Places No One Knows: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I start, because if I don’t, then everything just stays the same.”

“I thought he made me a different person altogether, but maybe I was always holding those pieces inside me, waiting for a chance to use them.”

Waverly Camdenmar doesn’t sleep. She runs instead going as fast and as far as her legs will allow until she can’t think and the only option is collapse. Then the sun comes up, she pastes on her best face, and pretends everything is normal. It’s easy to hide behind her academic achievements and the popularity her best friend Maribeth so covets.

Marshall Holt is too apathetic to pretend anything is normal in his life or even remotely okay. Neither has been true about his family or his life for quite some time. He doesn’t care because he’s busy trying to lose himself in the oblivion of drinking too much, smoking too much, and making too many bad decisions. It’s been working great so far except for the whole maybe not graduating thing.

Waverly and Marshall are used to watching each other from afar–a little wary and a little hungry–but never anything more. Not until Waverly’s attempt at deep relaxation dreams her into Marshall’s bedroom and everything changes.

Now when the sun comes up Waverly’s carefully ordered world is stifling instead of safe. After years of trying not to feel anything, Marshall is feeling far too much. Waverly and Marshall thought they knew exactly who they were and who they could be. Now neither of them is sure what that means in Places No One Knows (2016) by Brenna Yovanoff.

Yovanoff’s latest standalone novel is a razor sharp blend of contemporary and magic realism alternating between Waverly and Marshall’s first person narration. This character driven novel focuses on the way their two personalities clash and intersect throughout their strange encounters.

Waverly is analytical and pragmatic. She knows that she is the smartest person in the room and she doesn’t care if that makes her threatening. Her sometime friends describe Waverly as a sociopath or a robot and she feels like she should care about that but it also seems to require too much effort.

Marshall, by contrast, is hyper-sensitive and philosophical and impractical. He doesn’t want to care about the way his family is falling apart or the way everything else in his life is crumbling. But he does care. A lot. And it’s wrecking him.

 

At its core Places No One Knows is a story about how two people engage with each other and also the greater world. Yovanoff’s writing is flawless with deliberate structure and scathing commentary both as a whole and on a sentence-by-sentence level. This story subverts gender roles and societal norms all in the guise of a slightly unconventional love story.

Places No One Knows is an excellent novel filled with fascinating characters. Although Waverly and Marshall’s relationship is a centerpiece of the story both characters also have their own stories to tell and their own journeys to make, which sometimes mirror each other and sometimes diverge, as they struggle to make the active choice to save themselves.

Possible Pairings: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

The Keeper of the Mist: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“There was something appalling about the steady progression of time, or at least about dividing time into sharp little seconds and counting them off, like a knife flicking through the day, tick tick tick, and nothing anyone could do to turn back the hands of time.”

Keri’s main focus since her mother’s death has been running the family bakery on her own. She doesn’t have much time to think about her father, the Lord of Nimmira, who has never wasted a thought on Keri. Nor is she inclined to entertain predictions about which of her half-brothers will take up the title of Lord upon their father’s death.

When Nimmira’s ancient and inscrutable magic chooses Keri as the unlikely heir her focus shifts abruptly from baking to all manner of details implicit to overseeing her small country as its new Lady. Caught between larger countries eager to conquer each other and absorb its resources, Nimmira has relied on its border mists and a strict policy of isolation for generations. Keri should be able to control and maintain the mists as the new Lady. Except they continue to fail after her ascension and no one knows why.

Keri’s Timekeeper is counting the seconds, minutes, and hours to something important. But he can’t–or perhaps won’t–explain what exactly that is or how Keri can prepare for it. Keri’s best friend Tassel acclimates quickly to her role as Bookkeeper but even her magic can’t help unravel some of Nimmira’s deepest secrets. Then there’s Cort, Keri’s unlikely Doorkeeper. Cort is steadfast in his commitment to protecting and maintaining Nimmira’s borders. But will he and Keri finally be able to see eye to eye as they try to restore the mist?

Change is coming to Nimmira. Only time will tell if Keri and her friends will be ready to face it in The Keeper of the Mist (2016) by Rachel Neumeier.

The Keeper of the Mist is a charming standalone fantasy novel with a beautiful cover. It is also, as a hardcover edition, very poorly edited with typos and repeated phrases. While that doesn’t detract from the story, it did often make for a frustrating reading experience.

Keri’s story is a novel of manners with the feel of a regency romance (though don’t tell that to Keri or Cort) with a healthy dose of fantasy. Keri is scattered and sometimes lacking in confidence but she is also a woman of action who, once she commits, is prepared to do the right thing and follow through.Tassel and Court serve as excellent counterpoints to Keri and the relationships between these three characters are an excellent underpinning for the rest of the novel.

