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*

Return of the Thief: A Review

Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen TurnerAfter being born with the infirmity that runs through his family and earning the nickname “monstrous” as a baby, Pheris Mostrus Erondites has grown up aware of his own limitations. His vulnerabilities from his bad leg and arm as well as his inability to speak verbally have never been far from his mind. Pheris is, therefore, as surprised as anyone when he is named his grandfather Baron Erondites’ heir and sent to the Attolian court to serve as an attendant to the king of Attolia, Eugenides.

Years of fear and caution have taught Pheris how to play the fool and hide in plain sight but even he can’t escape Eugenides’ notice as the Little Peninsula prepares for war. As the newly appointed high king of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis, Eugenides has united the three countries but that does not mean their people are ready–or willing–to fight the invading Mede empire.

Pheris observes and recounts everything for readers as political maneuvers, personal dramas, and his grandfather’s schemes unfold while creating an unlikely place for himself both in the palace and in the hearts of some of its residents.

With war looming Eugenides has to work harder than ever to protect everyone he loves and make sure he does not offend the gods who have taken an interest in both the Little Peninsula and him since his early years as the Queen’s Thief in Return of the Thief (2020) by Megan Whalen Turner.

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A direct sequel to Thick as Thieves, this novel will be most rewarding to readers of the entire Queen’s Thief series with the resolution of many character arcs and nods to multiple events across the overlapping timelines of the previous books in this series that has been decades in the making.

Pheris is an unlikely but meticulous narrator drawing readers deeper into the inner workings of the palace while shedding light on the looming war and the enigmatic high king. With shrewd, biting prose, Pheris fits in seamlessly with this group of characters fans have come to know and love. Tension, political drama, and intrigue are well contrasted with moments of levity and affection as both new and old characters have their moment to shine.

Return of the Thief is as intricately plotted as it is utterly satisfying; everything readers could hope for from a conclusion twenty years in the making.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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

A Fierce and Subtle Poison: A Review

A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha MabryLucas spends every summer with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. The resort there, an old convent, sometimes feels more like home to Lucas than the mainland ever does.

The stories he hears there about the cursed girl with the green skin and the poison in her veins sometimes feel more real than any of the girls Lucas spends the summer romancing as a diversion. Lucas has always wanted to help her; imagined himself breaking Isabel’s curse once and for all.

This summer, when his latest girlfriend disappears and Lucas starts receiving letters from Isabel herself, his life becomes inextricably entwined with the island, the curse, and a desperate search to save another lost girl before it’s too late in A Fierce and Subtle Poison (2016) by Samantha Mabry.

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A Fierce and Subtle Poison is Mabry’s debut novel. It’s easy, while reading, to see how the seeds of this story led to her subsequent novels All the Wind in the World and Tigers, Not Daughters.

Narrated by Lucas, this novel explores colonization and gentrification. Lucas witnesses firsthand the entitlement of white tourists and the damage his own father’s resorts cause to the island’s often fragile history.

Mabry expertly blends suspense and magic realism in this story of poison and disappeared girls although by the second half of the book it begins to feel like too many things are thrown into the plot as Lucas learns more about Isabel and her past.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is a subtle story of longing and growing up. Recommended for readers who want to follow along with characters searching for their own compass–moral or otherwise.

Possible Pairings: Girl Serpent Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Sadie by Courtney Summers

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth NixThings are changing in London in 1983. Some of the changes are ones you might recognize while others in this slightly alternate London are, appropriately, slightly different.

Things are changing for eighteen-year-old Susan Arkshaw too as she travels to London to try to find her father–a man she has never met–only to cross paths with the left-handed Merlin St. Jacques and, by extension, the rest of his eccentric family.

The St. Jacques clan has always kept London’s monsters, goblins, and other eldritch creatures in check and grounded in the Old World through a combination of magic, research for the right-handed of the family, brute force for the left-handed, and it seems in Merlin’s case through raw charisma as well. But the St. Jacques clan also has to make a living. So they sell books in the New World of modern London as well, as one does.

Susan isn’t sure how to deal with Merlin’s outrageous good looks or his even more outrageous flirting. Worse, she seems to be caught up in an Old World struggle that has been building for years–one that Merlin has been investigating in relation to his mother’s murder.

With help from his right-handed sister, Vivien, Merlin and Susan will have to follow Susan’s scant clues to find her father and determine Susan’s role in this Old World conflict before it bleeds into New World London and tears its unique booksellers apart in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (2020) by Garth Nix.

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Witty banter and high stakes battles contrast well with bigger questions of what constitutes the greater good in a time when both magic and the modern world are rapidly evolving even as the booksellers themselves may be stagnating after years of complacency. If another urban fantasy novel has ever had such a painfully realistic depiction of shoddy institutional management, I haven’t read it.

Susan is a pragmatic, no-nonsense heroine from her worldview down to her buzz cut and Doc Martins who is quick to adapt as her entire world begins to shift beneath her feet. Merlin is, by contrast, flamboyant and whimsical with a larger than life personality to match his massive wardrobe fit for every occasion with snappy suits, nice dresses, and everything in between including multiple weapons. As the final point of this trio Vivien adds some much-needed practicality and steals every scene she’s in.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London artfully subverts traditional gender roles both in society and within the fantasy genre with a story that defies as many expectations as its characters. Very fun. Very British. Very 1980s. Very much recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

The Ten Thousand Doors of January: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. HarrowJanuary Scaller is used to certain doors being closed to her. Living as the ward of Mr. Locke, a wealthy man who travels in his own bubble of authority and privilege, does much to ease January’s movement through a world that doesn’t always understand her.

But even Mr. Locke’s influence can never change her origins as the daughter of a poor explorer or the color of her copper skin. She is used to never quite fitting in and never quite knowing her place among the empty halls of Locke’s vast mansion. She is used to wondering when her father will return from his numerous expeditions searching out new rarities for Locke’s vast collection. Most of all, January is used to waiting.

Everything changes the moment January finds a door, although it takes her nearly a decade to truly understand its importance. In a world where doors can lead a person much farther than an adjacent room, January will have to rely on a book filled with secrets and regrets and her own wits to determine which doors are meant to be open wide and which should remain under lock and key.

Doors can be many things to many people but more than anything, they are change. For January it may be impossible to walk through a door without changing everything in The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019) by Alix E. Harrow.

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The Ten Thousand Doors of January is Harrow’s debut novel. The story alternates between January’s lyrical first person narration and chapters from the mysterious book she finds among Mr. Locke’s myriad artifacts.

Part portal fantasy, part coming-of-age story, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a story about a young woman discovering her own power and agency in both a literal and figurative sense as she grows up in a world that has sought to systematically strip her of both.

Harrow builds tension well as the novel moves toward a dramatic climax both in January’s story and in the story-within-a-story of the book she finds. Moments of genuine magic and sweetness are tempered with thoughtful examinations of what it means to be a person of color in a world that too often defaults to white and favors it above all else.

January is clever, plucky heroine learning to find her voice after years of trying to keep quiet and maintain a low profile. Her personal growth is complimented well with the ragtag community she builds as she learns more about Doors and her own connection to them.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an ambitious examination of privilege, choice, and connection wrapped up in a distinct magic system and truly singular world building. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; Life After Life by Kate Atkinson; Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt; Passenger by Alexandra Bracken; The Meq by Steve Cash; Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore; Ink, Iron, and Glass by Gwendolyn Clare; The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove; The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig; Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones; A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly; Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire; The Starless Sea by Erin Morgensten; Uprooted by Naomi Novik; Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel; Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson; The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab;The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth; Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Loveboat, Taipei: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing WenThe last thing Ever Wong wants to do is spend her summer in an educational program in Taiwan learning Chinese and preparing to start at Northwestern’s pre-med program in the fall.

But Ever is used to not having a say in her own life and isn’t surprised when her parents ship her off and ruin her plans to spend one last summer dancing before she gives up (like always) and does what her parents want (like always).

But the program isn’t what ever expects. Instead of rigorous study with Chien Tan Ever finds herself in a program with minimal supervision and her exuberant roommate Sophie Ha egging her on, Ever is ready to break every one of her parents rules–especially when it comes to no dating.

With its reputation as a party program to meet up (and hook up), there’s no shortage of cute guys–most notably including Xavier Yeh the sexy heir to a fortune who’s already caught Sophie’s eye and has a secret he’s reluctant to admit. Then there’s Rick Woo who, as the bane of Ever’s existence and object lesson of how she’ll never be good enough for her parents, is totally not dating material. No matter how much he gets under Ever’s skin.

But the more time Ever spends doing all of the things her parents would hate, the less sure she is what she wants for herself in Loveboat, Taipei (2020) by Abigail Hing Wen.

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Loveboat, Taipei is Wen’s debut novel. Although Ever’s narration sometimes skews towards hyperbolic metaphors (“But why did you let me dance when I was little? I want to cry. Why give me honey when you knew my future was diabetic?”) her struggle to reconcile her own desires with honoring the sacrifices her parents have made to give Ever so many opportunities.

Ever is a complex, fully realized heroine with her own strengths and flaws. What starts as a summer of rebellion becomes a chance for her to learn how to articulate and pursue her dream to become a dancer and choreographer instead of the doctor her parents always wanted her to become.

Loveboat, Taipei shines when the focus is on ever and her own journey. The other characters, in comparison, often feel one-dimensional. A tertiary character’s struggle with depression becomes a plot device in the final act and does not receive as thorough a treatment as it should have. In contrast another character’s dyslexia is addressed much more conscientiously.

Over the course of the summer, Ever travels through Taipei’s glittering nightlife and tourist destinations while negotiating her identity as an American visitor in Taiwan compared to her life as the only Asian American in her small Ohio town. With clubbing, loads of drama, and a messy love triangle, Ever’s summer is more than she bargained for and forces her to confront her best and worst qualities before she can figure out what comes next.

Loveboat, Taipei is as thoughtful as it is sensational. Recommended for readers looking for a splashy romance with soul searching in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Practically Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Our Wayward Fate by Gloria Chao, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, Anna K.: A Love Story by Jenny Lee, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations: A Nonfiction Review

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira JacobThe trouble starts when Z is six. He has a lot of questions about everything from who taught Michael Jackson to dance, if moonwalking has anything to do with how to actually walk on the moon, to if it’s bad to be brown.

Artist and author, Mira Jacob tries to answer all of his questions–but it isn’t always easy to explain to a half-Jewish, half-Indian boy that not everyone is going to understand him or want to make space for him.

Using Z’s questions as a spring board, this graphic novel memoir explores the tensions leading up to the 2016 US election, the author’s own history growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in small town American, and more to get at what we really talk about when we talk about race, sexuality, belonging, and love in Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations (2019) by Mira Jacob.

Good Talk was both heavier and lighter than I expected. Jacob combines photographic backgrounds with realistic black and white drawings of characters to create high contrasts pages. Although the pages are often static with speech bubbles doing most of the work to move the book along, the story remains dynamic and engrossing.

Good Talk is an excellent introduction to graphic novels for readers looking to try that format for the first time. Jacob’s frank exploration of identity and racism in her own life and in the larger context of the 2016 US election also makes Good Talk a great entry point for difficult conversations about race, politics, and what it means to be an ally.

In addition to providing a thoughtful window into a very painful moment in US politics and the hard conversations we all need to have in the wake of that moment, Good Talk is a laugh out loud funny memoir about growing up and speaking up. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib; The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish; How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones ; March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell; So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo; We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

Sloppy Firsts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCaffertyDon’t let the last name fool you, Jessica Darling is anything but darling. Not that she cares. With her best friend Hope all the way across the country, it’s not like Jessica has anyone nearby who understands her or makes her want to try harder.

She tolerates the Clueless Crew at school, tries to ignore her dad’s constant nagging about her running technique, and does her best to stay out of the line of fire as her mother helps plan her older sister’s wedding.

In other words: Jessica is prepared for a hopeless year–especially with her insomnia spiraling out of control, constant anxiety, and the rather confusing matter of why she hasn’t had her period in months.

Add to that the mysterious and elusive Marcus Flutie who, for reasons that remain a mystery to Jessica, keeps turning up at the oddest times and Jessica’s year might still be hopeless, but it certainly won’t be boring in Sloppy Firsts (2001) by Megan McCafferty.

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Sloppy Firsts is the start of McCafferty’s Jessica Darling book series (which as of this writing was recently optioned for a TV series). This epistolary novel left a lasting mark in YA literature and is an obvious influence for many of the books that followed in this style.

That said, this book is from 2001 and it shows–especially when reading it for the first time in 2019. The book is very white and very dated. The story is written as letters Jessica sends to her best friend Hope because of the cost of long distance calls and their lack of cell phones or much computer access. A lot of what Jessica says (for instance discussing her “gimphood” at one point when she breaks her leg) would not get a pass were the book to come out now. Does that make it a bad story? No. Does it mean I would be very deliberate in how I recommend this book and to whom? Yes.

Despite being a scathing narrator, Jessica is often very relatable. She struggles with anxiety and peer pressure and other common travails of high school–many of which are things that were barely being articulated in YA books when Sloppy Firsts was originally published.

While Sloppy Firsts is a slice-of-life story, fans of the series will tell you that the book’s main focus is Jessica’s complicated and meandering relationship with Marcus Flutie who manages to be both incredibly entertaining and a complete nightmare throughout the novel. The chemistry and tension between Jessica and Marcus is immediately obvious and largely unresolved by the end of this installment.

Sloppy Firsts taps into a very specific type of character in a very specific moment. Recommended for readers who like their contemporary novels with a ton of snark, a bit of absurdity, and a whole lot of secondhand embarrassment.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo; What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen; The Truth Commission by Susan Juby; The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart; The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe; Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

Frankly in Love: A Review

Frank is a second generation Korean American. He is a senior in high school and what he call a Limbo. Like the other Korean American kids in his community, Frank finds himself caught between his parents’ expectations and his own wants as an American teen in Southern California.

Frank is all too aware of what his parents want him to do–especially when it comes to dating (spoiler: any girl he brings home had better be Korean). The only problem is that expectations are the last thing on Frank’s mind when he falls for Brit Means who is beautiful, popular, and white.

When Frank realizes his fellow Limbo, Joy Song, is facing the same problem it seems like they have found an obvious solution: pretend to date each other. Fake dating gives Frank and Joy freedom to do what they want without disappointing their parents. But as their fake relationship brings them closer together, Frank wonders if he’s ever understood love at all in Frankly in Love (2019) by David Yoon.

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Frankly in Love is Yoon’s debut novel. (Yes, before you ask, he and Nicola Yoon are married!)

Frank’s first person narration toes the line between humor and sardonic wit as he shares insights into the push and pull between his life at home with his Korean immigrant parents and his identity outside of their home and community.

While the fake relationship and related chaos add a lot of levity to this story, Frank’s journey throughout the novel is heavier as he tries to figure out who he wants to be (not to mention who he wants to be with) and struggles with how best to interrogate his parents’ racism and prejudices.

Frankly in Love is a contemporary romance with zero toxic masculinity and a charcter asking hard questions about choosing your path and who you love while choosing your battles. Recommended for readers looking for a romance with humor that still skews toward literary.

Possible Pairings: The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, Boys Don’t Knit by T. S. Easton, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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

In An Absent Dream: A Review

“You can be happy here or you wouldn’t be here. But ‘happy’ doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply to you.”

cover art for In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireKatherine Lundy has always known the value of rules and, perhaps even more importantly, loopholes. Lundy would much rather spend her time reading and studying than prepare for a future as a proper housewife. But as a girl in the 1960s it’s hard for anyone to imagine that future as a real possibility for her–even her own family.

When Lundy finds a magic door, it leads to a world filled with logic, riddles, and a brutal kind of sense. The rules are simple: ask for nothing; remember that names have power; always give fair value; take what is offered and be grateful; and most importantly of all: remember the curfew.

Lundy is used to following rules and she revels in finding her way through these new ones. But even as she imagines a home for herself in the Goblin Market, her old life keeps calling her back. As the time for choosing draws near, Lundy will learn that finding a loophole doesn’t always mean you should use it in In an Absent Dream (2019) by Seanan McGuire.

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In an Absent Dream is the fourth installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway and continues in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky.

This novella acts as a prequel following Lundy before she makes her way to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Knowing the way things end for Lundy in other books make this a bitter volume, but it also can be an interesting entry point into the series.

McGuire once again uses an omniscient narrator to excellent effect to create prose that is filled with ominous foreshadow and warnings you can’t help but wish our heroine would heed.

In an Absent Dream is another fine addition to a series that only gets better with time. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy portal fantasies, adventure, and horror in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Scwhab, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth