Little and Lion: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Little & Lion by Brandy ColbertSuzette and her brother Lionel have been “Little” and “Lion” for years. Technically they’re step-siblings and their family gets a lot of strange looks sometimes since they’re all Jewish but Suzette and her mom are black while Lionel and his father are white. They’ve never let that change how close they are.

That was before Lionel was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Suzette was sent across the country to an East coast boarding school while he got treatment.

Now it’s summer and Suzette is home in Los Angeles where she expects everything to be familiar and easy. Instead, Suzette soon realizes that it’s going to be harder to go back to being Little and Lion than she thought.

Being home is almost enough to help Suzette forget about the mess she left back at school and how much she hurt her roommate, Iris. Her longtime friend and neighbor Emil is a welcome distraction–and maybe even a new crush. Then there’s Rafaela–a new girl who is like no one Suzette has ever met. Suzette’s attraction is immediate, intense, and utterly impossible once it becomes obvious that Lion might be falling for her.

When Lionel’s disorder starts a downward spiral Suzette will have to confront mistakes she made over the past year and decide if earning Lionel’s trust again is worth risking his mental health in Little & Lion (2017) by Brandy Colbert.

Little & Lion is an incredibly smart standalone contemporary. Suzette is an honest narrator who is still trying to define herself in a world that is already quick to put labels on her. She is conscious that her identity as a black Jewish woman is conspicuous and often uncomfortable–especially at her homogeneous boarding school where it felt like she had to hide pieces of herself before her classmates would accept her.

After her months long romantic and sexual relationship ends at the end of term when she and her roommate are outed to the entire school, Suzette doesn’t know how to deal with the attention. She shuts down and shuts Iris out–a constant reminder that she wasn’t brave enough to stand up for what she wanted. When seeing Emil–her half-Korean, half-black neighbor and childhood friend–ignites an attraction that she had never noticed before, Suzette is left to wonder if she might be bisexual–an identity that at first feels too overwhelming to fully consider while still adjusting to being back home and deciding if she wants to go back to boarding school in the fall.

The story of Suzette’s summer alternates with flashback chapters from her childhood when Suzette’s mom and Lionel’s father first started dating and living together. These flashbacks also detail Lionel’s initial diagnosis and treatment before Suzette was sent away.

While Little & Lion is often a heavy story with Suzette and Lionel disappointed in each other and unsure how to reclaim their easy bond as family, Colbert’s prose is also incredibly gentle and thoughtful. There are no easy answers about defining one’s sexuality or one’s mental health–things that Suzette and Lionel learn the hard way throughout the novel.

The larger story of Lionel’s coping with his new medication and Suzette trying to fit into a family that moved on without her plays out against a hazy backdrop of romantic entanglements with Suzette caught between her very real relationship with Emil and her distracting attraction to Rafaela–a pull that is even more complicated when Lionel starts to date Rafaela who seems to bring out the worst in him.

Little & Lion is as enlightening as it is engaging. A thoughtful plot and vibrant primary characters more than make up for an overly large cast of secondary characters. Evocative settings, sexy romance, and a wonderful family ground this story and make it a must read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake, The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle, When We Collided by Emery Lord, Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, Odd One Out by Nic Stone

Grace and Fury: A Review

cover art for Grace and Fury by Tracy BanghartIn Viridia, all women wear masks.

Hiding the fear and frustration is the only way to stay safe in a world where women have no rights.

Serina has focused all of her energy into training to become a Grace. If she is chosen by the Superior or his Heir, Malachi, Serina will live in luxury as an embodiment of the ideal woman. Being a Grace will ensure that her family will never want for anything. Her younger sister, Nomi, can even stay at her side as a Handmaiden.

Nomi doesn’t want to leave behind everything she’s ever known, especially not her twin brother Renzo. She knows that rebellion is dangerous. But she still can’t bring herself to be more complacent–not even now. Not even for her sister. Instead, she is furious. Nomi knows that Serina has willingly made this choice. She just isn’t sure that she’s prepared to follow her.

One brash conversation and one reckless act ruins all of Serina and Nomi’s careful plans. While Nomi is trapped in a life she never wanted, Serina is falsely imprisoned on an island where she will have fight to the death to survive. Separated and ill-prepared for the challenges they’ll have to face alone, both Serina and Nomi will have to push themselves further than they ever imagined to try and find each other in Grace and Fury (2018) by Tracy Banghart.

Serina and Nomi are interesting counterpoints. Their characters arcs mirror each other but how each heroine handles her new challenges is telling. While Serina begins the novel willfully ignorant of the inequalities within Viridia she soon (surprisingly quickly to be clear) finds herself at the center of a potential revolution.

Nomi, meanwhile, has always been painfully aware of the freedoms she and other women in Viridia lacks. Yet she routinely puts the small freedoms she has earned at risk and willfully ignores numerous (heavily broadcasted) red flags as her own plans for revolution and escape begin to crumple around her.

The main problem with Grace and Fury is that none of the relationships feel authentic. Changing dynamics and growing chemistry don’t erase the woefully unequal power dynamics both Serina and Nomi have with several of the male characters. Similarly, it’s hard to pretend the Heir better than he initially seems when his selfish and thoughtless actions set the entire plot in motion.

Grace and Fury will be a familiar story to fantasy readers. Predictable plot points and derivative characters dilute some of the story’s impact however Banghart artfully flips several tropes as the cast expands and readers learn more about Viridia.

The narrative is tightly controlled and uses the dual narration to full advantage. Grace and Fury alternates between chapters following Serina and Nomi in close third person with a tightly controlled narrative arc. Banghart uses this dual narrative structure to full advantage highlighting the ways in which the sisters’ stories both mirror each other and diverge. The restrained, unadorned prose works well to increase the tension and highlight the stark world both girls find themselves in as the story progresses.

A cliffhanger ending with questions about who will live to see book two will leave fans eager for the next installment.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Selection by Kiera Cass, The Jewel by Amy Ewing, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, For A Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Everless by Sara Holland, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Ash Princess by Laura K. Sebastian

Defy the Worlds: A Review

*Defy the Worlds is the second book in Gray’s latest trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars.*

cover art for Defy the Worlds by Claudia GrayNoemi Vidal is a soldier of Genesis. Her trip across the galaxy with Abel–the most advanced cybernetic man in existence–showed Noemi how much bigger her world could be. It also showed her how she could save her planet and end their centuries long war with Earth. But Noemi couldn’t go through with the plan if it meant sacrificing Abel and his soul.

Now Abel is a fugitive traveling between the worlds of the Loop and trying to move on with his own life. When a dangerous plague is unleashed on Genesis Abel is desperate to help. Especially when he finds out that Noemi’s own efforts to save her planet have brought her directly into a trap.

Both Abel and Noemi have done the impossible before. Now, the fate of Genesis is once again at stake as the two struggle find a cure to the plague and save each other before time runs out in Defy the Worlds (2018) by Claudia Gray.

Defy the Worlds is the second book in Gray’s latest trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars.

Defy the Worlds once again alternates between Noemi and Abel’s first person narrations as their paths move inexorably toward each other once again. This novel raises the stakes from book one with an appropriate increase in tension and action as the plot moves forward.

Intense action and horrific chase scenes are startling counterpoints to both Abel and Noemi’s internal struggles. Abel knows that he loves Noemi but he still isn’t sure what that means when he is a cybernetic machine and Noemi is not just a human but one from Genesis where the disavowal of technology is intrinsic to their way of life. Noemi is equally conflicted as her faith and loyalties are once again thrown into question.

Interestingly when I first read Defy the Worlds I was convinced it was a duology and could not find any information on a third book which makes the cliffhanger ending more than a bit frustrating. However that I know a third book is in the works I’m eagerly waiting to see what adventures and challenges Abel and Noemi will face next.

Defy the Worlds is another great installment in a thrilling sci-fi series that expands the world, raises new questions, and will definitely leave readers clamoring to know what happens next. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, Beta by Rachel Cohn, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Warcross by Marie Lu, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Partials by Dan Wells

Defy the Stars: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Defy the Stars by Claudia GrayFor years Genesis has fought to protect their planet and their freedom from dangerous colonization and exploitation by the enemy, Earth. Genesis vows to avoid that same mistakes Earth has made and eschews all advanced technology. But in doing so they may have signed their own death sentence. How can they hope to win a war when the enemy keeps inventing more powerful weapons?

Noemi Vidal is a soldier of Genesis–part of a generation that is slowly being annihilated in a war they cannot win. Noemi is prepared to die for her planet, her people. But even as she makes peace with her death and that of her entire unit, she knows it won’t be enough to stop the fighting or win the war.

Abel is a machine–the most advanced cybernetic ever created. He is an abomination to the people of Genesis. He was abandoned in space years ago. Isolated and alone, his programming has started to evolve and adapt while he waits for a chance to escape and complete his primary directive: find his creator Burton Mansfield and protect him.

Noemi and Abel are on opposite sides in an interstellar war. Never meant to meet. Thrown together in a desperate journey across the stars they may be the only ones who can end the war without more bloodshed. But first they have figure out how to stay alive in Defy the Stars (2017) by Claudia Gray.

Defy the Stars is the first book in Gray’s Constellation duology. The story concludes in Defy the Worlds.

Defy the Stars alternates chapters between Noemi and Abel’s close third person viewpoints. Gray nicely subverts some expected tropes about humans and robots with her main characters. Noemi is calculating and ruthless, hardened from her years growing up (and fighting) on the losing side of a large-scale war. By contrast Abel is empathetic and thoughtful in a way that shocks Noemi and makes her wonder how much she really knows about the Mansfield Cybernetics line.

High speed chases and intense action are balanced by thoughtful moments of introspection for both characters. Noemi contemplates the inevitability of her life (and death) as a soldier while Abel wonders if an artificial intelligence like himself can be meant for a great purpose and, if so, what that purpose might be. Both characters are pushed beyond their limits and their comfort zones as they are forced to work together and to grudgingly trust each other during their journey from Genesis to Earth and into the heart of the war.

Questions of what it really means to be a machine or a human with a soul drive this story as much as the action. This plot driven story perfectly balances Noemi and Abel’s evolving relationship without bogging the story down in romantic overtures. World building is carefully integrated into the story and works to enhance the plot without detracting from its finely tuned pacing. Defy the Stars is an astute, thrilling, and fascinating novel–in other words everything science fiction readers could want. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, Beta by Rachel Cohn, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Warcross by Marie Lu, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Partials by Dan Wells

The Cruel Prince: A Review

“True power isn’t granted. True power can’t be taken away.”

cover art for The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackTen years ago Jude’s parents were murdered and she and her sisters were stolen away to the High Court of Faerie. Life at Court is a constant nightmare full of treachery and danger–especially for mortal children like Jude and her twin sister, Taryn.

Raised among the fey, Jude is painfully aware that she is not one of them the way her older sister, Vivi, is with her furred ears and cat eyes. She knows better than to fall for the seductive beauties of the fey or to ever believe they can see her as an equal. But that doesn’t stop her from striving for that recognition and approval, always grasping for that means of protection.

Drawn into a web of intrigue and deceptions, Jude finds her chance to make a place at Court while moving herself into the center of violence that threatens to break the Faerie Courts apart. Raised on strategy and brutality, Jude can see a way out of the conflict but only if she aligns with the person she hates most–Cardan, the youngest son of the High King and the one member of Court determined to make sure she never forgets her mortality. Jude and Cardan have spent years circling each other, hating each other, but it’s only as they begin to work together toward a common goal that they begin to understand each other in The Cruel Prince(2018) by Holly Black.

The Cruel Prince is the start of Black’s new trilogy, The Folk of the Air. Set in the same world as her other faerie novels it also references back in small ways to her Modern Faerie Tales series and The Darkest Part of the Forest.

Jude’s first person narration is pragmatic to the point of being fatalistic even while adopting the lilting cadence of the faerie creatures who surround her. Jude has no illusions about her place in the hierarchy of the High Court or her expendability. While Vivi tolerates living among the fey and Taryn sees the beauties amongst the dangers, all Jude sees is the savagery. She knows that her only chance to survive and find her place among the fey is through power–a strategy she has learned all too well from her adopted father, Madoc. Madoc, a violent redcap, also murdered Jude’s real parents leaving Jude uncertain of her footing even in her own family.

Every victory Jude has earned down below with the faeries is hard won; every lesson painfully learned. Thanks to her repeated encounters with Cardan, Jude is especially well-versed in hate. She hates Cardan beyond all reason and he hates her nearly as much. But as fans of the classic film Gilda know all too well, hate can be a very exciting emotion and Jude and Cardan’s interactions practically sizzle as a result–even while they are doing everything they can to destroy each other.

Everything in The Cruel Prince is very artfully done. Jude’s story is about politics, intrigue, and fear—particularly being afraid but charging ahead anyway. Because there is no other option. Intricate plotting and a restrained narration make for a very clever conclusion as quite a few of Jude’s cards are laid on the table only to raise more questions for what will happen next in the series.

For Jude there are no good choices. Similarly, it’s hard to say if there are any good people among the High Court. Thanks to the strength of Black’s writing, that hardly matters. It takes real skill to take the villain of the story and make him not just sympathetic but precious. It takes as much work to have a first person narrator who is ruthlessly cold and calculating while also being devastatingly human and compassionate. The Cruel Prince is a must read for faerie enthusiasts, high fantasy connoisseurs, and especially for anyone looking for a book filled with twists that will leave them breathless. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2017*

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow: A (Halloween-y) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Morrigan Crow is cursed and doomed to die on her eleventh birthday on Eventide night. She is blamed for every bit of bad luck and misfortune that plagues the residents of the town of Jackalfax in the Wintersea Republic.

When Eventide arrives early ushering a new Age across the realm, Morrigan is faced with the prospect of her premature death until a strange man named Jupiter North arrives. Together the two escape the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow and arrive in the Free State city of Nevermoor. Miraculously alive and possibly no longer cursed, Morrigan can make a fresh start.

With Jupiter’s help she has the chance to compete in a series of trials for a place in Nevermoor’s most revered group: The Wundrous Society. If she makes it she’ll also earn her place in Nevermoor and finally have a home and family who cares about her.

Despite Jupiter’s assurances, Morrigan dreads the final Show Trial where the remaining competitors will have to demonstrate their astounding talents–something Morrigan is quite certain she doesn’t possess. Morrigan will have to step boldly and learn to trust her new friends if she hopes to pass the trials and join the Wundrous Society in Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (2017) by Jessica Townsend.

Nevermoor is Townsend’s debut novel and the start of a middle grade trilogy. The story revolves around Morrigan’s struggle to find her place and discover her own worth. All while she completes magical tasks and investigates the strange world of Nevermoor.

This dynamic novel is filled with intricate and carefully detailed world building that brings the renowned figure of Jupiter North and the rest of Nevermoor vibrantly to life. Set over the course of Morrigan’s year of trials this entertaining and fast-paced story is filled with wondrous things like the Hotel Deucalion where Morrigan’s room changes to suit her mood, the Wundrous Society grounds which turns the weather up a notch, and even a giant talking “Magnificat” named Fenestra.

Nevermoor is filled with adventure, magic, and wonder. Readers, like Morrigan herself, will feel at home in these evocative pages where magic and confidence go hand in hand. Highly recommended.

Want to know more? Check out my interview with Jessica about her debut over at SLJ.com

Possible Pairings: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon Foxheart by Claire Legrand, Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag, The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the July 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

Strange the Dreamer: A Review

“He’d sooner die trying to hold the world on his shoulders than running away. Better, always, to run toward.”

No one knows what happened in Weep two hundred years ago to isolate the wondrous city from the rest of the world.

Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with Weep since he felt the city’s true name stripped from his mind when he was five years old. Now he spends every free moment tracking down what clues he can about the city as it once was and hints to what might have transpired there.

Unlikely as it may be for a war orphan turned into a lowly junior librarian, Lazlo’s greatest dream is to visit Weep and see its wonders with his own eyes. He knows such opportunities, such legends, are more suitable to men like Thyon Nero–a scholar renowned through the land for his alchemical wonders–but that does little to tamp down his hope. Lazlo is a dreamer who survives on a steady diet of magic and fairy tales. To deny the possibility of either in his own small life is unthinkable.

When an unexpected caravan led by Eril-Fane, the Godslayer, arrives Lazlo has to embrace his dream and strive for the impossible: not just the chance to see the Unseen City for himself but possibly the chance to save it.

The city is more than even Lazlo could have expected filled with wonders and horrors in equal measure. The city is still haunted by the centuries long legacy of war and terror under the Mesarthium–blue-skinned gods who came down from the sky when the city was still whole.

There are problems to solve in Weep and answers to find. But as Lazlo explores his dream city, he realizes there are also more questions as his own dreamscape becomes something he doesn’t recognize with moments that are strikingly, vividly real, and a blue-skinned goddess who seems nothing like the terror he’s heard about from the Godslayer.

In a world where the old gods are dead and dreams have weight, Lazlo will have to decide what he wants to protect and what he’s willing to lose in Strange the Dreamer (2017) by Laini Taylor. Welcome to Weep.

Strange the Dreamer is the first book in Taylor’s latest duology which will continue in The Muse of Nightmares. While this story is very obviously unfinished (the last line of the novel is “Because this story was not over yet.”) Strange the Dreamer does provide a partially contained arc in terms of Lazlo’s journey and growth as he comes into his own upon arriving in Weep.

Through Weep and its history Strange the Dreamer artfully explores themes of forgiveness and recovery as both Lazlo and the rest of Weep struggle to determine next steps for the wounded but healing city. The imagined city of Weep is evocative and vibrant with distinct customs, landscapes, and even language. The use of language is demonstrated especially well with the words in Weep’s native language used to start each section of the novel.

Taylor builds drama that remains taut from the opening prologue until the very last page. Written with an omniscient third person point of view this story is very self-aware and encompasses numerous points of view. This narrative structure and the tone of the novel are deliberately reminiscent of the fairy tales that Lazlo so richly loves and serve to underscore the fairy tale nature of Strange the Dreamer where magic continuously appears in seemingly mundane and unexpected places.

Strange the Dreamer is a captivating fantasy sure to appeal to readers looking for an intricate and unique story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Lirael by Garth Nix, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner