Lore: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It’s not always the truth that survives, but the stories we wish to believe. The legends lie. They smooth over imperfections to tell a good tale, or to instruct us how we should behave, or to assign glory to victors and shame those who falter.”

Lore by Alexandra BrackenEvery seven years Zeus punishes nine Greek gods by forcing them into the Agon. Warrior families have hunted the gods in every Agon for generations hoping to absorb their powers and receive blessings in the intervening years.

Lore always knew she was destined for greatness and glory in the Agon, meant to restore her family house’s honor. That was before Lore’s own disastrous mistake brought about the death of her entire family.

Now, seven years later, Lore thinks she’s finally made it out and started a new life. But the return of her childhood friend Castor and the goddess Athena appearing at Lore’s door prove she never escaped the brutality of the Agon. Not really.

After years of hiding and trying to forget, Lore will have to come out of the shadows and embrace her complicated past if she wants to live long enough to have a future in Lore (2020) by Alexandra Bracken.

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Lore is a standalone fantasy novel. Although the world building is heavily intertwined with Greeky mythology, the story itself includes enough information to make it approachable to those unfamiliar with the inspiration material. The book also includes a character list broken down by the family houses and lines. Lore and Castor are white although several members of the Agon families (including dark skinned Van and Iro) are from other racial backgrounds.

Lore is a fierce and often reluctant narrator. Most of her past is colored by trauma and regret over events that slowly unfold in flashbacks for readers as the novel builds to its explosive final act. Despite her desire to isolate herself and avoid further losses, Lore is surrounded by a strong group of friends and allies who add drama and levity to this potentially grim story. Lore’s best friend Miles Yoon–an outsider to the world of the Agon–is an especially fun addition to the cast and a steadfast friend to Lore.

Set over the course the week-long Agon this fast-paced story plays out against the backdrop of New York City as Lore and her allies search for a way to end the Agon forever. Lore’s efforts to find a place for herself as a young woman, both away from the Agon and within it, in a world all too quick to dismiss her is both timely and empowering.

Lore seamlessly blends elements from Greek mythology with a modern fantasy setting for a perfectly paced story of survival and fighting for what we deserve.

Possible Pairings: Antigoddess by Kendare Blake, Starling by Lesley Livingston, The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan, Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

Recommended For You: A Review

Recommended For You by Laura SilvermanShoshanna Greenberg is a fixer. When her moms start fighting enough that they both miss the annual family Latkepalooza on the last night of Hanukkah, Shoshanna wants to fix it before her family implodes.

With the tensions at home and her constant worries about money to fix her much loved car, it feels like her one refuge is Once Upon, the local bookstore where Shoshanna works. That changes with the arrival of new hire Jake Kaplan–an extremely cute boy who is extremely immune to Shoshanna’s charms and, what’s worse, doesn’t read.

Coworker tensions aside, Shoshanna is thrilled when her boss announces a chance for staff to earn a holiday bonus for selling the most books. The bonus is exactly what she needs to fix her car if nothing else.

The only thing standing in Shoshanna’s way is Jake and his out of the box selling strategies.

As the holiday season amps up, Shoshanna realizes that Jake might be more than a pretty-non-reading face even if he might also be her biggest competition for the holiday bonus in Recommended For You (2020) by Laura Silverman.

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Silverman puts in the work dismantling the white default in this inclusive story where every character’s skintone is described on the page. The inclusivity and positivity with which Shoshanna views her friends and coworkers (except maybe for Jake when they first meet!) comes through in every description and feels effortless. Once Upon’s owner Myra is woman of color and motorized wheelchair user, Shoshanna’s best friends are Black and Latinx, and Shoshanna’s “work husband” is Black and has a girlfriend with low vision.

Shoshanna is what I would call a strong personality. Her narration and her choices may not work for everyone but her heart is definitely in the right place and, as the story progresses, Shoshanna learns and grows a lot–something I always love to see in a book.

