Everything All at Once: A Review

cover art for Everything All at Once by Katrina LenoLottie Reaves doesn’t take risks. She prefers to play it safe. But even her usual caution is no help when her aunt Helen–the one person who always seemed to understand Lottie’s anxiety and panic–dies of cancer. But Lottie and her family aren’t the only ones mourning. After Helen’s death it feels like the whole world is mourning the loss of the beloved author of the Alvin Hatter series about siblings Alvin and Margot and the chaos that follows when they discover an elixir that grants immortality.

After Helen’s death it feels like Lottie is spinning out as her panic about death, life, and so many other things start to feel so much bigger. Grieving and feeling more than a little lost, Lottie receives the most surprising inheritance from Helen’s will: twenty-four letters each filled with a dare designed to help Lottie learn how to embrace change and risk.

Helen promised the letters would lead to some bigger truth, answers to questions Lottie hasn’t even learned enough to ask yet, but as she steps outside of her comfort zone and learns more about her aunt, Lottie also discovers the shocking secret that inspired her aunt to write the Alvin Hatter books–a secret that could change Lottie’s life forever in Everything All at Once (2017) by Katrina Leno.

Leno’s latest standalone is part contemporary coming-of-age story and part fantasy with heavy nods toward Tuck Everlasting and Harry Potter. The narrative is broken up with letters from Aunt Helen and excerpts from the Alvin Hatter books throughout.

Lottie’s first person narration is sometimes claustrophobic as she struggles to work through her panic and anxiety. Leno handle’s this portrayal with honesty and authenticity as Lottie tries to find coping mechanisms that work for her while also trying to overcome her anxiety when it prevents her from doing what she really wants. Everything All at Once is the first time I’ve seen a novel truly capture and explore the fear of mortality that hangs over a grieving person expressed so clearly.

On her journey Lottie has conscientious parents, a supportive younger brother, and a funny and smart best friend willing to follow her on every adventure. There’s also a cute but mysterious boy and one of my favorite romantic exchanges (One character asks “Are you saying we’re not friends?” And the other replies “That’s exactly what I’m saying.” And it’s perfect.) But I can’t tell you much more without revealing too much.

Everything All at Once is strongest as a story about grieving, growing up, and an ode to reading and fandoms. Leno plants seeds early on for more surprises (some of which are heavily broadcast) but it also can feel like one element too many. Recommended for readers looking for an empowering story about growing up and working through loss. Or readers who love Tuck Everlasting but wanted more banter and kissing.

Possible Pairings: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble

The Witch Boy: A Graphic Novel Review

cover art for The Witch Boy by Molly Knox OstertagThirteen-year-old Aster leads a secluded life on the compound he and his extended family call home. The family has everything they need and is far away from prying eyes which is important since Aster’s family is magic. For generations this magic has been simple: girls become witches while boys become shapeshifters.

Aster desperately wants to be a witch despite his family telling him again and again (and again) that it’s impossible for a boy to learn witchery. Aster doesn’t care and keeps studying and practicing in secret.

When Aster meets Charlie–a new girl in town who refuses to let anyone else define her–Aster knows he has to keep following his dreams in The Witch Boy (2017) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

The Witch Boy is the start of Ostertag’s middle grade graphic novel series which continues in The Hidden Witch.

Ostertag’s full color illustrations are approachable and vivid. Panels are full of motion and varied design (complete with witchery runes!) that draw readers through the comic. Entertaining characters and strong friendships more than make up for an otherwise slight (and sometimes not subtle) plot.

The Witch Boy is a great graphic novel for readers of all ages with a message of inclusion that is much needed and very welcome.

Possible Pairings: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix,  Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

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 Upside of Unrequited: A Review

cover art for The Upside of Unrequited by Becky AlbertalliMolly has had a lot of crushes—twenty-six in fact—but they’ve never led anywhere. She’s never gone on a date or been kissed. Molly doesn’t necessarily mind that. But sometimes it’s hard to feel so awkward and chubby while her twin sister Cassie never has trouble connecting with the girls she likes.

This summer all of that might change when Molly connects with a cute boy named Will on the train. But it turns out turning a crush into something more isn’t easy. It’s even harder with helping to plan her moms’ wedding and her summer job. Then there’s Reid, Molly’s cute but nerdy coworker who is making her question all of the things she thought she knew about the type of guy she’d fall for in The Upside of Unrequited (2017) by Becky Albertalli.

The Upside of Unrequited is a cute standalone contemporary romance that puts a fat girl center stage while also offering a story that is about a lot more than Molly’s weight. Molly is a sweet and relatable main character. While her crushes can lead to flights of fancy she also stays grounded while focusing on planning her moms’ wedding now that they can finally get married. Molly and Cassie’s changing relationship as Cassie falls in love for the first time adds another dimension to the story.

Unfortunately, this one fell totally flat for me. I disliked Molly’s narrative voice a lot. She was a bit too twee for my tastes. I also knew I was going to have a hard time with this story when it opened in a public bathroom. It all just felt like Molly and the story were trying a bit too hard to be appealing.

The Upside of Unrequited is an obvious choice for fans of Albertalli’s other novels. A likely winner for readers looking for a more inclusive contemporary romance as long as they can buy into the voice.

Possible Pairings: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Once and For All by Sarah Dessen, The Romantics by Leah Konen, Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: A Review

“I’ve never thought of myself as a force to be reckoned with. Maybe I should start thinking of myself that way; maybe I deserve to.”

cover art for The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidEveryone remembers Evelyn Hugo. The old Hollywood actress is surrounded by an aura of glamour and mystery. After retiring from the public eye decades ago, Evelyn is finally ready to tell her story.

Bizarrely, Evelyn only wants to tell her story to Monique Grant–a magazine reporter still starting her career and largely unknown. No one is as surprised as Monique at the offer. But as Monique warms up to assignment she also realizes that no one is as prepared to maximize this opportunity either.

From the confines of her luxurious Upper East Side apartment Evelyn tells the story of her career from her fateful move to California in the 1950s to her abrupt retirement in the 1980s. Along the way she also reveals all the gory details about the seven husbands she married and left behind along the way.

As she learns about Evelyn’s unapologetic ambition and her stunning career, Monique quickly realizes that there has always been more to Evelyn than meets the eye. But even as Monique starts to admire the shrewd actress she realizes that Evelyn Hugo is still holding back some secrets and some surprising revelations about Monique’s own part in them in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017) by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

This standalone novel is a blend of historical and contemporary fiction. The majority of the story relates Evelyn’s story as she tells it to Monique in seven parts–one for each husband, of course. In between sessions with Evelyn Monique also deals with upheaval in her own life as she comes to terms with her imminent divorce and tries to figure out next steps in her career.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is written in the first person as Monique receives the assignment and meets Evelyn and also with Evelyn narrating her own parts as she dictates them to Monique. Evelyn and Monique are both very nuanced characters whose stories are handled thoughtfully in this novel. That said I’m still not sure how I feel about a white author writing in the first person voice of a latina actress who was made over and passed as white for the sake of her career (something that actually happened to real life film star Rita Hayworth) or a biracial journalist like Monique.

I can’t say much more about the plot without giving something away. There are a few surprises and Jenkins Reid’s pacing is flawless as she moves from one surprise to the next. Both Evelyn and Hugo’s stories are less about romance (or marriage) and more about strong women acknowledging their own ambitions and embracing them.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is an engaging novel filled with old Hollywood glamour, wry commentary, and two heroine with a lot to teach their readers. Recommended.

Unearthed: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Enearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan SpoonerEarth’s natural resources are running out already creating harmful divisions between the wealthy and the destitute. A coded message from a long-extinct alien race seems to promise help. The Undying promise advanced technology and riches waiting to be found on their home planet Gaia–things that could help reverse Earth’s environmental damage and change lives. That is if anyone can get through the cunning and dangerous traps left behind by the Undying.

Jules Addison is a scholar and a linguist. He grew up watching his father decode the first message of the Undying and he has watched his father deal with the consequences of speaking out against the governments plan to explore Gaia heedless of the risks and hazards of venturing forward too quickly. Mia Radcliffe is a scavenger. Smuggled onto Gaia by mercenaries, Mia hopes to loot enough Undying tech to be able to buy her sister’s freedom. And her own way back to Earth.

Jules and Mia are on opposite sides in the exploration of Gaia. With limited resources and time running out to get back to Earth they will have to forge an uneasy alliance to solve Gaia’s riddles if they hope to survive. Onward if you dare in Unearthed (2017) by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner.

Unearthed is the thriller start to Kaufman and Spooner’s new duology. The novel is alternates chapters between Mia and Jules’ first person narration.

This book has been marketed as Lara Croft and Indiana Jones in space which is completely accurate. Unearthed is filled with nail-biting cliffhangers and shocking twists and Jules and Mia struggle to work together and survive the many obstacles they face on Gaia.

Despite the high stakes and the action, the pace often drags as Jules and Mia privately stew over their growing attraction and the (often fraught) aspects of their alliance. Repetitive traps and chase scenes further slow down what should be a breakneck story.

Unearthed is perfect for readers looking for solid science fiction and fans of adventure stories. A must read for fans of the authors’ Starcrossed trilogy.

Possible Pairings: The Last Girl on Earth by Alexandra Blogier, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Warcross by Marie Lu, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Partials by Dan Wells, The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

Down Among the Sticks and Bones: A Review

“Every choice feeds every choice that comes after, whether we want those choices or no.”

cover art for Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireIdentical twins Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way back home and were immediately sent off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children before they could bring disorder to their parents’ tidy life.

This is the story of what happened before they came back.

Jacqueline and Jillian were a matched set–identical. Perfect for their parents to split up and mold after themselves. Jacqueline wore pretty dresses and was polite and quite–her mother’s perfect daughter. Jillian was smart and loud, a tomboy through and through–not quite the son her father wanted but close.

They were five when they learned that grown ups can’t be trusted and sisters can’t always be close. They were twelve when they walked down an impossible staircase and found a world filled with death and horror where, for the first time, they can choose who they might want to be in Down Among the Sticks and Bones (2017) by Seanan McGuire.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway. This novella is a prequel to the series starter.

It is an interesting exercise in patience to read the followup to an exciting novella only to realize it is a prequel and will offer no hints of what comes after for the characters you’ve already met and started to care about. Despite desperately wanting to see what happens next at the school, Down Among the Sticks and Bones is an excellent addition to the series.

McGuire continues to develop this series with strong world building and thoughtful character development. Because of the prequel nature this story can be read out of order although that will dilute some of the impact of the character development across the series.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones plays with preconceived notions about heroes and villains in a world where, in the absence of a true hero, the lesser villain may unwittingly take on the position. The story is also a scathing commentary on absent and controlling parents. The usually powerful bond between sisters seen in fantasy novels is subverted here as Jack and Jill realize they are only able to come into their own when they are apart.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is another excellent addition to this strange little series of novellas. Perfect for readers of both fantasy and horror. Fans of the series can only hope future installments will offer as much insight into other characters’ stories.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley