The Leaf Reader: A Review

“I did feel like I was pretending, at least at the start. I admit that. But whenever you start on something, it always feels a little like pretending, right? If you let that stop you, you might never try anything new.”

cover art for The Leaf Reader by Emily ArsenaultMarnie is halfway through high school and she’s accepted that she’ll never be popular. And if that’s true, better to give the people what they want and be really eccentric, right?

In the past year Marnie has gotten a reputation for reading tea leaves to tell the fortunes of classmates. Marnie knows it’s just for fun. She assumes her classmates do too.

But then Matt Cottrell comes to Marnie for a reading that seems to reveal more about the disappearance of Matt’s best friend Andrea last year. Marnie has never thought she could really read the future in tea leaves. But as she and Matt start looking into Andrea’s disappearance together, Marnie starts to wonder if she was wrong. It seems like the tea leaves are trying to tell her the Matt is dangerous. And if that’s true, Marnie’s growing attraction could be deadly in The Leaf Reader (2017) by Emily Arsenault.

The Leaf Reader is Arsenault’s first novel written for a young adult audience.

I went into this one with almost no expectations after receiving it very randomly from a neighbor. Marnie’s introspective narration and her fascination with reader tea leaves immediately drew me in. The story includes some basic information on interpreting leaves and their symbols which adds a fun dimension to the story.

Arsenault’s plotting and story are executed well and come to life with vivid descriptions of Marnie’s surroundings. The descriptions of characters are sometimes less vibrant and less charitable in a way that seems to suggest Marnie, or perhaps the author herself, held little fondness for some of the characters.

Marnie is a frank narrator who is immediately honest about her own status as an outsider in her small town. She is less willing to accept that she might not be the only one with secrets–something that becomes increasingly obvious to readers as the tense plot finally reaches a breaking point in the final act.

The Leaf Reader is a unique spin on some familiar mystery tropes. A great choice for fans of suspense.

Possible Pairings: The Opposite of Here by Tara Altebrando, The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams

The Wicked Deep: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Wicked Deep by Shea EarnshawTwo hundred years ago in the town of Sparrow three sisters were drowned as witches. Every year since then the Swan sisters have returned to Sparrow, claiming the bodies of unwitting local girls and using them to wreak their vengeance on the town by drowning boys foolish enough to fall under their sway.

Every Swan Season is the same, ending only when each sister has claimed a new victim.

Penny can see what others can’t including long buried secrets about the sisters and the Swan Season. But she knows that secret can only go so far against a curse. She is used to watching the Swan Season unfold with wary detachment, certain that this one will be  like all the others ending with death, suspicion, and grief.

Except this year there is a new outsider in town—a boy named Bo who refuses to believe the Swan sisters can pose any real danger to anyone, especially him. A boy that Penny is determined to protect. As the Swan Season unfolds Penny and Bo will work together to unravel the truth of the curse and the sisters. But as the Swan Season nears its end Penny realizes that the only way to save Bo might be by sacrificing herself in The Wicked Deep (2018) by Shea Earnshaw.

The Wicked Deep is Earnshaw’s debut novel.

The Wicked Deep is a tense bit of fantasy woven through with suspense as the novel builds toward the disastrous conclusion of the Swan Season. Penny’s first person narration is frank and often cynical with lyrical prose as she slowly searches for a way to break the curse and save Bo.

This story is filled with twists and surprises about both Penny and Bo. Unfortunately the story also flags in the second act as Penny and Bo repeatedly discuss what ending the curse might entail and how far they are willing to go if it means freeing the island from the sisters’ menace forever.

The Wicked Deep is an atmospheric story filled with witches, secrets, and a scorching romance with far-reaching consequences. Recommended for readers looking for a spooky book to read curled up by a fire and fans of Practical Magic especially.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

Odd One Out: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover for Odd One Out by Nic StoneCourtney “Coop” Cooper knows exactly what he wants. He also knows he can’t have it. That’s what happens when you’re in love with your lesbian best friend.

Rae Evelyn Chin doesn’t know what she wants. She’s new in town and thrilled to immediately befriend Coop and Jupiter. She just hopes wanting to kiss Coop doesn’t ruin their friendship. Not to mention wanting to maybe kiss Jupiter too.

Jupiter Charity-Sanchez has always known what she wants. But when she finds herself caught between Coop and Rae, she starts to wonder if that’s a good thing.

One story. Three sides. Nothing simple in Odd One Out (2018) by Nic Stone.

The novel is split between Coop, Rae, and Jupiter’s first person narrations (each is a “book” in the story instead of the alternating chapter structure typically seen with multiple points of view).

Stone describes her sophomore contemporary novel as a bit of wish fulfillment–a story she wished she’d been able to read as a teen herself. The story features carousels, crossword puzzles, and Freddie Mercury–three passions that inform the characters’ perspective parts.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one but by the end of the novel Coop, Rae, and Jupiter had utterly won me over. In a world where labels are everywhere and nothing is ever as simple as it should be, I loved seeing these characters try to figure things out.

The three main characters have distinct voices (and perspectives, of course) with narratives that overlap just enough to allow readers to watch the plot play out from multiple angles. Coop and Jupiter’s parents (Coop’s mom is widowed and Jupiter has two dads) are great additions to the cast often stealing scenes and adding a nice layer of support for all of the characters as they try to make sense of things.

Odd One Out is the sexy, funny, and surprisingly sweet love triangle book you’ve been waiting for. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian, Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Three Sides of a Heart: Stories About Love Triangles edited by Natalie C. Parker, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Pride by Ibi Zoboi

The Traitor’s Game: A Review

cover art for The Traitor's Game by Jennifer A. NielsenNo one knows where Kestra Dallisor has spent the last three years. It’s better that way. The longer she can hide, the longer she can avoid becoming a pawn in her father’s political machinations to strengthen his ties to the cruel Lord Endrick. But the time for hiding has ended and Kestra has been called home.

When Kestra is kidnapped en route she faces an impossible bargain: find the Olden Blade to spare the lives of her captive servants and herself.

Simon, one of her kidnappers, doesn’t know what to make of Kestra. She is not at all like the girl he expects, certainly nothing not the girl he remembers from his childhood. But she’s also the only hope he and his people have of finding the Olden Blade and reclaiming their freedom.

There are no winners in the traitor’s game. But that won’t stop Kestra or Simon playing for all they’re worth in The Traitor’s Game (2018) by Jennifer A. Nielsen.

The Traitor’s Game is the first book in Nielsen’s new YA series. The book alternates between Kestra and Simon’s first person narrations.

Nielsen delivers high action, political machinations and the intrigue readers of her middle grade novels have come to expect. Despite some unique flourishes in the world building, this is a fairly familiar story as a lost heir tries to reclaim that which was taken by the conquerors.

Kestra and Simon are interesting foils but lack the chemistry needed for their tension and changing dynamic to sustain an entire book. Their voices in alternating chapters are often indistinguishable. The prose often feels sanitized as violence and danger is pushed off the page for readers to imagine instead of being vividly described–this choice means that the novel can work well for younger readers but also creates a stark contrast between the descriptions of the world and the actual reading experience.

The Traitor’s Game is a familiar addition to the fantasy genres. Sparse world building and under developed characters feel like missed opportunities in what could have been a far richer story. Recommended for fans of the author and readers seeking a strictly plot driven fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Everless by Sarah Holland, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

500 Words or Less: A Review

cover art for 500 Words or Less by Juleah del RosarioWhat happens when your attempt to be a better person might be making you worse?

Nic Chen isn’t going to spend her senior year known only as the girl who cheated on her boyfriend with his best friend. She had enough grief when her mom left under a cloud of scandal. This year isn’t going to be a repeat of that.

To revamp her reputation with her Ivy League obsessed classmates, Nic has a simple plan: she will write college admission essays. For a price.

But as Nic learns more about her classmates, she realizes she still has a lot to learn about herself and her moral compass in 500 Words or Less (2018) by Juleah del Rosario.

500 Words or Less is a shining verse novel with a strikingly original story. Through free verse poems Nic contends with painful memories from her past including when her mother left and her last year in high school that changed everything.

Nic is a flawed character well aware of her own shortcomings both in reality and in the eyes of her peers. She grapples with her identity, both as a biracial teen and an outsider at her school, as she tries to figure out how to embrace all of herself–even the ugly pieces.

500 Words or Less is a unique story whose format works well to emphasize elegant prose and complex characterization. An excellent debut that proves del Rosario is an author to watch. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Saint Anything: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Saint Anything by Sarah DessenSydney has always lived in her charismatic older brother Peyton’s shadow. But it’s hard to hide after Peyton’s DUI and its horrible aftermath pushes Sydney and her family into the public eye. Sydney’s parents seem intent on ignoring Peyton’s role in the car accident and the damage he caused. Meanwhile Sydney is haunted and infuriated by it.

Hoping for a fresh start Sydney switches schools and looks for a new normal in the midst of her family turmoil. She finds it in the unlikely form of Seaside Pizza and the Chathams—the boisterous family owners. Layla draws Sydney into her family’s world as if they’ve always been friends while her brother Mac makes Sydney feel safe for the first time in a long while. Finally Sydney feels like she’s the one being seen and with that certainty she might be able to see herself and what she wants too in Saint Anything (2015) by Sarah Dessen.

I’ve been following Sarah Dessen’s publications for a few years. She is a touchstone name in YA and I am constantly order replacement copies of her books for my library as the old ones wear out. But I have never felt like any of her books really clicked for me. As soon as I heard about Saint Anything it felt like this book would be it: the make it or break it Sarah Dessen book for me. I’d either love it unequivocally or it would confirm that not every author can work for every reader. But it turns out, much like Sydney’s story, my feelings about the book weren’t so clear cut.

