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.

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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

Next Year in Havana: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonMarisol Ferrera has grown up on stories of Cuba’s beauty, hearing her grandmother Elisa’s fond memories of growing up there again and again.

Elisa and her sisters were sugar queens, daughters of Emilio Perez one of Cuba’s infamous sugar barons. After years of walking the fine line between working with President Batista without ever angering his regime, the tides have turned. With Fidel Castro in power the only option the family has is to leave. At the airport in 1959 they think it will only be a short trip, a season abroad until Fidel is ousted.

In Miami in 2017 the family finally receives the news they have waited for. Fidel is dead. The Cuban exiles are free to return home. Elisa didn’t live long enough to see that day. Instead, it’s Marisol who will travel to Cuba for her grandmother.

Marisol is there to scatter Elisa’s ashes but she soon learns that Havana is not the city her family left behind decades ago. Poverty stands in harsh contrast to the island’s beauty. Political dissent is just as dangerous as it was before. And even Marisol’s grandmother still has secrets to reveal in the city of her birth.

As she discovers Cuba for herself Marisol will unearth old family secrets and define her own relationship with this country that has been the backdrop of all of her family’s hopes for decades in Next Year in Havana (2018) by Chanel Cleeton.

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Next Year in Havana alternates between Marisol’s story in 2017 as she travels to Havana for the first time and Elisa’s story of the month’s leading up to her family’s departure for Miami in 1958. This novel is a standalone but readers interested in learning more about the Perez family can also check out When We Left Cuba which is a companion novel about Elisa’s sister Beatriz.

Cleeton expertly balances two timelines as the stories intertwine with Marisol’s discoveries in Cuba. Seeing Cuba for the first time and learning more about her grandmother’s past, Marisol begins to understand that the Cuba she has always imagined pales in comparison to both the good and the bad of Cuba’s modern reality.

Elisa, meanwhile, learns that nothing about revolution is black and white–especially her own families role in it while her father tries to stay on Batista’s good side and Elisa herself begins an affair with a revolutionary.

While some reveals are far from surprising, the dual story line works well and is used to good effect to develop both protagonists. While some of the secondary characters lack definition Beatriz jumps off the page (in both storylines!) making her lead role in the companion book all the more exciting.

Next Year in Havana is as evocative as it is well-researched to bring Havana–both past and present–to life while hints of romance and mystery add urgency to this character-driven story. Ideal for readers looking to travel through the pages of a book and fans of sweeping family sagas. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova, Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner, 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

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.

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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

The Insomniacs: A Review

The Insomniacs by Marit WeisenbergMost of Ingrid Roth’s life is a mess. Her mother is barely home, always taking extra shifts at the hospital. Their house is rundown and falling apart. Ingrid hasn’t spoken to any of her friends in the neighborhood cul de sac in years. And, of course, Ingrid’s father is long gone. But Ingrid has always had diving under control.

Competitive diving is supposed to be a safe space–her ticket to a college scholarship, the way she’ll one day get her father’s attention. Diving is the one thing Ingrid always does right.

Until she doesn’t.

Ingrid doesn’t remember the accident. She knows she must have frozen up, lost control. She knows her head hit the board and she’s supposed to be resting to recover from the head trauma.

The only problem is Ingrid hasn’t been able to sleep in days.

Haunted by her lack of memory of the accident, as scared to return to the diving board as she is to fall behind in training, Ingrid spends her nights watching the neighborhood and Van–her neighbor, her former best friend, the boy she’s had a crush on forever.

Then Ingrid finds Van watching her.

Van and Ingrid start spending their sleepless nights together as they both try to find a way to rest. Will the promise of answers be the thing that brings Ingrid and Van back together? Or will it drive them apart once and for all? in The Insomniacs (2020) by Marit Weisenberg.

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The Insomniacs is a heady blend of the vague menace reminiscent of the Hitchcock classic Rear Window and the summery nostalgia and romance in The Summer I Turned Pretty. Ingrid’s narration is choppy and tense as she tries to put together the pieces to explain her accident.

While both Ingrid and Van are focused on fixing their insomnia, the lack of sleep soon becomes a stand in for other problems. After years of letting her athleticism and physicality shape her daily life, Ingrid is paralyzed in the face of so much introspection as she has to confront her feelings about diving and, worse, the memories she can’t quite summon of the moments leading up to the accident. Van, meanwhile, struggles to understand what secrets his girlfriend and best friends seem to have been keeping from him and what they have to do with the abandoned house on the cul de sac.

The Insomniacs is an atmospheric story filled with secrets and suspense. Ingrid and Van drive the story but their neighborhood is as much of a character in this tense story where both characters have to confront some hard truths–including acknowledging when they need to ask for help. Ideal for readers who like their protagonists to have a lot of chemistry and their suspense to have tension thick enough to cut with a knife. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee, Tonight The Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, We Are the Wildcats by Siobhan Vivian, Rear Window (1954)

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

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.

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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

Harley in the Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn BowmanHarley never thought she’d have to run away to the circus. Not when her parents already run a successful one in Las Vegas. After years of dreaming of becoming an aerialist and performing on the static trapeze, Harley hopes her parents will finally see how serious she is and let her begin training professionally after high school.

Instead they double down on their demand that Harley focus on college first and then consider the circus–even though Harley knows she is in her prime as a performer right now, something that may not be true after four years in school studying something she has no interest in learning.

After her latest fight with her parents goes too far, Harley feels like she only has one choice: join a rival traveling circus.

Life on the road isn’t what Harley expected. The performers at Maison du Mystère don’t trust her, the trapeze artist who is supposed to mentor Harley actively hates her, and worst of all Harley has to live with the guilt over what she did to her parents so that she could snatch this opportunity. Harley has never felt like she fit into her family–never enough of any one thing to truly share her biracial parents’ and her grandparents’ histories–and now she’s afraid she may not be enough for the circus either.

As she struggles to carve out a place for herself at the Maison du Mystère and prove to herself and her parents that she has what it takes, Harley will have to decide if the sacrifices–and the choices–that she’s made to get to this point are worth it in Harley in the Sky (2020) by Akemi Dawn Bowman.

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Harley in the Sky tackles a lot but it’s all handled exceptionally well and works to create a well-rounded, character-driven story. While trying to earn a spot in the circus Harley  grapples with her identity as the child of two biracial parents and what that means for her own cultural identity (or her lack thereof when she feels she is not quite enough of any one thing to truly claim it). She also tries to explain the coping mechanisms she has created for herself to deal with depression and mania and the stigma her own parents carry toward discussing mental illness. (Harley remains undiagnosed in the novel because, as she tells other characters, the way she moves through the world is normal to her and not something she needs help handling right now.)

Harley is a smart, passionate narrator. She understands her world through her physicality–something Bowman captures beautifully–and she isn’t afraid to go after what she wants even if she sometimes goes too far chasing those dreams. But she is also constantly learning and growing and, perhaps most importantly, she is always trying to do better–something that can never be undervalued in a novel or in real life.

Harley in the Sky is an ode to the beauty and the work of circus life as seen through the eyes of someone who loves every aspect of it. Come for the circus setting, stay for the sweet romance and thoughtful conversations on friendship, intersectionality, and work. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Akemi Dawn Boman about this book!

Possible Pairings: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Circus by Olivia Levez, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, American Girls by Alison Umminger

The Sullivan Sisters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn OrmsbeeSisters Eileen, Claire, and Murphy used to be close. A visionary, a planner, and a performer respectively the sisters could accomplish amazing things–like making their house feel like a home even with their father dead and their mother increasingly absent.

But that was years ago. Now the girls can barely stand to be around each other.

At eighteen Eileen has been carrying a potentially dangerous secret for years. She is working a dead end job. She’s managed to hide her drinking from her mother so far. Her sisters aren’t as easy to fool.

Seventeen-year-old Claire is an Exceller and she is ready to use everything at her disposal to Excel, succeed, get the hell out of her small Oregon town, and find her first girlfriend. With advice from her favorite self-help Youtuber, Claire has done everything right. But she still didn’t get into Yale–the only college she applied to.

Fourteen-year-old Murphy has always felt like a fifth wheel in her family. She never met her father so she can’t miss him. Her mom is never around. Eileen and Claire never have time for her. Luckily, Murphy has her magic tricks to keep her company. She used to also have Siegfried the family turtle. But then she forgot to feed him one too many times.

Days before Christmas Eileen receives a letter that could change everything. The sisters have inherited a house from an uncle they’ve never heard of. A house that could have answers for Eileen, money for Claire to get out of town, and a chance for Murphy to feel like she’s part of a family again in The Sullivan Sisters (2020) by Kathryn Ormsbee

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The Sullivan Sisters alternates between third person chapters from each sister. Unfortunately, the clinical tone of the narration also makes the sister’s blend together. A heavy reliance on quirks to define their personalities doesn’t help matters.

Your feelings about this book will depend heavily on your expectations going in. If you are looking for a heartfelt story of sisters reconnecting, this is the book for you. If, like me, you came expecting an atmospheric house mystery you will likely be disappointed.

Ormsbee tackles a lot in the book and the mystery aspect, such as it is, barely makes the list. What The Sullivan Sisters does well is present three flawed characters (four if you count their mother) who have gotten so used to drifting along that they need a major jolt (like a surprise inheritance) to get back on track.

Throughout the book Eileen is forced to confront her alcoholism (she is in AA by the end of the story). Claire has to admit that her self-help idol may not be as helpful as she thought but also it may not be as terrible as Claire thought to be queer in a small town–even without a plan. Murphy is a hard one. She is funny and often the most approachable of the sisters. But she also killed Siegfried the turtle through her own neglect–something that was hard to swallow even with an abundance of remorse on her part.

The Sullivan Sisters is a story about connection and secrets. Recommended for readers who enjoy reading about complicated sibling relationships, family secrets, and flawed characters.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

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

The Invention of Sophie Carter: A Review

“None of us are the same, and we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Our comparisons are invariably false when we compare their strengths to our weaknesses.”

The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha HastingsEngland, 1851: Orphaned and grudgingly cared for by their reluctant guardian, identical twins Sophie and Mariah Carter don’t think they need anyone else when they have each other.

What the sisters need, desperately, is a chance at lives filled with more than the drudgery they’ve known for the last ten years. Sophie dreams of using her clockmaking skills to become a renowned inventor while, with the right instruction, Mariah’s artistic talents could make her a leading painter.

Sophie’s plan to get them both to London for the summer to see the Queen’s Great Exhibition (for Sophie) and London’s finest art (for Mariah) almost works. The problem? Their aunt will only accommodate one sister. To avoid separation the girls travel to London together agreeing to take turns being “Sophie.”

At first, the plan is simple enough since no one can tell the twins apart. But as Sophie forges an unlikely friendship with businessman Ethan and Mariah warms to their aunt’s prickly ward Charles both girls will have to contend with their own feelings and ambitions as well as the two young men who each think they’re falling in love with the real Sophie in The Invention of Sophie Carter (2020) by Samantha Hastings.

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The Invention of Sophie Carter is Hastings’ second novel. Chapters alternate between close third person following each sister during their adventures around London and in their aunt’s house.

Breezy narration, a pitch perfect historical setting, and just the right amount of romance make this story a delight. Themes of sisterhood and individuality elevate this romance adding dimension to both sisters as their horizons expand with the opportunities they are able to seize in London. Ethan and Charles are also excellent foils to both sisters.

The Invention of Sophie Carter is a delightful read and just what I needed right now. Readers are sure to be as smitten with the Carter sisters as their suitors are by the end of this utterly charming novel. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my interview with Samantha about the book here on the blog!

Possible Pairings: Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Antsey, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, Dangerous Alliance by Jennieke Cohen, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

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