The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street: A Review

The Vanderbeekers have a problem. The family have lived in their Harlem brownstone for six years–so long that the younger Vanderbeekers don’t remember any other home. When their reclusive landlord, Mr. Biederman, announces that he won’t be renewing the family’s lease none of the Vanderbeekers are sure what to think. Even Mama and Papa are at their wit’s end trying to prepare the five Vanderbeeker children and themselves for the move with only eleven days before their lease expires.

Determined to stay in the home they know and love, the Vanderbeeker children take matters into their own hands to try and convince Mr. Biederman to let them stay. But despite the careful planning and heartfelt efforts, it seems like every attempt manages to go horribly wrong. As the days on their lease tick by, the kids begin to wonder if wanting something to happen can be enough to make it so in The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (2017) by Karina Yan Glaser.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is Glaser’s first novel and the start of a series following the Vanderbeekers and their adventures in Harlem. This story follows the entire Vanderbeeker family with a third person perspective that shifts between the five Vanderbeeker children: studious and scientific-minded Jessie (12), violin playing Isa (12 and Jessie’s twin), avid reader Oliver (9), crafty Hyacinth (6), and the youngest Laney (4 and three quarters). While that is a lot of characters to juggle, Glaser gives each kid their due with a distinct personality and a satisfying story arc.

The story never mentions anyone’s race explicitly but it’s worth noting that the Vanderbeeker family is biracial with Mama having dark eyes and straight hair while Papa has big, curly hair and light eyes. Glaser does a good job of painting a fairly inclusive neighborhood but I wish some of the ethnic identities were a little more overt on the page.

As a New Yorker myself my biggest outcry with this book was the concept of anyone having their lease revoked with only eleven days to move. I suppose it’s possible and it certainly lends urgency to the plot, but it also felt wildly improbable. The denouement of the novel also felt a bit too neat without adequate explanations for Mr. Biederman’s behavior (or his sudden change of heart) but both qualms are forgiveable in their efforts to move along a charming story.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is a funny slice-of-life story with a lot of heart. Readers will feel like part of the Vanderbeeker family as they get to know the kids, their building, and their neighborhood. The delightful start to what will hopefully become a long running series.

Possible Pairings: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue, Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker and Marla Frazee, Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

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Speak Easy, Speak Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Beatrice knows that if she leaves New York when she’s kicked out of boarding school, she’ll never be able to come back and realize her dream of becoming a doctor. She refuses to accept that future and determines to stay on course at all costs. Even if it means relying on an uncle she barely knows to take her in. Her uncle’s ramshackle mansion, Hey Nonny Nonny, holds quite a few unexpected boarders and hides a big secret: it’s a speakeasy offering entertainment and illegal spirits.

Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, loves the old house more than almost anything and she’s been doing everything she can to keep the eccentric speakeasy afloat. But with prohibition agents watching, limited supplies of liquor, and the pesky problem of needing to pay the staff, Hero isn’t sure if they can make it through one more party let alone the entire summer season.

Hero has always been able to rely on Prince, her steadfast friend who sees the speakeasy as his home and as a chance to prove himself to John, the half-brother who has never accepted Prince enough to let him in on his dealings as a member of the local mob.

Singing at Hey Nonny Nonny could be Maggie’s ticket to something bigger. But only if she’s willing to leave her friends there behind. And only if talent agents are willing to see beyond her brown skin to her big talent.

Then there’s Benedick who is determined to avoid the stuffed shirt life his father has laid out for him. No prep school graduation. No college. No banking job. Definitely no trust fund. Benedick is a writer and he’s sure that if he has the chance he can make it without his father’s backing–or his approval.

It’s dislike at first sight for Beatrice and Benedick–a feeling that only grows stronger in the face of repeated misunderstandings and arguments. Everyone else can see that Beatrice and Benedick are perfect for each other, but they both might be too stubborn to realize it without a lot of help in Speak Easy, Speak Love (2017) by McKelle George.

Speak Easy, Speak Love is George’s debut novel and a retelling of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Written in the third person this novel shifts perspective primarily between Beatrice and Benedick as they arrive at Hey Nonny Nonny. Their story also overlaps with arcs for Hero, Prince, Maggie, and John over the course of an eventful summer that will change their lives forever.

Winsome characters, perfect pacing, and a plot that is simultaneously unique and true to the source material make Speak Easy, Speak Love a delight to read. Set primarily in Long Island, New York, this novel offers a quieter side of the Prohibition in the 1920s that isn’t often seen in historical fiction. Careful researching of the time period and an obvious familiarity with Shakespeare help to make this story vibrant and evocative.

Although they are living in the past, George handles this plot through the responsible lens of modern ideals. Benedick, often in discussion with Beatrice, contemplates his privilege as a young white man from a wealthy family and the knowledge that even during his rebellious flight to Long Island his family acts as a safety net. In contrast, Beatrice is used to having no one and has to learn how to both build and trust a support system as she finds true friends and family for the first time in years. Of course, Beatrice is also a classic feminist as she chases her dream to become a doctor. Side plots following Maggie and Prince explore the idea notion of belonging as well as barriers put in place by racism and discrimination at this time.

Speak Easy, Speak Love is a witty and droll story about six teens, an unlikely speakeasy, and the connections that will change their lives forever. A must read for fans of the 1920s, Shakespeare buffs, and anyone looking for a bright diversion. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Game of Love and Death by Martha E. Brockenbrough, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Snow White by Matt Phelan, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

You can also check out my interview with McKelle starting tomorrow.

What to Say Next: A Review

Kit doesn’t know why she decides to avoid her best friends Annie and Violet at lunch. Or maybe she does. Ever since her father died in a car accident, it feels like no one knows how to talk to Kit or what to say to make it better. No one seems comfortable with Kit’s grief and sadness–not even her own mother.

David is floored when Kit sits at his lunch table–the first time anyone has in the 622 days he has attended Mapleview High School. David doesn’t necessarily mind sitting alone. It’s nice to have some quiet in the middle of a too-noisy day and sometimes it’s too hard to figure out what to say to people without being able to check his notebook to see if they are someone he–and his older sister Mini–thinks David can trust.

Nothing about Kit and David’s friendship makes sense on the outside but Kit appreciates David’s bluntness and his honesty. David, meanwhile, finally feels like he’s found someone who might be okay with David being himself. As they grow closer, Kit asks for David’s help understanding the inevitability (or not) of her father’s death which leads to a truth that might end their friendship forever in What to Say Next (2017) by Julie Buxbaum.

This standalone contemporary novel alternates first person perspective between David and Kit.

David is smart and self-aware despite his lack of emotional intelligence. He knows his limitations and strengths. He also knows how people are likely to perceive him because of his position on the autism spectrum and the coping mechanisms he has employed to continue to function in a sometimes overly stimulating school environment. Kit is still adjusting to life without her father–the parent who was always the one to nurture in the past–while also negotiating life in her small town as a girl who is biracial (Kit’s mother is Indian).

Seeing a neurologically diverse male lead alongside a heroine who is described as curvy and having brown skin is fantastic and makes this an obvious book to highlight and promote. That said, Buxbaum tackles a lot in this novel with varying levels of success.

David and Kit have distinct voices but the way other characters engage with David is often frustrating and demonstrates a fundamental lack of both empathy and understanding a person on the autism spectrum may engage with the world. The fact that David’s behavior is used as a plot point for one of the main conflicts between himself and Kit makes this treatment even more frustrating.

What to Say Next is an entertaining novel with unique characters, an engaging plot, and a cute romance. Readers looking for a quick but substantive diversion will enjoy this story that blends themes of connection with grief and family. Recommended for readers seeking a romance that will broaden their horizons.

Possible Pairings: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen, Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills, Lucky in Love by Kasie West

Infinite In Between: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Not necessarily the beginning and not really the end, either. It was the infinite in between, all those minuscule and major moments when they’d dipped in and out of each other’s lives. That had been their journey and somehow, even though they hadn’t realized it, they’d been on it together.”

The five of them meet at high school orientation.

Gregor plays cello and he loves his family. His world feels far too small to be starting high school where older kids like his sister seem so much more together. He is hopelessly in love with Whitney but he has no idea how to tell her especially when his grand gestures manage to go awry. Getting Whitney to notice him is Gregor’s biggest problem  until a sudden tragedy changes everything.

Everyone saw the viral video of Zoe’s actress mother screaming at her in a dressing room. She knows everyone sees her as a spoiled brat who is just like her mom. But that isn’t the whole story. It isn’t even close.

Jake knows he’s gay. He knows it the same we he knows he’s an artist and the same way he knows he can’t play football anymore after what happened on the bus. The harder part is dealing with his crush on his best friend, Ted.

Whitney is pretty and popular. She seems to have it all. Except things at home are starting to unravel and there’s a constant push and pull to balance expectations people have of who Whitney should be like–her white mother or her black father.

Even at orientation, Mia is an outsider. She doesn’t have many friends or much of a family with her parents more interested in work than her. Mia is an observer and an expert at blending in. But before high school ends she’ll have to figure out where she fits and how to speak up before it’s too late.

Five teens. Four years. One journey that changes everything in Infinite in Between (2015) by Carolyn Mackler.

Infinite in Between is written in close third person perspective which shifts between Gregor, Zoe, Jake, Whitney, and Mia. The novel starts with their orientation the day before high school and follows all of them through four years to graduation day.

Despite the broad scope and large cast, Infinite in Between is fast-paced and populated with well-developed characters. While each character has their own journey–often without much overlap–all five of their stories intersect in interesting ways throughout the novel often in ways only apparent to the reader.

Infinite in Between is an inventive novel ideal for readers making their own way through the labyrinthine passages of high school as well as readers who appreciate overlapping narratives and stories reminiscent of Six Degrees of Separation. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen, The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, The List by Siobhan Vivian

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2014*

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*

Pashmina: A Graphic Novel Review

Priyanka doesn’t feel like she fits in at her high school where she tells everyone to call her “Pri” to avoid any questions about pronouncing her name. She doesn’t feel confident about her artwork even when her teacher nominates one of her comics for an art contest.

At home Pri’s mother refuses to answer questions about her father. When she finds out that her uncle Jatin and his wife are expecting a new baby, Pri isn’t sure what that will mean for their relationship. Nervous that she is being displaced, Pri prays to Shakti.

Pri is guilt-ridden and terrified that her prayers have been answered in the worst way when baby Shilpa is born premature. She finds unexpected comfort in one of her mother’s old pashmina shawls. Wrapped up in the shawl Pri is transported to a colorful and vibrant vision of India that only furthers her interest in the country and her mother’s past.

When Pri’s mother surprises her with a trip to India she is thrilled to have the chance to visit and meet her mother’s sister. Arriving in India is thrilling and offers so many new experiences but as Pri explores more of the country and learns more about her family, she realizes that the visions from the shawl are far from the truth in Pashmina (2017) by Nidhi Chanani.

Pashmina is Chanani’s debut graphic novel.

Chanani’s artwork is whimsical and carefully detailed. The comic uses color to draw a neat contrast between Pri’s real life which is shown in pale neutrals and her fantastical visions of India that are vibrant in rich colors reminiscent of the cover art.

Although Pri is around sixteen (one plot point involves Uncle Jatin teaching her to drive), she reads much younger as a character–something that is also reflected in the story making this feel more like a middle grade story than one about a girl in high school. Some aspects of the plot remain vague (how Pri can travel to India on such short notice for instance) but these pieces do little to diminish the effect of the whole. The plot stops short of exploring some of the more complicated issues like the sometimes strained relationship of Pri’s aunt and uncle in India, although overall this comic is nuanced and thoughtful.

Pashmina is a clever story brimming with positivity. Chanani blends fantasy elements well with accurate and honest portrayals of Pri’s life as the child of an Indian immigrant as well as the hardships, cultural heritage, and beauty that can be found in India.

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

Bearly a Lady: A Novella Review

Zelda had made peace (mostly) with transforming into a werebear once a month. Luckily she has her amazing vampire roommate and her dream job at a fashion magazine to balance that out. Then, of course, there’s her excellent wardrobe–if only more of it was werebear sized!

Things get complicated when Zelda has to juggle a date with with her high school crush Jake (alpha werewolf of Kensington) and the charms of Benedict the fae nobleman (and nephew of her boss) that she’s been assigned to bodyguard for two whole weeks. Then there’s Janine, Zelda’s longtime crush at work and maybe the one who could take Zelda’s almost perfect life to completely excellent in Bearly a Lady (2017) by Cassandra Khaw.

Khaw offers a frothy homage to chick lit and fantasy in this charmingly cute novella (part of the Book Smugglers Novella Initiative). Zelda’s first person narration is breezy, fun, and just the slightest bit madcap as her life goes from fairly mundane (for a werebear) to bearly (pun intended!) under control. Set over the course of a tumultuous week for Zelda Bearly a Lady offers a contained story with some fascinating world building.

I won’t give away too much about the OTP here but Zelda’s chemistry with her love interests throughout this novella is off the charts. After you finish the story, be sure to read Khaw’s short essay on her inspiration and influences. It’s a great take on how this author, previously known more for her horror efforts, turned her attention to chick lit and something a bit lighter.

Bearly a Lady is a lighthearted novella filled with an inclusive cast of characters, comedy and romance–highly recommended for anyone seeking a much-needed dose of escapism in these trying times.

I have been promised cuteness and werebears and vampires in this novella by Cassandra Khaw (from Book Smugglers Publishing). Based on the cover I am not disappointed! Excited to have this as my next read. 💗 Zelda had made peace (mostly) with transforming into a werebear once a month. Luckily she has her amazing vampire roommate and her dream job at a fashion magazine to balance that out. 💗 Things get complicated when Zelda is juggling a date with with her high school crush Jake (alpha werewolf of Kensington) and the charms of Benedict the fae nobleman (and nephew of her boss) that she's been assigned to bodyguard for two whole weeks. Then there's Janine, Zelda's longtime crush at work and maybe the one who could take Zelda's almost perfect life to completely excellent. 💗 #bookstagram #goodreads #instabook #instareads #bibliophile #books #reading #currentlyreading #amreading #bookworm #bookish #bookgram #booktography #bookblogging #bookblogger #bookphotography #books #bookstagramit #bspnovella #novella #werebear #fantasy #cassandrakhaw

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