My Plain Jane: A Review

My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi MeadowsYou might think you know Jane Eyre’s story: her childhood privation, her governess position at Thornfield Hall, and her immediate attraction to the dark and brooding Mr. Rochester. You’d be wrong. Mostly because you haven’t heard about the ghosts. Don’t worry, though, My Plain Jane (2018) by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows has you covered.

This standalone alternate history novel inserts teenage aspiring author Charlotte Brontë into the world of her own making (with the addition of ghosts) as she chronicles the life of her best friend at Lowood, Jane Eyre, as inspiration for her first novel about the life of one “Jane Frere.”

Charlotte’s authorial ambitions and Jane’s plans to become a governess are thwarted when Jane’s ability to see ghosts comes to the attention of Alexander Blackwood, an agent for the once prestigious Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits. Determined to help his mentor restore the Society to its past glory, Alexander is keen to recruit Ms. Eyre as an agent–even if it means taking off his ever-present mask and accepting help from the overly eager Ms. Brontë and her screw up brother. This simple task spirals into a madcap story of ghosts, possession, revenge, and murder as Charlotte, Jane, and Alexander must set aside their differences to solve the mysteries of Thornfield Hall, help the Society (and the ghosts), and maybe even save the king of England in the process.

Narrated by Charlotte, Jane, and Alexander in alternating chapters My Plain Jane uses Jane Eyre as a loose framework for the plot which is populated with familiar characters from both the classic novel and history as well as numerous Easter eggs including a likely explanation for the origins of Charlotte’s chosen pen name and excerpts from Jane Eyre as seen in Charlotte’s trusty notebook.

My Plain Jane blends fact with fiction in a humorous story that offers a gentler and more hopeful outcome for Charlotte and her siblings along with a more plausible ending for anyone who ever wondered why Jane Eyre would marry a man twice her age after his first wife is discovered in the attic. A must-read for fans of My Lady Jane or Jane Eyre and a fun alternative for fans of paranormal romances.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer

*A more condensed version of this review was published the March 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

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Royals: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Royals by Rachel HawkinsDaisy doesn’t want to be a princess, or even in the limelight really, but it turns out that’s hard when her older sister is practically engaged to the Crown Prince of Scotland.

After one too many near-misses with the paparazzi Daisy is whisked off to Scotland with her sister to lay low. It’s not at all how Daisy wants to spend her summer but she doesn’t have much choice in the matter. Especially when Ellie announces her engagement.

In Scotland Daisy is supposed learn how to be regal while keeping a low profile. She even has help from the royal fixer and Miles, a close friend of the royal family. But it turns out keeping a low profile is hard when the prince’s younger brother, Sebastian, is an actual human dumpster fire–he and his friends (including Miles) are literally called the Royal Wreckers–and seems hellbent on dragging Daisy into as much trouble as he possibly can.

Daisy knows she doesn’t quite fit the royal rule book with her mermaid red hair, geeky interests, and no nonsense attitude. But no one ever said she couldn’t rewrite the rules herself in Royals (2018) by Rachel Hawkins.

Royals can be read as a standalone contemporary but it is also the start of a series–each following a different heroine.

Daisy is a delightful narrator. She is smart, witty, and she calls things as she sees them in this fast-paced story. Daisy struggles to mold herself in the image of her poised and elegant sister who seems to have been born to be a princess with hilarious results. But even royals have obligations and Daisy soon realizes that she isn’t the only one feeling pressure after her sister and the prince announce their engagement.

Daisy’s story is pure, escapist fun complete with an unexpected love interest, friend shenanigans, and many zany mishaps as Daisy learns the hard way that expectations can be misleading–especially when it comes to love.

Royals is an effervescent and cheery contemporary. I cannot wait to see what happens in book two.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Be Prepared: A Graphic Novel Review

cover art for Be Prepared by Vera BrosgolVera has been trying hard to fit in with her friends in the suburbs. After carefully studying all of the ingredients, Vera knows exactly what she needs to have the perfect birthday party. Except the end result doesn’t turn out quite right. The Russian pizza place doesn’t stuff their crust with cheese. The Russian bakery doesn’t have ice cream cake. And Vera’s single mother can’t afford a big house like the other girls so the sleepover is more cramped than fun.

