The Kingdom of Back: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Speak for the ones who will come after you, looking to you for guidance. Stay true, daughter. One day you will see it all go up in flames.”

The Kingdom of Back by Marie LuThis is a story you already know. But listen carefully, because within it is one you have never heard before:

Nannerl Mozart has one wish that she guards close, no matter how hopeless it might be; she wants to be remembered forever.

A talented musician and performer, Nannerl entrances audiences with her playing which is masterful for one so young. But the older Nannerl becomes, the less brilliant her prowess. Especially compared to her younger brother Wolfgang who has already begun to overshadow Nannerl’s achievements with his own musicality and compositions.

Watching her younger brother, it is increasingly clear that it will be Wolfgang who receives the bulk of their strict father’s praise. It will be Wolfgang living the life Nannerl desperately wants. No amount of talent is enough to allow a young girl in eighteenth-century Austria to compose her own music. Not publicly.

Working in secret by day Nannerl begins creating her own compositions beside her brother. At night she waits for a mysterious visitor from a kingdom that should be little more than a bedtime story she shares with Wolfgang. The stranger has untold powers, and he knows Nannerl’s secret wish. But wishes have a price and the cost of securing her legacy might be greater than Nannerl can bear in The Kingdom of Back (2020) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Kingdom of a Back is a standalone novel that blends evocative historical fiction with fantasy elements. As Lu explains in her author’s note, this book was inspired by the real Mozart siblings as well as the eponymous imaginary world they created together as children.

In a departure from her earlier novels, Lu stays close to historical events centering the story in Austria and the Mozart family’s tour through Europe while fantasy elements set in the Kingdom of Back take a secondary role.

Nannerl’s first person narration is introspective and thoughtful as she tries to balance her fierce affection for her brother with her growing frustrations that, merely because of her gender, she will never be able to claim the same praise and recognition that is lavished on Wolfgang. Although jealousy is certainly a factor in Nannerl’s choices throughout the novel, The Kingdom of Back is grounded firmly in the love and friendship between the siblings.

The Kingdom of Back is a meditative story about ambition and achievement, as well as the chasm that can develop between the two. While real life events lend a melancholy tone to this story, it also makes the novel all the more powerful as a rallying cry and a hopeful reminder that there is always room to strive for more. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Heartless by Marissa Meyer, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente, And I Darken by Kiersten White

The Black Kids: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds ReedLos Angeles, 1992: Ashley Bennett is living her best life at the end of her senior year spending more time at the beach with her friends than in the classroom.

But Ashley’s summer of possibility seems like much less of a sure thing when four LAPD officers are acquitted after they beat a Black man named Rodney King nearly to death. Suddenly both Ashley and all of her friends are very aware that Ashley is the only Black girl in their group and one of the only black kids in the entire school.

As protests shift to violent riots and fires threaten the city, Ashley tries to pretend nothing is changing. As her sister throws herself into the center of the riots heedless of the consequences, Ashley tries to ignore all the cracks in her family’s facade of privilege. When Ashley accidentally helps her friends spread a rumor that could derail her classmate LaShawn’s college plans, she realizes she has to make amends.

Ashley has never felt like one of the Black kids but as she gets to know LaShawn and his friends, she realizes she still has a lot to learn about her family, her city, and her own place in both in The Black Kids (2020) by Christina Hammonds Reed.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Black Kids is an intense debut novel and was a finalist for the 2020 William C. Morris YA Debut Award. This story plays out against the backdrop of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, it includes scenes of protests turning violent as well as racial slurs (notably the n word) used by characters. While these situations are addressed and interrogated in the story as Ashley learns to speak up for herself and for others, be advised of what to expect as you read.

Ashley’s first person narration is both lyrical and pragmatic. Ashley is very firmly grounded in her reality–fully aware of her sister’s self-destructive tendencies and her own precarious position surrounded by her white friends. At the same time, she also dreams of better days to come as she looks back on formative moments with her current best friends and learns more about her family’s history in LA.

There are no easy answers in this story and there are no perfect characters. Ashley is secretly hooking up with her best friend’s boyfriend, a new friend is furious when Ashley reports possible abuse, and the consequence for Ashley’s sister joining the riots are severe.

While the riots shape the larger narrative arc of this novel, The Black Kids is ultimately a smaller story about one girl’s growth (and her stumbles) as she learns to embrace every part of who she is–not just the parts she thinks people want to see.

