Royals: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Royals by Rachel HawkinsDaisy doesn’t want to be a princess, or even in the limelight really, but it turns out that’s hard when her older sister is practically engaged to the Crown Prince of Scotland.

After one too many near-misses with the paparazzi Daisy is whisked off to Scotland with her sister to lay low. It’s not at all how Daisy wants to spend her summer but she doesn’t have much choice in the matter. Especially when Ellie announces her engagement.

In Scotland Daisy is supposed learn how to be regal while keeping a low profile. She even has help from the royal fixer and Miles, a close friend of the royal family. But it turns out keeping a low profile is hard when the prince’s younger brother, Sebastian, is an actual human dumpster fire–he and his friends (including Miles) are literally called the Royal Wreckers–and seems hellbent on dragging Daisy into as much trouble as he possibly can.

Daisy knows she doesn’t quite fit the royal rule book with her mermaid red hair, geeky interests, and no nonsense attitude. But no one ever said she couldn’t rewrite the rules herself in Royals (2018) by Rachel Hawkins.

Royals can be read as a standalone contemporary but it is also the start of a series–each following a different heroine.

Daisy is a delightful narrator. She is smart, witty, and she calls things as she sees them in this fast-paced story. Daisy struggles to mold herself in the image of her poised and elegant sister who seems to have been born to be a princess with hilarious results. But even royals have obligations and Daisy soon realizes that she isn’t the only one feeling pressure after her sister and the prince announce their engagement.

Daisy’s story is pure, escapist fun complete with an unexpected love interest, friend shenanigans, and many zany mishaps as Daisy learns the hard way that expectations can be misleading–especially when it comes to love.

Royals is an effervescent and cheery contemporary. I cannot wait to see what happens in book two.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm

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Warcross: A Review

“Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact.”

by Marie Lucover art for Warcross by Marie LuEmika Chen’s life is a constant struggle. Since her father’s death she’s been drowning in deby as she tries to pay off the medical expenses and gambling debts he left behind. Emika is a stellar hacker but thanks to the arrest on her record she can’t get any jobs near a computer. Instead she works as a bounty hunter tracking down petty criminals who do stupid things like gamble on Warcross and hustling to stay ahead of the competition.

Warcross is the one place where Emika can relax. The virtual reality game is a diversion, a competition, and place where Emika can remember what she loves: coding. With an eviction notice hanging over her head it’s also a place where she can take a big risk and hack into the opening game of the Warcross Championship to try and steal an item and erase her debt.

When the hack goes spectacularly wrong Emika thinks she’s heading for a swift arrest and jail. But instead she is whisked to Tokyo where she meets Warcross’s creator–eccentric young millionaire Hideo Tanaka–and is hired to work as a spy and bounty hunter tracking down a hacker who is threatening the Warcross world.

To cover for her real mission Emika is placed in the Wardraft and becomes part of the Championship. Winning the Championship and finding the hacker could change Emika’s life forever. Getting too close to the truth could change the world of Warcross and beyond forever in Warcross (2017) by Marie Lu.

Warcross is the first book in Lu’s Warcross duology.

Lu has once again created a well-realized and fascinating world where virtual reality and augmented reality are plausibly integrated into everyday life. This plot-driven story is fast-paced and full of action as Emika’s investigation brings her into Tokyo as well as the virtual worlds of Warcross and the Dark World typically inhabited by criminals and hackers.

The coding and gameplay aspects of Warcross can feel convenient while more than one twist will leave readers wondering if a few frank conversations between characters could have avoided many of the novel’s main conflicts. The tension of the championship and the urgency of Emika’s investigation to track down the Warcross hacker, known only as Zero, raise the stakes enough to detract from these holes in the plot.

Warcross is filled with distinct characters from a variety of backgrounds ranging from poor Hammie, a champion Thief in Warcross who uses her winnings to support her family to DJ Ren–a champion Warcross player/French DJ sensation–and Phoenix Rider team captain Asher who is American and flies through Warcross games in virtual reality while navigating the real world in a high tech wheelchair. While Emika is immediately drawn into the camaraderie and competition surrounding Warcross (not to mention drawn to enticing and mysterious Hideo) she knows she can’t let her guard down if she wants to identify Zero and beat the other bounty hunters to the prize.

The high stakes of the Warcross championship blend well with the larger mystery of finding Zero.The excitement and twists, particularly in the second half of the novel, work well to draw readers in and help them ignore the fact that a few frank conversations could solve most if not all of Emika and Hideo’s problems.

This duology starter is filled with inventive world building, top notch characters, and provocative questions about who (if anyone) deserves a redemption arc. Warcross draws readers in with action and gaming, but where it really shines is with the thoughtful meditation on what separates heroes from villains in a world that is anything but black and white. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, For the Win by Cory Doctorow, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Partials by Dan Wells

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

The Reader: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sefia has been hiding and evading capture for most of her life. It started with the house  built on a hill filled with secret rooms and hidden passages meant to guard a dangerous secret. When her father is murdered, Sefia does what she has been trained to do. She hides. She grabs the thing that her parents spent their lives protecting. She goes to her aunt Nin and together they run away.

After Nin is kidnapped, Sefia vows to find her. Sefia turns to the strange rectangular object her father died to protect. As she examines the thing, Sefia slowly realizes it is a book.

The Book may hold secrets about Nin’s abduction and Sefia’s own parents if only she can master the symbols within and learn to read the words. In Sefia’s world, books are their own kind of magic–a dangerous power in the wrong hands. Sefia will need that power if she wants to rescue Nin and stop hiding in The Reader (2016) by Traci Chee.

The Reader is Chee’s first novel and the beginning of her Sea of Ink and Gold series. This book is a layered narrative filled with hidden messages and clues within the text (be sure to look at the page numbers for one of them). The depth and layers within The Reader are impressive and staggering to contemplate. However the hidden clues, messages, and intricate physical design of this novel are distracting at times. Readers willing to give this story time and a proper chance will enjoy the intricate layers and the unexpected ways Chee’s multiple narratives come together.

In the fantasy world Chee has created the written word doesn’t exist. While they have identifying symbols to label things like herbs and other items, this world relies more heavily on an oral tradition for their stories and history. Books and reading are magic in a very literal sense and so both things are closely guarded by mysterious powers and largely unknown to citizens like Sefia.

If you spend too much time scrutinizing the main conceit of this plot (reading doesn’t exist), it starts to crumble. How does electricity work in this otherwise non-industrial society? How do characters leave messages for each other without written words? Are glyphs used? Oral recordings? No one knows or at least no one shares.

Vocabulary that would be taken for granted in any other story also needs further clarification in a book like The Reader. How do characters know about pens or reading lamps? Why do they exist if, as the novel states, reading doesn’t exist? Furthermore, although Chee’s writing is rich and heady, there isn’t a particularly good way to show a character learning to read when that character doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe a book, letters, or words. It makes for plodding passages and very slow progress for the rest of the story.

Readers willing to ignore these niggling questions may find themselves drawn into Sefia’s story. The premise, the larger message about the written word, and particularly Sefia’s own growth is empowering. Chee’s descriptions are vivid and bring Sefia’s multi-faceted world to life.

The Reader is a slow-paced adventure story. Sefia embarks on a journey with unlikely allies and surprising foes. She discovers magic and her own inner strength. She also, strangely enough, learns to read. How you feel about that last one will largely influence how you feel about this story as a whole. Recommended for readers seeking an introspective fantasy with a slow payoff. (Go into this one willing to commit to the series as many of the big reveals come in final chapters.)

Possible Pairings: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Ink, Iron, and Glass by Gwendolyn Clare, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Lotus and Thorn: A Review

Lotus and Thorn by Sara Wilson EtienneLeica and her sisters, Lotus and Tashcen, are descendants of colonists who settled on the planet Gabriel five hundred years ago. Now, in 2590, Leica and the other Citizens of Pleiades scavenge the ruins of their original colony for technology to trade to the Curadores in exchange for supplies and god’s eventual forgiveness.

Leica knows what it is to live in Gabriel’s barren deserts fearing the next occurrence of the Red Death and knowing the other Citizens revile her six-fingered hands as a Corruption–a sign that their god has still not forgiven the Citizens enough to return them to Earth. After being exiled nearly two years for possessing contraband technology, she also knows the fear and privation of being alone in the desert surrounding Pleiades.

When Leica finds a shuttle out in the Tierra Muerta it provides a link to Earth. It also leads Leica back to her sister, Lotus, and a fledgling settlement trying to separate itself from both Pleiades and the Curadores who reside in a secure dome habitat.

With the dome malfunctioning and food in Pleiades becoming scarce, Leica will have to work quickly to find the truth about increasing Red Death outbreaks and uncover the long buried secrets behind why Earth abandoned Gabriel so many years ago in Lotus and Thorn (2016) by Sara Wilson Etienne.

This convoluted science fiction novel is a loose retelling of the Grimm fairy tale “Fitcher’s Bird”–a story that also shares some common tropes with the tale of Bluebeard. Lotus and Thorn is broken into three parts, each of which is preceded by an excerpt from a version of Fitcher’s Bird that the author wrote to accompany the novel.

Elements from Korean and Mexican culture are fused into this futuristic story to create a diverse world, albeit one that often lacks strong internal logic.While these choices make for a diverse setting the method behind these cultures, of any, being the two to have lasting influence centuries in the future is decidedly unclear.

A meandering plot filled with too many twists and not enough character development make for a slow read. Lotus and Thorn will have the most appeal for committed science fiction fans and readers looking for a new fairy tale retelling in the style of Cinder or Stitching Snow.

Possible Pairings: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

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

The Rose and the Dagger: A Review

*The Rose and the Dagger is the sequel to The Wrath and the Dawn. This review has major spoilers for The Wrath and the Dawn.*

“The trying times were the moments that defined a man.”

The Rose and the Dagger by Renee AhdiehWhen Shahrzad  volunteered to marry the Caliph of Khorasan, she never expected to find herself at the center of a power struggle that could destroy her kingdom.

Shahrzad has been separated from her husband as part of a misguided rescue attempt by her first love. Reunited with her family, Shahrzad’s heart remains tied to Khalid as he struggles to restore order within Khorasan.

The curse that has driven Khalid to take a new bride each day still looms over the kingdom while a darker, possibly more dangerous, magic unleashed by Shahrzad’s father threatens to change the power balance throughout the kingdom and beyond.

Separated by distance and circumstance, Shahrzad and Khalid will have to work together to end the curse and save their kingdom in The Rose and the Dagger (2016) by Renee Ahdieh.

The Rose and the Dagger is the sequel to Ahdieh’s debut The Wrath and the Dawn.

This story picks up shortly after the cliffhanger ending of book one. Shahrzad and Khalid are separated. Khorasan is facing threats on all sides. Khalid is still cursed and Shahrzad still doesn’t understand the magic that seems to run through her and her father’s veins.

Fans of The Wrath and the Dawn will find a lot to love in this action-packed followup. The chemistry between Shahrzad and Khalid is still a palpable thing. Ahdieh’s lush prose and vivid descriptions bring the city of Rey to life.

This story expands the world of the book bringing Shahrzad and other characters to neighboring kingdoms and beyond the relatively insular walls of Rey. The book’s cast is also expanded with new characters and more page time for secondary characters found in the first book.

In a different world, Shahrzad and Khalid’s story likely could have been told in one–slightly longer–book. It’s hard to say if that book would have been markedly better but it seems likely the plot would have had more cohesion if nothing else.

Parts of The Rose and the Dagger are wonderful. The characters have many thoughtful meditations on love and strength and what it means to be a person of influence versus an influential person. Unfortunately, these shining moments are tempered with uneven pacing, a slow plot that often meanders, and character interactions that verge on clumsy.

The Rose and the Dagger is a fitting and serviceable conclusion to Shahrzad’s story. Ahdieh is a talent to watch. Fans will be eager to see what she has in story for her next project.

Possible Pairings: Nemesis by Anna Banks, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, Clariel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, And I Darken by Kiersten White

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

Last Stop on Market Street: A Picture Book Review

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena and Christian RobinsonEvery Sunday after church, CJ and his grandmother get on the bus and ride it across town. None of CJ’s friends do this. On the ride CJ wonders why they don’t have a car like his friend Colby. Or an iPod like other boys on the bus. CJ wonders why they have to ride the bus all the way to the dirty part of town. Grandma answers each question thoughtfully as she reminds CJ that sometimes a journey is more important than the destination in Last Stop on Market Street (2015) by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson.

Last Stop on Market Street is de la Peña’s first picture book.

Brightly colored illustrations from Robinson make this book pop from the cover through to the last page. Robinson’s bold, blocky style helps pictures pop–even from a distance if reading this to a group–and draws the reader’s eye across each spread.

De la Peña has an ear for dialogue which comes across in CJ’s authentic conversations with his grandmother wondering about all the cool (to CJ) things that they lack. While I was surprised to see CJ’s diction was never corrected when he asked “how come we don’t got a car?” it did feel like a real kid talking throughout the story.

CJ’s grandmother reminds him to be grateful for little things (like an exciting bus, a guitarist on the bus who plays a song, and so on) while the pair rides across town to their final destination–a soup kitchen where CJ and his grandmother volunteer.

Last Stop on Market Street is a fun story with enough text (and surprises) to make it a great choice for older picture book readers. Discussion points and Robinson’s artwork also make it a great choice to read to a group. Hopefully the first of many picture books to come from de la Peña!

The Wrath and the Dawn: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“One hundred lives for the one you took. One life to one dawn. Should you fail but a single morn, I shall take from you your dreams. I shall take from you your city. And I shall take from you these lives, a thousandfold.”

***

“All our lives are forfeit. It it just a matter of when.”

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee AhdiehKhalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night. Every bride is executed with the dawn. The Caliph offers no explanations, making it easy for his people to believe he is a cold-hearted monster.

Shahrzad shocks everyone she cares about when she volunteers to marry the Caliph, rendering her life forfeit. But Shahrzad plans to survive the dawn. In fact she plans to live long enough to exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and so many other girls.

The longer she survives in the palace, the more Shahrzad realizes the boy-king is hiding something behind his cold exterior and his closely guarded secrets. Shahrzad volunteered to marry Khalid out of hatred but as she grows closer to to him, it is soon obvious that love is what keeps her in the palace.

Separately Shahrzad and Khalid are both formidable. United together, they may have the strength to save their country and each other in The Wrath and the Dawn (2015) by Renee Ahdieh.

The Wrath and the Dawn is Ahdieh’s first novel. It is also the first book in a series which will continue with The Rose and the Dagger (expected publication 2016).

In this loose retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, Ahdieh transcends her source material to create a story that is both original and captivating. Instead of focusing on the stories told each evening, The Wrath and the Dawn expertly expands the framing story found within A Thousand and One Nights to imagine a world where a king executes countless brides and one girl is bold enough to think she can stop him.

As much as The Wrath and the Dawn is a romance of the slow burn variety, it is also very much a story of equals. Shazi and Khalid are perfectly matched protagonists with obvious magnetism even as they warily question each other’s intentions. They are also both incredibly strong characters, often to the point of being arrogant or foolhardy.

The way Shazi and Khalid interact highlights how the best partnerships, the strongest relationships, stem from mutual respect as well as understanding. The push and pull between these two also serves to underscore how nothing is clear-cut in this story where often there are no “good” choices–only necessary ones.

The Wrath and the Dawn is a debut filled with writing that brings the world of Khorasan vividly to life. Elements of fantasy, romance and historical fiction all come together here to create a lush, expansive story with complex characters to match. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Nemesis by Anna Banks, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, Clariel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, And I Darken by Kiersten White