Luck of the Titanic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.

Valora Luck almost misses her chance to be one of those passengers when her entry is blocked thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricts the admission of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Valora is used to obstacles, though, and isn’t about to let a silly policy stop her from getting on board and seeing her twin brother Jamie for the first time in years.

Jamie is traveling on the Titanic as a seaman on his way to Cuba with the rest of his crew but Val has bigger plans for both of them. Reunited for the first time since their father’s death, this is the perfect opportunity for the twins to revive their acrobatics act–an act that Val knows will be good enough to attract the attention of the Albert Ankeny Stewart. One look at their performance and Mr. Stewart will have to recruit them for the Ringling Circus. Then Val and Jamie can finally get back to being family again instead of near strangers.

Val’s plan is perfect. Until disaster strikes and, as the Titanic begins its last night as an ocean liner, Val and her brother will have to worry about surviving the present before they can plan for the future in Luck of the Titanic (2021) by Stacey Lee.

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Luck of the Titanic is narrated by Val as she struggles to board the luxury liner and secure passage into America for herself and her brother. The story is inspired by the real Chinese passengers on the TitanicYou can read more about Lee’s real-life inspiration to write this story in an essay she wrote for Oprah Daily.

Lee once again delivers a masterful work of historical fiction. Luck of the Titanic is carefully researched with front matter that includes a cast of characters and diagrams of the famous ship. The balances portraying the very real racism and intolerance Val and her fellow Chinese passengers would have encountered on the ship (or in attempting to travel to the United States) while also highlighting small joys as Val reconnects with her brother, befriends his crewmates, and as all of them discover the magic of this larger-than-life ship before it strikes an iceberg and begins to sink.

Val is an accomplished acrobat which adds a fun dimension to the story. Because of the novel’s setting, this aspect of Val’s life can never be the main point of the story but it still adds so much to her character as readers see her talent and joy in her work–and the contrast in how Jamie feel’s about the same performance skills.

Readers familiar with the history of the Titanic will recognize many key points including the iconic state rooms and grand stairway while the story also shows more of third class (steerage) where Jamie and his crew are located. The novel does include an attempted sexual assault which moves the plot forward (necessitating the separation of Val and some of her friends as the iceberg hits) but also feels excessive in a story that already has plenty of tension and strife for the characters.

Lee also includes nods to common theories about contributing factors to the disaster including the lack of binoculars for crew working in the crow’s nest, the pressure on Captain Smith to drive at speed, and of course the lifeboats (of which there were too few) being launched without reaching full capacity. Other details (the lack of proper warnings from the Marconi operators, the confusion as Titanic tried to signal for help from nearby ships) are left off-page in favor of a focus on the characters. While Lee shows more behind-the-scenes areas of the ship, this novel is largely populated by fictional characters whenever possible leaving notable survivors like Molly Brown and crew member Violet Jessop out of the narrative entirely.

Luck of the Titanic is both gripping and melancholy as the novel builds to its inevitable conclusion. This story of survival and family is completely engrossing while also asking readers to consider whose stories are deemed worth telling in history–and how we can work to widen that scope. Recommended for fans of adventure and historical fiction novels.

Possible Pairings: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

Even and Odd: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth DurstEven and Odd are sisters who share magic on alternating days. On her even days twelve-year-old Emma “Even” Berry tries to pack in as much magic use as she can while she prepares for her next exam from the Academy of Magic. With her level five exam looming, Even needs all the practice time she can get to make sure she stays on schedule with her plans to become a hero. As a hero Even will be able to accept quests and travel throughout the neighboring magical kingdom of Firoth helping people.

Eleven-year-old Olivia “Odd” Berry would be just as happy skipping her magic days altogether. Except for turning her sister into a skunk when she’s annoying, Odd rarely has control of her magic. Odd’s magic might improve with practice, but she’d much rather focus on spending time volunteering at the animal shelter in their sleepy town in Connecticut where the Berrys run a border shop helping visitors from Firoth navigate the mundane world.

When the hidden portal behind Fratelli’s Express Bagels suddenly closes, no one can access their magic. Worse, a lot of magical Firoth residents are stranded far from home and cut off from their families. Even is eagerto help investigate as hero practice and Odd is excited to get to know the unicorn Jeremy who also offers assistance if it means getting home before his parents ground him.

When they find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the border, both sisters will have to rely on all of their skills–magical and otherwise–to figure out who is stealing the border magic and how to fix it in Even and Odd (2021) by Sarah Beth Durst.

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Even and Odd is filled with humor and timely commentary on the harms of closed borders. Narrated in close third person following Even, the story explores magic from both sides as Even embraces all things magical and Odd is readier to find magic in the mundane world (like new kittens!).

With help from Jeremy, a unicorn with a surprising fondness for soda, Even and Odd explore their birthland Firoth for the first time while trying to fix the border. The magic system here is logical and has several parallels to climate change as magical energy is treated as a limited resource–a fact that leads to dangerous consequences for the border and all of Firoth.

Whimsical magical elements and humor help temper these weightier topics as the sisters realize that sometimes being a hero has a lot less to do with proper training and a lot more to do with offering to help. Even and Odd is a fast-paced, magical adventure perfect for readers who like their fantasy with a bit of humor and a lot of sisterhood.

Possible Pairings: The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer, Shadow Weaver by MarcyKate Connelly, Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger, The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

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

Defy the Fates: A Review

*Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars.*

Defy the Fates by Claudia GrayAfter their first unlikely meeting, Abel and Noemi Vidal have traveled the Loop together, saved Genesis forces from annihilation in battle, and stopped an intergalactic plague.

Now, to save Noemi one last time, Abel will have to risk everything including his own cybernetic body as he seeks help from his creator and potential destroyer.

Left for dead, Noemi doesn’t know what it means when she is saved thanks to parts that make her eerily similar to Abel. Not quite mech, but not quite human Noemi is no longer sure if she has a place on her home world anymore than she knows if she has what she needs to save Abel.

As Earth prepares for the final battle with its colony planets, Noemi and Abel once again find themselves at the center of the conflict. With the final battle looming, this unlikely pair will finally see if they’ve done enough to save the colony planets–and each other in Defy the Fates (2019) by Claudia Gray.

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Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars. The novel alternates between Abel and Noemi’s first person narrations.

Gray builds well on the tension and world building from previous installments in this fast-paced trilogy. The stakes are higher and the dangers are greater as the story builds toward its dramatic finish.

Because of the plot structure, numerous recaps of previous triumphs and battles are repeated throughout the story which diminish the tension. As Noemi and Abel continue to struggle with the question of where they each belong–both together and apart–some of this installment does start to feel like filler.

Defy the Fates is a solid conclusion to an action-packed trilogy perfect for readers who enjoy sci-fi and adventure with just a hint of romance. Fans of the series will appreciate the callbacks to pivotal moments and characters from earlier in the series.

Possible Pairings: Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, Beta by Rachel Cohn, The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Partials by Dan Wells

Realm Breaker: A Review

Realm Breaker by Victoria AveyardCorayne an-Amarat is a pirate’s daughter eager to embark on her own adventures at sea in Allward. But she is also the last of the ancient Cor bloodline and the only one who can use the ancient spindleblade to protect her realm and make sure the Spindles that can open destabilizing passages between realms are closed.

Reluctant to embrace this lineage, Corayne joins weary immortal Dom as he attempts to mount a second quest to succeed where the first failed in closing the Spindles. Aided by a mercenary assassin and Andry, a squire and the only mortal to survive the first quest, the group will face numerous obstacles as they struggle to work together to save the world in Realm Breaker (2021) by Victoria Aveyard.

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Aveyard follows up her blockbuster Red Queen series with this homage to high fantasy that works to make more space for women and offer a more inclusive cast. The realm of Allward features people with a range of skin tones and backgrounds–Andry is described as “honey brown” while Corayne has “golden skin.”

Shifting viewpoints, flashbacks, and changing locations cut through much of the novel’s potential urgency as the narrative pauses continuously to ruminate on the failed quest seen in the prologue and offer character backstories.

Aveyard creates a compelling world with ample space for female characters in a traditionally male genre. Despite its start and stop pacing, Realm Breaker is action packed with plentiful fights, chases, and other derring-do.

Possible Pairings: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Furyborn by Clarie Legrand, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser, Fable by Adrienne Young

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

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*

Race the Sands: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Life isn’t just about who you were—it’s about who you choose to be.”

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst“Call it what it is: monster racing. Forget that and you die.”

Tamra tells every one of her students that. She cautions them, every time, to stay focused on the race, the moment, and never forget that they are riding on the back of a monster. Not every rider remembers those lessons in the heat of the races.

The Becaran races are a chance for wealth and glory for the riders. The racers, the kehoks, get something else: a chance to be reborn as something less monstrous–a chance to try to redeem their damaged souls.

Tamra used to be a winner, a champion. Now she is a damaged trainer unsure how to overcome a bad reputation and mentor another champion. She only knows winning this season is her last chance to keep her daughter.

