Never-Contented Things: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Never-Contented Things by Sarah PorterKsenia is cold where foster brother Josh is warm; sharp where he is soft. She is almost eighteen and their foster parents are simultaneously planning for Ksenia’s transition to a group home while preparing to adopt sixteen-year-old Josh. Ksenia is a bit of an oddity in their painfully conventional town with her androgynous looks and thrift store style without any of Josh’s charisma to smooth things over.

While Ksenia is resigned to their separation, Josh is desperate to hang on to Ksenia at any cost–even if it means making an impossible bargain with otherworldy creatures they encounter at a party. Entrapped in another world with Josh, Ksenia is determined to protect him despite his betrayal. Josh sees it as a refuge where no one can question his romantic love and infatuation for his foster sister while Ksenia knows it is a prison with no possible escape.

Josh and especially Ksenia are people no one would look for except for their best friend, Lexi, a girl whose life couldn’t be more different and who, if she can find them, might have the key to breaking the spell in Never-Contented Things (2019) by Sarah Porter.

Porter blends horror and urban fantasy in her latest standalone novel of faerie.

Evocative, phantasmagorical prose carries across multiple viewpoints as Ksenia works to save herself and the people she loves in this book filled with messy characters doing the best they can.

Never-Contented Things features gorgeous sentence level writing and vibrant horror which elevate this character driven story about resilience, identity, and learning to save yourself. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

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

Nocturna: A Review

cover art for Nocturna by Maya MotayneAfter his brother Dez’s murder, Prince Alfehr is poised to become king–something he fears almost as acutely as finding concrete proof that his brother is truly dead. Alfie left Castallan months ago to grieve and, he hopes, to find a way to bring his brother back from the void–even if it means using his bruxo magic to ill ends.

Finn is a faceshifter who can change her appearance at will. It’s a magical ability that serves her well as a thief. When their paths cross Alfie and Finn accidentally unleash a dangerous ancient power that could destroy Castellan and the rest of the world. Together they will have to confront their greatest failures and their greatest fears to contain this dark magic before it’s too late in Nocturna (2019) by Maya Motayne.

Nocturna is Motayne’s debut novel and the start of her A Forgery of Magic trilogy.

Alternating chapters follow Alfie and Finn giving nuance to their motivations and bad decisions. Alfie and Finn’s relationship, which evolves over the course of the novel from a reluctant alliance to obvious respect and affection, helps fill the void left by world building that remains thin even with the added dimension of Castallan trying to assert itself in the wake of generations of Englass colonial rule.

Nocturna is an epic fantasy set in a Latinx inspired world with a unique magic system where moving shadows can reveal a person’s feelings and spells will be immediately recognizable to Spanish speakers. A promising debut with unique magic and two strong protagonists among a varied ensemble cast.

Possible Pairings: The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

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

Field Notes on Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Look, this is what I do. I tell stories. And stories are magic. Trust me on this.”

cover art for Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. SmithHugo is used to being a minor celebrity in England–that’s what happens when you’re a sextuplet. He’s used to being grouped with his siblings at home, at school, and even in posts on their mom’s parenting blog. He’s used to having a girlfriend and he’s dreading what happens when he starts college with all of his siblings next year.

But then his girlfriend dumps him and suddenly a lot of the givens in Hugo’s life are up in the air. Like the trip he and his now ex-girlfriend were going to take across the United States after graduation. Hugo still wants to go, is actually looking forward to the chance to travel alone if he’s being honest, but there’s one problem: the tickets are all booked under the name of his ex, Margaret Campbell. Nontransferable. No exceptions.

Margaret “Mae” Campbell has just been rejected from her dream film program. Her dads assure her that her application film was perfect. And Mae can always apply again as a transfer student. But with her life in small town New York already feeling so tiny, she’s ready to shake things up. Enter Hugo’s post online looking for a Margaret Campbell to take his spare ticket in exchange for making this trip happen.

Traveling together is meant to be a simple business arrangement. But how can Hugo help but be drawn in when Mae starts recording footage for a film about love? And how can Mae not want to help Hugo figure out how to follow his own dreams when she finds out how much he wants to learn who he is away from his brothers and sisters?

Sometimes you only get one chance to get what you want. As they near the end of their trip, Hugo and Mae have to decide how much they’re willing to put on the line for their dreams–and each other in Field Notes on Love (2019) by Jennifer E. Smith.

Set over the course of their whirlwind trip, Field Notes on Love alternates closer third person chapters following Hugo and Mae. Smith populates this story with a distinct and memorable cast of characters including Hugo’s large, boisterous family as well as Mae’s dads and her grandmother.

Hugo and Mae are excellent foils as they push each other to chase their dreams even if it means going outside of their comfort zones. Mae’s practical, savvy personality is a perfect contrast to Hugo who is more of a dreamer and still figuring out what he wants from life. Although both characters have very different visions for their future, Smith presents each course thoughtfully and honestly.

Field Notes on Love captures the strange intimacy of being forced into a small space with a person you don’t know and uses that starting point to build a fully realized love story that is effervescent and sweet. Field Notes on Love is the perfect story for anyone who’s ever wanted to take a vacation from their life, ever dreamed of making a big change, and anyone who has ever wanted that intangible something more. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Dramatically Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Comics Will Break Your Heart: A Review

cover art for Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin HicksArguably, Miriam’s family should be rich. After all, her grandfather co-created The TomorrowMen. But he also signed away his rights to the series in an acrimonious deal in that has left nothing but bitterness in its wake. Miriam’s mother says they have enough to get by. But just barely. And certainly not enough to let Miriam consider college in any serious way.

Then there’s the new guy in town, Weldon, who is really cute and really off limits once Miriam finds out he is the grandson of the man who cheated her grandfather all those years ago.

Knowing their families, Mir and Weldon are wary of starting anything together. But their hearts have other plans. Will mutual attraction, friendship, and maybe even love be enough to end a decades long feud in Comics Will Break Your Heart (2019) by Faith Erin Hicks?

Comics Will Break Your Heart is Hicks’ prose novel debut. Chapters alternate close third person perspective between Mir and Weldon.

Hicks’ prose debut is a uniquely Canadian, very comic-centric, and distinctly funny story. The story opens with a meet cute that escalates from bookstore shelf organizing to a fistfight and the stakes only climb from there.

Comics Will Break Your Heart is filled with witty banter, pop culture references (both real and fictional), as well as a deep and abiding affection for geek culture and the fandoms who love them. Recommended for anyone who’s ever scrambled to buy tickets opening day or stayed up way too late for a midnight launch party.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Prince Charming by Rachel Hawkins, The Romantics by Leah Konen, Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

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

Finale: A Review

*Finale is the final book in Stephanie Garber’s Caraval trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning with Caraval and Legendary.*

cover art for Finale by Stephanie GarberScarlett and Donatella Dragna are no strangers to magic.

Spirited away by a roguish sailor and her sister’s schemes, Scarlett doesn’t just play in Caraval. She wins. During the game she sees time traded as easily as coins and the dead brought back to life; she finds true love and discovers the power of a wish made in earnest. Perhaps even more importantly, in winning Caraval, Scarlett learns how to be strong after years of thinking she could settle for being safe.

Tella has always been brazen, maybe even reckless. She easily barters away kisses, her sister’s stability, and is even willing to risk her own freedom if it means getting what she wants. Weeks later when Tella plays her own game of Caraval even her daring plan to unmask Caraval Master Legend may not be enough to win when the Immortal Fates return to the Meridian Empire.

Long rumored to be myths, the Fates are closer to gods with the magic and the cruelty to prove it. The stakes have never been higher as the Fates try to reclaim the empire they once ruled and two sisters race to stop them. Scarlett will have to do the impossible and Tella will have to risk everything and this time it’s definitely not just a game in Finale (2019) by Stephanie Garber.

Finale is the final book in Stephanie Garber’s Caraval trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning with Caraval (which relates Scarlett’s story and in many ways functions as a standalone) and Legendary (Tella’s story and a direct sequel to Finale which begins two months later).

This installment alternates close third person chapters following Tella and Scarlett with the return of several other favorite characters along the way.

Both sisters know that anything is possible with a bit of magic and a lot of determination but even with help from Legend and Julian, it’s unclear how immortal beings can be stopped–especially when the Fates’ only weakness is something completely antithetical to their existence.

In a series that consistently amps up the tension and the stakes, Finale is a high action, nail-biting conclusion as both sisters are forced to make to make perilous choices that will change their lives–and the Meridian Empire itself–forever. Garber’s lush prose, vibrant descriptions, and, of course, swoon worthy romance serve as elegant counterpoints to the dangers that Scarlett and Tella face throughout.

Finale is a satisfying conclusion and an apt farewell to the richly imagined world of Caraval and, of course, to Scarlett and Tella–our heroines who together learn the power of magic, love, and a game well-played.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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

The Vanishing Stair: A (WIRoB) Review

Here’s a teaser from the start of my review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

cover art for The Vanishing Stair by Maureen JohnsonEllingham Academy is a prestigious Vermont boarding school founded by eccentric billionaire Albert Ellingham. Its students are encouraged to think of learning as a game while pursuing their passions. Some of them come to the academy to write, others to create. That’s the one thing that binds the students together: “Everyone at Ellingham Academy had a thing.”

Stevie Bell’s thing is crime; specifically, solving the Ellingham case.

In 1936, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. Despite doing as the kidnappers asked and paying a ransom, Ellingham never reunited with his family. Iris’ body was soon found; Alice was never recovered.

The biggest clue in the case was the “Truly Devious” letter — an eerie poem reminiscent of Dorothy Parker that promised violence and maybe even death.

Stevie isn’t the first person to try to solve the case. But she has something no one else does: new evidence. It’s all contained in an old tea tin filled with “a bit of white feather, a bit of beaded cloth, a tarnished, gold-colored lipstick tube with the mummified remains of a red lipstick, a tiny enameled pillbox in the shape of a shoe, some pieces of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem.”

Together, these “humble objects” are proof that the infamous Truly Devious letter may not have been tied to the case at all, but a student prank.

The problem is that Stevie’s parents pull her out of Ellingham mere weeks into her first term, after the death of another student, Hayes Major (whose murder Stevie tried to solve). Knowing what happened to Hayes, and knowing that another student was likely involved, Stevie senses missing pieces.

You can read my full review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/the-vanishing-stair

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Famous in a Small Town: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Famous in a Small Town by Emma MillsSophie has very specific plans for the summer before her senior year at Acadia High School.

She needs to stay on track with the goals listed in her College Collective handbook including continuing to volunteer at the local library. She has to make time to practice with the Acadia High School Marching Band as they prepare for the school year, fit in babysitting gigs for her neighbors, and of course hang out with her four best friends when they have time. Honestly, it’s a lot like every other summer Sophie has spent growing up in Acadia.

There are two big differences this year: the first is that Sophie has to figure out a way to help the marching band raise enough money to get to the Rose Parade. The second is August–the mysterious younger brother of her regular babysitting client who appears seemingly out of nowhere.

Sophie is immediately drawn to August. And it seems like the feeling might be mutual. Except that August keeps pushing her away. And Sophie doesn’t know what to do about it.

It turns out solving the marching band’s fundraising problem might be a lot easier. Megan Pleasant, country music superstar, is Acadia’s one claim to fame. All Sophie has to do is invite Megan back to headline a fundraising festival. What could be easier?

As Sophie tries to figure out why Megan has publicly promised she’ll never return to Acadia, she’ll learn a lot about first love, and all of the things that can hold a friendship together–or tear it apart in Famous in a Small Town (2019) by Emma Mills.

Mills’ latest standalone contemporary is another delight filled with humor and introspection. Sophie’s first person narration is self-aware and sardonic.

Famous in a Small Town is a lot like a welcome hug. This story is very character driven with a meandering plot that even at its most urgent promises readers everything will be okay. You might also think of it as a Hallmark movie but with characters who are more inclusive and nuanced, subtler sincerity and, in this case, more dick jokes.

Famous is a Small Town is an ode to the quirks and charms of small towns, big personalities, and friendship in all of its forms. An endearing book that is as welcome as a breeze on a warm summer day. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

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