Aquicorn Cove: A Graphic Novel Review

cover art for Aquicorn Cove by Katie O'NeillLana isn’t sure what to expect when she and her father return to their seaside hometown. It can’t be the same–not when Lana’s mother is gone–but maybe helping her aunt and  the other locals clean up after the latest big storm can make it close to the way it was.

The last thing Lana expects to find while picking up debris on the beach is a magical seahorse. It turns out that the aquicorns have always lived near the village in the coral reef. But as the local fishermen take in larger and larger catches, the aquicorns aren’t sure how much longer they can stay.

The village is only a small one and Lana is only one small girl in it. But as she learns more about her family and the aquicorns she starts to realize that sometimes even small actions can turn into big changes in Aquicorn Cove (2018) by Katie O’Neill.

This standalone graphic novel blends fantasy elements with a strong message about environmental conservation and one girls efforts to move on after an unthinkable loss.

Aquicorn Cove is filled with cute characters and adorable creatures in equal measure. This story also has a very clearly defined arc giving the narrative a strong focus and a satisfying level of closure. Finished copies of Aquicorn Cove will also include back matter about ocean conservation.

O’Neill’s artwork is vibrant and whimsical. Bright colors and bold lines bring Lana’s village and the underwater home of the aquicorns to life. Rounded edges and a consistent palette also help to imbue the artwork with a soft and calm quality as well.

Aquicorn Cove is a sweet and gorgeously illustrated story. A unique premise, thoughtful fantasy elements, and a winning case of characters makes this one a winner. Recommended!

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

Odd One Out: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover for Odd One Out by Nic StoneCourtney “Coop” Cooper knows exactly what he wants. He also knows he can’t have it. That’s what happens when you’re in love with your lesbian best friend.

Rae Evelyn Chin doesn’t know what she wants. She’s new in town and thrilled to immediately befriend Coop and Jupiter. She just hopes wanting to kiss Coop doesn’t ruin their friendship. Not to mention wanting to maybe kiss Jupiter too.

Jupiter Charity-Sanchez has always known what she wants. But when she finds herself caught between Coop and Rae, she starts to wonder if that’s a good thing.

One story. Three sides. Nothing simple in Odd One Out (2018) by Nic Stone.

The novel is split between Coop, Rae, and Jupiter’s first person narrations (each is a “book” in the story instead of the alternating chapter structure typically seen with multiple points of view).

Stone describes her sophomore contemporary novel as a bit of wish fulfillment–a story she wished she’d been able to read as a teen herself. The story features carousels, crossword puzzles, and Freddie Mercury–three passions that inform the characters’ perspective parts.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one but by the end of the novel Coop, Rae, and Jupiter had utterly won me over. In a world where labels are everywhere and nothing is ever as simple as it should be, I loved seeing these characters try to figure things out.

The three main characters have distinct voices (and perspectives, of course) with narratives that overlap just enough to allow readers to watch the plot play out from multiple angles. Coop and Jupiter’s parents (Coop’s mom is widowed and Jupiter has two dads) are great additions to the cast often stealing scenes and adding a nice layer of support for all of the characters as they try to make sense of things.

Odd One Out is the sexy, funny, and surprisingly sweet love triangle book you’ve been waiting for. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian, Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Three Sides of a Heart: Stories About Love Triangles edited by Natalie C. Parker, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Pride by Ibi Zoboi

500 Words or Less: A Review

cover art for 500 Words or Less by Juleah del RosarioWhat happens when your attempt to be a better person might be making you worse?

Nic Chen isn’t going to spend her senior year known only as the girl who cheated on her boyfriend with his best friend. She had enough grief when her mom left under a cloud of scandal. This year isn’t going to be a repeat of that.

To revamp her reputation with her Ivy League obsessed classmates, Nic has a simple plan: she will write college admission essays. For a price.

But as Nic learns more about her classmates, she realizes she still has a lot to learn about herself and her moral compass in 500 Words or Less (2018) by Juleah del Rosario.

500 Words or Less is a shining verse novel with a strikingly original story. Through free verse poems Nic contends with painful memories from her past including when her mother left and her last year in high school that changed everything.

Nic is a flawed character well aware of her own shortcomings both in reality and in the eyes of her peers. She grapples with her identity, both as a biracial teen and an outsider at her school, as she tries to figure out how to embrace all of herself–even the ugly pieces.

500 Words or Less is a unique story whose format works well to emphasize elegant prose and complex characterization. An excellent debut that proves del Rosario is an author to watch. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Saint Anything: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Saint Anything by Sarah DessenSydney has always lived in her charismatic older brother Peyton’s shadow. But it’s hard to hide after Peyton’s DUI and its horrible aftermath pushes Sydney and her family into the public eye. Sydney’s parents seem intent on ignoring Peyton’s role in the car accident and the damage he caused. Meanwhile Sydney is haunted and infuriated by it.

Hoping for a fresh start Sydney switches schools and looks for a new normal in the midst of her family turmoil. She finds it in the unlikely form of Seaside Pizza and the Chathams—the boisterous family owners. Layla draws Sydney into her family’s world as if they’ve always been friends while her brother Mac makes Sydney feel safe for the first time in a long while. Finally Sydney feels like she’s the one being seen and with that certainty she might be able to see herself and what she wants too in Saint Anything (2015) by Sarah Dessen.

I’ve been following Sarah Dessen’s publications for a few years. She is a touchstone name in YA and I am constantly order replacement copies of her books for my library as the old ones wear out. But I have never felt like any of her books really clicked for me. As soon as I heard about Saint Anything it felt like this book would be it: the make it or break it Sarah Dessen book for me. I’d either love it unequivocally or it would confirm that not every author can work for every reader. But it turns out, much like Sydney’s story, my feelings about the book weren’t so clear cut.

Saint Anything is filled with a quirky cast of characters including Mac Chatham, the quiet and stoic boy Sydney meets at Seaside Pizza who quickly becomes a steady and constant source of support for her. Mac, like the rest of the Chathams, is a great character. But what give me pause and what continues to frustrate me about this book is Mac’s backstory. When Sydney meets him she is immediately taken aback by how attractive Mac is and baffled at his utter lack of awareness of his own good looks and their inherent power (two things Peyton routinely used to get his own way before he was arrested). During the story we learn that Mac used to be fat until he made drastic diet changes and started seriously hiking. It’s a very personal response but everything about Mac’s storyline and his weight irritated me. I didn’t like how it was portrayed and didn’t like that it was part of the story at all in the way that it connotes finding a way to be true to yourself with also being thin. Mac’s backstory became a sour note in this otherwise sweet story.

As sometimes happens in longer novels Saint Anything also starts to lose momentum as it builds to the final act. Of course there is an unexpected romance but that added with a friend’s ill advised relationship and the rest of the plot made the final third of the novel feel bloated and, because there was so much to do, the ending itself seemed rushed.

Sydney’s relationship with her family at the beginning of Saint Anything is heartbreaking and it’s so clear that the Chathams are the jolt that Sydney needs to start making changes–not just in asking for more of her parents’ attention but in realizing that she deserves more. I love that aspect of the story. Sydney’s growth as she works through her own grief and regret for Peyton’s drunk driving accident are incredibly powerful. Watching Sydney try to ignore and ultimately confront the unwanted attentions of Peyton’s older friend is tense and utterly relatable.

If this book sounds at all appealing (or you’ve already read it) I also urge you to check out the essay Dessen wrote near Saint Anything‘s release for Seventeen: “I Thought Dating An Older Guy Was Cool — Until I Sensed That Something Was Very Wrong

Possible Pairings: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett,, Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, Between Us and the Moon by Rebecca Maizel, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonneblick

Muse of Nightmares: A Review

“It turned out that sometimes it’s enough to start doing thing differently now.”

Everything was taken from the city of Weep when the Mesarthim invaded. The blue-skinned gods stole the city’s children, its memories, and even its true names. No one knows where the gods came from. No one knows what happened to the thousands of children born in the citadel never to be seen again. No one speaks of what happened to the children left in the nursery the day that the Godslayer killed the gods and reclaimed the city.

Sarai was one of those children. She and the four other godspawn don’t speak of what happened either although they are haunted by the bloodshed of the massacre. No one knows that five children survived and still hide within the citadel. Waiting. Minya, the eldest, prepares for war while Sarai and the others dare to hope for acceptance.

Sarai never expected that she would die waiting–especially not after she met Lazlo Strange and saw that peace might be possible. Now Sarai is a ghost bound by Minya’s by iron will while Lazlo is a god–as much a child of the Mesarthim as Sarai and the others.

With Sarai unable to defy Minya or exist without her, Lazlo faces a horrible choice: Keep his love alive by helping Minya seek vengeance or protect the city while losing Sarai. Without her free will, without her moths traveling down to Weep to explore dreams, Sarai feels powerless. Is it possible for her to still be the muse of nightmares or did her powers die when her body did?

Old secrets and unanswered questions threaten the tentative bonds and even more fragile hope as Weep tries to heal. In a city where heroes had to do monstrous things and monsters might yet become heroes, Sarai will have to choose if she wants to slay her enemies or try to save them in Muse of Nightmares (2018) by Laini Taylor.

Muse of Nightmares is the conclusion of Taylor’s latest duology which begins with Strange the Dreamer.

I only started to truly love Strange the Dreamer months after reading it. I needed that long to process and appreciate everything Taylor had done. In contrast Muse of Nightmares was one of my most anticipated Fall 2018 releases and is holding strong as one of my favorite books of the year.

Muse of Nightmares picks up almost immediately where Strange the Dreamer left off as both Sarai and Lazlo try to grasp their dramatically changed circumstances.There isn’t time for grief or wonder, however, as Sarai and Lazlo have to figure out if there is a way to save both Weep and the godspawn.

The pacing of this story and its numerous surprises are flawless complete with a secondary story that artfully ties into the main arc of this duology. Of course, I can’t tell you too much about that because I want you to be just as shocked as I was when I started to understand how these pieces would come together.

Muse of Nightmares is a story about redemption and hope–things that all of the characters strive for and things that even the unlikeliest among them might find. Weep is a city filled with potential and, ultimately, with love as Taylor’s memorable characters learn how to forgive each other and themselves. Highly recommended. I can’t wait to see what Taylor does next.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Lirael by Garth Nix, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Unclaimed Baggage: A (Blog Tour) Review

“Sometimes you had to give something up to get what you really wanted in the first place.”

cover art for Unclaimed Baggage by Jen DollNell, Grant, and Doris have nothing in common.

Nell is a Chicago transplant unsure what to do with herself in small town Alabama–especially when her amazing boyfriend is still back home.

Grant used to be the the star quarterback. His family and coach are keen to help him keep that persona by covering up his recent DUI. But he’s starting to think he might just be a has been.

Then there’s Doris. She knows she’s an outsider. How can she be anything else as an outspoken liberal feminist in her conservative small town? She doesn’t mind because at least she has free reign of Unclaimed Baggage where she works sorting through and selling lost luggage.

As the three become reluctant coworkers for the summer Nell, Grant, and Doris will have to work together if they want to manage all of their own excess baggage in Unclaimed Baggage (2018) by Jen Doll.

Unclaimed Baggage is Doll’s debut novel. The story alternates between Nell, Grant, and Doris’ first person narrations with smaller vignettes throughout detailing the many journeys that brought key pieces of lost luggage to the store.

Over the course of one summer these three unlikely characters become friends as their lives entwine in unlikely ways. Doris is still grieving her aunt’s sudden death last year, Nell is shaken up by the culture shock of her move, and Grant is trying (and often failing) to come to terms with his drinking problem.

Each character has a distinct narrative voice while the surprisingly compelling luggage vignettes have a more omniscient tone. Doll brings small town Alabama to life with its charms (notably seen at a balloon festival) and its small-mindedness as Doris struggles with the stigma she hasn’t been able to shake since a boy in her church group groped her and she refused to stay quiet (or return to church) and, later in the novel, another character is targeted in a racially motivated attack.

Unlikely friends, hints of romance, and a mystery surrounding an empty suitcase flesh out this character driven plot. Unclaimed Baggage is a charming slice-of-life novel about one formative summer and the small moments that can lead to big changes. Recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Jen about Unclaimed Baggage too!

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen, Moxie by Jen Mathieu, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

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

For a Muse of Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Didn’t I tell you earlier? You don’t have to trust someone to make a deal with them. You only have to have something you know they want.”

cover art for For a Muse of Fire by Heidi HeiligWith luck and determination, Jetta hopes that she and her parents can parlay their fame as shadow players in Chakrana into passage to Aquitan where shadow plays are in high demand.

There are rumors that the Mad King values nothing so much as shadow plays and Jetta hopes that garnering the king’s favor could also give her access to the spring that has cured the king’s madness–something Jetta desperately wants for her own malheur.

But notoriety of any kind is dangerous with so many secrets behind the scrim.

Jetta’s puppets move without string or stick. Instead she uses her blood to bind recently deceased souls into her puppets–one of the old ways that is now forbidden in the wake of La Victoire and the imprisonment of Le Trépas at the hands of the colonial army from Aquitan.

With danger lurking everywhere Jetta will have to confront uncomfortable truths and terrible choices as she considers how much she and her family have already sacrificed to get to Aquitan and how much more they still have to lose in For a Muse of Fire (2018) by Heidi Heilig.

For a Muse of Fire is the start of Heilig’s new trilogy. An author’s note explains that Jetta’s malheur is bipolar disorder–a mental illness she shares with Heilig.

This series starter is fast-paced and high-action while also offering readers a thoughtful commentary on the long lasting ramifications of war and colonization. Chakrana and Aquitan are inspired by Asian cultures as well as French colonialism which comes through in cultural touchstones including food, dress, and language.

Jetta’s first person narration is broken up with various ephemera including telegraph transcripts, flyers, songs, and play scenes featuring other characters. This technique works well to flesh out the novel by offering a wider view of the story and allowing other characters to take over the narrative action whenever Jetta’s focus becomes more internal as she tries to negotiate both a dangerous world and her own malheur.

For a Muse of Fire is as engrossing as it is violent. Heilig’s world building is richly imagined and carefully layered with nothing quite as it seems. Jetta’s malheur colors not only her perceptions throughout the story but many of her actions with reckless decisions during episodes of mania and listless lows with clarity and introspection often coming too late.

For a Muse of Fire is a dramatic story with an inclusive cast, high stakes, and an intense cliffhanger that will leave readers clamoring for the next installment. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, Clariel by Garth Nix, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

*A more condensed version of this review was published the July 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a Starred Review*