With the Fire on High: A (WIRoB) Review

Here’s a teaser from the start of my review of With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevedo (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

cover art for With the Fire on High by Elizabeth AcevedoEven with help from her grandmother, ‘Buela, at home, Emoni Santiago has a lot more than college plans on her mind at the start of senior year in Philadelphia. While her best friend, Angelia, is looking at the best graphic-arts programs and enjoying her relationship with her new girlfriend, Emoni is trying to decide if college (or a relationship) can have a place in her future alongside the hopes and dreams she wants to make a reality for Babygirl. And she wonders if it’s time to focus on doing rather than “spending four years pretending to do” in college.

When an opportunity to take an immersive culinary-arts class comes up at school, Emoni knows this is one thing she has to do even if she isn’t sure what to expect — or even if she can afford the class’ trip to Spain alongside the day-to-day costs of helping ‘Buela keep their house afloat.

“If you ask her to tell it, ‘Buela starts with the same story” of Emoni hopping up on a stool and seasoning her first meal at age 4. Emoni doesn’t know what to believe, but “ever since then ‘Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don’t know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I’m happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty.”

Unfortunately, her natural affinity for food and years of experimentation in the kitchen don’t go far when it comes to prepping Emoni for the rigors of the culinary class. Chef Ayden wants to prepare them for work in a restaurant, but Emoni chafes under the structure and restrictions that seem designed to impede her creativity.

Emoni already knows a lot about taking care of herself and the people she loves, but over the course of her senior year, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to learn even more about cooking, family, and opening her heart.

You can read my full review of With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevedo here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/index.php/bookreview/with-the-fire-on-high

Possible Pairings: A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

A Very Large Expanse of Sea: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh MafiShirin is used to moving and being targeted by idiots because of her headscarf–especially now, a year after 9/11. She has no expectations for her new school to be any better.

Except things start to feel different when her older brother tells her they’re going to start a breakdancing crew. Then there’s her lab partner, Ocean, a boy who keeps surprising her—in good ways not the usual disappointing ways.

Even with the promise of something great, Shirin is wary. Even if she and Ocean are ready to take a chance on each other, Shirin isn’t sure her new school is ready for it. After being angry for so long, Shirin has to decide if she’s ready to let anyone in or start caring again in A Very Large Expanse of Sea (2018) by Tahereh Mafi.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is Mafi’s first foray into realistic fiction and hopefully won’t be her last. The novel is narrated Shirin and inspired heavily by Mafi’s own experiences as a teen (including the breakdancing!).

Shirin is a sharp character. Her narration is filled with wry observations and her edges are cutting after years of having to learn to protect herself from people who never want to take the time to see her as anything but other. Lyrical prose and a sweet romance work well to offset Shirin’s bitterness at the world in response to the hate and racism that has become part of her everyday life.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a thoughtful and ultimately hopeful story. Recommended for readers looking for quirky characters, breakdancing, and for anyone who has ever had to choose between holding onto bitterness and grabbing for something sweeter.

Possible Pairings: Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed; Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali; Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi; The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake; Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke; 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario; Not the Girls You’re Looking For by Aminah Mae Safi

When We Caught Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for When We Caught Fire by Anna GodbersenChicago, 1871: Emmeline Carter is about to blast her way into Chicago’s high society, helping her father make good on his rise to wealth with her engagement to Chicago’s most eligible bachelor.

Living in luxury and the envy of so many society debutantes should be enough for Emmeline. It isn’t. Instead, as her engagement looms, Emmeline can’t stop thinking about her carefree days she used to share with her best friend Fiona Byrne and her sweetheart Anders Magnuson. Now Fiona is Emmeline’s maid and Anders a distant memory.

Fiona hopes that Emmeline’s engagement will bring her friend everything she wants–and allow Fiona to pursue Ander’s herself without guilt. Then Emmeline surprises everyone by risking everything she has gained to see Anders one last time.

As friendships are tested and bonds are broken, even the smallest spark might change everything for these three friends and the city they all call home in When We Caught Fire (2018) by Anna Godbersen.

This standalone novel plays out over the course of the summer as Emmeline, Fiona, and Anders move toward the cataclysmic Great Fire. The novel alternates between chapters following Emmeline and Fiona’s points of view.

Godbersen once again brings the past to life with evocative descriptions of the city (and, of course, the fashions) of the time. While the main focus is on the Great Fire, When We Caught Fire also explores the inequality and corruption that ran rampant through the Gilded Age.

At its core, When We Caught Fire is a story about a friendship and a love triangle. The relationships between the three characters remain the driving force of the story even as the events of the fire play out in the novel’s explosive final act.

An open ending and nuanced characters allow readers to draw their own conclusions while fleshing out the story. When We Caught Fire is frothy, slightly sensational, and utterly entertaining. Recommended for readers who want their historical fiction filled with all the gory details and juicy parts.

Possible Pairings: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper, Alex & Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz, Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher, Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl, Vixen by Jillian Larkin, Cinders and Sapphires by Leila Rasheed

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Everything All at Once: A Review

cover art for Everything All at Once by Katrina LenoLottie Reaves doesn’t take risks. She prefers to play it safe. But even her usual caution is no help when her aunt Helen–the one person who always seemed to understand Lottie’s anxiety and panic–dies of cancer. But Lottie and her family aren’t the only ones mourning. After Helen’s death it feels like the whole world is mourning the loss of the beloved author of the Alvin Hatter series about siblings Alvin and Margot and the chaos that follows when they discover an elixir that grants immortality.

After Helen’s death it feels like Lottie is spinning out as her panic about death, life, and so many other things start to feel so much bigger. Grieving and feeling more than a little lost, Lottie receives the most surprising inheritance from Helen’s will: twenty-four letters each filled with a dare designed to help Lottie learn how to embrace change and risk.

Helen promised the letters would lead to some bigger truth, answers to questions Lottie hasn’t even learned enough to ask yet, but as she steps outside of her comfort zone and learns more about her aunt, Lottie also discovers the shocking secret that inspired her aunt to write the Alvin Hatter books–a secret that could change Lottie’s life forever in Everything All at Once (2017) by Katrina Leno.

Leno’s latest standalone is part contemporary coming-of-age story and part fantasy with heavy nods toward Tuck Everlasting and Harry Potter. The narrative is broken up with letters from Aunt Helen and excerpts from the Alvin Hatter books throughout.

Lottie’s first person narration is sometimes claustrophobic as she struggles to work through her panic and anxiety. Leno handle’s this portrayal with honesty and authenticity as Lottie tries to find coping mechanisms that work for her while also trying to overcome her anxiety when it prevents her from doing what she really wants. Everything All at Once is the first time I’ve seen a novel truly capture and explore the fear of mortality that hangs over a grieving person expressed so clearly.

On her journey Lottie has conscientious parents, a supportive younger brother, and a funny and smart best friend willing to follow her on every adventure. There’s also a cute but mysterious boy and one of my favorite romantic exchanges (One character asks “Are you saying we’re not friends?” And the other replies “That’s exactly what I’m saying.” And it’s perfect.) But I can’t tell you much more without revealing too much.

Everything All at Once is strongest as a story about grieving, growing up, and an ode to reading and fandoms. Leno plants seeds early on for more surprises (some of which are heavily broadcast) but it also can feel like one element too many. Recommended for readers looking for an empowering story about growing up and working through loss. Or readers who love Tuck Everlasting but wanted more banter and kissing.

Possible Pairings: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble

My Plain Jane: A Review

My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi MeadowsYou might think you know Jane Eyre’s story: her childhood privation, her governess position at Thornfield Hall, and her immediate attraction to the dark and brooding Mr. Rochester. You’d be wrong. Mostly because you haven’t heard about the ghosts. Don’t worry, though, My Plain Jane (2018) by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows has you covered.

This standalone alternate history novel inserts teenage aspiring author Charlotte Brontë into the world of her own making (with the addition of ghosts) as she chronicles the life of her best friend at Lowood, Jane Eyre, as inspiration for her first novel about the life of one “Jane Frere.”

Charlotte’s authorial ambitions and Jane’s plans to become a governess are thwarted when Jane’s ability to see ghosts comes to the attention of Alexander Blackwood, an agent for the once prestigious Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits. Determined to help his mentor restore the Society to its past glory, Alexander is keen to recruit Ms. Eyre as an agent–even if it means taking off his ever-present mask and accepting help from the overly eager Ms. Brontë and her screw up brother. This simple task spirals into a madcap story of ghosts, possession, revenge, and murder as Charlotte, Jane, and Alexander must set aside their differences to solve the mysteries of Thornfield Hall, help the Society (and the ghosts), and maybe even save the king of England in the process.

Narrated by Charlotte, Jane, and Alexander in alternating chapters My Plain Jane uses Jane Eyre as a loose framework for the plot which is populated with familiar characters from both the classic novel and history as well as numerous Easter eggs including a likely explanation for the origins of Charlotte’s chosen pen name and excerpts from Jane Eyre as seen in Charlotte’s trusty notebook.

My Plain Jane blends fact with fiction in a humorous story that offers a gentler and more hopeful outcome for Charlotte and her siblings along with a more plausible ending for anyone who ever wondered why Jane Eyre would marry a man twice her age after his first wife is discovered in the attic. A must-read for fans of My Lady Jane or Jane Eyre and a fun alternative for fans of paranormal romances.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer

*A more condensed version of this review was published the March 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Everless: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Everless by Sara HollandIn the kingdom of Sempera time can be bled out of a person and bound to iron making it the literal currency of the kingdom. In Crofton there’s never enough. Desperate to save her father before he sells what little time he has left, Jules returns to Everless—the family estate that was home to her fondest childhood memories as well as the haunting nightmare that forced her and her father to flee ten years ago.

No one seems to remember Jules but she remembers enough about cruel Liam Gerling and his handsome and kind brother Roan to know she’d best keep a low profile in her new position as a maid at the estate.

The entire estate is bustling with preparations for Roan’s wedding to Ina Gold, the Queen’s official heir. Raised up from humble beginnings as an orphan, Ina is beloved throughout Sempera and granted unguarded access to Everless and the Queen. Working as Ina’s maid at the estate might also be Jules’ best chance to unlock the mysteries of her own past.  Secrets abound at Everless but with danger looming Jules isn’t certain she’ll have enough time to uncover them all in Everless (2018) by Sara Holland.

Everless is Holland’s debut novel and the start of a series.

Everless starts with an inventive and surprising premise: what if time could be measured and sold? From this tantalizing question Holland builds the rich and strongly developed world of Sempera. Although the mythology and world building is initially muddy, many questions are answered by the end of the novel as various pieces of Sempera’s past begin to fall into place.

Jules is an impulsive and often frustrating heroine. She doesn’t think or consider. Instead she spends most of the book reacting first as she sneaks her way into a job at Everless and then when she realizes she can’t safely remain at the estate. While that makes for an incredibly exciting and nail-biting read it is also infuriating to watch Jules repeatedly rush into things that could easily be avoided if only she would listen.

Everless is a sprawling, grand estate and the novel itself is suitably well-populated with fascinating characters. Roan and Liam, the two Gerling sons who will one day inherit Everless and its wealth, serve as a point of infatuation for Jules–Roan as the object of her childhood affections and Liam as the reason she and her father had to leave the estate’s comfort and shelter when she was seven. Despite getting far less page time, Liam is by far the more interesting of the two and a character I look forward to seeing in the sequel.

Everless is a strong series starter filled with action and intrigue. This story starts small focusing on Jules’s own survival and revenge only to gain momentum as Jules finds herself at the center of a story that could change the entire forever. Highly recommended for fantasy readers and sci-fi fans who like their science with a heavy dose of alchemy.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, Wither by Lauren DeStefano, The Jewel by Amy Ewing, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, Shimmer and Burn by Mary Taranta

Infinite In Between: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Not necessarily the beginning and not really the end, either. It was the infinite in between, all those minuscule and major moments when they’d dipped in and out of each other’s lives. That had been their journey and somehow, even though they hadn’t realized it, they’d been on it together.”

The five of them meet at high school orientation.

Gregor plays cello and he loves his family. His world feels far too small to be starting high school where older kids like his sister seem so much more together. He is hopelessly in love with Whitney but he has no idea how to tell her especially when his grand gestures manage to go awry. Getting Whitney to notice him is Gregor’s biggest problem  until a sudden tragedy changes everything.

Everyone saw the viral video of Zoe’s actress mother screaming at her in a dressing room. She knows everyone sees her as a spoiled brat who is just like her mom. But that isn’t the whole story. It isn’t even close.

Jake knows he’s gay. He knows it the same we he knows he’s an artist and the same way he knows he can’t play football anymore after what happened on the bus. The harder part is dealing with his crush on his best friend, Ted.

Whitney is pretty and popular. She seems to have it all. Except things at home are starting to unravel and there’s a constant push and pull to balance expectations people have of who Whitney should be like–her white mother or her black father.

Even at orientation, Mia is an outsider. She doesn’t have many friends or much of a family with her parents more interested in work than her. Mia is an observer and an expert at blending in. But before high school ends she’ll have to figure out where she fits and how to speak up before it’s too late.

Five teens. Four years. One journey that changes everything in Infinite in Between (2015) by Carolyn Mackler.

Infinite in Between is written in close third person perspective which shifts between Gregor, Zoe, Jake, Whitney, and Mia. The novel starts with their orientation the day before high school and follows all of them through four years to graduation day.

Despite the broad scope and large cast, Infinite in Between is fast-paced and populated with well-developed characters. While each character has their own journey–often without much overlap–all five of their stories intersect in interesting ways throughout the novel often in ways only apparent to the reader.

Infinite in Between is an inventive novel ideal for readers making their own way through the labyrinthine passages of high school as well as readers who appreciate overlapping narratives and stories reminiscent of Six Degrees of Separation. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen, The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, All Summer Long by Hope Larson, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2014*