Wildcard: A Review

*Wildcard is the conclusion of Marie Lu’s Warcross trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with Warcross.*

cover art for Wildcard by Marie LuEmika Chen was a bounty hunter and a hacker. Now, she’s a fugitive.

Emika’s tried to hack the Warcross Championship and stop Hideo’s NeuroLink algorithm from going online. She failed.

Now Hideo is using the algorithm to prevent crimes and force criminals to turn themselves in. But with Hideo controlling almost everyone in the world, how long before he becomes corrupt himself?

Still determined to stop him, Emika enlists the help of her former teammates, the Phoenix Riders, to find a way to shut the algorithm down before its too late. But Hideo isn’t the only threat anymore.

With a bounty on her head, Emika becomes entangled with mysterious hacker Zero and the Blackcoats–a ruthless crew of vigilantes. The Blackcoats want to stop Hideo too. But they don’t care about any extra bloodshed along the way.

With nowhere to hide and no one to trust, Emika will have to decide for herself how far she’s willing to go to stop the Neurolink–especially if stopping the algorithm means sacrificing Hideo in Wildcard (2018) by Marie Lu.

Wildcard is the conclusion to Lu’s high tech sci-fi duology that started in Warcross.

Wildcard picks up right where Warcross left off. With days left before the Warcross Closing ceremony and the launch of the algorithm to all Neurolink users, Emika and her friends are at a loss for how to stop what seems inevitable. Emika’s efforts to stop the algorithm are further complicated by her continued attraction to Hideo and her hope that he might be still be saved from himself.

Despite the ostensibly higher stakes, it’s hard to feel invested in Wildcard‘s plot. Even the imminence of the algorithm’s worldwide launch and Emika having to literally fight for her life at every turn failed to add any sense of urgency to the story. The shift in focus as Emika’s challenges become more internal (Should she work with Zero? Can she save Hideo?) combined with much more time spent in the Neurolink’s virtual world make the story feel that much more abstract.

Warcross had a plot that could have easily been resolved with a few honest conversations. This flaw is amplified in Wildcard and much harder to ignore. Most of the plot revolves around a fundamental, and baffling, lack of communication between characters right until a deus ex machina ending brings everything to a quick (if sometimes messy) resolution.

This duology introduces readers to a fantastic world filled with surprisingly plausible technology and a truly memorable group of characters. Despite shortcomings in the plot, Wildcard offers fans a satisfying and appropriate conclusion for a favorite cast of characters.

Possible Pairings: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, For the Win by Cory Doctorow, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Partials by Dan Wells

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Noteworthy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Noteworthy by Riley RedgateJordan Sun is a scholarship student at the prestigious Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Jordan is a junior now and she has never been cast in a school play. Something her mother is quick to remember whenever she wonders if Jordan would be more valuable to the family closer to home where she can work while going to school.

The problem isn’t Jordan’s skill or talent. The problem is that Jordan’s height and deeper voice don’t fit the narrow mold of most female roles.

Jordan can’t change either of those things. But in a moment of desperation she realizes that she can use them by auditioning for The Sharpshooters–one of the school’s a cappella groups. The only problem is she’ll have to audition as a boy because the Sharpshooters are an all-male group.

Being found out could be devastating leaving Jordan shunned for the rest of her time at Kensington-Blaine and known forever as the girl who infiltrated an a cappella group. Basically the least impressive spy of all time. But the rewards are worth the risk with all of the school’s a cappella groups competing for a chance to accompany Aural Fixation on the European leg of their tour as show openers.

All Jordan wants is to prove to her school and her parents (and maybe herself) that she can thrive in a leading role. She’ll stay with the Sharps long enough to win the competition, nail the tour, and move on. Keeping the guys at arm’s length for that long should be simple. But as her friendships with the Sharps (and competition with a rival group) grow, the lies start to mount and Jordan realizes that sometimes you have to get close to people. Even if it means you might get hurt in Noteworthy (2017) by Riley Redgate.

Jordan is a first generation American and a low income student at her historically white and affluent at Kensington-Blaine. She struggles with the dissonance between her life at boarding school and her family’s struggles to make ends meet through part-time and retail jobs. Adding to that pressure are mounting hospital bills from her father’s recent hospital stay when his pre-existing health issues (he is a paraplegic) make a light cough so much worse. Still stinging from her breakup, Jordan also starts to acknowledge her bisexuality for the first time.

Despite being in a predominantly white school, Jordan’s circle of friends and acquaintances is thoughtfully diverse with characters coming to terms with parental expectations, school pressures, and their sexuality among other things. In the Sharps, Jordan quickly bonds with dry witted Nihal who is Sikh and one of my absolute favorite characters.

I so appreciate the way that Jordan acknowledges both her limitations as a poor scholarship student and also her privilege in being able to cross dress essentially on a lark–a decision she struggles with long before her secret is revealed (because of course it is revealed). While the middle is bogged down in numerous issues of varying important to the story, Noteworthy still ends suddenly and leaves readers wanting to see more of the Sharps (and maybe some payback for their rivals the Minuets).

Noteworthy is a thoughtful commentary on gender, agency, and ambition. By inhabiting the role of Julian, Jordan starts to realize how many limitations have been placed on her life–both through outside expectations from family, friends, and teachers as well as by herself. It’s only by hiding in plain sight as a boy that Jordan really gets the chance to shine and embrace her own dreams. Recommended for readers looking for a light contemporary with some meat on its bones and, of course, a cappella fans everywhere.

Possible Pairings: Not Now, Not Ever by Lily Anderson, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner, All Summer Long by Hope Larson, The Victoria in My Head by Janelle Milanes, Famous in Love by Rebecca Serle

Warcross: A Review

“Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact.”

by Marie Lucover art for Warcross by Marie LuEmika Chen’s life is a constant struggle. Since her father’s death she’s been drowning in deby as she tries to pay off the medical expenses and gambling debts he left behind. Emika is a stellar hacker but thanks to the arrest on her record she can’t get any jobs near a computer. Instead she works as a bounty hunter tracking down petty criminals who do stupid things like gamble on Warcross and hustling to stay ahead of the competition.

Warcross is the one place where Emika can relax. The virtual reality game is a diversion, a competition, and place where Emika can remember what she loves: coding. With an eviction notice hanging over her head it’s also a place where she can take a big risk and hack into the opening game of the Warcross Championship to try and steal an item and erase her debt.

When the hack goes spectacularly wrong Emika thinks she’s heading for a swift arrest and jail. But instead she is whisked to Tokyo where she meets Warcross’s creator–eccentric young millionaire Hideo Tanaka–and is hired to work as a spy and bounty hunter tracking down a hacker who is threatening the Warcross world.

To cover for her real mission Emika is placed in the Wardraft and becomes part of the Championship. Winning the Championship and finding the hacker could change Emika’s life forever. Getting too close to the truth could change the world of Warcross and beyond forever in Warcross (2017) by Marie Lu.

Warcross is the first book in Lu’s Warcross duology.

Lu has once again created a well-realized and fascinating world where virtual reality and augmented reality are plausibly integrated into everyday life. This plot-driven story is fast-paced and full of action as Emika’s investigation brings her into Tokyo as well as the virtual worlds of Warcross and the Dark World typically inhabited by criminals and hackers.

The coding and gameplay aspects of Warcross can feel convenient while more than one twist will leave readers wondering if a few frank conversations between characters could have avoided many of the novel’s main conflicts. The tension of the championship and the urgency of Emika’s investigation to track down the Warcross hacker, known only as Zero, raise the stakes enough to detract from these holes in the plot.

Warcross is filled with distinct characters from a variety of backgrounds ranging from poor Hammie, a champion Thief in Warcross who uses her winnings to support her family to DJ Ren–a champion Warcross player/French DJ sensation–and Phoenix Rider team captain Asher who is American and flies through Warcross games in virtual reality while navigating the real world in a high tech wheelchair. While Emika is immediately drawn into the camaraderie and competition surrounding Warcross (not to mention drawn to enticing and mysterious Hideo) she knows she can’t let her guard down if she wants to identify Zero and beat the other bounty hunters to the prize.

The high stakes of the Warcross championship blend well with the larger mystery of finding Zero.The excitement and twists, particularly in the second half of the novel, work well to draw readers in and help them ignore the fact that a few frank conversations could solve most if not all of Emika and Hideo’s problems.

This duology starter is filled with inventive world building, top notch characters, and provocative questions about who (if anyone) deserves a redemption arc. Warcross draws readers in with action and gaming, but where it really shines is with the thoughtful meditation on what separates heroes from villains in a world that is anything but black and white. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, For the Win by Cory Doctorow, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Partials by Dan Wells

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

Nice Try, Jane Sinner: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“The past doesn’t exist. It’s just a story we tell ourselves. And stories change each time you tell them.”

“If you don’t like what you’ve written, write something else.”

cover art for Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne OelkeJane Sinner is tired of pity and talking about what happened. She isn’t surprised at her expulsion from high school or her lack of plans for the future. She’s just surprised that anyone else is shocked.

In an effort to appease her parents and possibly get something right Jane agrees to attend a high school completion program at Elbow River Community College. She only has one condition: she gets to move out. Affordable housing appears in the form of a student-run reality show along the lines of Big Brother. Jane jumps at the chance to join the cast of House of Orange, live within her limited means, and compete to win a car (used, but whatever it’s still a car).

Stepping away from her conservative, religious parents and forgetting about what happened is exactly what Jane needs to start over. On campus she can reinvent herself as Sinner–the cynical and ultra-competitive version of herself that comes through in House of Orange edits–even if the HOOcaps (House of Orange production team) might be watching Jane’s every move and real life is becoming uncomfortable hard to separate from the game.

When House of Orange goes from low-rent web series to a local community tv sensation, Jane is forced to consider how far she’s willing to go to win. And how much she has to prove to herself and the world (or viewers of substandard reality tv anyway) in Nice Try, Jane Sinner (2018) by Lianne Oelke.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is Oelke’s debut novel. The book is written as Jane’s journal complete with dialog popped out as if it were a screenplay. This format allows Jane’s snappy comebacks and other banter between characters to really stand out.

Jane’s misadventures, like her narration, are sardonic and ridiculous in the best ways as she balances competing on the show and using everything she learns in Intro to Psychology to destroy her opponents with her high school completion work and maybe, just maybe, making some new friends. Jane has no allusions about herself or the nature of the show–it’s the worst and she might not be much better as she chases the win.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is simultaneously contemplative and literally laugh-out-loud funny. A must-read for readers looking for a laugh and fans of reality shows (or anyone who likes to complain about those unsatisfying reality show outcomes).

Possible Pairings: Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, American Panda by Gloria Chao, Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandyha Menon, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

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

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow: A (Halloween-y) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Morrigan Crow is cursed and doomed to die on her eleventh birthday on Eventide night. She is blamed for every bit of bad luck and misfortune that plagues the residents of the town of Jackalfax in the Wintersea Republic.

When Eventide arrives early ushering a new Age across the realm, Morrigan is faced with the prospect of her premature death until a strange man named Jupiter North arrives. Together the two escape the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow and arrive in the Free State city of Nevermoor. Miraculously alive and possibly no longer cursed, Morrigan can make a fresh start.

With Jupiter’s help she has the chance to compete in a series of trials for a place in Nevermoor’s most revered group: The Wundrous Society. If she makes it she’ll also earn her place in Nevermoor and finally have a home and family who cares about her.

Despite Jupiter’s assurances, Morrigan dreads the final Show Trial where the remaining competitors will have to demonstrate their astounding talents–something Morrigan is quite certain she doesn’t possess. Morrigan will have to step boldly and learn to trust her new friends if she hopes to pass the trials and join the Wundrous Society in Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (2017) by Jessica Townsend.

Nevermoor is Townsend’s debut novel and the start of a middle grade trilogy. The story revolves around Morrigan’s struggle to find her place and discover her own worth. All while she completes magical tasks and investigates the strange world of Nevermoor.

This dynamic novel is filled with intricate and carefully detailed world building that brings the renowned figure of Jupiter North and the rest of Nevermoor vibrantly to life. Set over the course of Morrigan’s year of trials this entertaining and fast-paced story is filled with wondrous things like the Hotel Deucalion where Morrigan’s room changes to suit her mood, the Wundrous Society grounds which turns the weather up a notch, and even a giant talking “Magnificat” named Fenestra.

Nevermoor is filled with adventure, magic, and wonder. Readers, like Morrigan herself, will feel at home in these evocative pages where magic and confidence go hand in hand. Highly recommended.

Want to know more? Check out my interview with Jessica about her debut over at SLJ.com

Possible Pairings: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon Foxheart by Claire Legrand, Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag, The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski

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

Tumbling: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tumbling by Caela CarterGrace cares more about gymnastics than she cares about anything. She has the “international” look that appeals to judges. But with younger, smaller gymnasts coming along all the time, Grace is desperate to keep her edge–even if it hurts her.

Leigh is Grace’s best friend but it’s hard to balance friendship with their constant competition for first place. Leigh balances a normal life in school with her professional aspirations at the gym but she doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere.

Camille was an Olympian four years ago–but only for a day. Now everyone is cheering  for “Comeback Cammie” as she tries to make the team again. Between her mother’s expectations and her boyfriend’s disapproval, she isn’t even sure she wants to be an Olympian anymore.

At nineteen Wilhemina is practically a different generation from the other girls competing when it comes to gym years. She missed her chance four years ago because her birthday was four days too late. This time she isn’t going to let anything stand in her way, especially not petty gymnastics politics.

Monica is far from the top and everyone knows it. She’s a decent gymnast. She’ll definitely qualify for an NCAA scholarship one day. But she knows to keep her expectations low because hoping for more and falling short will hurt too much.

These five girls are gambling everything–every choice they have made for their entire lives–on how well they perform at the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials. At the end of the trials some of the girls will be stars, some will have nothing. All of them will be changed forever in Tumbling (2016) by Caela Carter.

Tumbling rotates between five perspectives (all close, third-person) throughout the novel to explore Grace, Leigh, Camille, Wilhemina, and Veronica’s stories. Set over the two days of the meet for the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials this story explore their individual stories as well as their (sometimes unexpected) moments of intersection. These girls are also a diverse and inclusive group that reflect the real face of this sport.

Carter takes this ambitious structure and handles it well. Each girl’s personality comes through in her individual sections as well as in the larger plot of the novel. Supplemental material including a roster with all of the characters (and the seven other gymnasts competing at the trials) and a glossary of gymnastics terms will help even the least initiated feel like a gymnastics expert while reading.

Tumbling explore the competitive and grueling nature of gymnastics. All of the girls are struggling with something whether it’s body image and not eating, self-esteem, figuring out if being a lesbian really needs to be a part of a public gymnast persona, or just self-esteem. While this book highlights the thrill of competition (and the drama), it also is an honest portrayal of the work and dedication needed to compete at such a high level. Themes of body positivity and staying healthy while competing are also stressed throughout.

While there is drama, fierce competition, and some intense conflict the overwhelming focus of Tumbling is on positivity and friendship. Yes, these five girls are competing. But it’s not always with each other so much as it is to be the best. While each character is flawed, by the end of the story they are all striving to build each other up and be better versions of themselves both in and out of competition.

Readers will think they know what to expect at the start of Tumbling but Carter artfully includes realistic twists and surprises that leave several characters in surprising circumstances by the end of the novel. Veronica and Wilhemina’s arcs are particularly satisfying and work well to bring the entire novel together. Highly recommended for gymnastics enthusiasts as well as readers looking for an exciting book with a strong cast of female characters.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, Rival by Sarah Bennett-Wealer, Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, The Flip Side by Shawn Johnson, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma