Kind of a Big Deal: A Review

Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon HaleJosie Pie was a big deal in high school. She was always the lead in school productions, her teachers always said she was destined for greatness. Which is why it made so much sense when Josie dropped out of high school to be a star.

Now, almost a year later, Josie is starting to wonder if she made the right choice. Turns out hitting it big on Broadway isn’t as easy as hitting it big in high school. After a series of failed auditions Josie is starting to wonder if she was ever star material. It certainly doesn’t feel that way while she words as a nanny.

Josie keeps in touch with her best friend, her boyfriend, and her mom. But there’s only so much you can talk about without admitting massive failure (and mounting credit card debt).

When Josie and her charge find a cozy bookstore, Josie receives a pair of special glasses that transport her into her current read. Literally. In the books she can save the day in a post-apocalyptic world, fall in love in a rom-com, and more.

Living out these fantasies is the best thing that’s happened to Josie in a while. But the longer she stays inside the stories, the harder it is to remember why she should come back to her own life in Kind of a Big Deal (2020) by Shannon Hale.

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Hale’s latest YA novel is a genre mashup. Framed by Josie’s contemporary coming of age story, Hale also plays with conventions in dystopian sci-fi, romantic comedies, and historical fiction (genres Hale has by and large tackled previously in her extensive backlist).

Kind of a Big Deal takes on a lot using these genre adventures to help Josie get a handle on her own life. Unfortunately, the stories within this story are often more compelling than Josie’s real life leaving Josie and her friends feeling one dimensional throughout. Stilted dialog and a premise that pushes the limits of plausibility (particularly with eighteen-year-old Josie being solely in charge of a seven-year-old girl while her mother works out of the country) further undermine this otherwise novel premise.

Kind of a Big Deal is a unique take on losing yourself in a good book. The story reads young and might have worked better for a middle grade audience or radically rewritten with older characters for an adult novel. Recommended for readers looking for plot driven genre studies.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Week in Review: November 21: In which I take my first vacation in ten months

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Big news: I’m on vacation as of today until December 1. I cancelled all my vacation days when quarantine started so this is my first official vacation since January. I won’t be going anywhere, of course, because it’s not safe but I am so excited about the time off. Like crazy excited. A lot of stuff has been happening at work and I think I want to talk about it more, but in a separate post. Stay tuned and I hope you all have a relaxing weekend.

Star Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Star Daughter by Shveta ThakrarSheetal Mistry has grown up keeping secrets. Only her father, her aunt, and her closest friend Minal know the truth: that Sheetal’s mother is a star who returned to her celestial court when Sheetal was five years old.

Since then, Sheetal has learned to keep her own celestial song buried deep where it cannot affect humans or give her away. She dyes her starlight silver hair black, she ignores the call from her family in the stars. It has never been easy to deny half of herself but her father’s love, Minal’s support, and her new boyfriend Dev have all helped.

But as her seventeenth birthday approaches, Sheetal finds it harder to ignore the way the night sky calls to her. When her father is injured by starfire, Sheetal will have to answer her star family’s summons to try and save him. But first she will have to help her celestial family secure their place as the next ruling house of the heavens.

After years of hiding and denying her true self Sheetal will have to embrace all of herself, her family, and her own complicated place with them to save her father in Star Daughter (2020) by Shveta Thakrar.

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Star Daughter is Thakrar’s debut novel.

This standalone fantasy is filled with richly detailed world building bringing both Sheetal’s magical family and her earthbound Gujarati community of friends, cousins, and other family to life. Evocative, carefully drawn magic adds dimension and nuance to this story that, unfortunately, has a several lacking love interest in Dev who remains one dimensional and flat for most of the story.

Sheetal’s friendship with Minal remains much more convincing than any love match here adding a strong element of friendship and girl power to this story with a friendship that literally spans worlds.

Star Daughter is a thoughtful fantasy about friendship, growing up, and family. Recommended for readers who have always wondered what treasures can be found at the Night Market.

Possible Pairings: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee

The Scapegracers: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail ClarkeThe “township of Sycamore Gorge doesn’t fuck around where Halloween is concerned” which is why October is the one time of year where Eloise “Sideways” Pike earns a modicum of respect and attention from classmates who would otherwise ignore her as the resident lesbian witch whose dads run the local antique shop.

After years of “skulking near the bottom, lurking behind the bleachers, doing magic tricks for bottles of Coke,” Sideways is suddenly and irrevocably catapulted to the top of the West High social pyramid when Jing Gao, Lila Yates, and Daisy Brink pay Sideways forty dollars to add some real magic to the start of “scare-party season.”

Sideways is almost as surprised as Jing and Yates and Daisy when the magic works. As she puts it: “Even following my spell book by the letter, the most I could do was burn paper, unbreak dishes, make scrapes and cuts scab faster. What the four of us could do was something else. I felt seasick and disgustingly in love with it, with them.”

Party magic soon leads to dead deer in a drained pool, an unknown party guest nearly assaulting Yates, devils, and trouble as the girls start to learn more about the magic they all share and what it means for their fledgling friendship in The Scapegracers (2020) by Hannah Abigail Clarke.

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Sideways’s first person narration is descriptively lyrical observing the pale “bruise-lavender blue” air even as she remains extremely grounded when it comes to her own loneliness and lack of social skills. Sideways sees herself better suited to “skulking under bridges” than befriending the most popular clique in school, let alone flirting with Madeline–the stranger recruited as a fifth for their coven. Despite meddling efforts from her new friends, the course of love, much like magic, does not run smooth for Sideways.

Clarke cleverly dismantles classic popular girl tropes as Sideways and readers learn more about the triumvirate who quickly adopt Sideways into their ranks with surprising loyalty and affection. Sideways, Daisy, and Madeline are described as white, Yates is Black, and Jing is Asian—presumably Chinese. The characters are also diverse in terms of sexuality with lesbian Sideways and bisexual Jing among others.

Clarke’s debut is the start of a trilogy filled with magic, lilting prose, snappy dialog, and witches embracing their own power. Feminist themes and strong character bonds make this book an ideal companion to Kim Liggett’s The Grace Year, Hannah Capin’s Foul is Fair, and Leslye Walton’s Price Guide to the Occult. The Scapegracers is an excellent addition to the recent crop of novels highlighting sisterhood (especially unlikely ones) fueled by both feminist rage and solidarity.

Possible Pairings: Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Week in Review: November 14: In which things keep going

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Not much to report. Busy week over here and I am very behind on blog posts as a result!

Courting Darkness: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Courting Darkness by Robin LaFeversAfter working with her sisters of Mortain to help the duchess of Brittany secure both her duchy and her betrothal to the king of France, Sybella thought her work was done. After everything she had risked and sacrificed, after everything she had learned about herself and her god, Sybella had thought at last she would be safe and able to rest.

She is wrong.

Things in Brittany are changing and, as the young duchess prepares to travel to France for her marriage, Sybella realizes she and her sisters are still far from safe. Traveling to foreign territory as a lady in waiting, Sybella is fiercely determined to protect her duchess and her sisters with her beloved Beast at her side. But forces are conspiring to limit the duchess’s new power and ensure that Sybella’s task will be far from easy even with undercover allies waiting to be of aid with in the French court.

Genevieve has been undercover for so many years, that she is no longer sure what she is supposed to be working toward. After years of waiting to be called into service, Gen begins to fear the day that she will be useful may never come.

Feeling the walls of court life closing in, Gen sees no other option but to take matters into her own hands. Manipulating a long-forgotten prisoner into an uneasy bargain will secure both Gen’s escape and his own. But figuring out what to do without guidance from her convent and her god is much harder.

Isolated and alone, Gen will have to do what she thinks is right to save the only home she’s ever known–even if it is a distant memory. But court life is as treacherous as it is decadent and soon both Gen and Sybella will realize they are not the only players with moves to make in Courting Darkness (2019) by Robin LaFevers.

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Courting Darkness is the first book in a duology. The story is set in the same world as LaFevers His Fair Assassin trilogy including Grave Mercy, Dark Triumph, and Mortal Heart. This book can be read independently of the original trilogy although the world and characters overlap.

This book alternates between Sybella and Gen’s first person narrations in this story set months after the conclusion of LaFevers’ previous trilogy in the year 1489.

Although set in the same world as previous books, much of the mystique of Brittany and the Nine gods who preside there in the guise of neo-Christian saints is lost in this companion novel. While Sybella and Gen contend with consequences of changes to Mortain and the gifts he has bestowed on his daughters, Courting Darkness is much more grounded in political intrigue and the duplicitous French court.

LaFevers once again draws heavily from real historical events to deliver and atmospheric and well-researched story helmed by two singular heroines. Unfortunately, as Sybella realizes how much of a threat her family still poses, much of the confidence and self-assurance she gained in the previous trilogy is erased. Gen, meanwhile, is insufferably arrogant about her own ability to determine the best course of action and reckless in pursuit of her own goals.

That said, a few surprise twists and the promise of our narrators finally meeting in the sequel Igniting Darkness may be enough to salvage this promising but so far underwhelming duology.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

Do You Dream of Terra-Two?: A Review

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi OhA century ago, an astronomer discovered a planet orbiting a star. Decades before anyone had the technology to confirm it, she predicted that the planet was Earth-like and habitable; that humanity would one day colonize it. She dreamed of the animals and plant life astronauts would find there.

Now, six teenagers are about to embark on the twenty-three year trip that will bring them to Terra-Two. They, along with four veteran astronauts commanding the crew, are Earth’s best hope for a second chance.

After years of training, the crew will travel for twenty-three years to get to Terra-Two. Along the way some of them will dream of their new home, some of them will fear it and the gaping unknown of their journey. They will mourn what they have left behind and what they might never see if their missions fails in Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (2019) by Temi Oh.

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Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is Oh’s first novel.

There’s no gentle way to say this: Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is a downer. Readers well-versed in stories of space travel know, as well as these characters do, that something always goes wrong. In this book many things go wrong leaving every characters scrambling to salvage a mission that may or may not be sheer folly.

Oh packs a lot of interesting things into this story with alternating third person point of view between the young astronauts. Unfortunately these voices often become indistinguishable as the characters contend with similar moments of existential dread and imposter syndrome alongside any of their individual issues.

The world building in Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, particularly the shady practices of the school that has trained the young astronauts, is fascinating but fails to gel thanks to an ending that leaves most questions unanswered. Will the mission succeed? Will it be worth the sacrifice? Neither the characters nor readers may be entirely sure by the end of this character driven story.

Possible Pairings: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, Dare Mighty Things by Heather Kaczynski, The Final Six by Alexandra Monir

Week in Review: November 7: In which we all have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week

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Hey friends. How are you holding up? 🖤 The past few days have been stressful and disheartening but I’m trying to stay hopeful. It feels like the only choice available. If you need ideas on things you can do, check out @jennyhan and @celestepewter’s feeds for concrete actionable steps you can take. 🖤 It feels weird to be talking about books right now but honestly, that’s how I cope and with a lot of other more personal stressors that I can’t discuss (thanks in part to the threat of legal action) it feels as necessary to be able to escape into a book as it does to breathe. 🖤 With that said, these are the books I’ll be prioritizing this month: 📖In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund (finished this already—loved it) 📖The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White 📖Lore by Alexandra Bracken 📖Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer 📖The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey 📖An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard (so excited to do a buddy read with @cassieopiabooks) 📖Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (@thebookbandit told me to read this next so I am.) 📖You Have a Match by Emma Lord 🖤 Hang in there everyone. 🖤 #InstaReader #BeautifulBooks #BookReviews #BooksToRead #BookstagramFeatures #BookishLife #AllTheBooks #UnitedBookstagram #BookPost #ForTheLoveOfBooks #ReadersOfInsta #BookBlogging #Bookstagramit #LibrariansOfInstagram #ReadingLove #BookstaFeatures #ReadersGonnaRead #WhatToRead #BookStyle #Booktography #BookRecommendations #ReadersOfIg #NeverNotReading #BookPhotoChallenge #BookNookstagram #Bibliophiles #BookAesthetic #bookstoread #booksandcrown

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How My Week Went:

Ugh. What a week. I’m not tracking quarantine anymore because I’m now officially required to be back on site. The combination of stress, existential dread, and impotent rage over the entire situation is exhausting.

Today Tonight Tomorrow: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn SolomonToday, the last day of school, Rowan Roth is eager to best Neil McNair once and for all. After four years of bitter rivalry in everything from student council to gym class, Rowan wants tangible proof that she is better than Neil by being named valedictorian.

Instead, Neil takes that honor leaving Rowan to wonder who she is without their constant one-upmanship and bickering. If she can’t beat Neil, is she ready to head to Boston for college? Is she ready to admit to her friends and family that she loves romance novels and wants to write them professionally?

Tonight Rowan has one last chance to beat Neil by winning Howl–the school’s annual scavenger hunt that lets seniors say goodbye to their school and their city by racing around Seattle to complete clues and win the grand prize. Beating Neil seems easy until Rowan learns other members of the senior class are plotting to take both of them down leaving Rowan with one option: reluctantly team up with Neil now so she can destroy him later.

As tonight becomes tomorrow, Rowan realizes she and Neil may have more in common than she ever let herself realize. Can four years worth of dislike turn into something very different overnight? Or has Rowan been ignoring something bigger for a lot longer than than that in Today Tonight Tomorrow (2020) by Rachel Lynn Solomon?

Find it on Bookshop.

Rowan is funny and confident with a breezy narration that moves through flirty banter with Neil as easily as it does frank conversations about antisemitism and micro-aggressions both characters experience as some of the only Jewish students in their school. The story also thoughtfully conveys all of the joy to be found in romance novels as well as the stigma the genre still faces as Rowan talks through her passion for the genre with Neil and other characters. As is fitting for any ode to romance novels, this book also includes honest conversations about sex and relationships.

For all of her self-awareness, Rowan is often frustratingly dense when it comes to her changing feelings for Neil (although I laughed–frequently–over her obsession with his freckles and upper arms) as well as her own self-sabotage when it comes to admitting what she loves to her friends and family. Rowan and Neil’s palpable chemistry goes a long way to make up for these shortcomings in an otherwise fast-paced novel.

Today Tonight Tomorrow is a love letter to Seattle and romance novels set over the course of one hectic day. Solidly fun.

Possible Pairings: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr, Dramatically Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman

Return of the Thief: A Review

Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen TurnerAfter being born with the infirmity that runs through his family and earning the nickname “monstrous” as a baby, Pheris Mostrus Erondites has grown up aware of his own limitations. His vulnerabilities from his bad leg and arm as well as his inability to speak verbally have never been far from his mind. Pheris is, therefore, as surprised as anyone when he is named his grandfather Baron Erondites’ heir and sent to the Attolian court to serve as an attendant to the king of Attolia, Eugenides.

Years of fear and caution have taught Pheris how to play the fool and hide in plain sight but even he can’t escape Eugenides’ notice as the Little Peninsula prepares for war. As the newly appointed high king of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis, Eugenides has united the three countries but that does not mean their people are ready–or willing–to fight the invading Mede empire.

Pheris observes and recounts everything for readers as political maneuvers, personal dramas, and his grandfather’s schemes unfold while creating an unlikely place for himself both in the palace and in the hearts of some of its residents.

With war looming Eugenides has to work harder than ever to protect everyone he loves and make sure he does not offend the gods who have taken an interest in both the Little Peninsula and him since his early years as the Queen’s Thief in Return of the Thief (2020) by Megan Whalen Turner.

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A direct sequel to Thick as Thieves, this novel will be most rewarding to readers of the entire Queen’s Thief series with the resolution of many character arcs and nods to multiple events across the overlapping timelines of the previous books in this series that has been decades in the making.

Pheris is an unlikely but meticulous narrator drawing readers deeper into the inner workings of the palace while shedding light on the looming war and the enigmatic high king. With shrewd, biting prose, Pheris fits in seamlessly with this group of characters fans have come to know and love. Tension, political drama, and intrigue are well contrasted with moments of levity and affection as both new and old characters have their moment to shine.

Return of the Thief is as intricately plotted as it is utterly satisfying; everything readers could hope for from a conclusion twenty years in the making.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review an issue of School Library Journal*