Everything about The Keeper of the Mist comes back to time. Keri’s ascension to Lady has to happen on a very specific schedule. The expiration date for the mist is clearly in sight if the magic border isn’t fixed. Foreign intrusion is imminent as Nimmira becomes more visible to its neighbors. All of this urgency lends itself to a fast-paced story. Unfortunately that same urgency underscores the fact that this story is very slow and much more focused on characters than plot.

The Keeper of the Mist is a contemplative coming-of-age fantasy about friendship, embracing change, and facing challenges head on. Recommended for readers who enjoy well-realized regency fantasies in the tradition of Patricia McKillip or Diana Wynne Jones.

Possible Pairings: Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark: A Non-Fiction Picture Book Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth BaddeleyRuth Bader Ginsburg was disagreeing and asking tough questions long before she became a justice of the Supreme Court. From an early age she challenged inequality, disagreed with unfair treatment, and stood up for what was right.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark (2016) by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, introduces readers to Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a child and follows her into adulthood and her time as a Supreme Court Justice.

Levy balances the picture book format with thoughtful text that provides just enough information without bogging down each page with large chunks of text. Baddely’s bold and colorful illustrations make this book arresting from page one with her combination of hyper-realistic figures and more whimsical hand lettering for some of Ginsburg’s bold statements throughout the book.

I Dissent includes many fun facts about Ginsburg (her husband did the cooking in the family, Ginsburg has a special collar she wears for dissenting opinions in court) which will surprise and delight readers who are learning about this remarkable woman for the first time. Because Levy covers aspects of most of Ginsburg’s life, the book also includes a lot of information even for readers who might already know a bit about the Supreme Court justice. The book closes with back matter that includes more information about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, notes on Supreme Court cases, a selected bibliography, and citations for the sources of quotes used in the book.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark is a must read for any young people  interested in the US court system (or even older people–I learned a lot, not to mention tearing up at the end because I loved it so much), fans of the Notorious RBG, and, of course, feminists everywhere. Highly recommended!

Possible Pairings: Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring by Enigma Albert and Tony Cliff; Fly High!: The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden, Mary Kay Kroeger, Teresa Flavin; Radioactive!: How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World by Winifred Conkling;  Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done by Andrea Gonzales, Sophie Houser; Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman; Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs; The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Murder of the Century by Sarah Miller; Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes; Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen; Boss Babes: A Coloring and Activity Book for Grownups by Michelle Volansky

The Crown’s Game: A Review

The Crown's Game by Evelyn SkyeUsually, only one enchanter is born to continue the line of magicians with a long history of serving the tsar and protecting Russia from its enemies. When two are born, the tsar initiates the Crown’s Game where the rival enchanters can showcase their talents and prove they deserve to be the only true enchanter in Russia.

Vika Andreyeva has been honing her elemental magic with her father since she was a child. She has always assumed becoming the Imperial Enchanter was her birthright, never imagining there were others like her.

Nikolai Karimov’s mechanical magic is unmatched–a useful quality to help him lead the life of a gentleman without the funds to match. His magic brought him to the attention of his mentor and his training gives Nikolai the life he never could have imagined as an orphan on the Russian steppe. He is determined to win the game and claim the life he has been promised.

When they are summoned to compete against each other Vika and Nikolai meet as enemies. At first. But they are also drawn to each other in ways neither can fully grasp. Only one of them can win the game and only one of them can survive. But even winning may not be enough to protect their hearts in The Crown’s Game (2016) by Evelyn Skye.

The Crown’s Game is Skye’s debut novel and the start of a series.

The Crown’s Game is a historical fantasy set in an alternate Russia where magic flourishes and is a key part of Russia’s heritage, not to mention its defenses. Skye grounds this story in well-researched and thoroughly described details of Russian culture and history. The novel is written in close third person with chapters alternating between the points of view of several characters including Vika, Nikolai, the tsar’s son and heir Pasha, Pasha’s sister Yulia, and others. While the variety of characters rounds out the story it also, unfortunately, decreases the chances for character development.

Despite the title and the marketing for this book, The Crown’s Game is not the high stakes battle readers might expect. Instead of a fierce battle, the game proves to be more of a magical showcase where, during its early stages, the stakes and ultimate outcome of the game often seem to lack real consequences.

Skye does an excellent job of bringing her version of Russia to life. By contrast the fantasy elements of this story are weaker. The magic system lacks internal logic to match the urgency suggested by the story. In particular, it feels arbitrary that there can be only one enchanter. While this may be something that will develop in later installments, it serves as little more than a plot hole here.

