Kind of a Big Deal: A Review

Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon HaleJosie Pie was a big deal in high school. She was always the lead in school productions, her teachers always said she was destined for greatness. Which is why it made so much sense when Josie dropped out of high school to be a star.

Now, almost a year later, Josie is starting to wonder if she made the right choice. Turns out hitting it big on Broadway isn’t as easy as hitting it big in high school. After a series of failed auditions Josie is starting to wonder if she was ever star material. It certainly doesn’t feel that way while she words as a nanny.

Josie keeps in touch with her best friend, her boyfriend, and her mom. But there’s only so much you can talk about without admitting massive failure (and mounting credit card debt).

When Josie and her charge find a cozy bookstore, Josie receives a pair of special glasses that transport her into her current read. Literally. In the books she can save the day in a post-apocalyptic world, fall in love in a rom-com, and more.

Living out these fantasies is the best thing that’s happened to Josie in a while. But the longer she stays inside the stories, the harder it is to remember why she should come back to her own life in Kind of a Big Deal (2020) by Shannon Hale.

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Hale’s latest YA novel is a genre mashup. Framed by Josie’s contemporary coming of age story, Hale also plays with conventions in dystopian sci-fi, romantic comedies, and historical fiction (genres Hale has by and large tackled previously in her extensive backlist).

Kind of a Big Deal takes on a lot using these genre adventures to help Josie get a handle on her own life. Unfortunately, the stories within this story are often more compelling than Josie’s real life leaving Josie and her friends feeling one dimensional throughout. Stilted dialog and a premise that pushes the limits of plausibility (particularly with eighteen-year-old Josie being solely in charge of a seven-year-old girl while her mother works out of the country) further undermine this otherwise novel premise.

Kind of a Big Deal is a unique take on losing yourself in a good book. The story reads young and might have worked better for a middle grade audience or radically rewritten with older characters for an adult novel. Recommended for readers looking for plot driven genre studies.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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

Do You Dream of Terra-Two?: A Review

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi OhA century ago, an astronomer discovered a planet orbiting a star. Decades before anyone had the technology to confirm it, she predicted that the planet was Earth-like and habitable; that humanity would one day colonize it. She dreamed of the animals and plant life astronauts would find there.

Now, six teenagers are about to embark on the twenty-three year trip that will bring them to Terra-Two. They, along with four veteran astronauts commanding the crew, are Earth’s best hope for a second chance.

After years of training, the crew will travel for twenty-three years to get to Terra-Two. Along the way some of them will dream of their new home, some of them will fear it and the gaping unknown of their journey. They will mourn what they have left behind and what they might never see if their missions fails in Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (2019) by Temi Oh.

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Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is Oh’s first novel.

There’s no gentle way to say this: Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is a downer. Readers well-versed in stories of space travel know, as well as these characters do, that something always goes wrong. In this book many things go wrong leaving every characters scrambling to salvage a mission that may or may not be sheer folly.

Oh packs a lot of interesting things into this story with alternating third person point of view between the young astronauts. Unfortunately these voices often become indistinguishable as the characters contend with similar moments of existential dread and imposter syndrome alongside any of their individual issues.

The world building in Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, particularly the shady practices of the school that has trained the young astronauts, is fascinating but fails to gel thanks to an ending that leaves most questions unanswered. Will the mission succeed? Will it be worth the sacrifice? Neither the characters nor readers may be entirely sure by the end of this character driven story.

Possible Pairings: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, Dare Mighty Things by Heather Kaczynski, The Final Six by Alexandra Monir, Strange Exit by Parker Peevyhouse

Today Tonight Tomorrow: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn SolomonToday, the last day of school, Rowan Roth is eager to best Neil McNair once and for all. After four years of bitter rivalry in everything from student council to gym class, Rowan wants tangible proof that she is better than Neil by being named valedictorian.

Instead, Neil takes that honor leaving Rowan to wonder who she is without their constant one-upmanship and bickering. If she can’t beat Neil, is she ready to head to Boston for college? Is she ready to admit to her friends and family that she loves romance novels and wants to write them professionally?

Tonight Rowan has one last chance to beat Neil by winning Howl–the school’s annual scavenger hunt that lets seniors say goodbye to their school and their city by racing around Seattle to complete clues and win the grand prize. Beating Neil seems easy until Rowan learns other members of the senior class are plotting to take both of them down leaving Rowan with one option: reluctantly team up with Neil now so she can destroy him later.

As tonight becomes tomorrow, Rowan realizes she and Neil may have more in common than she ever let herself realize. Can four years worth of dislike turn into something very different overnight? Or has Rowan been ignoring something bigger for a lot longer than than that in Today Tonight Tomorrow (2020) by Rachel Lynn Solomon?

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Rowan is funny and confident with a breezy narration that moves through flirty banter with Neil as easily as it does frank conversations about antisemitism and micro-aggressions both characters experience as some of the only Jewish students in their school. The story also thoughtfully conveys all of the joy to be found in romance novels as well as the stigma the genre still faces as Rowan talks through her passion for the genre with Neil and other characters. As is fitting for any ode to romance novels, this book also includes honest conversations about sex and relationships.

For all of her self-awareness, Rowan is often frustratingly dense when it comes to her changing feelings for Neil (although I laughed–frequently–over her obsession with his freckles and upper arms) as well as her own self-sabotage when it comes to admitting what she loves to her friends and family. Rowan and Neil’s palpable chemistry goes a long way to make up for these shortcomings in an otherwise fast-paced novel.

Today Tonight Tomorrow is a love letter to Seattle and romance novels set over the course of one hectic day. Solidly fun.

Possible Pairings: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr, Dramatically Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman

A Fierce and Subtle Poison: A Review

A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha MabryLucas spends every summer with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. The resort there, an old convent, sometimes feels more like home to Lucas than the mainland ever does.

The stories he hears there about the cursed girl with the green skin and the poison in her veins sometimes feel more real than any of the girls Lucas spends the summer romancing as a diversion. Lucas has always wanted to help her; imagined himself breaking Isabel’s curse once and for all.

This summer, when his latest girlfriend disappears and Lucas starts receiving letters from Isabel herself, his life becomes inextricably entwined with the island, the curse, and a desperate search to save another lost girl before it’s too late in A Fierce and Subtle Poison (2016) by Samantha Mabry.

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A Fierce and Subtle Poison is Mabry’s debut novel. It’s easy, while reading, to see how the seeds of this story led to her subsequent novels All the Wind in the World and Tigers, Not Daughters.

Narrated by Lucas, this novel explores colonization and gentrification. Lucas witnesses firsthand the entitlement of white tourists and the damage his own father’s resorts cause to the island’s often fragile history.

Mabry expertly blends suspense and magic realism in this story of poison and disappeared girls although by the second half of the book it begins to feel like too many things are thrown into the plot as Lucas learns more about Isabel and her past.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is a subtle story of longing and growing up. Recommended for readers who want to follow along with characters searching for their own compass–moral or otherwise.

Possible Pairings: Girl Serpent Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Sadie by Courtney Summers

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue: A Review

“The old gods may be great, but they are neither kind nor merciful. They are fickle, unsteady as moonlight on water, or shadows in a storm. If you insist on calling them, take heed: be careful what you ask for, be willing to pay the price. And no matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.”

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab1714, France: Adeline LaRue grows up learning about the old gods. She makes small offerings here and there, hoping for something bigger than the life she can see forming around herself in her small village. As she gets older, she begins to understand that the longer you walk, the fewer chances you have to change your path–something Addie is still desperate to do even as she feels time slipping through her fingers.

After offering everything she values, after praying far too long, one of the old gods finally answers long after dark. A bargain is struck.

A soul seems like a small thing to barter for more time but this deal has a catch. Addie will live forever but she cannot leave anything behind–no physical mark and, even more painful, no memory.

Over the centuries Addie learns the limits and loopholes of her bargain–her curse–ways to leave traces if not marks, inspiration if not memories, and ways to survive in a world that will always forget her. But even after three hundred years Addie is unprepared when she meets Henry–a young man in a secluded bookstore in New York City who remembers her name in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020) by V. E. Schwab.

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Schwab’s latest standalone fantasy may be her best work yet.

Through a multi-faceted narrative, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue explores themes of creativity and the weight of expectation (or lack thereof). This book is filled with well-drawn characters and thoughtful commentary on art and inspiration and what it really means to leave a mark on your piece of the world.

Evocative prose and detailed descriptions bring both the cities of Addie’s past and New York City vividly to life and lend a strong sense of place to this story that spans centuries.

With her aggressive resilience and optimism, Addie is a timeless character readers will always want to cheer on and, especially now, she’s the exact kind of protagonist we all need and deserve. Despite the bargain she has struck, I can guarantee Addie is nothing if not memorable.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is an empowering, perfectly plotted fantasy that subverts and defies expectations. A must read.

Possible Pairing: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen by Katherine Howe, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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

A Place For Us: A Review

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen MirzaSiblings Hadia, Huda, and Amar could not be more different. It’s always been like this. Their father saw it with the way Amar always saw life as a game where the world was against him. Their mother saw it in Amar’s sensitivity and the questions he asked about Islam as a child.

Now, the family is gathered for Hadia’s wedding–a love match in the face of years of traditionally arranged marriage. Steadfast and dependable Huda is there, always the reliable middle sister. But if Amar will show up, and what state he will be in if he does, remains to be seen.

As the wedding progresses the entire family reflects on the moments that brought them to this moment, together, as well as the moments that quietly and irreparably tore them apart in A Place For Us (2018) by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

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This ambitious debut novel has shifting perspectives following Hadia, Amar, and Huda as well as their parents in close third person. The wedding serves as a starting point with the story moving both backward in flashbacks and forward after the wedding in a complex narrative.

A Place For Us skillfully balances its large, multi-generational cast and a plot spanning decades to deliver an engrossing family epic exploring themes of memory, choice, faith, and belonging.To talk about any one aspect of the story would diminish the reading experience but even a year after reading it, I feel like there’s still so much to find in this story and so much to learn from these characters.

A Place For Us is all about meeting people where they are, and where they need to be met. And sometimes not making it. Recommended for fans of family sagas and stories where there is more than meets the eye.

Possible Pairings: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Red at the Bone by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, Digging to America by Anne Tyler, Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

The Sullivan Sisters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn OrmsbeeSisters Eileen, Claire, and Murphy used to be close. A visionary, a planner, and a performer respectively the sisters could accomplish amazing things–like making their house feel like a home even with their father dead and their mother increasingly absent.

But that was years ago. Now the girls can barely stand to be around each other.

At eighteen Eileen has been carrying a potentially dangerous secret for years. She is working a dead end job. She’s managed to hide her drinking from her mother so far. Her sisters aren’t as easy to fool.

Seventeen-year-old Claire is an Exceller and she is ready to use everything at her disposal to Excel, succeed, get the hell out of her small Oregon town, and find her first girlfriend. With advice from her favorite self-help Youtuber, Claire has done everything right. But she still didn’t get into Yale–the only college she applied to.

Fourteen-year-old Murphy has always felt like a fifth wheel in her family. She never met her father so she can’t miss him. Her mom is never around. Eileen and Claire never have time for her. Luckily, Murphy has her magic tricks to keep her company. She used to also have Siegfried the family turtle. But then she forgot to feed him one too many times.

Days before Christmas Eileen receives a letter that could change everything. The sisters have inherited a house from an uncle they’ve never heard of. A house that could have answers for Eileen, money for Claire to get out of town, and a chance for Murphy to feel like she’s part of a family again in The Sullivan Sisters (2020) by Kathryn Ormsbee

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The Sullivan Sisters alternates between third person chapters from each sister. Unfortunately, the clinical tone of the narration also makes the sister’s blend together. A heavy reliance on quirks to define their personalities doesn’t help matters.

Your feelings about this book will depend heavily on your expectations going in. If you are looking for a heartfelt story of sisters reconnecting, this is the book for you. If, like me, you came expecting an atmospheric house mystery you will likely be disappointed.

Ormsbee tackles a lot in the book and the mystery aspect, such as it is, barely makes the list. What The Sullivan Sisters does well is present three flawed characters (four if you count their mother) who have gotten so used to drifting along that they need a major jolt (like a surprise inheritance) to get back on track.

Throughout the book Eileen is forced to confront her alcoholism (she is in AA by the end of the story). Claire has to admit that her self-help idol may not be as helpful as she thought but also it may not be as terrible as Claire thought to be queer in a small town–even without a plan. Murphy is a hard one. She is funny and often the most approachable of the sisters. But she also killed Siegfried the turtle through her own neglect–something that was hard to swallow even with an abundance of remorse on her part.

The Sullivan Sisters is a story about connection and secrets. Recommended for readers who enjoy reading about complicated sibling relationships, family secrets, and flawed characters.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

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

The Light Between Worlds: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. WeymouthSix years ago Evelyn and Phillipa Hapwell and their brother Jamie went outside to the family bomb shelter. Years of drills trained them well to get to the shelter and not wait for anyone, not even their parents.

Instead of walking into a shelter, the siblings find themselves transported to the Woodlands, a forest kingdom preparing for a war of its own. Philippa and Jamie always knew any stay in the Woodlands would be temporary–how could it be anything else?

But even now, all these years later, Ev is still sneaking into the woods and trying to find her way back. Cervus, their guide in the Woodlands, always told Ev that Woodlander’s heart always finds its way home. But can that still be true after so long?

Philippa is happy to be home, happy to leave everything that happened in the Woodlands behind, and try to move on. When Ev disappears, Philippa has to confront everything that happened in the Woodlands–including her own betrayals along the way–if she wants to find out what happened to her sister in The Light Between Worlds (2018) by Laura E. Weymouth.

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The Light Between Worlds is a standalone portal fantasy and Weymouth’s debut novel. The first half of the story, set in 1949, is told in Ev’s first person narration. The second half, in 1950, is narrated by Philippa. (The audiobook uses different voice actresses for each narrator and is an excellent production.)

As you might have guessed, this was a heavy read filled with melancholy for what all of the siblings have lost and, especially for Ev, genuine despair. In other words, it was not a good choice to read when the Covid-19 related quarantine started in March. Be warned, the novel does depict Evie’s self-harm as a coping mechanism after she returns to London.

Readers familiar with portal fantasies will find the story they expect here while readers new to the sub-genre might feel more tension around the question of what happened to Ev. Both Evie and Philippa’s parts include flashbacks both to their time in the Woodlands and the weeks immediately after their return. While the Woodlands chapters are evocative and provide a story within the story, they never do much to explain the appeal of the Woodlands even to Evie who feels more at home there than in London.

The Light Between Worlds is filled with beautiful, visceral, evocative writing and offers a thoughtful exploration of both post traumatic stress and trauma. An acquired tasted but one that marks Weymouth as an author to watch.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

All the Birds in the Sky: A Review

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane AndersPatricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead were friends once, a long time ago.

That was before Patricia found out from the Parliament of Birds that she was a witch. Before her education on spells, magic, and how to avoid Aggrandizement began at Eltisley Maze.

It was before Laurence found the blueprints for his first two second time machine and started building an artificial intelligence. Before he found his people and his place with other mad scientists so desperate to save the world that they don’t think too hard about how they’re changing it.

They were friends when they were children. Before Patricia saved Laurence’s life and vanished.

Now they’re grown up, living in San Francisco although they travel in different orbits. After years of circling each other something has brought Patricia and Laurence back together. But neither of them can tell if their reunion is meant to fix all of the things that have started going wrong in the world or break them beyond repair in All the Birds in the Sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders.

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Anders’ ambitious blend of sci-fi and fantasy starts when Patricia and Laurence are children, following them through middle school into adulthood. The breakneck pacing contrasts sharply with the way Patricia and Laurence’s carefully drawn characters develop and grow over the years.

All the Birds in the Sky is an exercise in contrasts as Laurence and Patricia find themselves on opposite sides of a struggle to save a rapidly declining plane. This shift is particularly evident in the protagonists’ dramatically different worldviews and all of the ways it becomes clear that there may not be any good choices left for either of them.

Snappy prose, witty dialog, and intricate world building will immediately draw readers into this action-filled plot story. Recommended for readers who like their speculative fiction as timely as it is snarky.

Possible Pairings: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

The Ten Thousand Doors of January: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. HarrowJanuary Scaller is used to certain doors being closed to her. Living as the ward of Mr. Locke, a wealthy man who travels in his own bubble of authority and privilege, does much to ease January’s movement through a world that doesn’t always understand her.

But even Mr. Locke’s influence can never change her origins as the daughter of a poor explorer or the color of her copper skin. She is used to never quite fitting in and never quite knowing her place among the empty halls of Locke’s vast mansion. She is used to wondering when her father will return from his numerous expeditions searching out new rarities for Locke’s vast collection. Most of all, January is used to waiting.

Everything changes the moment January finds a door, although it takes her nearly a decade to truly understand its importance. In a world where doors can lead a person much farther than an adjacent room, January will have to rely on a book filled with secrets and regrets and her own wits to determine which doors are meant to be open wide and which should remain under lock and key.

Doors can be many things to many people but more than anything, they are change. For January it may be impossible to walk through a door without changing everything in The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019) by Alix E. Harrow.

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The Ten Thousand Doors of January is Harrow’s debut novel. The story alternates between January’s lyrical first person narration and chapters from the mysterious book she finds among Mr. Locke’s myriad artifacts.

Part portal fantasy, part coming-of-age story, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a story about a young woman discovering her own power and agency in both a literal and figurative sense as she grows up in a world that has sought to systematically strip her of both.

Harrow builds tension well as the novel moves toward a dramatic climax both in January’s story and in the story-within-a-story of the book she finds. Moments of genuine magic and sweetness are tempered with thoughtful examinations of what it means to be a person of color in a world that too often defaults to white and favors it above all else.

January is clever, plucky heroine learning to find her voice after years of trying to keep quiet and maintain a low profile. Her personal growth is complimented well with the ragtag community she builds as she learns more about Doors and her own connection to them.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an ambitious examination of privilege, choice, and connection wrapped up in a distinct magic system and truly singular world building. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; Life After Life by Kate Atkinson; Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt; Passenger by Alexandra Bracken; The Meq by Steve Cash; Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore; Ink, Iron, and Glass by Gwendolyn Clare; The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove; The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig; Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones; A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly; Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire; The Starless Sea by Erin Morgensten; Uprooted by Naomi Novik; Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel; Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson; The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab;The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth; Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel