Starfish: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Starfish by Akemi Dawn BowmanAll of Kiko Himura’s hopes are pinned on getting accepted to Prism–her dream art school. At Prism Kiko knows that it won’t matter that she’s half-Japanese and knows barely anything about her own culture. She won’t need to regret her failed relationships with her brothers. She’ll be able to get away from her mother who is alternately suffocating and neglectful. Best of all, Kiko knows that at Prism she’ll finally be understood the way she always used to be by her childhood best friend, Jamie.

After Prism rejects her, Kiko is forced to consider other options–especially when her abusive uncle moves into the house and makes life even more unbearable. When Kiko and Jamie meet up at a party, Kiko jumps at the improbable chance to tour art schools with him on the west coast. Along the way Kiko will learn how to be brave and and let herself be heard while understand that sometimes second choices can lead to second chances in Starfish (2017) by Akemi Dawn Bowman.

Starfish is Bowman’s debut novel and a finalist for YALSA’s 2018 Morris Award.

This is a quiet and deliberate novel. Kiko knows better than most that words have weight thanks to what happened when she spoke out about her uncle’s abuse and also from the methodical way Kiko’s mother uses them to break her down. Kiko’s visions of vivid sketches and lavish paintings are interspersed throughout Starfish helping Kiko give voice to her emotions when she doesn’t feel strong enough to share them herself.

While Kiko’s strained relationship with her mother and her uncle’s abuse are key factors in Starfish, the main story here is Kiko’s growth and resilience as she begins to realize she has more options than she ever imagined.

Starfish is both heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful as Kiko comes into her own and discovers her own strength. Evocative settings and an obvious love for art are imbued in this story along with a subtle romance. Kiko is an empowering heroine readers will immediately want to cheer on. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, When We Collided by Emery Lord, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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Jane, Unlimited: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke

—–

“There are many lives in every life.”

Jane’s life has always been ordinary and she has never minded that. When her Aunt Magnolia dies under strange circumstances, Jane is suddenly adrift and alone. She doesn’t know exactly how Aunt Magnolia died. She doesn’t know if she wants to go back to college. All she really knows is that if she is ever invited to Tu Reviens, she has to go. It was the last thing Aunt Magnolia asked her to do.

When Kiran Thrash, an old acquaintance who is as wealthy as she is mercurial, breezes back into Jane’s life with an invitation to the Thrash family gala at none other than Tu Reviens Jane immediately accepts.

The island mansion is not at all what Jane expects. Strange figures lurk in the shadows. Art goes missing and reappears at will. An ex-wife hides in the attic, while a current wife is missing entirely. Then there’s Jasper, the lovable Bassett Hound who has an uncanny attachment both to Jane and to a painting with a lone umbrella.

In a house filled with questions, Jane knows that all she has to do is follow the right person to get answers. But first she has to choose in Jane, Unlimited (2017) by Kristin Cashore.

Jane, Unlimited is Cashore’s latest standalone novel. Inspired by Choose Your Own Adventure stories among other things this novel reads as five interconnected stories spanning genres.

After enjoying but not quite loving Cashore’s Graceling trilogy, I was fully prepared for Jane, Unlimited to be the Cashore book that I would love unequivocally. I’m happy to say this genre-bending delight did not disappoint.

The novel opens with “The Missing Masterpiece” (my favorite story) where Jane tries to find a missing Vermeer and make sense of myriad clues in a mystery reminiscent of The Westing Game. This section also does all of the heavy lifting introducing Jane, her deceased Aunt Magnolia, Kiran Thrash, and her rakish and charismatic twin brother Ravi. This novel also introduces Jane’s umbrella making–a motif that helps tie all of the novel’s pieces together.

In “Lies Without Borders” Jane explores the mystery of the missing painting from a different angle in a sleek spy story that will appeal to fans of Ally Carter. The madcap action and continuously surprisingly and charming characters make this section another favorite.

Cashore turns her eye to horror in “In Which Someone Loses a Soul and Charlotte Finds One.” After finishing this creepy tale you won’t be able to look at your library or your favorite books in quite the same way. When you re-read this book on a structural level (and trust me, you’ll want to) this section is also key for highlighting the structure of the novel.

“Jane, Unlimited” is the section that ties the book together so I won’t tell you too much that could spoil the story. There are zany clothes, mayhem, frogs, and a lot of Ravi which makes this story a delight. Sure to be a favorite for fans of Douglas Adams and Dr. Who.

This novel wraps up in “The Strayhound, the Girl, and the Painting” in which some mysteries are solved and some bigger questions are raised as Jane figures out why, exactly, Jasper the Bassett Hound is so very fond of her. This whimsical segment concludes the story on an optimistic note as Jane (and readers) realize that when one door closes another opens–literally.

Jane, Unlimited is a thoughtfully layered and intricately plotted novel. Depending on how you want to read it this book could contain five separate but overlapping stories, it could be one arc where all these outcomes eventually come to pass. There’s really no wrong way to interpret this story which is part of the charm. Whatever appeals to you about Jane and her adventures I guarantee you will find it in at least one part of this novel.

I first hear about Jane, Unlimited during a job interview at Penguin for a job I didn’t even come close to getting. Back then the book was just some new contemporary novel that Cashore was working on and I didn’t think much of it at the time. When it finally came time to read the book, I found that I could think of little else. Around the time of that interview I found out that one of my aunts had suffered a stroke that would prove fatal–something I didn’t know when I kept calling and calling to tell her about scheduling that job interview and asking her advice on what to wear and to practice questions. I don’t remember the last conversation I had with my aunt but I remember those messages I left her vividly. And I so wish I could have told her how this all came together in such a strange full circle way as Jane’s aunt Magnolia was such a big part of Jane’s story as she tries to figure out which path to choose.

In case it wasn’t already clear: I loved this book. It’s perfect and everything I want. Cashore populates the story with a cast of characters that is thoughtfully inclusive and painfully charming and expertly blends genres and plays them against each other throughout this clever novel.

Jane, Unlimited is a must read for anyone who has ever felt a bit lost, readers who like their books to resemble puzzles, and, of course, for anyone looking for an excellent story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen,The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art by Mathew Hart, Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft by Simon Houpt, Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Square Root of Summer by Harrier Reuter Hapgood, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Ocean Soul by Brian Skerry, Oceanic Wilderness by Roger Steene, Parallel Universes by Max Tegmark (as seen in Scientific American, May 2003), The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

If you are interested in some of the art that inspired (or features) in this novel:

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

Eliza and Her Monsters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

How can I want something so badly but become so paralyzed every time I even think about taking it?

Eliza Mirk is a name that should belong to a comic book character. Not necessarily a cool one but at least a low level villain.

Real life Eliza is neither of those things. She’s quiet and awkward. Her parents relentlessly try to get her into sports even though they are well aware she isn’t athletic like her younger brothers. Sully and Church don’t understand Eliza anymore than she understands them. And, honestly, with Eliza going away to college in a couple of years she doesn’t see the point of trying to connect. Real life feels secondary to the world Eliza has made for herself and her fans online as Lady Constellation, the creator of the enormously popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Between her comic, fans, and her online friends Eliza doesn’t need anyone else.

Eliza’s secret life collides with her real life when Wallace Warland transfers to her school. Online Wallace is Monstrous Sea’s biggest fanfiction writer. In real life he is the first person who’s managed to not only draw Eliza out of her shell but actually make her want to stay there.

Eliza’s carefully ordered life is turned upside down when her secret is revealed. As she deals with the fallout Eliza will have to decide if letting everyone in her life–online and off–know the real her is worth the risk in Eliza and Her Monsters (2017) by Francesca Zappia.

Eliza’s first person narration is interspersed with excepts from Monstrous Sea fanfiction, message boards, emails, and illustrations of parts of the Monstrous Sea comics done by Zappia. This story is character driven but also fast-paced as Eliza’s world slowly starts to expand with help from Wallace. Eliza struggles with anxiety as she pushes against the limitations of what she feels capable of managing versus what she actually wants.

Eliza and Her Monsters sounds like it will be a story about a comic and a secret identity–maybe with a little romance. Instead it’s really a story about connection within a fandom and finding your thing and your people but losing yourself along the way. It’s also about fixing that–a lesson Eliza learns throughout the course of the novel.

Zappia offers an honest and thoughtful portrayal of a character with anxiety here and some interesting perspective on what it means to create and engage within a fan community. Eliza’s online friends are given as much, if not more, weight than her real life friends in a way that will feel authentic to anyone who’s ever made friends through social media whom they may never meet in person.

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

After her secret life as Lady Constellation comes out, Eliza suffers crippling doubt and anxiety as she is faced with drawing more Monstrous Sea installments with everyone knowing her identity. Honestly, I didn’t understand Eliza’s doubts and paralysis in the face of creating after her identity was revealed. It was one of those things that didn’t compute. Then in August I had one of my own tweets go viral on Twitter gaining thousands of RTs/impressions and bringing almost a thousand new followers to my feed. Suddenly, Eliza’s reaction started to make a lot more sense as I struggled myself with how to move forward while knowing so many people were watching me. It’s a hard thing to adjust to and learn to ignore.

Once that started to make sense I was still left with one major issue: I hated the way Eliza’s relationship with Wallace played out. Throughout their friendship, Wallace is working to novelize the Monstrous Sea comic–something that Eliza loves and supports. After she is outed, Wallace reveals that he has a book deal with a publisher for that novelization once it’s completed. He needs Eliza’s permission which she readily gives. But he also needs Eliza to finish the comic so that he can finish the novelization. Something she feels incapable of doing in the face of everyone knowing her name and watching her, ready to pounce.

Wallace doesn’t understand this until Eliza almost considers suicide in the face of all of this pressure and instead of supporting her her only wants what he needs from her. Aside from issues of these publishing logistics (none of it sounded quite right within the text) it felt out of character for Wallace to suddenly negate Eliza’s concerns in the face of his own ambition. Every other aspect of their relationship was sweet, but this thread with the publication of Monstrous Sea was frustrating at best and problematic at worst.

**END SPOILERS**

Eliza and Her Monsters is a perfect book for readers who liked Fangirl (especially if you didn’t skip the fanfic parts) and comics fans looking for something new. Recommended for readers seeking a book that offers sarcasm, pathos, and affirmation in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Don’t Cosplay With My Heart by Cecil Castellucci, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, In Real Life by Jessica Love, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Infinite In Between: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Not necessarily the beginning and not really the end, either. It was the infinite in between, all those minuscule and major moments when they’d dipped in and out of each other’s lives. That had been their journey and somehow, even though they hadn’t realized it, they’d been on it together.”

The five of them meet at high school orientation.

Gregor plays cello and he loves his family. His world feels far too small to be starting high school where older kids like his sister seem so much more together. He is hopelessly in love with Whitney but he has no idea how to tell her especially when his grand gestures manage to go awry. Getting Whitney to notice him is Gregor’s biggest problem  until a sudden tragedy changes everything.

Everyone saw the viral video of Zoe’s actress mother screaming at her in a dressing room. She knows everyone sees her as a spoiled brat who is just like her mom. But that isn’t the whole story. It isn’t even close.

Jake knows he’s gay. He knows it the same we he knows he’s an artist and the same way he knows he can’t play football anymore after what happened on the bus. The harder part is dealing with his crush on his best friend, Ted.

Whitney is pretty and popular. She seems to have it all. Except things at home are starting to unravel and there’s a constant push and pull to balance expectations people have of who Whitney should be like–her white mother or her black father.

Even at orientation, Mia is an outsider. She doesn’t have many friends or much of a family with her parents more interested in work than her. Mia is an observer and an expert at blending in. But before high school ends she’ll have to figure out where she fits and how to speak up before it’s too late.

Five teens. Four years. One journey that changes everything in Infinite in Between (2015) by Carolyn Mackler.

Infinite in Between is written in close third person perspective which shifts between Gregor, Zoe, Jake, Whitney, and Mia. The novel starts with their orientation the day before high school and follows all of them through four years to graduation day.

Despite the broad scope and large cast, Infinite in Between is fast-paced and populated with well-developed characters. While each character has their own journey–often without much overlap–all five of their stories intersect in interesting ways throughout the novel often in ways only apparent to the reader.

Infinite in Between is an inventive novel ideal for readers making their own way through the labyrinthine passages of high school as well as readers who appreciate overlapping narratives and stories reminiscent of Six Degrees of Separation. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen, The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, The List by Siobhan Vivian

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2014*

Pashmina: A Graphic Novel Review

Priyanka doesn’t feel like she fits in at her high school where she tells everyone to call her “Pri” to avoid any questions about pronouncing her name. She doesn’t feel confident about her artwork even when her teacher nominates one of her comics for an art contest.

At home Pri’s mother refuses to answer questions about her father. When she finds out that her uncle Jatin and his wife are expecting a new baby, Pri isn’t sure what that will mean for their relationship. Nervous that she is being displaced, Pri prays to Shakti.

Pri is guilt-ridden and terrified that her prayers have been answered in the worst way when baby Shilpa is born premature. She finds unexpected comfort in one of her mother’s old pashmina shawls. Wrapped up in the shawl Pri is transported to a colorful and vibrant vision of India that only furthers her interest in the country and her mother’s past.

When Pri’s mother surprises her with a trip to India she is thrilled to have the chance to visit and meet her mother’s sister. Arriving in India is thrilling and offers so many new experiences but as Pri explores more of the country and learns more about her family, she realizes that the visions from the shawl are far from the truth in Pashmina (2017) by Nidhi Chanani.

Pashmina is Chanani’s debut graphic novel.

Chanani’s artwork is whimsical and carefully detailed. The comic uses color to draw a neat contrast between Pri’s real life which is shown in pale neutrals and her fantastical visions of India that are vibrant in rich colors reminiscent of the cover art.

Although Pri is around sixteen (one plot point involves Uncle Jatin teaching her to drive), she reads much younger as a character–something that is also reflected in the story making this feel more like a middle grade story than one about a girl in high school. Some aspects of the plot remain vague (how Pri can travel to India on such short notice for instance) but these pieces do little to diminish the effect of the whole. The plot stops short of exploring some of the more complicated issues like the sometimes strained relationship of Pri’s aunt and uncle in India, although overall this comic is nuanced and thoughtful.

Pashmina is a clever story brimming with positivity. Chanani blends fantasy elements well with accurate and honest portrayals of Pri’s life as the child of an Indian immigrant as well as the hardships, cultural heritage, and beauty that can be found in India.

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

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers: A Non-Fiction Review

“One must work and be bold if one really wants to live.”

Vincent Van Gogh’s life is the stuff of legend filled with passion, creativity, and the  larger-than-life personality of a man whose paintings would change the art world forever with their contributions to Post-Impressionism. Maybe you’ve heard about his explosive time in the Yellow House with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Maybe you know the salacious details of when he cut off his own ear.

No one knew what the future would think of Vincent when he was a young man in the Netherlands. Vincent was known for his passions, yes. But he was also erratic, bombastic, and to put it frankly, difficult. Even Vincent’s favorite brother, Theo, sometimes found him hard to take. The brothers had a lot in common. They both had red hair and neatly trimmed beards–in fact, if you look at Vincent’s self-portrait and his portrait of Theo you might have a hard time telling them apart, especially when they swap hats. They wrote each other copious letters and shared a love of art. They would both die in their thirties but the legacy they left behind would last far longer.

Vincent didn’t realize he wanted to be a painter until he was in his twenties–he made up for the late start with a zealous commitment to his work and a prolific output over the course of his short life. Vincent only started to get the recognition he craved near the end of his life. Even then his true genius wouldn’t be recognized until years after his death.

While Vincent created the art, it was Theo who helped build the legend. Theo nurtured Vincent’s talents, supported him financially, and made sure his paintings were seen in galleries that were beginning to move away from the old masters and show art in newer, brighter and more abstract styles.

Now, so many years after their deaths, it’s hard to imagine a time when their lives weren’t intertwined. But it wasn’t always like that. It all started on a long walk to a windmill and a pledge of lifelong friendship and commitment to both each other and to their mutual work. That fateful day–the pledge, the commitment, and the companionship–would shape the lives of both brothers as they chased their passions and ambitions both together and apart over the course of their short, turbulent lives in Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers (2017) by Deborah Heiligman.

Vincent and Theo is the 2017 winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction.

Heiligman’s latest book explores the complex relationship between Vincent and Theo Van Gogh as both men tried to define who they wanted to be and to pursue their dreams. Vincent and Theo rarely lived in the same place as they grew older. But they wrote letters to each other constantly detailing their hopes, their failures, and details of their daily lives. Of course, they also talked often about art as it related to Theo’s career as an art dealer and to Vincent’s work as an artist.

These letters serve as a centerpiece to Vincent and Theo and tie together this story of family, friendship, devotion, and art. Short chapters and inventive formatting make even familiar information feel novel as Heiligman delves deep into Vincent’s early life, his changing relationship with Theo, and his rocky journey as both an artist and a young man. Theo, the lesser known of the brothers, is shown equally as he struggles with his own demons while he searches for professional success and love.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers reframes Vincent and Theo’s lives by examining the give and take in their relationship and the ways in which the brothers influenced each other. New perspectives on key points in Vincent’s life as well as detailed information about the brothers’ early devotion to each other–and the previously little known painting that documents that moment–add new insights even for readers familiar with the artist and his art.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers is a fascinating and informative story that tenderly explores the momentous and sometimes tragic lives of two of the art world’s most important figures. A must read for art enthusiasts, history and non-fiction buffs, and anyone who needs a reminder that it’s never too late to follow your passions.

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

Landscape With Invisible Hand: A Review

“We all have to find some way to live with the world as it is now.”

When the vuvv first landed they told humanity that they could cure all illnesses. No one would have to work anymore. New technology would change lives.

It should have been perfect.

But no one thought about what no one working would mean for the economy. No one considered that all of this wondrous technology would be behind a pay wall. The early adopters–the ones who could buy into vuvv tech and tap into things the vuvv might want to buy–they’re doing fine. The rest of the world, the people like Adam’s family, not so much.

His mother used to be a bank teller but vuvv tech handles that now. His father, a former car salesman, can’t sell cars to people who can barely afford food thanks to rampant inflation. Adam processes everything that’s happening through his art–gritty and meditative landscapes painting the world he sees not the shiny, retro world the vuvv think of when they look at Earth and certainly not the bright, opportunity-filled one inhabited by the rich living in their elevated houses above the planet.

When Adam and Chloe start dating, they think they can capitalize on their love by broadcasting their dates to vuvv subscribers. Their pastiches of 1950s hangouts with slang and affectations to match are just what the vuvv ordered. But it turns out dating someone and loving someone authentically while aliens watch isn’t easy. As Adam’s relationship falls apart he realizes that sometimes the only way to win the game is to stop playing all together in Landscape with Invisible Hand (2017) by M. T. Anderson.

Landscape with Invisible Hand is a strange, caustic, and sparse. Adam’s near-future world changes when aliens arrive but his struggles are depressingly timely as his family is left reeling in the wake of unemployment and skyrocketing costs.

The skies around his suburban home are filled with vuvv tech and floating buildings while malls and stores are abandoned and looted in the changing economy. Thanks to the polluted water supply Adam suffers dangerous complications of Merrick’s Disease while trying to save up for a visit to a vuvv doctor who could treat him almost immediately.

Instead of chapters this short novel (160 pages, hardcover) is framed in vignettes based on the art that Adam is creating–painted landscapes of his dilapidated house, portraits of Chloe when they first meet and fall in lust, drawings of the stuffed animals his younger sister wants to sell and ultimately throws out in her desperation to help and also to grow up. Adam’s first person narration is incisive and introspective. Anderson uses minimal details to vividly descibe the vuvv and Adam’s bleak and absurd world.

Landscape with Invisible Hand is a provocative and engrossing novel. Adam’s journey and his ultimate realization are surprising and completely satisfying. There are no neat answers or tidy resolutions here but that makes the story all the more authentic and shocking. An excellent choice for readers who aren’t sure about sci-fi yet as well as devoted fans of the genre. Read this one with a friend because so you discuss all the plot points and twists. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis, The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

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