The Crown’s Game is an ambitious novel is rife with ambience and intrigue as both Vika and Nikolai discover uncomfortable truths about their pasts as they move through the game. Twists, shocks, and surprising relationships further increase the tension. Recommended for readers with a fondness for Russian settings and light fantasy that is heavy on the romance and angst.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Game of Love and Death by Martha A. Brockenbrough, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

March: Book Three: A Graphic Novel Review

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate PowellThe March trilogy is a graphic novel series telling the story of John Lewis’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. When March: Book Three (2016) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell begins in September 1963 with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Although this novel focuses on Lewis’s experiences with him as the narrator and, of course, biographical information from his own life, this story also takes a wider lens to look at the movement as a whole. Lewis is the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) whose younger members are feeling disillusioned with the more mainstream activists who often take credit for SNCCs moves while sidelining their role. SNCC is on the verge of fracturing from within, and violence is increasing in the south as Lewis and others make plans for Freedom Vote and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

March: Book Three is a thoughtful and engrossing conclusion to a trilogy that is already being hailed as a modern classic. This final installment was the 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature and the 2017 Printz Award winner.

Although it is the third part of a trilogy, most of this story makes sense on its own. Readers with a basic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and history of the time may have an easier go diving into this story than those without that background. Because this book is so visual, I will admit that I had a hard time identifying key characters early on which, I think, is partly from coming to this book without reading the earlier installments.

Lewis and Aydin have worked together to create a narrative that focuses on Lewis’s life experiences and his own changing feelings about SNCC and the movement as a whole. At the same time, the scope and breadth of the movement–the far-reaching hopes and the devastating violence–are also emphasizes both with the narrative text and with Powell’s moving illustrations and dynamic panel layouts.

The black and white illustrations work extremely well to highlight the injustice the Civil Rights Movement was fighting. The lack of color in the illustrations also has the interesting effect of flattening a lot of the skin tones and underscoring how similar we all are. Powell does a good job filling each panel and page with movement and action. Some of the panels are a bit frenzied but it’s a deliberate choice at key moments.

Having March: Book Three framed as a story told in retrospect was also a very effective choice. Readers go into this story knowing that Lewis makes it through–he survives–and also seeing immediately how far things have progressed (and how much work remains). Reading this story through a different lens with more immediacy to the narrative would have been unbearable and often devastating in the wake of the loss and danger faced by Lewis and everyone else in the Movement. I read this graphic novel near the 2016 election and it was very poignant and bittersweet to see the power of the vote in action while also realizing how much was undone in 2016 and how much still must be done.

While this book functions as a larger history of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, it’s also important to remember that this series is also an autobiographical text in many ways. Because of that, this story does set aside and gloss over certain moments. This selective focus is a flaw of any biographical text and it makes sense in the context of this series as the focus is clearly and deliberately on the main events and players of the Movement. That said, it is interesting to note the way Stokely Carmichael’s comments about women’s only position in SNCC being prone was glossed over. I am sure it was seen as a joke by a lot of people then (and still) but the way it was sidestepped here just highlights how anyone, even with the best intentions does have an agenda and bias in terms of scope and how events are presented. It’s also worth noting that this story stops short of SNCC’s dissolution and Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.

March: Book Three is a powerful conclusion to a trilogy everyone should read. This series deserves every bit of praise it has received. It is a rare series that occupies the space between academic reading for school and pleasure reading quite comfortably. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson, X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin, Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Samurai Rising: A Non-Fiction Review

“Few warriors are as famous as the Japanese samurai. We remember those beautiful swords and those fearsome helmets. We recall, with both horror and fascination, how some chose to end their own lives. But no one can understand the samurai without knowing Minamoto Yoshitsune.”

Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth HindsSamurai warriors occupy an unusual space between actual history and the stuff of legend. Immortalized in countless books and films, these warriors are sensationalized and idealized but rarely studied as historical figures.

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune (2016) by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth Hinds works to correct that with this biography of one of history’s most famous samurai.

Yoshitsune’s story begins in 1160 when his father tries to kidnap the Japanese Emperor and take more prestige and wealth for the Minamoto samurai by force. He fails thus forfeiting his life and placing his rival, the leader of the Taira samurai, in an influential position as the emperor’s right hand. Yoshitsune avoids execution thanks to his mother’s pleas and is instead exiled as a child at a monastery to become a monk.

As he grows older and learns more about his family’s heritage Yoshitsune rejects that path, runs away from the monastery, learns the ways of the samurai, and sets out help his family reclaim their supposed birthright.

This story begins in 1160 when the Minamoto abduction of the emperor fails. Turner bridges the more than 850 years between Yoshitsune and readers with thorough research and a healthy dose of supposition.

Samurai Rising opens with a listing of key figures in the story along with name pronunciations and a short description of their relationship to Yoshitsune. Detailed maps show readers Japan as a whole as well as key battle site and strongholds that will turn up in the story. The text is further enhanced with illustrations from Gareth Hinds that appear at the beginning of each chapter showcasing samurai in action or detailed images of their various equipment. Turner finishes this book with copious footnotes about her research and the details she has chosen to include and interpret in this story.

This book can appeal to a wide range of ages. It’s been discussed as a contender for both children’s and young adult awards and was named a finalist for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA’s) Non-Fiction Awards.

Samurai Rising reads very young. The narrative voice feels decidedly middle grade as does the snappy tone and the witty asides peppered throughout the text. Turner’s writing is filled with pat language and anachronistic analogies to better situated samurai life and culture in modern terms. (Example: Saying the “cool kids” of the Japanese ruling class saw the samurai as “dumb jocks” or comparing Yoshitsune showing up at the Hiraizumi estate asking for samurai training to a boy who has never been to Little League showing up for spring training with the Yankees.) This information will work for some readers. I was not one of them.

Aside from pulling me out of the story–because really, even as a historical biography this book is essentially a story–these comparisons often highlighted very specific assumptions Turner makes about who will be reading this book (sports enthusiasts, people with the cultural knowledge to know the Yankees, readers familiar with the stereotypical social hierarchy of high school . . .). Seeing these assumptions at play is intensely irritating as it creates the effect of talking down to readers and, for me, placing me as firmly not within the target audience (which is okay, that happens when adults read YA but it could easily happen for kids and teens outside of the target area as well).

Writing issues aside, Samurai Rising is also a book that glorifies violence and war and doesn’t look to closely at the implications of writing a history about the “winning” side of this samurai battle. Why are the Minamoto the heroes? Why is violence and death acceptable within the ceremony of samurai culture? Turner never really says. I don’t have the background in Japanese history to say much of anything but I will point you to Leonard Kim’s review which raises a lot of these questions and points out some of the inherent flaws in this viewpoint.

The scope of Samurai Rising and the subject matter is especially impressive given the relative dearth of textual evidence from the time. Turner takes on a lot here and she successfully breathes life into Yoshitsune’s story making it engaging and approachable for readers. Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter open to interpretation and discussion.

If you want to hear more thoughts about Samurai Rising be sure to check out Sarah Couri’s review on Someday My Printz Will Come and the discussion in the comments on Heavy Medal as well. Leonard Kim’s review should also be required reading about this book.

Possible Pairings: The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb, The Samurai’s Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard, The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin, Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki

Where Futures End: A Review

“All accidents are magic.”

One year from now in “When We Asked the Impossible” Dylan is desperate to believe that there is more out there and that he can be more himself if only he can get back to the tantalizing world that haunts his childhood memories.

Ten years from now in “When We Were TV” Brixney is positive she can get her brother, and by extension herself, out of a debtor’s colony. All she needs is more views on her social media feed. An unexpected visitor to Flavor Foam could be exactly what she needs.

Thirty years from now in “When We Went High-Concept” Epony is running out of ways to save her family when their town is flooded. Soon she’s forced into an impossible position, her entire online presence erased and her life inextricably altered in a bid to go high-concept.

Sixty years from now in “When We Could Hardly Contain Ourselves” Reef struggles to survive while finding distraction if not comfort in the virtual game playing out across the city’s streets. Until it all goes wrong.

One hundred years from now in “When We Ended it All” Quinn embarks on her coming-of-age quest to find a token to bring back for a husband she isn’t sure she wants. During her travels she meets a stranger. On the first day Quinn will tell her story. On the second day he will tell his story and things will begin to come together. On the third day, one of them will die. Quinn will choose who.

Five people. Five stories. Two worlds. One moment they have all been moving toward in Where Futures End (2016) by Parker Peevyhouse.

Where Futures End is Peevyhouse’s debut novel.

This ambitious novel is broken into five interconnected sections that work on their own as short stories and seamlessly come together to create a larger narrative of a world and its mutable future.

Where Futures End strikes a fine balance between science fiction and fantasy as readers and characters try to reconcile a changing world with basis in scientific fact with the wondrous consequences of those changes.

This eerily prescient book is filled with distinct and haunting characters as well as rich and intricate world building. Where Futures End is a smart and thoughtful book that is perfect for readers looking to completely immerse themselves in a story. Ideal for readers who enjoy tales of portal fantasies, parallel worlds or alternate universes, and short science fiction. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Magicians by Lev Grossman; The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories by Maggie Stiefvater, Brenna Yovanoff, Tessa Gratton, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick