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 Hidden Witch: A Graphic Novel Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Hidden Witch by Molly Knox OstertagAster’s family is still adjusting to his affinity for witchery–something totally unexpected in a family where boys usually become shapeshifters. Not everyone is thrilled with Aster’s witchcraft but his grandmother is more than happy to teach Aster so long as he in turn helps her try to rehabilitate his great-uncle whose own attempts to avoid shifting led to corrupted magic and all manner of havoc.

Off the compound Charlie, Aster’s non-magical best friend, is starting school and eager to make new friends–especially the mysterious new girl who keeps to herself. That turns out to be extra complicated when a curse tries to attach itself to Charlie.

Aster is able to remove the curse. But he can’t stop it without finding the witch who created it. Aster and Charlie (and even Aster’s cousin Sedge) will have to work together to find the witch before their magic ends up just as corrupted as Charlie’s great uncle’s did years ago in The Hidden Witch (2018) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

The Hidden Witch is the second book in Ostertag’s middle grade graphic novel series which starts with The Witch Boy.

I love the smooth edges and bright colors of Ostertag’s artwork. The panels are once again dynamic and full of fun details. This story spans both day and night with fun design elements like white or black gutters between panels to differentiate.

Ostertag effectively smashes the strict magical binaries of Aster’s family as Aster continues to study witchcraft and one of his male cousins contemplates attending a normal school instead of studying (and shifting) on the family compound.

The primary focus of this story is Aster and Charlie’s friendships both with each other as well as with other. The Hidden Witch is another fun installment that expands the world and fleshes out the magic systems first introduced in The Witch Boy.

Possible Pairings: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix,  Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

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

The Witch Boy: A Graphic Novel Review

cover art for The Witch Boy by Molly Knox OstertagThirteen-year-old Aster leads a secluded life on the compound he and his extended family call home. The family has everything they need and is far away from prying eyes which is important since Aster’s family is magic. For generations this magic has been simple: girls become witches while boys become shapeshifters.

Aster desperately wants to be a witch despite his family telling him again and again (and again) that it’s impossible for a boy to learn witchery. Aster doesn’t care and keeps studying and practicing in secret.

When Aster meets Charlie–a new girl in town who refuses to let anyone else define her–Aster knows he has to keep following his dreams in The Witch Boy (2017) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

The Witch Boy is the start of Ostertag’s middle grade graphic novel series which continues in The Hidden Witch.

Ostertag’s full color illustrations are approachable and vivid. Panels are full of motion and varied design (complete with witchery runes!) that draw readers through the comic. Entertaining characters and strong friendships more than make up for an otherwise slight (and sometimes not subtle) plot.

The Witch Boy is a great graphic novel for readers of all ages with a message of inclusion that is much needed and very welcome.

Possible Pairings: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix,  Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Muse of Nightmares: A Review

“It turned out that sometimes it’s enough to start doing thing differently now.”

Everything was taken from the city of Weep when the Mesarthim invaded. The blue-skinned gods stole the city’s children, its memories, and even its true names. No one knows where the gods came from. No one knows what happened to the thousands of children born in the citadel never to be seen again. No one speaks of what happened to the children left in the nursery the day that the Godslayer killed the gods and reclaimed the city.

Sarai was one of those children. She and the four other godspawn don’t speak of what happened either although they are haunted by the bloodshed of the massacre. No one knows that five children survived and still hide within the citadel. Waiting. Minya, the eldest, prepares for war while Sarai and the others dare to hope for acceptance.

Sarai never expected that she would die waiting–especially not after she met Lazlo Strange and saw that peace might be possible. Now Sarai is a ghost bound by Minya’s by iron will while Lazlo is a god–as much a child of the Mesarthim as Sarai and the others.

With Sarai unable to defy Minya or exist without her, Lazlo faces a horrible choice: Keep his love alive by helping Minya seek vengeance or protect the city while losing Sarai. Without her free will, without her moths traveling down to Weep to explore dreams, Sarai feels powerless. Is it possible for her to still be the muse of nightmares or did her powers die when her body did?

Old secrets and unanswered questions threaten the tentative bonds and even more fragile hope as Weep tries to heal. In a city where heroes had to do monstrous things and monsters might yet become heroes, Sarai will have to choose if she wants to slay her enemies or try to save them in Muse of Nightmares (2018) by Laini Taylor.

Muse of Nightmares is the conclusion of Taylor’s latest duology which begins with Strange the Dreamer.

I only started to truly love Strange the Dreamer months after reading it. I needed that long to process and appreciate everything Taylor had done. In contrast Muse of Nightmares was one of my most anticipated Fall 2018 releases and is holding strong as one of my favorite books of the year.

Muse of Nightmares picks up almost immediately where Strange the Dreamer left off as both Sarai and Lazlo try to grasp their dramatically changed circumstances.There isn’t time for grief or wonder, however, as Sarai and Lazlo have to figure out if there is a way to save both Weep and the godspawn.

The pacing of this story and its numerous surprises are flawless complete with a secondary story that artfully ties into the main arc of this duology. Of course, I can’t tell you too much about that because I want you to be just as shocked as I was when I started to understand how these pieces would come together.

Muse of Nightmares is a story about redemption and hope–things that all of the characters strive for and things that even the unlikeliest among them might find. Weep is a city filled with potential and, ultimately, with love as Taylor’s memorable characters learn how to forgive each other and themselves. Highly recommended. I can’t wait to see what Taylor does next.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Lirael by Garth Nix, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Like Never and Always: A Review

cover art for Like Never and Always by Ann AguirreLiv, Morgan, Clay, and Nathan are all driving home from a party in Clay’s convertible. Best friends dating brothers? It’s fun. And this ride is the perfect end to another perfect summer night.

Until a crash changes their lives forever.

Liv wakes up in the hospital, hazy from the drugs and her injuries. She doesn’t think too hard about it when people keep calling her Morgan–it has to be some kind of mix up. A mistake. Everyone keeps telling her Liv died in the car crash and she dreads having to correct them–especially Morgan’s father.

But when the bandages are finally removed, Liv doesn’t see herself in the mirror. Instead Morgan’s face stares back at her.

Trapped in a body that isn’t hers, Liv tries to make sense of Morgan’s life. It always seemed perfect from the outside but now Liv starts to realize that she didn’t know her best friend as well as she thought.

As Liv starts to make sense of Morgan’s life, she unearths dangerous secrets about a decade-old murder and a dangerous love affair–all while pursuing a love that feels like a betrayal in Like Never and Always (2018) by Ann Aguirre.

Like Never and Always is a standalone thriller with a supernatural twist.

Liv’s unique position as an outsider in her own (that is, Morgan’s) life, ratchets up the suspense as both readers and Liv herself are left in the dark about all of Morgan’s secrets. The pacing is tight with Liv constantly questioning her current situation and trying to make sense of it.

While most of the story focuses on Liv’s investigation into Morgan’s past, she also struggles with being caught between two boys. Nathan isn’t the boy she thought he was when they were dating–especially now that he’s consumed by grief. Clay, meanwhile, is so much more. Liv finally starts to understand what drew Morgan to Clay to begin with. But how can Liv move forward with either of them the way she is now?

Like Never and Always is a serviceable thriller with genuine moments of suspense despite some predictable reveals. The unique body swapping spin adds another dimension to the story but fails to be fully explored as Liv increasingly embraces her new circumstances without question. Recommended for readers looking for a new take on stolen identities.

Possible Pairings: The Possible by Tara Altebrando, Don’t You Trust Me by Patrice Kindl, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Dare You to Lie by Amber Lynn Natusch, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, In Her Skin by Kim Savage, As I Wake by Elizabeth Scott, Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

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

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say: A Review

“It takes such a brief time to destroy someone’s life and forget that you ever did it. But rebuilding a life—that’s different. That takes forever.”

cover art for If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say by Leila SalesWhat happens when the worst thing you ever said is the only thing people know about you?

Winter Halperin has always been good with words—something that served her well as a National Spelling Bee champion a few years ago.

Now, after thoughtlessly sharing one insensitive comment online, words (and the entirety of the internet) have turned against Winter.She is stripped of her Spelling Bee title, condemned by strangers, and loses her college acceptance.

Winter always thought she was a good person. She still does. But mounting evidence online suggests otherwise. So does the mounting panic Winter feels every time she looks herself up online. Because how can she stop looking when some new horror could be added at any moment?

As she grapples with the aftermath of The Incident Winter is forced to confront hard truths about her own bigotry and its role in what happened as well as the nature of public shaming in the internet age in If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say (2018) by Leila Sales.

Sales’ latest standalone novel is a timely, sometimes brutal contemporary novel. Winter is a white girl from a fairly well off family. Her comment–meant, she claims, as a fact-based joke on historical Bee winners–suggests that the latest winner of the National Spelling Bee (a twelve-year-old African American girl) can’t spell and is a surprising winner.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say starts with Winter posting that comment before bed and waking up to a nightmare of notifications, hateful messages, and other bad publicity as awareness of her comment grows and grows.

Although the novel is written in the first person Sales is careful to neither condone nor condemn Winter’s actions throughout. It’s up to readers to decide what punishment (or forgiveness) Winter may or may not deserve. When Winter develops crippling anxiety and panic attacks surrounding her online presence and what people are saying about her she enters a program to try and make amends for her actions and also to cope with the very public and very painful online shaming.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is very plot driven without being high action. The focus of the story is squarely on what Winter did and the aftermath. The contrast between Winter confronting her own internalized bigotry/racism while also being subjected to such intense online shaming is incredibly powerful and thought provoking.

Winter is not always a likable character. It’s easy to feel bad for her as she faces death threats, of course. But it’s also hard to understand her thoughtlessness or how she is more focused on how many likes her joke might receive than on how hurtful it could be. In other words, Winter is a lot like many people who are active on social media.

Winter’s character arc balances dealing with the fallout both internally as she confronts her own biases/bigotry that she hasn’t grappled with before with the very public shaming. Does Winter learn anything from The Incident? Maybe, probably. Is it enough? Readers will have to judge that on their own.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is a timely novel that will start a lot of hard but necessary conversations.

Possible Pairings: Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World by Ana Homayoun, All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Nice Try, Jane Sinner: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“The past doesn’t exist. It’s just a story we tell ourselves. And stories change each time you tell them.”

“If you don’t like what you’ve written, write something else.”

cover art for Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne OelkeJane Sinner is tired of pity and talking about what happened. She isn’t surprised at her expulsion from high school or her lack of plans for the future. She’s just surprised that anyone else is shocked.

In an effort to appease her parents and possibly get something right Jane agrees to attend a high school completion program at Elbow River Community College. She only has one condition: she gets to move out. Affordable housing appears in the form of a student-run reality show along the lines of Big Brother. Jane jumps at the chance to join the cast of House of Orange, live within her limited means, and compete to win a car (used, but whatever it’s still a car).

Stepping away from her conservative, religious parents and forgetting about what happened is exactly what Jane needs to start over. On campus she can reinvent herself as Sinner–the cynical and ultra-competitive version of herself that comes through in House of Orange edits–even if the HOOcaps (House of Orange production team) might be watching Jane’s every move and real life is becoming uncomfortable hard to separate from the game.

When House of Orange goes from low-rent web series to a local community tv sensation, Jane is forced to consider how far she’s willing to go to win. And how much she has to prove to herself and the world (or viewers of substandard reality tv anyway) in Nice Try, Jane Sinner (2018) by Lianne Oelke.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is Oelke’s debut novel. The book is written as Jane’s journal complete with dialog popped out as if it were a screenplay. This format allows Jane’s snappy comebacks and other banter between characters to really stand out.

Jane’s misadventures, like her narration, are sardonic and ridiculous in the best ways as she balances competing on the show and using everything she learns in Intro to Psychology to destroy her opponents with her high school completion work and maybe, just maybe, making some new friends. Jane has no allusions about herself or the nature of the show–it’s the worst and she might not be much better as she chases the win.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is simultaneously contemplative and literally laugh-out-loud funny. A must-read for readers looking for a laugh and fans of reality shows (or anyone who likes to complain about those unsatisfying reality show outcomes).

Possible Pairings: Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, American Panda by Gloria Chao, Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandyha Menon, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

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