Race the Sands: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Life isn’t just about who you were—it’s about who you choose to be.”

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst“Call it what it is: monster racing. Forget that and you die.”

Tamra tells every one of her students that. She cautions them, every time, to stay focused on the race, the moment, and never forget that they are riding on the back of a monster. Not every rider remembers those lessons in the heat of the races.

The Becaran races are a chance for wealth and glory for the riders. The racers, the kehoks, get something else: a chance to be reborn as something less monstrous–a chance to try to redeem their damaged souls.

Tamra used to be a winner, a champion. Now she is a damaged trainer unsure how to overcome a bad reputation and mentor another champion. She only knows winning this season is her last chance to keep her daughter.

Raia is an untested rider. She has never raced, never even seen a kehok up close. Now she has to convince a trainer to take her on if she wants a chance to use the races to win her freedom and escape her domineering parents and fiance.

Together with a strange new kehok, Tamra and Raia have the potential to change the races and all of Becar forever. But only if they stay focused and remember: Only the race. Only the moment. Only the finish line in Race the Sands (2020) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Find it on Bookshop.

Durst’s latest standalone fantasy introduces readers to the beautiful and often brutal world of Becar–a desert country where every action can stain or elevate your soul with immediate consequences for your next incarnation. This raises, for all of the characters, thoughtful questions of how to live a moral life while also doing what needs to be done throughout the novel.

In a kingdom in flux waiting for the new emperor to be crowned, Tamra and Raia face their own mounting stakes as both women are forced to take chances on themselves and each other to try and win.

The story unfolds with a close third person narration following Tamra, Raia, and other key players in the story to create a strong ensemble cast notably including Tamra’s daughter, Yorbel–an augur with his own interest in kehoks, and Tamra’s patron Lady Evara who is the obvious successor to my favorite inscrutable fashion plate Effie Trinket.

Race the Sands is a fantasy that explores many things but at its core this is a story of mindfulness and focus as both Tamra and Raia answer what they truly want to accomplish and how far they are willing to go for those goals. The story also considers what makes a family–found or otherwise–as well as what happens when the people trusted to maintain order in society betray that trust.

Race the Sands is a fast-paced story filled with intrigue, action, and, of course, competition. A twisty, perfectly paced adventure ideal for readers who want their high fantasy with a healthy dose of mystery.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Sarah!

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Hunted By the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena, The Hunter Games by Suzanne Collins, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

A Place For Us: A Review

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen MirzaSiblings Hadia, Huda, and Amar could not be more different. It’s always been like this. Their father saw it with the way Amar always saw life as a game where the world was against him. Their mother saw it in Amar’s sensitivity and the questions he asked about Islam as a child.

Now, the family is gathered for Hadia’s wedding–a love match in the face of years of traditionally arranged marriage. Steadfast and dependable Huda is there, always the reliable middle sister. But if Amar will show up, and what state he will be in if he does, remains to be seen.

As the wedding progresses the entire family reflects on the moments that brought them to this moment, together, as well as the moments that quietly and irreparably tore them apart in A Place For Us (2018) by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Find it on Bookshop.

This ambitious debut novel has shifting perspectives following Hadia, Amar, and Huda as well as their parents in close third person. The wedding serves as a starting point with the story moving both backward in flashbacks and forward after the wedding in a complex narrative.

A Place For Us skillfully balances its large, multi-generational cast and a plot spanning decades to deliver an engrossing family epic exploring themes of memory, choice, faith, and belonging.To talk about any one aspect of the story would diminish the reading experience but even a year after reading it, I feel like there’s still so much to find in this story and so much to learn from these characters.

A Place For Us is all about meeting people where they are, and where they need to be met. And sometimes not making it. Recommended for fans of family sagas and stories where there is more than meets the eye.

Possible Pairings: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Red at the Bone by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, Digging to America by Anne Tyler, Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

Saints and Misfits: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fifteen-year-old Janna Yusuf’s world is easily divided into three kinds of people.

There are the Saints who are so perfect they seem completely untouchable and intensely annoying. People like Saint Sarah who presides over the mosque with beauty, grace, and a personality so bubbly as to become infuriating. Especially when her brother Muhammad seems to fall for Saint Sarah’s entire act. Because it has to be an act, right?

Then there are the people like Janna, her best friend Tats, and her crush Jeremy. Misfits. That not-quite-fitting-in should be enough to bring Janna and Jeremy together (aside from the alliteration and his lovely forehead). But they still don’t go together. Not when Janna is Muslim and Jeremy is definitely not.

Last there are monsters–people Janna knows all too well from her favorite Flannery O’Connor stories and from her own life. Farooq is arguably the most pious member of their mosque. He’s already memorized the Qur’an and is the shining light of the community.

But he’s also tried to assault Janna when they were alone in his cousin’s basement–something Janna narrowly avoided and is trying to forget now. Everyone else thinks Farooq is a Saint. Who would ever believe Janna–a nobody, a misfit, the daughter of the only divorced woman in their mosque–if she tries tell everyone that their beloved Saint is really a Monster in Saints and Misfits (2017) by S. K. Ali?

Saints and Misfits is Ali’s debut novel. It was selected as a finalist for the 2018 William C. Morris YA Debut Award.

Janna is a genuine fifteen-year-old. Her first person narration is authentic and thoughtfully handled giving equal weight to Janna’s dealing with the aftermath of her assault as she decides what to do (if anything) and also her complicated crush on her non-Muslim classmate Jeremy.

Janna is comfortable wearing all black and hijab and she wishes other people in her life would respect that instead of trying to changer her. She is also trying to decide if who she is now–a devout Muslim girl–is who she wants to be moving forward. What does it mean that her attacker is more respected in the mosque than she is? What does it mean that her crush on Jeremy seems to be mutual while also being something directly in opposition to her faith?

These are messy questions and Janna doesn’t always have neat answers or closure. What she does have is a supportive family (especially her mother and older brother), resiliency, and the conviction to stick to what she knows is right.

This book is an excellent mirror for Muslim teens who do not seem themselves enough in books and an excellent window for readers who may not know much about what being a modem Muslim teen really looks like. Saints and Misfits is a thoughtful and surprisingly sweet story about a girl finding her voice and her people–both inside her religious community and beyond.

Possible Pairings: Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart by Deb Caletti, That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandyha Menon, The Authentics by Abdi Nazemian, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The List by Siobhvan Vivian

The Serpent King: A Review

The Serpent King by Jeff ZentnerDill is used to being an outsider. First because of his father’s Penecostal ministry where members handled poisonous snakes to prove their faith. Then later because of his father’s arrest for possession of child pornography. Consequently Dills tries to keeps his head down and does what is required to get by while attracting as little attention as possible.

Travis doesn’t worry much about what other people think of him, his dragon necklace, or the staff he carries everywhere. He knows who he is and refuses to let anyone diminish his abiding love of fantasy novels–also he’s 6’4″ which is a big help even if he hates aggression and violence.

Lydia has never avoided notice in her life. Born and raised in small town Tennessee, she dreams of life in the big city. And she knows that her ambition and her fashion/lifestyle blog Dolly Would will help her get there–starting with her application to NYU.

While Lydia and Travis have their eyes on the future, Dill knows that this last year of high school is as good as he can hope for. As everything ends and falls apart around him, Dill will have to try to write a new beginning for himself in The Serpent King (2016) by Jeff Zentner.

The Serpent King is Zentner’s first novel. It alternates first person narration primarily between Dill and Lydia with fewer chapters from Travis.

This novel is filled with evocative descriptions and dynamic characters. Lydia especially comes across as larger than life throughout the novel. While all three friends have a strong bond, they also have a lot of secrets. The contrast between their narrations highlight the ways that these friends come together and also the ways that they keep each other at a distance.

In addition to dealing with his family’s poverty and the repercussions of his father’s arrest, Dill also struggles with his faith throughout The Serpent King as he tries to reconcile his religious beliefs with his ambitions (and his mother’s refusal to believe that Dill can or should want more from his life).

Lydia’s life is a huge contrast to both Dill and Travis. Her family has more money, stability, and affection than either of the boys can imagine. While Lydia refuses to rein in her ambitions because of Dill and Travis’ limitations (they are both poor, have weaker grades, and fewer prospects after high school), she does unpack her privilege and gain some hard-won empathy as the novel progresses.

The Serpent King is an introspective and meditative novel closely focused on Dill, Lydia, and Travis. Thoughtful prose and a tense plot build to a satisfying conclusion as these characters realize the future can be whatever they choose to make it. Although the overall tone of this novel is melancholy, the story remains empowering and ultimately hopeful.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Birthday by Meredith Russo, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

You can also check out my interview with Jeff Zentner starting tomorrow.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter: A Review

The Sin Eater's Daughter by Melinda SalisburyTwylla has always had a destiny. Four harvests ago she chose a path that would lead her away from the fraught burden of following in her mother’s steps as the next Sin Eater for Lormere.

Now Twylla is blessed by the gods and serves at their pleasure as Daunen Embodied–the mortal incarnation of the daughter of the gods and the only one worthy of marrying the crown prince. The gods’ continued approval is confirmed each moon during the Telling when Twylla drinks deadly Morningsbane poison without harm.

But her blessing and survival come at a cost. The poison lingers in Twylla’s blood and on her skin so that her barest touch can kill–something the queen of Lormere exploits by making Twylla a reluctant executioner.

Twylla made peace with her role as executioner long ago. Until the return of the prince, Merek, and the arrival of a new guard named Lief when Twylla finds herself questioning many things about her role as Daunen Embodied and the motivations of the queen. Again Twylla will have a chance to choose her destiny, but first she must decide what to believe and who to trust in The Sin Eater’s Daughter (2015) by Melinda Salisbury.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter is Salisbury’s first novel and the start of a new series.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter presents a complex world comprised of three vastly different kingdoms including Twylla’s home in Lormere where the novel is set. While Lormere is a comparatively vast empire, it is also quite primitive with a seat of power traditionally held by siblings in a misguided effort to keep the royal line pure. On Lormere’s borders are Tregallan–Lormere’s chief supplier of goods that Lormere cannot produce itself and a new democracy that values science over religion–and Tallith–a fallen kingdom that once held vast wealth thanks to the closely guarded secrets of the science of alchemy.

Within Lormere Salisbury also offers a religious system that includes invented gods with numerous Christian undertones in addition to Sin Eating. Unfortunately the Eating is never fully explained as reader’s are left to wonder how certain foods are chosen to represent sins and how, exactly, a person’s sins can be cataloged properly after their death.

Despite being the castle executioner, Twylla is incredibly naive for the majority of the novel. At times this creates interesting moments of tension between science and faith as Twylla tries to learn more about her past. In others it only serves to make it easier for her to swoon over her new guard Lief.

Of the two male leads Merek, the prince, is far more compelling as he struggles to figure out how to bring Lormere out of its archaic traditions and move it beyond the ruthless rule of his mother, the queen. Lief is little more than a pretty face by comparison.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter is at its strongest when Salisbury details the machinations of the queen and the intrigue surrounding Twylla’s role as Daunen. The queen adds a lot of suspense to the story as an especially chilling villain.

Twylla’s development over the course of the story is fascinating as she comes to term with the choices she has made and acknowledges that having agency (choosing to accept her role as Daunen, choosing to not follow the path of the Sin Eater) is not the same as having power–something she craves as she hopes to garner some level of revenge for past wrongs.

Unfortunately, much of this The Sin Eater’s Daughter‘s promise does not come to fruition. Twylla’s character fizzles toward the end thanks to an epilogue that negates most of her previous growth during the novel. This book sets up a lot for the next installment in the series including a twist that upturns almost every conceit previously detailed in the story. Although exciting, this final twist diminishes previous shocks by rendering them largely irrelevant.

Since this book is the start of a series, there is still room for a lot of things to change but taken on its own the conclusion remains disappointing. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is an engaging fantasy but not without flaws. Ideal for readers who do not question worldbuilding and enjoy a balanced love triangle.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, Frostblood by Elly Blake, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace

Where Things Come Back: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Where Things Come Back by John Corey WhaleyWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (2011)

Lily, Arkansas is a hopeless place full of sad people who tried to leave but failed. Cullen Witter, like a lot of people, wants desperately to get out of this stifling small town. The summer before his senior year in high school Cullen sees his first corpse. Then he sees the body of his cousin who overdosed on drugs. Later, after the corpses and the end of school, the entire town becomes obsessed with a woodpecker–long thought extinct–who may or may not be hiding in the woods around Lily. Stranger still, Cullen’s brilliant brother, Gabriel, disappears.

Chapters from Cullen’s first person narration are interspersed with third-person narratives from two unlikely missionaries. Other reviews will talk about these stories entwining in strange and surprising ways. They might also call this novel a mystery. I disagree with both statements.

Whaley’s debut novel was the winner of both the 2012 Printz Award and the 2012 Morris Award. While the prose is extremely literary, I contend there is very little mystery in this story. The narratives are not particularly shocking in the ways in which they overlap or the general story. Given the plot structure, the big reveal was ultimately predictable.

Where Things Come Back is about nothing so much as it is about waiting. The town is waiting for a woodpecker to return and change its fate. Cullen is waiting for his chance to get away and also for a simpler but much harder thing: the return of his missing brother. There are interesting ideas to be unpacked in this world of waiting–ideas that Whaley does examine in interesting ways.

Unfortunately that is never quite enough to make the story into a page-turner or anything more than a thoughtful, brief, meditation on the randomness of life.

Writerly prose can be found throughout the story which works in some instances to help Cullen develop a very unique voice. At the same time, it always feels like this novel is trying very hard to be thoughtful and contemplative in a way that feels forced.

Cullen’s mind wanders throughout the narrative as he goes off on tangents. While these flights of fancy are amusing (as Cullen imagines his town overrun by zombies and the like) they distract from the plot immensely. The structure reminded me so much of the “If you give a mouse a cookie” books that it became the only thing I could imagine as I read these imaginings. Worse, these elements added nothing to the story except to create a titillating ending that leaves a tiny bit of room for discussion.

By the end of the story, Where Things Come Back became a strange and arbitrary novel with a mildly interesting (and very open) ending.

Darker Still: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Darker Still by Leanna Renee HieberOddities have always clung to Natalie Stewart. Some are tame like the art objects her father collects for the new Metropolitan Museum. Some are stranger like the Whisper that sometimes tugs at the edge of her hearing.

Some are so terrifying that they took Natalie’s voice, leaving her Mute from a young age.

Then there are the things that defy all description like the portrait of Lord Denbury–a painting that seems to call to her, changing as if Lord Denbury himself were beckoning Natalie.

Stranger still, when Natalie answers the call of the portrait she finds much more than a painting. Soon she is drawn into the uneasy world of magic and possession where paintings can act as traps and a body can be stolen with the right words.

In this dangerous word Natalie may love and even her voice. But other, darker things, may find her as well in Darker Still (2011) by Leanna Renee Hieber.

Darker Still is the first in Hieber’s Darker Still trilogy, followed by The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart and The Double Life of Incorporate Things which is currently being presented in serialized form on Hieber’s blog (and will culminate with the publication of the complete novel).

For obvious reasons, Darker Still is an epistolary novel–written as Natalie’s diary. The format makes sense and provides opportunities for interesting passages of time and an interplay between “present” moments and Natalie’s narrative asides. However during high action sequences the journal entry form does stretch the limits of believability as Natalie rushes to jot down key scenes.

Hieber’s writing is delightful with Natalie’s breezy, sometimes even impertinent, tone. Natalie is refreshingly brash and independent as she does a lot of the wrong things throughout the plot (for all of the right reasons). Being Mute, Natalie’s narration also offers a unique perspective on life in general and specifically 1880 New York.

While Natalie shines as a heroine, the format and pacing of Darker Still did not leave much room to build up the setting as a backdrop for the story. The journal also created limitations in pacing as Natalie “rushes” to write everything down.

While Denbury is an admirable male lead in terms of looks and personality, his immediate connection with Natalie felt almost too immediate. It works because the entire novel is a bit of a whirlwind but if you think too much about their connection it starts to fall apart.

Darker Still is a fun, generally satisfying, riff on themes found in many a gothic classic with obvious nods to The Picture of Dorian Gray. A great read for anyone eager to try reading historical fantasy, gothic tales of suspense and even steampunk.

Possible Pairings: The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron, Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Starry Nights by Daisy Whitney