Practically Ever After: A Review

Practically Ever After by Isabel BandeiraGrace Correa has always been the girl with a plan. She knows exactly what she’s going to study in college (at her first choice university, naturally), she picked the perfect extracurriculars to balance her love of dance and make her a more desirable applicant, she is popular and fashionable. Grace even has the perfect group of friends and the perfect girlfriend, Leia.

At the end of her senior year, Grace’s perfect life turns into a perfect mess. With responsibilities mounting, projects looming, and pressure on all sides she’s no longer sure how to balance everything while making it look effortless–or even if she’s balancing the right things.

When a fight with Leia goes too far it seems like breaking up is the obvious choice–especially since long distance college relationships never last. Except Grace is starting to realize that maybe, just maybe, life (and love) don’t always have to be perfectly planned in Practically Ever After (2019) by Isabel Bandeira.

Practically Ever After is the final book in Bandeira’s contemporary Ever After trilogy which begins with Bookishly Ever After and Dramatically Ever After. Although the books are set sequentially each book follows a different character and all can be read as a standalone.

After playing a supporting role to both Phoebe and Em, Grace finally shares her story as she struggles to balance the perfect plan for her life with the person she thinks she wants to be in the future. As the title suggests, Grace is imminently practical with a no-nonsense outlook that forces her to think very hard about what pursuing her dreams can look like and the risks inherent to following her heart when a future with Leia (who is going to a different college) is uncertain.

Partially informed by the author’s own career path, Grace also tries to find a happy medium to balance her interest in dance and cheering with her professional aspiration to become an engineer as she maps out her college plans.

Grace and Leia are used to being a power couple among their friends and it’s an interesting contrast watching them try to figure out how to stay together instead of watching them get together over the course of the story.

Practically Ever After is a satisfying conclusion to a light, funny trilogy that celebrates friends, love, and big dreams in all of their forms. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre, Nothing by Annie Barrows, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, Crow Mountain by Lucy Inglis, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Between the Notes by Sharon Huss Roate, The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Isabel too!

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

The Night Country: A Review

*The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers*

“We were predators set loose in a world not made to withstand us. Until the summer we became prey.”

The Night Country by Melissa AlbertIt’s been two years since Alice Proserpine fought her way out of the Hinterland and the fairytale she inhabited there with help from Ellery Finch–the boy who chose to explore other worlds instead of returning with Alice to New York City.

Being an ex-story isn’t easy even in a city like New York where strangeness already lurks on every corner. At first it seems like Alice might really be able to reinvent herself with a new, human life. But something is happening to the Hinterland survivors who made it out–something that’s leaving them dead.

While Alice tries to track down the culprit, Ellery has to try to find his own way out of the Hinterland before there’s nothing left.

Everyone knows how a fairy tale is supposed to end but as Alice and Ellery search for answers and a way home, they soon realize that their tales are far from over and may not end happily in The Night Country (2020) by Melissa Albert.

The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers. Alice’s pragmatic first person narration contrasts well with third person chapters following Ellery as he tries to find his way home and, possibly, back to Alice.

While Alice spent most of The Hazel Wood trying to understand who she was, The Night Country focuses on Alice’s struggle to decide who she wants to be now that she is free to shape her own story.

The Night Country is a suspenseful story of loss, hope, and searching. This fairytale noir adventure blends romance and mystery with plenty of action as Alice struggles to stop a conspiracy with ramifications she can barely imagine. A must read for fans of portal fantasies, mysteries, and readers who prefer their magic with bloody sharp edges.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the November 2019 issue of School Library Journal*

Sloppy Firsts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCaffertyDon’t let the last name fool you, Jessica Darling is anything but darling. Not that she cares. With her best friend Hope all the way across the country, it’s not like Jessica has anyone nearby who understands her or makes her want to try harder.

She tolerates the Clueless Crew at school, tries to ignore her dad’s constant nagging about her running technique, and does her best to stay out of the line of fire as her mother helps plan her older sister’s wedding.

In other words: Jessica is prepared for a hopeless year–especially with her insomnia spiraling out of control, constant anxiety, and the rather confusing matter of why she hasn’t had her period in months.

Add to that the mysterious and elusive Marcus Flutie who, for reasons that remain a mystery to Jessica, keeps turning up at the oddest times and Jessica’s year might still be hopeless, but it certainly won’t be boring in Sloppy Firsts (2001) by Megan McCafferty.

Sloppy Firsts is the start of McCafferty’s Jessica Darling book series (which as of this writing was recently optioned for a TV series). This epistolary novel left a lasting mark in YA literature and is an obvious influence for many of the books that followed in this style.

That said, this book is from 2001 and it shows–especially when reading it for the first time in 2019. The book is very white and very dated. The story is written as letters Jessica sends to her best friend Hope because of the cost of long distance calls and their lack of cell phones or much computer access. A lot of what Jessica says (for instance discussing her “gimphood” at one point when she breaks her leg) would not get a pass were the book to come out now. Does that make it a bad story? No. Does it mean I would be very deliberate in how I recommend this book and to whom? Yes.

Despite being a scathing narrator, Jessica is often very relatable. She struggles with anxiety and peer pressure and other common travails of high school–many of which are things that were barely being articulated in YA books when Sloppy Firsts was originally published.

While Sloppy Firsts is a slice-of-life story, fans of the series will tell you that the book’s main focus is Jessica’s complicated and meandering relationship with Marcus Flutie who manages to be both incredibly entertaining and a complete nightmare throughout the novel. The chemistry and tension between Jessica and Marcus is immediately obvious and largely unresolved by the end of this installment.

Sloppy Firsts taps into a very specific type of character in a very specific moment. Recommended for readers who like their contemporary novels with a ton of snark, a bit of absurdity, and a whole lot of secondhand embarrassment.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo; What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen; The Truth Commission by Susan Juby; The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart; The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe; Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

Gravemaidens: A Review

Gravemaidens by Kelly CoonKammani dreams of becoming an accomplished healer–the position her father held before he failed to heal the lugal’s son and his family was cast down from the privileged class as punishment.

While her father drowns the shame of his disgrace and grief over his wife’s recent death with drink, Kammani manages the day to day work of treating patients. Her hopes of securing a better life for herself and her sister Nanaea are shattered when Nanaea is chosen for the dubious honor of becoming one of three sacred maidens who will accompany the ailing lugal into death.

While her sister only sees the opportunity to live briefly in luxury, Kammani knows becoming a sacred maiden is a death sentence. Determined to save her sister at any cost, Kammani embarks on a dangerous mission to sneak into the palace and try to heal the lugal before it’s too late in Gravemaidens (2019) by Kelly Coon.

Gravemaidens is Coon’s debut novel. It is the first book in a fantasy duology set in a non-western world with piecemeal nods to ancient Sumer, Rome, and possibly Egypt with human sacrifice and a powerful god known as the Boatman.

Clunky prose and world building that falls short in terms of explanations about the ritual of the sacred maidens or other cultural norms drag down this otherwise interesting premise. Anachronistic phrases and over-the-top similes further detract from the novel’s potential. Kammani’s first person narration is filled with strangely sexualized descriptions of other female characters, including her own younger sister, with numerous mentions of full and shiny hair, straight teeth, and “womanly curves.” Throughout the novel this sexualization is equated with the preternatural beauty that distinguishes each sacred maiden.

Secondary characters who stay true to stereotype for most of the novel gain more depth near the end suggesting fans may find more to appreciate in book two.

Gravemaidens is a problematic but intriguing story. Make of that what you will.

Popular Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

American Royals: A Review

American Royals by Katharine McGeeEveryone knows the story of the American Revolution and the birth of the American monarchy. How could anyone forget Colonel Lewis Nicola’s plea after the Battle of Yorktown asking George Washington to become the country’s first king?

Two and a half centuries later, the country is still ruled by Washingtons and Princess Beatrice is poised to become America’s first queen regnant. Beatrice has spent her entire life preparing for this role. But no matter how much she knows about diplomacy and protocol, she is unprepared when her parents start urging her to start looking at potential suitors to become the first king consort and rule beside her.

Twins Samantha and Jefferson are used to being overlooked as younger siblings to the beloved heir. While Jefferson enjoys all the adoration and privilege of being the only boy, Samantha has spent years leaning in to her reputation as a thoughtless party girl. At least until one boy might finally see the version of herself that Samantha has spent so long hiding. Too bad he’s totally off-limits.

Nina has been Princess Samantha’s best friend for six years. But that doesn’t make it any easier to get over Jeff or forget what happened on their graduation night last year. In fact, it makes it all harder when Samantha draws Nina back into the royal family’s orbit.

Everyone wants to get close to the royal family. But Beatrice, Samantha, and Jeff will all have to figure out the difference between those seeking political favor and those trying to win their hearts in American Royals (2019) by Katharine McGee.

McGee’s latest splashy contemporary is filled with romance and intrigue which plays out against the luxurious backdrop of a re-imagined America and its uninterrupted monarchy. Chapters alternate between closed third person perspectives following Beatrice, Samantha, Nina, and Jeff’s ex-girlfriend Daphne.

The deceptively simple premise–what if America had a royal family?–opens the door for interesting world building. Unfortunately, most of that alternate history is ignored to instead focus on the romantic entanglements of the royal children leaving readers to wonder how this country’s history–especially its bloodier moments like the Civil War or Manifest Destiny–may have changed with a ruling monarchy at the helm.

Detailed settings and well-drawn characters leave ample space for secret plots and star-crossed love to play out with reveals that will be satisfying if predictable to habitual romance readers. While Nina is Latinx and has two moms, most of the cast is white and conversations about succession with the royal family remain largely heteronormative.

American Royals is a frothy, often elegant diversion if you are willing to go along with the conceit of an American royal family. Recommended for readers looking for a story filled with forbidden romance, salacious gossip, and lots of drama.

Possible Pairings: The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright, The Selection by Kiera Cass, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud, Prince Charming by Rachel Hawkins, Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm, Lucky in Love by Kasie West

Daisy Jones & The Six: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“History is what you did, not what you almost did, not what you thought about doing.”

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins ReidDaisy Jones is a lot of things. By now, you’ve probably heard a few.

She’s the daughter of well-known British painter Frank Jones and French model Jeanne LeFevre. She became an It girl without really trying in the 1960s. In the 1980s a colored-contact company even created a shade called Daisy Blue inspired by her eyes. She was known for wearing hoop earrings and bangles up her arm. It was her chest on that album cover.

Yes, she’s inspired a few men along the way. But that’s not the important part. Daisy is never going to be a muse. She’s never going to do what anyone else wants. She’s the somebody. End of story.

And sure, The Six were already on the rise by the time Daisy came on the scene. How could they be anything else with lead man Billy Dunne writing hits and making a mark with his brother Graham and talented band members like Karen Karen?

But can anyone argue that The Six got so much bigger after Daisy joined? Would their sophomore album Aurora have defined rock and roll for a generation if Daisy hadn’t written every song alongside Billy?

Daisy and Billy were always going to be stars. Daisy Jones & The Six was always going to be a sensation. But it was only after the band’s mysterious breakup in 1979 that any of them became legends in Daisy Jones & The Six (2019) by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

Written as an oral history Daisy Jones & The Six is formatted with transcripts from characters speaking with a largely unidentified interviewer who is trying to understand the band’s meteoric rise and abrupt breakup.

The oral history format is used to excellent effect highlighting distinct character voices while offering surprisingly insightful plot details through artful dialog and anecdotal accounts.

The writing, from a sentence level onward, is masterful with each of the many  characters having a cadence while recounting events leading up to the novel’s dramatic conclusion. In other words: Daisy Jones & The Six is what an ensemble cast in a book should look like.

Through Daisy and Billy readers see what it means to be a creator and to work in collaboration. The ramifications of choice loom large throughout the novel as characters face not just hard decisions but the consequences that come with them. It’s easy to want to be a good person or create good art. It’s much harder, it turns out, to make the decisions required to actually be good.

Daisy Jones & The Six is a phenomenal novel about art, friendship, and the power that comes with choosing. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Haters by Jesse Andrews, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, The Ensemble by Aja Gabel, Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon, Exile by Kevin Emerson, How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Sadie by Courtney Summers

The Guinevere Deception: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stories are not nails to be driven home. They are tapestries to be woven.”

“Sometimes we have to hide from what others see in order to be what we know we are.”

Guinevere comes to Camelot as a stranger–a princess who will marry the young king who has banished magic and his mentor, the wizard Merlin, from his kingdom as he tries to bring order to the chaos threatening to destroy everything he has worked so hard to build.

Except Guinevere died before she ever came to Camelot. No one knows the real identity of the girl who was sent to replace Guinevere–her name is a secret, her past a mystery. All that matters is that Merlin sent her to Camelot to protect Arthur.

Threats abound in Camelot as Guinevere investigates scheming nobles, mysterious new arrivals drawn by the kingdom’s promise, and magic fighting to get past her own rudimentary protections.

Magic is chaos–a natural force always waiting to reclaim what Arthur and Camelot stole away–a fact Guinevere knows better than most. With danger circling and secrets everywhere, Guinevere will have to rely on her own cunning as she decides who to trust and what to fight for in The Guinevere Deception (2019) by Kiersten White.

The Guinevere Deception is the first book in White’s Camelot Rising trilogy.

White brings inventive world building and a feminist lens to her Arthurian retelling that centers a decidedly unique Guinevere. This historical fantasy breathes new life into the familiar source material with layers of intrigue and suspense as Guinevere tries to uncover both the hidden threats to Camelot and the secrets of her own past with Merlin.

The push and pull between the order of newly built Camelot and the chaos of primordial magic that previously ruled drive the plot forward as Guinevere comes closer to understanding Arthur’s greatest threat. This tension is mirrored by Guinevere’s struggle to be the protector she needs to be while also molding herself into the queen Arthur needs to rule beside him.

The Guinevere Deception is a fast-paced adventure filled with intrigue, magic, and the barest hints of romance and enduring friendship as Guinevere begins to make a place for herself in a kingdom she never could have imagined when Merlin plucked her out of the forest. A must reads for fans of Arthurian legend and readers looking for a fantasy with feminism and heroism in equal measure–with just a touch of existential dread to keep things interesting. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West