Starfish: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Starfish by Akemi Dawn BowmanAll of Kiko Himura’s hopes are pinned on getting accepted to Prism–her dream art school. At Prism Kiko knows that it won’t matter that she’s half-Japanese and knows barely anything about her own culture. She won’t need to regret her failed relationships with her brothers. She’ll be able to get away from her mother who is alternately suffocating and neglectful. Best of all, Kiko knows that at Prism she’ll finally be understood the way she always used to be by her childhood best friend, Jamie.

After Prism rejects her, Kiko is forced to consider other options–especially when her abusive uncle moves into the house and makes life even more unbearable. When Kiko and Jamie meet up at a party, Kiko jumps at the improbable chance to tour art schools with him on the west coast. Along the way Kiko will learn how to be brave and and let herself be heard while understand that sometimes second choices can lead to second chances in Starfish (2017) by Akemi Dawn Bowman.

Starfish is Bowman’s debut novel and a finalist for YALSA’s 2018 Morris Award.

This is a quiet and deliberate novel. Kiko knows better than most that words have weight thanks to what happened when she spoke out about her uncle’s abuse and also from the methodical way Kiko’s mother uses them to break her down. Kiko’s visions of vivid sketches and lavish paintings are interspersed throughout Starfish helping Kiko give voice to her emotions when she doesn’t feel strong enough to share them herself.

While Kiko’s strained relationship with her mother and her uncle’s abuse are key factors in Starfish, the main story here is Kiko’s growth and resilience as she begins to realize she has more options than she ever imagined.

Starfish is both heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful as Kiko comes into her own and discovers her own strength. Evocative settings and an obvious love for art are imbued in this story along with a subtle romance. Kiko is an empowering heroine readers will immediately want to cheer on. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, When We Collided by Emery Lord, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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The Disappearances: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I realize with horror how much I want this part out of myself now–the part that chooses bitterness.”

With no other family, Aila and Miles are taken in by their dead mother’s best friend when their father is drafted. They’ve never met her and they don’t know much about Sterling, the small town where they will be residing. But Aila is sure it will be fine if not ideal for both of them until World War II ends and their father can return home.

Sterling is hiding more than her mother’s past–it’s hiding a terrible secret too. Every seven years something vanishes. It started with scent as everyone in Sterling lost their sense of smell. Then it was reflections. Dreams. And color. No one knows what will disappear next but it’s almost time for the next Disappearance.

Aila’s mother, Juliet, managed to break away from the curse when no one else could. A feat that always made Sterling suspicious. Now Aila is left to follow Juliet’s trail of literary clues as she works to save her new home before they lose everything in The Disappearances (2017) by Emily Bain Murphy.

The Disappearances is Murphy’s debut novel. Aila’s first person narration is interspersed with flashbacks moving toward 1942 (when Aila’s story starts) as they shed light on the origins of Sterling’s strange curse. This story is part historical fiction, part fantasy, and all tense mystery as Aila, with help from some new friends, tries to unearth Sterling’s secrets and bring the town back to normal.

This novel is atmospheric and eerie as Aila and readers realize that Sterling is hiding some dark secrets. While the characters fall short of calling it magic some of the workarounds Sterling has found for the Disappearances (so called remedies) are downright magical and very improbable. These fixes also come dangerously close to providing magical cures for what would otherwise be real-world matters which can often be problematic.

On the other hand my mother lost her sense of smell in 2013 because of a brain tumor that was removed from her olfactory nerves. It’s been one of the biggest adjustments for her and one of my biggest concerns when she’s home alone. The Disappearnces is the first book I’ve read where something similar was not only handled but handled well (even if it was ultimately the product of a curse and not surgical complications).

While The Disappearances starts strong with a sweeping mystery and fantastic cast of characters, the ultimate resolution of Sterling’s curse–though fitting with the literary motif throughout–takes the story in a bizarre direction that is jarring in the context of the story.

The Disappearances is a thoughtful and clever mystery. While aspects of the curse and its resolution felt underdeveloped or rushed, Aila’s contemplative narration and the novelty of Sterling more than make up for it. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and mysteries especially.

Possible Pairings: What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti

Fire and Hemlock: A (ReRead) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Polly Whittacker is nineteen and preparing to return to college after visiting her grandmother over break. She has a flatmate, a boyfriend, and all of the other things she would expect as a college student. It’s ordinary but it feels like enough.

That is until Polly stares at the picture that’s hung above her bed for as long as she can remember. Here, now, of course, Polly knows that “Fire and Hemlock” is just a photograph of some hay bails burning with a hemlock plant in the foreground. But when she was younger didn’t the picture used to have figures dancing and racing around the fire?

The more Polly remembers about the painting, the more she realizes that her memories of the past ten years aren’t quite right either. She has the ordinary set, the ones she always thought were true. But if she thinks back far enough and hard enough, Polly starts to remember another set of memories from a very different, very not ordinary life.

It all started nine years ago when Polly accidentally crashed a funeral and met an odd cellist named Thomas Lynn. Her friendship with Mr. Lynn took the form of fantastical letters, exchanged books, and one very odd visit to his flat in London. Those memories are easy to hold onto once they start to come back.

But something else happened the last time they met. Something worse. And now, here, Polly knows that she and Tom are inextricably tied together–maybe as friends and maybe as more. But Polly won’t have the chance to figure any of that out unless she can gather her memories and figure out not just how to get back to Tom but how to save him in Fire and Hemlock (1985) by Diana Wynne Jones.

I originally reviewed Fire and Hemlock in 2007 just a few months after I started blogging when I first read the novel. Even a decade later I still think about Polly and Tom all the time and almost since the moment I finished it, this book has held a place as one of my most favorite books of all time.

I read this book again in 2017 and was thrilled to see that it absolutely stands up to closer readings. If you can, get your hands on the edition I like to above–it has one of the best covers this book has ever gotten, includes an introduction from Garth Nix, and features an essay Jones wrote about writing this novel–something she rarely talked about in interviews.

Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of Tam Lin, a meditation on what it means to be a hero, a sweeping romance, and one of the best fantasies you’ll ever read. I still haven’t read all of Jones’ novels, the thought of running out is a bit too depressing so I try to keep a few in my figurative back pocket. But if you have to pick just one to read, consider starting here.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Entwined by Heather Dixon, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, , The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, Beauty by Robin McKinley, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Dear Martin: A Review

Justyce McAllister is a scholarship student at the top of his class at his prestigious boarding school and heading to an Ivy League college next year. He’s miles away from the rough neighborhood where he grew up and has big plans for his future.

None of those accomplishments or plans matter when a police officer puts Justyce in handcuffs. Shaken by the severity of the encounter–and how much worse it could have been–Justyce isn’t sure where he belongs. Not with the other boys from his neighborhood many of whom are now in gangs and scorn Justyce for moving away. Not with his mostly white classmates who seem intent on making Jus feel small.

Justyce hopes to find some answers in the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who advocated non-violence in the pursuit of civil rights. But as Jus tries to follow his teachings and writes to Dr. King to try and make sense of his life, Justyce starts to wonder if those teachings have any place in the modern world where boys like Justyce are still dying in Dear Martin (2017) by Nic Stone.

Dear Martin is Stone’s powerful debut novel and a finalist for the 2018 William C. Morris YA Debut Award. This standalone contemporary is deceptively short with a page count that belies the weighty questions Justyce and his story raise.

Written in Justyce’s first-person narration along with his letters to Dr. King, this novel read partly like a diary with a conversational tone as Jus makes sense of the painful circumstances of his being handcuffed while trying to help his ex-girlfriend, grapples with casual racism with his classmates, and negotiates his complicated feelings for his debate partner SJ–a white girl Jus knows his mother would never want him to date.

Dear Martin is a compelling and timely story. Stone’s fast-paced prose and careful plotting make this novel an engrossing page-turner. An excellent choice for readers looking for a contemporary novel they can sink their teeth into. Ideal for anyone who has ever wanted to make their corner of the world a little better. Recommended.

 

Possible Pairings: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan Wolf, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

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

In a Perfect World: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I want you to have the best life. Even if I’m not a part of it.”

cover art for In a Perfect World by Trish DollerCaroline Kelly has her summer figured out. She’s ready to spend it working at the local amusement park with her best friend, exploring weird Ohio sights with her boyfriend, and attending soccer camp to prepare to (hopefully) become her team’s captain in the fall.

Then Caroline’s mom gets a job offer that changes everything.

Now Caroline is joining her mother (and her father whenever he can get away from his fishing boat back home) for the summer and her senior year in Cairo, Egypt where she has been hired to open an eye clinic.

Caroline has no idea what to expect in Cairo beyond the tourist images she’s seen and the preparation she and her mother have done to make sure their clothes are respectful of the city’s Muslim culture. All she really knows is that she is going to feel isolated and homesick.

But almost as soon as she arrives, Caroline realizes that her new home is going to defy expectations with a rich and surprising culture, astonishing sights, and a boy unlike anyone she ever would have met back home. Moving to Cairo makes Caroline’s world bigger, but it’s going to take time to figure if out if Adam Elhadad can have a lasting place in it in In a Perfect World (2017) by Trish Doller.

Trish Doller’s latest standalone contemporary is a contemplative examination of family, love, and privilege.

Caroline is reluctant to go to Egypt even as she realizes it’s a unique circumstance and an incredibly rare opportunity. She realistically and thoughtfully handles her conflicted feelings as her opinions of both Cairo and her hometown begin to change. While she and Adam have a ton of chemistry (and are oh so cute together) the romance is subtly handled and again addresses the uneven dynamics in their friendship as they begin to grow closer (not to mention the fact that Adam is a devout Muslim and Caroline is not).

Doller’s thorough and vivid descriptions offer a gorgeous introduction to Cairo which are sure to inspire a healthy dose of wanderlust in readers seeking new destinations. In a Perfect World is an excellent and optimistic novel sure to leave you smiling. Even as I write this review I am smiling as I remember this lovely little story. I can’t wait for you all to read this and finish it with a little more hope and tolerance in yours hearts. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Just One Day by Gayle Foreman, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Eliza and Her Monsters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

How can I want something so badly but become so paralyzed every time I even think about taking it?

Eliza Mirk is a name that should belong to a comic book character. Not necessarily a cool one but at least a low level villain.

Real life Eliza is neither of those things. She’s quiet and awkward. Her parents relentlessly try to get her into sports even though they are well aware she isn’t athletic like her younger brothers. Sully and Church don’t understand Eliza anymore than she understands them. And, honestly, with Eliza going away to college in a couple of years she doesn’t see the point of trying to connect. Real life feels secondary to the world Eliza has made for herself and her fans online as Lady Constellation, the creator of the enormously popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Between her comic, fans, and her online friends Eliza doesn’t need anyone else.

Eliza’s secret life collides with her real life when Wallace Warland transfers to her school. Online Wallace is Monstrous Sea’s biggest fanfiction writer. In real life he is the first person who’s managed to not only draw Eliza out of her shell but actually make her want to stay there.

Eliza’s carefully ordered life is turned upside down when her secret is revealed. As she deals with the fallout Eliza will have to decide if letting everyone in her life–online and off–know the real her is worth the risk in Eliza and Her Monsters (2017) by Francesca Zappia.

Eliza’s first person narration is interspersed with excepts from Monstrous Sea fanfiction, message boards, emails, and illustrations of parts of the Monstrous Sea comics done by Zappia. This story is character driven but also fast-paced as Eliza’s world slowly starts to expand with help from Wallace. Eliza struggles with anxiety as she pushes against the limitations of what she feels capable of managing versus what she actually wants.

Eliza and Her Monsters sounds like it will be a story about a comic and a secret identity–maybe with a little romance. Instead it’s really a story about connection within a fandom and finding your thing and your people but losing yourself along the way. It’s also about fixing that–a lesson Eliza learns throughout the course of the novel.

Zappia offers an honest and thoughtful portrayal of a character with anxiety here and some interesting perspective on what it means to create and engage within a fan community. Eliza’s online friends are given as much, if not more, weight than her real life friends in a way that will feel authentic to anyone who’s ever made friends through social media whom they may never meet in person.

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

After her secret life as Lady Constellation comes out, Eliza suffers crippling doubt and anxiety as she is faced with drawing more Monstrous Sea installments with everyone knowing her identity. Honestly, I didn’t understand Eliza’s doubts and paralysis in the face of creating after her identity was revealed. It was one of those things that didn’t compute. Then in August I had one of my own tweets go viral on Twitter gaining thousands of RTs/impressions and bringing almost a thousand new followers to my feed. Suddenly, Eliza’s reaction started to make a lot more sense as I struggled myself with how to move forward while knowing so many people were watching me. It’s a hard thing to adjust to and learn to ignore.