Although Recommended For You keeps things light, this story also offers frank conversations about what marriage problems can look like (something looming over Shoshanna and her moms and something that may not have an easy fix despite Shoshanna’s best efforts) and also thoughtfully explores income diversity. Shoshanna’s friend Cheyenne works at the mall for the experience while Shoshanna is there because it’s the only way she can afford gas money and other car expenses. Meanwhile Shoshanna’s other best friend Geraldine is saving up for a camera to start a beauty vlog while acknowledging she may never be able to compete in the patently expensive world of beauty influencers.

Recommended For You is as funny and exuberant as its heroine. While the winter setting makes this book an ideal choice this holiday season, Shoshanna’s winning personality, the retail shenanigans, and Shoshanna’s not-quite-instant chemistry with Jake make Recommended For You a perfect read any time of the year.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira; Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett; Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley; Snow in Love by Melissa de la Cruz, Nic Stone, Aimee Friedman, Kasie West; 10 Blind Dates by Ashley Elston; Tweet Cute by Emma Lord; My True Love Gave to Me edited by Stephanie Perkins; Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

A God in Ruins: A Review

A God in Ruins by Kate AtkinsonTeddy could have been a poet or a banker. Instead war intervened and he became an RAF bomber pilot. Those years spent bombing German civilians, never knowing if he’d live through his next mission, were the best years of his life–the best moments–even with the violence, the death, and his time as a POW.

But everyone has to return to the ground eventually and when the war ends, Teddy becomes a husband and a father, a journalist, and more. But his hardest role even all those years later will be living in a future he never thought he’d see in A God in Ruins (2015) by Kate Atkinson.

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Readers of Atkinson’s previous powerhouse novel Life After Life will recognize protagonist Teddy as Ursula Todd’s favorite brother–a figure she worked across multiple lives to save when he is declared missing in action and presumed dead after a failed bomb run. While both books function separately, it is unlikely readers will catch all of the nuance and subtleties of this novel without reading Life After Life first.

Teddy only has one life so this novel does not explore the same themes of reincarnation although Atkinson uses the same nonlinear structure with multiple points of view to excellent effect.

From here on this review will have some spoilers for the rest of the book, proceed with caution:

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Life After Life: A Review

“This is love, Ursula thought. And the practice of it makes perfect.”

Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonOn February 11, 1910 Ursula Todd is born. She is not breathing. Dr. Fellowes is not there.

Darkness falls.

On February 11, 1910 Ursula Todd draws her first breath and begins a wholly unexpected life.

Darkness falls.

Hugh, her dear and prosaic father, enlists in the Great War. Long years later he comes home to his stoic and often inscrutable wife. Ursula dies during the ensuing influenza pandemic.

Darkness falls.

Again and again Ursula lives and dies and live once more. She keeps trying, keeps learning until there will be no mistakes in a life spanning both world wars and beyond. As Ursula tries to save the world she begins to understand that the first step, the bigger step, may be saving everyone she loves. For a person who gets more than one life, practice makes perfect in Life After Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life is a stunning achievement. The plot of this novel spans decades and crosses multiple timelines, all in a nonlinear format following multiple characters in close third person. This structure and Atkinson’s prose create a distinct structure and a reading reading experience that rewards close attention.

This character driven story raises questions of ethics, familial loyalty, and identity. As Ursula lives multiple lives she and readers see how different choices play out and their long lasting ramifications for Ursula and the rest of the Todd family which notably includes Teddy, the protagonist of Atkinson’s companion novel A God in Ruins.

That is not to say Life After Life is an entirely comfortable novel. Many of the characters are products of their times with the related casual sexism and more overt anti-Semitism. While this makes sense for the time period and (some of) the characters, it is never interrogated in the story despite the often omniscient narrator watching the story unfold at a remove. Because of the multiple timelines, some events are explored from multiple lenses while others including many of Sylvie’s motivations are barely examined.

Life After Life is truly exceptional on a craft level with fantastic writing and a singular family. Readers interested in characterization, WWII, and world building will find a lot to enjoy here.

Fans of this volume should tread lightly before picking up the companion novel A God in Ruins which offers a very different, and far less satisfying, reading experience.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Practical Magic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Practical Magic by Alice HoffmanThe Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town for more than two hundred years. After all, who wouldn’t blame every wrong thing on the town witches?

It’s no surprise that sisters Gillian and Sally grow up here as outsiders–taunted and whispered about without ever being understood or even truly seen. It seems to be the only option when their aunts Jet and Fran seem to do everything they can to encourage every rumor with their strange house and the concoctions they offer at night from their kitchen door.

Gillian escapes by running away; Sally by getting married. But no matter how far they go from their family, from each other, some things–some bonds–can’t be broken in Practical Magic (1995) by Alice Hoffman.

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Like a lot of people of a certain age, my first encounter with Practical Magic was the 1998 movie adaptation starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. I love that movie. It’s iconic, one of a handful of films I know by heart and watch every chance I get. I was nervous that the novel would never stand up to the adaptation. I’m happy to report I was wrong.

The story covered in the film version is roughly the final quarter of the book with a few changes to better translate the story to a new medium. Instead of the small vignette viewers get in the movie, Practical Magic offers a wider slice of life as Gillian and Sally grow up and do everything they can to deny their family, their history, and their magical roots. Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie also play bigger roles in the book.

Practical Magic is everything I loved from the movie but more. This book has more history, more magic, more evocative scenes, plus Hoffman’s beautiful prose to tie it all together.

Possible Pairings: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim, Among Others by Jo Walton

Star Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Star Daughter by Shveta ThakrarSheetal Mistry has grown up keeping secrets. Only her father, her aunt, and her closest friend Minal know the truth: that Sheetal’s mother is a star who returned to her celestial court when Sheetal was five years old.

Since then, Sheetal has learned to keep her own celestial song buried deep where it cannot affect humans or give her away. She dyes her starlight silver hair black, she ignores the call from her family in the stars. It has never been easy to deny half of herself but her father’s love, Minal’s support, and her new boyfriend Dev have all helped.

But as her seventeenth birthday approaches, Sheetal finds it harder to ignore the way the night sky calls to her. When her father is injured by starfire, Sheetal will have to answer her star family’s summons to try and save him. But first she will have to help her celestial family secure their place as the next ruling house of the heavens.

After years of hiding and denying her true self Sheetal will have to embrace all of herself, her family, and her own complicated place with them to save her father in Star Daughter (2020) by Shveta Thakrar.

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Star Daughter is Thakrar’s debut novel.

This standalone fantasy is filled with richly detailed world building bringing both Sheetal’s magical family and her earthbound Gujarati community of friends, cousins, and other family to life. Evocative, carefully drawn magic adds dimension and nuance to this story that, unfortunately, has a several lacking love interest in Dev who remains one dimensional and flat for most of the story.

Sheetal’s friendship with Minal remains much more convincing than any love match here adding a strong element of friendship and girl power to this story with a friendship that literally spans worlds.

Star Daughter is a thoughtful fantasy about friendship, growing up, and family. Recommended for readers who have always wondered what treasures can be found at the Night Market.

Possible Pairings: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee

The Once and Future Witches: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We may be either beloved or burned, but never trusted with any degree of power.”

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. HarrowThere’s no such thing as witches in New Salem in 1893. But there used to be. You can still catch traces of them in the witch-tales collected by the Sisters Grimm; in the stories of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone–the Last Three–as they struggled to preserve the final vestiges of their power. You can see them, the ones who came before and burned before, in the second name ever mother gives every daughter, and in the special words shared only in whispered songs and stories.

Once upon a time in this world, on the spring equinox of 1893, there are three sisters. James Juniper Eastwood is the youngest. She is wild, she is canny, she is feral. She is running away or running toward. She is lost.

Agnes Amaranth is the middle sister–the one the witch-tales say isn’t destined for adventure. She is the strongest of the three, the steadiest. She is the one who is supposed to take care of her sisters until she has to choose between them and surviving–until she becomes weak.

Beatrice Belladonna is the eldest; the wisest. She is the quiet one, the listening one who loves books almost as much as her sisters. Until seven years away break her down. Until she recognizes herself as a fool.

Maybe these three sisters are the start of the story. Maybe they’re the start of something bigger. In the beginning, there’s still no such thing as witches. But there will be in The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow.

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A prologue and epilogue from Juniper frame what is otherwise an omniscient third person narration shifting between the three sisters as, against all odds, they cross paths for the first time in seven years at a women’s suffrage rally in St. George Square in New Salem.

The Once and Future Witches is thick with betrayals and misunderstandings as Juniper still harbors anger and resentment at being left behind while both Agnes and Bella struggle with their own reasons for leaving the others behind. Themes of both sisterhood and feminism weave this story together as the Eastwood girls try to tap into magic long thought lost and reclaim everything that has been stolen from them and so many other women.

At more than five hundred pages, this is an unwieldy book. All of the sisters have their own secret stories and hurts which Harrow explores alongside the grander narrative of discovering how witching was eradicated and how it might be reclaimed. The characters are careful to acknowledge white privilege as the mainstream suffrage movement excludes women of color and the world also hints at indigenous witches in Mississippi and out west. However, given the scope of the story, Harrow’s efforts at inclusion often feel like faint hints in this alternate history rather than concrete changes.

The Once and Future Witches is a complex alternate history wrapped in folklore, fairy tales, and a plaintive rallying cry for equality centering three sisters as they find their way back to the sisterhood and the magic they had thought long lost to them.

Possible Pairings: Spellbook For the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

Skyhunter: A Review

Skyhunter by Marie LuThe country of Mara is fighting a losing war against the Karensa Federation and its superior technology harnessed from the Early Ones–a fallen civilization readers will readily recognize in our present one.

Mara was supposed to be a safe haven for Talin and her mother. Instead refugees are kept outside the city walls and Talin’s status as an elite Striker can’t make some see her as anything more than a “Basean rat” who Marans look down on for little more than her skin color and the shape of her eyes.

As a Striker on the warfront Talin fights Ghosts–humans who have been horrifically re-engineered by the Federation to become monsters intent only on killing. When Talin saves a mysterious prisoner of war she may have also found the key to beating the Federation–but first she has to decide if the prisoner is a potential weapon or an ally in Skyhunter (2020) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

This post-apocalyptic, sci-fi adventure is a visceral exploration of the emotional and physical costs of war. Poison gas scarred Talin’s vocal chords leaving her unable to speak as much from the trauma as the injury; she instead communicates with the sign language used by Strikers.

Talin’s narration is caustic as questions of allegiance and loyalty move the plot forward with Talin and her friends struggling to save a country that offered Talin refuge while withholding common decency–a dichotomy she again has to struggle with while deciding if the enemy prisoner she has rescued is someone to be saved or something to be exploited.

At the cliffhanger end of Skyhunter Mara’s fate is far from secure leaving readers to wait for answers in the conclusion to this duology. Suspense and high-action fights make this plot-driven story both fast-paced and brutal.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

Grown: A Review

“Because if I keep denying the memory, it’ll make it untrue.”

Grown by Tiffany D. JacksonEnchanted Jones thought she had everything figured out. She isn’t what anyone would call happy at her new school, but she makes it work. She has swim team and she has her best friend Gabriella. With Gab’s help Enchanted auditions for BET’s version of American Idol. It doesn’t go well.

But it does bring her face to face with legendary R&B artist Korey Fields who is even hotter in person and could be Enchanted’s own ticket to stardom. It starts with secret texts and flirting. Then there are singing lessons and an invitation to go on tour.

It ends with Enchanted beaten bloody and Korey Fields dead.

Enchanted wishes she could forget the events leading up to Korey’s death. But she can’t do that any more than she can remember what happened that night.

Did Enchanted plunge the knife into Korey’s chest? Was she the only one who wanted him dead? With more questions than answers Enchanted will have to piece together the pieces before Korey’s livid fans–or the police–do it for her with Enchanted as the culprit in Grown (2020) by Tiffany D. Jackson.

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Jackson’s latest standalone is a tense mystery as Enchanted navigates her sudden infamy while still trying to process the abuse she suffered at Korey’s hands. (Please note the content warnings in this book for: mentions of sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction to opioids.) The case in the book is heavily influenced by the sexual abuse allegations leveraged against R. Kelly over the past two decades as covered in the documentary Surviving R. Kelly.

Grown is a crushing read. It’s easy to see the red flags in retrospect with the shifting timeline that starts with Enchanted discovering Korey’s dead body. It’s much harder for Enchanted to see them as she is drawn in to Korey’s orbit and desperate to be seen as a young woman instead of the little girl her family still sees.

Grown offers a scathing commentary on how quickly the media is willing to blame young Black girls like Enchanted saying they are grown and know what they are doing while excusing predatory behavior from influential Black men like Korey. While this story is by no means an easy read, Jackson’s writing is on point as this taut and suspenseful story builds to one surprising twist after another.

I do also want to talk about how mental illness is explored in the book. This is a spoiler so click read more to my thoughts or back away to avoid them:

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When We Left Cuba: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“In the end life always comes down to timing.”

When We Left Cuba by Chanel CleetonFlorida, 1960: The Perez family lost everything in the Cuban Revolution. Like many former sugar barons, Emilio Perez and his family had to flee their home, leaving everything behind, when Castro came into power.

Like the rest of her family, Beatriz assumes it will be a brief exile when the family first settles in Florida. As time passes and the weeks turn into months and years, Beatriz watches in dismay as her sisters and even her parents begin to make new lives for themselves in this new country.

Beatriz is much more interested in revenge. When she is recruited by the CIA, Beatriz jumps at the chance to choose a different path for herself trying to get close to Castro and reclaim everything his regime stole from her.

As she learns more about the means the CIA is willing to use to justify their ends and watches the Cold War threaten to warm, Beatriz also has to reconcile how she can let go of everything her family lost while embracing the new opportunities–and maybe even new love–available to her in the United States in When We Left Cuba (2019) by Chanel Cleeton.

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When We Left Cuba is a companion to Cleeton’s previous novel Next Year in Havana which tells the stories of Beatriz’s sister Elisa and grand-niece Marisol.

Beatriz narrates this story of heartache and longing primarily set in the 1960s with a framing story set in 2016. How you feel about this book may also depend heavily on how you react to one of Beatriz’s love interests. Without naming any names, I will say I could not stand him and that made a lot of the book a struggle for me.

While Elisa’s story explored the moments leading up to the Cuban revolution, When We Left Cuba is more concerned with the aftermath as Beatriz tries to come to terms with everything her family has lost.

As she rails against the Castro regime, Beatriz is also able to pursue a different life filled with espionage and, later, university studies and law school–things a sugar princess would have never been able to consider in Cuba.

Compared to the tantalizing glimpse readers get of Beatriz in Next Year in Havana, this book is in some ways underwhelming. Beatriz is still working on becoming that capable, independent woman–a transformation that unfortunately mostly happens off the page here.

When We Left Cuba is an excellent return to the Perez family. An empowering story of espionage, romance, and learning how to live on your own terms.

Possible Pairings: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova, Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner, The Secrets We Kept by Laura Prescott, Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan, Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine