Into the Bright Unknown: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Into the Bright Unknown is the final book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger*

“It’s knowing someone so deeply that facing the unknown together isn’t dark and dangerous, but instead beautiful and bright.”

cover art for Into the Bright Unknown by Rae CarsonLeah Westfall came to California to make her fortune with her witchy gift to sense gold. Along the way Lee has been chased by her parents’ murderer–her own uncle–and found an unlikely new family in her wagon train heading west.

The California Territory has yielded riches and helped Lee and her friends grow their settlement into the fledgling town of Glory. But a town doesn’t become a town just by existing. It needs a charter. Something that Lee has been promised with no sign of delivery.

Lee has made a life for herself in Glory but preparations for her wedding with her fiancé (and best friend) Jefferson will have to wait as Lee and her friends work to keep what’s rightfully theirs. Billionaires are circling the Glory settlers looking for their own peace of the wealth and Lee is coming up against someone who might have a power like her own–something she never imagined could be possible.

It will take Lee and all of her friends, both new and old, to make sure they come out on top this time in Into the Bright Unknown (2017) by Rae Carson.

Into the Bright Unknown is the final book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger.

This installment picks up shortly after the events of Like a River Glorious. Lee is still haunted by memories of her abduction by her uncle and, worse, by the atrocities he committed against the American Indians and Chinese immigrants that he held captive to work his mine. As Lee and her friends once again encounter adversity and obstacles Lee has to relearn the hard lessons that she can’t save everyone and that she may not know best.

Although this novel is filled with more fantasy elements than the first two in the series, Carson continues to deliver solid historical fiction. Her descriptions of San Francisco bring the bustling boom town to life at a time when settlers were literally expanding the coastline by building on top of ships abandoned in port by crews eager to join the gold rush. Carson also continues to be careful to keep our heroine Lee at the center of the story without framing her as a white savior. Lee’s privileges and biases are constantly checked by her wiser and often more world weary counterparts helping her to become a better ally and a stronger character.

Forced to buy their freedom in the form of a town charter Into the Bright Unknown quickly shifts to a bit of a heist novel as Lee tries with the help of her friends to get the best of a California billionaire with his eyes on the town of Glory and the US presidency.

Into the Bright Unknown is an excellent conclusion to one of my favorite trilogies. While Lee and Jefferson’s future is uncertain, their devotion to each other is plain and ensures that whatever comes next, they’ll face it together. If you’re looking for a new western or historical fantasy to love this series is for you.

Possible Pairings: Retribution Rails by Erin Bowman, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Nothing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Nothing ever happens to Charlotte and Frankie. Their lives are never going to be immortalized in the pages of a YA novel because they are way too boring. They don’t have glorious red hair or super hot love interests. Theirs lives aren’t falling apart and they definitely aren’t werewolves. Charlotte and Frankie just live at home with their parents who are pretty normal. They go to high school. That’s about it. Nothing.

Charlotte decides to prove how boring their lives are by writing all about everything that happens to both of them during their sophomore year. But as Charlotte tries to prove that life doesn’t have a plot or character development she starts to realize that real life might have its charms after all in Nothing (2017) by Annie Barrows.

Nothing is Barrows’ YA debut novel. The story was inspired by Barrows’ own children bemoaning their totally mundane and non-book-worthy lives.

The novel is written in alternating first person narration with Charlotte’s writing project and Frankie’s more traditional prose. Despite having distinct personalities and unique arcs, it’s often hard to distinguish between Frankie and Charlotte’s narrations as their voices blend together thanks to similar phrasing and cadence.

Charlotte and Frankie are authentic teens who fall decidedly on the younger end of the YA spectrum. There are no soul mates or life and death situations here but there are crushes, party-induced hangovers, and a couple of big surprises.

A quick, contemporary read ideal for anyone who enjoys realistic fiction with a healthy dose of laughs, strong friendships, and minimal drama or tears.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, Where I Belong by Gwendolyn Heasley, Confessions of a Not It Girl by Melissa Kantor, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales

Eliza and Her Monsters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

How can I want something so badly but become so paralyzed every time I even think about taking it?

Eliza Mirk is a name that should belong to a comic book character. Not necessarily a cool one but at least a low level villain.

Real life Eliza is neither of those things. She’s quiet and awkward. Her parents relentlessly try to get her into sports even though they are well aware she isn’t athletic like her younger brothers. Sully and Church don’t understand Eliza anymore than she understands them. And, honestly, with Eliza going away to college in a couple of years she doesn’t see the point of trying to connect. Real life feels secondary to the world Eliza has made for herself and her fans online as Lady Constellation, the creator of the enormously popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Between her comic, fans, and her online friends Eliza doesn’t need anyone else.

Eliza’s secret life collides with her real life when Wallace Warland transfers to her school. Online Wallace is Monstrous Sea’s biggest fanfiction writer. In real life he is the first person who’s managed to not only draw Eliza out of her shell but actually make her want to stay there.

Eliza’s carefully ordered life is turned upside down when her secret is revealed. As she deals with the fallout Eliza will have to decide if letting everyone in her life–online and off–know the real her is worth the risk in Eliza and Her Monsters (2017) by Francesca Zappia.

Eliza’s first person narration is interspersed with excepts from Monstrous Sea fanfiction, message boards, emails, and illustrations of parts of the Monstrous Sea comics done by Zappia. This story is character driven but also fast-paced as Eliza’s world slowly starts to expand with help from Wallace. Eliza struggles with anxiety as she pushes against the limitations of what she feels capable of managing versus what she actually wants.

Eliza and Her Monsters sounds like it will be a story about a comic and a secret identity–maybe with a little romance. Instead it’s really a story about connection within a fandom and finding your thing and your people but losing yourself along the way. It’s also about fixing that–a lesson Eliza learns throughout the course of the novel.

Zappia offers an honest and thoughtful portrayal of a character with anxiety here and some interesting perspective on what it means to create and engage within a fan community. Eliza’s online friends are given as much, if not more, weight than her real life friends in a way that will feel authentic to anyone who’s ever made friends through social media whom they may never meet in person.

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

After her secret life as Lady Constellation comes out, Eliza suffers crippling doubt and anxiety as she is faced with drawing more Monstrous Sea installments with everyone knowing her identity. Honestly, I didn’t understand Eliza’s doubts and paralysis in the face of creating after her identity was revealed. It was one of those things that didn’t compute. Then in August I had one of my own tweets go viral on Twitter gaining thousands of RTs/impressions and bringing almost a thousand new followers to my feed. Suddenly, Eliza’s reaction started to make a lot more sense as I struggled myself with how to move forward while knowing so many people were watching me. It’s a hard thing to adjust to and learn to ignore.

Once that started to make sense I was still left with one major issue: I hated the way Eliza’s relationship with Wallace played out. Throughout their friendship, Wallace is working to novelize the Monstrous Sea comic–something that Eliza loves and supports. After she is outed, Wallace reveals that he has a book deal with a publisher for that novelization once it’s completed. He needs Eliza’s permission which she readily gives. But he also needs Eliza to finish the comic so that he can finish the novelization. Something she feels incapable of doing in the face of everyone knowing her name and watching her, ready to pounce.

Wallace doesn’t understand this until Eliza almost considers suicide in the face of all of this pressure and instead of supporting her her only wants what he needs from her. Aside from issues of these publishing logistics (none of it sounded quite right within the text) it felt out of character for Wallace to suddenly negate Eliza’s concerns in the face of his own ambition. Every other aspect of their relationship was sweet, but this thread with the publication of Monstrous Sea was frustrating at best and problematic at worst.

**END SPOILERS**

Eliza and Her Monsters is a perfect book for readers who liked Fangirl (especially if you didn’t skip the fanfic parts) and comics fans looking for something new. Recommended for readers seeking a book that offers sarcasm, pathos, and affirmation in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Don’t Cosplay With My Heart by Cecil Castellucci, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, In Real Life by Jessica Love, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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.

Thick As Thieves: A Review

Kamet is a slave but he is also poised to become one of the most powerful men in the Mede Empire thanks to his master Nahuseresh’s close relationship with the Emperor. While he knows the limitations of his life as a secretary and slave, Kamet is ambitious and eager for the chance to help shape the Empire and wield his influence–a future that is almost certainly within reach until one whispered conversation changes everything.

No longer safe in his position, or even in his city, Kamet embarks on a journey that will take him farther than he once thought possible. Traveling across the country and away from the seat of the Mede Empire, Kamet finds an unlikely ally in an Attolian soldier far from home and discovers that sometimes choice and freedom can be much more important than power or influence in Thick as Thieves (2017) by Megan Whalen Turner.

To call this book my most anticipated 2017 release would be a gross understatement. When I found out I was reviewing this book for School Library Journal (and thus getting to read it early as an ARC) I screamed and scared one of my coworkers. This series has gotten under my skin and been part of my life for almost two decades (the first book in the series, The Thief, just had its twentieth anniversary). I am so happy this series still has the love it deserves and that the series is not only in print but reissued this year (with new covers!) so that new people can discover it and love it as much as I do.

Turner returns to the world of Eugenides and her Queen’s Thief series in this fifth installment which moves beyond the familiar borders of the countries of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis. Thick as Thieves is filled with characters readers will learn to love and want to return to again and again including several from earlier books in the series.

Kamet is analytical and pragmatic–traits which come across completely in his first person narration. He brings a fresh perspective to familiar places and people while expanding the world of this series with his knowledge of Mede culture and mythology including the wayward gods, Immakuk and Ennikar.

Turner expertly negotiates Kamet’s complicated feelings about his enslavement. Intellectually Kamet knows he lacks freedom. He knows his position as a slave is vulnerable in an empire that has a singular fear of its slave population. At the same time, Kamet allows himself to be blinded by his own ambitions and his narrow view of the world. Kamet’s journey from a circumspect and scholarly secretary to a man in control of his own fate is immensely satisfying as is the way Kamet’s story intertwines with other pieces of the series and helps smaller plot points come into focus.

This whip-smart book works equally well as an introduction for readers just discovering Turner’s characters and as a way to move the series forward to what promises to be a stirring conclusion for long-time fans. Thick as Thieves is a dazzling adventure and a truly charming story of unlikely friends. A must for fantasy readers seeking titles rich with intrigue and politics. Cannot recommend this book or this series highly enough.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, 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 starred review in the April 1, 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

A Conspiracy of Kings: A (Reread) Review

Sophos has always known that he is too soft and too scholarly to be a proper heir to his uncle the king of Sounis. When he is exiled to the island of Letnos after parting ways with the magus and a thief who proved too clever for his own good, Sophos is free to spend his days reading poetry and contemplating philosophy even if it is in the company of an odious tutor.

All of that changes the moment Letnos is attacked and Sophos is abducted. Hidden away and rendered unrecognizable, Sophos has a chance to turn away from his responsibilities as Sounis’ heir.

It is not easy to become a king. But it turns out it’s even harder to forsake your own country. Navigating the murky waters of friendship and sovereignty, Sophos will have to decide if old friends can become new allies and whether or not honor, or freedom for that matter, have anything to do with ruling a country in A Conspiracy of Kings (2010) by Megan Whalen Turner.

A Conspiracy of Kings is the fourth book in Turner’s Queen’s Thief series and continues Sophos’ story–a character first introduced as one of Gen’s travel companions back in The Thief. Sophos narrates this novel in the first person. Throughout most of the novel he is talking to someone as he relates the story of what brought him all the way to Attolia after a dangerous journey across Sounis. The second person is a hard tense to negotiate but it works well here and realizing who Sophos is talking to is a revelation in itself.

Perception always plays a role in Turner’s books and A Conspiracy of Kings is no exception. The manipulations here are even more subtle as Sophos tries to fit the present Eugenides as king of Attolia with his memories of Gen the thief. In addition to that, Sophos’ own self-perception also comes into play with a fascinating character study through his narration.

Sophos is a guileless character and he is very aware of his limitations throughout the story. He is sensitive, he blushes at the drop of a hat, he is not an experienced swordsman, the list goes on. Because of this, Sophos’ narration is refreshingly forthright and direct. Sophos is quick to explain his internal struggles and even some of his shortcomings as he tries to come to terms with the shocking reality that he is responsible for the fate of an entire country. Of course, that only tells part of the story as Sophos fails to notice the ways in which he himself has changed and grown on his journey to becoming a king in his own right.

Much of this series focuses on Eugenides’ journey from boy to man and by extension from his path from man to king. A Conspiracy of Kings is a slightly different story as Sophos acknowledges not only that he is a king but also that he might have been meant to be king all along.

This book has my favorite ending of the entire series. I love the dialogue that concludes this story and I especially enjoy tracing the path of Sophos and Gen’s friendship as they begin to meet each other on equal footing. A Conspiracy of Kings is another arresting story filled with evocative prose and characters that are guaranteed to resonate.

If you enjoy A Conspiracy of Kings, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Thief, The Queen of AttoliaThe King of Attolia and Thick as Thieves.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, 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

The King of Attolia: A (Reread) Review

It is not easy to become the king of a country already fond of its queen, especially for a foreigner who kidnapped that queen and may or may not have forced her hand in the matter of their marriage. How can any man truly become a king when no one sees him as a sovereign? Not that it matters. With such tenuous foundations, sovereignty is not enough to ensure loyalty anyway.

Being the Thief of Eddis was always enough for Eugenides. He didn’t want to become King of Attolia. He didn’t want the crown at all. He wanted the queen. Even more wondrous, Attolia wanted him. But one cannot marry a queen without becoming a king.

Their marriage will not be an easy one. Each move will require careful calculation. Especially when a rash young guard is dragged into the middle of the kingdom’s political machinations.

Much like Gen himself, Costis wants nothing to do with the royal court or Eugenides’ efforts to avoid all royal responsibility. And yet the more time he spends with the young king the more Costis understands all that Gen has lost in his pursuit of the throne–and what made the sacrifice worthwhile. Together these unlikely allies might even teach the Attolian court a thing or two about what it takes to be a true king in The King of Attolia (2006) by Megan Whalen Turner.

I’m hard pressed to pick a favorite book in this series–it’s a bit like asking a person to pick their favorite arm or leg–but some of my favorite scenes from the series are in The King of Attolia. Going into this book I, like most fans of Turner’s series, already know and love Gen. Which makes it all the more satisfying to watch as Eugenides performs for and ultimately wins over all of Attolia.

This book is written in third person with shifting perspectives. Most of the story is told through a close focus on Costis, a young soldier in Attolia’s royal guard. Readers learn about Gen’s changed circumstances through Costis’ eyes. In this way, it is easy to see how little the country thinks of their new king and also, thanks to moments from Gen and Attolia’s perspectives, how greatly they underestimate his cunning and his ingenuity.

Attolia and Eugenides are one of the most fascinating couples in literature. Nothing about them quite makes sense. Attolia is older and even taller–she embodies her title and position so much that it feels strange to refer to her by her given name, Irene. She is brutal and demands attention. Eugenides is small, like all good thieves, and abhors attention and the trappings that come with being in the public eye. Since the loss of his hand he has had to create a new persona–one that often capitalizes on selling himself short (and only partly on really not wanting to be a king). Watching the two of them balance all of the fraught history between them and what it means to be royalty as well as newly married is fascinating and made me fall in love with both Attolia and Gen all over again.

Costis’ perspective also breathes some new life into this story filled with familiar characters. Both he and Gen have a lot of growing up to do in this story as each young man begins to grasp his true place in the world. The King of Attolia is a slow burn of a story filled with satisfying reveals, wonderful moments, and truly memorable characters. Richly told and expertly written, The King of Attolia is another fine installment in this marvelous series.

If you enjoy The King of Attolia, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings and Thick as Thieves.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, 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