The Leaf Reader: A Review

“I did feel like I was pretending, at least at the start. I admit that. But whenever you start on something, it always feels a little like pretending, right? If you let that stop you, you might never try anything new.”

cover art for The Leaf Reader by Emily ArsenaultMarnie is halfway through high school and she’s accepted that she’ll never be popular. And if that’s true, better to give the people what they want and be really eccentric, right?

In the past year Marnie has gotten a reputation for reading tea leaves to tell the fortunes of classmates. Marnie knows it’s just for fun. She assumes her classmates do too.

But then Matt Cottrell comes to Marnie for a reading that seems to reveal more about the disappearance of Matt’s best friend Andrea last year. Marnie has never thought she could really read the future in tea leaves. But as she and Matt start looking into Andrea’s disappearance together, Marnie starts to wonder if she was wrong. It seems like the tea leaves are trying to tell her the Matt is dangerous. And if that’s true, Marnie’s growing attraction could be deadly in The Leaf Reader (2017) by Emily Arsenault.

The Leaf Reader is Arsenault’s first novel written for a young adult audience.

I went into this one with almost no expectations after receiving it very randomly from a neighbor. Marnie’s introspective narration and her fascination with reader tea leaves immediately drew me in. The story includes some basic information on interpreting leaves and their symbols which adds a fun dimension to the story.

Arsenault’s plotting and story are executed well and come to life with vivid descriptions of Marnie’s surroundings. The descriptions of characters are sometimes less vibrant and less charitable in a way that seems to suggest Marnie, or perhaps the author herself, held little fondness for some of the characters.

Marnie is a frank narrator who is immediately honest about her own status as an outsider in her small town. She is less willing to accept that she might not be the only one with secrets–something that becomes increasingly obvious to readers as the tense plot finally reaches a breaking point in the final act.

The Leaf Reader is a unique spin on some familiar mystery tropes. A great choice for fans of suspense.

Possible Pairings: The Opposite of Here by Tara Altebrando, The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams

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*

Beneath the Sugar Sky: A Review

“Elsewhere was a legend and a lie, until I came looking for you.”

cover art for Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireSumi died years before she could return home to her beloved Candy Corn farmer and start a family. Long before her prophesied daughter Rini would have been born.

But Confection is a nonsense world so Rini is born anyway. The only problem is that with Sumi’s premature death the world of Confection was never saved, the Queen of Candy never beaten.

Now the world itself is fighting to erase Rini and the Queen has returned. With time running out Rini hopes that her mother’s friends can help bring Sumi home in Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018) by Seanan McGuire.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway. This novella is a direct sequel to the first.

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns to Eleanor West’s familiar home for wayward children who can no longer find their way back to the other worlds that claimed them. This installment returns to familiar characters including Nancy, Kade, and Christopher.

The bulk of the story is in the close third person perspective of Cora, the newest student at the school. Cora arrived after the events of Every Heart a Doorway and spends a lot of this story trying to reconcile her new circumstances with the story she is clearly joining mid-way and, more confusing for her, the fact that she seems welcome to find her own place in it.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is a thoughtful fantasy and a quest story. This novella is once again imbued with feminist themes. Through Cora, who is overweight but stronger than most people giver her credit for thanks to years of swimming (both in our world and elsewhere), this novella also confronts the damaging stereotypes surrounding body image and beauty.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is an empowering and original story about choosing your own path as Cora and her friends help Rini literally remake the world to save Sumi and herself.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Every Heart a Doorway: A Review

“She was a story, not an epilogue.”

cover art for Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireEleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is the last stop for the girls—because they are overwhelmingly girls—who managed to slip away unnoticed and pass through a magic door into another world.

They never find the same things in their worlds. Some are Nonsense while others thrive on the rules of Logic. Some are Wicked and others are high Virtue. But even with their differences the worlds all have something in common: for the children who find them they feel like home.

And for the Wayward Children the doors have closed to them—maybe forever. So now they have to learn to move on. If they can.

After her time in the Halls of the Dead, Nancy doesn’t think it’s so simple. Now that she’s surrounded by other exiles like herself the only certainty is that they are trapped together until their doors appear again. If they do.

When students at the school become victims of grisly murders Nancy seems the obvious suspect. She knows she isn’t the killer but she doesn’t know how convince anyone else of that—or to find the real culprit—anymore than she knows how to get back home in Every Heart a Doorway (2016) by Seanan McGuire.

Every Heart a Doorway is the start of McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas.

The Wayward Children are an inclusive group including the protagonist of this volume Nancy who is wary of the school partly because it is not her beloved Halls of the Dead and partly because she isn’t sure how the other students will react when she tells them she is asexual.

McGuire’s novella is well-realized and introduces readers to not just one fully-realized world but many, This story is an interesting exercise in form (as a completely contained novella) as well as genre. Within the portal fantasy framework McGuire leads her characters through a mystery, a horror story, and even a traditional coming-of-age story. And that’s just in this first installment.

Every Heart a Doorway is a wild ride and a thoughtful exploration of magic and its cost as well as a wry commentary on the mechanics of fairy tales. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Fragments of the Lost: A Review

Jessa so doesn’t want to clear out her ex-boyfriend Caleb’s room after he dies. It’s hard enough to grieve and dodge questions about how she’s managing. But when his mother asks, she can’t say no. Jessa knows this is her penance—her punishment for being part of the puzzle of Caleb’s last day.

She can’t explain why Caleb was at her track meet that day anymore than anyone else can. She only knows what came after. His drive along the bridge as it flooded, the car crash, the body that was never found.

As Jessa sorts through Caleb’s possessions and begins the tedious, painful work of packing everything away she starts to remember details from the start of their relationship when things were still fresh and there was so much to learn. These pieces of his life also bring back painful memories of the end of their relationship and the distances that eventually grew between them.

As Jessa delves deeper into Caleb’s life she realizes his room might hold secrets to that strange last day and his death. She also realizes she might not be the only one looking in Fragments of the Lost (2017) by Megan Miranda.

Miranda delivers an eerie and atmospheric mystery in this latest standalone. Narrated by Jessa the novel moves through time with chapters marking Jessa’s present weekend project clearing out Caleb’s room and the past with chapters named for items Jessa discovers that bring up memories of her year-long relationship with Caleb. This premise is used to good effect to demonstrate Jessa’s (often self-imposed) isolation in her grief and her desperation to understand what really happened on the day Caleb died.

A taut narrative told over a short span of time amps up the tension as Jessa slowly begins to realize that something is incredibly wrong. While the big twist might be easily predicted by habitual mystery readers, Jessa’s arc throughout the novel is strong enough to still make for a compelling read. Recommended for readers looking for a chilling page turner and fans of mysteries or thrillers.

Possible Pairings: I Was Here by Gayle Forman, Forget Me by K. A. Harrington, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The After Girls by Leah Konen, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

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

Jane, Unlimited: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke

—–

“There are many lives in every life.”

Jane’s life has always been ordinary and she has never minded that. When her Aunt Magnolia dies under strange circumstances, Jane is suddenly adrift and alone. She doesn’t know exactly how Aunt Magnolia died. She doesn’t know if she wants to go back to college. All she really knows is that if she is ever invited to Tu Reviens, she has to go. It was the last thing Aunt Magnolia asked her to do.

When Kiran Thrash, an old acquaintance who is as wealthy as she is mercurial, breezes back into Jane’s life with an invitation to the Thrash family gala at none other than Tu Reviens Jane immediately accepts.

The island mansion is not at all what Jane expects. Strange figures lurk in the shadows. Art goes missing and reappears at will. An ex-wife hides in the attic, while a current wife is missing entirely. Then there’s Jasper, the lovable Bassett Hound who has an uncanny attachment both to Jane and to a painting with a lone umbrella.

In a house filled with questions, Jane knows that all she has to do is follow the right person to get answers. But first she has to choose in Jane, Unlimited (2017) by Kristin Cashore.

Jane, Unlimited is Cashore’s latest standalone novel. Inspired by Choose Your Own Adventure stories among other things this novel reads as five interconnected stories spanning genres.

After enjoying but not quite loving Cashore’s Graceling trilogy, I was fully prepared for Jane, Unlimited to be the Cashore book that I would love unequivocally. I’m happy to say this genre-bending delight did not disappoint.

The novel opens with “The Missing Masterpiece” (my favorite story) where Jane tries to find a missing Vermeer and make sense of myriad clues in a mystery reminiscent of The Westing Game. This section also does all of the heavy lifting introducing Jane, her deceased Aunt Magnolia, Kiran Thrash, and her rakish and charismatic twin brother Ravi. This novel also introduces Jane’s umbrella making–a motif that helps tie all of the novel’s pieces together.

In “Lies Without Borders” Jane explores the mystery of the missing painting from a different angle in a sleek spy story that will appeal to fans of Ally Carter. The madcap action and continuously surprisingly and charming characters make this section another favorite.

Cashore turns her eye to horror in “In Which Someone Loses a Soul and Charlotte Finds One.” After finishing this creepy tale you won’t be able to look at your library or your favorite books in quite the same way. When you re-read this book on a structural level (and trust me, you’ll want to) this section is also key for highlighting the structure of the novel.

“Jane, Unlimited” is the section that ties the book together so I won’t tell you too much that could spoil the story. There are zany clothes, mayhem, frogs, and a lot of Ravi which makes this story a delight. Sure to be a favorite for fans of Douglas Adams and Dr. Who.

This novel wraps up in “The Strayhound, the Girl, and the Painting” in which some mysteries are solved and some bigger questions are raised as Jane figures out why, exactly, Jasper the Bassett Hound is so very fond of her. This whimsical segment concludes the story on an optimistic note as Jane (and readers) realize that when one door closes another opens–literally.

Jane, Unlimited is a thoughtfully layered and intricately plotted novel. Depending on how you want to read it this book could contain five separate but overlapping stories, it could be one arc where all these outcomes eventually come to pass. There’s really no wrong way to interpret this story which is part of the charm. Whatever appeals to you about Jane and her adventures I guarantee you will find it in at least one part of this novel.

I first hear about Jane, Unlimited during a job interview at Penguin for a job I didn’t even come close to getting. Back then the book was just some new contemporary novel that Cashore was working on and I didn’t think much of it at the time. When it finally came time to read the book, I found that I could think of little else. Around the time of that interview I found out that one of my aunts had suffered a stroke that would prove fatal–something I didn’t know when I kept calling and calling to tell her about scheduling that job interview and asking her advice on what to wear and to practice questions. I don’t remember the last conversation I had with my aunt but I remember those messages I left her vividly. And I so wish I could have told her how this all came together in such a strange full circle way as Jane’s aunt Magnolia was such a big part of Jane’s story as she tries to figure out which path to choose.

In case it wasn’t already clear: I loved this book. It’s perfect and everything I want. Cashore populates the story with a cast of characters that is thoughtfully inclusive and painfully charming and expertly blends genres and plays them against each other throughout this clever novel.

Jane, Unlimited is a must read for anyone who has ever felt a bit lost, readers who like their books to resemble puzzles, and, of course, for anyone looking for an excellent story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen,The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art by Mathew Hart, Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft by Simon Houpt, Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Square Root of Summer by Harrier Reuter Hapgood, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Ocean Soul by Brian Skerry, Oceanic Wilderness by Roger Steene, Parallel Universes by Max Tegmark (as seen in Scientific American, May 2003), The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

If you are interested in some of the art that inspired (or features) in this novel:

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