All the Wind in the World: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for All the Wind in the World by Samantha MabrySarah Jacqueline Crow and James Holt are used to long, hot days working the maguey fields of the Southwest. The work is brutal but they have a plan. Keep their heads down, do the work, save enough money to head back east where everything isn’t so dry and they can start a ranch of their own. They do one other thing to make sure they can survive and stay together: they keep their love a secret at all costs. It’s safer, they’ve learned, to pose as cousins instead.

Forced to run again after an accident, Sarah Jac and James follow the trains to the Real Marvelous–a ranch known for its steady work and possible curse. The work is the same and their plan should stay the same too. But as strange things begin to happen on the ranch Sarah Jac realizes that their old tricks won’t be enough to keep them safe–they may not even be enough to keep Sarah Jac and James together in All the Wind in the World (2017) by Samantha Mabry.

All the Wind in the World is Mabry’s sophomore novel. It was also selected as a longlist title for the 2017 National Book Award.

All the Wind in the World is intensely character driven with a tight focus on Sarah Jac and James as they struggle to stay true to each other while keeping their relationship a secret. Sarah Jac’s first person narration makes it immediately obvious that something isn’t right at the Real Marvelous but, like readers, Sarah kept guessing as to what menace is befalling the ranch and its workers for much of the story. Mabry’s writing is tense and sexy as the story builds to its shocking conclusion.

This is the kind of novel that is immediately gripping in the moment–a true page turner despite the methodical pacing and relatively straightforward plot. However upon further inspection holes do start to show in the world building. While the dry, near dessert landscape of the Southwest is evocative and beautifully described the characters offer little explanation for how things got to this point. The payoff for the curse of the Real Marvelous (or the lack thereof) remains equally vague and open-ended.

Any shortcomings in the world or the plot are more than balanced out by the lush prose and singular characters. Sarah Jac and James are not easy characters. They are both flawed and grasping as they struggle to get past their day-to-day existence and strive for something more. How far should either of them be willing to go to get there? That’s a hard question to answer both for them and the reader.

All the Wind in the World is a striking, tightly wound novel. Readers will immediately be swept up in Sarah Jac and James’ story of longing, love, and darker impulses. A must-read for fans of magic realism. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

The Hate U Give: A Rapid Fire Review

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)

If I had to pick a defining book of 2017 it would be this one. Thomas’ debut novel has received numerous stars (more than I even knew existed). It has also been selected a finalist for both the National Book Award and The William C. Morris YA Debut Award.

Thomas’s debut is one of several very timely and much needed books about social justice and specifically shining a light on the Black Lives Matter movement. It will also soon be a movie with Amandla Stenberg heading up a star-studded cast.

The book follows Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old black girl who is navigating life at her prestigious school populated with mostly white, mostly wealthy classmates and life at home in the poor neighborhood where she and her family has always lived. Starr doesn’t feel quite at home anywhere–a feeling that is compounded when Starr is driving home with her childhood friend Khalil when a police officer pulls them over and shoots Khalil without cause.

As the only witness, Starr knows she should testify. But she also knows doing so will put her under intense scrutiny from the media. And it might not even lead to justice for Khalil when so many similar cases have ended in acquittals for the officers. Starr’s choice will have lasting ramifications for herself, her family, and her community as she has to choose where her allegiances lie and speak up for what she believes in.

Thomas’s novel is evocative and gripping. It captures this moment in society perfectly and it highlights all of the things that still need to change with an indictment of the cultural biases and racism that brought us to this point and also with a note of optimism for the future. Narrated by Starr this novel has a great voice and fantastic dialog. Although the plot starts right away the story does have a tendency to meander (I will maintain forever that this book could have been edited down by at least a hundred pages) as the novel explores Starr’s family and home life as well as her life at school where she is constantly reminding herself that she has to put forward a very specific face among her classmates.

Heavy but hopeful and necessary. A must-read.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter: A Review

Julia’s life is in freefall after her older sister is hit by a truck on her way home from work. Julia always knew her sister, Olga, was the favorite but watching her parents fall apart along with dealing with her own grief is overwhelming. Julia copes by looking into Olga’s life–something she was never very interested in when Olga was alive–but Julia ends up with more questions than answers and soon realizes that knowing the truth doesn’t always lead to closure in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (2017) by Erika L. Sánchez.

I am happy this book exists but I am 100% not the audience for it which I think influenced my lukewarm feelings about it. Julia is an interesting narrator–it’s still rare to see girls being unapologetic about being unhappy and being themselves, two things that come across immediately in Julia’s story. That Julia is Mexican American adds another dimension to the narrative and makes her voice even more badly needed.

Sánchez’s writing in this novel is authentic and literary without being neat. Sometimes Julia uses course language, sometimes she isn’t polished. But she’s always real and so is the Chicago neighborhood she inhabits–things that I am sure contributed to this book’s nod for the National Book Award long list.

In its review of this book, Kirkus points out that Julia isn’t likable. I don’t think she has to be and I don’t think we’re going to get very far as a society until we stop demanding female characters be likeable at all times. That said, sometimes Julia’s discontent felt a little vague. I wanted to know more about why she feels so unsatisfied and always has been. It’s never quite explained in the text.

There’s a lot going on in this book with side plots; some to good effect, some with unrealized potential. Julia is always striving and learning and while she isn’t always the nicest character, her growth over the course of the novel is all the more satisfying because of it.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a story about a first generation American trying to do the best she can. Give this to readers looking for a new story of the immigrant experience, readers who need their characters to be real rather than sweet, and above all give this to anyone looking for a character who loves art and words as much as they do.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, How to Save a Life by Sarah Zarr

Chime: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I know you believe you’re giving me a chance–or, rather, it’s the Chime Child giving me the chance. She’s desperate, of course, not to hang an innocent girl again, but please believe me: Nothing in my story will absolve me of guilt. It will only prove what I’ve already told you, which is that I’m wicked.”

Chime by Franny BillingsleyBriony knows in her heart that every bad thing that has happened to her family is decidedly her fault. She looks sweet and innocent, the way her identical twin sister Rose looks when she isn’t screaming. But Briony knows that she is a blight on her family and probably on Swampsea as a whole–her stepmother made sure she knew.

Now Briony’s stepmother is dead and Briony is waiting to be hanged for her misdeeds. There are several places her story could start but it seems fitting, in its own way, to start with Eldric’s arrival because doesn’t every story truly begin when a good looking young man appears? Didn’t Briony’s fragile grasp on her life begin to crumble the moment she first saw his sunshine smile and his lion hair? in Chime (2011) by Franny Billingsley.

Chime was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Chime is a circuitous and layered novel written in Briony’s complicated first person narration. Long, winding sentences filled with tangents and asides lend this book the feel of a stream of consciousness and creates a strong textuality to the book.

Briony is a complex character. The loops and whorls of her consciousness are dense and exhausting to read. Just keeping up with Briony’s narration is a feat let alone penetrating it enough to get at what she is sharing and, often more importantly, what she is not sharing as she relates her story.

Chime takes place in an alternate historical England. Magic and magical creatures still flourish but industrialization is beginning to take hold in the form of electric lights and other technical wonders like metal paperclips. The contrasts between the fantastical and the technological are further emphasized in the dichotomy between Briony and Eldric as they try to make sense of each other.

Because of the peculiarities of the narrative and Briony’s initially cutting personality, Chime isn’t a book for everyone. Although it is a fantasy first and foremost, it is also a thoughtful romance and a bit of a mystery as readers unravel what brought Briony to the point of requesting she be hanged posthaste. Readers who can engage with the text and adjust to the writing style will enjoy the world building, the stories within stories, and the twists to be found.

Briony’s story is all about self-care and self love. Along the way, thanks to the vagaries of life and the calculated moves of certain characters, Briony loses sight of who she used to be and who she can become. Chime is about Briony’s journey to rediscover that lost girl of her youth and also to redeem herself–not in the eyes of others but simply for herself.

Best suited to readers who appreciate acerbic wit, rich fantasies, and multifaceted tales.

Possible Pairings: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Wildthorn by Jane Eagland, I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Hunter’s Moon by O. R. Melling, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

March: Book Three: A Graphic Novel Review

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate PowellThe March trilogy is a graphic novel series telling the story of John Lewis’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. When March: Book Three (2016) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell begins in September 1963 with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Although this novel focuses on Lewis’s experiences with him as the narrator and, of course, biographical information from his own life, this story also takes a wider lens to look at the movement as a whole. Lewis is the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) whose younger members are feeling disillusioned with the more mainstream activists who often take credit for SNCCs moves while sidelining their role. SNCC is on the verge of fracturing from within, and violence is increasing in the south as Lewis and others make plans for Freedom Vote and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

March: Book Three is a thoughtful and engrossing conclusion to a trilogy that is already being hailed as a modern classic. This final installment was the 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature and the 2017 Printz Award winner.

Although it is the third part of a trilogy, most of this story makes sense on its own. Readers with a basic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and history of the time may have an easier go diving into this story than those without that background. Because this book is so visual, I will admit that I had a hard time identifying key characters early on which, I think, is partly from coming to this book without reading the earlier installments.

Lewis and Aydin have worked together to create a narrative that focuses on Lewis’s life experiences and his own changing feelings about SNCC and the movement as a whole. At the same time, the scope and breadth of the movement–the far-reaching hopes and the devastating violence–are also emphasizes both with the narrative text and with Powell’s moving illustrations and dynamic panel layouts.

The black and white illustrations work extremely well to highlight the injustice the Civil Rights Movement was fighting. The lack of color in the illustrations also has the interesting effect of flattening a lot of the skin tones and underscoring how similar we all are. Powell does a good job filling each panel and page with movement and action. Some of the panels are a bit frenzied but it’s a deliberate choice at key moments.

Having March: Book Three framed as a story told in retrospect was also a very effective choice. Readers go into this story knowing that Lewis makes it through–he survives–and also seeing immediately how far things have progressed (and how much work remains). Reading this story through a different lens with more immediacy to the narrative would have been unbearable and often devastating in the wake of the loss and danger faced by Lewis and everyone else in the Movement. I read this graphic novel near the 2016 election and it was very poignant and bittersweet to see the power of the vote in action while also realizing how much was undone in 2016 and how much still must be done.

While this book functions as a larger history of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, it’s also important to remember that this series is also an autobiographical text in many ways. Because of that, this story does set aside and gloss over certain moments. This selective focus is a flaw of any biographical text and it makes sense in the context of this series as the focus is clearly and deliberately on the main events and players of the Movement. That said, it is interesting to note the way Stokely Carmichael’s comments about women’s only position in SNCC being prone was glossed over. I am sure it was seen as a joke by a lot of people then (and still) but the way it was sidestepped here just highlights how anyone, even with the best intentions does have an agenda and bias in terms of scope and how events are presented. It’s also worth noting that this story stops short of SNCC’s dissolution and Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.

March: Book Three is a powerful conclusion to a trilogy everyone should read. This series deserves every bit of praise it has received. It is a rare series that occupies the space between academic reading for school and pleasure reading quite comfortably. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson, X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin, Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

The Sun is Also a Star: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Because everything looks like chaos up close. Daniel thinks it’s a matter of scale. If you pull back far enough and wait for long enough, then order emerges.”

“Maybe their universe is just taking longer to form.”

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola YoonNatasha believes in science and facts. Her life doesn’t have room for fate or destiny. Which is why it’s so hard to hope for a miracle on her last day in New York City. Natasha’s family is going to be deported to Jamaica in twelve hours. Natasha doesn’t believe in long shots but it’s the only shot she has left to try and stay in the city that’s been her home since she was a child. She doesn’t have time to waste meeting a cute boy and maybe falling in love with him. Not when she is so busy trying to balance her practical nature with her hopes for some last-minute magic.

Daniel is used to being a good son. Not the best son because that’s always been his older brother. But solidly second best. Except now his brother screwed up big time and Daniel’s parents are pinning their hopes for having a Successful-Ivy-League-Graduate-Doctor in the family on Daniel. The problem is that Daniel wants to be a poet–something his Korean immigrant parents can’t understand. At. All. Daniel believes in poetry and fate which is why he knows the moment he sees Natasha on the street in Times Square that their lives are about the change forever.

It feels like the universe or fate or something Big is conspiring to bring Natasha and Daniel into each others’ lives. But over the course of a day filled with possibility, neither Natasha nor Daniel is sure if that will be enough to keep them together in The Sun is Also a Star (2016) by Nicola Yoon.

The Sun is Also a Star is Yoon’s second novel. It was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and has received six starred reviews. (UPDATE:) The Sun is Also a Star also received an honor for the 2017 Printz Award.

All of that is impressive on its own but it’s also important to remember that we often hold contemporary romances like this one up to a higher standard when considering them for awards based on literary merit which makes this book stand out even more as both an exemplar of contemporary romance at its best and also as a generally excellent book.

The Sun is Also a Star is set over the course of one day but the plot is more far-reaching with interconnecting narratives and characters related to each other by six (or even fewer) degrees of separation.

The majority of the novel alternates between Natasha and Daniel’s first person narrations with their distinct voices and world views. Other chapters follow characters who are key to bringing Daniel and Natasha together including a depressed security guard, a subway conductor who has found god, and even Natasha and Daniel’s parents–all chronicled as brief histories. This shifting story maintains a consistent and deliberate voice thanks to the omniscient narrator whose sections contrast well with Natasha’s pragmatic nature and Daniel’s classic dreamer outlook in their respective narrations.

This thoughtful story also nicely subverts some of the traditional gender roles found in contemporary romances. Natasha is an unapologetically smart girl who works hard and knows that life isn’t fair. She is jaded and ambitious. Daniel, meanwhile, is a genuinely nice and optimistic boy who believes in the power of fate even while learning how to make his own choices and stand by them.

Everything in The Sun is Also a Star refers back–sometimes subtly and sometimes not–to the idea of love being a driving force in the universe. All of the tangential characters whose actions work to bring Natasha and Daniel together through happenstance or fate are working on some basis of love–the train conductor who has found god and loves life, the security guard who is lonely and mired in her own lack of love both from others and for herself, the attorney and his paralegal. It’s all love in one form or another. Even Natasha’s father and his actions are driven by his conflict between his love for his family and his love of performing.

Yoon does so many things in The Sun is Also a Star and she does them all well, while making it seem effortless with a combination of literary prose and a deceptively sleek plot. This book juggles multiple characters, narratives, and plot threads to create a coherent story about the many factors bringing Natasha and Daniel together as well as those which are conspiring to keep them apart. It evokes an authentic New York City setting not just a shiny tourist one but the dingy parts too. The Sun is Also a Star does all of that while offering an intellectually stimulating story that still manages to be upbeat and romantic. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Love and Other Train Wrecks by Leah Konen, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, Summer in the Invisible City by Juliana Romano, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

Nimona: A Graphic Novel Review

Nimona ny Noelle StevensonBallister Blackheart is a villain. He doesn’t necessarily like it, but there are only so many options available to professionally trained heroes after they lose an arm.

Abrosius Goldenloin has always desperately wanted to be a hero. So much so that he sacrificed his friendship with Blackheart in pursuit of his goal.

Nimona . . . well . . . no one is really sure what Nimona is or what she wants. Sometimes she’s a shark. Sometimes she wants to wreak havoc and mayhem and leave a trail of bodies in her wake. Sometimes she’s lonely and wants a friend.

Blackheart wasn’t looking for a sidekick when Nimona showed up at his hideout. Goldenloin never doubted the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics until his sworn enemy started asking the right questions. Together these unlikely allies and enemies might be able to bring down the Institution once and for all. But only if Nimona can control her powers and doesn’t kill everyone first in Nimona (2015) by Noelle Stevenson.

Nimona is Stevenson’s first graphic novel, originally seen as a webcomic online. Nimona was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

This graphic novel is entertaining and readable although not ultimately groundbreaking in terms of plot. Stevenson includes a fair bit of diversity. Blackheart has a mechanical arm. Nimona is refreshingly curvy. And the background characters come in all shapes and colors. Unlike many graphic novels, Nimona also features a self-contained arc which makes parts of the ending feel a bit rushed.

Although obviously appealing to teens, it’s also interesting to see Nimona published for the YA market when none of the characters are actually teens. (Nimona chooses to present herself as a teenaged girl but, like most of the things Nimona shares about herself, it seems very possible that is just a facade.)

Nimona is a lot of fun. Stevenson’s artwork has a decided cartoon aesthetic that is complimented with snappy dialog and sight gags throughout the story. The one failing here is that the lettering for the dialog is extremely small.

Stevenson blends a medieval setting with modern scientific technology to create a unique setting where she can create her own rules for the fantasy elements of the story. Nimona easily subverts the traditional archetypes for both heroes and villains throughout this story where nothing is ever quite as it seems.

Possible Pairings: I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and illustrated by M. Goodwin