That Inevitable Victorian Thing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Years from now Victoria-Margaret will be the next Queen and continue the work her ancestor Victoria I started two centuries earlier to strengthen the British Empire for all of its people and promote genetic diversity and inter-Empire politics with an advantageous marriage. First  the crown princess will have a summer of freedom for her debut season in Toronto. Although her brown skin, epicanthal fold, and freckles make her easily recognizable as the current Queen’s daughter, Margaret is able to disguise herself with the help of her natural hair and a non-royal alias.

Helena Marcus is looking forward to a quiet debut in New London and making her unspoken understanding with August Callaghan official. August wants nothing more but hopes to delay their official engagement until he can see himself clear of the American pirates plaguing his Canadian and Hong Kong Chinese family’s lumber and shipping business.

When her mother’s position as a placement geneticist brings Helena to the far more prestigious Toronto debut scene she and Margaret strike up an immediate and easy friendship with a hint of flirtation.

Spending the summer up north at the Marcus cottage near Lake Muskoka allows Margaret to see more of the Empire and to find her own place among the raucous Callaghan family. As Margaret, Helena, and August grow closer and learn more of each others’ secrets they realize they may be poised to help each other get everything they’ve long wanted in That Inevitable Victorian Thing (2017) by E. K. Johnston.

Johnston’s standalone novel blends light science fiction elements in a near-future setting with the tone and style of a Victorian novel. Chapter headers including maps, society gossip pages, and correspondence serve to expand the detailed world building and highlight how deliberately and thoughtfully inclusive the Empire is (despite realistically damaging colonialism in the Empire’s distant past).

That Inevitable Victorian Thing alternates close third person point of view between Margaret, Helena, and August as all of the characters face what it means to be an adult in charge of one’s own responsibilities and, regardless of consequences, also one’s own mistakes. The voice throughout is pitch perfect for an homage to Victorian novels and works exceedingly well with the near-future world these characters inhabit.

While Margaret faces the prospect of an arranged marriage in her future, and August struggles with how best to deal with American pirates demanding protection money, Helena faces her own surprise. At eighteen every member of the Empire is able to log into the -gnet to see their full genetic profile and seek out prospective matches. When she logs in for the first time Helena is shocked by her genetic profile and uncertain what it means for her future.

Fortunately, Helena has nothing but support from her friends and loved ones. Even as this story builds toward conflict and shocks, Johnston’s tight control of the narrative serves to suggest that regardless of the outcome, these three characters will not just make it through but thrive.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a self-aware novel set in a fascinating world that is filled with wit and humor. Helena’s chemistry with both Margaret and Henry crackles despite being couched in Victorian manners and conventions. A perfect introduction to speculative fiction, a sweet romance, and a delight for fans of alternate history That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a must-read for all. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, These Broken Stars by Aimee Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the August 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

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Flannery: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Flannery Malone knows the exact moment she fell in love with Tyrone O’Rourke. She also knows that their paths diverged, possibly forever, as they grew up. Now Flannery is sixteen and Tyrone is suddenly back–gorgeous and tall and never in school long enough to leave anything more than an impression. He is also, unbelievably, Flannery’s partner for their entrepreneurship class.

Making love potions for her entrepreneurship project should be easy–even with Tyrone being more of a figurative partner than an actual help. Unfortunately that’s only the beginning of Flannery’s problems. Her free spirit mother, Miranda, is struggling to reconcile her vision as an artist with the family’s very real bills. Her little brother is quickly moving from adorably contrary to complete menace.

Then there’s Amber, Flannery’s best friend. Amber used to care about two things above all others: swimming and her friendship with Flannery. That changes when Amber falls for a new guy who seems determined to make sure Amber cares about him–and nothing else–with dangerous consequences.

When word spreads that Flannery’s love potions might actually work her simple project gets a lot more complicated as the potions, Tyrone, and Amber make Flannery rethink what she thought she knew (and what she thought was true) about love in Flannery (2016) by Lisa Moore.

Moore’s standalone contemporary is a thoughtful commentary on love in its many forms. This deceptively slim novel is a meaty slice-of-life story centered on Flannery and her unconventional family. The love potion project–which spans a significant portion of Flannery’s school year–frames this story and gives a unique lens to the events Flannery observes at home and at her school.

This novel is written in first person with a stream of consciousness feel. Flannery’s narration is sharp of tongue and wit as she neatly parses friends, family and acquaintances in the present and through flashbacks. It’s easy to imagine Flannery telling readers this story over a cup of cocoa in the mall food court.

Flannery has some beautiful moments about love, heartbreak, and family. A clever vignette of a book about the enduring power of love and choosing to be happy.

Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Piper Perish by Kayla Cagan, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby, The Romantics by Leah Konen, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockheart, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintera, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

The Fashion Committee: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Find something that makes your heart sing and your brain expand, and let it carry you past all the ugliness and low spots.”

“Measuring someone is borderline invasive. You have to touch them and record their physical presence in the world. It’s a pretty specific way to understand someone.”

Charlie Dean lives and breathes fashion and she strives for style in all things. John Thomas-Smith is a metal sculptor and he could not care less about clothes. They have one thing in common: they desperately want the chance to attend the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design on full scholarship.

When Green Pastures announces that this year’s scholarship will be awarded to a fashion design student, Charlie thinks the stars have finally aligned to make her dreams come true. John, meanwhile, is disappointed that the scholarship isn’t for metalwork but he also knows that fashion is a joke. How hard can faking his way into the competition really be?

Charlie and John have nothing in common except for art and ambition. They are both determined to win and they won’t let anything stand in their way. Not a soul-killing job at Salad Stop or an unsympathetic girlfriend. Not a dad’s girlfriend’s drug-addicted ex-boyfriend. And definitely not a very minor case of kidnapping.

Two very different artists. One life changing competition. And only one winner in The Fashion Committee (2017) by Susan Juby.

Although set in the same world as The Truth Commission, Juby’s latest novel is a standalone contemporary with an entirely new cast of characters (and illustrations by Soleil Ignacio).

This epistolary novel features alternating chapters from Charlie and John’s fashion journals written over the course of the competition. Charlie’s sections each start with one of her signature bright ideas (“Dress for the life you want!”) while John’s sections finish with quotes from the fashion industry and his own scathing indictments. Although Charlie and John often share physical space, their narratives have little overlap as the plot focuses on their own paths through the competition from developing their concepts and designing their garments to the final fashion show.

Juby introduces two very different characters in The Fashion Committee. Charlie Dean has been curating and shaping her own persona from a very young age. She values fashion above most else and she believes in deliberate sartorial choices to create a facade to present to the world. Charlie uses that facade to offset some of the things she’d prefer to forget like her father’s struggle with drug addiction. John, meanwhile, considers himself a straight shooter with a hard knock upbringing. He is very aware of the privileges of those around him (especially those attending Green Pastures) but turns a blind eye to his own good fortune being raised by two loving and conscientious grandparents. Despite their differing opinions of fashion (and almost everything else), Charlie and John’s journeys mirror each other well with a variety of ups, downs, and even a littler romance for both protagonists.

Charlie and John both have to deal with some stereotypes and preconceptions about themselves and, through meeting the unique group of students competing in the fashion show, they also learn to acknowledge their own biases. Does everything go perfectly in The Fashion Committee? No. Not even with Charlie’s efforts to impose beauty and positivity on the world through sheer force of will or John’s deliberate choice to always expect the worst.

The Fashion Committee is a thoughtful novel about fashion, privilege, and perspective where Charlie and John learn to appreciate what they have and also strive to get what they deserve. A must-read for fashionistas of all levels of expertise and anyone who seeking a book that will leave them laughing. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Black Friday: The Collapse of the American Shopping Mall by Seph Lawless, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Flannery by Lisa Moore, Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 1 by Hope Nicholson (editor), Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, D. V. by Diana Vreeland, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

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

Be sure to check out my interview with Susan about this book too!

The Truth Commission: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“When you tell a story, you shape the truth.”

The Truth Commission by Susan JubyAfter years of being fodder (along with her parents) for her sister Kiera’s best-selling graphic novel series, The Diana Chronicles, Normandy Pale is ready to come into her own. She’d like to be known for her own strengths and accomplishments instead of constantly being compared to her hapless counterpart in the Chronicles.

But it turns out it’s hard to stop being a muse. Especially when you never asked to be one.

How can Normandy focus on her projects at the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design when she is terrified of what fresh humiliations her character will be subjected to in Kiera’s highly anticipated new book? How can she embark on a search for truth with the Truth Commission she accidentally started with best friends Dusk and Neil when it feels like secrets are the only things holding her fragile and peculiar family together?

In searching for secrets at Green Pastures, Dusk, Neil, and a reluctant Normandy hope to bring some kind of peace and honesty to their school. But when their hunt for truth reveals some uncomfortable secrets and shocking truths about Kiera and her work, Normandy will have to decide how much honesty she wants in her own life in The Truth Commission (2015) by Susan Juby.

The Truth Commission is an ambitious novel presented as a work of narrative non-fiction complete with footnotes and illustrations (by Trevor Cooper). Written as Normandy’s spring project for the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, The Truth Commission is a sleek and self-aware novel.

In watching Normandy work through the process of writing her own book (when to add chapter breaks, how to move the plot along, etc.) The Truth Commission also becomes a sort of primer on how to write and write well. The one-sided dialog (in footnotes) between Normandy and her teacher Ms. Fowler also adds another dimension to a novel that is already delightfully complex.

Speaking of Ms. Fowler, it’s also refreshing to see that Normandy has adults in her life who are present and offer support throughout the novel–even if they aren’t always the ones who should be at the forefront in terms of support. This novel is about a lot of other things but seeing Normandy create and nurture her own support system is very powerful.

As the title suggests, The Truth Commission is a story about truth and honesty. It’s also a story about family and what it means when the family you are born into is not always as good or healthy as the family you might choose. It’s a story about art–both making it and engaging with it. It’s a story about the push and pull of friendships. It’s even a bit of a story about love. Most importantly, The Truth Commission is about how people–both creators and not–shape their own worlds and stories in the telling.

The Truth Commission is a thoughtful, smart, and funny story that works on many different planes. What starts as a humorous and promising project for Normandy and her friends becomes much more in Juby’s expert hands in this meditation on subjectivity, consent and how telling the truth (or choosing not to) can change everything. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Feed by M. T. Anderson, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Romantics by Leah Konen, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, In Real Life by Jessica Love, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti, This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Susan!

Being Sloane Jacobs: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren MorrillSloane Emily Jacobs isn’t sure about her supposed comeback to competitive figure skating. If she can’t start landing her jumps and getting triples again her comeback might end up very short-lived. At least the frustrations and pressure of figure skating can give her a chance to get away from her family and pretend she doesn’t know the truth about her father’s indiscretions or the depths of her mother’s oblivion.

Ice hockey is a bright spot in Sloane Devon Jacobs’ otherwise dim life. Her mother is gone, her dad is busy, and Sloane might be a little angrier than she should be. Possibly all the time. With hockey as her one and only ticket to a different life, Sloane is in for a big problem when she is suspended from the team right when scouts might finally start paying attention.

One chance meeting for these unlikely named girls changes everything when they swap places for a summer at skating camp. In their efforts to avoid real life both Sloanes find more than they bargained for and possibly exactly what they needed to know in Being Sloane Jacobs (2014) by Lauren Morrill.

Being Sloane Jacobs alternate between Sloane Emily and Sloane Devon’s first person narrations with handy headings labeled for each character. The headings are especially handy as, without benefit of external details like Sloane Emily’s rich family or Sloane Devon’s hard knock hockey persona, the two heroines have a habit of blending together.

The story is perfectly fun and easy to read so long as you can go along with the premise of these girls swapping lives. Being Sloane Jacobs has a vibe very similar to The Parent Trap with rich Sloane Emily and poor Sloane Devon swapping lives but in a cute, non-irritating way that mostly works. It was difficult to understand why–in a world of need-based aid, state schools, loans and merit scholarships–Sloane Devon would have no other option to get to college but for an athletic hockey scholarship although it is also an area outside of my expertise.

Morrill’s writing is snappy and moves the plot along (although jarring slang that seemed dated in comparison to the modern story did often turn up) and–when the Sloanes converge–creates a seamless plot with clever moments of overlap as the two girls assess each other. The story here is a fun blend of serendipity, athletics and romance that is ideal for readers who want a dose of sports in their books. Being Sloane Jacobs is definitely a lighter read that will leave readers smiling.

Possible Pairings: Tumbling by Caela Carter, Girl Overboard by Justina Chen, Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach, 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Pivot Point by Kasie West, How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last by Susan JubyThere are many reasons this review was posted late and backdated which I won’t get into here. Suffice to say I have been meaning to write this review for months but have been putting it off because I knew that once I wrote the review I would have to admit that Alice’s adventures were done–no small task let me assure you.

Onward . . .

Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last (2005) is the stunning conclusion to Susan Juby‘s debut trilogy (preceeded by Alice, I Think and its sequel Miss Smithers). You might recognize Juby’s name from the 2009 Edgar Awards where Getting the Girl was a nominee.

This installment opens with the first scene from Alice’s screenplay “Of Moose and Men”–a creative work loosely based on her own life. Excerpts of the screenplay are sprinkled throughout the novel. The writing is overwrought, exaggerated, and provides hysterical insight into Alice’s psyche throughout the story. In addition to being Alice’s latest career of choice, writing her screenplay also helps this sixteen-year-old heroine make sense of the chaos that has become her life.

At the beginning of the story, Alice’s boyfriend Goose is moving with his family to Glasgow for an entire year only to go away to university on the other end of Canada when he finally returns. Dealing with this heartbreak is bad enough on its own. Then Alice’s mother, a somewhat aggressive environmentalist, is thrown in jail as a result of her activist activities. That leaves Alice, her younger brother, and her father on their own. To say that this development leaves the family less than functional would be a vast understatement.

The one constant in Alice’s life seems, ironically, to be Death Lord Bob–her ineffectual therapist from the Teens in Transition (Not Trouble) Center in town. At least until he too is called away leaving Alice with the surly Ms. Deitrich who doesn’t seem to understand anything about Alice’s life let alone her highly evolved sense of style.

With their matriarch breadwinner in jail Alice and her father find themselves, for the first time, looking for gainful employment. Alice’s job search, and eventual employment, throw her into the paths of two brilliant characters: Wallace and Vince. Negotiating these new romantic waters, Alice finds herself caught between two equally charming suitors–one five years her senior, the other considerably her junior. The dilemma is equally difficult for readers who will likely be as attracted to these guys as Alice herself.

Throughout the series, readers are able to trace Alice’s evolution as a character. The girl we meet in this novel is very different from the Alice entering a traditional school (or a beauty pageant) for the first time. She is more mature, and in some ways  more responsible and engaged with the world at large. More than that, though, Alice’s true depth as a heroine is really apparent in this story as she not only works through but even rises above all of the (screw)balls life throws at her.

Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last doesn’t qualify as truly “realistic” fiction because of the humor and general madness that surrounds Alice. But Alice is still an utterly real and engaging character with a quirky sense of humor (and style) that will leave readers smiling.

(I’d recommend reading the entire trilogy in sequence to fully appreciate how awesome it is, but the stories do stand alone fairly well if you happen upon them out of order.)

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, Don’t Expect Magic by Kathy McCullough,  I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Define “Normal” by Julie Anne Peters, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

Miss Smithers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Miss Smithers by Susan JubyLong time readers might remember my previous demonstration of fondness for Alice, I Think by Susan Juby. By itself, the book was fantastically funny with some great plot points and characters. So imagine my happiness back in 2005 when I realized a sequel (set a bit after the first novel’s events) had been published and was available from my place of employ.

Like many good stories, Miss Smithers (2004) starts with an offer that Alice can’t refuse–especially if she wants to prove to everyone that she really is a special girl. Being previously home schooled and a bit of a loner, Alice is surprised when the local Rod and Gun Club asks her to be their representative at the Miss Smithers Beauty Pageant. That is until she hears about the four hundred dollar allotment for clothing. At that point, much to her mother’s horror, Alice is prepared to participate in anything.

Unlike higher profile pageants, Miss Smithers has enough events that are varied and vague enough that every participant has a chance of being good at something. Surely that must also include a moderately well-adjusted teen who used to think she was a hobbit, right?

After one botched newsletter distribution and the purchase of questionable attire for a beauty pageant, Alice begins to question her initial (over)confidence at winning Miss Smithers. Of course, it’s only then that Alice really starts to learn and grow from her brief experience as a beauty queen.

Like Alice, I Think before it, Miss Smithers has received some negative reviews from people who argue they can’t connect with Alice. For my part, I can’t understand why as I love Alice who seems to be the embodiment of the simultaneously apathetic and overeager teen found inside everyone.

Other negatives included a review that railed against the discussion of underage sex and drinking found in this book. There are two sides to that issue. As a teen I read a lot of books with characters who had sex and drank. Most of my friends and family will agree these readings had no detriment on my moral code. There are also a lot of books out there that are far more explicit about both topics.

In relation to this novel: yes Alice does get drunk, and yes she does consider sex quite a bit. But she also decides to take a chastity vow and spends a good amount of time contemplating what Jesus really would do. All in the same novel. Like most sixteen-year-old girls, Alice changes her mind a lot. As such, Juby creates a realistic albeit sarcastic protagonist with a well-rounded variety of experiences in this story.

Like the first novel in this trilogy, Miss Smithers does follow a diary format. The “standards” of that genre are adhered to a bit more loosely here with dated entries reading more like the usual prose. Not to worry though, this novel features a different kind of gimmick instead of the diary entries. Interspersed between chapters, Alice includes a handy newsletter (hand typed) detailing pageant events as well as a spreadsheet tallying each entrant’s points and progress toward the win. These newsletters are also a great way to look at Alice’s increasing maturity throughout the story as she begins to take more pride in the competition and becomes more familiar with each of the contestants.

Equal parts humor and sarcasm make this book a great read for anyone who would never usually pay attention to beauty pageants in books or otherwise.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, Don’t Expect Magic by Kathy McCullough,  I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Define “Normal” by Julie Anne Peters, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee