Under a Painted Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you.”

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey LeeMissouri, 1849: Samantha is desperate to move back to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a professional musician. Achieving that will be hard, especially for a Chinese girl like Samantha.

Tragedy dashes those plans and forces Samantha into hiding. With help from a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha gets out of town and starts heading west where–hopefully–she can outrun her past and claim a new life for herself.

Knowing that life on the trail won’t be easy–or safe–for two girls, they disguise themselves as boys drawn to California’s gold rush.

Sammy and Andy both hope to find ways to move forward as they head farther west. When they take up with a band of cowboys, Sammy and Andy find some much-needed protection and friendship on their travels. But with setbacks dogging them and the law much too-close behind, Sammy and Andy will have to work even harder to hide if they want to complete their journeys in Under a Painted Sky (2015) by Stacey Lee.

Under a Painted Sky is Lee’s debut novel.

Sammy is a thoughtful and frank narrator. She has made mistakes and has a lot to learn throughout the novel–two things she freely admits to herself and readers. Sammy is fifteen but this book reads younger making it appropriate and appealing for readers of all ages. Sammy and Andy have a great friendship throughout the novel and meet a variety of wonderfully written characters along the way.

Andy is a thoughtful and more experienced counterpart to Sammy who brings some healthy pragmatism to the duo’s travels. Andy is also devoutly Christian–much to Sammy’s dismay early on–which leads to a significant thread of faith and belief imbuing the novel.

Under a Painted Sky is a great piece of historical fiction and a fine western that carefully sidesteps the problematic elements traditionally found in that genre. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and westerns alike as well as readers looking for a book with a sweet but subtle romance and lots of action.

Possible Pairings: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

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Rebel of the Sands: A Review

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn HamiltonHappiness and freedom are hard things for a girl to find anywhere in Miraji–especially in Dustwalk. With her mother hanged and her father dead, there is nothing left to keep Amani tied to a town that would sooner her see her dead than independent.

After plotting her escape for months, Amani finally makes it out of Dustwalk in a flurry of gunfire accompanied by a mysterious foreigner who calls himself Jin. Desperate to get away at any cost, Amani accepts the risks of tying her interests to a man wanted for treason.

Turns out, getting out of Dustwalk was the easy part. With no one to trust and survival far from certain, Amani will have to confront hard truths about herself and her traveling companion Jin if she wants to stay alive in Rebel of the Sands (2016) by Alwyn Hamilton.

Rebel of the Sands is Hamilton’s debut novel and the start of a new series.

This book presents an interesting combination of western sensibilities (sharpshooters and horses and psuedo-cowboys, oh my!) blended with the Arabian mythology surrounding Djinn or Djinnis. With Dustwalk or the stark Miraji desert as a backdrop, this creates a setting that is at once evocative and atmospheric.

By contrast, the characters and plot fall decidedly flat. While readers are told a fair bit about Amani’s prowess with a gun as well as her spit-and-vinegar attitude, she remains one-dimensional for most of the story. Despite her first person narration, it’s difficult to identify with Amani let alone connect with her or her story in any meaningful way. The rest of the novel is filled with a cast that, while diverse, is similarly wooden often falling into obvious archetypes and tropes ranging from the power-hungry villain to the misunderstood henchman.

Being the first book in a series Rebel of the Sands also falls into the trap of providing too much setup without the story to back it up. A solid two thirds of the story does an admirable job of building the world and laying the groundwork for plot points sure to come later in the series which leads to a slow start to the story. The pacing issues are compounded by waiting until the final third of the book to introduce most of the major characters not to mention several major plot points.

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting interpretation of the western novel that deftly avoids some of the traps found in rehashing tasteless stereotypes and tropes of westward expansion. Unfortunately, a slow and predictable story do little to embellish this novel’s unique premise.

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting read for fans of westerns or fantasy novels featuring djinnis but is ultimately underwhelming as an exemplar of either sub-genre.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Nemesis by Anna Banks, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Soundless: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Soundless by Richelle MeadFei’s entire village lost its hearing generations ago. Some claim that mythical pixius eliminated sound on the mountaintop so that they could slumber but no one really knows. For Fei and her people it is the way life has always been in their village isolated by mountains on all sides.

Life in the village can be bleak as miners work to extract precious metals from the mountain’s mine in exchange for food rations sent up via zipline from the kingdom of Beiguo far below.

With villagers going blind and food–already a precious commodity–coming in smaller and smaller quantities, the fate of the village is uncertain. Fei can see the growing threats to her people every day as she observes the village to paint her part of the day’s record that are displayed in the village center each morning.

Awoken one night be unsettling dreams and a noise unlike anything she could imagine, Fei realizes that her hearing has been restored. With this strange new sense to help her and steadfast Li Wei by her side, Fei has the power to change her own life and that of her entire village forever in Soundless (2015) by Richelle Mead.

Soundless is a standalone fantasy inspired by Mead’s fascination with and love for Chinese folklore.

Fei is a fantastic heroine fueled by fierce love for her sister. She is strong, capable and confident in her own strengths. Fei brings an artistic eye to her world as she begins to push against the status quo in her village. Surprising twists and shocks make for an surprising final act as Soundless builds to an exciting conclusion.

Although this novel does employ a magical cure for Fei’s deafness, the subject is still handled thoughtfully with cleverly integrated dialog (written in italics as characters sign to each other) and carefully blocked scenes (Mead is always mindful that the characters are looking at each other before they begin signing for instance). Fei’s struggle to make sense of sound after a lifetime without is fascinating and extremely well done. Moments in the narrative also highlight times when not hearing is an advantage as well.

Fei does come to see her restored hearing as an asset and something of value that she hopes her friends and loved ones will also experience one day. However it is important to note that lack of hearing is never portrayed as a limitation for any of the characters.

Soundless is further strengthened with a sweet romance between Fei and Li Wei who are thrown together to save their village. Their evolving relationship throughout the novel is, in a word, adorable.

Diverse characters, unique mythology, and a thoughtful examination of deafness add another dimension to this rich narrative. Soundless is a provocative and original fantasy novel in a rarely seen setting. A must-read and highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Red Rising by Pierce Brown, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Mistwood by Leah Cypress, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Eon by Allison Goodman, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier, Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Updraft by Fran Wilde

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

The Accident Season: A Review

“So let’s raise our glass to the accident season,

To the river beneath us where we sink our souls,

To the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling,

One more drink for the watery road.”

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-DoyleCara is afraid she has no secrets. She is afraid that she isn’t witchy and interesting like her best friend Bea. She is afraid that she’ll never be as in control as her older sister Alice. She is afraid to think too hard about her ex-stepbrother, Sam. Most all of, she is afraid that this accident season is going to be a bad one.

Cara is afraid of her secrets. Every October, Cara’s family falls victim to a slew of accidents. It’s an open secret among their friends and neighbors who ignore the scrapes and bruises or try to find reasonable explanations for the broken bones and deeper hurts.

Cara is afraid of everybody else’s secrets. Everyone in Cara’s family is good at keeping secrets from friends, from each other. They’re good at pretending that the cuts don’t hurt, that the bruises don’t show.

But every accident leaves a mark; every season creates new secrets, new things no one wants to talk about. This season Cara will start to learn why in The Accident Season (2015) by Moïra Fowley-Doyle.

The Accident Season is Fowley-Doyle’s debut novel.

The real power and strength of The Accident Season is in its ambiguity. This is a story about secrets and the lies we tell others (and even ourselves) to keep them. This is a story that explores exactly what it means when there are no easy answers.

The Accident Season is nuanced, optimistic and just a little bit unsettling. In a story filled with secrets and things not said, Cara’s first person narration is taut and keeps up the tension as she and her friends try to learn more about the accident season and their mysterious classmate Elsie.

The Accident Season is an atmospheric and distinctive novel where nothing is exactly what readers first expect. Part ghost story and part mystery, The Accident Season is an aching story about love and loss with elements of sweet romance and sparks of magic. This meditative story about family and the many ways old wounds can heal proves that Fowley-Doyle is an author to watch. The perfect blend of eerie and whimsical. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, When We Collided by Emery Lord, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, The Weight of Feathers by Anne-Marie McLemore, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick, I Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

Little Sleepyhead: A Picture Book Review

Little Sleepyhead by Elizabeth McPike and Patrice BartonSpare text and large, fluid illustrations come together in Little Sleepyhead by Elizabeth McPike and Patrice Barton (illustrator) to create a delightful bedtime story.

McPike’s rhyming tale flows as smoothly as any lullaby, describing a child’s body parts, from “tired little toes” to “tired little everything” as a variety of “precious little sleepyheads” are prepared for bed. The text is presented in couplets printed in a different color on each spread.

Barton’s illustrations show a variety of babies, siblings, and caregivers in large format on a white background that will translate well for those viewing the book up-close or from a distance in a read-aloud setting.

An excellent choice for bedtime-themed programs or one-on-one nighttime routines.

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online*

Love and Other Foreign Words: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahanJosie speaks many languages. She can converse in the languages of high school, college, friends, boyfriends and even the volleyball team. She can parse behaviors to see the right way to act, the right thing to say. She can always translate the things around her into her own native Josie.

But living a life in translation is exhausting. Even though Josie can take part in many different groups, and speak many different languages, only her family and her best friend Stu can ever properly understand Josie’s native language.

The people who understand Josie threatens to get even smaller when her sister Kate announces that she is engaged to a truly insufferable man. With the wedding approaching, Josie notices more and more changes in her beloved Kate.

Love is a word found in many languages. And with so many things around her changing, Josie is about to get a crash course in the true meaning of the word in Love and Other Foreign Words (2014) by Erin McCahan.

Josie is a lovely heroine who is convincingly intellectual without ever coming across as stilted. Stu is her perfect foil and the quintessential dreamy best friend. In every sense this story is heartwarming with many saccharine moments and authentic realizations about what it means to be part of a family.

That said the pacing felt off with were ostensibly the main parts of the story (the wedding preparation, the actual romance, the discord between sisters) not appearing until the second half of the story. Although the direction the story moves in makes up for the rushed feeling of the ending. (And oh how I wish Josie had glasses on the cover.)

While there are hints of romance, the real romance–the one that should have been the meat of the story–doesn’t appear until the last fifty pages of the novel. At the end of the day Love and Other Foreign Words is a sweet story about sisters and how familial relationships change that will appeal to readers of light contemporary romances.

Possible Pairings: Never, Always, Sometimes by Adi Alsaid, The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Boys Don’t Knit by T. S. Easton, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

Out of the Easy: A Review

“My mother’s a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind. She’s actually quite pretty, fairly well spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.”

Out of the Easy by Ruta SepetysJosie Moraine’s mother has been working as a prostitute for the past ten years, since she and Josie moved to New Orleans in 1940.

It’s 1950 now. Josie is seventeen. And she wants nothing more than to get out of New Orleans once and for all. While her mother is content to tie herself to whichever man comes along, Josie works cleaning the brothel where her mother works and at a bookstore as she works to save enough money for college and her ticket out of the Big Easy.

Josie’s careful escape plan is put into jeopardy when she becomes tangled in the investigation of a mysterious death in the Quarter. Torn between her allegiance to Willie Woodley, the madame who has been more of a mother to Josie than her own, and her fierce desire to leave New Orleans behind, Josie will have to decide how much she is willing to sacrifice in her search for the truth in Out of the Easy (2013) by Ruta Sepetys.

Out of the Easy is Sepetys’ second novel and her follow-up to Between Shades of Gray.

Josie is a determined heroine but she also has a very reductive view of the world–particularly given her background. While Josie, her family, and many of her friends operate in what can only be called grey areas of the law–Josie’s views remain very black and white. She is friends with Willie and some of the girls who work at the brothel. But she also views them at a remove. As the opening of the novel (quoted above) might suggest, there is also always a slight hint of distaste.

While this story is an evocative historical novel, the lush setting often serves to emphasize a lackluster plot. A lot of things happen to Josie in the story but despite being self-sufficient in a financial sense, Josie is very short on actual agency. Throughout the novel Josie’s fate falls into the hands of others. Eventually she does break free and choose her own path, but it comes very late in the story only after her inaction has dramatic consequences. Yet everything still manages to resolve very neatly and decidedly in Josie’s favor.

Sepetys once again delivers a well-researched historical novel in Out of the Easy. This novel brings the world of 1950 New Orleans to vivid life with a setting that is as vibrant and evocative as any of the characters found within these pages. Out of the Easy is an engrossing historical novel ideal for readers who want to get lost in a book’s vividly described settings.

Possible Pairings: Strings Attached by Judy Blundell, Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher, The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Bowery Girl by Kim Taylor, In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters