All These Things I’ve Done: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle ZevinAnya Balanchine lives in a world where chocolate is illegal, water is scarce and New York City is a ghost of what it once was. Central Park is no longer a park. The Metropolitan Museum is a night club.

Anya’s life has been touched by tragedy, if not hardship, as the daughter of an infamous (and dead) crime boss. With her parents gone, it falls to Anya to take care of her siblings and protect them from the family business.

But when the family business is illegal chocolate, it’s hard to stay on the sidelines–especially when the new boy at school that you might like happens to be the son of the new assistant district attorney. Suddenly all of the decisions Anya has been avoiding need to be made and this time it might not be possible to keep everyone safe.

In a world where so much has changed and family means everything, falling in love could be deadly in All These Things I’ve Done (2011) by Gabrielle Zevin.

All These Things I’ve Done is the dynamic start to Zevin’s Birthright series–happily so since this book leaves readers who are looking for dystopians, noir stories, and even heist stories like White Cat or Heist Society wanting a lot more.

Although the story is  little gory and gritty at times (and maybe even a little bleak thinking about a world where the Met is a nightclub and paper is a thing of the past) Zevin still manages to imbue Anya’s narrative with hope. Throughout all of her travails, Anya manages to persevere. Even at her most ruthless and pragmatic Anya remains a completely sympathetic heroine. Zevin also cleverly reverses typical tropes casting Anya as the hero while her boyfriend stands in as the “damsel in distress” of this story.

The writing here is beautiful and frank, immediately evoking the strange new world Anya calls home complete with details specific to New York and a remarkably well-realized landscape. All These Things I’ve Done presents a taut story filled with tension and suspense that starts off what promises to be a remarkable series.

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Strings Attached by Judy Blundell, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, Leverage (television series), White Collar (television series)

You can also read my exclusive interview with Gabrielle Zevin!

*A copy of this book was acquired for review from the publisher*

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Red Glove: A Review

**Red Glove is the second book in Holly Black’s Curse Worker Series. This review has MAJOR spoilers for the plot of the first book White Cat. You have been warned.**

Red Glove by Holly BlackCassel Sharpe thought he knew all the angles. He thought he understood his family of criminals and curse workers even though he wasn’t really a part of that world.

That was before Cassel found out he was a Transformation Worker. That was before he betrayed his brothers before they could do the same to him. That was before the girl he thought he killed came back. It was long before she was cursed to love him.

Now the mob wants Cassel on their side and the feds are asking him inconvenient questions about a red-gloved murderer. Cassel is being pushed down a path he doesn’t want to follow–one he might have to walk alone. But what if he doesn’t have any other options?

The only thing Cassel really knows is that the future is going to be here soon than he thinks in Red Glove (2011) by Holly Black.

Red Glove is the second book in Black’s Curse Worker’s trilogy. (It’s preceded by White Cat and will be followed by Black Heart.)

Black’s world building in this series is phenomenonal. Red Glove expands on details and presents new aspects of Cassel’s world including politics and cops–something every good noir story needs. Possibly because the groundwork was already laid, this book feels less graphic and gory than White Cat.*

As the second book in a trilogy, Red Glove does its job perfectly by both expanding on the events in the first book and building up to (what will probably be) a sensational conclusion in book three. The story here once again delivers a satisfying blend of fantasy, noir, and good old fashioned suspense. Cassel remains a delightful narrator even when he is unethical and dangerous; his moral struggles and frank assessment of his own character are part of what makes this series great. Even better this book confirmed that maybe, just maybe, Cassel might be okay at the end of everything. Or not. If nothing else, he might finally know what kind of man he really is.

*Or maybe it was just me. I was amazed at how much less devastating the reality of curse worker blowback felt in this book. And I was thrilled at how much more I enjoyed this book compared to the first. Yay.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, Money Wanders by Eric Dezenhall, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Clarity by Kim Harrington, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Leverage (television series), White Collar (television series)

Strings Attached: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Strings Attached by Judy BlundellKit Corrigan has a lot of hopes and dreams when she gets to New York City in the autumn of 1950. What she doesn’t have is a steady job, a room of her own, or any surety that she has what it takes to make it. Back in Providence, Rhode Island Kit left behind her family. She hasn’t heard from her boyfriend Billy, or her brother, since they enlisted.

It seemed like such a good idea to drop out of high school and move to New York and make her way in the theater. But maybe she wasn’t ready. Maybe she can’t do it all on her own.

Help comes from an unlikely source.

Nate Benedict has a way of fixing things. He is a lawyer and he makes problems go away for his clients and sometimes for his son, Billy, and Billy’s friends. He’s willing to help Kit and fix her relationship with Billy. For a price.

All he wants is a small favor in exchange for an apartment and a second chance. Nothing big.

Kit makes the easy choice. But before she knows it one small favor turns into another. And another. Until Kit is in so deep she isn’t sure if she can get out in Strings Attached (2011) by Judy Blundell.

Strings Attached is Blundell’s follow up to her National Book Award winning novel What I Saw and How I Lied. It is also just as much of a powerhouse.

This book has a complex structure interspersing Kit’s present in New York with chapters detailing key points in her past that led her to a point where accepting a favor from someone as notorious as Nate Benedict makes sense. The story, past and present, comes together seamlessly as Blundell unfolds a story filled with as much suspense and intrigue as any noir plot.

Strings Attached is an evocative look at an era and a place (both Providence and New York). Kit is a charming narrator who is both unashamed and candid. Filled with mystery and romance Strings Attached is an atmospheric novel that defies expectations and will draw readers in from the first line to the very last.*

*I don’t want to spoil anything but I have to say Strings Attached probably has my most favorite last paragraph . . . ever.

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Paper Towns by John Green, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, New York City: A Short History by George J. Lankevich, Vixen by Jillian Larkin, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Mad Apple by Christina Meldrum, The Wessex Papers by Daniel Parker, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, Double Indemnity (movie)

Exclusive Bonus Content: The book design, by Elizabeth B. Parisis, is also just as beautiful as What I Saw and How I Lied and features jacket photography by Michael Frost.

White Cat: A Review

White Cat by Holly BlackHands can become dangerous weapons with the right training. But what if the lightest touch was enough? What if a finger placed on bare skin could change a person’s luck? What if it could make a person fall in love? What if it could transform them? What if it could steal a memory? What if a single, slight touch was enough to kill?

In a world where curse magic is real a bare hand is more dangerous than any weapon.

Working is illegal, of course, but that doesn’t make it go away. Instead, the curse workers are just driven underground, tied to crime families and working from the shadows to protect themselves–or maybe everyone else.

Cassel Sharpe comes from a long line of con men, gangsters and workers. Except for Cassel. He might know the art of the con better than most, but he isn’t a worker. He is a killer. He killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago. He loved her, but he killed her anyway.

Cassel thought Wallingford Prep–a normal school away from his criminal family–would be a place where he could become the person he wanted to be, or at least convince everyone else he was the person he wanted to be. That is until the white cat shows up.

It might want to tell him something. Or kill him. Maybe both.*

As Cassel tries to unravel the white cat’s intentions the facade of his normal life starts to crumble and nothing is what he expected. Cassel knows that being a con artist means thinking that you’re smarter than everyone else and that you’ve thought of everything. That you can get away with anything. That you can con anyone. But what happens when it starts to seem like you’re the one being conned?  What do you do when it looks like you’re the one getting conned?

Cassel’s about to get even in White Cat (May 2010) by Holly Black.

White Cat is a total mind bender. Part mystery, part con game, part suspense, Holly Black has created a world like no other. The plot is filled with twists and unexpected turns but enough structure that readers will be able to keep ahead of (some) of the curves.

The story, much like its narrator Cassel, is simultaneously gritty and charming. Bare hands are simultaneously menacing and erotic. And lest being a worker seem too easy, every curse carries a blowback that turns on the worker itself, sometimes with devastating results. White Cat is a complex book that will likely leave readers with mixed feelings. Many of the characters, even the protagonists, are not nice people. Much of the ultimate resolution is messy. But life is not always nice nor neat, which is why White Cat is such a startlingly real fantasy that will leave readers wanting more.**

View the excellent trailer here: http://www.thecurseworkers.com/

*I greatly appreciate this book supporting my personal opinion that cats are scary. I also madly love the cover. Edgy, sinister, and fabulous.

**Always a good thing for the first book in a trilogy. There is no official date for the second Curse Workers book yet, but I can confirm from Holly Black’s livejournal and Sarah Rees Brennan’s twitter that the second book will be called Red Glove. Watch for it.***

***Any Cassandra Clare fans should also watch for a quick reference to Jace in this book. (Check around page 172 during a confrontation between Cassel and Barron–you’re welcome.)

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, Money Wanders by Eric Dezenhall, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Clarity by Kim Harrington, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Leverage (television series), White Collar (television series)

IMPORTANT: If you made it to the end of this post, you’re in for a treat. I have an advanced copy of White Cat in my possession and I am giving it away as a bit of a teaser for my promised give away extravaganza when I get 50,000 hits. Also because I like feeling smug for having an ARC and talking about it before publication for once.

TO ENTER: Comment on this post by APRIL 21 with a valid email. Winner will be randomly selected April 22. Open to the US only.

What I Saw and How I Lied: A (noir) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy BlundellEvery good book should start with a good story. In the case of What I Saw and How I Lied (2008) by Judy Blundell, it actually starts with two. This is Blundell’s debut novel although, under pen names, she has written many other titles. In a School Library Journal article, Blundell said that this was the first book that felt like it was hers. How wonderful then to also have it win the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and receive accolades from all over. (Plus, the book was edited by David Levithan, himself a YA author/editor extraordinaire).

But that’s just the backstory. What I Saw and How I Lied also has an excellent actual story.

The year is 1947, the place Queens, New York. For fifteen-year-old Evie Spooner, it feels like life has gone back to normal. Her step-father Joe is back from the War, Evie’s blonde bombshell mother Barb is back to playing housewife, and Joe’s mother is annoying everyone. All everyday, mundane things.

That changes when Joe announces suddenly that the family is going to take a trip to Florida. When Peter Coleridge, a dashing ex-GI who served with Joe, finds the family, Evie knows that things will never be mundane again. The close Evie gets to Peter, the more secrets she finds–not only Peter’s but also secrets surrounding her own family.

As the events of the novel come to a head Evie has to face these secrets and the lies told to keep them. The more she learns about the truth, and the lies, the more Evie wonders if truth has anything to do with loyalty.

The first thing that drew me to this book was the cover with its heroine steeped in shadows. It is the epitome of film noir (hardboiled fiction when in written form), a fitting choice since this novel is nothing if not noir.

The writing here is taut, fraught with tension and even a bit of suspense right from the beginning. Every word here matters. If ever I met someone who suggested that writing was not an art, this book would be part of my argument to the contrary.

Sometimes novels told in retrospect, which is basically the case here, can be boring because the narrator keeps complaining about the things they didn’t know. Evie is made of stronger stuff. Instead of bemoaning the things she missed the first time around, she simply lays out the events as they happened. This makes Evie’s perspective on things look a bit naive. At the same time it also gives the book a certain honesty because, like Evie, we learn that everything is not as it seems as the story progresses.

Blundell also uses a lot of foreshadowing in her novel. In the wrong hands foreshadow is another writing technique that can go horribly wrong. In What I Saw and How I Lied it only adds to the suspense and complexity of the writing–writing that is both poignant and beautiful (while evoking the atmosphere and mood of 1947 in both New York and Florida).

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Paper Towns by John Green, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, New York City: A Short History by George J. Lankevich, Vixen by Jillian Larkin, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Mad Apple by Christina Meldrum, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, The Wessex Papers by Daniel Parker, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, Double Indemnity (movie)

Hard-Boiled Speculative Fiction—in Yiddish! (a review of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union)

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael ChabonJews, Alaska, chess, and murder: usually these subjects don’t have a lot in common. That is until you read Michael Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007) where these elements come together to create the core of this quirky noir story.

Chabon’s novel is based on an interesting conceit: What if Jews had not been able to settle in Israel after World War II and, instead, were granted temporary residency on the Alaskan panhandle?

The original plan was set into motion around 1939 by Harold Ickes (Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior), in response to a plea from a Jewish community in the town of Neustadt requesting permission to settle in Alaska and escape the imminent threat of Nazi Germany.

The settlement was proposed in the Alaska Territory as a way to work around the United States’ existing immigration quotas, but fell through due in large part to a lack of political support and backlash from Alaskans who feared the prospect of foreign settlers for myriad reasons ranging from racism to increased competition for jobs.

In the novel, however, Ickes was successful in bringing his plan to fruition and Jewish refugees were given the Federal District of Sitka as a temporary settlement. That was sixty years before the start of Chabon’s novel when Sitka is getting ready to revert to the United States leaving the fate of the Alaskan Jews largely unknown.

Amazingly, all of these events are just a backdrop for Chabon’s actual story: an edgy murder mystery.

When Meyer Landsman moved into a local flophouse nine months ago he wasn’t looking to do much more than spend some quality time with his bottle of slivovitz and “the shot glass that he is currently dating” until Sitka finally reverts. Landsman’s plans change abruptly when the body of a local chess prodigy turns up in the hotel.

For reasons that elude even him, Landsman feels obligated to investigate the murder despite pressure from his new boss/ex-wife and other higher ups to drop the case. As the investigation continues, Landsman and Berko Shemets, his half-Tlingit partner, find themselves sucked into the underworld of the black hat community of the Verbover Jews and their nefarious undertakings.

Chabon also throws in several conspiracies, a cover-up scheme, a pseudo-terrorist plot, and lots of Yiddish phrases just to keep things interesting. This last touch is because the novel has the unique characteristic of being a novel written in English about characters who do not speak English: they all speak Yiddish instead.

So The Yiddish Policeman’s Union does require a bit of energy to read. At first, nothing is going to make sense. But Chabon eventually pulls it all together. The Yiddish phrases slowly start to become comprehensible, as do the various subplots Chabon incorporates into this very unique story.

Chabon’s prose has a strange charm, which might be expected from an author who won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a novel whose plot largely centers around a comic book hero. The narration is hard-edged, often gritty, but always with a smile threatening to form. (Jews from south of Sitka are referred to as “Mexicans.”)

From the first line, this story will grab a reader’s attention. Written in the present tense, it has an immediacy fitting for a book that tries to recreate the style of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective stories in a Jewish community.

Chabon starts off strong with a vision that he vividly crafts on the page. This vision begins to falter in the second half of the novel as Chabon becomes wrapped up in the complicated conventions common to noir stories. The explanations for several conspiracies come off as convoluted, if not entirely out of nowhere. The novel’s ending, too, is not as strong as its opening.

Shortcomings aside, Chabon has done a great service to the genre of speculative (or “what if?”) fiction by showing that it is possible to write a serious S. F. novel.