Once that started to make sense I was still left with one major issue: I hated the way Eliza’s relationship with Wallace played out. Throughout their friendship, Wallace is working to novelize the Monstrous Sea comic–something that Eliza loves and supports. After she is outed, Wallace reveals that he has a book deal with a publisher for that novelization once it’s completed. He needs Eliza’s permission which she readily gives. But he also needs Eliza to finish the comic so that he can finish the novelization. Something she feels incapable of doing in the face of everyone knowing her name and watching her, ready to pounce.

Wallace doesn’t understand this until Eliza almost considers suicide in the face of all of this pressure and instead of supporting her her only wants what he needs from her. Aside from issues of these publishing logistics (none of it sounded quite right within the text) it felt out of character for Wallace to suddenly negate Eliza’s concerns in the face of his own ambition. Every other aspect of their relationship was sweet, but this thread with the publication of Monstrous Sea was frustrating at best and problematic at worst.

**END SPOILERS**

Eliza and Her Monsters is a perfect book for readers who liked Fangirl (especially if you didn’t skip the fanfic parts) and comics fans looking for something new. Recommended for readers seeking a book that offers sarcasm, pathos, and affirmation in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Don’t Cosplay With My Heart by Cecil Castellucci, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, In Real Life by Jessica Love, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Speak Easy, Speak Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Beatrice knows that if she leaves New York when she’s kicked out of boarding school, she’ll never be able to come back and realize her dream of becoming a doctor. She refuses to accept that future and determines to stay on course at all costs. Even if it means relying on an uncle she barely knows to take her in. Her uncle’s ramshackle mansion, Hey Nonny Nonny, holds quite a few unexpected boarders and hides a big secret: it’s a speakeasy offering entertainment and illegal spirits.

Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, loves the old house more than almost anything and she’s been doing everything she can to keep the eccentric speakeasy afloat. But with prohibition agents watching, limited supplies of liquor, and the pesky problem of needing to pay the staff, Hero isn’t sure if they can make it through one more party let alone the entire summer season.

Hero has always been able to rely on Prince, her steadfast friend who sees the speakeasy as his home and as a chance to prove himself to John, the half-brother who has never accepted Prince enough to let him in on his dealings as a member of the local mob.

Singing at Hey Nonny Nonny could be Maggie’s ticket to something bigger. But only if she’s willing to leave her friends there behind. And only if talent agents are willing to see beyond her brown skin to her big talent.

Then there’s Benedick who is determined to avoid the stuffed shirt life his father has laid out for him. No prep school graduation. No college. No banking job. Definitely no trust fund. Benedick is a writer and he’s sure that if he has the chance he can make it without his father’s backing–or his approval.

It’s dislike at first sight for Beatrice and Benedick–a feeling that only grows stronger in the face of repeated misunderstandings and arguments. Everyone else can see that Beatrice and Benedick are perfect for each other, but they both might be too stubborn to realize it without a lot of help in Speak Easy, Speak Love (2017) by McKelle George.

Speak Easy, Speak Love is George’s debut novel and a retelling of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Written in the third person this novel shifts perspective primarily between Beatrice and Benedick as they arrive at Hey Nonny Nonny. Their story also overlaps with arcs for Hero, Prince, Maggie, and John over the course of an eventful summer that will change their lives forever.

Winsome characters, perfect pacing, and a plot that is simultaneously unique and true to the source material make Speak Easy, Speak Love a delight to read. Set primarily in Long Island, New York, this novel offers a quieter side of the Prohibition in the 1920s that isn’t often seen in historical fiction. Careful researching of the time period and an obvious familiarity with Shakespeare help to make this story vibrant and evocative.

Although they are living in the past, George handles this plot through the responsible lens of modern ideals. Benedick, often in discussion with Beatrice, contemplates his privilege as a young white man from a wealthy family and the knowledge that even during his rebellious flight to Long Island his family acts as a safety net. In contrast, Beatrice is used to having no one and has to learn how to both build and trust a support system as she finds true friends and family for the first time in years. Of course, Beatrice is also a classic feminist as she chases her dream to become a doctor. Side plots following Maggie and Prince explore the idea notion of belonging as well as barriers put in place by racism and discrimination at this time.

Speak Easy, Speak Love is a witty and droll story about six teens, an unlikely speakeasy, and the connections that will change their lives forever. A must read for fans of the 1920s, Shakespeare buffs, and anyone looking for a bright diversion. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Retribution Rails by Erin Bowman, The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Game of Love and Death by Martha E. Brockenbrough, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Snow White by Matt Phelan, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

You can also check out my interview with McKelle starting tomorrow.