The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street: A Review

The Vanderbeekers have a problem. The family have lived in their Harlem brownstone for six years–so long that the younger Vanderbeekers don’t remember any other home. When their reclusive landlord, Mr. Biederman, announces that he won’t be renewing the family’s lease none of the Vanderbeekers are sure what to think. Even Mama and Papa are at their wit’s end trying to prepare the five Vanderbeeker children and themselves for the move with only eleven days before their lease expires.

Determined to stay in the home they know and love, the Vanderbeeker children take matters into their own hands to try and convince Mr. Biederman to let them stay. But despite the careful planning and heartfelt efforts, it seems like every attempt manages to go horribly wrong. As the days on their lease tick by, the kids begin to wonder if wanting something to happen can be enough to make it so in The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (2017) by Karina Yan Glaser.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is Glaser’s first novel and the start of a series following the Vanderbeekers and their adventures in Harlem. This story follows the entire Vanderbeeker family with a third person perspective that shifts between the five Vanderbeeker children: studious and scientific-minded Jessie (12), violin playing Isa (12 and Jessie’s twin), avid reader Oliver (9), crafty Hyacinth (6), and the youngest Laney (4 and three quarters). While that is a lot of characters to juggle, Glaser gives each kid their due with a distinct personality and a satisfying story arc.

The story never mentions anyone’s race explicitly but it’s worth noting that the Vanderbeeker family is biracial with Mama having dark eyes and straight hair while Papa has big, curly hair and light eyes. Glaser does a good job of painting a fairly inclusive neighborhood but I wish some of the ethnic identities were a little more overt on the page.

As a New Yorker myself my biggest outcry with this book was the concept of anyone having their lease revoked with only eleven days to move. I suppose it’s possible and it certainly lends urgency to the plot, but it also felt wildly improbable. The denouement of the novel also felt a bit too neat without adequate explanations for Mr. Biederman’s behavior (or his sudden change of heart) but both qualms are forgiveable in their efforts to move along a charming story.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is a funny slice-of-life story with a lot of heart. Readers will feel like part of the Vanderbeeker family as they get to know the kids, their building, and their neighborhood. The delightful start to what will hopefully become a long running series.

Possible Pairings: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue, Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker and Marla Frazee, Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

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Speak Easy, Speak Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Beatrice knows that if she leaves New York when she’s kicked out of boarding school, she’ll never be able to come back and realize her dream of becoming a doctor. She refuses to accept that future and determines to stay on course at all costs. Even if it means relying on an uncle she barely knows to take her in. Her uncle’s ramshackle mansion, Hey Nonny Nonny, holds quite a few unexpected boarders and hides a big secret: it’s a speakeasy offering entertainment and illegal spirits.

Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, loves the old house more than almost anything and she’s been doing everything she can to keep the eccentric speakeasy afloat. But with prohibition agents watching, limited supplies of liquor, and the pesky problem of needing to pay the staff, Hero isn’t sure if they can make it through one more party let alone the entire summer season.

Hero has always been able to rely on Prince, her steadfast friend who sees the speakeasy as his home and as a chance to prove himself to John, the half-brother who has never accepted Prince enough to let him in on his dealings as a member of the local mob.

Singing at Hey Nonny Nonny could be Maggie’s ticket to something bigger. But only if she’s willing to leave her friends there behind. And only if talent agents are willing to see beyond her brown skin to her big talent.

Then there’s Benedick who is determined to avoid the stuffed shirt life his father has laid out for him. No prep school graduation. No college. No banking job. Definitely no trust fund. Benedick is a writer and he’s sure that if he has the chance he can make it without his father’s backing–or his approval.

It’s dislike at first sight for Beatrice and Benedick–a feeling that only grows stronger in the face of repeated misunderstandings and arguments. Everyone else can see that Beatrice and Benedick are perfect for each other, but they both might be too stubborn to realize it without a lot of help in Speak Easy, Speak Love (2017) by McKelle George.

Speak Easy, Speak Love is George’s debut novel and a retelling of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Written in the third person this novel shifts perspective primarily between Beatrice and Benedick as they arrive at Hey Nonny Nonny. Their story also overlaps with arcs for Hero, Prince, Maggie, and John over the course of an eventful summer that will change their lives forever.

Winsome characters, perfect pacing, and a plot that is simultaneously unique and true to the source material make Speak Easy, Speak Love a delight to read. Set primarily in Long Island, New York, this novel offers a quieter side of the Prohibition in the 1920s that isn’t often seen in historical fiction. Careful researching of the time period and an obvious familiarity with Shakespeare help to make this story vibrant and evocative.

Although they are living in the past, George handles this plot through the responsible lens of modern ideals. Benedick, often in discussion with Beatrice, contemplates his privilege as a young white man from a wealthy family and the knowledge that even during his rebellious flight to Long Island his family acts as a safety net. In contrast, Beatrice is used to having no one and has to learn how to both build and trust a support system as she finds true friends and family for the first time in years. Of course, Beatrice is also a classic feminist as she chases her dream to become a doctor. Side plots following Maggie and Prince explore the idea notion of belonging as well as barriers put in place by racism and discrimination at this time.

Speak Easy, Speak Love is a witty and droll story about six teens, an unlikely speakeasy, and the connections that will change their lives forever. A must read for fans of the 1920s, Shakespeare buffs, and anyone looking for a bright diversion. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Retribution Rails by Erin Bowman, The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Game of Love and Death by Martha E. Brockenbrough, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Snow White by Matt Phelan, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

You can also check out my interview with McKelle starting tomorrow.

Summer in the Invisible City: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“In some ways, it doesn’t matter what happened next, or in the year and a half since then. That night was perfect and I’ll always have it. I’ll hold on to the memory tight as I want, because it’s mine.”

Summer in the Invisible City by Juliana RomanoSadie Bell knows exactly what she wants to happen during the summer before her senior year of high school. She is going to befriend the popular girls at her school after bonding during their summer photography class. She is going to see her father for the first time in years and it will be better this time because they’ll have art in common and she can finally impress him with her photos. She is definitely going to get over Noah after pining over him and stewing over all of the mistakes she made with him eighteen months ago.

Almost as soon as it starts, Sadie’s summer isn’t what she expects. Her photography class is great. But making new friends comes with new challenges. Her father remains as distant as ever. Noah seems to be popping up everywhere both in Sadie’s memories and in real life. Then there’s Sam–the boy Sadie never expected to meet–who only wants to be friends even as Sadie thinks she might want more.

Life seems simple when it’s seen through a photograph and the details are clear. Real life, it turns out, is much less focused. To understand all of the things she’s had along, Sadie may have to give her entire life a second look in Summer in the Invisible City (2016) by Juliana Romano.

This standalone contemporary novel is set over the course of one summer in New York City (mostly Manhattan). Readers familiar with the city will recognize familiar settings and smart nods to the city (high school friends from Xavier, movies in Union Square with candy smuggled in from Duane Reade) while realizing that Sadie lives in a privileged (largely white) version of New York.

Narrated by Sadie both in the present and in flashbacks of time spent with Noah or her father, Summer in the Invisible City asks a lot of questions about relationships and how much someone should have to give up to maintain them. Sadie is desperate for approval from the people she thinks matter whether it’s popular girls, older guys, or her father. Sadie is so eager to show that she belongs with them that she spends most of the novel alienating the friends and family who have always been supporting her including her single mother and her best friend, Willa. Readers will soon realize that Sadie is sometimes self-destructive but her growth and development during the novel is all the sweeter because of that.

This nuanced story is further complicated by the poorly executed plot surrounding Sadie’s efforts to connect with her father. By the end of the story Sadie’s fraught relationship with her father is explained and reaches an unsatisfying but realistic resolution. What doesn’t make sense at any point in the story, is how things get to that point. Sadie has a loving and supportive mother. She is already eight or nine when she first meets her father and has seen him scant times since. Where does the idolatry come from? Sadie’s mother, unlike a lot of fictional parents, doesn’t sugarcoat his shortcomings anymore than she encourages a false sense of closeness and connection. That all comes from Sadie for reasons that are never clearly articulated in the text. (On a separate note, given the father’s absence for most of Sadie’s life, it’s also unclear why or how he and Sadie share a last name.)

Summer in the Invisible City is partly a summery romance and partly a story about a young artist finding her eye and voice with what she chooses to capture and present in her artwork. Reading about Sadie’s process and vision as she searches out new photography material is inspiring and compelling enough to erase questions debating whether or not print photography is on the verge of obsolescence. Recommended for readers who are fans of novels set in New York City, artists or aspiring artists, and fans of contemporary romances with a healthy dose of introspection.

Possible Pairings: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff, City Love by Susane Colasanti,  How to Love by Katie Cotugno, My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick, Just One Day by Gayle Forman, Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Kissing in America: A Review

Kissing in America by Margo RabbEva Roth’s father died two years ago. She tells everyone it was the result of a heart attack because the real answer–that he died in a plane crash–is too sensational and messy. No one asks more questions about a heart attack.

Eva’s father was always the one who understood her, the one she’d sit with and write. In his absence Eva feels more friction than anything else when it comes to her women’s studies professor mother–something her mother suspects is at the root of Eva’s love of romance novels.

When Eva meets Will Freeman it seems like she might have found someone who really understands. Someone who can possibly help her to move past her grief. Until he moves away.

Afraid of losing Will and everything he promises, Eva and her best friend Annie Kim make a plan to travel across the country to find Will again. Along the way Eva and Annie will see unexpected pieces of the country and learn some surprising things about love in Kissing in America (2015) by Margo Rabb.

Kissing in America is Rabb’s followup to her YA debut Cures for Heartbreak. This novel treads similar territory as Eva tries to find her way through grief and her teen years. Although it is often touted as a light romance and a summery read, this story is filled with melancholy and very much mired in Eva’s grief.

Rabb’s writing remains superlative and evocative. Eva’s love of poetry also plays out in the novel with references to and poems from Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Nikki Giovanni, Marie Howe, and other authors add another layer to this story. While this book is marketed as a romance, it is really Eva’s relationship with her best friend and with her mother that makes Kissing in America shine.

Eva’s mother in an interesting character who is a vocal feminist and a women’s studies professor. She terms Eva’s love of romance novels as a rebellion which never quite rings true as the romance genre is one where women are able to dominate the market and a genre that is often referenced for its feminist elements and even promoting female equality. That this never comes up in the story remains a frustrating omission.

Kissing in America is a thoughtful and witty road trip story about best friends, family, grieving and, of course, love. Recommended for readers looking for a smart read that will have them smiling through the tears.

Possible Pairings: Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Black and White by Paul Volponi, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

The Possible: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“What if life was all about letting go?”

Kaylee doesn’t remember much from when she was really young. She knows her biological mother is in jail but the details of her arrest for killing Kaylee’s brother and the trial are memories from another life.

Kaylee is happy now with her adoptive parents and her perfectly normal life. She’s a rising star on the school softball team and she is working on a plan to attract the attentions of her longtime crush. Simple.

Until a woman shows up at Kaylee’s house wanting to interview her for a podcast investigating Crystal.The Possible podcast is going to spend a season looking into the telekinesis claims that made Crystal a media sensation as a teen, her trial after her son’s death, and what she’s like now in prison.

Kaylee is desperate to be special. To be noticed. Being involved in the podcast seems like the perfect chance to see if maybe, just maybe, she might have some of Crystal’s powers. As the podcast starts to air Kaylee gets exactly what she wants. But she does’t count on the bitter taste of notoriety or the secrets that begin to surface when she looks into her own past in The Possible (2017) by Tara Altebrando.

In her latest thriller Altebrando taps into the wide popularity of investigative podcasts as she and her characters ask a simple question: “What if?”

Kaylee is a totally reliable narrator but she’s also eager to be swept away and believe that some of the hype surrounding Crystal, and by extension herself, might be true. Kaylee is athletic, a little self-centered, and striving for that elusive better, more popular, and generally more appealing version of herself. In trying to embrace telekinetic powers and familial connections that may or may not exist Kaylee realizes that she has to let go of what she wants other people to see when they look at her and focus on being herself in whatever form that takes.

The Possible is a tense, fast-paced story focusing squarely on Kaylee and the podcast. Most of the novel is narrated by Kaylee with pieces of the story being told in newspaper articles, podcast excerpts, and interview transcripts. While Kaylee reaches some conclusions for herself by the end of the story, the narrative stops short of actual answers leaving readers to decide the truth for themselves in this gripping story. Perfect for fans of psychological thrillers, true crime, and anyone who’s ever asked themselves “what if . . . ” Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Breaker by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier,  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

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

Be sure to check out my interview with Tara!

The Careful Undressing of Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I’ve been waiting for one thing, but love can be anything.”

“When there’s nothing left to salvage, we have to save ourselves.”

The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann HayduEveryone knows that Devonairre Street in Brooklyn is cursed. Being loved by a Devonairre Street girl ends in tragedy. Just look at the number of war widows on the street or the concentration of Affected families left without husbands and fathers after the Times Square Bombing in 2001.

Lorna Ryder and her mother have never put much stock in the curse even though they pretend to play along. Lorna celebrates a shared birthday along with Cruz, his sister Isla, Charlotte, and Delilah. She keeps her hair long and wears a key around her neck. She does everything she is supposed to just the way Angelika has advised since Lorna was a child.

But none of it seems to be enough when Delilah’s boyfriend Jack is killed in the wake of the grief and confusion surrounding another terrorist attack across the country. Lorna and her friends are shocked by Jack’s sudden death. Grieving and shaken, Lorna has to decide what this new loss means about the veracity of the curse and her own future as a part of Devonairre Street and away from it in The Careful Undressing of Love (2017) by Corey Ann Haydu.

The Careful Undressing of Love is Haydu’s latest standalone YA novel. Lorna narrates this novel with a breezy nonchalance that soon turns to fear and doubt as everything she previously believed about love and the curse on Devonairre Street is thrown into question. The style and tone work well with Haydu’s world building to create an alternate history that is simultaneously timeless and strikingly immediate.

Haydu’s characters are realistically inclusive and diverse. An argument could be made that it’s problematic that Delilah and Isla (the Devonairre Street girls who are not white) are the ones who suffer more over the course of this novel filled with loss and snap judgements by an insensitive public. But the same argument could be made that privilege makes this outcome sadly inevitable–a contradiction that Lorna notes herself when she begins to unpack her own privileges of being white contrasted with the burdens she has under the weight of the supposed curse and living as one of the Affected.

This story is complicated and filled with philosophical questions about grief and fear as well as love and feminism. While there is room for a bit more closure, the fate of Devonairre Street and its residents ultimately becomes irrelevant compared with Lorna’s need to break away to protect herself and her own future.

A quiet, wrenching story about the bonds of love and friendship and the ways in which they can break; a commentary on the stresses and pressures of being a girl in the modern world; and a story about self-preservation first. The Careful Undressing of Love is smart and strange, frank and raw, and devastating. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

You can also read my interview with the author about this book!

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, The Romantics 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*