Raia is an untested rider. She has never raced, never even seen a kehok up close. Now she has to convince a trainer to take her on if she wants a chance to use the races to win her freedom and escape her domineering parents and fiance.

Together with a strange new kehok, Tamra and Raia have the potential to change the races and all of Becar forever. But only if they stay focused and remember: Only the race. Only the moment. Only the finish line in Race the Sands (2020) by Sarah Beth Durst.

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Durst’s latest standalone fantasy introduces readers to the beautiful and often brutal world of Becar–a desert country where every action can stain or elevate your soul with immediate consequences for your next incarnation. This raises, for all of the characters, thoughtful questions of how to live a moral life while also doing what needs to be done throughout the novel.

In a kingdom in flux waiting for the new emperor to be crowned, Tamra and Raia face their own mounting stakes as both women are forced to take chances on themselves and each other to try and win.

The story unfolds with a close third person narration following Tamra, Raia, and other key players in the story to create a strong ensemble cast notably including Tamra’s daughter, Yorbel–an augur with his own interest in kehoks, and Tamra’s patron Lady Evara who is the obvious successor to my favorite inscrutable fashion plate Effie Trinket.

Race the Sands is a fantasy that explores many things but at its core this is a story of mindfulness and focus as both Tamra and Raia answer what they truly want to accomplish and how far they are willing to go for those goals. The story also considers what makes a family–found or otherwise–as well as what happens when the people trusted to maintain order in society betray that trust.

Race the Sands is a fast-paced story filled with intrigue, action, and, of course, competition. A twisty, perfectly paced adventure ideal for readers who want their high fantasy with a healthy dose of mystery.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Sarah!

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Hunted By the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena, The Hunter Games by Suzanne Collins, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Lady Rogue: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Lady Rogue by Jenn BennettTheodora wants nothing more than to join her father on his hunts around the world for priceless relics. Unfortunately, her father still sees Theo as a little girl instead of the capable researcher she has become at seventeen years of age.

While Theo sits at their hotel doing crosswords to pass the time, her father is out gallivanting his nineteen-year-old protégé Huck Gallagher–the boy Theo once thought she might love.

After a painful parting and a long separation, no one is more surprised than Theo when Huck shows up in Turkey with nothing but her father’s travel journal and instructions to get Theo to safety.

Theo has other ideas and soon the unlikely duo is combing through the travel journal as Theo tries to follow her father’s trail on his hunt for the legendary and supposedly magical bone ring of Vlad the Impaler. They hope that finding the ring will also lead them to Theo’s missing father. But Theo and Huck aren’t the only ones hunting the ring and Theo’s father may not be the only one in danger in The Lady Rogue (2019) by Jenn Bennett.

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The Lady Rogue is a standalone historical adventure set in 1937. With high speed chases, fast-pacing, and even some magic this story is an enjoyable homage to all of the things that make action movies like The Mummy (starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz) great.

Theo and Huck are a reluctant team at the start of this story which inspires much banter as well as regrets on both sides as the pair tries to make their way back to each other. Ciphers, puzzles, and excerpts from Richard Fox’s travel journal add to the story as Theo tries to follow Richard’s trail to the bone ring.

The Lady Rogue is a whip-smart adventure with hints of romance and the supernatural. As the book’s dedication suggests, The Lady Rogue is an ideal choice for meddlesome girls and anyone who’s ever been unable to walk away from a good puzzle.

Possible Pairings: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee, The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell, Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Mummy (1997)

All the Stars and Teeth: A Review

All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn GraceAmora Montara, princess of the island kingdom Visidia, has spent years preparing to become the next High Animancer–her kingdom’s ruler and master of souls. The High Animancer is the only person in the kingdom able to wield multiple forms of magic.

When Amora’s attempt to demonstrate her mastery of dangerous soul magic goes wrong she is forced into hiding until she can prove herself capable of ruling.

A mysterious pirate named Bastian may be able to help, but only if Amora can help him reclaim the magic he has lost.

Sailing away from everything she has known Amora will have to face dangers and legendary creatures to find what she needs in All the Stars and Teeth (2020) by Adalyn Grace.

Find it on Bookshop.

All the Stars and Teeth is Grace’s debut novel and the start of a duology.

Grace delivers a world filled with magic and danger at every turn in this high action, largely  nautical adventure.

Amora is an interesting heroine, unafraid to acknowledge her power or her ambition as she works to claim her title as High Animancer. A varied ensemble cast and the lasting consequences of secrets surrounding Visidia’s legacy add nuance to Amora’s journey.

All the Stars and Teeth is a high action story filled with monsters, pirates, and plenty of adventure. Recommended for readers looking for a new plot-driven fantasy to dive into (pun fully intended).

Possible Pairings: Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser, Fable by Adrienne Young

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

Angel Mage: A Review

“They had been drawn into the affairs of the great and could not easily escape.”

Angel Mage by Garth NixLiliath has spent more than a century hiding, asleep, hoping to regroup after the Fall of Ystara before she tries to reunite with her lover, Ystara’s archangel Palleniel. Rallying Ystara’s descendants around her, Liliath prepares to use her formidable angelic magic to be with Palleniel at long last.

But she will need more than Ystarans who have long been shunned by the angels–unable to benefit from even the most basic angelic magic without fear of being killed by the Ash Blood plague or transformed into beastlings–to complete her plan.

In nearby Sarance, four young people are the last pieces she needs: Simeon’s dreams of becoming a doctor are sidetracked when a scientific procedure goes horribly wrong; Henri, an opportunist to his core, thinks his luck may have changed when he receives a new position; Agnez has earned her way into the musketeers as a cadet; and Dorotea’s hopes to be left alone to study icon-making and angelic magic are dashed when her singular skill draws unwanted attention.

The four are immediately drawn to each other even as happenstance and greater forces conspire to bring them together. Although they start as Liliath’s pawns, these four unlikely friends may also be the only ones who can stop her in Angel Mage (2019) by Garth Nix.

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Nix’s newest standalone fantasy showcases a true ensemble cast with shifting close third person perspective in each chapter following the four friends and, notably, the story’s antagonist Liliath.

Despite the magical additions, Angel Mage is uncannily timely as the characters explore themes of tolerance and discrimination in a world with a refugee crisis of its own. Inventive magic and an inclusive society give this story a setting with refreshingly modern sensibilities. This story is also notably free of all but the barest hints of romance. Instead, the growing friendship and trust between Simeon, Henri, Agnez, and Dorotea takes center stage as the four friends work together to understand the conspiracy into which they have been drawn and how best to use their distinct skills to try to stop it.

Angel Mage is an homage to friendship, magic, and The Three Musketeers–elements which blend surprisingly well in this fast-paced adventure. While Simeon, Henri, Agnez, and Dorotea’s journey reaches a logical and earned conclusion, fans can only hope Nix will return to this world again one day.

Possible Pairings: Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Flamecaster by Cinda Williams Chima, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow: A Review

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica TownsendMorrigan Crow survived her trials and earned admission to the Wundrous Society. Finally, she can have a place in Nevermoor and, more importantly, the family and friends she’s always wanted.

Unfortunately, completing her trials was the easy part. Despite gaining admittance to the Society, the elders are all suspicious of Morrigan’s ability to manipulate Wunder–the magical energy that powers everything in Nevermoor. While Morrigan’s talent is rare, it is also forever and irrevocably linked to the notorious Ezra Squall, a villain known as The Wundersmith and remembered for his numerous crimes against and continued exile from Nevermoor.

Instead of being trained in the arcane arts, the Society only wants to show Morrigan that all Wundersmiths of the past were evil, dangerous, and often incompetent. Worse, Morrigan’s unit is being blackmailed, forced to meet exceedingly risky demands or risk the unit’s secret being revealed to the entire Society.

When prominent citizens across Nevermoor start disappearing, Morrigan’s beloved new home takes on a dangerous edge. Now that Morrigan has found a place in Nevermoor, she’ll need all of her wits and her friends to keep it in Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow (2018) by Jessica Townsend.

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Wundersmith is the second book in Townsend’s Nevermoor series. The book picks up shortly after the conclusion of Nevermoor as Morrigan prepares to start her first term at the Wundrous Society. Check out the print edition for inset illustrations at the start of each chapter and listen to the audio version (read by Gemma Whelan) for a fully immersive read.

Townsend wildly expands the world of Nevermoor as Morrigan and readers learn more about her new home and delve into the mysterious history of Wundersmiths through the ages. Morrigan’s world is described in vibrant detail with a perfect blend of humor and adventure.

Wundersmith explores themes of friendship and belonging to excellent effect as Morrigan continues to carve out a place for herself in Nevermoor in spite of those too eager to see her fail. Readers will appreciate the balance Townsend strikes between a self-contained story and tantalizing hints of what’s in store for Morrigan’s next adventure.

With higher stakes, more action, and greater dangers, Wundersmith builds off book one to deliver an even stronger and even more exciting installment. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon, Foxheart by Claire Legrand, Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross, The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski