Firekeeper’s Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Firekeepers Daughter by Angeline BoulleyDaunis Fontaine has always felt like an outsider. Sometimes she’s “too Indian” for her mother’s white relatives. As an unenrolled tribal member thanks to the scandal surrounding her parents’ relationship and her own birth, Daunis never feels like she’s fully part of life on the Ojibwe reservation no matter how much she time she spends with that side of her family.

With her pre-med college plans on hold after her grandmother’s debilitating stroke, Daunis feels more adrift than ever. Enter Jamie the newest member of her half-brother Levi’s hockey team. Jamie and Daunis click but that doesn’t change all of the little things about his background that don’t quite make sense.

In the wake of a tragedy that hits too close to home, Daunis learns the truth about Jamie and finds herself at the center of a far flung criminal investigation as a confidential informant. Delving deeper into the investigation, Daunis will have to confront uncomfortable truths about her own family’s past and the reservation community to discover the truth. After years of admiring her elders, Daunis will have have to embrace being a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) herself to see things through in Firekeeper’s Daughter (2021) by Angeline Boulley.

Find it on Bookshop.

Firekeeper’s Daughter is Boulley’s debut novel.

Boulley describes this story as the indigenous Nancy Drew she always wanted to read and that really is the best description. With plot threads exploring opioid addiction (and dealing), grief, and sexual assault, Firekeeper’s Daughter is a heavy read.

Subplots involving hockey, Daunis’s complicated feelings about her family, and more can make the story seem sprawling at times although Boulley admirably ties every single thread together by the end.

Daunis’s high stakes investigation and her intense relationship with Jamie plays out against the fully realized backdrop of life in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and on the Ojibwe reservation. Daunis’s focus on her own culture and heritage are crucial to the plot bringing Daunis closer to the real culprit complete with a focus on traditional (herbal) medicine and the importance of community elders.

Firekeeper’s Daughter is a taut, perfectly plotted mystery with a protagonist readers won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Every Stolen Breath by Kimberly Gabriel, Fake ID by Lamar Giles, The Bodies We Wear by Jeyn Roberts, Sadie by Courtney Summers, Veronica Mars

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

Ever Cursed: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ever Cursed by Corey Ann HayduEveryone loves a lost girl, no one more so than the kingdom of Ever. The kingdom still mourns the Princess Who Was Lost decades ago, still demands justice for her.

Ever is slower to save the princess who still have a chance of being rescued.

Five years ago, a young witch named Reagan cursed all of Ever’s princesses with the Spell of Without. Jane has not been able to eat anything since that day. Her sister’s curses all began on their thirteenth birthdays. Nora can’t love, Alice cannot sleep, Grace can’t remember and soon, on her birthday, Eden will be without hope.

Ever is as it always was with the royals on their side of the mote and their subjects at a safe distance, their queen trapped in a glass box, and their princesses suffering. When Reagan forces the girls out of the castle for their one chance to break the Spell of Without, Jane begins to wonder if the way things are is really the way things have to be–for either the princesses or their subjects.

A princess without a curse on her is an ordinary girl. And no one cares about an ordinary girl. A witch without her spells is just a girl alone in the woods. And no one wants to be a girl alone in the woods. But as Jane and Reagan come closer to unraveling the spell before it becomes True, both girls will realize there is much more to Ever, its secrets, and themselves than either of them realized in Ever Cursed (2020) by Corey Ann Haydu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Ever Cursed is a standalone fantasy. Despite the relatively short length, there’s a lot to unpack with this one particularly in the context of the political climate (post 2016 US election) that may have helped to inspire it. Alternating chapters focus on Jane and Reagan’s first person narrations. It’s not a spoiler to say that something is rotten in Ever and Haydu, throughout the story, confronts the deep-seated misogyny and rape culture in the kingdom including discussions of sexual assault and a scene of attempted assault.

Jane’s narration is, appropriately, very focused on her mortality. The Spell of Without has carved her down to nothing and, should the spell become True, will have fatal consequences for herself and for Alice who is physically incapable of sleep. Readers with a history of disordered eating should pick this one up with caution and read the content warning Haydu includes at the beginning of the book before proceeding.

Ever Cursed is an interesting examination of what it means to be an ally and to be complicit. Both Jane and Reagan have to unpack the privilege they’ve had in being able to look away from the day-to-day problems in Ever while focusing on their own (more personally pressing) problems of being royals and witches. Jane in particular unpacks what it means to benefit from years of her family being in power and abusing that power even when she herself is not complicit.

These conversations about privilege are important ones to have while dismantling white supremacy and male privilege however combining them with a fantasy setting where the consequences are very real instead of allegorical doesn’t always lead to ideal handling of the material. Because of how the Spell of Without works, the idea of complicit privilege distills to children being punished in a very literal way for their father’s transgressions. That another young girl (Reagan) is the one meting out this punishment in order to see the king suffer in retaliation for her own mother’s pain adds even more complexity to this conversation and exposes the deeply internalized misogyny at Ever’s center.

As a feminist allegory disguised as a fairy tale, Ever Cursed is very successful. As a feminist fairy tale it is less so. The world building is thinly sketched and sometimes haphazard with fantastic imagery (witches wearing cumbersome skirts for ever spell they cast so that they always carry the consequences) that doesn’t hold up to any internal logic.

Ever Cursed has the bones of a truly sensational story that ultimately would have benefited from a bit more length to give proper space to both the world building and its characters; a fascinating if sometimes underdeveloped picture. Recommended for readers with an equal interest in feminism (or feminist theory) and fairy tales.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

Foul is Fair: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Foul is Fair by Hannah CapinElle’s glittering life is torn to shreds when she and her friends crash a St. Andrew’s Prep party and the golden boys there choose Elle as their latest target.

Her best friends Mads, Jenny, and Summer get Elle out of there. They help her bandage the cuts, throw out the ruined dress, and most importantly change her appearance.

Because after that night, after what they did to her, Elle is gone.

She’s Jade now and she is going to make every single boy who hurt her pay.

Her parents are going to turn a blind eye. Her coven of best friends are going to help. And a boy named Mack is going to take the blame for all of it in Foul is Fair (2020) by Hannah Capin.

Find it on Bookshop.

Capin’s modern retelling of Macbeth is a gory revenge fantasy set against a world of luxury and decadence and LA’s upper echelon. (Readers can find a content warning at the front of the book as well as on the author’s website.)

Jade’s first person narration is sleek, sharp, and almost lyrical enough to call iambic pentameter to mind. While the story does little to develop any character beyond their designated role in this revenge fantasy, Jade’s coven of friends is diverse including bisexual Summer, Jenny who is Korean, and Mads–a trans girl and Jade’s oldest and best friend.

The accelerated timeline and copious murder both require a willing suspension of disbelief as Jade sets her revenge quest in motion–all over the course of one week.

Foul is Fair is as bloody as it is campy. Recommended for readers who prefer their revenge fantasies with justifiably angry girls and a healthy dose of gore.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, Anna K.: A Love Story by Jenny Lee, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Kingdom by Jessica Rothenberg, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

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

Speak: The Graphic Novel: A Chick Lit Wednesday (Graphic Novel) Review

cover art for Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Emily CarrollMelinda remembers when she looked forward to starting high school. It was a new chapter filled with promise. She’d have the  chance to become anyone she wanted.

That was before the end of summer. Before what happened at the party.

Now Melinda is alone. Her parents are too busy hating each other and their lives to pay any attention to why Melinda stopped speaking let alone anything else. At school everyone knows that Melinda is the one who called 911 and brought the cops to the biggest party of the summer.

Art class is Melinda’s one refuge. She doesn’t have to think about the best friends who abandoned her or the new girl who calls her a friend when it’s convenient. She doesn’t have to worry about trying to talk to David Petrakis. She doesn’t even have to think about what happened at the party. All she has to do is draw trees.

Melinda starts the school year as an observer–an outsider. She isn’t okay. But with her art, a reclaimed supply closet, and some time, Melinda might be able to reclaim her voice in Speak: The Graphic Novel (2018) by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Emily Carroll.

This book is the graphic novel adaptation of Anderson’s award winning novel of the same name. Although Speak was originally published in 1999 Melinda’s story remains just as timely and immediate in this new version.

In many ways, Speak: The Graphic Novel feels like the form this story should have always had. Anderson’s story is complemented by Carroll’s eerie black and white illustrations. The format allows the story to shift easily between Melinda’s reality and her imaginings. Carefully constructed page designs also help evoke a palpable sense of Melinda’s silence and her introspection for much of the novel.

Speak has been a must-read since its original publication. This graphic novel adaptation underscores the story’s significance and makes it approachable for a whole new segment of readers.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green, I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy, Monster: The Graphic Novel by Walter Dean Myers, Adapted by Guy Sims, Illustrated by David Anyabwile; The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell

The Nowhere Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Nowhere Girls by Amy ReedGrace, Rosina, and Erin are used to being outsiders—nobodies. But as they get to know each other they realize they aren’t alone.

Grace is the new girl in town. The quiet daughter of a newly-minted radical liberal pastor who is so focused on building up her new church that she doesn’t have much time for Grace.

Rosina is a queer latina punk rocker. But she doesn’t have a band. And she isn’t out. Because most of her time is spent working in her family’s restaurant, taking care of her cousins, and avoiding her conservative Mexican immigrant relatives.

Erin knows everything there is to know about marine biology and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both things help her add routine to her life–something Erin needs to cope with her autism. But even routine can’t help Erin forget what happened before or answer the question of whether or not she’s an android.

Grace is outraged by the lack of sympathy and subsequent fallout for Lucy Moynihan–a local girl who accused three popular guys at school of gang rape only to be run out of town. Soon, Grace draws Rosina and Erin into her efforts to get justice for Lucy and for so many other girls.

It starts with just the three of them but soon they are everywhere because they are everygirl. They are The Nowhere Girls (2017) by Amy Reed.

There’s a lot to love in Reed’s latest standalone novel. This ambitious story is a scathing indictment of misogyny and rape culture as well as an empowering introduction to feminism for teen readers. Written in close third person the novel alternates viewpoints between Grace, Rosina, and Erin for most of the novel. The Nowhere Girls also showcases brief chapters (entitled “Us”) following other girls in town as they navigate first-time sex, negotiate physical intimacy with romantic partners, gender identity, and more.

Reed makes a lot of headway toward erasing the separation and exclusion of the primarily white feminism of the 1960s (and 1990s) with these “us” chapters as well as situating Rosina at the center of the start of the Nowhere Girls movement. This step is a really important one, and something I was glad to see. However a coworker pointed out that despite these inroads, a lot of The Nowhere Girls remains focused on white feminism with many of the brown girls in the story only being seen as saying this isn’t feminism meant to include them. That’s a problem and one I wish had more of a conclusion by the end of the novel.

It also points to one of the main problems with The Nowhere Girls which is that there isn’t always a payoff for much of the novel’s potential. The “us” chapters introduce a transgender character who wonders if she would be welcome in the Nowhere Girls with open arms. Unfortunately there is no answer to that in the text anymore than there is for the girls of color besides Rosina. Another girl contends with being labeled a slut by her peers and most of the town but her arc is cut abruptly short and leaves her, sadly and predictably, in mean girl territory instead of reaching for something bigger. I’d like to think these girls all have outcomes where they are able to embrace their own agency and feminism. But because The Nowhere Girls takes on so much there isn’t time to spell everything out on the page.

Then there’s Erin. I’m very happy to see more neuro-atypical characters getting major page time but there are questions as to whether a neurotypical author can (or should) delve into that interiority for a character. I don’t have an answer to that. What I can say is that Erin begins the novel by describing herself as having Asperger’s Syndrome–a term that is no longer used as a standard diagnosis–and generally not accepting her autism in a healthy way. There is growth with this and by the end of the novel Erin is referring to herself as autistic rather than an “Aspy” but it’s not given quite enough time to have a satisfying conclusion.

The Nowhere Girls is an ambitious, gritty novel that pulls no punches as it addresses complicated issues of rape culture and misogyny as well as solidarity and feminism. The Nowhere Girls is a novel full of potential and a powerful conversation starter. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, All the Rage by Courtney Summers

The Word For Yes: A Review

*I don’t think this review is spoilery given what readers know from the publisher copy and the title. But you might disagree so read with caution.*

The Word for Yes by Claire NeedellJan, Erika, and Melanie Russell have never been especially close as sisters.

Eldest Jan is less present as she begins her first year at Brown where she struggles with lingering doubts that her life as an overachieving high school student will leave her stranded as a mediocre college freshman.

Effortlessly beautiful Erika with her science know-how and low social cognition has always been the beloved oddity in the family. Everyone worries about Erika being able to take care of herself in a world that is far less kind than she would imagine.

Youngest Melanie, at fifteen, is still figuring out where she fits with her high-achieving parents and sisters. Perpetually angry and frustrated by everything Erika does, Melanie is eager to leverage her own social savvy against the constraints of her youth to have some actual fun at the coolest concerts and parties she can find.

When Melanie is sexually assaulted at a party, the entire family is thrown into turmoil. In the wake of the date rape, Erika is sure the crime should be reported while Melanie is desperate to get back to normal. In the weeks after the rape, questions of consent and intention swirl about both Melanie and Gerald at their private school as both of them–and even Erika and Jan–wonder how to move forward in The Word For Yes (2016) by Claire Needell.

The Word For Yes is Needell’s first novel.

The narration alternates chapter viewpoints to follow each sister and even Gerald–the boy who assaults Melanie–throughout the novel in close third person. However, because The Word For Yes is so short, these chapters often feel abrupt and cursory as the novel moves from subplot to subplot.

It’s hard to think of The Word For Yes as anything but an issue book since the entire driving force of the story is Melanie’s rape and its aftermath. As such, certain comparisons are inevitable. While this book joins recent publications like Aaron Hartzler’s What We Saw and Consent by Nancy Ohlin in the important conversation about rape and sexual assault, it fails to add anything new to that discussion. It also falls short compared to classics like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson or Inexcusable by Chris Lynch.

The Word For Yes also touches upon issues of bullying, adjusting to college, and changing family dynamics. Sadly this book ultimately lacks the depth to offer anything but a quick read that takes on too much. Plot threads for each sister–including what is meant to be a powerful confrontation scene for Melanie–come off as decidedly anti-climactic and even clinical with so little time being spent on individual aspects of the story.

While The Word For Yes should be applauded for attempts to thoughtfully discuss issues surrounding rape, as well as some level of diversity, this novel is ultimately too slight to be anything but a forgettable issue-driven story.

Possible Pairings: Never, Always, Sometimes by Adi Alsaid, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler, Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, Althea and Oliver by Christina Moracho, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between by Jennifer E. Smith

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

Speak: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

Speak by Laurie Halse AndersonIf there is a canon for contemporary teen literature, Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson is in it. (Find it on Bookshop.) A Printz Award honor book and a National Book Award finalist in 1999, this book is, quite frankly, awesome.

The story follows Melinda Sordino during her first year in high school. Starting high school is hard enough, but for Melinda it’s even worse. Over the summer, Melinda became a social outcast and now watches the goings at school from the fringe. She also doesn’t talk to anyone if she can avoid it.

The reasons for Melinda’s shunning by the rest of the school and her reticence are revealed as the novel progresses and Melinda tries to define herself in light of that summer. Along the way, Melinda finds the outlet she needs in an unlikely place: her high school art room.

Anderson’s writing voice is utterly unique, making this novel a real experience to read. It is one of the few novels out there that is completely conversational while maintaining an absolutely realistic voice. Melinda’s narration is snappy and caustic. Being written in the present tense adds to the immediacy of the novel.

In addition to dealing with Melinda’s trauma and her healing process, this book addresses a lot of common issues for teens. Anderson aptly portrays what it feels like to be the outcast with no one to  sit with on the first day of school. And how hard it is to realize that sometimes having no friend is better than having a bad one.

Strangely, for a novel where the narrator doesn’t speak to other characters, one of the best features of this novel is Anderson’s dialogue.  Even though Melinda rarely has anything to say to other characters, the dialogue flows, Anderson making used of ellipsis and asides in the narration to fill in Melinda’s half of the “conversations.”

Even though Anderson is writing about a narrow experience, this is a book that everyone should read. Even if you don’t usually read “chick lit,” check out Speak for the excellent writing. I have never seen a character that sounds as real as Melinda, or a writing style as fresh as Laurie Halse Anderson’s.

A couple years ago, this book was made into a movie for the Lifetime network. If you plan on reading the novel, do so before you see the movie. The events of the story are much more powerful if you read it without knowing what’s coming up next.

Also, after you finish Speak, be sure to check out Catalyst–a novel set a few years after Speak in the same community/high school.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell