Down and Across: A Review

cover art for Down and Across by Arvin AhmadiScott Ferdowski is a great quitter. For as long as he can remember he has had a trail of abandoned hobbies and projects. While his best friends are driven and certain of their futures Scott just feels like he’s floundering. How can he find his passion when he can’t even commit to breakfast?

Scott’s parents want him to succeed and get serious about a secure career path like engineering or medicine. Scott isn’t sure what he wants but he knows it isn’t that.

When he hears about a professor who specializes in grit, the psychology of success, Scott thinks she might be able to help him figure out how to change. All he has to do is quit his internship and run away to Washington, DC. It won’t even be that hard with his parents away visiting Scott’s grandfather in Iran.

Scott doesn’t expect to find an adventure when he runs away. It doesn’t feel momentous as he steps onto bus or even when he first meets Fiora and Trent.

Fiora is passionate about crossword puzzles and wants nothing more than to write them. Trent is trying to land his dream job in politics. But, like Scott, they’ve each hit their own road blocks. Can three misfits really help each other to find their passions over the course of one unexpected summer? Scott isn’t sure. But he’s about to find out in Down and Across (2018) by Arvin Ahmadi.

Down and Across is Ahmadi’s debut novel and it is fantastic.

Like a lot of teenagers, Scott isn’t sure what he wants to do with his life. Add to that growing pressure from his parents (especially his father) to commit to something (anything) and Scott is feeling completely overwhelmed. Scott’s efforts to balance his Iranian heritage with his life as an American teen is equally difficult–it’s why he has been going by Scott since kindergarten instead of his real name “Saaket.

Scott’s first person narration is thoughtful and endearing. Although he doesn’t start the novel with much self-awareness he does reach a new understanding of grit as it relates to his surprisingly eventful summer and beyond. While there is a heavy focus on the mechanics of writing a crossword puzzle it serves to enhance the story and Scott’s learning process mirrors the ways in which Scott’s view of his world (and himself) changes over the summer.

Down and Across is a smart, subtle novel about growing up and embracing who you are–even if you might not have it all figured out just yet. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Gap Life by John Coy, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan, Paper Towns by John Green, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Odd One Out by Nic Stone, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Emergency Contact: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Loving someone was traumatizing. You never knew what would happen to them out there in the world. Everything precious was also vulnerable.”

cover art for Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. ChoiPenny Lee is a college freshman at the University of Texas in Austin. She’s eager to get away from the drama that always seems to surround her mom who is, sadly, super hot and super clueless about the attention she attracts from sketchy guys. High school was fine but Penny knows that college is going to be her real chance to shine as she starts taking English classes and pursues her longtime dream to become a published author.

Sam Becker dropped out of college when he couldn’t afford it. He’s twenty-one and manages a coffee shop where he is in charge of all the baking and has a room upstairs. He’s taking an online course to get back on track with his goal of becoming a documentary filmmaker and dreading the arrival of his “niece” Jude who is about to start her freshman year of college. Sam’s still trying to piece his life together post-breakup but he’s getting there. At least until his Instagram famous ex (aka Liar) drops a bombshell.

When Sam has a panic attack in the middle of the street it’s Penny–Jude’s new roommate–who finds him and talks him down. She’s the one who wants him to text her when he gets home and, maybe most importantly, she’s the one that suggests they could be each other’s emergency contact.

As they start texting all the time, Penny and Sam realize they might have more in common than they thought. Their friendship helps both of them step outside of their comfort zones. But neither of them is sure if they’ll ever be ready to take the biggest leap by bringing their virtual relationship offline and into the real world in Emergency Contact (2018) by Mary H. K. Choi.

Emergency Contact is Choi’s debut novel. It has received two starred reviews as well as a glowing write up in the New York Times. The story alternates between chapters written in close third person following Penny and Sam along with the expected sections of text messages and emails.

As the title suggests, the entirety of the book revolves around support systems. How do you build a support system from scratch? What happens when the people you thought you could rely on let you down? And perhaps even more troubling: What happens when the person you never thought you could count on becomes a lifeline?

Penny and Sam are authentic, flawed protagonists. I’ve started calling them lovable train wrecks when I talk about this book. They don’t have all the answers. They may not have any of the answers (a realization that is almost as enlightening for Penny in terms of her relationship with her mother as, you know, actual enlightenment). But they both persevere, strive, and ultimately learn how to go after what they want–things they only accomplish thanks to confidence gained through their friendship.

I say friendship because while a lot of this story plays out against the backdrop of whether or not Penny and Sam will get together, the real meat of this novel are the friendships that both Penny and Sam build (with each other and with other people) as they try to survive this crazy thing called life. You can cut the romantic tension in this story with a knife, but first Choi carefully builds up Penny and Sam’s friendship. Both of them have to grow a lot and learn to care about themselves before they can start to care about someone else—character arcs which Choi expertly portrays throughout the novel.

Before meeting Sam, Penny is used to having a running internal dialog of all the things she wants to say–especially to people who try to belittle her or think their microaggressions and other racist remarks about Penny’s Korean heritage aren’t a big deal. Thanks to the freedom of being away from home for the first time and also having someone who genuinely supports her, Penny is finally able to speak up. She can tell her roommate Jude’s best friend that her racist remarks aren’t okay. She can admit what her French tutor did–what she never even told her Mom. And she can also learn how to move past those things instead of stewing in self-doubt and regret.

Sam, meanwhile, has been stagnating for quite some time. His life is a disaster and he’s used to it–especially when his ex-girlfriend announces that she is pregnant triggering Sam’s first panic attack. With Penny’s support and the knowledge that she cares, Sam realizes the first step in making better life choices isn’t waiting for things to change. Instead, it’s time for Sam to accept that his parents are incapable of being there for him—and haven’t been for some time. It’s time to take action to change things by pursuing his passions and standing up to his ex-girlfriend instead of letting her steamroll him yet again.

Emergency Contact is authentic and sardonic as it follows these two unlikely friends who fear connection almost as much as they crave it. This tension is the driving force for both the characters and the plot. Choi expertly uses close third person perspective and language to amplify that tension and to explore its limits as Penny and Sam try to figure out how to relate to each other even while, internally, they feel hopelessly inadequate by comparison.

(During one of their first “in real life” encounters Penny bemoans her casual outfit and generally messy appearance while being completely fascinated–and attracted–by Sam’s glasses. Sam, meanwhile, is completely self-conscious about his glasses and trying to avoid openly ogling Penny. A push and pull that repeats throughout the novel and perfectly captures the dynamic between these two characters.)

Emergency Contact is a sparkling debut about taking chances and dreaming big. A timely story with a singular voice sure to win over even the most cynical among us, Emergency Contact is an exemplar of what a great contemporary novel can look like.

Possible Pairings: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I Capture the Castle: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for I Capture the Castle by Dodie SmithSeventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family have lived in the castle for years. It had been different when her father was still writing and her mother was alive. There had been plans to fix up the castle then.

Everything is different now. Mortmain stopped writing after his time in prison and his second wife, Topaz, is at her wit’s end for ideas to get him to start again. Her work as an artist’s model is far from enough to support the entire family. Even with money from their sometimes servant and friend Stephen, there is no denying that the family’s situation is dire.

Cassandra’s older sister is certain that she can change her family’s fate if only she can find the right sort of man to marry. But as the eccentric, poverty-stricken neighbors, it isn’t easy to attract the right sort of man at all. Thomas, the youngest, is still in school but his prospects are unlikely to help any.

Without any clear way to change their fortunes, Cassandra settles instead to chronicle the day-to-day happenings within the castle in a hope to capture the strange circumstances that have become quite ordinary to her.

Little does Cassandra know as she sets out to document life in the castle, her family is about to embark on a momentous year filled with delightful surprises, momentous changes, and maybe even first love in I Capture the Castle (1948) by Dodie Smith.

I Capture the Castle only came to my attention when I saw the newest edition from Wednesday Books with a forward from Jenny Han. In her forward Jenny talks about accidentally becoming a collector of first editions of this book and her decision to buy it from her college bookstore based on the strength of JK Rowling’s blurb. I similarly was drawn to this book on the strength of Jenny’s forward and can confirm that if you are a fan of her cozy contemporary novels, this is a perfect classic to pick up.

The novel is presented as Cassandra’s journal, written over the course of three notebooks and one turbulent year. Cassandra narrates events as she sets them down in her notebook with sly observations and wit. Her narrative voice is breezy and the dialogue included is snappy.

I won’t say too much about the plot except to share that it was surprisingly unpredictable and kept me guessing–things I didn’t expect from a classic. By the time I got to the third act of this book, I couldn’t read fast enough. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.

Vivid descriptions bring the eccentric castle and its residents to life drawing readers even further into this story. Although it was first published seventy years ago, I Capture the Castle is a timeless story. Cassandra’s struggles and triumphs feel as fresh and immediate as if they happened today.

Possible Pairings: Love, Lies, and Spies by Cindy Anstley, A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl, Edgewater by Courtney Sheinmel, A Map For Wrecked Girls by Jessica Taylor

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

Everywhere You Want to Be: A Review

cover art Everywhere You Want to Be by Christina JuneMatilda “Tilly” Castillo is used to doing what’s expected of her. But after almost losing her chance to be a professional dancer forever after an injury, Tilly knows she has to take her chance now or lose her dreams forever.

She has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join a dance troupe in New York City for the summer which could be her best chance to make things happen. Her mother also thinks it will be Tilly’s last hurrah as a dancer before she starts at Georgetown in the fall. But her mother doesn’t need to know that Tilly deferred her admission for a year. At least not until finishes the summer and proves she can make a living as a dancer.

Armed with her vintage red sunglasses and a promise to visit her abuela often in New Jersey, Tilly is ready to take New York by storm. What she doesn’t count on is the fierce rivalry she’ll encounter with another dancer or Paolo–a handsome drummer from her past–surprisingly spending the summer in New York himself.

Over the course of a summer filled with new experiences, loves, and adventure Tilly will have to decide if she wants to follow the path her mother has laid out for her or venture in a new direction to follow her dreams in Everywhere You Want to Be (2018) by Christina June.

Everywhere You Want to Be is June’s sophomore novel and a contemporary riff on Little Red Riding Hood. It is a companion to her debut It Started With Goodbye (a contemporary retelling of Cinderella).

Tilly’s first person narration is thoughtful and quirky as she takes in all of the sights and sounds that New York has to offer. She is a pragmatic heroine who is willing to dream big and work hard to get to where she wants as a professional dancer. Her new friendships and budding romance offer the perfect counterpoint to her escalating rivalry with another dancer.

Everywhere You Want to Be is a perfect summer read. An ode to the big city, big dreams, and growing up.

Possible Pairings: American Panda by Gloria Chao, City Love by Susane Colasanti, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Romantics by Leah Konen, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, Summer in the Invisible City by Juliana Romano

As You Wish: A Review

cover art for As You Wish by Chelsea SedotiWhat if you can make one wish and know that it will come true?

That’s the question Eldon has to answer as his eighteenth birthday approaches. Eldon’s small town, Madison, is unremarkable except for one thing: every person in town gets one wish on their eighteenth birthday and that wish always comes true.

But Eldon has seen enough wishes go wrong to know that wishing for something to make you happy isn’t the same as being happy. As his birthday approaches Eldon will have to decide if one wish can secure his future happiness. Or, if he’s smart enough and makes the right wish, maybe it can fix all the broken wishes that came before in As You Wish (2018) by Chelsea Sedoti.

Sedoti delivers a haunting story with fantasy elements in her sophomore novel.

With his birthday approaching, Eldon grapples with his own desires for a wish (getting his girlfriend back) and pressures from his mother to wish for enough money to pay his sister’s medical bills and maybe help the entire family. Eldon’s first person narration is interspersed with stories from the town of other wishes. These anecdotes include Eldon’s mother who wished, against all advice and reason, for her high school crush to love her forever–even when she falls out of love with him, and other wishes with disastrous results.

As You Wish is a bleak, claustrophobic novel. Eldon, like a lot of people in town, feels trapped. Unlike others Eldon isn’t so sure a wish can help. His struggle with that moves the novels forward and has the potential to change the entire town’s future. Despite the high stakes, the bleak backdrop and meandering tone make this a slow read. Eldon’s anger and distance as a narrator further remove readers from the immediacy of the story.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say: A Review

“It takes such a brief time to destroy someone’s life and forget that you ever did it. But rebuilding a life—that’s different. That takes forever.”

cover art for If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say by Leila SalesWhat happens when the worst thing you ever said is the only thing people know about you?

Winter Halperin has always been good with words—something that served her well as a National Spelling Bee champion a few years ago.

Now, after thoughtlessly sharing one insensitive comment online, words (and the entirety of the internet) have turned against Winter.She is stripped of her Spelling Bee title, condemned by strangers, and loses her college acceptance.

Winter always thought she was a good person. She still does. But mounting evidence online suggests otherwise. So does the mounting panic Winter feels every time she looks herself up online. Because how can she stop looking when some new horror could be added at any moment?

As she grapples with the aftermath of The Incident Winter is forced to confront hard truths about her own bigotry and its role in what happened as well as the nature of public shaming in the internet age in If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say (2018) by Leila Sales.

Sales’ latest standalone novel is a timely, sometimes brutal contemporary novel. Winter is a white girl from a fairly well off family. Her comment–meant, she claims, as a fact-based joke on historical Bee winners–suggests that the latest winner of the National Spelling Bee (a twelve-year-old African American girl) can’t spell and is a surprising winner.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say starts with Winter posting that comment before bed and waking up to a nightmare of notifications, hateful messages, and other bad publicity as awareness of her comment grows and grows.

Although the novel is written in the first person Sales is careful to neither condone nor condemn Winter’s actions throughout. It’s up to readers to decide what punishment (or forgiveness) Winter may or may not deserve. When Winter develops crippling anxiety and panic attacks surrounding her online presence and what people are saying about her she enters a program to try and make amends for her actions and also to cope with the very public and very painful online shaming.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is very plot driven without being high action. The focus of the story is squarely on what Winter did and the aftermath. The contrast between Winter confronting her own internalized bigotry/racism while also being subjected to such intense online shaming is incredibly powerful and thought provoking.

Winter is not always a likable character. It’s easy to feel bad for her as she faces death threats, of course. But it’s also hard to understand her thoughtlessness or how she is more focused on how many likes her joke might receive than on how hurtful it could be. In other words, Winter is a lot like many people who are active on social media.

Winter’s character arc balances dealing with the fallout both internally as she confronts her own biases/bigotry that she hasn’t grappled with before with the very public shaming. Does Winter learn anything from The Incident? Maybe, probably. Is it enough? Readers will have to judge that on their own.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is a timely novel that will start a lot of hard but necessary conversations.

Possible Pairings: Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World by Ana Homayoun, All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

The Bone Witch: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We have come a long way only to fall apart.”

cover art for The Bone Witch by Rin ChupecoTea never meant to raise her brother Fox from the dead or expected to become a dark asha—a bone witch to those who fear and revile them—but that is exactly what happens setting Tea’s life on a dramatically different course when she is thirteen and comes into her powers.

Asha training is rigorous and takes Tea and her brother far home. Life in the asha-ka is both less exciting and more dangerous than Tea ever could have imagined making it hard for her to ever feel completely comfortable in her new role as an asha-in-training.

But that doesn’t explain what happened four years later to leave Tea banished to the Sea of Skulls where she tells her story to an exiled bard while raising fearsome daeva (demons) to use for dark purposes.

The nobility in the Eight Kingdoms and even the asha elders have always viewed dark asha as expendable–meant to serve their purpose slaying daeva and not much else. Raising the daeva is one step in Tea’s plan to save dark asha lives. The next steps will change the shape of the world forever or break apart the Eight Kingdoms in the process in The Bone Witch (2017) by Rin Chupeco.

The Bone Witch is the first book in Chupeco’s trilogy by the same name. The story continues in The Heart Forger.

Most of this novel is narrated by Tea in the first person as she looks back on her initiation into the world of the asha and her subsequent training. Tea relates these memories to an exiled bard with the jaded detachment brought on by the distance of four years and her own banishment.

The Bone Witch is a tightly wound story filled with intrigue and tension. The story lines of Tea’s past at the asha-ka and her present on the Isle of Skulls build simultaneously to a shocking crescendo as secrets are revealed and loyalties tested. Careful plotting and deliberate reveals will leave readers questioning everything and breathless for the sequel.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Sabriel by Garth Nix