darcy will learn about writing, publishing and even love. More than anything, she’ll learn if she has what it takes to really do this thing that she loves so much.

Interspersed with Darcy’s story is the story that brought her to New York in the first place: Afterworlds. After surviving an unthinkable attack, Lizzie realizes she has the ability to slip into the afterworld–somewhere that exists between life and death. With her new ability, Lizzie discovers that ghosts are everywhere as are other, darker things. Everyone seems to want something from Lizzie but even her new gifts might not be enough to keep those she loves safe.

Darcy and Lizzie’s worlds blend together in this story about facing your fears and finding yourself in Afterworlds (2014) by Scott Westerfeld.

The first thing to know about Afterworlds is that it reads like two books. Odd numbered chapters focus on Darcy’s “real world” story of moving to New York and revising Afterworlds. Even numbered chapters detail the “story within the story” of Lizzie and her journey into the afterworld. While this book clocks in at over 600 pages (hardcover) really it’s two stories–two books even–in one both told to excellent effect.

In addition this book features a truly diverse cast in a casual/accepted way. While it’s important to the story, the diversity never becomes the story.

The premise sounds too lofty. It sounds highly un-writerly. A novel about writing a novel? With the full text of that self-same novel? Surely it can’t work. Yet Westerfeld pulls it off beautifully. Although the story is highly self-aware (and often very meta), every detail works here. Darcy’s new experiences feed into her revisions of Afterworlds. Her growth as a young woman and author mirrors Lizzie’s growth. Both girls, in their respective arcs, accomplish great things.

While not for everyone, Afterworlds is astonishingly successful on every level. Sure to have high appeal for all aspiring authors or sci-fi/fantasy fans. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Strange Maid by Tessa Gratton, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Archived by Victoria Schwab, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

*This book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher at BEA14*

Now and Forever: A Review

Now and Forever by Susane ColasantiEven before he started to blow up, Sterling could not believe that Ethan picked her to ask out. Even before he hit a million followers, before his single started airing on the radio, before the concerts and the sold out tour destinations, Sterling knew she was so incredibly lucky to have Ethan Cross as her boyfriend.

Ethan and Sterling click in a way Sterling didn’t think possible. As much as she loves performing culinary experiments and correcting egregious grammatical errors in signs, Sterling loves spending time with Ethan more. As great as hanging out with her friends is, hanging out with Ethan is better.

Then Ethan’s music starts getting noticed and suddenly Ethan is a hot commodity thrown head-first in the world of fame and celebrity. Sterling, much to her initial dismay, is thrown in right beside him.

Ethan is getting compared to Michael Jackson and getting more famous by the second. Meanwhile Sterling finds herself appearing next to Ethan in countless tabloid photos, traveling around the country to catch his sold out shows, and even garnering a small following of her own.

Between her hot boyfriend, the sudden fame, and the free couture, Sterling should be living the dream. The only problem is Sterling is no longer sure whose dream it is in Now and Forever (2014) by Susane Colasanti.

Now and Forever is a bit like an exclusive trip behind the velvet rope; a look at exactly what being famous might mean. Unfortunately, unlike other titles in a similar ilk, this book fails to offer a nuanced picture instead focusing on the glitz and glamor. While Ethan does change as he gains fame throughout the story, the implications of that change or what caused it (privilege, growing up, celebrity in general) are never discussed anymore than Sterling’s own relationship with her fame by association.

While this is a sweet romance, a lot of the story is spent on a bad relationship. Although this focus on the bad makes the second romance that much sweeter, it simultaneously raises questions about why the novel’s plot focuses where it does for so long.

Like all of Colasanti’s heroines, Sterling is adorably romantic. While her absorption in Ethan’s world and identity are troubling, it is an issue that’s addressed before the story ends.

Now and Forever is a must read for any readers who are super into the latest boy band or music in general. Bonus points for anyone who is a celebrity news junkie.

Possible Pairings: Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Where She Went by Gayle Forman, Reunited by Hilary Weisman Graham, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Open Road Summer by Emery Lord, Being Friends With Boys by Terra Elan McVoy, Famous in Love by Rebecca Serle

A Creature of Moonlight: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca HahnThe villagers have been talking of the woods all summer. More than usual. Farther from the woods than usual.

It’s one thing, now and then, for a stray bit of the woods to encroach. A well lost here, a path obstructed. Such things are to be expected.

This summer is different. The entirety of the woods seems to be moving in leaps and bounds, creeping closer than they have in years.

Marni knows the woods are dangerous place–a place of magic and wonder that often draws girls to it only to swallow them whole. Still, time and again, she finds herself sneaking there–away from Gramps, away from the prying eyes of the villagers who buy their flowers, away from the life that was snatched from her the day her mother was killed.

Marni has always walked a narrow path between the life the was stolen and the life she has with her Gramps. But now, with the woods moving closer and promises being made, Marni will have to decide where she will stand in A Creature of Moonlight (2014) by Rebecca Hahn.

A Creature of Moonlight is Hahn’s first novel.

Hahn masterfully weaves a world here where magic is as beautiful as it is dangerous–a world populated with calculating lords and kings as well as dragons and Phoenixes. Marni is a fascinating narrator, one who views both the humans and the woods with a healthy sense of skepticism. She is a strong heroine with a strong sense of self and an even stronger desire to secure her freedom.

She also has a very strange twang to her entire narration that is more reminiscent of a novel set in the Depression Era west (or just the West) than it is to this bit of higher fantasy. Marni reckons about many things and is none too afraid to say so neither. Her voice is often extremely jarring as readers are drawn repeatedly out of the story to ponder the choice of words on the page.

The story is typical coming of age fare as Marni learns more about both sides of her “family” such as they are and, over the course of the novel, comes into her own in various ways.

A Creature of Moonlight is decidedly short on peripheral characters, making the time spent in Marni’s head often claustrophobic as so much of the story centers on her inner conflicts. While her observations of the woods and at court are often entertaining and razor sharp, Marni’s motivations are never as clear as they should be.

While it is refreshing and modern to see Marni repeatedly turn down marriage proposals, the logic behind her deep conviction to not marry is murky at best–particularly given the specific set of obligations that will come with a life at court (which Marni adopts at one point in the plot).

Though often unsatisfying, A Creature of Moonlight remains a solid debut from an author to watch.

Possible Pairings: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Fire by Kristin Cashore, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Blind: A Review

Bline by Rachel DeWoskinWhat starts as an ordinary fourth of July watching the fireworks becomes something much worse in an instant when Emma Sasha Silver is blinded by a stray firework at the age of fourteen.

A year after the accident, Emma is still learning how to negotiate her large family, school, and everyday tasks without her vision when one of her classmates in the suburban town of Sauberg is found dead. As she struggles to make sense of this sudden death and her own drastically changed life, Emma wonders if losing her sight means she has also lost her chance at a bright future in Blind (2014) by Rachel DeWoskin.

DeWoskin offers a well-researched and much needed story. Emma is a capable heroine who negotiates her disability with the expected dejection as well as sudden moments of grace. The narrative is well-informed with Emma learning how to organize her life as well as travel with a cane as she begins to accomodate for her lost vision.

While this is a valuable story, DeWoskin’s efforts to describe Emma’s world in the form of sounds and textures can feel excessive. Similarly, side plots involving tested friendships, a large family, several crushes and musings about the death in town make this contemporary story convoluted and detract from Emma’s growth in the final quarter of an otherwise lengthy novel.

Although Emma is fourteen going on fifteen, she often feels and sounds younger giving Blind crossover potential (aside from some kissing and bad language) as a middle grade as well.

Emma remains strong and resilient during the story and gives a face to an often under-represented group in YA stories. Blind is also a positive portrayal of blindess without any negative tropes (such as being “cured” or somehow being “punished” in relation to a disability.)

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the June 2014 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online including an SLJ Spotlight*

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone: A Review

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat RosenfieldBecca is just getting ready to leave her small town behind for good when the dead girl is found. Suddenly Becca’s plan to go to college and never look back seems trivial at best. It seems like the peak of hubris to think Becca can get away when the dead girl could not.

Paralyzed by the shock of this sudden violence, Becca isn’t sure what to believe when her future–even the future in general–seems impossible to fathom in Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone (2012)by Kat Rosenfield.

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is Rosenfield’s first novel.

Becca’s first-person narrative is intercut with short chapters outlining the moments that lead to the unidentified dead girl’s–Amelia Anne’s–murder.

Rosenfield’s writing is lush and highly literary with vivid, often unsettling, descriptions of Becca’s surroundings and the scenes that lead to Amelia Anne’s murder.

The mystery aspect is handled well here. Although it was possible to guess the ending early on, the pieces of the puzzle still twisted in a direction that was difficult to anticipate. Although the plot meanders with Becca’s doubts and fears, the story is generally solid.

The chapters about Amelia are particularly well-done as they illustrate Amelia’s growth as she comes into her own before her life is cut tragically short. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is a frank and unflinching story. Both Becca and Amelia do not shy away from talking about sex or other topics in their narratives. That said, it would have been nice to have a little more context when Amelia talks to her boyfriend about rougher behavior (Specifically she says to him: “Haven’t you ever thought about grabbing me from behind and throwing me against the wall? Just taking what you wanted?”). After the topic is initially raised there is not, unfortunately, any talk of consent and instead the chapter ends abruptly with no further discussion.

Unfortunately there isn’t much sense of character here. The only person readers really know is Amelia while Becca feels more like a convenient frame for a mystery that wouldn’t flesh out into a full novel. Becca rarely comes across as truly real and Amelia’s chapters stretch the limits of an omniscient narrator when combined with the first person structure of the rest of the novel. The secondary characters are painted with sharp vignettes that remain closer to caricature than actual characterization.

The narrative voice never quite works with many different tones competing in one slim book. In addition to Becca’s first-person musings there are also third-person chapters about Amelia. In addition, Becca’s narrative often goes off on tangents about the hive mind of small towns and the “we” mentality that often develops as a result. These  “we” passages feel lofty.

While this was an interesting story about cause and effect and the lingering impact of consequences it still feels more like a literary exercise than a mystery novel. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is, however, undoubtedly well-written and demonstrates that Rosenfield is an author to watch.

Possible Pairings: Find Me by Romily Bernand, The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Acceleration by Graham McNamee, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, Cathy’s Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233 by Jordan Weisman and Sean Stewart, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams

Criminal: A Review

Criminal by Terra Elan McVoyNikki knows her life isn’t a dream come true. Even the thought of seeing her mother makes Nikki’s skin crawl. Her step-father is in jail. Nikki is a high school drop out.

But she has her friend Bird and her job at the hair salon.

More importantly, Nikki has Dee. Everyone tells her that Dee is no good but Nikki doesn’t believe that. Not really. How can Dee be anything but perfect when he looks so good and makes Nikki feel like this? He even has her initial tattooed on his chest.

When Dee does the unthinkable, Nikki is drawn into a crime that will shatter everything Nikki had taken for granted in her less-than-perfect life. After spending so much time wrapped up in Dee’s world, Nikki isn’t sure what it will take to stand on her own in Criminal (2013) by Terra Elan McVoy.

Criminal is a finalist for the 2014 Edgar Awards for Young Adult Mystery.

In a departure from her lighter fare, McVoy presents a gritty, evocative story of life in the wake of a shocking crime. The novel bends notions of right and wrong while also artfully exploring the idea of complicity as Nikki comes to terms with her own role in Dee’s crime.

Nikki is a flawed, often naive, heroine who has tried to make the best of the blessed little life has given her. She turns a blind eye to Dee’s many faults. She makes mistakes. She is impulsive and quite foolish.

Despite these shortcomings, Nikki’s growth throughout the novel is impressive. While she does not always make the smartest decisions, Nikki is a survivor. Although Criminal is touted as a mystery the main story here is really one about a girl trying to find her way. Even with all of the obstacles she has to face, readers will close this book with a sense that Nikki will make it through.

Possible Pairings: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Blank Confession by Pete Hautman, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller