Nocturna: A Review

cover art for Nocturna by Maya MotayneAfter his brother Dez’s murder, Prince Alfehr is poised to become king–something he fears almost as acutely as finding concrete proof that his brother is truly dead. Alfie left Castallan months ago to grieve and, he hopes, to find a way to bring his brother back from the void–even if it means using his bruxo magic to ill ends.

Finn is a faceshifter who can change her appearance at will. It’s a magical ability that serves her well as a thief. When their paths cross Alfie and Finn accidentally unleash a dangerous ancient power that could destroy Castellan and the rest of the world. Together they will have to confront their greatest failures and their greatest fears to contain this dark magic before it’s too late in Nocturna (2019) by Maya Motayne.

Nocturna is Motayne’s debut novel and the start of her A Forgery of Magic trilogy.

Alternating chapters follow Alfie and Finn giving nuance to their motivations and bad decisions. Alfie and Finn’s relationship, which evolves over the course of the novel from a reluctant alliance to obvious respect and affection, helps fill the void left by world building that remains thin even with the added dimension of Castallan trying to assert itself in the wake of generations of Englass colonial rule.

Nocturna is an epic fantasy set in a Latinx inspired world with a unique magic system where moving shadows can reveal a person’s feelings and spells will be immediately recognizable to Spanish speakers. A promising debut with unique magic and two strong protagonists among a varied ensemble cast.

Possible Pairings: The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

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

The Boneless Mercies: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“They called us the Mercies, or sometimes the Boneless Mercies. They said we were shadows, ghosts, and if you touched our skin, we dissolved into smoke.”

“Only fools want to be great only fools seek glory.”

cover art for The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve TucholkeEveryone knows about the Mercies and their dark but necessary work. Frey and her band of girls travel the land. They are hired to complete mercy killings. Their work is meant to be quick and quiet. No one speaks of them with respect. No one sings of their glories.

Frey has bigger dreams for herself.

Fate comes in the form of rumors of a fierce monster in a nearby town. Killing a beast like that would guarantee fortune and, more importantly, fame. Victory will be hard won but if the girls succeed, it could change everything in The Boneless Mercies (2018) by April Genevieve Tucholke.

The Boneless Mercies is Tucholke’s gender-swapped, standalone, retelling of the epic poem Beowulf.

Tucholke’s writing is evocative with a lilting cadence that immediately brings to mind the oral tradition used to impart our oldest stories and myths. The story centers Frey and her insatiable ambition among a cast of well-realized and multi-faceted characters.

The Boneless Mercies is an evocative and feminist fantasy for fans of mythology, stories filled with ichor, and girls seeking glory.

Possible Pairings: Zenith by Lindsay Cummings and Sasha Alsberg, The Strange Maid by Tessa Gratton, The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Seafire by Natalie C. Parker, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene, And I Darken by Kiersten White

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

The Vanishing Stair: A (WIRoB) Review

Here’s a teaser from the start of my review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

cover art for The Vanishing Stair by Maureen JohnsonEllingham Academy is a prestigious Vermont boarding school founded by eccentric billionaire Albert Ellingham. Its students are encouraged to think of learning as a game while pursuing their passions. Some of them come to the academy to write, others to create. That’s the one thing that binds the students together: “Everyone at Ellingham Academy had a thing.”

Stevie Bell’s thing is crime; specifically, solving the Ellingham case.

In 1936, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. Despite doing as the kidnappers asked and paying a ransom, Ellingham never reunited with his family. Iris’ body was soon found; Alice was never recovered.

The biggest clue in the case was the “Truly Devious” letter — an eerie poem reminiscent of Dorothy Parker that promised violence and maybe even death.

Stevie isn’t the first person to try to solve the case. But she has something no one else does: new evidence. It’s all contained in an old tea tin filled with “a bit of white feather, a bit of beaded cloth, a tarnished, gold-colored lipstick tube with the mummified remains of a red lipstick, a tiny enameled pillbox in the shape of a shoe, some pieces of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem.”

Together, these “humble objects” are proof that the infamous Truly Devious letter may not have been tied to the case at all, but a student prank.

The problem is that Stevie’s parents pull her out of Ellingham mere weeks into her first term, after the death of another student, Hayes Major (whose murder Stevie tried to solve). Knowing what happened to Hayes, and knowing that another student was likely involved, Stevie senses missing pieces.

You can read my full review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/the-vanishing-stair

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Famous in a Small Town: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Famous in a Small Town by Emma MillsSophie has very specific plans for the summer before her senior year at Acadia High School.

She needs to stay on track with the goals listed in her College Collective handbook including continuing to volunteer at the local library. She has to make time to practice with the Acadia High School Marching Band as they prepare for the school year, fit in babysitting gigs for her neighbors, and of course hang out with her four best friends when they have time. Honestly, it’s a lot like every other summer Sophie has spent growing up in Acadia.

There are two big differences this year: the first is that Sophie has to figure out a way to help the marching band raise enough money to get to the Rose Parade. The second is August–the mysterious younger brother of her regular babysitting client who appears seemingly out of nowhere.

Sophie is immediately drawn to August. And it seems like the feeling might be mutual. Except that August keeps pushing her away. And Sophie doesn’t know what to do about it.

It turns out solving the marching band’s fundraising problem might be a lot easier. Megan Pleasant, country music superstar, is Acadia’s one claim to fame. All Sophie has to do is invite Megan back to headline a fundraising festival. What could be easier?

As Sophie tries to figure out why Megan has publicly promised she’ll never return to Acadia, she’ll learn a lot about first love, and all of the things that can hold a friendship together–or tear it apart in Famous in a Small Town (2019) by Emma Mills.

Mills’ latest standalone contemporary is another delight filled with humor and introspection. Sophie’s first person narration is self-aware and sardonic.

Famous in a Small Town is a lot like a welcome hug. This story is very character driven with a meandering plot that even at its most urgent promises readers everything will be okay. You might also think of it as a Hallmark movie but with characters who are more inclusive and nuanced, subtler sincerity and, in this case, more dick jokes.

Famous is a Small Town is an ode to the quirks and charms of small towns, big personalities, and friendship in all of its forms. An endearing book that is as welcome as a breeze on a warm summer day. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

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

The Divided Earth: A Graphic Novel Review

*The Divided Earth is the final book in Hicks’ Nameless City trilogy which begins with The Nameless City and continues in The Stone Heart. This review contains spoilers for book one.*

cover art for The Divided Earth by Faith Erin HicksThe Nameless City is once again at the center of a conflict. Erzi, now General of All Blades, holds the city even as forces forces from his own ranks try to rally the Yisun to unite and overthrow him. The city’s residents, the “Named,” remain are caught in the middle.

What the invading forces don’t know is that Erzi is determined to hold the city at any cost–even if it means destroying it. Desperate to prevent further bloodshed, Rat and Kaidu must join forces again to try and steal back the formula for deadly napatha before Erzi can use it to destroy everything they’ve come to love within the city walls in The Divided Earth (2018) by Faith Erin Hicks.

The Divided Earth is the final book in Hicks’ Nameless City trilogy which begins with The Nameless City and continues in The Stone Heart.

After learning the city inside out and coming to love it as his own, Kaidu has to risk everything to help Rat save it. As forces approach the city Hicks expands the world of this series introducing new characters and further situating the Nameless City in a larger world.

While some of the character motivations remain thin, particularly in the case of the villains, this series is still utterly entertaining. Hicks’ full-color artwork is used to especially good effect in this installment that is filled with high speed chases and fight sequences. The Divided Earth is a satisfying conclusion to a gripping, action-filled series. Recommended.

Truly Devious: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stevie Bell had a simple desire: she wanted to be standing over a dead body.”

cover art for Truly Devious by Maureen JohnsonStevie Bell has two great passions: the study of crime in general and the Ellingham case specifically. She has read all the books, all the articles, and all of the case transcripts about the kidnapping of Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter. She knows the contents of the Truly Devious letter–the biggest clue in the case–by heart. She knows every facet of the case and she knows that she is going to be the person to solve.

That passion, that certainty, is what earns Stevie admission to the elusive and prestigious Ellingham Academy–a Vermont boarding school where learning is a game. In the school students can create, learn, and study their own passions whatever they may be. There are geniuses, novelists, artists, and more.

Stevie still thinks there’s a possibility that her admission might have been a mistake.

But she isn’t going to let that, or her anxiety, stop her from solving the Ellingham case–no matter how cold it may be. She just needs to get a handle on her new classes and her housemates. Except someone has other plans. When death returns to Ellingham Stevie finds herself at the center of a case that’s anything but cold in Truly Devious (2018) by Maureen Johnson.

Truly Devious is the first book (and first act) in Johnson’s tightly plotted Truly Devious trilogy which continues in The Vanishing Stair. The story follows Stevie in close third person along with chapters interspersed throughout following key players in the Ellingham case as the kidnapping and failed ransom drop unfold.

Stevie’s knowledge of mystery conventions and true crime contrast well with her open bewilderment and naiveté when it comes to dealing with her classmates–especially David the mysterious prankster who is almost as annoying as he is attractive to Stevie.

When a student dies on campus, Stevie is drawn even deeper into Ellingham’s myriad secrets and discovers that there might be more to both cases than she initially thought. Evocative settings and an intricate plot are only somewhat impeded by poorly executed characterization with some behaviors that never quite hit the mark.

Truly Devious is an ode to classic boarding school mysteries. Recommended for true-crime enthusiasts, amateur detectives, and of course anyone who’s ever dreamed of finding a body in the library.

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Analee in Real Life: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Analee in Real Life by Janelle MilanesAnalee Echevarria knows she doesn’t come across that great in real life. Her mom died three years ago and it feels like it’s never going to stop hurting. Her father is marrying a yogi who drives Analee crazy–don’t even get her started on her soon-to-be stepsister. Then there’s Analee’s best friend who isn’t her best friend, or really any friend at all, anymore.

All in all, Analee is much happier spending her time playing her favorite online game where she can be Kiri–the night elf hunter who never struggles to say or do the right thing. It doesn’t hurt that her in-game sidekick Xolxar (played by a boy named Harris) has quickly become her best friend even though Analee and Harris have never met in person.

High school is just something to get through, and Analee knows she can do that if she just keeps her head down and stays out of the way of the popular kids. The only problem is that Seb Matias–undisputed school heartthrob and jerk–wants Analee to pose as his girlfriend while he tries to make is ex jealous.

Much to his surprise, and Analee’s, she agrees hoping the fake relationship can help her practice real connections and work up the nerve to finally meet Harris. But as their fake relationship threatens to turn into a real friendship, Analee has to wonder if she’s ready to connect with anyone in the real world–especially herself in Analee in Real Life (2018) by Janelle Milanes.

Analee in Real Life is equal parts thoughtful and funny as Analee navigates grief, friend breakups, and her future step-mother’s nightmare diet schemes (kale chips, anyone?).

Analee is a no-nonsense narrator. She knows she has work to do and she knows she is one hundred percent terrified of putting in that work when it means doing scary things. As much as this novel explores romance and friendship, it’s really a story about Analee learning how to start to like herself and understand her place in a family that has irrevocably changed.

Analee in Real Life is an empowering and sometimes painfully realistic story about a girl who realizes that the most challenging role she has to play is herself. Recommended for readers who like their characters sharp, their humor sardonic, and their romances to toe the line between reality and hoax.

Possible Pairings: Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario., To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, In Real Life by Jessica Love, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Bright Before Sunrise by Tiffany Schmidt