Saint Anything is filled with a quirky cast of characters including Mac Chatham, the quiet and stoic boy Sydney meets at Seaside Pizza who quickly becomes a steady and constant source of support for her. Mac, like the rest of the Chathams, is a great character. But what give me pause and what continues to frustrate me about this book is Mac’s backstory. When Sydney meets him she is immediately taken aback by how attractive Mac is and baffled at his utter lack of awareness of his own good looks and their inherent power (two things Peyton routinely used to get his own way before he was arrested). During the story we learn that Mac used to be fat until he made drastic diet changes and started seriously hiking. It’s a very personal response but everything about Mac’s storyline and his weight irritated me. I didn’t like how it was portrayed and didn’t like that it was part of the story at all in the way that it connotes finding a way to be true to yourself with also being thin. Mac’s backstory became a sour note in this otherwise sweet story.

As sometimes happens in longer novels Saint Anything also starts to lose momentum as it builds to the final act. Of course there is an unexpected romance but that added with a friend’s ill advised relationship and the rest of the plot made the final third of the novel feel bloated and, because there was so much to do, the ending itself seemed rushed.

Sydney’s relationship with her family at the beginning of Saint Anything is heartbreaking and it’s so clear that the Chathams are the jolt that Sydney needs to start making changes–not just in asking for more of her parents’ attention but in realizing that she deserves more. I love that aspect of the story. Sydney’s growth as she works through her own grief and regret for Peyton’s drunk driving accident are incredibly powerful. Watching Sydney try to ignore and ultimately confront the unwanted attentions of Peyton’s older friend is tense and utterly relatable.

If this book sounds at all appealing (or you’ve already read it) I also urge you to check out the essay Dessen wrote near Saint Anything‘s release for Seventeen: “I Thought Dating An Older Guy Was Cool — Until I Sensed That Something Was Very Wrong

Possible Pairings: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett,, Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, Between Us and the Moon by Rebecca Maizel, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonneblick

Muse of Nightmares: A Review

“It turned out that sometimes it’s enough to start doing thing differently now.”

Everything was taken from the city of Weep when the Mesarthim invaded. The blue-skinned gods stole the city’s children, its memories, and even its true names. No one knows where the gods came from. No one knows what happened to the thousands of children born in the citadel never to be seen again. No one speaks of what happened to the children left in the nursery the day that the Godslayer killed the gods and reclaimed the city.

Sarai was one of those children. She and the four other godspawn don’t speak of what happened either although they are haunted by the bloodshed of the massacre. No one knows that five children survived and still hide within the citadel. Waiting. Minya, the eldest, prepares for war while Sarai and the others dare to hope for acceptance.

Sarai never expected that she would die waiting–especially not after she met Lazlo Strange and saw that peace might be possible. Now Sarai is a ghost bound by Minya’s by iron will while Lazlo is a god–as much a child of the Mesarthim as Sarai and the others.

With Sarai unable to defy Minya or exist without her, Lazlo faces a horrible choice: Keep his love alive by helping Minya seek vengeance or protect the city while losing Sarai. Without her free will, without her moths traveling down to Weep to explore dreams, Sarai feels powerless. Is it possible for her to still be the muse of nightmares or did her powers die when her body did?

Old secrets and unanswered questions threaten the tentative bonds and even more fragile hope as Weep tries to heal. In a city where heroes had to do monstrous things and monsters might yet become heroes, Sarai will have to choose if she wants to slay her enemies or try to save them in Muse of Nightmares (2018) by Laini Taylor.

Muse of Nightmares is the conclusion of Taylor’s latest duology which begins with Strange the Dreamer.

I only started to truly love Strange the Dreamer months after reading it. I needed that long to process and appreciate everything Taylor had done. In contrast Muse of Nightmares was one of my most anticipated Fall 2018 releases and is holding strong as one of my favorite books of the year.

Muse of Nightmares picks up almost immediately where Strange the Dreamer left off as both Sarai and Lazlo try to grasp their dramatically changed circumstances.There isn’t time for grief or wonder, however, as Sarai and Lazlo have to figure out if there is a way to save both Weep and the godspawn.

The pacing of this story and its numerous surprises are flawless complete with a secondary story that artfully ties into the main arc of this duology. Of course, I can’t tell you too much about that because I want you to be just as shocked as I was when I started to understand how these pieces would come together.

Muse of Nightmares is a story about redemption and hope–things that all of the characters strive for and things that even the unlikeliest among them might find. Weep is a city filled with potential and, ultimately, with love as Taylor’s memorable characters learn how to forgive each other and themselves. Highly recommended. I can’t wait to see what Taylor does next.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Lirael by Garth Nix, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner