The Wicked Deep: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Wicked Deep by Shea EarnshawTwo hundred years ago in the town of Sparrow three sisters were drowned as witches. Every year since then the Swan sisters have returned to Sparrow, claiming the bodies of unwitting local girls and using them to wreak their vengeance on the town by drowning boys foolish enough to fall under their sway.

Every Swan Season is the same, ending only when each sister has claimed a new victim.

Penny can see what others can’t including long buried secrets about the sisters and the Swan Season. But she knows that secret can only go so far against a curse. She is used to watching the Swan Season unfold with wary detachment, certain that this one will be  like all the others ending with death, suspicion, and grief.

Except this year there is a new outsider in town—a boy named Bo who refuses to believe the Swan sisters can pose any real danger to anyone, especially him. A boy that Penny is determined to protect. As the Swan Season unfolds Penny and Bo will work together to unravel the truth of the curse and the sisters. But as the Swan Season nears its end Penny realizes that the only way to save Bo might be by sacrificing herself in The Wicked Deep (2018) by Shea Earnshaw.

The Wicked Deep is Earnshaw’s debut novel.

The Wicked Deep is a tense bit of fantasy woven through with suspense as the novel builds toward the disastrous conclusion of the Swan Season. Penny’s first person narration is frank and often cynical with lyrical prose as she slowly searches for a way to break the curse and save Bo.

This story is filled with twists and surprises about both Penny and Bo. Unfortunately the story also flags in the second act as Penny and Bo repeatedly discuss what ending the curse might entail and how far they are willing to go if it means freeing the island from the sisters’ menace forever.

The Wicked Deep is an atmospheric story filled with witches, secrets, and a scorching romance with far-reaching consequences. Recommended for readers looking for a spooky book to read curled up by a fire and fans of Practical Magic especially.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

Odd One Out: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover for Odd One Out by Nic StoneCourtney “Coop” Cooper knows exactly what he wants. He also knows he can’t have it. That’s what happens when you’re in love with your lesbian best friend.

Rae Evelyn Chin doesn’t know what she wants. She’s new in town and thrilled to immediately befriend Coop and Jupiter. She just hopes wanting to kiss Coop doesn’t ruin their friendship. Not to mention wanting to maybe kiss Jupiter too.

Jupiter Charity-Sanchez has always known what she wants. But when she finds herself caught between Coop and Rae, she starts to wonder if that’s a good thing.

One story. Three sides. Nothing simple in Odd One Out (2018) by Nic Stone.

The novel is split between Coop, Rae, and Jupiter’s first person narrations (each is a “book” in the story instead of the alternating chapter structure typically seen with multiple points of view).

Stone describes her sophomore contemporary novel as a bit of wish fulfillment–a story she wished she’d been able to read as a teen herself. The story features carousels, crossword puzzles, and Freddie Mercury–three passions that inform the characters’ perspective parts.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one but by the end of the novel Coop, Rae, and Jupiter had utterly won me over. In a world where labels are everywhere and nothing is ever as simple as it should be, I loved seeing these characters try to figure things out.

The three main characters have distinct voices (and perspectives, of course) with narratives that overlap just enough to allow readers to watch the plot play out from multiple angles. Coop and Jupiter’s parents (Coop’s mom is widowed and Jupiter has two dads) are great additions to the cast often stealing scenes and adding a nice layer of support for all of the characters as they try to make sense of things.

Odd One Out is the sexy, funny, and surprisingly sweet love triangle book you’ve been waiting for. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian, Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Three Sides of a Heart: Stories About Love Triangles edited by Natalie C. Parker, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Saint Anything: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Saint Anything by Sarah DessenSydney has always lived in her charismatic older brother Peyton’s shadow. But it’s hard to hide after Peyton’s DUI and its horrible aftermath pushes Sydney and her family into the public eye. Sydney’s parents seem intent on ignoring Peyton’s role in the car accident and the damage he caused. Meanwhile Sydney is haunted and infuriated by it.

Hoping for a fresh start Sydney switches schools and looks for a new normal in the midst of her family turmoil. She finds it in the unlikely form of Seaside Pizza and the Chathams—the boisterous family owners. Layla draws Sydney into her family’s world as if they’ve always been friends while her brother Mac makes Sydney feel safe for the first time in a long while. Finally Sydney feels like she’s the one being seen and with that certainty she might be able to see herself and what she wants too in Saint Anything (2015) by Sarah Dessen.

I’ve been following Sarah Dessen’s publications for a few years. She is a touchstone name in YA and I am constantly order replacement copies of her books for my library as the old ones wear out. But I have never felt like any of her books really clicked for me. As soon as I heard about Saint Anything it felt like this book would be it: the make it or break it Sarah Dessen book for me. I’d either love it unequivocally or it would confirm that not every author can work for every reader. But it turns out, much like Sydney’s story, my feelings about the book weren’t so clear cut.

Saint Anything is filled with a quirky cast of characters including Mac Chatham, the quiet and stoic boy Sydney meets at Seaside Pizza who quickly becomes a steady and constant source of support for her. Mac, like the rest of the Chathams, is a great character. But what give me pause and what continues to frustrate me about this book is Mac’s backstory. When Sydney meets him she is immediately taken aback by how attractive Mac is and baffled at his utter lack of awareness of his own good looks and their inherent power (two things Peyton routinely used to get his own way before he was arrested). During the story we learn that Mac used to be fat until he made drastic diet changes and started seriously hiking. It’s a very personal response but everything about Mac’s storyline and his weight irritated me. I didn’t like how it was portrayed and didn’t like that it was part of the story at all in the way that it connotes finding a way to be true to yourself with also being thin. Mac’s backstory became a sour note in this otherwise sweet story.

As sometimes happens in longer novels Saint Anything also starts to lose momentum as it builds to the final act. Of course there is an unexpected romance but that added with a friend’s ill advised relationship and the rest of the plot made the final third of the novel feel bloated and, because there was so much to do, the ending itself seemed rushed.

Sydney’s relationship with her family at the beginning of Saint Anything is heartbreaking and it’s so clear that the Chathams are the jolt that Sydney needs to start making changes–not just in asking for more of her parents’ attention but in realizing that she deserves more. I love that aspect of the story. Sydney’s growth as she works through her own grief and regret for Peyton’s drunk driving accident are incredibly powerful. Watching Sydney try to ignore and ultimately confront the unwanted attentions of Peyton’s older friend is tense and utterly relatable.

If this book sounds at all appealing (or you’ve already read it) I also urge you to check out the essay Dessen wrote near Saint Anything‘s release for Seventeen: “I Thought Dating An Older Guy Was Cool — Until I Sensed That Something Was Very Wrong

Possible Pairings: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett,, Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, Between Us and the Moon by Rebecca Maizel, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonneblick

Children of Blood and Bone: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Eleven years ago magic disappeared. Maji throughout Orïsha were brutally killed, their magic torn away before it could save them. Zélie Adebola remembers the night of the Raid when her mother was murdered and her father broken.

Now the children of the maji, Divîners, and the magicless Kosidán now live at the mercy of King Saran who has Orïsha unrecognizable as the wondrous land it once was.

It’s been a long time since Zélie‘s people had any reason to hope. But after a chance encounter in the marketplace, Zélie crosses paths with Amari–a princess and now a fugitive. Amari has stolen a that could bring magic back. But only if Zélie and her brother Tzain can help Amari outwit their pursuers led by Amari’s brother the crown prince and retrieve the other items needed for a ritual to correct the damage of the Raid eleven years ago in Children of Blood and Bone (2018) by Tomi Adeyemi.

Children of Blood and Bone is Adeyemi’s debut novel. This fantasy is inspired by Nigerian culture and is the blockbuster start to a high fantasy trilogy.

Readers need more books inspired by African cultures, readers need more books with  characters of color in leading roles. Children of Blood and Bone is a huge leap in both areas and helping to the lay the groundwork for more to come. I loved a lot of the characters, I loved the rich settings, and I loved the fast-pacing for the first half of the story.

I was less impressed with some of the plotting and world building–both of which often came across as slapdash.

Children of Blood and Bone fits nicely into what I typically refer to as “fantasy lite”–a subgenre where stories take place in a fantasy setting with high action, some romance, and lots of adventure. These stories sometimes lack a cohesive internal logic particularly when it comes to world building and magic systems. Every time Zélie runs into a problem that her magic can’t solve, the rules change so that she suddenly can. Similarly when circumstances conspire to stop Zélie and Amari in their tracks a deux ex machina appears to help them along.

The dialogue in this novel is snappy and fun but often anachronistic. Interestingly, the novel includes first person narration chapters from Zélie, Amari, and Inan–the crown prince determined to destroy magic even as he fights his growing attraction to Zélie.

Character motivations, particularly in the final act, become muddled as Zélie and readers have to decide once and for all who can be called an ally and who is truly an enemy. Adeyemi populates this story with a vibrant cast of characters in everything from skin tone and body type to personality.

Children of Blood and Bone is an engrossing if overly long fantasy. Excellent characters and action balance out a sloppy ending and underdeveloped world building. Recommended for fantasy readers looking for their next splashy adventure.

Possible Pairings: Roar by Cora Carmack, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

For a Muse of Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Didn’t I tell you earlier? You don’t have to trust someone to make a deal with them. You only have to have something you know they want.”

cover art for For a Muse of Fire by Heidi HeiligWith luck and determination, Jetta hopes that she and her parents can parlay their fame as shadow players in Chakrana into passage to Aquitan where shadow plays are in high demand.

There are rumors that the Mad King values nothing so much as shadow plays and Jetta hopes that garnering the king’s favor could also give her access to the spring that has cured the king’s madness–something Jetta desperately wants for her own malheur.

But notoriety of any kind is dangerous with so many secrets behind the scrim.

Jetta’s puppets move without string or stick. Instead she uses her blood to bind recently deceased souls into her puppets–one of the old ways that is now forbidden in the wake of La Victoire and the imprisonment of Le Trépas at the hands of the colonial army from Aquitan.

With danger lurking everywhere Jetta will have to confront uncomfortable truths and terrible choices as she considers how much she and her family have already sacrificed to get to Aquitan and how much more they still have to lose in For a Muse of Fire (2018) by Heidi Heilig.

For a Muse of Fire is the start of Heilig’s new trilogy. An author’s note explains that Jetta’s malheur is bipolar disorder–a mental illness she shares with Heilig.

This series starter is fast-paced and high-action while also offering readers a thoughtful commentary on the long lasting ramifications of war and colonization. Chakrana and Aquitan are inspired by Asian cultures as well as French colonialism which comes through in cultural touchstones including food, dress, and language.

Jetta’s first person narration is broken up with various ephemera including telegraph transcripts, flyers, songs, and play scenes featuring other characters. This technique works well to flesh out the novel by offering a wider view of the story and allowing other characters to take over the narrative action whenever Jetta’s focus becomes more internal as she tries to negotiate both a dangerous world and her own malheur.

For a Muse of Fire is as engrossing as it is violent. Heilig’s world building is richly imagined and carefully layered with nothing quite as it seems. Jetta’s malheur colors not only her perceptions throughout the story but many of her actions with reckless decisions during episodes of mania and listless lows with clarity and introspection often coming too late.

For a Muse of Fire is a dramatic story with an inclusive cast, high stakes, and an intense cliffhanger that will leave readers clamoring for the next installment. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, Clariel by Garth Nix, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

*A more condensed version of this review was published the July 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a Starred Review*

Blood Water Paint: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I paint the blood.”

cover art for Blood Water Paint by Joy McCulloughRome, 1610: Artemisia Gentileschi had limited options when her mother died at twelve. She could join a convent or she could work in her father’s studio grinding paint, preparing canvases, and modeling as needed.

She chose art.

Now, at seventeen, Artemisia is a key factor to the success of her father’s studio–not that anyone knows it since she can’t sign her name to her art. Instead Artemisia works in secret while her father takes the credit.

Artemisia dreams of improving her craft, stepping out of her father’s shadow, and painting heroic figures like Susanna and Judith the way they were meant to be seen–not as titillating figures colored by the male gaze.

When she is raped by a fellow artist who she thought she could trust and respect, Artemesia dares to tell the truth–and to demand justice–in spite of the horrendous cost in Blood Water Paint (2018) by Joy McCullough.

Blood Water Paint is McCullough’s debut novel. Artemisia narrates the story in sparse verse. Interspersed between these stories are prose sections in which Artemisia remembers the stories of Susanna and Judith as her mother told them to her as a child.

McCullough beautiful details Artemisia’s passion and commitment to her art. The begins in Artemesia’s teen years and continues through her rape by Agostino Tassi and the subsequent trial. Her rage and frustration against the artistic establishment and her limited options as a woman in Rome are palpable throughout the story–especially during the trial when she is subjected first to a gynecological exam and later torture with thumbscrews to “prove” the truth of her testimony. The novel ends as Artemisia begins again returning to her painting in the wake of the trial and its outcome.

McCullough makes excellent use of free verse to highlight Artemisia’s talents and internalize her anger and fear after the rape. This format also allows the novel to provide a thorough telling while sticking to the broad strokes of Artemesia’s triumphs rather than focusing in on her suffering.

Blood Water Paint is an excellent verse novel and carefully researched historical fiction. Recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Joy about Blood Water Paint too!

Possible Pairings: Da Vinci’s Tiger by L. M. Elliott, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

 

Emergency Contact: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Loving someone was traumatizing. You never knew what would happen to them out there in the world. Everything precious was also vulnerable.”

cover art for Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. ChoiPenny Lee is a college freshman at the University of Texas in Austin. She’s eager to get away from the drama that always seems to surround her mom who is, sadly, super hot and super clueless about the attention she attracts from sketchy guys. High school was fine but Penny knows that college is going to be her real chance to shine as she starts taking English classes and pursues her longtime dream to become a published author.

Sam Becker dropped out of college when he couldn’t afford it. He’s twenty-one and manages a coffee shop where he is in charge of all the baking and has a room upstairs. He’s taking an online course to get back on track with his goal of becoming a documentary filmmaker and dreading the arrival of his “niece” Jude who is about to start her freshman year of college. Sam’s still trying to piece his life together post-breakup but he’s getting there. At least until his Instagram famous ex (aka Liar) drops a bombshell.

When Sam has a panic attack in the middle of the street it’s Penny–Jude’s new roommate–who finds him and talks him down. She’s the one who wants him to text her when he gets home and, maybe most importantly, she’s the one that suggests they could be each other’s emergency contact.

As they start texting all the time, Penny and Sam realize they might have more in common than they thought. Their friendship helps both of them step outside of their comfort zones. But neither of them is sure if they’ll ever be ready to take the biggest leap by bringing their virtual relationship offline and into the real world in Emergency Contact (2018) by Mary H. K. Choi.

Emergency Contact is Choi’s debut novel. It has received two starred reviews as well as a glowing write up in the New York Times. The story alternates between chapters written in close third person following Penny and Sam along with the expected sections of text messages and emails.

As the title suggests, the entirety of the book revolves around support systems. How do you build a support system from scratch? What happens when the people you thought you could rely on let you down? And perhaps even more troubling: What happens when the person you never thought you could count on becomes a lifeline?

Penny and Sam are authentic, flawed protagonists. I’ve started calling them lovable train wrecks when I talk about this book. They don’t have all the answers. They may not have any of the answers (a realization that is almost as enlightening for Penny in terms of her relationship with her mother as, you know, actual enlightenment). But they both persevere, strive, and ultimately learn how to go after what they want–things they only accomplish thanks to confidence gained through their friendship.

I say friendship because while a lot of this story plays out against the backdrop of whether or not Penny and Sam will get together, the real meat of this novel are the friendships that both Penny and Sam build (with each other and with other people) as they try to survive this crazy thing called life. You can cut the romantic tension in this story with a knife, but first Choi carefully builds up Penny and Sam’s friendship. Both of them have to grow a lot and learn to care about themselves before they can start to care about someone else—character arcs which Choi expertly portrays throughout the novel.

Before meeting Sam, Penny is used to having a running internal dialog of all the things she wants to say–especially to people who try to belittle her or think their microaggressions and other racist remarks about Penny’s Korean heritage aren’t a big deal. Thanks to the freedom of being away from home for the first time and also having someone who genuinely supports her, Penny is finally able to speak up. She can tell her roommate Jude’s best friend that her racist remarks aren’t okay. She can admit what her French tutor did–what she never even told her Mom. And she can also learn how to move past those things instead of stewing in self-doubt and regret.

Sam, meanwhile, has been stagnating for quite some time. His life is a disaster and he’s used to it–especially when his ex-girlfriend announces that she is pregnant triggering Sam’s first panic attack. With Penny’s support and the knowledge that she cares, Sam realizes the first step in making better life choices isn’t waiting for things to change. Instead, it’s time for Sam to accept that his parents are incapable of being there for him—and haven’t been for some time. It’s time to take action to change things by pursuing his passions and standing up to his ex-girlfriend instead of letting her steamroll him yet again.

Emergency Contact is authentic and sardonic as it follows these two unlikely friends who fear connection almost as much as they crave it. This tension is the driving force for both the characters and the plot. Choi expertly uses close third person perspective and language to amplify that tension and to explore its limits as Penny and Sam try to figure out how to relate to each other even while, internally, they feel hopelessly inadequate by comparison.

(During one of their first “in real life” encounters Penny bemoans her casual outfit and generally messy appearance while being completely fascinated–and attracted–by Sam’s glasses. Sam, meanwhile, is completely self-conscious about his glasses and trying to avoid openly ogling Penny. A push and pull that repeats throughout the novel and perfectly captures the dynamic between these two characters.)

Emergency Contact is a sparkling debut about taking chances and dreaming big. A timely story with a singular voice sure to win over even the most cynical among us, Emergency Contact is an exemplar of what a great contemporary novel can look like.

Possible Pairings: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell