Pointe: A Review

Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Theo is better now. She’s eating, mostly. She’s dating guys her age. Even if they aren’t always technically available. Most importantly, Theo is at the top of her game and poised to have her years of work pay off to become an elite ballet dancer.

Then Donovan comes back. Theo still remembers the day he disappeared when they were both thirteen. She remembers what it felt like to lose Donovan and her first boyfriend–her first everything, really–all at the same time.

Theo can’t look away from coverage of Donovan’s abduction and his return. It’s the only way she can piece together what might have happened to him since Donovan won’t see her and won’t talk to anyone. Until Donovan’s abductor is arrested. And Theo recognizes him as her ex-boyfriend. He gave her a fake name, he said he was younger, but he is unmistakably the same person who kidnapped her best friend.

But the truth won’t help anyone, right? It won’t heal Donovan. It won’t erase the painful breakup. All it will do is shame Theo’s family and risk her future as a dancer because of a scandal.

Except the more Theo remembers about her past, the more she realizes some secrets can’t be kept forever in Pointe (2014) by Brandy Colbert.

Find it on Bookshop.

Pointe is a tense work of suspense. In addition to unpacking the aftermath of Donovan’s abduction, Theo is dealing with disordered eating. Theo and Donovan are both Black in a predominantly white Chicago suburb.

Colbert tackles a lot here and she does all of it well as Theo works through some difficult realizations in the wake of Donovan’s return. Theo is aware of the extra challenges she faces as a Black dancer and the pressure everyone in her class is under as they prepare for conservatory auditions.

Added to that are Theo’s complicated feelings about her ex-boyfriend/Donovan’s abductor. Yes, he lied about his age. But does that change that he loved Theo? Did he even kidnap Donovan or did they go away together willingly behind Theo’s back? While the answers will be obvious to readers, Theo takes longer to figure out that “dating” someone doesn’t mean they can’t abuse you.

Pointe pulls no punches. This is a messy story about a terrible turn of events and, at the end, an impossible decision. Theo is a flawed narrator but also a very authentic one as she works though a variety of bad decisions and hard choices to realize what she has to do to make things right–for herself and her best friend.

Possible Pairings: Winter Girls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Emmy and Oliver by Robin Benway, Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, Far From You by Tess Sharpe, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

I Wanna Be Where You Are: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina ForestChloe Pierce knows it will be hard to break into ballet as a Black dancer–especially one coming back from a bad ankle injury. What surprises Chloe is her mother’s reluctance to support Chloe’s plan to apply to a dance conservatory instead of college.

When her mom and her boyfriend take their first vacation in years, Chloe sees the perfect opportunity to apply to her dream program in secret. All she has to do is drive two hundred miles to the nearest audition. Easy.

But then Eli–longtime neighbor, former friend, and constant annoyance–sees Chloe leaving and insists on coming along if Chloe doesn’t want her mom to find out. And that’s before Chloe realizes that Eli’s smelly dog, Geezer is coming along too.

Chloe has her eyes on the prize, a sweet playlist on repeat, and two passengers she never expected. As the trio gets closer to Chloe’s audition, Chloe and Eli might even start to unpack the baggage that’s come between them and their friendship in I Wanna Be Where You Are (2019) by Kristina Forest.

Find it on Bookshop.

I Wanna Be Where You Are is Forest’s debut novel. Chloe and Eli are both Black–Chloe’s best friend is Latinx.

Chloe is a truly fun narrator. She is focused, driven, and quite snarky when her perfect plans have to change. She also struggles with stage fright and confidence as she works on coming back to dance after a badly broken ankle. While the cause of Chloe’s injury (walking to school in five inch heels instead of carrying them and walking in flats) never quite made sense to me, Chloe’s recovery and her efforts to rediscover what she loves about dance are totally relatable.

Eli is Chloe’s complete opposite and it makes their banter and shenanigans on their unexpectedly long road trip even more enjoyable. While the focus of the story is very firmly on Chloe and her audition, this book is also filled with a fantastic supporting cast including Chloe’s mom and best friend.

I Wanna Be Where You Are is a cute and often funny story about finding love–and confidence–in unexpected places.

Possible Pairings: Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, To All the Boys I’ve Love Before by Jenny Han, Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson, I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn, I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Charming As a Verb by Ben Philippe, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, This Train is Being Held by Ismee Williams

The Walls Around Us: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We were alive. I remember it that way. We were still alive, and we couldn’t make heads or tails of the darkness, so we couldn’t see how close we were to the end.”

