The Kingdom: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Kingdom by Jess RothenbergThe Kingdom™ is more than a theme park. Filled with rides, augmented reality shows, and much more, The Kingdom™ is a completely immersive experience where visitors dreams come true.

Ana is one of seven fantasists. Like the formerly extinct species that roam The Kingdom™’s parks, Ana is genetically engineered–partly biological and part machine. She and the other fantasists reign over the park as imagined princesses greeting visitors, performing, and helping park visitors’ dreams come true.

Fantasists can understand and identify emotions. But they aren’t supposed to experience them. Except Ana is fairly certain she feels something when she befriends Owen Chen, one of the park’s employees.

Ana isn’t the only thing malfunctioning in the park. Engineered animals keep dying, her sisters are scared. Then there are the nightmares. When Ana is accused of murdering Owen, she knows she is innocent. But it’s all too easy for the public to believe the worst.

After spending her whole life catering to the whims of others, Ana will have to learn to speak for herself if she wants to survive in The Kingdom (2019) by Jess Rothenberg.

The Kingdom is a sleek blend of mystery and sci-fi elements in a dystopian world where resources are limited and escapism is worth any price. Ana’s story unfolds in a non-linear narrative including Ana’s first person narration, trial transcripts, and interviews.

While the non-linear narrative lends an element of suspense to this story, it never builds tension instead making for slow pacing and the sense that Ana is deliberately withholding information.

Questions of sentience, humanity, and mercy are interrogated throughout the narrative as Ana and her sisters are dehumanized and subjugated as part of their lives as Fantasists. Gory scenes with animal deaths further emphasize the theme park’s grim inner workings.

The Kingdom is a stark story set in an eerily plausible world. Recommended for readers who like their speculative fiction, and their heroines, to have a little grit.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton, The Similars by Rebecca Hanover, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Famous in a Small Town: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Famous in a Small Town by Emma MillsSophie has very specific plans for the summer before her senior year at Acadia High School.

She needs to stay on track with the goals listed in her College Collective handbook including continuing to volunteer at the local library. She has to make time to practice with the Acadia High School Marching Band as they prepare for the school year, fit in babysitting gigs for her neighbors, and of course hang out with her four best friends when they have time. Honestly, it’s a lot like every other summer Sophie has spent growing up in Acadia.

There are two big differences this year: the first is that Sophie has to figure out a way to help the marching band raise enough money to get to the Rose Parade. The second is August–the mysterious younger brother of her regular babysitting client who appears seemingly out of nowhere.

Sophie is immediately drawn to August. And it seems like the feeling might be mutual. Except that August keeps pushing her away. And Sophie doesn’t know what to do about it.

It turns out solving the marching band’s fundraising problem might be a lot easier. Megan Pleasant, country music superstar, is Acadia’s one claim to fame. All Sophie has to do is invite Megan back to headline a fundraising festival. What could be easier?

As Sophie tries to figure out why Megan has publicly promised she’ll never return to Acadia, she’ll learn a lot about first love, and all of the things that can hold a friendship together–or tear it apart in Famous in a Small Town (2019) by Emma Mills.

Mills’ latest standalone contemporary is another delight filled with humor and introspection. Sophie’s first person narration is self-aware and sardonic.

Famous in a Small Town is a lot like a welcome hug. This story is very character driven with a meandering plot that even at its most urgent promises readers everything will be okay. You might also think of it as a Hallmark movie but with characters who are more inclusive and nuanced, subtler sincerity and, in this case, more dick jokes.

Famous is a Small Town is an ode to the quirks and charms of small towns, big personalities, and friendship in all of its forms. An endearing book that is as welcome as a breeze on a warm summer day. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

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

Children of Blood and Bone: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Eleven years ago magic disappeared. Maji throughout Orïsha were brutally killed, their magic torn away before it could save them. Zélie Adebola remembers the night of the Raid when her mother was murdered and her father broken.

Now the children of the maji, Divîners, and the magicless Kosidán now live at the mercy of King Saran who has Orïsha unrecognizable as the wondrous land it once was.

It’s been a long time since Zélie‘s people had any reason to hope. But after a chance encounter in the marketplace, Zélie crosses paths with Amari–a princess and now a fugitive. Amari has stolen a that could bring magic back. But only if Zélie and her brother Tzain can help Amari outwit their pursuers led by Amari’s brother the crown prince and retrieve the other items needed for a ritual to correct the damage of the Raid eleven years ago in Children of Blood and Bone (2018) by Tomi Adeyemi.

Children of Blood and Bone is Adeyemi’s debut novel. This fantasy is inspired by Nigerian culture and is the blockbuster start to a high fantasy trilogy.

Readers need more books inspired by African cultures, readers need more books with  characters of color in leading roles. Children of Blood and Bone is a huge leap in both areas and helping to the lay the groundwork for more to come. I loved a lot of the characters, I loved the rich settings, and I loved the fast-pacing for the first half of the story.

I was less impressed with some of the plotting and world building–both of which often came across as slapdash.

Children of Blood and Bone fits nicely into what I typically refer to as “fantasy lite”–a subgenre where stories take place in a fantasy setting with high action, some romance, and lots of adventure. These stories sometimes lack a cohesive internal logic particularly when it comes to world building and magic systems. Every time Zélie runs into a problem that her magic can’t solve, the rules change so that she suddenly can. Similarly when circumstances conspire to stop Zélie and Amari in their tracks a deux ex machina appears to help them along.

The dialogue in this novel is snappy and fun but often anachronistic. Interestingly, the novel includes first person narration chapters from Zélie, Amari, and Inan–the crown prince determined to destroy magic even as he fights his growing attraction to Zélie.

Character motivations, particularly in the final act, become muddled as Zélie and readers have to decide once and for all who can be called an ally and who is truly an enemy. Adeyemi populates this story with a vibrant cast of characters in everything from skin tone and body type to personality.

Children of Blood and Bone is an engrossing if overly long fantasy. Excellent characters and action balance out a sloppy ending and underdeveloped world building. Recommended for fantasy readers looking for their next splashy adventure.

Possible Pairings: Roar by Cora Carmack, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

Foolish Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Foolish Hearts by Emma MillsThe entire construct of a pink party works on the expectation that the guests wear pink. Iris Huang wearing lavender to Amber Brunati’s pink party suggests exactly what she thinks of Amber and the party. But that’s just the way Iris operates–a surliness that is usually balanced out by her sweeter girlfriend, Paige Bruckner. The two have been together for most of high school and always present a united front. Always.

At least they did before Claudia overhears Paige breaking up with Iris. And gets caught eavesdropping.

Being on Iris’s bad side is punishment enough but it gets worst when Claudia and Iris have to write a paper together. Which they fail. Claudia is certain that working with Iris on the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for extra credit promises even more torture.

But somewhere between bombing her audition and shopping for materials to help with costume production, something funny happens. Suddenly instead of sticking to what she knows and keeping her head down, Claudia’s world is starting to get bigger.

Soon Claudia realizes that appearances can be deceiving as she discovers a boy band obsession, the ineffable Gideon Pruitt, and perhaps most surprisingly of all an unexpected friendship with the last person she expects in Foolish Hearts (2017) by Emma Mills.

In her latest standalone contemporary Mills explores friendship, romance, and fandom. Claudia’s world is pretty small. She has her family and her best friend Zoe, her scholarship to a fancy prep school, and all of the culture shock that implies. Claudia also has Battle Quest the massively multiplayer online role playing game she plays with her older brother and sister, her brother-in-law, and Zoe. Together they explore the game and pursue quests to find and vanquish the elusive Lord of Wizard. Claudia knows it’s not the most interesting of lives, but she’s always liked it.

At the start of senior year everything is changing as Claudia considers a near future where she and Zoe will be separated. That paired with Iris’s threat to ruin Claudia if she blabs about overhearing the breakup is more than enough excitement and uncertainty. Usually it would also force Claudia into a tactical retreat to maintain her low profile. Working on the school play changes that as Claudia is thrust into the world of costume creation and becomes a de facto drama coach helping the cast make sense of their dense dialogue.

I almost never say this but everything about Foolish Hearts makes me so happy. This book is all of the things that I loved in This Adventure Ends (including a male lead every bit as compelling and quirky as Frank Sanger) with none of the frustrating parts. Mills’ cast is thoughtfully and effortlessly inclusive (just like real life) and features a cast of memorable, quirky characters readers will love.

Even months after finishing Foolish Hearts I am still completely overwhelmed by how much I love it and how happy this story and these characters made me. A must read for fans of contemporary (romance) novels and anyone who’s ever fallen headfirst into a fandom without looking back. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Analee in Real Life by Janelle Milanes, Kissing in America by Margo Rabb, Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy by Tiffany Schmidt, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers: A Non-Fiction Review

“One must work and be bold if one really wants to live.”

Vincent Van Gogh’s life is the stuff of legend filled with passion, creativity, and the  larger-than-life personality of a man whose paintings would change the art world forever with their contributions to Post-Impressionism. Maybe you’ve heard about his explosive time in the Yellow House with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Maybe you know the salacious details of when he cut off his own ear.

No one knew what the future would think of Vincent when he was a young man in the Netherlands. Vincent was known for his passions, yes. But he was also erratic, bombastic, and to put it frankly, difficult. Even Vincent’s favorite brother, Theo, sometimes found him hard to take. The brothers had a lot in common. They both had red hair and neatly trimmed beards–in fact, if you look at Vincent’s self-portrait and his portrait of Theo you might have a hard time telling them apart, especially when they swap hats. They wrote each other copious letters and shared a love of art. They would both die in their thirties but the legacy they left behind would last far longer.

Vincent didn’t realize he wanted to be a painter until he was in his twenties–he made up for the late start with a zealous commitment to his work and a prolific output over the course of his short life. Vincent only started to get the recognition he craved near the end of his life. Even then his true genius wouldn’t be recognized until years after his death.

While Vincent created the art, it was Theo who helped build the legend. Theo nurtured Vincent’s talents, supported him financially, and made sure his paintings were seen in galleries that were beginning to move away from the old masters and show art in newer, brighter and more abstract styles.

Now, so many years after their deaths, it’s hard to imagine a time when their lives weren’t intertwined. But it wasn’t always like that. It all started on a long walk to a windmill and a pledge of lifelong friendship and commitment to both each other and to their mutual work. That fateful day–the pledge, the commitment, and the companionship–would shape the lives of both brothers as they chased their passions and ambitions both together and apart over the course of their short, turbulent lives in Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers (2017) by Deborah Heiligman.

Vincent and Theo is the 2017 winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction.

Heiligman’s latest book explores the complex relationship between Vincent and Theo Van Gogh as both men tried to define who they wanted to be and to pursue their dreams. Vincent and Theo rarely lived in the same place as they grew older. But they wrote letters to each other constantly detailing their hopes, their failures, and details of their daily lives. Of course, they also talked often about art as it related to Theo’s career as an art dealer and to Vincent’s work as an artist.

These letters serve as a centerpiece to Vincent and Theo and tie together this story of family, friendship, devotion, and art. Short chapters and inventive formatting make even familiar information feel novel as Heiligman delves deep into Vincent’s early life, his changing relationship with Theo, and his rocky journey as both an artist and a young man. Theo, the lesser known of the brothers, is shown equally as he struggles with his own demons while he searches for professional success and love.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers reframes Vincent and Theo’s lives by examining the give and take in their relationship and the ways in which the brothers influenced each other. New perspectives on key points in Vincent’s life as well as detailed information about the brothers’ early devotion to each other–and the previously little known painting that documents that moment–add new insights even for readers familiar with the artist and his art.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers is a fascinating and informative story that tenderly explores the momentous and sometimes tragic lives of two of the art world’s most important figures. A must read for art enthusiasts, history and non-fiction buffs, and anyone who needs a reminder that it’s never too late to follow your passions.

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

This Adventure Ends: A Review

Sloane doesn’t have a lot of expectations when her family moves from New York City to a small Florida town to help her writer father find inspiration. In fact, Sloane doesn’t have many expectations about anything. She’s used to being a loner and focusing her singing and her family. It’s always been fine.

A chance encounter at a party draws Sloane into the vibrant and unexpected world of social media sensation Vera, her twin brother Gabe, and their close-knit group of friends. Sloane never thought she’d fit in so well with anyone. Until she does.

When a treasured painting by the twins’ deceased mother disappears, Sloane wants nothing so much as to help them. On her hunt to track down the painting and get it back, Sloane learns more about her new friends and herself as she discovers that some adventures can end unexpectedly while others are just the beginning in This Adventure Ends (2016) by Emma Mills.

This standalone contemporary focuses on characters with a meandering plot that gives Sloane and her new friends plenty of room to shine–particularly when it comes to Frank Sanger who remains one of the most enigmatic (and sadly minor) characters. Sloane’s first-person narration is relaxed and witty, filled with slick descriptions of her new surroundings and clever barbs about her new social group.

This Adventure Ends branches out from Sloane’s initial quest for the missing painting to explore the nature of creativity, grief, and even ambition. Sloane’s father, a Nicholas Sparks type writer, adds another dimension to this story with his own explorations of fan fiction and authorial intent. Sloane’s mother and younger sister, by contrast, remain woefully one-dimensional and serve as little more than a tantalizing missed opportunity for more complex characterization.

Although this story doesn’t tie everything up neatly, it does suggest that most problems can be solved even if it isn’t always in the way we hope or expect–a comforting thought for teens facing college on the horizon. Quality writing and fascinating characters elevate this promising if familiar story and hint at what Mills will accomplish in future projects. This Adventure Ends is an introspective diversion recommended for readers seeking a smart, summery read.

Possible Pairings: What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Even in Paradise by Chelsea Philpot, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

Crooked Kingdom: A Review

*Crooked Kingdom is the conclusion to Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. It contains major spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning with Six of Crows*

“But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we have crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.”

—-

“Crows remember human faces. They remember the people who feed them, who are kind to them. And the people who wrong them too.”

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh BardugoIn a city where trade is sacred, Kaz Brekker knows the ins and outs of negotiation better than most. But even Kaz’s knack for staying ten steps ahead of his enemies and rivals can’t help him when he is double-crossed in the wake of what should have been the greatest heist of his nefarious career.

Now Kaz and his crew are scrambling to evade their enemies and regroup before moving against some of the most powerful figures in Ketterdam. Kaz may have lost a member of his crew. He may be branded as a traitor. But Kaz is also one of the only people who understands the true dangers of the drug jurda parem. And Kaz, along with his crew, is the only one who can hope to make things right.

Kaz and his crew are alone in a dangerous game that could change the face of Ketterdam and the rest of the world forever. As the odds turn against him, Kaz will have to use every trick he’s learned to change the game and get justice once and for all in Crooked Kingdom (2016) by Leigh Bardugo.

Crooked Kingdom is the conclusion to Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. It contains major spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning with Six of Crows.

As a sequel, Crooked Crows had a lot of promise and high expectations to meet. Like Six of Crows it is written with alternating close third person viewpoints for each member of the crew (Kaz, Inej, Nina, Metthias, Jesper, Wylan) as well as some other key figures. The multiple plot threads and overlapping narratives play against each other and build tension as the novel moves to a conclusion appropriately filled with surprises.

At her launch event for Crooked Kingdom, Bardugo mentioned that this series was inspired by her love of heist movies. Unfortunately, the plot devices in heist films rely heavily on visual cues or sleight of hand, neither of which translates well into a novel. Bardugo makes her inclusion of clues and hints to make the payoff for various cons and twists in this book seem effortless.

Bardugo’s prose is intelligent, deliberate, and thoughtful. Any author can give a character a redemption arc but the truly impressive thing here is that Kaz is exactly what he says he is from the beginning. He is a monster. He is a villain. He is ruthless. And yet by the end of this series he also has depth and nuance and is so much more than even he can fathom. The level of development and growth for the entire cast of characters was fascinating and incredibly satisfying.

This novel is an amazing reference for the mechanics of how a novel comes together and how a series should culminate. Every single thing that is hinted at either in Six of Crows or in the beginning of this book eventually comes together and is resolved. Surprises perfectly balance expected outcomes and characters shock as much as they impress. Crooked Kingdom is an excellent story with a tightly wound plot and characters who are flawed and grasping even as they learn and grow. A perfect conclusion to an exceptional duology.

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, StarCrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Heist Society by Ally Carter, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

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Last night's launch for Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo was a total blast. It was great to hang out with old blogging friends and meet new ones. The event started with a Q&A with Leigh and Jesse the Reader talking about Six of Crows characters and Leigh's next project. Some choice tidbits: Matthias would order a super fussy frappucino from Starbucks but he'd be embarrassed and pay someone to do it, Nina is Wonder Woman, Jesper is a feminist and would love The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. Leigh also pointed out that scared writers make bad writing and that half the struggle is just putting in the time to finish a draft and revise. I left the panel part of the event feeling inspired and excited for Crooked Kingdom and it's epic red pages of course. After the panel it was time to wait for the signing where Leigh was gracious and charming and fun to talk to one on one. I also left with some sweet swag including a "No mourners, yes waffles" cookie, a crow cookie, a Wylan playing card, and a fancy matte Crooked Kingdom button. I'm only eighteen pages in but I'm already loving it. #booknerdigans #bookstagram #bookishfeatures #goodreads #bookstagramfeatures #instabook #instareads #igreads #booknerd #bibliophile #books #reading #currentlyreading #amreading #bookworm #bookish #bookgram #latergram #crookedkingdom #fiercereads #leighbardugo

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