For a Muse of Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Didn’t I tell you earlier? You don’t have to trust someone to make a deal with them. You only have to have something you know they want.”

cover art for For a Muse of Fire by Heidi HeiligWith luck and determination, Jetta hopes that she and her parents can parlay their fame as shadow players in Chakrana into passage to Aquitan where shadow plays are in high demand.

There are rumors that the Mad King values nothing so much as shadow plays and Jetta hopes that garnering the king’s favor could also give her access to the spring that has cured the king’s madness–something Jetta desperately wants for her own malheur.

But notoriety of any kind is dangerous with so many secrets behind the scrim.

Jetta’s puppets move without string or stick. Instead she uses her blood to bind recently deceased souls into her puppets–one of the old ways that is now forbidden in the wake of La Victoire and the imprisonment of Le Trépas at the hands of the colonial army from Aquitan.

With danger lurking everywhere Jetta will have to confront uncomfortable truths and terrible choices as she considers how much she and her family have already sacrificed to get to Aquitan and how much more they still have to lose in For a Muse of Fire (2018) by Heidi Heilig.

For a Muse of Fire is the start of Heilig’s new trilogy. An author’s note explains that Jetta’s malheur is bipolar disorder–a mental illness she shares with Heilig.

This series starter is fast-paced and high-action while also offering readers a thoughtful commentary on the long lasting ramifications of war and colonization. Chakrana and Aquitan are inspired by Asian cultures as well as French colonialism which comes through in cultural touchstones including food, dress, and language.

Jetta’s first person narration is broken up with various ephemera including telegraph transcripts, flyers, songs, and play scenes featuring other characters. This technique works well to flesh out the novel by offering a wider view of the story and allowing other characters to take over the narrative action whenever Jetta’s focus becomes more internal as she tries to negotiate both a dangerous world and her own malheur.

For a Muse of Fire is as engrossing as it is violent. Heilig’s world building is richly imagined and carefully layered with nothing quite as it seems. Jetta’s malheur colors not only her perceptions throughout the story but many of her actions with reckless decisions during episodes of mania and listless lows with clarity and introspection often coming too late.

For a Muse of Fire is a dramatic story with an inclusive cast, high stakes, and an intense cliffhanger that will leave readers clamoring for the next installment. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, Clariel by Garth Nix, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

*A more condensed version of this review was published the July 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a Starred Review*

Little and Lion: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Little & Lion by Brandy ColbertSuzette and her brother Lionel have been “Little” and “Lion” for years. Technically they’re step-siblings and their family gets a lot of strange looks sometimes since they’re all Jewish but Suzette and her mom are black while Lionel and his father are white. They’ve never let that change how close they are.

That was before Lionel was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Suzette was sent across the country to an East coast boarding school while he got treatment.

Now it’s summer and Suzette is home in Los Angeles where she expects everything to be familiar and easy. Instead, Suzette soon realizes that it’s going to be harder to go back to being Little and Lion than she thought.

Being home is almost enough to help Suzette forget about the mess she left back at school and how much she hurt her roommate, Iris. Her longtime friend and neighbor Emil is a welcome distraction–and maybe even a new crush. Then there’s Rafaela–a new girl who is like no one Suzette has ever met. Suzette’s attraction is immediate, intense, and utterly impossible once it becomes obvious that Lion might be falling for her.

When Lionel’s disorder starts a downward spiral Suzette will have to confront mistakes she made over the past year and decide if earning Lionel’s trust again is worth risking his mental health in Little & Lion (2017) by Brandy Colbert.

Little & Lion is an incredibly smart standalone contemporary. Suzette is an honest narrator who is still trying to define herself in a world that is already quick to put labels on her. She is conscious that her identity as a black Jewish woman is conspicuous and often uncomfortable–especially at her homogeneous boarding school where it felt like she had to hide pieces of herself before her classmates would accept her.

After her months long romantic and sexual relationship ends at the end of term when she and her roommate are outed to the entire school, Suzette doesn’t know how to deal with the attention. She shuts down and shuts Iris out–a constant reminder that she wasn’t brave enough to stand up for what she wanted. When seeing Emil–her half-Korean, half-black neighbor and childhood friend–ignites an attraction that she had never noticed before, Suzette is left to wonder if she might be bisexual–an identity that at first feels too overwhelming to fully consider while still adjusting to being back home and deciding if she wants to go back to boarding school in the fall.

The story of Suzette’s summer alternates with flashback chapters from her childhood when Suzette’s mom and Lionel’s father first started dating and living together. These flashbacks also detail Lionel’s initial diagnosis and treatment before Suzette was sent away.

While Little & Lion is often a heavy story with Suzette and Lionel disappointed in each other and unsure how to reclaim their easy bond as family, Colbert’s prose is also incredibly gentle and thoughtful. There are no easy answers about defining one’s sexuality or one’s mental health–things that Suzette and Lionel learn the hard way throughout the novel.

The larger story of Lionel’s coping with his new medication and Suzette trying to fit into a family that moved on without her plays out against a hazy backdrop of romantic entanglements with Suzette caught between her very real relationship with Emil and her distracting attraction to Rafaela–a pull that is even more complicated when Lionel starts to date Rafaela who seems to bring out the worst in him.

Little & Lion is as enlightening as it is engaging. A thoughtful plot and vibrant primary characters more than make up for an overly large cast of secondary characters. Evocative settings, sexy romance, and a wonderful family ground this story and make it a must read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake, The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle, When We Collided by Emery Lord, Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, Odd One Out by Nic Stone

Eliza and Her Monsters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

How can I want something so badly but become so paralyzed every time I even think about taking it?

Eliza Mirk is a name that should belong to a comic book character. Not necessarily a cool one but at least a low level villain.

Real life Eliza is neither of those things. She’s quiet and awkward. Her parents relentlessly try to get her into sports even though they are well aware she isn’t athletic like her younger brothers. Sully and Church don’t understand Eliza anymore than she understands them. And, honestly, with Eliza going away to college in a couple of years she doesn’t see the point of trying to connect. Real life feels secondary to the world Eliza has made for herself and her fans online as Lady Constellation, the creator of the enormously popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Between her comic, fans, and her online friends Eliza doesn’t need anyone else.

Eliza’s secret life collides with her real life when Wallace Warland transfers to her school. Online Wallace is Monstrous Sea’s biggest fanfiction writer. In real life he is the first person who’s managed to not only draw Eliza out of her shell but actually make her want to stay there.

Eliza’s carefully ordered life is turned upside down when her secret is revealed. As she deals with the fallout Eliza will have to decide if letting everyone in her life–online and off–know the real her is worth the risk in Eliza and Her Monsters (2017) by Francesca Zappia.

Eliza’s first person narration is interspersed with excepts from Monstrous Sea fanfiction, message boards, emails, and illustrations of parts of the Monstrous Sea comics done by Zappia. This story is character driven but also fast-paced as Eliza’s world slowly starts to expand with help from Wallace. Eliza struggles with anxiety as she pushes against the limitations of what she feels capable of managing versus what she actually wants.

Eliza and Her Monsters sounds like it will be a story about a comic and a secret identity–maybe with a little romance. Instead it’s really a story about connection within a fandom and finding your thing and your people but losing yourself along the way. It’s also about fixing that–a lesson Eliza learns throughout the course of the novel.

Zappia offers an honest and thoughtful portrayal of a character with anxiety here and some interesting perspective on what it means to create and engage within a fan community. Eliza’s online friends are given as much, if not more, weight than her real life friends in a way that will feel authentic to anyone who’s ever made friends through social media whom they may never meet in person.

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

After her secret life as Lady Constellation comes out, Eliza suffers crippling doubt and anxiety as she is faced with drawing more Monstrous Sea installments with everyone knowing her identity. Honestly, I didn’t understand Eliza’s doubts and paralysis in the face of creating after her identity was revealed. It was one of those things that didn’t compute. Then in August I had one of my own tweets go viral on Twitter gaining thousands of RTs/impressions and bringing almost a thousand new followers to my feed. Suddenly, Eliza’s reaction started to make a lot more sense as I struggled myself with how to move forward while knowing so many people were watching me. It’s a hard thing to adjust to and learn to ignore.

Once that started to make sense I was still left with one major issue: I hated the way Eliza’s relationship with Wallace played out. Throughout their friendship, Wallace is working to novelize the Monstrous Sea comic–something that Eliza loves and supports. After she is outed, Wallace reveals that he has a book deal with a publisher for that novelization once it’s completed. He needs Eliza’s permission which she readily gives. But he also needs Eliza to finish the comic so that he can finish the novelization. Something she feels incapable of doing in the face of everyone knowing her name and watching her, ready to pounce.

Wallace doesn’t understand this until Eliza almost considers suicide in the face of all of this pressure and instead of supporting her her only wants what he needs from her. Aside from issues of these publishing logistics (none of it sounded quite right within the text) it felt out of character for Wallace to suddenly negate Eliza’s concerns in the face of his own ambition. Every other aspect of their relationship was sweet, but this thread with the publication of Monstrous Sea was frustrating at best and problematic at worst.

**END SPOILERS**

Eliza and Her Monsters is a perfect book for readers who liked Fangirl (especially if you didn’t skip the fanfic parts) and comics fans looking for something new. Recommended for readers seeking a book that offers sarcasm, pathos, and affirmation in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Don’t Cosplay With My Heart by Cecil Castellucci, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, In Real Life by Jessica Love, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

When We Collided: A Review

When We Collided by Emery LordVivi falls in love with Verona Cove almost immediately. It is a small, painfully quaint town that seems to be brimming over with possibility. The perfect place for her painter mother to find inspiration this summer. The perfect place for Vivi to regroup after her painful departure from Seattle months ago. With a job in the pottery shop, breakfast at the diner each morning, and the perfect view of the ocean when she throws one of her pills away, Vivi is sure that this summer is going to be just perfect.

Jonah has been struggling. His father’s death is still a gaping, ragged hole of grief. His mother is falling apart–lost in depression that might be grief or might be clinical. He and his older siblings have been trying to keep the family together and mind their three younger siblings. But Jonah is starting to cave under the responsibilities and obligations.

Vivi and Jonah never expected to meet, much less fall in love. Over the course of one tumultuous summer they will do that and more. Together Vivi and Jonah might have all of the pieces to heal themselves. But after learning how to be together, they might also have to learn how to survive apart in When We Collided (2016) by Emery Lord.

When We Collided is Lord’s third novel.

This novel is narrated by Vivi and Jonah in alternating first-person chapters as they each tell their own stories and the story of their growing relationship. Vivi is coming to terns with her diagnosis with bipolar disorder (and the aftermath of her last manic episode) while trying to have a quiet summer with her mother. Jonah is still shattered by his father’s premature death and the sudden responsibilities he has had to take on as a result.

While Lord once again offers readers a sweet romantic plot, it is misleading to call this book a romance. Instead When We Collided is more the story of two people who meet at the right time–exactly when they need each other and when they can help each other the most.

Lord does a great job making Vivi’s life with bipolar disorder realistic and authentic. She is much more than her diagnosis. Her narration is frenetic and vibrant and makes it painfully clear when things begin to slip. While the trope of avoiding medication is tiresome, it’s handled decently in When We Collided and does end with Vivi committed to treatment and agreeing to discuss options more fully with her doctor before making and sudden decisions.

(There’s also a side-plot with Vivi looking for her father which is messy, poorly explained, and could have done with more research and development.)

By contrast, Jonah is easily the more grounded of the two and readily lets himself get swept up in Vivi’s whirlwind. His life is a nice contrast to Vivi’s and underscores that everyone has something they are working through and moving toward.

When We Collided doesn’t end neatly. Vivi and Jonah’s story is messy and complicated and open-ended. Neither character knows what will come next, and neither do readers. The only thing that’s clear for these two incredibly strong teens is that they are better for know each other and, no matter what comes next, they are going to be okay. Lord delivers another compelling and engrossing novel here. Recommended for fans and readers looking for romantic stories with complex characters and realistic portrayals of mental illness.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti, Wild Awake by Hillary T. Smith, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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

This Raging Light: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Get through it. Just get through this day. Worry about the other ones later.”

“I am a hell-breathing fire monster and I will not totter.”

This Raging Light by Estelle LaureAfter her dad’s breakdown and her mother’s decision to leave town indefinitely to regroup, seventeen-year-old Lucille finds herself alone with bills mounting, food dwindling, and her little sister Wren who she is desperate to shield from everything that is quickly going to hell.

But with so many things missing from her life, Lucille isn’t sure what to do when other things start appearing–like inconvenient feelings for her best friend Eden’s twin brother, magical deliveries of food, and her changing dynamic with Eden.

Lucille is used to being responsible and she knows that if she takes everything one step at a time she can handle everything. She can find a job, she can take care of Wren, she can make sure no one notices that their mother is conspicuously absent. But Lucille isn’t sure if she can do all of that while holding onto her best friend and maybe falling in love in This Raging Light (2015) by Estelle Laure.

This Raging Light is Laure’s stunning debut novel.

I saw a lot of myself and my experiences mirrored in Lucille’s story. Talking about this book has become inseparable from talking about my own life. This Raging Light wasn’t something I even knew I needed until I had finished it.

In my mid-twenties I was underemployed and took on a lot of debt. It was incredibly hard to watch that debt pile up and to realize there was no one to fall back on. During that same time my mother was hospitalized twice and for a while it was touch and go. Worse, I had almost no support system the first time and no one I felt comfortable talking to about what was happening.

Those years were some of the hardest in my life and, even now, are some of the hardest to talk about. I came home many nights and cried until I ran out of tears. I was exhausted and certain that I couldn’t handle anything else. But I got up each day and I did it all again. I kept going. It was hard and it was awful but I know now that I can handle anything–everything–because of that time in my life.

This Raging Light is that kind of story and Lucille is that kind of character. She is an unintentional hero and an ordinary girl. She is scared and brave and strong. I am so glad that readers get to meet a girl like Lucille who pushes through every obstacle and just keeps going because that’s the only option.

There’s no easy way to say it: This Raging Light is a real gut punch to read–especially the final third. But here’s the thing: real life is like that too. Laure expertly captures the way in which everything is heightened and seems to happen all at once in any high anxiety situation.

Lucille’s story is somber and introspective. There is romance but there are also themes of family and survival as Lucille works to build a support system for herself from scratch. The way Lucille handles her life is extremely realistic and well-handled throughout the novel. The way every awful thing stacks up and the way Lucille often doesn’t get a chance to breathe is authentic and conveyed incredibly well with her unique narrative voice.

This Raging Light is a page-turner about first love and inner-strength. It’s an empowering novel about never giving up and survival. Highly recommended. I can’t wait to see what Laure does next.

Possible Pairings: Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, The Alison Rules by Catherine Clark, How to Love by Katie Cotugno, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, If I Fix You by Abigail Johnson, Golden by Jessi Kirby, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, This Ordinary Life by Jennifer Walkup, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly

*This book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher at BEA 2015*

You can also check out my interview with Estelle about this book!

The Mystery of Hollow Places: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca PodosThe only details seventeen-year-old Imogene Scott has about her mother are ones gleaned from the bedtime story her father told every night.

Before he became a best-selling novelist, Joshua Zhi Scott was a forensic pathologist who met Imogene’s mother when she came to identify a body. He would then tell Imogene that her mother was always lonely. He’d even say that she was troubled waters. They would never talk about why her mother left, especially not since her father remarried and Lindy is now part of their family.

When Imogene’s father disappears in the middle of the night, Imogene thinks he might want her to follow the clues he left behind; he might want Imogene to find him and maybe find her mother as well.

With unlikely help from her best friend and all of the skills learned from reading her father’s mysteries, Imogene hopes to find her father and unravel the secrets surrounding her own past. But, as Imogene knows too well, things aren’t always perfect at the end of a mystery in The Mystery of Hollow Places (2016) by Rebecca Podos.

The Mystery of Hollow Places is Podos’ first novel.

Podos delivers an eerie mystery in this surprising tale. The Mystery of Hollow Places is also a solid homage to mysteries and Gothic novels alike as interpreted by a heroine whose favorite novel is Rebecca.

Imogene’s first-person narration is pragmatic and often insightful as she makes sense of her mother’s absence and her father’s struggle with bipolar disorder. Unlike many teen detective stories, this book also remains decidedly in the realm of possibility as Imogene works with what she has and within the limitations inherent to a teenager trying to investigate some very adult problems.

Although the plot focuses on the mystery of finding her father, Imogene’s story is just as much about acceptance and the strength found in friendships and choosing who to call family. Elements of magic realism and a stark Massachusetts backdrop add atmosphere to this sometimes choppy mystery with a diverse cast of characters.

The Mystery of Hollow Places is a strong debut and an unexpected mystery. Recommended for fans of traditional mysteries, suspenseful stories filled with twists, as well as readers looking for an atmospheric novel to keep them company on a cold winter night (or to evoke one anyway!).

Possible Pairings: Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Devil and Winnie Flynn by Micol and David Ostow, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, I Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen on various sites online*

Challenger Deep: A Rapid Fire Review

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (2015)

Challenger Deep by Neal ShustermanIn a year when we have books like All These Bright Places with deeply damaging portrayals of mental illness, the literary world needed this honest portrayal of one boy’s struggle with schizophrenia. (Although it has to be said that the inclusion of illustrations from Shusterman’s own son felt a bit indulgent.)

Sadly, because I have a heart of stone, this book left me deeply unaffected. It’s one of those where I can tell it’s Important but I also can’t bring myself to Care on a personal level as a reader. I think Challenger Deep is a great book to recommend to readers; the way in which Shusterman weaves everything together clearly demonstrates his talents as an author. This book definitely and completely deserves the praise its been getting solely for what its done to get more people talking about mental health and mental illness.

The one flaw here is having Caden’s medications leave him numb. I don’t know where to begin with the fact that in his author’s note Shusterman says he experienced that effect himself when he accidentally took two pills. That’s not how treatment with medication works. At all. Why would his reaction to the pills be at all indicative of how someone who actually needs the pills would react to them? No. Just no.

Challenger Deep won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. That says a lot about the level of skill in Shusterman’s writing while handling a difficult topic and wrestling with some complicated material. The way in which this story weaves together Caden’s reality with his hallucinations–seamlessly moving between moments of madness and clarity, as it were–is fascinating and intricate and handled very, very well. An interesting and important addition to the ongoing conversation about mental illness.