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren SumaAmber is an inmate at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center. She might have been innocent once but that’s a hard quality to hold onto on the inside. Like most of the girls at Aurora Hills, Amber is obsessed with the regrets inherent in choosing one path over the other; with the moment everything goes wrong.

Violet, on the other hand, is at the start of a promising ballet career on the outside. Violet has never had much use for co-dependence when her own success and future are at stake. She has a singular focus on the future, on what comes next, on endings.

Then there’s Orianna. Her story is inextricably linked to both Amber’s and Violet’s, but it’s only in the gaps and overlaps in both of their stories that anyone can begin to understand Ori’s.

These three girls had lives and dreams and futures on the outside. They have secrets they keep close inside the walls of Aurora Hills and in their own hearts. At some point three girls arrive at Aurora Hills. But only time will tell if all of them get to walk away in The Walls Around Us (2015) by Nova Ren Suma.

Find it on Bookshop.

Every aspect of The Walls Around Us comes together to deliver a story about contrasts in one form or another, something that often comes across in terms of themes like guilt vs. innocence and perception vs. reality. Even the title of the book and the vines on the cover hint at the dichotomy between what is “inside” and “outside” for these characters whose lives are all defined in some way by arriving at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center as well as by the secrets that they hold close.

Subtle characterization and Suma’s deliberate writing serve to bring the two narrators, Amber and Violet, to life.

Amber’s narration is filled with short sentences and staccato declarations. She has spent so long defining herself as part of the whole at Aurora Hills that for much of her narration she describes herself as part of a collective “we”; part of a group comprised of her fellow inmates even when she is usually on the periphery as an observer. Everything about Amber’s narration focuses on beginnings and the past. Her chapter titles are always taken from the first words of her chapters. She has an intense and pathological fear of choosing the unknown and having to start again–a motif that is brought to disastrous fruition by the end of the novel.

Violent, despite being on the outside, is a harder character with sharper edges. Her narrative is filled with racing thoughts and run-on sentences. Her chapters are all titled for the final words in her chapters. Throughout the novel she returns, again and again, to what her future will hold. Until the end of the novel when her ever-forward momentum is cut abruptly and permanently short.

Although she is not a narrator and is most often seen in flashbacks or memories, Orianna is the third pivotal character in the novel. Everything Violet and Amber do within the arc of the book is informed by their relationships to Orianna. If Amber is meant to signify the past in The Walls Around Us and Violet is meant to exemplify the future, it’s safe to argue that Orianna is firmly grounded in the present with all of the opportunity and promise that position implies.

Suma’s lush writing moves readers between the past and the present as the story shifts fluidly between Amber and Violet’s memories of what brought them to Aurora Hills and what comes after in this novel that explores the cost of freedom and the power of hope.

The Walls Around Us received 5 starred reviews and much critical acclaim. It is a masterful blend of literary writing, magic realism and a decidedly eerie ghost story. With a layered and thoughtful plot, vivid prose, and skillfully explore themes and characters, The Walls Around Us is not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Tumbling by Caela Carter, Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, Pointe by Brandy Colbert, With Malice by Eileen Cook, The Graces by Laure Eve, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, We Are the Wildcats by Siobhan Vivian, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

The Brokenhearted: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Brokenhearted by Amelia KahaneyAnthem Fleet has spent her life in the shadow of the dead sister she never met; a replacement for a lost daughter against whom she will never measure up. A talented dancer, the daughter of two of Bedlam’s most respected citizens, Anthem appears to be a girl with a bright future. Everyone thinks she’s lucky.

Everyone is wrong.

When Anthem meets a boy from the South Side–the absolutely wrong side of Bedlam–it feels like she is finally waking up. Her real life, the one she has been waiting for, seems to finally be starting.

Then the unthinkable happens.

Then Anthem dies.

When she wakes up nothing is the same. Not Anthem, not her life, and not her heart which is now a mechanical thing that beats faster and pushes her harder than should be humanly possible.

Anthem’s old life is over. She is broken. But maybe this new heart of hers will give her what she needs to find a new life and help Bedlam the way no one else can in The Brokenhearted (2013) by Amelia Kahaney.

Everything about this premise sounded amazing. The cover is beautiful. The opening prologue is well-written and completely fascinating. Even Anthem, with her ballet background, has the potential to be a unique, strong heroine.

With the gritty, hard luck setting of Bedlam and the promise of superhuman powers this book is reminiscent of comic book stories and recent books like Vicious or Steelheart.

Unfortunately, beyond all of this potential is a deeply disappointing book. The plot is slow to start, dragging through the first half which is mired in tragic, star-crossed love and Anthem’s sulking narration.

Plot points that are hinted at in the prologue are treated with no further foreshadow or resolution until the bitter end of the novel making for a story that drags and offers very few surprises or revelations.

Even with this problems, the idea remains promising. Unfortunately key elements* are never quite explained enough to make sense and character motivations never quite make sense.** The atmosphere is pitch perfect completely evocative of comic book cities Gotham before Batman returned.

The Brokenhearted strikes an uneasy balance between superhero story and romantic adventure. Erratic execution and poor pacing make it a frustrating read though die-hard comic fans (or dancers) might find some redeeming qualities here.

*Anthem gets a new heart. Which also gives her superhuman powers. But how a new organ changes everything about Anthem’s abilities is never explained.

**Anthem essentially has insta-love as a driving force of her character which is fine as an inciting incident but makes less sense as it is dragged through more than one hundred pages. The other male lead, Ford, is also a bit strange in that he is in no small part responsible for Anthem’s injury but he is also her ally. It’s just a strange combination.

Possible Pairings: Plain Kate by Erin Bow, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, Proxy by Alex London, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Watchmen by Alan Moore, The Superhero Handbook by Michael Powell, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Bunheads: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Bunheads by Sophie FlackNineteen-year-old Hannah Ward is not a ballerina, not yet anyway. A dancer with the Manhattan Ballet Company, Hannah knows this is her year to finally land a coveted promotion from corps dancer to soloist. It has to be. Recruited by the Company when she was fourteen, Hannah has been working toward this singular goal for her entire life.

On a rare night off, Hannah meets a pedestrian–a non-dancer–named Jacob. A free-spirited musician, Jacob’s life is everything Hannah’s is not, filled with freedom from the regimen and commitments being a professional dancer entails.

As Hannah spends more time with Jacob and moves closer to her ballerina dream, she starts to wonder if ballet really is enough. It always had been before, but now Hannah isn’t so sure. Ballerinas are supposed to dedicate themselves to dance, but Hannah might be ready to dedicate her life to other pursuits in Bunheads (2011) by Sophie Flack.

Find it on Bookshop.

Bunheads is Flack’s first novel. It was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction.

As a novel, Bunheads falls short in several areas. Informed by her own experiences as a professional dancer (Flack danced with the New York City Ballet from 2000 to 2009) much of the novel feels indulgent and more like an exercise in wish-fulfillment on the author’s part than an actual story.

Hannah and Jacob’s immediate connection never feels authentic which raises questions about both character’s behavior throughout. Combined with a meandering, slow-paced plot the book often lacks the verve to keep things interesting.

With Hannah and her friends being wholly consumed by dance, there is little room for character development. There are even fewer opportunities to make the characters distinguishable from each other as all of the dancers, Hannah included, feel interchangeable for much of the novel.

Where Bunheads really shines is in setting the scene for Hannah and her world. Flack brings a professional eye to the story, expertly conjuring the narrow world of a corps dancer that is filled both with grueling monotony and brief moments of wonder found on the stage.

Bunheads is a moderately entertaining reminder of both the passion andthe commitment that being a professional dancer demands. It is easy to admire the glitter and tutus of a ballet. This book reminds readers to remember the stamina and strength that makes every ballet look effortless on stage.

Finally, and perhaps unexpectedly, Bunheads is a beautiful example of the bravery it takes to dedicate years to a specific plan only to choose a completely different path leading into uncharted territory. A must read for ballet enthusiasts, athletes, and anyone trying to strike out on their own–even if they don’t know exactly where they will be striking just yet.

Possible Pairings: Tumbling by Caela Carter, So Much Closer by Susane Colasanti, Pointe by Brandy Colbert, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, Everywhere You Want to Be by Christina June, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten, Starry Nights by Daisy Whitney, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

The Year My Sister Got Lucky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Year My Siser Got Lucky by Aimee FriedmanFourteen-year-old Katie Wilder has her whole world figured out. She and her older sister Michaela are best friends and ballerinas at a prestigious dance school in New York City. Their futures are mapped out as minutely as the New York City Subway system. They are City Girls, born and bred, and neither Wilder sister would have it any other way in The Year My Sister Got Lucky (2008) by Aimee Friedman.

That was August.

September finds the Wilder family moving upstate to the rural Adirondack town of Fir Lake.

Nothing is the way it was in the City. Everyone knows Katie’s name (even if they can’t actually pronounce “Katya”) and her background. Neighbors say hello and the entire town is excited about a mysterious event referred to only as “Homecoming.” In a town where everyone knows everyone, Katie feels like a stranger.

To make matters worse, Michaela has no such problems. Overnight it seems like Michaela has made a place for herself in Fir Lake finding popular friends, joining Yearbook, and even dating the gorgeous quarterback.

The harder Katie clings to her memories of City life, the more Michaela adapts to life in Fir Lake, leaving Katie to wonder what happens when your home doesn’t feel like a home and your best friend starts to look like someone you don’t know.

As a City Girl myself, it was great to read Friedman’s evocative scenes early in The Year My Sister Got Lucky that so wonderfully capture the city I (gratefully) call home. While Friedman’s descriptions of New York City are pitch perfect, right down to the ballerinas the flock there for summer dance programs, she also captures what I imagine is an authentic picture of rural life. Even as Katie aches to be back in New York, Friedman shows the unique beauty that can be found in a dark sky lit by stars instead of skyscrapers.

More than that, this story is about growing up. While her sister blossoms in their bucolic town, Katie struggles to understand what being a teenaged girl really means.

The Year My Sister Got Lucky is also a fully developed look at a year in the life of the Wilder family. Friedman brings together a lot of different elements to create a story that is funny and insightful and strikingly genuine from every angle.

Possible Pairings: Tumbling by Caela Carter, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, King of the Screwups by K. L. Going, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, The Inside of Out by Jenn Marie Thorne

Noelle of the Nutcracker: A Chistmas in July Review

Noelle of the Nutcracker by Pamela JaneNoelle of the Nutcracker by Pamela Jane (with illustrations by the inimitable Jan Brett) is one of those books that I seem to have had forever. Copyrighted in 1986, my hardcover copy has been on my bedroom bookshelf since before I can remember. Needless to say that I did not remember much of the story. Happily, though, it is a fast read and I was able to finish it in a day. I dare say there are families somewhere who read this book every Christmas season the way others read Twas the Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol (if not, there should be).

There are two main characters in this book. One is a doll named Noelle and the other is a little girl, Ilyana. At the beginning of the story, the characters have one thing in common: they both think Noelle is wonderful.

When Ilyana and her second grade class go to visit Bugle’s toy store, Ilyana is captivated by Noelle the beautiful ballerina doll that can stand in all five ballet positions and even has jointed knees and ankles. Ilyana knows her family could never afford such an expensive doll, which is fine. At least until spoiled Mary Jane decides vows that she’ll get Noelle for Christmas from her rich father.

Unbeknownst to either little girl, Noelle doesn’t want to be owned by anyone. While the other toys dream of being loved and held by real children, Noelle yearns to be discovered and become a dancer on stage. Noelle knows she is destined for fame when a man comes into Bugle’s and buys Noelle to be a part of a production of the Nutcracker ballet. But, as Noelle painfully learns, being discovered doesn’t always mean fame. And it almost never takes the place of being loved.

Noelle’s story is intertwined seamlessly with Ilyana’s and, to a lesser extent, Mary Jane’s. As the girls get ready for their school pageant, it becomes clear that sometimes it takes more than money to make a wish come true. Sometimes, especially at Christmas, it also takes a little magic (and in this case maybe a few coincidences).

Sometimes when I read books with a child character they feel too young–I’m sure a child would enjoy them but sometimes I have a hard time relating to them on the same level of enjoyment. This book is not like that. The story is short and easy to follow, but it remained enjoyable for me reading it at the age of twenty-two. Jan Brett’s illustrations also, of course, add a lot of dimension to the story (although being familiar with Brett’s color-illustrated picture books I was a little sad to see the drawings were not in color). After reading the story and once again turning to the cover it’s amazing to see how perfectly Brett captured Pamela Jane’s vision of Noelle.

This is one of those classic Christmas stories (like the one that I mentioned earlier) that offers a nice shot of holiday spirit along with a message that’s worth remembering all year.