The Disappearances: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I realize with horror how much I want this part out of myself now–the part that chooses bitterness.”

With no other family, Aila and Miles are taken in by their dead mother’s best friend when their father is drafted. They’ve never met her and they don’t know much about Sterling, the small town where they will be residing. But Aila is sure it will be fine if not ideal for both of them until World War II ends and their father can return home.

Sterling is hiding more than her mother’s past–it’s hiding a terrible secret too. Every seven years something vanishes. It started with scent as everyone in Sterling lost their sense of smell. Then it was reflections. Dreams. And color. No one knows what will disappear next but it’s almost time for the next Disappearance.

Aila’s mother, Juliet, managed to break away from the curse when no one else could. A feat that always made Sterling suspicious. Now Aila is left to follow Juliet’s trail of literary clues as she works to save her new home before they lose everything in The Disappearances (2017) by Emily Bain Murphy.

The Disappearances is Murphy’s debut novel. Aila’s first person narration is interspersed with flashbacks moving toward 1942 (when Aila’s story starts) as they shed light on the origins of Sterling’s strange curse. This story is part historical fiction, part fantasy, and all tense mystery as Aila, with help from some new friends, tries to unearth Sterling’s secrets and bring the town back to normal.

This novel is atmospheric and eerie as Aila and readers realize that Sterling is hiding some dark secrets. While the characters fall short of calling it magic some of the workarounds Sterling has found for the Disappearances (so called remedies) are downright magical and very improbable. These fixes also come dangerously close to providing magical cures for what would otherwise be real-world matters which can often be problematic.

On the other hand my mother lost her sense of smell in 2013 because of a brain tumor that was removed from her olfactory nerves. It’s been one of the biggest adjustments for her and one of my biggest concerns when she’s home alone. The Disappearnces is the first book I’ve read where something similar was not only handled but handled well (even if it was ultimately the product of a curse and not surgical complications).

While The Disappearances starts strong with a sweeping mystery and fantastic cast of characters, the ultimate resolution of Sterling’s curse–though fitting with the literary motif throughout–takes the story in a bizarre direction that is jarring in the context of the story.

The Disappearances is a thoughtful and clever mystery. While aspects of the curse and its resolution felt underdeveloped or rushed, Aila’s contemplative narration and the novelty of Sterling more than make up for it. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and mysteries especially.

Possible Pairings: What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti

Advertisements

Fire and Hemlock: A (ReRead) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Polly Whittacker is nineteen and preparing to return to college after visiting her grandmother over break. She has a flatmate, a boyfriend, and all of the other things she would expect as a college student. It’s ordinary but it feels like enough.

That is until Polly stares at the picture that’s hung above her bed for as long as she can remember. Here, now, of course, Polly knows that “Fire and Hemlock” is just a photograph of some hay bails burning with a hemlock plant in the foreground. But when she was younger didn’t the picture used to have figures dancing and racing around the fire?

The more Polly remembers about the painting, the more she realizes that her memories of the past ten years aren’t quite right either. She has the ordinary set, the ones she always thought were true. But if she thinks back far enough and hard enough, Polly starts to remember another set of memories from a very different, very not ordinary life.

It all started nine years ago when Polly accidentally crashed a funeral and met an odd cellist named Thomas Lynn. Her friendship with Mr. Lynn took the form of fantastical letters, exchanged books, and one very odd visit to his flat in London. Those memories are easy to hold onto once they start to come back.

But something else happened the last time they met. Something worse. And now, here, Polly knows that she and Tom are inextricably tied together–maybe as friends and maybe as more. But Polly won’t have the chance to figure any of that out unless she can gather her memories and figure out not just how to get back to Tom but how to save him in Fire and Hemlock (1985) by Diana Wynne Jones.

I originally reviewed Fire and Hemlock in 2007 just a few months after I started blogging when I first read the novel. Even a decade later I still think about Polly and Tom all the time and almost since the moment I finished it, this book has held a place as one of my most favorite books of all time.

I read this book again in 2017 and was thrilled to see that it absolutely stands up to closer readings. If you can, get your hands on the edition I like to above–it has one of the best covers this book has ever gotten, includes an introduction from Garth Nix, and features an essay Jones wrote about writing this novel–something she rarely talked about in interviews.

Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of Tam Lin, a meditation on what it means to be a hero, a sweeping romance, and one of the best fantasies you’ll ever read. I still haven’t read all of Jones’ novels, the thought of running out is a bit too depressing so I try to keep a few in my figurative back pocket. But if you have to pick just one to read, consider starting here.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Entwined by Heather Dixon, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, , The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, Beauty by Robin McKinley, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Jane, Unlimited: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke

—–

“There are many lives in every life.”

Jane’s life has always been ordinary and she has never minded that. When her Aunt Magnolia dies under strange circumstances, Jane is suddenly adrift and alone. She doesn’t know exactly how Aunt Magnolia died. She doesn’t know if she wants to go back to college. All she really knows is that if she is ever invited to Tu Reviens, she has to go. It was the last thing Aunt Magnolia asked her to do.

When Kiran Thrash, an old acquaintance who is as wealthy as she is mercurial, breezes back into Jane’s life with an invitation to the Thrash family gala at none other than Tu Reviens Jane immediately accepts.

The island mansion is not at all what Jane expects. Strange figures lurk in the shadows. Art goes missing and reappears at will. An ex-wife hides in the attic, while a current wife is missing entirely. Then there’s Jasper, the lovable Bassett Hound who has an uncanny attachment both to Jane and to a painting with a lone umbrella.

In a house filled with questions, Jane knows that all she has to do is follow the right person to get answers. But first she has to choose in Jane, Unlimited (2017) by Kristin Cashore.

Jane, Unlimited is Cashore’s latest standalone novel. Inspired by Choose Your Own Adventure stories among other things this novel reads as five interconnected stories spanning genres.

After enjoying but not quite loving Cashore’s Graceling trilogy, I was fully prepared for Jane, Unlimited to be the Cashore book that I would love unequivocally. I’m happy to say this genre-bending delight did not disappoint.

The novel opens with “The Missing Masterpiece” (my favorite story) where Jane tries to find a missing Vermeer and make sense of myriad clues in a mystery reminiscent of The Westing Game. This section also does all of the heavy lifting introducing Jane, her deceased Aunt Magnolia, Kiran Thrash, and her rakish and charismatic twin brother Ravi. This novel also introduces Jane’s umbrella making–a motif that helps tie all of the novel’s pieces together.

In “Lies Without Borders” Jane explores the mystery of the missing painting from a different angle in a sleek spy story that will appeal to fans of Ally Carter. The madcap action and continuously surprisingly and charming characters make this section another favorite.

Cashore turns her eye to horror in “In Which Someone Loses a Soul and Charlotte Finds One.” After finishing this creepy tale you won’t be able to look at your library or your favorite books in quite the same way. When you re-read this book on a structural level (and trust me, you’ll want to) this section is also key for highlighting the structure of the novel.

“Jane, Unlimited” is the section that ties the book together so I won’t tell you too much that could spoil the story. There are zany clothes, mayhem, frogs, and a lot of Ravi which makes this story a delight. Sure to be a favorite for fans of Douglas Adams and Dr. Who.

This novel wraps up in “The Strayhound, the Girl, and the Painting” in which some mysteries are solved and some bigger questions are raised as Jane figures out why, exactly, Jasper the Bassett Hound is so very fond of her. This whimsical segment concludes the story on an optimistic note as Jane (and readers) realize that when one door closes another opens–literally.

Jane, Unlimited is a thoughtfully layered and intricately plotted novel. Depending on how you want to read it this book could contain five separate but overlapping stories, it could be one arc where all these outcomes eventually come to pass. There’s really no wrong way to interpret this story which is part of the charm. Whatever appeals to you about Jane and her adventures I guarantee you will find it in at least one part of this novel.

I first hear about Jane, Unlimited during a job interview at Penguin for a job I didn’t even come close to getting. Back then the book was just some new contemporary novel that Cashore was working on and I didn’t think much of it at the time. When it finally came time to read the book, I found that I could think of little else. Around the time of that interview I found out that one of my aunts had suffered a stroke that would prove fatal–something I didn’t know when I kept calling and calling to tell her about scheduling that job interview and asking her advice on what to wear and to practice questions. I don’t remember the last conversation I had with my aunt but I remember those messages I left her vividly. And I so wish I could have told her how this all came together in such a strange full circle way as Jane’s aunt Magnolia was such a big part of Jane’s story as she tries to figure out which path to choose.

In case it wasn’t already clear: I loved this book. It’s perfect and everything I want. Cashore populates the story with a cast of characters that is thoughtfully inclusive and painfully charming and expertly blends genres and plays them against each other throughout this clever novel.

Jane, Unlimited is a must read for anyone who has ever felt a bit lost, readers who like their books to resemble puzzles, and, of course, for anyone looking for an excellent story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen,The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art by Mathew Hart, Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft by Simon Houpt, Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Square Root of Summer by Harrier Reuter Hapgood, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Ocean Soul by Brian Skerry, Oceanic Wilderness by Roger Steene, Parallel Universes by Max Tegmark (as seen in Scientific American, May 2003), The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

If you are interested in some of the art that inspired (or features) in this novel:

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

Beasts Made of Night: A Review

“Sin-beasts are shadows, beasts made of night. And an aki is like a ray of sunlight that comes down from the sky and shatters the sin, kills the shadows.”

Taj is the most talented sin-eater in the walled city of Kos where aki–sin-eaters–can vanquish a person’s sins for a price. Reviled by society and at the mercy of mages who control them, aki have a precarious existence within Kos society.

Taj is cocky and desperate to support his family. He knows it’s only a matter of time before he runs out of skin to cover in sin beasts he has killed–physical tattoos that manifest on his skin and transfer the guilt of the sin to the sin-eater–but Taj has no other options to support himself or survive.

When Taj is hired to eat a royal sin he is drawn into a web of intrigue and danger where the future of the entire city–and every sin-eater in Kos–is at stake in Beasts Made of Night (2017) by Tochi Onyebuchi.

Beasts Made of Night is Onyebuchi’s debut novel and inspired by Nigerian culture and folklore.

This book is wonderfully written and set in a fantastically evocative and well-realized world where sins can be summoned as physical beasts and danger is everywhere. Taj is a fast-talking character with a lot of charm, wit, and not enough caution.

Erratic pacing and a meandering plot make this a richly detailed but sometimes unsatisfying novel. While the city of Kos is detailed enough to be a character itself some of the internal logic for the magic in the novel–especially as it pertains to sin eating–is vague and poorly explained. Taj’s honest narration and winning personality, however, will quickly eclipse any gaps in the story’s world building.

Beasts Made of Night is a great story filled with action, memorable characters, and a fascinating world. While most of Taj’s story is resolved in this volume, fans will hope that this book is the start of a series.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, Frostblood by Elly Blake, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch,  The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

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

Song of the Current: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You told me we’re all calling out to the world and magic is the world calling back.”

Caroline Oresteia’s family has guided wherries across the Riverlands for generations–all of them called by the river god. Caro knows that her home is on the river, but she has never heard the river god call her in the language of small things. Now seventeen, she’s starting to wonder if he ever will.

After her father is arrested for refusing to transport a mysterious crate, Caro volunteers to deliver the cargo for her father’s release. Being no stranger to the Riverlands, it’s an easy assignment save for the pirates who want the same cargo. But traveling with the mysterious cargo soon draws Caro into a dangerous web of political intrigue and secrets forcing her to choose between the life she always dreamed of and a much grander future–if she’s brave enough to claim it in Song of the Current (2017) by Sarah Tolcser.

Song of the Current is Tolcser’s debut novel and the start of a new series.

Caro’s first person narration is immediately enthralling. Her voice has a cadence and rhythm all its own that easily draws readers into her story. Caro is capable and self-sufficient from growing up on her father’s wherry but she soon learns that sometimes even the strongest people need to accept help now and then.

Tolcser expertly blends authentic nautical details with an original fantasy world where magic manifests and the gods still speak. Although Caro spends most of the novel aboard ship (or wherry) the world of Song of the Current looms large from the map in front of the book to the details that help bring the story to life from frogmen to the vocabulary of the wherrymen.

As with most boxes that are not meant to be open, the story really starts when Caro gets a good look at the cargo she is carrying and begins to understand the ramifications of delivering it as planned. What follows is a high stakes chase across the Riverlands as Caro and her allies try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers.

Song of the Current is a fascinating nautical fantasy sure to appeal to readers looking for a new story filled with pirates and adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, Black Hearts by Nicole Castroman, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy: A Review

Whether it’s secretly cheering them on or not-so-secretly waiting for them to meet a bad end, readers love villains. Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy capitalizes on that fascination while failing to explore the reasoning behind it in this unwieldy collection edited by Youtube sensation Ameriie.

Each author’s short story is inspired by a Booktuber-provided prompt ranging from vague like “A young Moriarty” for Susan Dennard’s “Shirley and Jim” which presents a modern (and female) Holmes meeting Moriarty for the first time at boarding school to bizarrely specific. Renée Ahdieh’s sci-fi story “The Blood of Imuriv” is inspired by the prompt “The grandson of an evil, matriarchal dictator who tried to rule over the universe wants to follow in her footsteps and accidentally loses his temper, killing his sibling in a game of chess.”

This wide range of prompts leads to stories of varying quality and makes this cross-genre collection less than cohesive. BookTuber contributions range from personality quizzes and literary criticism about the stories to personal essays related to the prompts.

Standout stories include Soman Chainani’s “Gwen and Art and Lance” (“A modern-day mash-up of the King Arthur legend and Persephone-Hades myth”) which is written entirely in texts and emails between the titular characters as Gwen tries to manipulate Art into taking her to prom amidst unwanted overtures from Lance and “Death Knell” by Victoria Schwab (“Hades wakes up after being unconscious at the bottom of a well in Ireland”) which offers a nuanced meditation on what it means to be Death–and what it means to try to run from it.

There are no redeeming qualities for most of the villains here and, for the most part, a lot of superficiality. One notable exception is Cindy Pon’s poignant story “Beautiful Venom” (prompt: “Medusa, go!”) which makes the Greek myth relevant to modern readers as they watch Mei Feng become Mei Du in Pon’s tragic retelling with a Chinese setting. Because You Love to Hate Me is a marketable if not entirely serviceable collection that will appeal to fans of the contributing authors.

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in the July 1, 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

Girls Made of Snow and Glass: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“If you’re delicate, it means no one has tried to break you.”

Mina is sixteen years old when she comes to Whitespring. Her mother is dead and she sees few options for a future. When Mina learns that her father, a dangerous magician, has replaced her own weak heart with one made of glass she realizes that even the prospect of love is impossible. What Mina does have is beauty. And a secret. She hopes to be able to use both to stay clear of her father and win the king. For if the king and his kingdom fall for her beauty, surely they will be able to love her even if her glass heart makes her incapable of returning the feeling.

Lynet has always looked like her mother–a resemblance that is even more striking now that her sixteenth birthday is approaching–but her personality could not be more different. Lynet does not want to be beautiful or delicate like her dead mother. She wants to be strong and fearless like her stepmother Mina. When Lynet learns the truth, that a magician made her out of snow in her mother’s image, it feels like her destiny will never be hers to control.

When the king names Lynet queen of the southern territories instead of Mina, a rivalry forms between them. As previously unbreakable bonds are tested and friends threaten to become enemies both Mina and Lynet will have to decide if they are capable of transcending their beginnings to forge a new future in Girls Made of Snow and Glass (2017) by Melissa Bashardoust.

In her debut novel Bashardoust offers a feminist retelling of the fairy tale of Snow White with a focus, of course, on the relationship between daughter and step-daughter. The novel alternates between close third person chapters detailing Lynet’s present struggles to claim her own fate as her birthday approaches with Mina’s past and her early days in Whitespring.

Bashardoust’s writing is methodical with a slow start to draw readers into the story and introduce both Lynet and Mina. Instead of relying on familiar tropes and stereotypes, both Lynet and Mina are well-developed characters with complicated motivations and conflicting feelings. Both women are ambitious and see the crown as a way to take control of their own lives. But what does that ambition mean compared to years spent as a family? After all, there can only be one queen.

This fledgling rivalry forms the majority of the plot while explorations of magic, their own strange beginnings, and what it means to love help to flesh out the story. Lynet’s infatuation and eventual relationship with the new palace surgeon–a woman named Nadia–adds another dimension to the story.

While the characters and plot are handled well, the overall world building is lackluster. While readers see much of the palace, the rest of Whitespring is unexplored within the text. The magic system is poorly explained with only vague explanations for how Mina and Lynet can live. The curse that shrouds Whitespring in winter year round is equally vague.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is a thoughtful and thoroughly feminist fairy tale. Recommended for fans of retellings and readers who prefer character-driven novels.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Frostblood by Elly Blake, Roar by Cora Carmack, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Ash by Malinda Lo, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, Maleficent