Into the Bright Unknown: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Into the Bright Unknown is the final book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger*

“It’s knowing someone so deeply that facing the unknown together isn’t dark and dangerous, but instead beautiful and bright.”

cover art for Into the Bright Unknown by Rae CarsonLeah Westfall came to California to make her fortune with her witchy gift to sense gold. Along the way Lee has been chased by her parents’ murderer–her own uncle–and found an unlikely new family in her wagon train heading west.

The California Territory has yielded riches and helped Lee and her friends grow their settlement into the fledgling town of Glory. But a town doesn’t become a town just by existing. It needs a charter. Something that Lee has been promised with no sign of delivery.

Lee has made a life for herself in Glory but preparations for her wedding with her fiancé (and best friend) Jefferson will have to wait as Lee and her friends work to keep what’s rightfully theirs. Billionaires are circling the Glory settlers looking for their own peace of the wealth and Lee is coming up against someone who might have a power like her own–something she never imagined could be possible.

It will take Lee and all of her friends, both new and old, to make sure they come out on top this time in Into the Bright Unknown (2017) by Rae Carson.

Into the Bright Unknown is the final book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger.

This installment picks up shortly after the events of Like a River Glorious. Lee is still haunted by memories of her abduction by her uncle and, worse, by the atrocities he committed against the American Indians and Chinese immigrants that he held captive to work his mine. As Lee and her friends once again encounter adversity and obstacles Lee has to relearn the hard lessons that she can’t save everyone and that she may not know best.

Although this novel is filled with more fantasy elements than the first two in the series, Carson continues to deliver solid historical fiction. Her descriptions of San Francisco bring the bustling boom town to life at a time when settlers were literally expanding the coastline by building on top of ships abandoned in port by crews eager to join the gold rush. Carson also continues to be careful to keep our heroine Lee at the center of the story without framing her as a white savior. Lee’s privileges and biases are constantly checked by her wiser and often more world weary counterparts helping her to become a better ally and a stronger character.

Forced to buy their freedom in the form of a town charter Into the Bright Unknown quickly shifts to a bit of a heist novel as Lee tries with the help of her friends to get the best of a California billionaire with his eyes on the town of Glory and the US presidency.

Into the Bright Unknown is an excellent conclusion to one of my favorite trilogies. While Lee and Jefferson’s future is uncertain, their devotion to each other is plain and ensures that whatever comes next, they’ll face it together. If you’re looking for a new western or historical fantasy to love this series is for you.

Possible Pairings: Retribution Rails by Erin Bowman, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

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Nothing But Sky: A Review

Grace Lafferty began performing stunts as a wing walker with her uncle Warren and his barnstorming team, The Soaring Eagles, when she was thirteen years old. Her uncle didn’t know what to do with her after becoming her guardian when the rest of her family died an outbreak of Spanish Influenza. But even Uncle Warren knows better than to try and keep Grace out of the skies.

Five years later in 1922 Grace fears that the Soaring Eagles will soon be forced out of the sky by bigger teams or stricter air regulations. Determined to keep her chosen family together Grace will do whatever it takes to get to the World Aviation Expo where they can compete to win a lucrative contract with a Hollywood studio.

Throughout her preparations for the Expo Grace fights sabotage attempts from a rival barnstorming team and her growing attraction to new mechanic Henry. Haunted by nightmarish memories from the war and a limp from a battle injury Henry is stoic, professional, and infuriating to Grace who initially distrusts him. When a routine stunt goes wrong Grace wonders if she needs more than raw ambition to plan for her future in Nothing But Sky (2018) by Amy Trueblood.

Trueblood’s historical fiction debut looks at the years immediately following WWI when veterans returning home with flying experience and decommissioned fighter planes gave birth to barnstorming performances.

Grace is an ambitious narrator and daredevil with a singular focus–often to the detriment of the team she is supposedly desperate to keep intact. Henry’s struggle with shell shock makes him one of the most developed characters but it is handled poorly being used repeatedly as a reason for the team to distrust him. The sweetness of his fledgling romance with Grace is overshadowed by these constant doubts and a general lack of nuance in Grace’s worldview.

When Henry becomes the prime suspect for the team’s sabotage it is problematic as it builds to a predictable twist when it comes to the actual culprit. Breakneck stunts and romance lend Nothing Buy Sky high action while also detracting from the rich but often under-developed historical setting.

Possible Pairings: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein, In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in the February 1, 2018 issue of School Library Journal*

Retribution Rails: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Secrets are like bullets.”

cover art for Retribution Rails by Erin BowmanReece Murphy never wanted to become the notorious Rose Kid. But he hardly had a choice

Five years ago Luther Rose rode in and killed the entire family Reece had been working for. Thanks to a mysterious gold coin, Reece has a different fate. If he can identify the man who gave him the gold piece, Reece can walk away. Until then he has to be part of the Rose Rides–something he can hardly escape thanks to his horrible deeds and even worse reputation as the Rose Kid.

Charlotte Vaughn and her mother are still grieving Charlotte’s father when her uncle begins moving to claim their estate and holdings for himself. Charlotte hopes that following a lead on a big story will help jump start her career as a journalist and bring her one step closer toward self-sufficiency and thwarting her uncle.

Both Reece and Charlotte’s plans are derailed when they cross paths on opposite sides of a botched train robbery. Charlotte could be Reece’s chance for freedom while Reece offers Charlotte the story of a lifetime. Charlotte and Reece know better than to trust each other but they both hope that with a little luck and a lot of grit they can use each other to get exactly what they need in Retribution Rails (2017) by Erin Bowman.

Retribution Rails is a companion novel set ten years after the events of Vengeance Road. While this novel works as a standalone it does reference previous events  throughout.

Written in dual first person narration this novel follows both Charlotte and Reece as they chase dreams and futures they are not sure they’ll ever manage to claim. The contrasts between these two helps to play with their changing perceptions of each other while also highlighting their similarities–particularly in terms of how single-mindedly they pursue their goals.

Reece and Charlotte are often difficult characters–Reece with the past he tries to forget and Charlotte with a surprisingly vindictive personality–and sometimes make the wrong choices. But those stumbles only add to their resiliency and growth throughout the novel. Their chemistry–even when they’re fighting–adds another dimension to this gripping story.

Readers familiar with Bowman’s work will find everything they loved about her first western in Retribution Rails along with a tighter plot which acknowledges the privileges and costs inherent to westward expansion and, in particular, the movement towards rail travel. Retribution Rails is a clever and fast-paced novel filled with adventure, redemption, and just a hint of romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

The Disappearances: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I realize with horror how much I want this part out of myself now–the part that chooses bitterness.”

With no other family, Aila and Miles are taken in by their dead mother’s best friend when their father is drafted. They’ve never met her and they don’t know much about Sterling, the small town where they will be residing. But Aila is sure it will be fine if not ideal for both of them until World War II ends and their father can return home.

Sterling is hiding more than her mother’s past–it’s hiding a terrible secret too. Every seven years something vanishes. It started with scent as everyone in Sterling lost their sense of smell. Then it was reflections. Dreams. And color. No one knows what will disappear next but it’s almost time for the next Disappearance.

Aila’s mother, Juliet, managed to break away from the curse when no one else could. A feat that always made Sterling suspicious. Now Aila is left to follow Juliet’s trail of literary clues as she works to save her new home before they lose everything in The Disappearances (2017) by Emily Bain Murphy.

The Disappearances is Murphy’s debut novel. Aila’s first person narration is interspersed with flashbacks moving toward 1942 (when Aila’s story starts) as they shed light on the origins of Sterling’s strange curse. This story is part historical fiction, part fantasy, and all tense mystery as Aila, with help from some new friends, tries to unearth Sterling’s secrets and bring the town back to normal.

This novel is atmospheric and eerie as Aila and readers realize that Sterling is hiding some dark secrets. While the characters fall short of calling it magic some of the workarounds Sterling has found for the Disappearances (so called remedies) are downright magical and very improbable. These fixes also come dangerously close to providing magical cures for what would otherwise be real-world matters which can often be problematic.

On the other hand my mother lost her sense of smell in 2013 because of a brain tumor that was removed from her olfactory nerves. It’s been one of the biggest adjustments for her and one of my biggest concerns when she’s home alone. The Disappearnces is the first book I’ve read where something similar was not only handled but handled well (even if it was ultimately the product of a curse and not surgical complications).

While The Disappearances starts strong with a sweeping mystery and fantastic cast of characters, the ultimate resolution of Sterling’s curse–though fitting with the literary motif throughout–takes the story in a bizarre direction that is jarring in the context of the story.

The Disappearances is a thoughtful and clever mystery. While aspects of the curse and its resolution felt underdeveloped or rushed, Aila’s contemplative narration and the novelty of Sterling more than make up for it. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and mysteries especially.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti

Speak Easy, Speak Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Beatrice knows that if she leaves New York when she’s kicked out of boarding school, she’ll never be able to come back and realize her dream of becoming a doctor. She refuses to accept that future and determines to stay on course at all costs. Even if it means relying on an uncle she barely knows to take her in. Her uncle’s ramshackle mansion, Hey Nonny Nonny, holds quite a few unexpected boarders and hides a big secret: it’s a speakeasy offering entertainment and illegal spirits.

Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, loves the old house more than almost anything and she’s been doing everything she can to keep the eccentric speakeasy afloat. But with prohibition agents watching, limited supplies of liquor, and the pesky problem of needing to pay the staff, Hero isn’t sure if they can make it through one more party let alone the entire summer season.

Hero has always been able to rely on Prince, her steadfast friend who sees the speakeasy as his home and as a chance to prove himself to John, the half-brother who has never accepted Prince enough to let him in on his dealings as a member of the local mob.

Singing at Hey Nonny Nonny could be Maggie’s ticket to something bigger. But only if she’s willing to leave her friends there behind. And only if talent agents are willing to see beyond her brown skin to her big talent.

Then there’s Benedick who is determined to avoid the stuffed shirt life his father has laid out for him. No prep school graduation. No college. No banking job. Definitely no trust fund. Benedick is a writer and he’s sure that if he has the chance he can make it without his father’s backing–or his approval.

It’s dislike at first sight for Beatrice and Benedick–a feeling that only grows stronger in the face of repeated misunderstandings and arguments. Everyone else can see that Beatrice and Benedick are perfect for each other, but they both might be too stubborn to realize it without a lot of help in Speak Easy, Speak Love (2017) by McKelle George.

Speak Easy, Speak Love is George’s debut novel and a retelling of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Written in the third person this novel shifts perspective primarily between Beatrice and Benedick as they arrive at Hey Nonny Nonny. Their story also overlaps with arcs for Hero, Prince, Maggie, and John over the course of an eventful summer that will change their lives forever.

Winsome characters, perfect pacing, and a plot that is simultaneously unique and true to the source material make Speak Easy, Speak Love a delight to read. Set primarily in Long Island, New York, this novel offers a quieter side of the Prohibition in the 1920s that isn’t often seen in historical fiction. Careful researching of the time period and an obvious familiarity with Shakespeare help to make this story vibrant and evocative.

Although they are living in the past, George handles this plot through the responsible lens of modern ideals. Benedick, often in discussion with Beatrice, contemplates his privilege as a young white man from a wealthy family and the knowledge that even during his rebellious flight to Long Island his family acts as a safety net. In contrast, Beatrice is used to having no one and has to learn how to both build and trust a support system as she finds true friends and family for the first time in years. Of course, Beatrice is also a classic feminist as she chases her dream to become a doctor. Side plots following Maggie and Prince explore the idea notion of belonging as well as barriers put in place by racism and discrimination at this time.

Speak Easy, Speak Love is a witty and droll story about six teens, an unlikely speakeasy, and the connections that will change their lives forever. A must read for fans of the 1920s, Shakespeare buffs, and anyone looking for a bright diversion. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Retribution Rails by Erin Bowman, The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Game of Love and Death by Martha E. Brockenbrough, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Snow White by Matt Phelan, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

You can also check out my interview with McKelle starting tomorrow.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond: A (Classic) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Kit Tyler leaves her home in Barbados to travel alone across the ocean to colonial Connecticut in 1687. She has no reason to stay in Barbados with her grandfather dead and buried. With nowhere else to go she undertakes the long boat trip on her own assured that she will be welcome with open arms by her aunt’s family.

Her arrival doesn’t go as expected. Kit’s uninhibited childhood in Barbados has left the sixteen-year-old wildly unprepared for life among her Puritan relatives. Her cousins covet her beautiful clothes even while her uncle looks at the bright colors and luxurious fabrics of her dresses with scorn. Kit barely recognizes her aunt, struggling to see any hint of her own mother in her aunt’s weather worn face.

When she discovers a beautiful meadow near a pond, Kit finds some much needed solitude and a break in the monotonous drudgery of life with her relatives. Kit also finds an unexpected friend in Hannah Tupper, an old woman who is shunned reviled by the community for her Quaker beliefs and rumors that claim Hannah is a witch.

As she learns more about Hannah and her life by the pond Kit will have to decide what, if anything, she is willing to give up for a chance to belong in The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) by Elizabeth George Speare.

Have you ever had a visceral reaction to a book. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is that kind of title for me.

This Newbery award winner came to my attention after my aunt gifted me a copy from her days working at Houghton Mifflin when I was in grade school. Like a lot of books back then I motored through it, eventually donated my copy to my school library, and didn’t think about it again for years. But because I became a librarian and worked briefly at a bookseller, I encountered this classic title again as an adult.

Every time I saw it on a shelf I would feel that jolt of recognition. Yes, this book was one that meant so much to me as a child. It also, if you pay attention to book editions, has had some hideous covers over the years. My most recent rediscovery of The Witch of Blackbird Pond happened when The Book Smugglers featured the book in their Decoding the Newbery series. I enjoyed reading Catherine King’s thoughts (and share many of them) but what really jolted me was the cover. Because finally it was the cover I had first read so many years ago!

Finding and purchasing that edition prompted me to re-read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I discovered a lot of the things I remembered loving when I read the story the first time: Kit’s determination and perseverance not to mention her friendship with Hannah Tupper. I also love the push and pull Kit has both with her cousins and her suitors. This story is more purely historical than I remembered and Speare’s writing is starkly evocative of Puritan New England.

For readers of a certain age, The Witch of Blackbird Pond needs no introduction or recommendation. Younger readers will also find a smart, character driven story. Perfect for fans of historical fictions and readers hoping to discover (or rediscover) a charming classic.

Possible Pairings: All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, Chime by Franny Billingsley, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Conversion by Katherine Howe, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Witch Child by Celia Rees, The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

All the Crooked Saints: A Review

Here is a thing that draws everyone to Bicho Raro: The promise of a miracle.

Here is a thing everyone fears after their first miracle: What they’ll need to do to complete their second miracle.

The strange magic of miracles has been a part of the Soria family for generations–long before the family left Mexico for the desert of Bicho Raro, Colorado.

Now, in 1962, three cousins are at a turning point where magic and action intersect.

Joaquin wants many things. He wants his family to understand him, he wants to spend time with his cousins, most of all he wants someone to hear him DJing as Diablo Diablo on the pirate radio station he is running with Beatriz from inside a box truck.

Daniel is the current Saint of Bicho Raro. He performs the miracles and he sets the pilgrims on their paths to help themselves. Despite his saintliness he is incapable of performing the miracle he needs for himself.

Her family calls Beatriz the girl without feelings, objectively she can’t argue the point. But when unexpected misfortune befalls Bicho Raro, Beatriz will have to reconcile her feelings (or lack thereof) with the logical fact of what she has to do next.

Everyone wants a miracle but when miracles go horribly wrong the residents of Bicho Raro might have to settle for forgiveness instead in All the Crooked Saints (2017) by Maggie Stiefvater.

Set in 1962 when radio waves could be stolen and miracles weren’t quite so shocking, Stiefvater’s latest standalone novel is a story of miracles and magic but also family and forgiveness. An omniscient third person narrator tells the story as Beatriz, Joaquin, and Daniel are drawn into the center of the Soria family’s tumultuous relationship to the miracles and pilgrims who shape so much of the Soria identity.

Pilgrims come to Bicho Raro hoping a miracle can change their life, or maybe their fate. The Soria family changed years ago on a lonely night when a miracle went horribly wrong. The Soria cousins–Beatriz, Joaquin, and Daniel–might be the ones to help right the wrongs of that night. But only if they’re willing to risk changing Bicho Raro and themselves forever.

All the Crooked Saints is an evocative and marvelously told story. Wry humor, unique fantasy elements, friendship, and the fierce power of hope come together here to create an unforgettable story. Not to be missed. Will hold special appeal for readers who enjoy character driven fantasy.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

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