A Room Away From the Wolves: A (WIRoB) Review

cover art for A Room Away from the Wolves by Nova Ren SumaHere’s a teaser from the start of my review of A Room Away From the Wolves (2018) by Nova Ren Suma (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

Sabina “Bina” Tremper is used to being known as a liar and a thief. The real surprise comes when Bina’s mother, Dawn, sides with Bina’s stepsisters and refuses to even consider that. this time, Bina might be telling the truth.

Hoping to defuse the situation, Dawn plans for Bina to temporarily move out. She hopes if Bina stays with her stepfather’s church friends, the girls will have time to reconcile.

But Bina has other plans. She instead decides to go to New York City in this exploration of unfulfilled potential, female friendship, and second chances . . .

You can read my full review of A Room Away From the Wolves (2018) by Nova Ren Suma here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/a-room-away-from-the-wolves

Kingdom of Ash and Briars: A Review

cover art Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah WestBristal’s life changes forever when she is kidnapped. Her humble life as a kitchen maid ends the moment she survives touching the Water and receives an elicrin stone.

Now Bristal is an elicromancer—one of only three people over the centuries to have survived the Water intact.

Immortal and able to wield powerful magic, Bristal is meant to take her place as a peacekeeper and kingmaker. With so much potential power at her command Bristal will have to accept her magic and embrace her destiny despite the dangers in Kingdom of Ash and Briars (2016) by Hannah West.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is West’s debut novel and the first book in the Nissera Chronicles which continues in Realm of Ruins. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Kingdom of Ash and Briars introduces a richly layered world with a unique magic system. West’s novel is informed by numerous fairy tales (most notably Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) positioning a reluctant Bristal in the role of fairy godmother.

Bristal’s ability to shape shift and disguise herself informs much of the story as she begins to change her appearance to manipulate individuals and, indeed, entire courts pushing Nissera toward peace and prosperity. These secondary stories play out on a larger stage as Bristal comes to terms with her newfound immortality and learns to control her magic while facing an elicromancer who would rather rule over humans than serve and protect them.

While not as all-seeing as her mentor, Brack (a character I wish we had seen more of in this novel), Bristal is patient and introspective willing to put in the time and sacrifice to do what is needed for Nissera. Her thoughtful planning and analytical nature are nice counterpoints to an otherwise frenetic plot and an often predictable villain. Romance enters the story late in the game with a lasting impact for generations to come.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is a rich and original fantasy with a memorable world readers will want to revisit. Recommended for readers who enjoy complicated plots, wheels within wheels, and unlikely heroes.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, Stain by A. G. Howard, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch

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

Darius the Great is Not Okay: A Review

cover art for Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib KhorramDarius Kellner is more comfortable talking about Star Trek than he is about his status as a Fractional Persian. He doesn’t speak Farsi very well and a lot of Persian Social Cues still mystify him (Persian Casual anyone?).

Not that connecting with his father’s side of the family is any easier. Darius isn’t cut out for their Teutonic stoicism and he is no Übermensch like his father Stephen Kellner. The only things they seem to have in common are a love of Star Trek and clinical depression. Not exactly the makings of strong familial ties.

Darius doesn’t know what to expect on his first trip to Iran with his family. He’s excited to meets his grandparents and the rest of his family in person for the first time ever. But he doesn’t know what they’ll make of his limited Farsi or his medication.

He never expects to make a new friend, let alone a potentially lifelong one like Sohrab. As Darius starts spending more time with Sohrab he learns what it’s like to have a friend and, maybe, what it’s like to be himself and embrace his namesake—Darioush the First aka Darius the Great in Darius the Great is Not Okay (2018) by Adib Khorram.

Darius the Great is Not Okay is Khorram’s marvelous debut. It was a BookExpo 2018 YA Editor’s Buzz Selection and if it doesn’t get a nod from this year’s Morris Award I will be extremely surprised.

Darius’s first person narration immediately draws readers into his world as he explains his passions (tea and Star Trek, in that order) and his frustrations as he struggles to fit in with his own family. Khorram’s writing, especially as Darius begins to discover his family and his heritage in Iran, is vivid and evocative. This book is also filled with delicious descriptions of food, so be sure to read with snacks nearby.

I love the way Khorram uses dialog and voice throughout the book as Darius struggles to connect with relatives who don’t speak English and how to express himself in any language. Darius the Great is Not Okay is a gentle, contemplative read perfect for readers looking to satisfy their wanderlust without leaving home.

Possible Pairings: In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sarah Farizan, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonneblick, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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

The Dinner List: A Review

cover art for The Dinner List by Rebecca SerleWho are the five people (living or dead) with whom you’d like to have dinner?

Sabrina knows her answer: her best friend Jessica, her estranged father Robert, her philosophy professor from college, Audrey Hepburn, and Tobias the love who broke her heart when he left.

What Sabrina doesn’t expect when she arrives at her thirtieth birthday dinner is that her dinner list is actually happening. And Audrey is already annoyed that they’ve been waiting an hour.

Over the course of this unlikely dinner Sabrina will confront old regrets, lost opportunities, and perhaps most importantly second chances in The Dinner List (2018) by Rebecca Serle.

Serle makes her adult debut in this whimsical and poignant novel. Chapters alternate between Sabrina’s birthday dinner and flashback chapters that detail her decade-long romance with Tobias from their first meeting in college to the moment that ended it all.

The Dinner List combines a fun premise with solid writing. Thoughtful contemplation both at the dinner and in the flashbacks force Sabrina (and readers) to consider what it means to let go of old regrets and choose a new path moving forward.

Because of the structure, the writing can sometimes feel stiff as if readers are at a remove from the characters but as at any good dinner party the guests warm up over time. Serle’s writing is deliberate and restrained as she walks readers to a somewhat surprising reveal and a bittersweet conclusion.

The Dinner List is the perfect choice for readers who like their fiction with just a big of magic.

Saint Anything: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Saint Anything by Sarah DessenSydney has always lived in her charismatic older brother Peyton’s shadow. But it’s hard to hide after Peyton’s DUI and its horrible aftermath pushes Sydney and her family into the public eye. Sydney’s parents seem intent on ignoring Peyton’s role in the car accident and the damage he caused. Meanwhile Sydney is haunted and infuriated by it.

Hoping for a fresh start Sydney switches schools and looks for a new normal in the midst of her family turmoil. She finds it in the unlikely form of Seaside Pizza and the Chathams—the boisterous family owners. Layla draws Sydney into her family’s world as if they’ve always been friends while her brother Mac makes Sydney feel safe for the first time in a long while. Finally Sydney feels like she’s the one being seen and with that certainty she might be able to see herself and what she wants too in Saint Anything (2015) by Sarah Dessen.

I’ve been following Sarah Dessen’s publications for a few years. She is a touchstone name in YA and I am constantly order replacement copies of her books for my library as the old ones wear out. But I have never felt like any of her books really clicked for me. As soon as I heard about Saint Anything it felt like this book would be it: the make it or break it Sarah Dessen book for me. I’d either love it unequivocally or it would confirm that not every author can work for every reader. But it turns out, much like Sydney’s story, my feelings about the book weren’t so clear cut.

Saint Anything is filled with a quirky cast of characters including Mac Chatham, the quiet and stoic boy Sydney meets at Seaside Pizza who quickly becomes a steady and constant source of support for her. Mac, like the rest of the Chathams, is a great character. But what give me pause and what continues to frustrate me about this book is Mac’s backstory. When Sydney meets him she is immediately taken aback by how attractive Mac is and baffled at his utter lack of awareness of his own good looks and their inherent power (two things Peyton routinely used to get his own way before he was arrested). During the story we learn that Mac used to be fat until he made drastic diet changes and started seriously hiking. It’s a very personal response but everything about Mac’s storyline and his weight irritated me. I didn’t like how it was portrayed and didn’t like that it was part of the story at all in the way that it connotes finding a way to be true to yourself with also being thin. Mac’s backstory became a sour note in this otherwise sweet story.

As sometimes happens in longer novels Saint Anything also starts to lose momentum as it builds to the final act. Of course there is an unexpected romance but that added with a friend’s ill advised relationship and the rest of the plot made the final third of the novel feel bloated and, because there was so much to do, the ending itself seemed rushed.

Sydney’s relationship with her family at the beginning of Saint Anything is heartbreaking and it’s so clear that the Chathams are the jolt that Sydney needs to start making changes–not just in asking for more of her parents’ attention but in realizing that she deserves more. I love that aspect of the story. Sydney’s growth as she works through her own grief and regret for Peyton’s drunk driving accident are incredibly powerful. Watching Sydney try to ignore and ultimately confront the unwanted attentions of Peyton’s older friend is tense and utterly relatable.

If this book sounds at all appealing (or you’ve already read it) I also urge you to check out the essay Dessen wrote near Saint Anything‘s release for Seventeen: “I Thought Dating An Older Guy Was Cool — Until I Sensed That Something Was Very Wrong

Possible Pairings: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett,, Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, Between Us and the Moon by Rebecca Maizel, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonneblick

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