You Are the Everything: A (WIRoB) Review

Here’s a teaser from the start of my review of You Are the Everything (2018) by Karen Rivers (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

cover art for You Are the Everything by Karen RiversSixteen-year-old Elyse Schmidt is eager to get home to California. Anywhere is acceptable, as long as it’s away from the damp Parisian air that irritates her Junior Idiopathic Arthritis (or “Junky Idiotic Arthritis,” as she calls it) and all of the things that didn’t happen on her trip: romance, kissing, and, most disappointing of all, bonding with her longtime crush, Josh Harris.

Elyse and her school band had been “in Paris to play in a band festival, which turned out to be no different from every band festival in America,” except this time, Elyse was hungover and played badly, and her band placed third. On the plane home, she wishes she could “undo everything, especially the stupid fight” she’s in with her best friend, Kath.

But she can’t, which becomes painfully clear as the plane continues its progress home. …

You can read my full review of You Are the Everything (2018) by Karen River here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/index.php/bookreview/you-are-the-everything

Possible Pairings: But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma

Everything All at Once: A Review

cover art for Everything All at Once by Katrina LenoLottie Reaves doesn’t take risks. She prefers to play it safe. But even her usual caution is no help when her aunt Helen–the one person who always seemed to understand Lottie’s anxiety and panic–dies of cancer. But Lottie and her family aren’t the only ones mourning. After Helen’s death it feels like the whole world is mourning the loss of the beloved author of the Alvin Hatter series about siblings Alvin and Margot and the chaos that follows when they discover an elixir that grants immortality.

After Helen’s death it feels like Lottie is spinning out as her panic about death, life, and so many other things start to feel so much bigger. Grieving and feeling more than a little lost, Lottie receives the most surprising inheritance from Helen’s will: twenty-four letters each filled with a dare designed to help Lottie learn how to embrace change and risk.

Helen promised the letters would lead to some bigger truth, answers to questions Lottie hasn’t even learned enough to ask yet, but as she steps outside of her comfort zone and learns more about her aunt, Lottie also discovers the shocking secret that inspired her aunt to write the Alvin Hatter books–a secret that could change Lottie’s life forever in Everything All at Once (2017) by Katrina Leno.

Leno’s latest standalone is part contemporary coming-of-age story and part fantasy with heavy nods toward Tuck Everlasting and Harry Potter. The narrative is broken up with letters from Aunt Helen and excerpts from the Alvin Hatter books throughout.

Lottie’s first person narration is sometimes claustrophobic as she struggles to work through her panic and anxiety. Leno handle’s this portrayal with honesty and authenticity as Lottie tries to find coping mechanisms that work for her while also trying to overcome her anxiety when it prevents her from doing what she really wants. Everything All at Once is the first time I’ve seen a novel truly capture and explore the fear of mortality that hangs over a grieving person expressed so clearly.

On her journey Lottie has conscientious parents, a supportive younger brother, and a funny and smart best friend willing to follow her on every adventure. There’s also a cute but mysterious boy and one of my favorite romantic exchanges (One character asks “Are you saying we’re not friends?” And the other replies “That’s exactly what I’m saying.” And it’s perfect.) But I can’t tell you much more without revealing too much.

Everything All at Once is strongest as a story about grieving, growing up, and an ode to reading and fandoms. Leno plants seeds early on for more surprises (some of which are heavily broadcast) but it also can feel like one element too many. Recommended for readers looking for an empowering story about growing up and working through loss. Or readers who love Tuck Everlasting but wanted more banter and kissing.

Possible Pairings: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble

The Astonishing Color of After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. PanLeigh knows that her mother turned into a bird after she killed herself. The bird came to her before the funeral. She came again with a box for Leigh to take with her when she goes.

She isn’t sure what the bird wants or how to help her mother. All she knows is that she and her father are now in Taiwan and Leigh is meeting her maternal grandparents for the first time.

Nothing about the trip or her family is what Leigh expected. Her world feels colorless and confusing–coated with grief and filled with ghosts. But as Leigh learns more about her family, her heritage, and her mother’s past it starts to feel like Leigh might be able to find a way through in The Astonishing Color of After (2018) by Emily X.R. Pan.

The Astonishing Color of After is Pan’s debut novel.

It’s taken me a while to review this book because I’ve been struggling with separating how hard this book is to read with how very good it is.

The novel opens shortly after Leigh’s mother has killed herself. Leigh comes home just in time to see her body being taken away, to see the blood, and she is haunted by the thought that she might have been able to do something if only she’d been home instead of celebrating 2.5s Day with her best friend and longtime crush Axel.

Leigh finds a way to channel her grief when a bird comes to her. Leigh knows it’s her mother. She knows the bird is real. She also knows that her mother the bird has things she shouldn’t have–photographs that were burned, heirlooms that were sent to Taiwan.

In traveling to Taiwan Leigh thinks she can somehow rescue her mother the bird and bring her home. Instead Leigh embarks on a journey of discovery and understanding as she learns more about her heritage and her family’s past. She still hurts, she still mourns, but she also begins to learn how to move on and how to forgive.

In traveling to Taiwan Leigh also begins to learn more about her family’s heritage and culture–things that were hard to hold onto as a biracial girl–especially with her mother eager to embrace her new life in America and leave the past behind.

The Astonishing Color of After is not an easy read–Pan’s writing is too visceral, too evocative for that. Instead readers are immediately drawn into Leigh’s journey. Flashbacks shed light on Leigh’s relationship with Axel–a thread that ties the novel together from its painful opening to its hopeful conclusion–while memories from Leigh’s relatives shed light on her mother’s past while also underscoring the flaws in Leigh’s memories and the things she has tried to forget.

The Astonishing Color of After is a powerful and nuanced story about loss, forgiveness, art, and all of the things that make a family–whether it’s blood or a deeper bond. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Boman, Tell Me No Lies by Adele Griffin, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

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, The Art of Losing by Lizzy Mason, 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*

The Opposite of Here: A Review

“There’s always somewhere else I want to go, but when I get there I always want to leave.”

cover art for The Opposite of Here by Tara AltebrandoThe last thing Natalie wants to do for her seventeenth birthday is go on a “sail-a-bration” cruise with her parents and best friends. Even nine months after her boyfriend died in a car accident it still feels too soon.

But once the plan is in motion, Natalie realizes there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

Her best friends Lexi, Nora, and Charlotte are excited so Natalie tries to be too. Lexi is ready for all the fun the cruise has to offer–especially if her boyfriend Jason never has to hear about it. Nora has been down for a while and Natalie hopes that maybe the cruise will do her some good. Maybe she’ll even find a new guy to like, it’s been a while. Charlotte is used to keeping a low profile at school and following the rules. On the cruise no one cares if she’s black enough or white enough–she can just be herself.

Natalie’s low expectations for the cruise rise when she unexpectedly meets a cute guy. He’s funny and exciting and Natalie’s attraction is immediate. But she doesn’t see him after their moonlit conversation and he blows off their plans to meet later.

At first the rejection stings and Natalie is prepared to move on. But then she starts to wonder if there might be more to it than that. How can a guy disappear on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean? Is it crazy to think he might have jumped?

Natalie isn’t sure where to start when she doesn’t even know his name. But she knows she has too look. The only problem is that the harder Natalie looks for answers, the more questions she seems to uncover in The Opposite of Here (2018) by Tara Altebrando.

Altebrando’s latest standalone thriller is a perfect balance of suspense and intrigue as Natalie begins to investigate the bizarre disappearance of the guy she meets on the first night of her cruise.

Instead of chapters the novel is broken into days with the cruise itinerary marking the start of each new section. Assigned by her film studies teacher to shoot a two line film during the cruise, Natalie also imagines various scenarios in short screenplay snippets.

While not quite unreliable, Natalie is a restrained narrator holding back information from readers, and maybe even form herself, as she tries to move past the worst events of the last year. She is sardonic, capable, and singular in her search for the (possibly) missing boy.

Because of its short length and close focus on Natalie the rest of the characters in The Opposite of Here can feel less dimensional by comparison although they do each have their own arcs–something Natalie and readers realize together as Natalie comes to understand that she wasn’t the only one affected by her boyfriend’s death or the events of the cruise.

Taut pacing and menace imbue the pages as the narrative toes the line between reality and the power of suggestion in this story that asks readers to separate fact from fiction. The Opposite of Here is a tense thriller sure to keep readers guessing right until the last page. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, Fragments of the Lost by Megan Miranda, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roerhig, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

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

Fragments of the Lost: A Review

Jessa so doesn’t want to clear out her ex-boyfriend Caleb’s room after he dies. It’s hard enough to grieve and dodge questions about how she’s managing. But when his mother asks, she can’t say no. Jessa knows this is her penance—her punishment for being part of the puzzle of Caleb’s last day.

She can’t explain why Caleb was at her track meet that day anymore than anyone else can. She only knows what came after. His drive along the bridge as it flooded, the car crash, the body that was never found.

As Jessa sorts through Caleb’s possessions and begins the tedious, painful work of packing everything away she starts to remember details from the start of their relationship when things were still fresh and there was so much to learn. These pieces of his life also bring back painful memories of the end of their relationship and the distances that eventually grew between them.

As Jessa delves deeper into Caleb’s life she realizes his room might hold secrets to that strange last day and his death. She also realizes she might not be the only one looking in Fragments of the Lost (2017) by Megan Miranda.

Miranda delivers an eerie and atmospheric mystery in this latest standalone. Narrated by Jessa the novel moves through time with chapters marking Jessa’s present weekend project clearing out Caleb’s room and the past with chapters named for items Jessa discovers that bring up memories of her year-long relationship with Caleb. This premise is used to good effect to demonstrate Jessa’s (often self-imposed) isolation in her grief and her desperation to understand what really happened on the day Caleb died.

A taut narrative told over a short span of time amps up the tension as Jessa slowly begins to realize that something is incredibly wrong. While the big twist might be easily predicted by habitual mystery readers, Jessa’s arc throughout the novel is strong enough to still make for a compelling read. Recommended for readers looking for a chilling page turner and fans of mysteries or thrillers.

Possible Pairings: I Was Here by Gayle Forman, Forget Me by K. A. Harrington, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The After Girls by Leah Konen, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

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*