Book Reviews

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba JaigirdarHumaira “Hani” Khan is one of the most popular girls in school. She’s also genuinely nice, so it’s no wonder everyone loves her. Unfortunately, popularity–and friendship–only go so far as Hani learns when she tells her friends she is bisexual. Instead of supporting her, Hani’s friends wonder if Hani is sure or if she can even know when she’s only dated guys.

Tired of being set up, invalidated, and otherwise having her identity questioned, Hani does what seems like the logical thing: She tells her friends that she’s dating another girl at their school. A girl Hani’s friends all hate.

Ishita “Ishu” Dey is not popular. She isn’t even well-liked. And she definitely doesn’t care as long as she can keep bringing home good grades to impress her strict parents. After years of feeling second best compared to her older sister, Nik, Ishu might finally have a chance to prove she’s best. But first she has to become Head Girl at school.

Head Girl is a popularity contest that Ishu knows she’s likely to lose. It’s also why she needs Hani’s help enough to go along with her hare-brained fake dating plan.

What starts as a business transaction to secure Hani acceptance in exchange for the visibility Ishu needs to win Head Girl quickly becomes something more when the girls start to realize they might actually like each other. Turns out staging a relationship is a lot easier than trying to start a real one in Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating (2021) by Adiba Jaigirdar.

Find it on Bookshop.

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating alternates chapters between Ishu and Hani’s first person narrations as they embark on their staged relationship and deal with other issues. These include Hani’s father’s political campaign as well as Ishu’s older sister announcing her plan to leave university to get married–a decision their parents refuse to support. A content warning at the beginning of the book details what readers should expect (and may want to avoid if triggering).

Despite the heavier topics, Jaigirdar’s latest novel is a breezy and sweet romance where opposites really do attract as easygoing Hani and abrasive Ishu grow closer. While Hani’s friends are infuriating, her home life is a lovely addition to this story with truly supportive parents. Hani is also navigating how she wants to observe (and express) her Muslim faith–something that comes up throughout the story with her father’s campaign and in the face of microaggressions from her white friends.

Ishu is a true acerbic wit. Her chapters are filled with biting humor and detached observations of the classmates who have never made space for her. While she lacks the same parental support as Hani, Ishu’s character arc is truly satisfying as her relationship with her older sister develops throughout the novel.

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating is a funny, sparkling romantic comedy. Perfect for fans of stories with fake dating schemes, opposites attracting, and characters who thrive no matter what life throws at them.

Possible Pairings: The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi, The Black Kids by Kimberly Jenkins Reid

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

Book Reviews

The Wren Hunt: A Review

cover art for The Wren Hunt by Mary WatsonRaised by her grandfather, Wren Silke has grown up in Kilshamble, Ireland. She knows every inch of the town and the woods. And she knows that every year on Stephen’s Day she will be chased through the woods as part of the annual Wren Hunt.

The Wren Hunt is meant to be figurative–not an actual hunt. But the Judges–a group with magical connections to nature–take the hunt all too seriously chasing Wren until they draw blood. As Augurs–people who can use patterns and connections to see the future–Wren and her community are in the minority in Kilshamble. With Judges controlling most of the nemeta–objects from which both groups draw power–it’s only a matter of time before the Augurs are wiped out entirely.

Eager to help and imagining a future where she won’t be hunted, Wren volunteers to help the Augurs reclaim their advantage (and hopefully some nemeta) by going undercover at Harkness House. But nothing is as it seems among the Judges or the Augurs and soon Wren will have to decide who she can truly trust as she tries to end this bloody feud in The Wren Hunt (2018) by Mary Watson.

The Wren Hunt is Watson’s first foray into YA fantasy.

Wren’s first-person narration is tense and often claustrophobic as Wren tries to stop the latest hunt and only manages to escalate it instead. Her frenzied, stream-of-consciousness style narration is fast-paced and immediate.

Atmospheric descriptions and the eerie opening go far to pull readers into the story and bring Kilshamble to life. Unfortunately the magic system is never explored (or explained) at length making it difficult for readers to keep up with Wren as she is drawn into internal politics and soon caught between both groups in her role as a spy.

The Wren Hunt is a strange and sometimes messy story with an intricate plot set in a complex world. Watson artfully explores themes of agency and loyalty though fails to deliver a truly satisfying fantasy. Recommended for readers who like their books to be part story to absorb and part puzzle to assemble.

Possible Pairings: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima, Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox, Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier, Mister Monday by Garth Nix

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

Book Reviews

Now a Major Motion Picture: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthyIris Thorne is dreading the movie adaptation of her grandmother’s Elementia books. Hailed as a feminist response to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings the Elementia books are seen as classic fantasy and have the diehard fans to prove it. The fandom even has a name: Thornians.

The movie adaptation is only going to make that worse. Iris and her family already had to deal with a crazy fan trying to abduct her younger brother, Ryder. She can’t imagine what will happen with a bigger fan base. Nothing good, that much is obvious.

Iris hopes that spending the summer in Ireland observing the production with Ryder will give her the perfect chance to sabotage the production. After all, if the movie never gets made no one will be able to watch it.

When Iris’s sabotage schemes are thwarted by dreamy leading actor Eamon and the crew’s infectious enthusiasm she starts to wonder if the one thing she has been dreading might also be the one thing she desperately needs in Now a Major Motion Picture (2018) by Cori McCarthy.

Find it on Bookshop.

Cori McCarthy’s latest standalone novel is a charming contemporary romance. Iris’s narration is razor sharp as she tries very hard to remain an outsider on the set even while the cast and crew do their best to befriend her.

Iris remembers the trauma her family has suffered because of the Elementia books and she is weary to let herself embrace that legacy even as she starts to learn more about its feminist themes and the director’s efforts to stay true to that in the adaptation. Iris is very much a fish out of water among the cast and crew and this is a charming story about how she starts to find her place there–and maybe even in her own family.

Now a Major Motion Picture has humor, a snarky narrator, and a swoony romance all set in a picturesque locale–in other words, all the makings of a perfect summer read.

Possible Pairings: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Eric Hicks, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Famous in Love by Rebecca Serle, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Book Reviews

The Accident Season: A Review

“So let’s raise our glass to the accident season,

To the river beneath us where we sink our souls,

To the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling,

One more drink for the watery road.”

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-DoyleCara is afraid she has no secrets. She is afraid that she isn’t witchy and interesting like her best friend Bea. She is afraid that she’ll never be as in control as her older sister Alice. She is afraid to think too hard about her ex-stepbrother, Sam. Most all of, she is afraid that this accident season is going to be a bad one.

Cara is afraid of her secrets. Every October, Cara’s family falls victim to a slew of accidents. It’s an open secret among their friends and neighbors who ignore the scrapes and bruises or try to find reasonable explanations for the broken bones and deeper hurts.

Cara is afraid of everybody else’s secrets. Everyone in Cara’s family is good at keeping secrets from friends, from each other. They’re good at pretending that the cuts don’t hurt, that the bruises don’t show.

But every accident leaves a mark; every season creates new secrets, new things no one wants to talk about. This season Cara will start to learn why in The Accident Season (2015) by Moïra Fowley-Doyle.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Accident Season is Fowley-Doyle’s debut novel.

The real power and strength of The Accident Season is in its ambiguity. This is a story about secrets and the lies we tell others (and even ourselves) to keep them. This is a story that explores exactly what it means when there are no easy answers.

The Accident Season is nuanced, optimistic and just a little bit unsettling. In a story filled with secrets and things not said, Cara’s first person narration is taut and keeps up the tension as she and her friends try to learn more about the accident season and their mysterious classmate Elsie.

The Accident Season is an atmospheric and distinctive novel where nothing is exactly what readers first expect. Part ghost story and part mystery, The Accident Season is an aching story about love and loss with elements of sweet romance and sparks of magic. This meditative story about family and the many ways old wounds can heal proves that Fowley-Doyle is an author to watch. The perfect blend of eerie and whimsical. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, When We Collided by Emery Lord, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, The Weight of Feathers by Anne-Marie McLemore, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick, I Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

Book Reviews

The Shadows: A Review

The Shadows by Megan ChanceGrace Knox is nearly seventeen. She should be preparing for her debut and enjoying everything that 19th Century New York has to offer. Instead Grace is tasked with keeping her family from the poorhouse by marrying well (and quickly).

While Grace is dismayed at this turn, she is thrilled to be the object of Patrick Devlin’s affections. Patrick being young and well-off, not to mention good looking, is more than Grace could have hoped for. Grace may not share Patrick’s passion to fight for Ireland’s independence. But surely such a passion can grow over time?

The only problem is that while Grace is enjoying Patrick’s company her thoughts keep turning to Patrick’s mysterious new stable boy Diarmid. Being with Derry is impossible, of course. It would mean losing everything not just for herself but for her entire family.

The only problem is Grace feels like she knows Diarmid and no matter how much she tries to stay away, she feels drawn to him. But Diarmid has his own secrets. Secrets about Irish legends and heroes. Secrets that might get Grace killed in The Shadows (2014) by Megan Chance.

The Shadows is the first book in The Fianna Trilogy.

Chance offers a well-written historical fantasy here rich with details that bring Victorian New York to life. Grace’s insecurities about her worth are frustrating throughout the story although Grace is an otherwise interesting heroine. Unfortunately there is very little going on here beyond the love triangle.

Chance sets up many elements and plot points that will no doubt be addressed later in the trilogy. Unfortunately The Shadows is thin on resolution. Instead readers watch as Grace waffles between Patrick and Diarmid with little in the way of an actual decision until mere pages of the story remain. (This decision will likely be reversed if not entirely unraveled at least once before the trilogy concludes.)

Readers looking for a pure paranormal romance will likely enjoy The Shadows quite a bit. Readers who prefer their romances tempered with plot development, on the other hand, may be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, The Luxe by Anna Godbersen, Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones, This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

Book Reviews

The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan: A (rapid fire) Review

The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan: A Novel of the Civil War by Jennifer Armstrong (1996)

The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan by Jennifer ArmstrongThis book has been in my house begging to be read since 2004. With seven years of build up maybe it’s not a surprise that this book did not leave me dazzled. Maybe that was the only possible outcome. The story is interesting but from the outset the book had a lot working against it including a plain cover (mine has a white background with black text and . . . nothing else) and some difficult pronunciation (“Mairhe” is pronounced “Moira” and is the Irish form of “Mary” all of which I thought was made clear in the novel but someone didn’t because there is a note at the start of the book explaining all of that–which makes the whole thing feel intimidating).

At 128 pages (hardcover) I hesitate to explain much of the plot but I will say this: Armstrong does a great job if you look at this as a slice-of-life novel. Although I liked Mairhe as a heroine the entire story hinged on a character being likable and I just didn’t like him very much. It happens. Her descriptions of the Civil War battles and Washington of the time are stunning and evocative in a way few writers ever manage. The writing here is lyrical and immediately brings to mind an Irish brogue which adds to the dream-like quality of the entire book.

If anyone can even find this book anymore (NYPL no longer has it) I’d recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction, who is interested in the Civil War, or wants a book about the immigrant experience as much of the plot hinges on what it means to be American (or Irish) in an era when America was still figuring out its identity as a country.

Book Reviews

Black Potatoes: A Non-Fiction Book Review

Black Potatoes by Susan Cambell BartolettiIn 1845 Ireland relied most heavily on one crop. Farmers cultivated grains, green vegetables and a variety of root vegetables. But those were often crops owed to wealthy British landlords for rent money if not owned outright. Those landlords would ship the harvested food to England at a tidy profit. Among all of this export, potatoes were truly an Irish tuber.

It was potatoes that saw poor laborers through the long winter months after everything else was sold. Boiled, roasted, mashed with garlic and butter. Potatoes formed every meal for families across Ireland. There are few other vegetables as easy to grow that are as filling and nutritious as a potato. The only real problem was that potatoes could not last from season to season. By May the potato stores were gone and the Hungry Months began; poor farmers and their families had to look for food elsewhere sometimes scavenging, sometimes begging.

It was not an ideal way of life, but it worked. Until 1845 when a strange blight struck the potatoes near harvest. Once dug up, the potatoes turned black for no apparent reason. Were the little people aiming to take the potatoes for themselves? Were the farmers being punished for wasting the glut of potatoes from the year before?

In 1845 no one knew what devilry was work. The only certainty for most farmers was that the Hungry Months were going to last much longer than usual, but even then no one knew the Hungry Months would last five years. No one knew the Great Irish Famine would kill one million people from starvation and disease while driving another two million to emigrate.

Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (2001) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (find it on Bookshop) was the 2002 winner of the Sibert Medal as, according the ALA, “the most distinguished informational book published in English during the preceding year” (think Newbery awards but only open to non-fiction books). Happily, in this case distinguished does not mean stodgy or dense.

Bartoletti’s writing is straightforward and absorbing while conveying a wealth of information. Black Potatoes touches upon the obvious: the importance of the potato to Ireland, what caused the potatoes to turn black (a disgusting fungus that flourished in an unusually rainy planting season), and what happened when the potatoes failed. While looking at these broad historical strokes, Bartoletti  introduces readers to Irish history and politics  (circa 1845) with England and the United Kingdom while also describing the motivations that led so many to leave Ireland (and the conditions they faced on the long journey and at their final destinations).

A variety of primary source research lends an informal tone Black Potatoes and provides personal accounts of a variety of Irish men and women who experienced the famine first hand. Bartoletti brings a bleak period of history to life with aplomb and just the right amount of humor and compassion. Illustrations from period newspapers like the one seen on the cover lend even more authenticity to an already rich text. An eye opener for anyone unfamiliar with the period and a must read for history buffs.

Possible Pairings: From Ellis Island to JFK by Nancy Foner, New York: A Short History by George J. Lankevich
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850

Book Reviews

The Last of the High Kings: A review

The Last of the High Kings by Kate ThompsonThe Last of the High Kings (2007) is Kate Thompson‘s sequel to her wonderful debut novel The New Policeman (2005). Some time has passed since J.J. was last seen visiting Tir na n’Og to discover where all the time was going. In fact, quite a bit of time has passed. J.J. is now grown with a wife and children of his own. At first, this time lapse was a jolt as was the changed tone between this book and its predecessor–there was something inherently Irish-sounding in the narrative of The New Policeman that was lacking in Thompson’s new book. At least, I thought it was. Upon re-reading it became apparent that the “Irish-ness” was equally present in both novels.

J.J. and his wife Aisling have made a fine home on the Liddy family farm even though J.J.’s music career keeps him too busy for any actual farming. The Liddy children, teen Hazel, eleven-year-old Jenny, nine-year-old Donal, and the destructive two-year-old Aiden also keep their parents busy. Jenny is particularly difficult to reign in with her willful nature and predilection for skipping school to wander the fields with a mysterious white goat.

Although at the core of the story, none of that is where the story starts. Instead the story begins with a young man, now many, many years dead, waiting on a hill of stones to learn where his future lies. Years later, on that same beacon, a ghost stands guard over the hillside for reasons long forgotten. Throughout the novel this ghost’s fate will intertwine with those of the Liddys in unexpected ways that will change the family forever.

The Last of the High Kings, as the name might suggest, integrates a lot of Irish lore into its plot. Fairies, pukas, and of course ghosts, all play important parts in the story. These magical elements work in strange contrast with the commentary on global warming and other man-made maladies that run beneath the surface of the storyline.

In terms of plot, The Last of the High Kings was not always as enchanting as The New Policeman, partly because readers will already know all about Tir na n’Og and Aengus Og but also because this book had to tread different ground and, at times, made J.J. much less clever than readers of the first book will remember. These problems became less bothersome as the plot moved forward and the story began to move along quite nicely by the halfway point.

The characters found within these pages really are just as charming as those found in The New Policeman. Written in the third person, the narrative follows many characters’ points of view. At first this might make the book seem scattered, but it gets easier as the characters become more familiar. Donal, the quiet and introspective member of the Liddy clan, is a particularly delightful addition. This technique also allows Thompson to look at the family as both individuals and a larger unit. While The New Policeman was largely about the land of eternal youth and fairy lore, The Last of the High Kings is firmly grounded in this world dealing with fantastical elements but also especially with the Liddys reconnecting as a family.

(This book will stand alone without its prequel, however to get the full picture it is really vital to read both titles.)

Possible Pairings: The War of the Oaks by Emma Bull (slightly older target audience), The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, Lily’s Ghosts by Laura Ruby,  The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Book Reviews

Who knows where the time goes? A review of The New Policeman

The New Policeman by Kate ThompsonJ.J. Liddy, the main character of Kate Thompson’s novel The New Policeman (2005), has a problem: there never seems to be enough time in the day. In fact, there seems to be decidedly less time. With barely enough hours in the day for school and his music, J.J. has no time left over to contemplate the shocking revelation that his grandfather may have been a murderer. To make matters worse, this time problem seems to affect everyone in Kinvara.

When J.J.’s mother reveals that she wants more time for her birthday, J.J. decides to go and find some. A task, at first, that seems like an impossible undertaking for a fifteen-year-old. That is until a neighbor shows J.J. an unlikely place to look for everyone’s lost time.

Even though he doesn’t believe in fairies, J.J. finds himself in Tir na n’Og, the land of eternal youth, and the home of Irish fairies. So begins J.J.’s search of Tir na n’Og to figure out where the time has gone and, more importantly, how to get it back. Along the way J.J. meets a variety of memorable characters including Aengus Og (a personal favorite after finishing the novel).

The narration shifts throughout the book alternating between J.J. in his search for the county’s lost time and the wanderings of the new policeman in Kinvara, Garda Larry O’Dwyer. Like J.J. (and most of Kinvara it seems), the new policeman has a love for music. The new policeman is also almost certain he used to have a good reason for becoming a policeman—if only he could remember what it was.

Thompson expertly entwines these two seemingly disconnected narratives throughout the novel. The common thread between them remains the music that literally runs through the novel. Chapter breaks are denoted by sheet music for traditional Irish songs whose titles relate to the story in addition to the strong affinity all of the characters have for music. By the end of the novel, Thompson ties together both stories creating a sensational end to a truly enjoyable book.

At the same time, The New Policeman is irresistibly Irish, as if you can hear an Irish accent in the narration (or hear a jig or two in the background). The book’s “Irish-ness” is enhanced by Thompson’s integration of Irish mythology and folklore; a glossary in the back explains the pronunciation and origin of especially Irish words like ceili (a dance) or craic (fun).

Thompson’s novel has already received a variety of critical acclaim on the other side of the Atlantic. In addition it is the winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Even better, though, is the fact that this book is a great choice for readers of any age. Thompson takes her time arriving at the crux of the plot, but the richness or her writing more than makes up for that. A good book is one that can transport the reader to the place within its pages: The New Policeman does that and more.

Originally published in Great Britain in 2005, this is the first year that The New Policeman was published in the United States. All this reviewer can say to that is it’s better late than never.

Possible Pairings: The Shadows by Megan Chance, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner