Midnight at the Electric: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You become as strong as you have to be.”

cover art for Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn AndersonKansas, 2065: Adri has been handpicked to live on Mars as a Colonist. With just weeks before her launch date, Adri is sent to acquaint herself with the only family she has left–an aging cousin named Lily that she’s never met before. While Adri trains for life on Mars and prepares to leave Earth behind forever she finds an old notebook about a different girl who lived in the house more than a hundred years ago. As she says her goodbyes to everything she’s ever known, can Adri find answers about the girl in the notebook and what happened to her with what little time she has left?

Oklahoma, 1934: Catherine dreams of a life away from the danger and severity of the Dust Bowl. She pines for her family’s farmhand, James, even as she knows must have eyes for someone else. Most of all she yearns for a way to help her younger sister before the dust finally kills her. A midnight exhibition at a strange traveling show called the Electric promises hopes and maybe a cure. When everything goes wrong will Catherine have the courage to leave everything she knows behind to save the person she loves most?

England, 1919: The Great War is over and things should be going back to normal. But Lenore isn’t sure what normal means when her brother died in battle. Desperate for a chance to start again, Lenore plans to sail to America and her childhood friend. In the days leading up to her departure Lenore keeps writing. As more days pass without a reply, Lenore wonders will the friend she remembers be the same one she meets? Will their reunion will be enough to help Lenore remember herself?

Three young women separated by miles and generations, three stories, one shocking moment of connection in Midnight at the Electric (2017) by Jodi Lynn Anderson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Anderson’s latest standalone novel blends romance, science fiction, mystery, and historical fiction in three interconnected stories. Adri, Catherine, and Lenore’s stories unfold in alternating parts as their separate paths begin to connect and even intersect.

Adri’s story unfolds in close third person while Catherine story is presented through her diary and Lenore’s through letters she writes to her friend in America. These changing formats offer windows into each girl’s personality. Adri is clinical and detached while she prepares to become a Colonist. Catherine is more conversational and clings to optimism to try and make sense of her bleak possibilities in the Dust Bowl. Lenore is all bravado as she tries to chase away the shadows and grief left in the wake of WWI.

At its core this is a story about leaving. All three heroines are hoping for something more–an adventure, salvation, change–if only they can reach that next destination. But before they can pursue what comes next each girl, in their own way, has to make peace with what came before and let it go.

Midnight at the Electric is a brief book that packs a punch. This character driven story offers poignant vignettes about human connection, loneliness, and perseverance. This book just about broke my heart in half while I was reading it. But then it mended it too. If I had to rank the stories I would say my favorite–and the one at the core of the novel’s overarching plot–is Catherine’s, followed closely by Adri’s, then Lenore’s. While Catherine’s story was the most buoyant and hopeful, Adri’s story and her relationship with Lily just about wrecked me. I cried for the entire final part of the book and I doubt I’m the only one.

Anderson has outdone herself in this beautifully written novel with a clever premise that is truly high concept. Midnight at the Electric is a book about leaving and endings but also about origins and coming home—even if home isn’t the same place as where you started. I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, Malice by Pintip Dunn, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, Eventide by Sarah Goodman, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, Selling Hope by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Vassa in the Night: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Vassa in the Night by Sarah PorterSixteen-year-old Vassa Lisa Lowenstein isn’t sure where she fits in her family or if it even qualifies as a family. Her mother is dead. Vassa’s father stayed only long enough to settle Vassa with his new wife. So now she has a stepmother and two stepsisters. Chelsea is nice enough but Stephanie might actually hate Vassa–which is fine since it’s mostly mutual. It’s an odd living arrangement to Vassa but no more peculiar than a lot of things in her working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.

The nights have been acting especially strange as they become longer and longer. When her stepsister (Stephanie, naturally) sends Vassa out in the middle of the night for light bulbs the only store that’s still open is the local BY’s. Everyone knows about BY’s, and its owner Babs Yagg, but people do tend to remember a store that dances around on chicken legs and has a habit of decapitating shoplifters.

Vassa is sure getting out of the store quickly will be easy. Even her enchanted wooden doll, Erg, is willing to behave and keep her sticky fingers to herself this once. When things don’t go as planned in BY’s it will take all of Vassa’s wits and Erg’s cunning to escape the store alive and maybe even break whatever curse has been placed on Brooklyn’s nights in Vassa in the Night (2016) by Sarah Porter.

This standalone urban fantasy is inspired by the Russian folktake “Vassilisa the Beautiful.” Although Vassa is described as incredibly pale, the rest of the book is populated with characters who are realistically diverse. Complicated dynamics within Vassa’s blended family add another dimension to the story. Evocative settings and imagery help bring this bizarre corner of Brooklyn to life including strong allusions to the Studio Ghibli film “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Vassa is a cynical, no-nonsense character who is quick to make jokes and take risks with the delightfully sharp-tongued Erg at her side. Vassa’s frank narration is sure to remind fans of Veronica Mars as will her resigned acceptance of her role as hero in this story.

Elements of traditional horror blend well with high-concept fantasy in this surprising and engaging tale. A deliberate lack of romantic tension makes Vassa in the Night a refreshing read focused on themes of self-reliance, friendship, and family.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Reader by Traci Chee, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the August 2016 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review from which it can be seen on various sites online*

The Summer Prince: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn JohnsonPalmares Três is s shimmering city, a pyramid in the sea that is beautiful and brutal. June has never known a life outside Palmares Três and only know small details of places that came before her pyramid city with names like Brazil.

But even the lovely greenery of Palmares Três can’t hide the savagery behind the legacy of the Summer Kings. Summer Kings are elected by the people. At the end of their year they choose the next queen–the existing queen, but still it is a choice. Then the queen kills them. And it all starts again.

June is used to this ritual. Everyone is. But things change when Enki is becomes the new Summer King. The first changes are small ones–impulsively choosing June’s best friend Gil as a consort, a calculated act of rebellion during an election performance. Small things that hint at something far greater.

For reasons she can’t always grasp, June is drawn to Enki. Partly because every waka with a beating heart is drawn to Enki because he is just like them: another city-dweller marginalized because he is under thirty. But June also thinks she might be able to use Enki to take her art to a new level–to create on a bigger scale.

As this unlikely but ultimately right pair sets out on a campaign of confusion and protest in the name of art, June can hardly imagine that together they’ll change the course of Palmares Três forever in The Summer Prince (2013) by Alaya Dawn Johnson.

The Summer Prince is Johnson’s YA debut.

There is a lot going on in The Summer Prince. The text is dense and rich with detail as readers are thrown head first into the unfamiliar, futuristic city of Palmares Três. The world building here is, without question, top notch. Johnson does an excellent job with it. The story structure, while messy in some respects, works and tightens the plot in clever ways as both Enki’s and June’s paths unfold over the course of four seasons. June is a brisk narrator who explains very little but that often enhances the epic scope of the story.

That said this story felt very high concept and very distant. June is a motivated heroine with a singular focus until the very end of the story. Consequently her narrative is narrow at times forcing the story in strange directions.

Really, all of the characters were often one-dimensional in their motivations and despite the short page length, it felt like the story dragged and dragged with several plot reveals coming too late to hold any real significance. June is an artist first and foremost and her shift from art-for-exposure to art-as-protest and then back to a simpler art-as-beauty is one of the most interesting aspects of this novel. Johnson starts a great discussion about art here–high concept, performance and transgressive–but with the stopping point of the story she also leaves much of that discussion unfinished.

Unfortunately, all of this thoughtfulness in the plot and the setting made other aspects of the story glaringly incongruous. One of the biggest difficulties in the story is the age structure of Palmares Três.

June is a teenager but that doesn’t mean the same thing in her world as it does here and many of her choices are not the decisions of a teenager but a grown up. But that also doesn’t work given the constructs of the world of Palmares Três. The story posits that people can live for centuries and everyone under 30 (wakas) are seen as little more than children. Given the prolonged life span it’s fair to argue that they really are children (30 even seems a low cutoff to mark adulthood when talking about people who are 150 or older).

Why then are all of these children–young people even by modern standards–treated like adults?

June is diminished and dismissed for her youth throughout the story but is also doing everything adults do from a very young age (younger even than the 17ish years she is during the novel). This disconnect became distracting and brought into question every other societal choice in Palmares Três–why is June’s school structure largely the same as our own is just one big question that comes up and threatens to shatter the entire premise.

It is great seeing this post-heterosexual, pan-sexual society where love isn’t always a black-and-white binary structure. But again it creates problems in the book. The dynamic between Gil and Enki and June feels off somehow. June says throughout the story that Gil and Enki are deeply in love–something both characters affirm repeatedly–yet in the end, when a decision has to be made, it isn’t Gil who Enki tries to run away with. It’s June. Gil gives June a pass for that, saying she tries to save Enki at least, saying if Enki has to be with someone else at least it is June. But the decision still felt strange and ill-fitted with everything else that happened between these three characters.

The Summer Prince is technically fantastic and will demand consideration long after it’s finished. The skill of Johnson’s writing is obvious and so much of this story just begs to be discussed either in a book club or a classroom or just among a group of readers. However small choices in the plot with the social structure and the age of the characters kept detracting from the story. At first the problems are minor, but then they keep building up.

This book is marketed as YA and features teen characters however much of the story would have made so much more sense if it had been marketed to an adult audience as a story about twenty-somethings. Recommended for teen readers who enjoy books with a literary streak or twenty-somethings (or older) who want a book about sticking it to the Man (or Woman as the case may be in this matriarchal society).

Possible Pairings: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, Proxy by Alex London, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Extras by Scott Westerfeld, A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner