A Kind of Spark: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicollAddie has always known that she’s different. But she’s also always had her older sister Keedie to help her figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t always know what to do with her.

Addie and Keedie are autistic. Their family, including Keedie’s twin Nina, have learned how to help make things easier for both girls offering them space to process feelings and deal with sensory overload. But the rest of Juniper is far less accomodating–something Addie is learning firsthand as her best friend drops her to be more popular and her new teacher constantly bullies and belittles Addie.

Addie suspects Keedie isn’t doing very well at college herself where she is struggling to “mask” as neurotypical. But no one wants to talk to Addie about that.

When Addie learns about the witches who were hanged in Juniper during a witch trial, she immediately recognizes kindred spirits. The more she learns, the more clear it is that these witches were women who were a lot like Addie and her sister–women who didn’t quite fit the mold for what the town considered “normal”, women who had no one to speak for them.

Addie’s campaign for a memorial to the Juniper witches draws ire from her teacher and local officials. But it also brings a new solidarity with her family, new friends, and a chance for meaningful change in A Kind of Spark (2021) by Elle McNicoll.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Kind of Spark is narrated by Addie (whose voice is brought to life, complete with Scottish accent, in the audiobook by narrator Katy Townsend) and set in a small Scottish town. All characters are presumed white. This title received an honor for the Schneider Family Book Award which is awarded yearly by ALA to “honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”

Addie’s first person narration is great and, as written by neurodivergent author McNicoll, authentic as she navigates everyday problems like making new friends alongside bigger challenges like campaigning for a memorial for the witches.

While it adds a lot of tension to the story, and leads to a dramatic conclusion with both Keedie and Nina rallying around Addie, the bullying Addie faces from her teacher feels over the top. The abuse is so extreme it had me questioning if I was actually reading historical fiction (even with Nina being a beauty vlogger) because it felt like the kind of treatment a character would face decades ago. I’ll add that I have no familiarity with Scotland or small town life so that might be part of the problem. But it also also felt very strange to have Addie tell her parents about how mean her teacher is (the book opens with Addie’s classwork being torn up because the handwriting is too messy) and they laugh it off and remark that Addie’s grandfather “got the strap” in school and he turned out fine. First of all, it’s hard to believe parents presented as being attentive and caring for Addie (and Keedie) would shrug that off–especially when the threat of forced institutionalization looms over both autistic girls after Keedie’s best friend was forced into a care facility. Second of all, my grandfather also had similar abuses in school–but I am at least twenty years older than Addie which again points to a dated portrayal. My best guess is that the author translated some of her own experiences as a neurodivergent young person to this modern book without fully factoring in changes to social norms/behaviors. And, again, maybe this is more of an issue in small towns that my urban self realizes.

A Kind of Spark expertly weaves Addie’s personal journey with her research and advocacy for the witches creating a multi-faceted and compelling story. The inter-family dynamics with Keedie trying to attend college without requesting accomodations and Nina choosing to pursue content creation instead of college add another layer to this story that, ultimately, reminds readers to celebrate what makes them different.

Possible Pairings: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner

Rock Paper Scissors: A Review

Rock Paper Scissors by Alice FeeneyBehind closed doors something has been wrong with Mr. and Mrs. Wright for a long while. First it’s the things they don’t talk about it, then there’s the time they spend apart.

Adam has always been a workaholic, happy to toil away adapting best-selling novels into screenplays while neglecting his own creative projects. Amelia has built her whole world around Adam but she knows their marriage is becoming more and more fragile. Most people can see the writing on the wall even if they can’t read it.

Amelia also knows that the right move can set them back on course, so when she wins a trip to Scotland it feels like fate.

Except someone is lying. And someone else never planned for both of them to come back from this trip in one piece in Rock Paper Scissors (2021) by Alice Feeney.

Find it on Bookshop.

Rock Paper Scissors is a standalone thriller. Most chapters alternates point of view between Adam and Amelia. Letters for each wedding anniversary are interspersed throughout offering a glimpse into the past with letters thematically tied to traditional wedding gifts (starting with paper) as well as so-called words of the year (including rock). I can’t say much more about the book’s structure without giving away some of the key twists but if you want an atmospherically creepy reading experience, do check out the audiobook narrated by Richard Armitage and Stephanie Racine.

Feeney presents a satisfying and troubling story that is part thriller and part marriage post-mortem. Amelia’s mysterious past and Adam being face blind (unable to recognize anyone–even loved ones–and unable to read facial expressions accurately) add elements of unreliability and even more suspense to an already taut story.

Rock Paper Scissors is a fast-paced, surprising story about two toxic people who may or may not get the exact ending they both deserve. Come into this one knowing as little as possible for the biggest impact.

Possible Pairings: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks, All the Broken People by Leah Konen, Best Day Ever by Kaira Sturdivant Rouda, Tell Me My Name by Erin Ruddy

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration through Libro.fm*

Bravely: A Review

Bravely by Maggie StiefvaterMerida of DunBroch is the kind of girl that magic seeks. While others try to understand magic’s arcane ways, Merida has known from a young age to be wary of it–especially after a curse almost turned her mother and her younger brothers into bears forever.

Now, Merida knows better than to chase magic. Instead she has traveled. She has explored. She has learned. But it still always feels like something is missing. Like she’s waiting for something to change.

Then she hears the knock on Christmas Eve. When goddesses and gods make themselves known to you, you listen whether you want to understand their magic or not.

When Feradach the god of ruin himself says he is going to bring catastrophic change to your home and your family, you try to stop him.

When that doesn’t work, you strike a bargain with help from the Cailleach, the most ancient of goddesses and one who might have a soft spot for Merida and her family.

Once the bargain is struck, Merida has a year to change all of the things that have grown stagnant in DunBroch and show Feradach how much they can change without his ruination.

One princess, two gods, three voyages, four seasons for Merida to save everything she holds dear in Bravely (2022) by Maggie Stiefvater.

Find it on Bookshop.

Bravely is an official continuation of Princess Merida’s story (as originally seen in the 2012 Disney film Brave) written by Stiefvater. Set a few years after the events of the film, Bravely references Merida’s past but functions on its own. All characters in this Scottish-set story are presumed white.

A close third person narrator and eerie opening lend Bravely a fairytale feel as the stage is set for Merida’s bargain with Feradach. Stiefvater populates Merida’s world with a combination of historical figures, familiar faces from the film, and gods and goddesses (some historically accurate, some imagined) alongside entirely new characters to create a large cast that takes some time to get to know and care about. Set over the course of the year, this story builds slowly before finding its footing in the second half as the plot shifts into new territory.

A slow start builds to a satisfying conclusion as Bravely blends new and old to create a story centered on themes of change and renewal. Bravely is an appropriately nuanced story perfect for Disney fans and readers of historical fantasy alike.

Possible Pairings: Ferryman by Claire McFall, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Little Thieves by Margaret Owen, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

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

Ferryman: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

Ferryman by Claire McFallWhen Scottish teenager Dylan boards a train from Glasgow to Aberdeen to meet her estranged father for the first time in years she is certain that the momentous trip will change everything. What she won’t realize until later is that instead of meeting her father she will never complete her journey–dying when her train crashes.

Except Dylan wakes up inside her train car, alone and in the dark after the crash, where “Her imagination filled in the blanks, packing the route through the carriage with upturned seats, luggage, broken glass from the windows, and squishy, slick things that were solidifying in her mind’s eye into limbs and torsos.” Outside of the wreckage there is no sign of  disaster recovery; all Dylan sees is a solitary, sandy-haired teenage boy watching her.

It’s clear that something is different about this cobalt eyed boy who does not “stand or even smile when he [sees] her looking at him” and “just continue[s] to stare.” The only two people in an isolated area, Dylan reluctantly agrees to follow Tristan across the unwelcoming landscape away from the wreckage. Along the way Dylan begins to realize that she is not trekking across the Scottish highlands with a startlingly attractive teenage boy–the kind who always “made her nervous” because “they seemed so cool and confident, and she always ended up getting tongue-tied and feeling like a total freak.”

Dylan is dead, traveling through the aptly named wasteland alongside Tristan, her personal ferryman.

As a ferryman Tristan “guide[s] souls across the wasteland and protect[s] them from the demons” keen to devour new and pure souls like Dylan’s. Along the way he also “break[s] the truth to them, then deliver[s] them to wherever they’re going.” Tristan has shepherded more souls than he can count across the wasteland, a task that has become increasingly transactional as his journeys blend together into goodbyes. “Each soul that waved goodbye at the end of the journey had taken a small piece of him with them, torn off a tiny piece of his heart. After a while, he had hardened.” As he reminds Dylan, everyone has to cross the wasteland which he describes as “Their own personal wilderness. It’s a place to discover the truth that you have died and come to terms with it.”

The wasteland is not a place to make friends or fall in love. But as they learn more about each other, and themselves, Dylan and Tristan realize they are not prepared to admit that reaching the end of their path will also mean their inevitable separation as Dylan goes where Tristan cannot follow in Ferryman (2021) by Claire McFall.

Find it on Bookshop.

First published in the UK in 2013 and nominated for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, McFall’s acclaimed debut novel Ferryman has made its way to the US with the rest of the trilogy, Trespassers and Outcasts, slated to follow. A movie adaptation is also in the works. All characters are cued as white in this series with world building loosely inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Charon.

With a heavy focus on the drudgery of walking through the wasteland, McFall is slow to unpack Dylan and Tristan’s mutual attraction although both characters find something they lack in the other.

In spite of himself Tristan appreciates Dylan’s unique perspective and unexpected kindnesses to him when “Most souls, when they discovered what had happened to them, were too absorbed in their own sorrow and self-pity to show much interest in this road between the real world and the end” much less in the ferryman guiding them through it. After countless years changing himself to appear to “look appealing” and trustworthy to each of his souls, Tristan is shocked to have the space to define himself as more than his role as a ferryman and whatever the souls in his charge choose to project onto him.

Dylan, meanwhile, is used to feeling the limits of her agency as a teenage girl who is constantly concerned with doing and saying the right thing. “She was the shy, serious student. Quiet, diligent, but not particularly clever. All of her successes had to be earned through hard work, which was easy when you had no friends.” But in Tristan Dylan finally finds the appreciation she had previously lacked with Tristan who sees Dylan as “a soul worth protecting. A soul worth caring about. A soul that he wanted to give a piece of himself to.”

Although Tristan initially acknowledges some of the unequal power dynamics at play between himself–an ageless, supernatural being–and Dylan–a seemingly ordinary girl despite the high caliber of her soul–this aspect of the plot is never fully explored. Tristan’s initial hesitation since “as her protector, he would be taking advantage of her vulnerability if he acted on his feelings” shifts quickly to a heartfelt confession and both struggling with their looming separation.

With their slog through the wasteland and unspoken longing taking up much of the plot, Ferryman is slow to build to its dramatic conclusion. The novel’s final act offers tantalizing glimpses of world building surrounding what comes beyond the wasteland and what it will mean for both Dylan and Tristan. Readers new to this series will be excited to see these aspects more fully explored in later installments.

Possible Pairings: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, You Are the Everything by Karen Rivers, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde

City of Ghosts: A Review

cover art for City of Ghosts by Victoria SchwabIt’s been a while since Cassidy Blake’s life has been anything close to normal. That’s what happens when your best friend is a ghost. Also when you die (briefly) and come back able to see ghosts in general.

Cass doesn’t mind. Jacob is a good friend even if he is a little too obsessed with superhero comics. And sure, passing through the Veil that separates the living from the dead can be scary. But it’s also an inescapable pull for Cass now–it has been since she died.

All of Cass’s summer plans are upended when her parents receive an offer they can’t refuse: a chance to host a TV show about the world’s most haunted places. Cassidy thought she had her ability under control but she is totally unprepared for the level of haunted she encounters in Edinburgh, Scotland.

When Cassidy attracts the attention of a dangerous spirit, she’ll have to embrace her ability and trust in new friends and old if she wants to make it out of Edinburgh in one piece in City of Ghosts (2018) by Victoria Schwab.

Find it on Bookshop.

City of Ghosts is the first book in Schwab’s middle grade series. Cassidy’s story will continue in Tunnel of Bones.

Cassidy’s approachable first person narration immediately draws readers into her story and her world. Evocative descriptions bring the streets of Edinburgh to life and contrast well with genuinely scary moments with sinister ghosts on the other side of the Veil.

Schwab strikes the perfect balance between horror and adventure in this ghostly tale of unlikely friends and reluctant heroes. City of Ghosts is a delightful start to a series that is as entertaining as it is spooky. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Jumbies by Tracy Baptiste, Doll Bones by Holly Black, The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken, The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Royals (aka Prince Charming): A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

Royals can be read as a standalone contemporary but it is also the start of a series–each following a different heroine. (Note: This book was retitled as Prince Charming for the paperback edition.)

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

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

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

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, American Royals by Katharine McGee, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Into the Dim: A Review

Into the Dim by Janet B. TaylorHope Walton is certain that her mother isn’t really dead. But no one else saw the flash of news coverage and no one can find any evidence to corroborate what Hope knows to be true thanks to her eidetic memory.

Expectations for a summer visiting her aunt in Scotland are low (even without the smack of rejection knowing her father will be on a cruise with his new girlfriend). Between her crippling claustrophobia and headaches brought on when her photographic memory gets away from her, even time at home–alone–can be overwhelming.

Soon after arriving in Scotland, Hope learns that her aunt and mother belong to a secret society of time travelers dedicated to preserving the timeline–a mission that has left Hope’s mother trapped in twelfth-century England.

Hope might be the only one who can save her mother. But she’ll have to learn how to conquer her own fears first in Into the Dim (2016) by Janet B. Taylor.

Into the Dim is Taylor’s debut novel and the start of a new series.

Written in the first person, Into the Dim is narrated by sixteen-year-old Hope. Hope is incredibly book smart thanks to her memory but she is also naive and reads as much younger than her sixteen years would suggest. Taylor also chooses to write characters’ speech in dialect to convey accents which often feels stilted if not clumsy to follow.

The novel’s plot is based on some problematic elements. The role of her father is especially troubling. Readers learn early on that Hope was adopted by her mother who married when Hope was five. Her mother and father are the only parent’s Hope has ever known and she considers both her parents without qualification and, as far as the story suggests, Hope’s father feels the same way about her. Despite that Hope’s father allows his own mother to treat Hope as an outsider and inferior to the “real” members of the family. (This is behavior that leaves Hope’s mother seething but seems to get a pass from her father.) Aside from being a damaging trope to perpetuate it feels like a heavy-handed attempt to build in sympathy for Hope and better explain her decision to go along with a visit to Scotland at all.

Other problematic familial aspects of Into the Dim include the fact that Hope’s father has a new girlfriend a mere eight months after his wife’s sudden death and chooses to go on a cruise with her while leaving Hope to fend for herself with an aunt she has never met in a foreign country. Furthermore the idea that Hope’s aunt has never bothered to speak to her–ever–despite speaking to Hope’s mother weekly seems highly unlikely.

Hope’s photographic memory and phobias often feel contrived. That isn’t to say that her fears are invalid or badly portrayed. Rather they feel like elements added into the story solely to move the plot in a very specific direction. The addition of extreme headaches brought on by Hope’s eidetic memory seems superfluous and lacks any basis (as far as my research shows) in reality.

Into the Dim veers more to the light end of the speculative fiction spectrum. Explanations for the mechanics of time travel are thin when they are presented at all. The novel is also poorly paced with obvious twists (time travel!) that are hinted at in the plot summary not appearing until well into the story. For a novel that travels to a variety of locations and time periods, Into the Dim often lacks a strong sense of place feeling as it if could be set anywhere without much change to the action. The historical parts of the novel are well-researched but come too late to enhance the text.

Into the Dim begins with a promising premise that hints at action, time travel, and even some romance. Unfortunately in a year rich with titles that explore similar themes, this one often falls short by comparison.

Possible Pairings: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, Malice by Pintip Dunn, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Winterspell by Claire LeGrand, Hourglass by Myra McEntire, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone

The Geography of You and Me: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. SmithLucy and Owen meet in an elevator trapped between the tenth and eleventh floors of a New York City highrise during a citywide blackout. What could have been an ordinary night spent alone in the dark becomes a shared moment of wonder for Lucy and Owen. Together they explore a Manhattan that looks more like a party than a crisis before admiring the shockingly bright stars over Manhattan’s skyline.

But after that one magical night, Lucy and Owen find themselves pulled in opposite directions. Literally. Owen and his father head for points west while Lucy and her parents move to Edinburgh.

Lucy and Owen don’t have a lot in common to start with. They don’t even know much about each other. Still their relationship plays out across the miles in the form of postcards and sporadic emails. Although both Lucy and Owen try to move on they soon realize an unfinished something keeps pulling them back to each other in The Geography of You and Me (2014) by Jennifer E. Smith.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Geography of You and Me is a delightful story of an unlikely long-distance relationship and an ode to the joys of travel and old-fashioned correspondence. Smith brings the wonder and frustrations of a New York blackout delightfully to life in the opening pages. The evocative prose just gets better from there as readers travel across the country with Owen and across the Atlantic with Lucy.

The story alternates between Lucy and Owen’s perspective to offer insights not just into their correspondence but also into the relationships both have with their parents. As much as The Geography of You and Me is a romance it is also an anthem for family and communication. With Lucy coming from a well-to-do family and Owen being on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, there are also some interesting moments about privilege and what that can mean in modern life.

Smith offers nods to social networking and emails while also hearkening back to the simpler and often more sincere communications found in postcards. It is highly likely readers will seek a new pen pal or join Post Crossing after finishing this cheerfully well-traveled novel.

Possible Pairings: A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum; Blackout by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon; Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, All I Need by Susane Colasanti, Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg, Just One Day by Gayle Forman, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson, Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

Drawing a Blank: A review

Drawing a Blank by Daniel EhrenhaftDrawing a Blank or How I Tried to Solve a Mystery, End a Feud, and Land the Girl of My Dreams (2006) by Daniel Ehrenhaft has a lot going for it. In addition to having a very straightforward, no holds barred, title Drawing a Blank also includes illustrations by Trevor Ristow.

More surprising (to me) was that I was already familiar with the book’s author, Daniel Ehrenhaft. In 2002 Ehrenhaft, writing under the pseudonym Daniel Parker, published the Wessex Papers trilogy. The three books (Trust Falls, Fallout, Outsmart) won the Edgar Award in 2003 for Best Young Adult Mystery. I didn’t know any of that while reading the Wessex Papers (or this book), but am inclined to agree with the hype. Like the Wessex Papers the writing here is smart both in the sense that it is clever and that it leaves readers thinking.

The story (as the full title explains) follows Carlton Dunne IV as he tries to rescue his father who is embroiled in an age-old family feud with another Scottish clan. In the process, Carlton runs away from his boarding school, visits the comic con from hell, meets a crazy girl who wants to be on “Cops” and continues working on his comic strip that runs in a local paper (thus the illustrations and the comic con debacle). As you might have guessed, Carlton wears many hats.

Carlton is also a really fun character, likably neurotic he brings to mind the protagonist of the Wessex Papers. A fact that makes sense when you realize the novels were written by the same person.

Although the book is a significant length, the chapters are short–averaging about three pages at a run. This is good because you can read them quickly. On the other hand, Ehrenhaft’s preference to end chapters on a cliff hanger becomes redundant after the eightieth time.

The story takes a while to get to the action, a fact Carlton himself acknowledges early on in a note at the front of the book. The time, however, is well-spent introducing memorable characters and explaining Carlton’s personal history. Most of the book understandably takes place in Scotland, but the scenes at Carnegie Mansion–Carlton’s boarding school–are a lot of fun even if they do more to set up the plot than actively set it in motion.

I’d recommend Drawing a Blank for reluctant readers who don’t read for lack of interest (even though the chapters are short with a fairly large font, the presence of footnotes and an involved plot might be daunting for readers who might read below level). Although this book is a bit more zany than any of the Wessex Papers, I’d also recommend it for fans of that series.

You can learn more about Daniel Ehrenhaft and his other books at his website DanielEhrenhaft.com.