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*

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

Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Sometimes small and unspectacular things can be a universe.”

cover art for Rayne and Delilah's Midnite Matinee by Jeff ZentnerFor most of high school best friends Delia and Josie have spent every Friday night transforming themselves into Delilah Darkwood and Rayne Ravenscroft, hosts of Midnite Matinee their public access show on TV Six where they show a campy B (or C) horror movie with their own shorts in between.

The movies are never good and Delia and Josie’s segments aren’t much better, but it’s their show that they built up from scratch which counts for a lot. Even if it isn’t enough to ensure the show will continue now that high school is ending.

Josie is eager to pursue her lifelong dream of being on television when she goes to college but isn’t sure what to do when her dreams might be leading her away from her hometown and her best friend.

Delia, meanwhile, is desperate to find a way to help Midnite Matinee grow beyond its current syndication so that Josie can pursue her dream without leaving Delia behind the way her father did.

With one last summer to make it big or call it quits, Delia and Josie’s friendship and their show will be tested as they confront old hurts, embrace new dreams, and take one epic road trip to a horror convention with the potential to change everything in Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee (2019) by Jeff Zentner.

Zentner’s latest standalone contemporary is a funny, strange story that explores all of the things that brought Josie and Delia together and all of the things that are starting to pull them in different directions.

Josie and Delia alternate first person narration in this story and by the end of the novel both girls completely won me over. Although Delia and Josie are facing some big decisions, they do it all with levity and obvious affection for each other as well as the other important people in their lives.

Zentner has filled this book with Easter eggs from his earlier novels as well as some amazing jokes–I can’t reveal too much but let’s just say I’m still cracking up about the baby Basset Hounds.

Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee is a story about big dreams, big chances, and the mediocre results we sometimes end up with as a result. Josie and Delia are hilarious, endearing, and some of my favorite characters to date. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Jeff about this book!

Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy by Tiffany Schmidt

Merrilee Rose Campbell isn’t sure what to expect when she transfers to Reginald R. Hero High as a sophomore along with her best friend Eliza and her younger sister Rory. It will be her first time being in classes with boys since elementary school. Already convinced no real boy can live up to the swoony ones in all of the novels she loves, Merilee’s expectations for her new school are low.

But instead of the annoying mouth breathers she expects, it seems like every boy at Hero High has stepped out of one of Merrilee’s novels. Wherever she turns, she sees a swoon-worthy boy fit to be the romantic lead in his own story complete with all of the brooding mystery that Merrilee ever hoped for.

At first it seems like Merrilee might have found her own romance with Stratford Monroe inspired by the ultimate romantic duo: Romeo and Juliet. But it turns out that story isn’t anything like she thought.

Then there’s the fact that she keeps getting thrown together with Fielding Williams—the stuffy but handsome son of the headmaster–who seems to have a knack for always catching Merrilee at her most awkward and has no qualms about telling her he doesn’t think she’s Hero High material.

First impressions can be deceiving but Merrillee and Fielding might need more than one more chance if Merrilee is going to get over her pride and Fielding is going to let go of his prejudices in Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy (2018) by Tiffany Schmidt.

Bookish Boyfriends: A Date with Darcy is the first book in Schmidt’s latest ongoing series.

With humor and romance in equal measure, Bookish Boyfriends: A Date with Darcy is the rare book that can read up or down with strong appeal for teens of all ages.

It takes a while for the book to get to its Pride and Prejudice retelling subplot while Merrilee figures out how to deal with overly amorous Stratford when his attentions shift from flattering to overbearing. Although it slows down the beginning of the novel, this plot thread is an important conversation starter about consent and boundaries which Schmidt handles well.

This installment also introduces readers to characters they can expect to encounter in future installments including Merri’s surly and artistic younger sister Rory who returns later this year in The Boy Next Story.

Bookish Boyfriends is a fun new series filled with humor, books, and romance in equal measure perfect for readers who are bookish, romantics, or fans of the classics.

Possibles Pairings: A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Last Best Story by Maggie Lehrman, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandya Menon, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Tiffany about Bookish Boyfriends.

29 Dates: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for 29 Dates by Melissa de la CruzJi-Su is an average student in her prestigious school in Seoul filled with overachievers. Hoping to help her stand out in college applications both in South Korea and abroad, Ji-Su’s parents decide to send her overseas to San Francisco.

There isn’t even enough time to say goodbye to her two best friends before Ji-Su is on a plane to California. Being so far from home doesn’t that mean Ji-Su is completely free to focus on her photography and having fun though. Instead Ji-Su is expected to focus on her schoolwork (which she would do anyway) and continue going on the seons (blind dates) that her parents have set up for her through a matchmaker.

Usually adults go on seons when they’re ready to settle down. But as far as Ji-Su’s mother is concerned it’s never to early to find your perfect match. Ji-Su doesn’t put much stock in the seons but it seems like an easy way to keep her parents happy and maybe even make some friends.

Just when Ji-Su starts to think she is getting the hang of being at a new school in a new city (and maybe even seons) she realizes that all of that is easy compared to falling in love for the first time in 29 Dates (2018) by Melissa de la Cruz.

De la Cruz’s latest contemporary has a unique perspective in Ji-Su’s first person narration. Each of Ji-Su’s twenty-nine seons are detailed between chapters. These are fun exchanges though their structure as dialogue only is jarring compared to the traditional prose in the rest of the novel.

The blend of romance and humor is tempered well with Ji-Su’s focus on school as she works on college applications and has to decide what to do as she ends up waitlisted at some of her schools.

29 Dates is a super cute romantic comedy perfect for fans of the genre. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Lucky in Love by Kasie West, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon