Emergency Contact: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Loving someone was traumatizing. You never knew what would happen to them out there in the world. Everything precious was also vulnerable.”

cover art for Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. ChoiPenny Lee is a college freshman at the University of Texas in Austin. She’s eager to get away from the drama that always seems to surround her mom who is, sadly, super hot and super clueless about the attention she attracts from sketchy guys. High school was fine but Penny knows that college is going to be her real chance to shine as she starts taking English classes and pursues her longtime dream to become a published author.

Sam Becker dropped out of college when he couldn’t afford it. He’s twenty-one and manages a coffee shop where he is in charge of all the baking and has a room upstairs. He’s taking an online course to get back on track with his goal of becoming a documentary filmmaker and dreading the arrival of his “niece” Jude who is about to start her freshman year of college. Sam’s still trying to piece his life together post-breakup but he’s getting there. At least until his Instagram famous ex (aka Liar) drops a bombshell.

When Sam has a panic attack in the middle of the street it’s Penny–Jude’s new roommate–who finds him and talks him down. She’s the one who wants him to text her when he gets home and, maybe most importantly, she’s the one that suggests they could be each other’s emergency contact.

As they start texting all the time, Penny and Sam realize they might have more in common than they thought. Their friendship helps both of them step outside of their comfort zones. But neither of them is sure if they’ll ever be ready to take the biggest leap by bringing their virtual relationship offline and into the real world in Emergency Contact (2018) by Mary H. K. Choi.

Emergency Contact is Choi’s debut novel. It has received two starred reviews as well as a glowing write up in the New York Times. The story alternates between chapters written in close third person following Penny and Sam along with the expected sections of text messages and emails.

As the title suggests, the entirety of the book revolves around support systems. How do you build a support system from scratch? What happens when the people you thought you could rely on let you down? And perhaps even more troubling: What happens when the person you never thought you could count on becomes a lifeline?

Penny and Sam are authentic, flawed protagonists. I’ve started calling them lovable train wrecks when I talk about this book. They don’t have all the answers. They may not have any of the answers (a realization that is almost as enlightening for Penny in terms of her relationship with her mother as, you know, actual enlightenment). But they both persevere, strive, and ultimately learn how to go after what they want–things they only accomplish thanks to confidence gained through their friendship.

I say friendship because while a lot of this story plays out against the backdrop of whether or not Penny and Sam will get together, the real meat of this novel are the friendships that both Penny and Sam build (with each other and with other people) as they try to survive this crazy thing called life. You can cut the romantic tension in this story with a knife, but first Choi carefully builds up Penny and Sam’s friendship. Both of them have to grow a lot and learn to care about themselves before they can start to care about someone else—character arcs which Choi expertly portrays throughout the novel.

Before meeting Sam, Penny is used to having a running internal dialog of all the things she wants to say–especially to people who try to belittle her or think their microaggressions and other racist remarks about Penny’s Korean heritage aren’t a big deal. Thanks to the freedom of being away from home for the first time and also having someone who genuinely supports her, Penny is finally able to speak up. She can tell her roommate Jude’s best friend that her racist remarks aren’t okay. She can admit what her French tutor did–what she never even told her Mom. And she can also learn how to move past those things instead of stewing in self-doubt and regret.

Sam, meanwhile, has been stagnating for quite some time. His life is a disaster and he’s used to it–especially when his ex-girlfriend announces that she is pregnant triggering Sam’s first panic attack. With Penny’s support and the knowledge that she cares, Sam realizes the first step in making better life choices isn’t waiting for things to change. Instead, it’s time for Sam to accept that his parents are incapable of being there for him—and haven’t been for some time. It’s time to take action to change things by pursuing his passions and standing up to his ex-girlfriend instead of letting her steamroll him yet again.

Emergency Contact is authentic and sardonic as it follows these two unlikely friends who fear connection almost as much as they crave it. This tension is the driving force for both the characters and the plot. Choi expertly uses close third person perspective and language to amplify that tension and to explore its limits as Penny and Sam try to figure out how to relate to each other even while, internally, they feel hopelessly inadequate by comparison.

(During one of their first “in real life” encounters Penny bemoans her casual outfit and generally messy appearance while being completely fascinated–and attracted–by Sam’s glasses. Sam, meanwhile, is completely self-conscious about his glasses and trying to avoid openly ogling Penny. A push and pull that repeats throughout the novel and perfectly captures the dynamic between these two characters.)

Emergency Contact is a sparkling debut about taking chances and dreaming big. A timely story with a singular voice sure to win over even the most cynical among us, Emergency Contact is an exemplar of what a great contemporary novel can look like.

Possible Pairings: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

The Empress: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*The Empress is the second book in Kincaid’s Diabolic trilogy. This review contains spoilers for book one. Start at the beginning with The Diabolic*

Previously seen as less than a person, Nemesis is now poised to become Tyrus’ wife and rule the Empire at his side. Together they hope to bring massive changes to the Empire by restoring the sciences, sharing information, and lessening the gap between the ruling Grandiloquy and their human Excess subjects.

But it turns out gaining power isn’t the same keeping it. Nemesis and Tyrus have to face outright challenges to Tyrus’ claim to the throne from the Gradiloquy and questions of whether a Diabolic–a creature that was never human–has any right to rule alongside the Emperor.

Nemesis’ old tricks are no longer enough to help or protect Tyrus. Nemesis has to use more than brute force and base cunning. She needs to be more than a Diabolic. Now, she’ll have to be an Empress and prove her humanity. But even Nemesis has to wonder how far she can go–how many terrible deeds she can condone–if she ever truly wants to embrace her humanity in The Empress (2017) by S. J. Kincaid.

The Empress is the second book in Kincaid’s Diabolic trilogy which began with The Diabolic. Originally, The Diabolic sold and was published as a standalone novel before its breakout success prompted the publisher to sign a deal for two more novels about Nemesis and her world.

Kincaid dramatically expands the world of the Empire in the novel as Nemesis and Tyrus move beyond the insular confines of the Chrysanthemum into the far reaches of the galaxy. Along the way readers learn more about the galaxy’s society and religious system. Although this novel remains in Nemesis’s clinical first person narration, the story is carefully blocked to offer a wider view sometimes with Nemesis literally eavesdropping when she isn’t involved in key conversations.

Throughout The Empress Nemesis struggles with her newfound humanity and accompanying conscience as she contemplates how far she is willing to go and how far she should go to protect Tyrus and herself. Nemesis and Tyrus continue to mirror each other but this time around the contrasts and changes are especially heartbreaking as both characters are pushed far beyond their breaking points.

The Empress spends a lot of time asking characters and readers how far they are willing to go to get what they want and, perhaps more tellingly, how far is too far. And what happens when even going too far isn’t enough to save yourself?

By the end of the novel, which of course I won’t spoil here, readers are also left to wonder what can possibly come next. Can there be such a thing as redemption for these characters who seem so determined to watch the world burn? Only time (and book three) will tell.

If The Diabolic was already at eleven, then this book turned the dial up to fifty. It is no exaggeration when I say that my jaw was on the floor for most of the time I was reading. I love this series and have to say that The Empress in particular is easily one of my favorite books that I read this year. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, Proxy by Alex London, Legend by Marie Lu, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M.O’Brien, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, And I Darken by Kiersten White, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark: A Non-Fiction Picture Book Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth BaddeleyRuth Bader Ginsburg was disagreeing and asking tough questions long before she became a justice of the Supreme Court. From an early age she challenged inequality, disagreed with unfair treatment, and stood up for what was right.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark (2016) by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, introduces readers to Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a child and follows her into adulthood and her time as a Supreme Court Justice.

Levy balances the picture book format with thoughtful text that provides just enough information without bogging down each page with large chunks of text. Baddely’s bold and colorful illustrations make this book arresting from page one with her combination of hyper-realistic figures and more whimsical hand lettering for some of Ginsburg’s bold statements throughout the book.

I Dissent includes many fun facts about Ginsburg (her husband did the cooking in the family, Ginsburg has a special collar she wears for dissenting opinions in court) which will surprise and delight readers who are learning about this remarkable woman for the first time. Because Levy covers aspects of most of Ginsburg’s life, the book also includes a lot of information even for readers who might already know a bit about the Supreme Court justice. The book closes with back matter that includes more information about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, notes on Supreme Court cases, a selected bibliography, and citations for the sources of quotes used in the book.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark is a must read for any young people  interested in the US court system (or even older people–I learned a lot, not to mention tearing up at the end because I loved it so much), fans of the Notorious RBG, and, of course, feminists everywhere. Highly recommended!

Possible Pairings: Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring by Enigma Albert and Tony Cliff; Fly High!: The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden, Mary Kay Kroeger, Teresa Flavin; Radioactive!: How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World by Winifred Conkling;  Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done by Andrea Gonzales, Sophie Houser; Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman; Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs; The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Murder of the Century by Sarah Miller; Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes; Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen; Boss Babes: A Coloring and Activity Book for Grownups by Michelle Volansky

The Diabolic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Being a good Diabolic meant being a hideous person.”

The Diabolic by S. J. KincaidDiabolics have only one purpose: protect the person they have been bonded to at all costs.

Nemesis barely remembers the time before she was bonded to Sidonia. Anything that came before is irrelevant. Now Nemesis will do whatever is necessary to ensure that Sidonia survives and flourishes. As long as Sidonia is safe and secure everything else, including Nemesis’s own well-being, becomes irrelevant.

When news of her senator father’s heresy reaches the seat of the Empire, Sidonia is summoned to the Imperial Court as a hostage. There is no way for Nemesis to strike against the Emperor. No way for her to shelter Sidonia when she is summoned. This time the only way Nemesis can protect Sidonia is to become her.

At the Imperial Court, Nemesis has to hide her superior strength, cunning intellect, and her ruthless lack of humanity. Greedy senators, calculating heirs, and the Emperor’s mad nephew Tyrus are all keen to use Nemesis for their own ends. But she has little interest in the politics at Court or the rebellion that is beginning to foment.

Nemesis knows that she is not human. She knows the matters of the Imperial Court are not her concern. But she also soon realizes that saving Sidonia may involve saving not just herself but the entire Empire in The Diabolic (2016) by S. J. Kincaid.

The Diabolic was written as a standalone sci-fi novel. After its release Kincaid signed a book deal for two additional novels making The Diabolic the start of a trilogy.

Kincaid has built a unique world layered with complex alliances and difficult questions about what it means to be human which play out against a galactic power struggle. Nemesis’s performative identity as Sidonia contrasts well against the Emperor’s son, Tyrus, a Hamlet-like figure who may or may not be putting on an act of his own in a bid for the throne. Nemesis’s character growth as she learns to choose herself beyond any loyalty she feels to Sidonia or others is fascinating and thoughtfully done.

The Diabolic is a sprawling space opera that brings Nemesis and other characters across the galaxy in a story filled with double crosses, twists, and intrigue so thick you could cut it with a knife. Nemesis narrates the novel with a tone that is as pragmatic as it is chilling–unsurprising for a character who has been told constantly throughout her life that she will never be human. Whether Nemesis will prove her detractors correct or exceed her supposed Diabolic limitations remains to be seen.

The combination of ambiguous morality, lavish settings, and a cast of provocative characters make The Diabolic an utterly satisfying sci-fi adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, Proxy by Alex London, Legend by Marie Lu, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M.O’Brien, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, And I Darken by Kiersten White, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

Every Hidden Thing: A Review

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth OppelThe Badlands are rich fossil country. At a time when history is being rewritten and archaeology is largely unregulated, it’s easy for anyone to get into fossil hunting and make their name.

Samuel Bolt’s father has no degree and no position, but he has countless fossil discoveries and publications of his findings. While Professor Bolt is reckless and heedless of consequences, he is a well-known and popular personality among the fossil collection community. Samuel learned his love of fossil hunting from his father but he is eager for a time when he can strike out on his own and make his own name in the field.

Rachel Cartland’s father is a respected Ivy League professor and the head of a university archaeology department. He tolerates Rachel as an able assistant but he is slow to accept her ambitions for a university education and her own work as an archaeologist.

Cartland and Bolt are bitter rivals but when they meet, Samuel quickly finds himself drawn to Rachel in a way he hasn’t felt for other girls before. Rachel, meanwhile, is immediately thrilled by the way Samuel sees her both as an attractive young woman and as an equal.

Both the Bolts and the Cartlands arrive at the Badlands in search of an elusive rex–a king dinosaur that promises to be the largest fossil ever discovered. As rivalries flare and romance blossoms, both Rachel and Samuel will have to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in pursuit of this once-in-a-lifetime discovery in Every Hidden Thing (2016) by Kenneth Oppel.

Every Hidden Thing is a fascinating standalone historical fiction novel.

While the time period is never stated explicitly, Oppel does an admirable job of setting the scene of the early 1900s when fossil hunting and archaeology gained momentum (and respectability) in the US.

Inspired a real rivalry (which Oppel explains in his author’s note), Every Hidden Thing has been pitched as Romeo & Juliet meets Indiana Jones. While not as tragic as the former or as high action as the latter, this description is surprisingly accurate and will appeal to fans of both stories.

Written in alternating first person narration, this novel carefully builds both Samuel and Rachel’s characters. By overlapping the narration at key moments, the motivations behind some of Rachel’s calculating choices and Samuel’s heedless actions are also carefully detailed.

Every Hidden Thing is a well-researched piece of historical fiction. Rachel and Samuel are immediately sympathetic but also remain convincingly grounded in their time as both characters grapple with limitations (Rachel’s gender and for Samuel his lower class status) and the rigors of an archaeological dig. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, star-crossed lovers, and readers interested in dinosaurs and fossil hunting.

Possible Pairings: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Nothing But Sky by Amy Trueblood, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters, Indiana Jones (movie)

It Came in the Mail: A Picture Book Review

It Came in the Mail by Ben ClantonLiam loves getting mail. The only problem is no one seems to want to send anything to Liam. In a fit of genius, Liam write a letter to his mailbox asking for some fun mail. The mailbox goes above and beyond with a dragon. After getting this wonderful piece of mail, Liam writes more and more letters to get more and more amazing things from the mailbox.

After getting so many amazing things in the mail (often with hilarious results) Ben realizes that an even better option is to share his wonderful mail with friends and other kids eager to get something exciting in the mail in It Came in the Mail (2016) by Ben Clanton.

This latest picture book from writer and illustrator Clanton is a real treat. With a sensibility reminiscent of Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell and zany charm similar to Special Delivery by  Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, this picture book is sure to delight readers of all ages. (In fact, my first reaction to this book was “Really fun. It’s like Dear Zoo but on acid.“)

Clanton’s artwork is deceptively simple in his full-color illustrations that bring Liam and his mailbox to life. The detailed illustrations have a lot of pieces to take in that will reward attentive readers over the course of multiple readings. The illustrations are large and bold enough to be read as easily to an audience as one-on-one.

Raucous humor and heart make this a guaranteed winner for any story time. Highly recommended.

The Museum of Heartbreak: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg LederPenelope Marx has never been kissed. She loves her family and her friends. She dreams of dinosaurs fleeing New York City. She longs for the day she will fall in love. She has no idea how many forms heartbreak can take for one girl.

Penelope’s best friend Audrey is more interested in hanging out with Cherisse–a girl whose sole purpose in life seems to be making Penelope miserable. Keats, the beautiful new boy in school, is absolutely perfect and painfully unattainable–at least at first. Then there’s Eph, Penelope’s other best friend, a boy who is either frustratingly endearing or endearingly frustrating. Pen is never quite sure.

In a year filled with changes and heartbreaks both small and large, Penelope will have to figure out how to move forward–especially when she knows exactly how fragile a heart can be in The Museum of Heartbreak (2016) by Meg Leder.

The Museum of Heartbreak is a charming debut with a sincere and authentic heroine at its core. Nothing goes quite as expected for Penelope during her junior year of high school, forcing her to admit that sometimes change can be not only healthy but necessary.

Although she and her friends are privileged children of wealthy parents (Penelope’s family lives in a brownstone near her father’s job at the Museum of Natural History–a status mirrored by Audrey, Eph, and most of the students at their private school), Pen’s New York is still a glaringly authentic one from grimy thrift shop experiences to being yelled at on the subway platform.

Despite these moments of reality, The Museum of Heartbreak still maintains a strong sense of wonder and appreciation for the unique opportunities and experiences to be found in New York City.

Penelope is an introspective and authentic heroine who will appeal to fans of Jenny Han’s Lara Jean series. Like Lara Jean, Penelope wants to grow up and fall in love, but she also likes hanging out at home with her friends and chatting with her parents. While straddling the awkward space between childhood and adulthood–a transition that leaves her feeling unsettled and ill-prepared for whatever is supposed to come next–Penelope tries to make sense of her changing perceptions of her parents and closest her friends.

The Museum of Heartbreak is a story of first loves and second chances filled with characters who sometimes stumble even as they learn to try again. The Museum of Heartbreak is a story about stepping away from what’s comfortable and finding something even better. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, So Much Closer by Susane Colasanti, Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Everywhere You Want to Be by Christina June, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, P. S. I Like You by Kasie West, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher for review consideration*