As summer approaches and all of her friends talk about going to camp Vera is reminded that her family can’t afford camp and she’ll be spending another summer at home with her siblings. Until Vera finds out about something amazing at church: Russian summer camp!

Vera is certain that Russian summer camp is her chance to finally fit in and make friends. And even if things go wrong, it’s only two weeks, right?

Unfortunately things go wrong almost immediately.

Vera winds up at a camp filled with Russian history lessons, older girl drama, no candy, and worst of all outhouses instead of indoor plumbing! When her two weeks turn into a full month Vera will have to see if she can use her love of art and (some) animals to try and turn things around in Be Prepared (2018) by Vera Brosgol.

Brosgol’s latest book is an excellent addition to the increasingly popular graphic novel memoir arena. The story is inspired by Brosgol’s own childhood and includes an author’s note at the end explaining how she adapted her real life experiences into a compelling graphic novel.

Be Prepared has a palette of green, black, and white lending a natural feel to the artwork even before Vera (and her younger brother who is forced to tag along) show up at camp. Brosgol’s artwork has bold lines that help to convey expressive characters and detailed backdrops. Young Vera’s drawings are also integrated well into the comic with a less polished pencil-like drawing style.

Be Prepared is an utterly sympathetic story of plans gone wrong, scary bathrooms, nature, and learning to adapt. Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeie or Shannon Hale.

Possible Pairings: El Deafo by Cece Bell, Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Smile by Raina Telgemeier

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

Noteworthy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Noteworthy by Riley RedgateJordan Sun is a scholarship student at the prestigious Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Jordan is a junior now and she has never been cast in a school play. Something her mother is quick to remember whenever she wonders if Jordan would be more valuable to the family closer to home where she can work while going to school.

The problem isn’t Jordan’s skill or talent. The problem is that Jordan’s height and deeper voice don’t fit the narrow mold of most female roles.

Jordan can’t change either of those things. But in a moment of desperation she realizes that she can use them by auditioning for The Sharpshooters–one of the school’s a cappella groups. The only problem is she’ll have to audition as a boy because the Sharpshooters are an all-male group.

Being found out could be devastating leaving Jordan shunned for the rest of her time at Kensington-Blaine and known forever as the girl who infiltrated an a cappella group. Basically the least impressive spy of all time. But the rewards are worth the risk with all of the school’s a cappella groups competing for a chance to accompany Aural Fixation on the European leg of their tour as show openers.

All Jordan wants is to prove to her school and her parents (and maybe herself) that she can thrive in a leading role. She’ll stay with the Sharps long enough to win the competition, nail the tour, and move on. Keeping the guys at arm’s length for that long should be simple. But as her friendships with the Sharps (and competition with a rival group) grow, the lies start to mount and Jordan realizes that sometimes you have to get close to people. Even if it means you might get hurt in Noteworthy (2017) by Riley Redgate.

Jordan is a first generation American and a low income student at her historically white and affluent at Kensington-Blaine. She struggles with the dissonance between her life at boarding school and her family’s struggles to make ends meet through part-time and retail jobs. Adding to that pressure are mounting hospital bills from her father’s recent hospital stay when his pre-existing health issues (he is a paraplegic) make a light cough so much worse. Still stinging from her breakup, Jordan also starts to acknowledge her bisexuality for the first time.

Despite being in a predominantly white school, Jordan’s circle of friends and acquaintances is thoughtfully diverse with characters coming to terms with parental expectations, school pressures, and their sexuality among other things. In the Sharps, Jordan quickly bonds with dry witted Nihal who is Sikh and one of my absolute favorite characters.

I so appreciate the way that Jordan acknowledges both her limitations as a poor scholarship student and also her privilege in being able to cross dress essentially on a lark–a decision she struggles with long before her secret is revealed (because of course it is revealed). While the middle is bogged down in numerous issues of varying important to the story, Noteworthy still ends suddenly and leaves readers wanting to see more of the Sharps (and maybe some payback for their rivals the Minuets).

Noteworthy is a thoughtful commentary on gender, agency, and ambition. By inhabiting the role of Julian, Jordan starts to realize how many limitations have been placed on her life–both through outside expectations from family, friends, and teachers as well as by herself. It’s only by hiding in plain sight as a boy that Jordan really gets the chance to shine and embrace her own dreams. Recommended for readers looking for a light contemporary with some meat on its bones and, of course, a cappella fans everywhere.

Possible Pairings: Not Now, Not Ever by Lily Anderson, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner, All Summer Long by Hope Larson, The Victoria in My Head by Janelle Milanes, Famous in Love by Rebecca Serle

Girl Power Graphic Novels Blog Tour: Featuring Cucumber Quest!

Girl Power Graphic Novels Blog Tour HeaderI always love finding new graphic novels and comics so I was thrilled when I got the chance to join First:Second’s Girl Power Graphic Novels Blog Tour.

While all of the comics were delightful, a new favorite quickly emerged the moment I opened Cucumber Question: The Doughnut Kingdom (2017) and its sequel Cucumber Quest: The Ripple Kingdom (2018) by Gigi D. G.

In Dreamside in a house in the Doughnut Kingdom a young rabbit named Cucumber is preparing to head to magic school. His plans are dashed when his parents reveal that Cucumber is the latest in a line of Legendary Heroes and it is his destiny to save The Doughnut Kingdom and Dreamside from the Nightmare Knight.

While Cucumber appreciates the predicament, he’d much rather go to magic school and leave saving the world to literally anyone else. Luckily (or perhaps not) Cucumber’s younger sister Almond is all about adventure, swords, and fighting so she is more than ready to drag Cucumber along on this epic quest.

Saving the kingdom won’t be easy when allies include a hapless Dream Oracle and a knight armed with little more than charm and a flimsy spear. The quest will take both young rabbits far from home as they travel across Dreamside to gather the tools they need to save the day.

Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom is a great introduction to D. G.’s vivid and bizarre world (which started life as a webcomic before the volumes were collected by First:Second) as Cucumber and Almond embark on their journey to try and stop the Nightmare Knight. The adventure continues in Cucumber Quest: The Ripple Kingdom when (spoiler) the Nightmare Knight does in fact return and he and his minions need to be stopped–one kingdom at a time.

The first book includes a great map of The Doughnut Kingdom (shown above) and trading card style intros for all of the characters. Volume Two’s bonus material has more character trading cards and a tourist guide to Cucumber and Almond’s next stop: The Ripple Kingdom. D. G. uses a surprisingly color palette that is bright without being jarring. The comic panels are dynamic and filled with amazingly expressive characters.

These comics are zany and incredibly clever. The cast is filled with strong characters including the mysterious thief, Saturday, and the charmingly forgetful Princess Nautilus. Then of course there’s Almond, the girl who would happily save the world if only any of the adults in Dreamside would let her. Cucumber astutely engages with a lot of the obvious flaws in quest stories (How is Cucumber really the best choice for this? Why is it so easy to resurrect the Nightmare Knight anyway? What’s up with his dad in that cell?) while also embodying everything that makes quest stories so fun (reluctant hero! adventure! mayhem!).

I can’t wait to see what happens when Cucumber, Almond, and the rest of their team head to The Ripple Kingdom.

Be sure to check out all of the titles featured on the blog tour too:

  • Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter by Marcus Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor: A Victorian tale of derring-do and also girls fighting monsters.
  • Cucumber Quest by Gigi D.G: A bunny-filled fantasy adventure of a kingdom in distress and some reluctant (and non-reluctant) heroes.
  • The City on the Other Side by Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson: A historical San Francisco adventure of a girl who accidentally ends up in fairyland.
  • Star Scouts by Mike Lawrence: A girl scout adventure–but in outer space!
  • Monsters Beware! by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado: A fantasy adventure of defying expectations and friendship (and monsters).

You can also check out these blog tour stops:

The Prince and the Dressmaker: My Favorite Panels Blog Tour (and Review)


cover art for The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen WangEverything is starting to change in Paris. Department stores are coming, fashions are rapidly evolving, the modern age is almost here.

Frances can’t wait for more changes to come. She’s tired of working in traditional styles catering to the boring tastes of her clients. Frances wants to be more than a dressmaker. She wants to be a designer. She wants the chance to design clothes in the styles she dreams of–the ones that most of her clients can’s possibly imagine wearing.

When she crosses paths with Prince Sebastian, Frances’ life takes a sudden turn. Sebastian’s parents want him to look for a bride. But Sebastian would rather spend his time becoming a sensation in Paris nightlife as his alter ego, Lady Crystallia. Sebastian feels like a disappointment to his parents and ill-prepared to become king one day. But as Lady Crystallia he has the chance to not just be someone else but, thanks to Frances’ amazing designs, to be a fashion sensation.

Frances is happy to help Sebastian step into the limelight. But to help protect his secret, Frances also has to stay in the shadows hiding her own talents and ambitions. As Frances and Sebastian grow closer both will have to decide how much they’re willing to give up to protect each other in The Prince and the Dressmaker (2018) by Jen Wang.

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a delightful standalone graphic novel with the feel of a modern fairy tale. Wang’s bold lines, dynamic panels, and lush full-color illustrations fully immerse readers in Frances and Sebastian’s story. The use of color here also makes all of Lady Crystallia’s dresses even more vibrant to behold.

This story remains hopeful and idealistic throughout, even as Sebastian struggles with how to tell his parents about his nights spent as Lady Crystallia and Frances is forced to quash her own dreams while keeping Sebastian’s secret. Sebastian’s relationship with Frances forms the backbone of this story and helps to highlight both characters’ strengths throughout. I loved the gentle affection and humor Wang brings to both her artwork and the dialog as this story unfolds.

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a winning tale of friendship, romance, and fashion. Absolutely impossible to read without a smile on your face. Highly recommended.

As part of this blog tour I also get to talk about my favorite panel from this book. There are a lot but I decided to go with one that isn’t too much of a spoiler. My favorite panels can be found on page 134 in the book.

I love the way that this panel reinforces the friendship between Frances and Sebastian and hints at how close they have grown throughout the story. You can also see the beautiful color work here which manages to be soft hued but also still bold and bright. The changes in panel design and the speech bubble layout also illustrates what I mentioned before about how dynamic the panels are in every spread.

Be sure to check out the full blog tour schedule to hear more about the book and see more favorite panels.

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

Saints and Misfits: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fifteen-year-old Janna Yusuf’s world is easily divided into three kinds of people.

There are the Saints who are so perfect they seem completely untouchable and intensely annoying. People like Saint Sarah who presides over the mosque with beauty, grace, and a personality so bubbly as to become infuriating. Especially when her brother Muhammad seems to fall for Saint Sarah’s entire act. Because it has to be an act, right?

Then there are the people like Janna, her best friend Tats, and her crush Jeremy. Misfits. That not-quite-fitting-in should be enough to bring Janna and Jeremy together (aside from the alliteration and his lovely forehead). But they still don’t go together. Not when Janna is Muslim and Jeremy is definitely not.

Last there are monsters–people Janna knows all too well from her favorite Flannery O’Connor stories and from her own life. Farooq is arguably the most pious member of their mosque. He’s already memorized the Qur’an and is the shining light of the community.

But he’s also tried to assault Janna when they were alone in his cousin’s basement–something Janna narrowly avoided and is trying to forget now. Everyone else thinks Farooq is a Saint. Who would ever believe Janna–a nobody, a misfit, the daughter of the only divorced woman in their mosque–if she tries tell everyone that their beloved Saint is really a Monster in Saints and Misfits (2017) by S. K. Ali?

Saints and Misfits is Ali’s debut novel. It was selected as a finalist for the 2018 William C. Morris YA Debut Award.

Janna is a genuine fifteen-year-old. Her first person narration is authentic and thoughtfully handled giving equal weight to Janna’s dealing with the aftermath of her assault as she decides what to do (if anything) and also her complicated crush on her non-Muslim classmate Jeremy.

Janna is comfortable wearing all black and hijab and she wishes other people in her life would respect that instead of trying to changer her. She is also trying to decide if who she is now–a devout Muslim girl–is who she wants to be moving forward. What does it mean that her attacker is more respected in the mosque than she is? What does it mean that her crush on Jeremy seems to be mutual while also being something directly in opposition to her faith?

These are messy questions and Janna doesn’t always have neat answers or closure. What she does have is a supportive family (especially her mother and older brother), resiliency, and the conviction to stick to what she knows is right.

This book is an excellent mirror for Muslim teens who do not seem themselves enough in books and an excellent window for readers who may not know much about what being a modem Muslim teen really looks like. Saints and Misfits is a thoughtful and surprisingly sweet story about a girl finding her voice and her people–both inside her religious community and beyond.

Possible Pairings: Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart by Deb Caletti, That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandyha Menon, The Authentics by Abdi Nazemian, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The List by Siobhvan Vivian