Possible Pairings: Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles, Light It Up by Kekla Magoon, I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Elysium Girls: A Review

Elysium Girls by Kate PentecostSal Wilkinson has had visions of rain coming to the walled city of Elysium for years. Sal knows her vision is true, knows it’s just taking a little longer. But no one else in town believes that and most people don’t have much use for her.

No one is more surprised than Sal when she is named Successor to Mother Morevna, the powerful witch who banded Elysium together the day the city was wrench out of our world in 1935 and become the game board for the latest game between the sister gods Life and Death.

After nearly ten long years building up the city, the day of judgement if months away. If the city succeeds, Life will restore them to the world. If the city is deemed a failure, Death will claim every person within its walls as a sacrifice.

Sal thinks becoming Successor is her chance to prove her worth to the city once and for all. Instead, her first attempt to lead the city ends in disaster. Exiled alongside a mysterious outsider, Sal will have to join forces with Olivia Rosales, another Elysium exile and a young witch herself, if any of them hope to save Elysium by beating Life and Death at their own game in Elysium Girls (2020) by Kate Pentecost.

Find it on Bookshop.

Elysium Girls is Pentecost’s debut novel. The novel alternates between Sal’s first person narration and third person narrations following other characters including Asa and Olivia.

Pentecost’s story is grounded with a strong sense of place. Descriptive prose bring the Dust Bowl ravaged city and its steampunk-inspired blend of steel and magic to life. Despite the promising start, a large cast and sprawling premise still make this story unwieldy.

Despite a countdown to Judgement Day at the start of every chapter, this book is largely lacking in a sense of urgency where any stakes for at least the first thirty percent of the novel are entirely absent.

Readers drawn to Elysium Girls based on the synopsis should prepare themselves for a long haul as Pentecost takes her time building up the story. A potential win for readers seeking an immersive fantasy with steampunk elements and only minimal romance between secondary characters.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, Lovely War by Julie Berry, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool

A God in Ruins: A Review

A God in Ruins by Kate AtkinsonTeddy could have been a poet or a banker. Instead war intervened and he became an RAF bomber pilot. Those years spent bombing German civilians, never knowing if he’d live through his next mission, were the best years of his life–the best moments–even with the violence, the death, and his time as a POW.

But everyone has to return to the ground eventually and when the war ends, Teddy becomes a husband and a father, a journalist, and more. But his hardest role even all those years later will be living in a future he never thought he’d see in A God in Ruins (2015) by Kate Atkinson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Readers of Atkinson’s previous powerhouse novel Life After Life will recognize protagonist Teddy as Ursula Todd’s favorite brother–a figure she worked across multiple lives to save when he is declared missing in action and presumed dead after a failed bomb run. While both books function separately, it is unlikely readers will catch all of the nuance and subtleties of this novel without reading Life After Life first.

Teddy only has one life so this novel does not explore the same themes of reincarnation although Atkinson uses the same nonlinear structure with multiple points of view to excellent effect.

From here on this review will have some spoilers for the rest of the book, proceed with caution:

Continue reading

Life After Life: A Review

“This is love, Ursula thought. And the practice of it makes perfect.”

Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonOn February 11, 1910 Ursula Todd is born. She is not breathing. Dr. Fellowes is not there.

Darkness falls.

On February 11, 1910 Ursula Todd draws her first breath and begins a wholly unexpected life.

Darkness falls.

Hugh, her dear and prosaic father, enlists in the Great War. Long years later he comes home to his stoic and often inscrutable wife. Ursula dies during the ensuing influenza pandemic.

Darkness falls.

Again and again Ursula lives and dies and live once more. She keeps trying, keeps learning until there will be no mistakes in a life spanning both world wars and beyond. As Ursula tries to save the world she begins to understand that the first step, the bigger step, may be saving everyone she loves. For a person who gets more than one life, practice makes perfect in Life After Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson

Find it on Bookshop.

Life After Life is a stunning achievement. The plot of this novel spans decades and crosses multiple timelines, all in a nonlinear format following multiple characters in close third person. This structure and Atkinson’s prose create a distinct structure and a reading reading experience that rewards close attention.

This character driven story raises questions of ethics, familial loyalty, and identity. As Ursula lives multiple lives she and readers see how different choices play out and their long lasting ramifications for Ursula and the rest of the Todd family which notably includes Teddy, the protagonist of Atkinson’s companion novel A God in Ruins.

That is not to say Life After Life is an entirely comfortable novel. Many of the characters are products of their times with the related casual sexism and more overt anti-Semitism. While this makes sense for the time period and (some of) the characters, it is never interrogated in the story despite the often omniscient narrator watching the story unfold at a remove. Because of the multiple timelines, some events are explored from multiple lenses while others including many of Sylvie’s motivations are barely examined.

Life After Life is truly exceptional on a craft level with fantastic writing and a singular family. Readers interested in characterization, WWII, and world building will find a lot to enjoy here.

Fans of this volume should tread lightly before picking up the companion novel A God in Ruins which offers a very different, and far less satisfying, reading experience.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Courting Darkness: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Courting Darkness by Robin LaFeversAfter working with her sisters of Mortain to help the duchess of Brittany secure both her duchy and her betrothal to the king of France, Sybella thought her work was done. After everything she had risked and sacrificed, after everything she had learned about herself and her god, Sybella had thought at last she would be safe and able to rest.

She is wrong.

Things in Brittany are changing and, as the young duchess prepares to travel to France for her marriage, Sybella realizes she and her sisters are still far from safe. Traveling to foreign territory as a lady in waiting, Sybella is fiercely determined to protect her duchess and her sisters with her beloved Beast at her side. But forces are conspiring to limit the duchess’s new power and ensure that Sybella’s task will be far from easy even with undercover allies waiting to be of aid with in the French court.

Genevieve has been undercover for so many years, that she is no longer sure what she is supposed to be working toward. After years of waiting to be called into service, Gen begins to fear the day that she will be useful may never come.

Feeling the walls of court life closing in, Gen sees no other option but to take matters into her own hands. Manipulating a long-forgotten prisoner into an uneasy bargain will secure both Gen’s escape and his own. But figuring out what to do without guidance from her convent and her god is much harder.

Isolated and alone, Gen will have to do what she thinks is right to save the only home she’s ever known–even if it is a distant memory. But court life is as treacherous as it is decadent and soon both Gen and Sybella will realize they are not the only players with moves to make in Courting Darkness (2019) by Robin LaFevers.

Find it on Bookshop.

Courting Darkness is the first book in a duology. The story is set in the same world as LaFevers His Fair Assassin trilogy including Grave Mercy, Dark Triumph, and Mortal Heart. This book can be read independently of the original trilogy although the world and characters overlap.

This book alternates between Sybella and Gen’s first person narrations in this story set months after the conclusion of LaFevers’ previous trilogy in the year 1489.

Although set in the same world as previous books, much of the mystique of Brittany and the Nine gods who preside there in the guise of neo-Christian saints is lost in this companion novel. While Sybella and Gen contend with consequences of changes to Mortain and the gifts he has bestowed on his daughters, Courting Darkness is much more grounded in political intrigue and the duplicitous French court.

LaFevers once again draws heavily from real historical events to deliver and atmospheric and well-researched story helmed by two singular heroines. Unfortunately, as Sybella realizes how much of a threat her family still poses, much of the confidence and self-assurance she gained in the previous trilogy is erased. Gen, meanwhile, is insufferably arrogant about her own ability to determine the best course of action and reckless in pursuit of her own goals.

That said, a few surprise twists and the promise of our narrators finally meeting in the sequel Igniting Darkness may be enough to salvage this promising but so far underwhelming duology.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

Eventide: A Review

Eventide by Sarah GoodmanSeventeen-year-old Verity Pruitt knows she is perfectly capable of caring for herself and her younger sister, Lilah. But after her father’s very public descent into madness, The Children’s Benevolent Society is far less certain.

In June, 1907 Verity and Lilah are sent west on an orphan train to Wheeler, Arkansas where eleven-year-old Lilah is quickly adopted and just as quickly begins to adapt to her new circumstances.

Verity does not. Desperate to stay close to her sister, Verity signs on as an indentured farmhand to an elderly couple where she soon learns that her aspirations of attending medical school have done little to prepare her for the manual labor of farm life despite her kind employers and their charismatic nephew, Abel. Worse, Verity’s plan to get herself and Lilah back to New York seems more impossible every day.

Folks in Wheeler are friendly enough but local superstitions, a strange aversion to the neighboring woods, and even Lilah’s mysterious new adoptive mother all suggest that something is wrong in this small town.

As Verity learns more about Wheeler and her own parents’ history with the place, long-buried secrets threaten to once again send Verity adrift–or worse in Eventide (2020) by Sarah Goodman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Eventide is Goodman’s debut novel.

Evocative prose and snippets of fairytale-like passages come together to bring both Wheeler and its mysterious past to life. Verity’s obstinate pragmatism contrasts well with this western gothic’s small town superstitions and secrets. While Verity is rash–often jumping to conclusions readers may realize are wrong before she does herself–her heart is in the right place and her compassion as she tries to protect her sister and her new friends shines through on every page.

Eventide is an atmospheric, spooky story filled with old secrets and ghosts. A meditative, melancholy story where nothing is quite what it seems. Recommended for readers looking to unearth old ghosts in an atmospheric and sometimes bittersweet setting.

Possible Pairings: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, 13 Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth

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

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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, The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu, 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*

The Silvered Serpents: A Review

“What is magic but a science we cannot fathom?”

The Silvered Serpents by Roshani ChokshiMonths ago Séverin and his crew beat the remnants of the exiled Fallen House back into hiding. But the victory came at a steep cost. A loss that has left Séverin and his friends reeling and weakened the once unbreakable bonds between them.

Determined to never lose anything–or anyone–ever again, Séverin follows clues to the Fallen House’s Sleeping Palace in Russia. Once there he believes he can uncover their greatest treasure: The Divine Lyrics, a book that is said to bestow godlike powers to whoever uses it and may also unite the Babel Fragments spread across the globe that make Forging magic possible.

While Séverin chases invulnerability to protect those he cares about, Laila hopes the book might save her before time runs out. Historian Enrique thinks the high profile recovery will earn him the respect that eludes him. And scientist Zofia wants to prove that she can take care of herself even if she sometimes needs help understanding other people.

After so many years working together, so much time trying to prove themselves, Séverin and the others will all have to choose what matters most and how far they are willing to go in pursuit of it in The Silvered Serpents (2020) by Roshani Chokshi.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Silvered Serpents is the second book in Chokshi’s Gilded Wolves trilogy.

Chokshi expertly builds tension and suspense in this sequel as the team delves deeper into the mysteries surrounding the Fallen House, the secret of the Divine Lyrics, and the Lost Muses who may be able to tap into the artifact’s power. The theme of who is able and allowed to shape history continues to be a major underpinning of this series as all of the characters question how best to make their own voices heard in a world that often refuses to truly see them.

Chapters alternating between Séverin and the rest of the team explore their varied motivations and subplots offering many insights into each character while moving inexorably toward the novel’s shocking conclusion that will leave readers eagerly anticipating the final installment.

The Silvered Serpents is the sleeker, smarter, sharper, and bloodier sequel fans of this series deserve. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Roshani Chokshi discussing this book!

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Lady Rogue by Jenn Bennett, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Reader by Traci Chee, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Enchantée by Gita Trelease

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the February 2020 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

When We Left Cuba: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“In the end life always comes down to timing.”

When We Left Cuba by Chanel CleetonFlorida, 1960: The Perez family lost everything in the Cuban Revolution. Like many former sugar barons, Emilio Perez and his family had to flee their home, leaving everything behind, when Castro came into power.

Like the rest of her family, Beatriz assumes it will be a brief exile when the family first settles in Florida. As time passes and the weeks turn into months and years, Beatriz watches in dismay as her sisters and even her parents begin to make new lives for themselves in this new country.

Beatriz is much more interested in revenge. When she is recruited by the CIA, Beatriz jumps at the chance to choose a different path for herself trying to get close to Castro and reclaim everything his regime stole from her.

As she learns more about the means the CIA is willing to use to justify their ends and watches the Cold War threaten to warm, Beatriz also has to reconcile how she can let go of everything her family lost while embracing the new opportunities–and maybe even new love–available to her in the United States in When We Left Cuba (2019) by Chanel Cleeton.

Find it on Bookshop.

When We Left Cuba is a companion to Cleeton’s previous novel Next Year in Havana which tells the stories of Beatriz’s sister Elisa and grand-niece Marisol.

Beatriz narrates this story of heartache and longing primarily set in the 1960s with a framing story set in 2016. How you feel about this book may also depend heavily on how you react to one of Beatriz’s love interests. Without naming any names, I will say I could not stand him and that made a lot of the book a struggle for me.

While Elisa’s story explored the moments leading up to the Cuban revolution, When We Left Cuba is more concerned with the aftermath as Beatriz tries to come to terms with everything her family has lost.

As she rails against the Castro regime, Beatriz is also able to pursue a different life filled with espionage and, later, university studies and law school–things a sugar princess would have never been able to consider in Cuba.

Compared to the tantalizing glimpse readers get of Beatriz in Next Year in Havana, this book is in some ways underwhelming. Beatriz is still working on becoming that capable, independent woman–a transformation that unfortunately mostly happens off the page here.

When We Left Cuba is an excellent return to the Perez family. An empowering story of espionage, romance, and learning how to live on your own terms.

Possible Pairings: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova, Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner, The Secrets We Kept by Laura Prescott, Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan, Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine