A Disaster in Three Acts: A Review

A Disaster in Three Acts by Kelsey RodkeyEighteen-year-old Saine Sinclair prides herself on her ability to shape a narrative on film. Her eye for storytelling is why she knows her friendship with Holden Michaels has been over for some time now. As if him publicly rejecting her during a middle school game of spin-the-bottle wasn’t enough, Holden has also dated and broken up with Saine’s current best friend Corinne. In other words, both loyalty and pride dictate that Saine never speak to Holden again.

Which is what makes it so awkward when Saine needs Holden’s help to complete her documentary for a prestigious filmmaking program at Temple University after her original subject drops out. Her preliminary application has already been submitted and approved which means that Saine has to stick to her original topic–following a contestant through a series of live action gaming competitions to win a prototype virtual reality headset–which is where Holden comes in.

Following her ex-best-friend around to film everything he does while thinking she’s telling a familiar tale about a white boy getting what he wants is hard. Doing that while worrying if her current best friend is jealous is even harder.

Saine’s fixation on the success of her film makes it easy to put her growing feelings for Holden and crumbling relationships on hold while she tries to figure out how to shape real life to make sure her documentary wins a spot at Temple by inventing financial problems as motivation and even resorting to sabotage. As her lies and manipulations grow, Saine faces a reality check when she realizes that sometimes narrative growth hurts–especially when it comes to facing the consequences her actions in A Disaster in Three Acts (2022) by Kelsey Rodkey.

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Saine and Holden, like most main characters, are white with some secondary characters cued as BIPOC based on names/skin tones including Saine’s other best friend Kelsey and Holden’s best friend Taj. The cast also includes characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum and a cute side plot romance between two girls in Saine’s friend group. Saine is self-described as fat and she and her mother are lower income both of which play into the plot.

While A Disaster in Three Acts has a well-rounded and nuanced cast of supporting characters, Saine remains deeply flawed throughout the story. Her fixation on the documentary seems to be excused by her grief over her grandmother’s sudden death and the confusing process of moving on alongside her divorced mother as they process the loss and try to move on. Unfortunately that’s a poor excuse for Saine’s choices to make up numerous plots for her documentary (notably manipulating footage and interviews to imply that Holden’s family is struggling financially and that he wants to win the competition to sell the prize), interview subjects without their consent while pretending her camera is turned off, and even outright sabotage when Holden needs her help during a competition.

As the story progresses Saine does have to contend with the consequences of her manipulative, self-centered behavior and her multiple lies to all of her friends. Unfortunately her contrition–even at the end of the book–seems to stem more from being caught behaving badly than from her actual bad behavior.

Saine spends a lot of the documentary lamenting that if Holden wins the competition his success in her documentary will not feel “earned” because he’s just another white boy succeeding. The irony of this is that, by the end of the novel, Saine’s own redemption arc feels similarly unearned and–compared to her egregious behavior–unjustified.

A Disaster in Three Acts is a fast paced story that is often humorous albeit with a main character whose singular focus often works against her character development.

Possible Pairings: A Show For Two by Tashie Bhuiyan, Jasmine Zumideh Needs a Win by Susan Azim Boyer, Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

The Charmed List: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Charmed List by Julie AbeEllie Kobata has been looking forward to her road trip with best friend Lia Park for months. Driving from Palo Alto to the California Magical Retailers’ Convention where magical merchants like Ellie’s parents can showcase their wares will be the perfect summer adventure even if traveling with non-magic-aware Lia poses some challenges. Luckily, Ellie is used to keeping magical secrets. Plus she will have Lia’s help knocking items off her Anti-Wallflower List which Ellie hopes will be able to change her quiet girl persona at school into someone more interesting to her classmates and herself.

Ellie’s high hopes for the trip are dashed when item four–getting revenge on her ex-best-friend Jack Yasuda–goes horribly wrong leaving Ellie grounded for the foreseeable future, in a fight with Lia, and worst of all driving to the convention with Jack.

With so many disasters, Ellie’s list is starting to feel like it might be cursed but as Ellie and Jack are forced to spend time together they might also have the chance to rehab their friendship and maybe even check off some other items from Ellie’s list like dancing under the stars and falling in love in The Charmed List (2022) by Julie Abe.

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The Charmed List is Abe’s YA debut but you might recognize her name from her middle grade series Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch.

Ellie is Japanese American, Jack is half-Italian American, half-Japanese American.

The Charmed List is a delightful standalone filled with romance and magic. Artist Ellie’s initially prickly narration will win readers over as she explains details of her magic-aware world including charms for things like joy or ambition and reveals more of her fraught history with Jack.

With road trip stops including quirky shops, welcoming inns, and magical cottages The Charmed List is as cozy as it is engrossing. Fans of the romance genre will recognize tropes including hate to love, there’s only one bed, and more in this story about second chances and new beginnings.

Possible Pairings: The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, Seoulmates by Susan Lee, Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

All of Us Villains: A Review

All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn HermanEvery twenty years in the small city of Ilvernath the Blood Veil descends marking the start of a new tournament between Ilvernath’s seven founding families. During the course of the tournament, six champions will be killed leaving the lone victor to win control of the region’s high magick–a coveted resource worldwide–until the next tournament.

In previous generations, no one knew about the tournament except the seven families and the spell-and-cursemakers who supply the champions with their arsenals; no one knew that the families were trapped in a seemingly unbreakable curse.

This time things are different thanks to the anonymous publication of “A Tradition of Tragedy: The True Story of the Town that Sends Its Children to Die”–a book that shares all of Ilvernath’s dirty secrets about both the tournament and its participating families.

Now, with the tournament about to start again, the town is filled with paparazzi and spellchasers eager to witness the carnage. All of the champions will face more than they bargained for as the tournament begins to change around them leaving the fate of the champions–and high magick–in question in All of Us Villains (2021) by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman.

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All of Us Villains is the first book in a duology and Foody and Herman’s first writing collaboration. While the characters have diverse sexual identities, most characters (including all POV characters) are white.

The book alternates close third person point of view between self-declared villain Alistair Lowe, reluctant tournament favorite Isobel Macaslan, underdog Gavin Grieve whose family has never won the tournament, and Briony Thorburn whose self-declared chosen one status is threatened by government involvement in this year’s tournament.

An intricate magic system anchors this modern world where common magick exists alongside modern technology allowing people to buy spells for anything from flashlight alternatives to beauty boosts. The carefully developed magic system underscores how much readers don’t know about Ilvernath’s place in the larger world–something that may be explored further in book two.

All of Us Villains is a fast-paced, morally grey story of ambition and survival with a true cliffhanger ending that will leave fans eager for the sequel.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst, An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Steelstriker: A Review

*Steelstriker is the conclusion to Lu’s Skyhunter duology. Start at the beginning with Skyhunter to avoid spoilers.*

Steelstriker by Marie LuSix months after the fall of Mara, the Karensa Federation works mercilessly to absorb the formerly free nation into its sprawling empire. Mara’s artifacts are carted to Federation museums and sculpture gardens, their heritage erased. Prisoners await execution or transformation into Ghosts–the hideous monsters the Federation uses so effectively against both its enemies and its subjects.

Talin Kanami watches helplessly. Once an elite Striker, Talin and her friends tried to stop the Federation’s invasion but they were too late. Now Talin stands at the Premier’s side as a Skyhunter–a human turned war machine with lethal strength and steel wings. Talin is the Premier’s unspoken threat against all who would defy him. She is also his hostage; her good behavior ensuring her captive mother’s continued survival until Talin’s transformation is complete and the Premier controls her completely.

Red escaped the Federation once, his desperate flight bringing him to Mara and to Talin. Her hope made him believe things could change. But now watching another invasion, his wings damaged in battle, the first Skyhunter knows he will need more than rage and regret to help his new friends–especially Talin in Steelstriker (2021) by Marie Lu.

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Steelstriker is the conclusion to Lu’s Skyhunter duology. Start at the beginning with Skyhunter to avoid spoilers.

Chapters alternate between Talin and Red’s first person narrations as the protagonists try to find their way back to each other and continue fighting the Federation. The strong link they shared in book one is weaker now as Talin struggles to contain her emotions before the Premier can use them against her. Isolated and worried about each other, this leads to repetition in the story as both Talin and Red wonder what has become of the other.

Seeds of rebellion and resistance spark action in this story which expands the sophisticated and nuanced world building from book one. Questions of who is fit to run a nation and how power is bestowed add further depth to the book’s political landscape while references to Talin’s tortuous transformation (which occurred between books) remind readers how very dangerous and cruel the Federation can be. As the Premier tries to harness (presumably nuclear) technology from the Early Ones, it becomes clear that sometimes mistakes are doomed to repeat.

Lu once again delves into the brutality of war and invasion as Talin–whose vocal chords were damaged in the invasion of her birthplace, Basea–and Red–who was recruited by the Federation as a child soldier–both reflect on what has brought them to this point. Steelstriker fast-paced and brutal but ultimately a satisfying conclusion to a strong dystopian duology.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

A Dark and Starless Forest: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah HollowellDerry has been living in a secluded house in the woods with her siblings and their protector, Frank, for years. They don’t have luxuries like cosmetics or snack foods or even new books and DVDs. They’re not spoiled at all. But they’re taken care of. They’re safe.

Which Frank has told them is much more important in a world that fears their magic. It’s the same reason he calls them alchemists instead of that more dangerous word: witches.

White, fat, sixteen-year-old Derry and her siblings dislike Frank and fear him even as Frank reminds them that he took them in when no one–not even their parents–wanted them. Derry and her siblings–eldest Jane (who is Black); Winnie (who is fat and white); Brooke (fat, Deaf, Mexican-American); white twins Elle and Irene (Irene is trans); nonbinary, Mexican-American Violet; and the youngest identical Black twins Olivia and London–have fierce bonds between them. Which makes it so much worse when first Jane and then Winnie disappear.

Frank says the girls must have died in the dense forest surrounding their home. But as Derry explores the forest she wonders if the disappearances might be tied to Frank himself.

As she learns more about Frank and her own magical affinity for growing both real and imagined plants Derry will have to decide how far she is willing to go to keep her loved ones safe in A Dark and Starless Forest (2021) by Sarah Hollowell.

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Despite each sibling having distinct magical abilities, this element of the story is largely set dressing for the novel’s plot which is a blend of horror and suspense sprinkled with hints about a dark moment in Derry’s past that makes her reluctant to re-enter the forest in her search for Jane (and later Winnie). The novel is also notable for its focus on the bond between Derry and her siblings with a total absence of romance subplots.

Derry’s first-person narration amplifies the siblings’ isolation with a palpable fear of Frank and his punishments, including the dreaded time out room whose horrors are honed to each sibling’s worst nightmares (blaring lights and erratic, staticky noise for Derry). The restricted narrative works to amp up the tension but leaves many questions about how the siblings’ magic works and, more importantly, the implications of said magic in the outside world.

Hollowell is at pains to create an inclusive cast with some elements (Violet being nonbinary, Irene’s trans identity, everyone’s use of ASL–designated by single quotes around signed dialog–to communicate with Brooke) integrated into the narrative better than others. Derry’s quest to find her missing siblings and save all of them from Frank drives the story but leaves little room for character development of the other siblings who are often absent from the action and remain little more than names and attributes.

Derry’s moral ambiguity is unresolved by the end of the novel as she embraces darker choices to save her siblings heedless of the consequences. Questions about world building and what will come next for all of the siblings are also up in the air. A Dark and Starless Forest is a dark, inclusive blend of horror and extremely light fantasy. Ideal for readers looking for a slightly supernatural tale of suspense.

Possible Pairings: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Half Bad by Sally Green, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton, Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

A Season of Sinister Dreams: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy BanghartStill grieving the death of his son and heir during the Sickness years earlier, the elderly king of Tyne forces all magic workers to the capital where they can prolong his life and protect the castle while the rest of the kingdom suffers.

Annalise has spent years in the castle secretly using her unwieldy magic to weave a web of influence around the king, his grandson (and her cousin) Prince Kendrik, and the king’s advisors. Annalise hopes to exact revenge against the king for her mother’s death–a plan that is close to fruition when Annalise accidentally uses her magic on Kendrik leaving him hidden and monstrously transformed while Annalise becomes the new heir.

Meanwhile, Evra’s quiet country life is ruined when her magic manifests years later than expected making her the first girl ever to become a Clearsee. As magical prophets Clearsees (usually men) use their magic to interpret visions meant to guide and protect the kingdom. While Annalise prepares for her coronation, Evra reluctantly arrives at the capital where she sees cryptic visions hinting at danger. But is the danger a threat to Tyne’s rulers or is it the rulers themselves? in A Season of Sinister Dreams (2021) by Tracy Banghart.

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This plot-driven standalone fantasy alternates chapters between Annalise and Evra’s first person narrations. All characters are presumed white.

With Annalise used to hiding the scope of her powers and Evra newly invested with magic, both narrations are claustrophobic leaving readers and characters floundering. Themes of agency as both heroines try to defy expectations are undermined by extremely limited world building and backstories that never fully explain character motivations or actions–particularly Annalise’s.

Fans of Banghart’s Grace and Fury will appreciate this book’s strong female leads, fast-paced action, and the focus on Evra and Tam’s friendship despite other shortcomings.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Realm Breaker: A Review

Realm Breaker by Victoria AveyardCorayne an-Amarat is a pirate’s daughter eager to embark on her own adventures at sea in Allward. But she is also the last of the ancient Cor bloodline and the only one who can use the ancient spindleblade to protect her realm and make sure the Spindles that can open destabilizing passages between realms are closed.

Reluctant to embrace this lineage, Corayne joins weary immortal Dom as he attempts to mount a second quest to succeed where the first failed in closing the Spindles. Aided by a mercenary assassin and Andry, a squire and the only mortal to survive the first quest, the group will face numerous obstacles as they struggle to work together to save the world in Realm Breaker (2021) by Victoria Aveyard.

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Aveyard follows up her blockbuster Red Queen series with this homage to high fantasy that works to make more space for women and offer a more inclusive cast. The realm of Allward features people with a range of skin tones and backgrounds–Andry is described as “honey brown” while Corayne has “golden skin.”

Shifting viewpoints, flashbacks, and changing locations cut through much of the novel’s potential urgency as the narrative pauses continuously to ruminate on the failed quest seen in the prologue and offer character backstories.

Aveyard creates a compelling world with ample space for female characters in a traditionally male genre. Despite its start and stop pacing, Realm Breaker is action packed with plentiful fights, chases, and other derring-do.

Possible Pairings: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Furyborn by Clarie Legrand, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser, Fable by Adrienne Young

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Tales From the Hinterland: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa AlbertTales From the Hinterland (2021) by Melissa Albert presents Althea Proserpine’s  notorious collection of dark and twisted short stories that form the backbone of the world building in both The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. For the first time the stories that protagonists Alice and Ellery encounter in Albert’s previous novels are presented in their entirety.

Readers familiar with Albert’s oeuvre will recognize many of the tales and characters here notably including Alice, Ilsa, and Hansa. Albert aptly channels classic fairy tale sensibilities into eerie and brutal tales that would have the Brothers Grimm reaching for an extra candle at night. Centering female characters in each story Albert explores the facets of girl-and-womanhood in a world dominated and usually shaped by men.

Standouts in the collection include “The House Under the Stairwell,” where sisterhood wins the day as Isobel seeks help from the Wicked Wife before she is trapped in a deadly betrothal; “The Clockwork Bride,” a richly told story where a girl hungry for enchantment carelessly promises her first daughter to a sinister toymaker who, when he tries to claim his prize, instead finds a girl who wishes only to belong to herself; and “Death and the Woodwife,” where a princess uses her wits and her mother’s unusual gifts to outwit Death and his heir.

With stories fueled by feminist rage, the frustration of being underestimated, and the insatiable longing to experience more Tales From the Hinterland is a collection that is both timely and universal.

You can also check out my interview with Melissa to hear more about this book and the companion novels.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Return of the Thief: A Review

Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen TurnerAfter being born with the infirmity that runs through his family and earning the nickname “monstrous” as a baby, Pheris Mostrus Erondites has grown up aware of his own limitations. His vulnerabilities from his bad leg and arm as well as his inability to speak verbally have never been far from his mind. Pheris is, therefore, as surprised as anyone when he is named his grandfather Baron Erondites’ heir and sent to the Attolian court to serve as an attendant to the king of Attolia, Eugenides.

Years of fear and caution have taught Pheris how to play the fool and hide in plain sight but even he can’t escape Eugenides’ notice as the Little Peninsula prepares for war. As the newly appointed high king of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis, Eugenides has united the three countries but that does not mean their people are ready–or willing–to fight the invading Mede empire.

Pheris observes and recounts everything for readers as political maneuvers, personal dramas, and his grandfather’s schemes unfold while creating an unlikely place for himself both in the palace and in the hearts of some of its residents.

With war looming Eugenides has to work harder than ever to protect everyone he loves and make sure he does not offend the gods who have taken an interest in both the Little Peninsula and him since his early years as the Queen’s Thief in Return of the Thief (2020) by Megan Whalen Turner.

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A direct sequel to Thick as Thieves, this novel will be most rewarding to readers of the entire Queen’s Thief series with the resolution of many character arcs and nods to multiple events across the overlapping timelines of the previous books in this series that has been decades in the making.

Pheris is an unlikely but meticulous narrator drawing readers deeper into the inner workings of the palace while shedding light on the looming war and the enigmatic high king. With shrewd, biting prose, Pheris fits in seamlessly with this group of characters fans have come to know and love. Tension, political drama, and intrigue are well contrasted with moments of levity and affection as both new and old characters have their moment to shine.

Return of the Thief is as intricately plotted as it is utterly satisfying; everything readers could hope for from a conclusion twenty years in the making.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review an issue of School Library Journal*

Skyhunter: A Review

Skyhunter by Marie LuThe country of Mara is fighting a losing war against the Karensa Federation and its superior technology harnessed from the Early Ones–a fallen civilization readers will readily recognize in our present one.

Mara was supposed to be a safe haven for Talin and her mother. Instead refugees are kept outside the city walls and Talin’s status as an elite Striker can’t make some see her as anything more than a “Basean rat” who Marans look down on for little more than her skin color and the shape of her eyes.

As a Striker on the warfront Talin fights Ghosts–humans who have been horrifically re-engineered by the Federation to become monsters intent only on killing. When Talin saves a mysterious prisoner of war she may have also found the key to beating the Federation–but first she has to decide if the prisoner is a potential weapon or an ally in Skyhunter (2020) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

This post-apocalyptic, sci-fi adventure is a visceral exploration of the emotional and physical costs of war. Poison gas scarred Talin’s vocal chords leaving her unable to speak as much from the trauma as the injury; she instead communicates with the sign language used by Strikers.

Talin’s narration is caustic as questions of allegiance and loyalty move the plot forward with Talin and her friends struggling to save a country that offered Talin refuge while withholding common decency–a dichotomy she again has to struggle with while deciding if the enemy prisoner she has rescued is someone to be saved or something to be exploited.

At the cliffhanger end of Skyhunter Mara’s fate is far from secure leaving readers to wait for answers in the conclusion to this duology. Suspense and high-action fights make this plot-driven story both fast-paced and brutal.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*