Practical Magic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Practical Magic by Alice HoffmanThe Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town for more than two hundred years. After all, who wouldn’t blame every wrong thing on the town witches?

It’s no surprise that sisters Gillian and Sally grow up here as outsiders–taunted and whispered about without ever being understood or even truly seen. It seems to be the only option when their aunts Jet and Fran seem to do everything they can to encourage every rumor with their strange house and the concoctions they offer at night from their kitchen door.

Gillian escapes by running away; Sally by getting married. But no matter how far they go from their family, from each other, some things–some bonds–can’t be broken in Practical Magic (1995) by Alice Hoffman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Like a lot of people of a certain age, my first encounter with Practical Magic was the 1998 movie adaptation starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. I love that movie. It’s iconic, one of a handful of films I know by heart and watch every chance I get. I was nervous that the novel would never stand up to the adaptation. I’m happy to report I was wrong.

The story covered in the film version is roughly the final quarter of the book with a few changes to better translate the story to a new medium. Instead of the small vignette viewers get in the movie, Practical Magic offers a wider slice of life as Gillian and Sally grow up and do everything they can to deny their family, their history, and their magical roots. Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie also play bigger roles in the book.

Practical Magic is everything I loved from the movie but more. This book has more history, more magic, more evocative scenes, plus Hoffman’s beautiful prose to tie it all together.

Possible Pairings: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim, Among Others by Jo Walton

Kind of a Big Deal: A Review

Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon HaleJosie Pie was a big deal in high school. She was always the lead in school productions, her teachers always said she was destined for greatness. Which is why it made so much sense when Josie dropped out of high school to be a star.

Now, almost a year later, Josie is starting to wonder if she made the right choice. Turns out hitting it big on Broadway isn’t as easy as hitting it big in high school. After a series of failed auditions Josie is starting to wonder if she was ever star material. It certainly doesn’t feel that way while she words as a nanny.

Josie keeps in touch with her best friend, her boyfriend, and her mom. But there’s only so much you can talk about without admitting massive failure (and mounting credit card debt).

When Josie and her charge find a cozy bookstore, Josie receives a pair of special glasses that transport her into her current read. Literally. In the books she can save the day in a post-apocalyptic world, fall in love in a rom-com, and more.

Living out these fantasies is the best thing that’s happened to Josie in a while. But the longer she stays inside the stories, the harder it is to remember why she should come back to her own life in Kind of a Big Deal (2020) by Shannon Hale.

Find it on Bookshop.

Hale’s latest YA novel is a genre mashup. Framed by Josie’s contemporary coming of age story, Hale also plays with conventions in dystopian sci-fi, romantic comedies, and historical fiction (genres Hale has by and large tackled previously in her extensive backlist).

Kind of a Big Deal takes on a lot using these genre adventures to help Josie get a handle on her own life. Unfortunately, the stories within this story are often more compelling than Josie’s real life leaving Josie and her friends feeling one dimensional throughout. Stilted dialog and a premise that pushes the limits of plausibility (particularly with eighteen-year-old Josie being solely in charge of a seven-year-old girl while her mother works out of the country) further undermine this otherwise novel premise.

Kind of a Big Deal is a unique take on losing yourself in a good book. The story reads young and might have worked better for a middle grade audience or radically rewritten with older characters for an adult novel. Recommended for readers looking for plot driven genre studies.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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

The Scapegracers: A (WIRoB) Review

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

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail ClarkeThe “township of Sycamore Gorge doesn’t fuck around where Halloween is concerned” which is why October is the one time of year where Eloise “Sideways” Pike earns a modicum of respect and attention from classmates who would otherwise ignore her as the resident lesbian witch whose dads run the local antique shop.

After years of “skulking near the bottom, lurking behind the bleachers, doing magic tricks for bottles of Coke,” Sideways is suddenly and irrevocably catapulted to the top of the West High social pyramid when Jing Gao, Lila Yates, and Daisy Brink pay Sideways forty dollars to add some real magic to the start of “scare-party season.”

Sideways is almost as surprised as Jing and Yates and Daisy when the magic works. As she puts it: “Even following my spell book by the letter, the most I could do was burn paper, unbreak dishes, make scrapes and cuts scab faster. What the four of us could do was something else. I felt seasick and disgustingly in love with it, with them.”

Party magic soon leads to dead deer in a drained pool, an unknown party guest nearly assaulting Yates, devils, and trouble as the girls start to learn more about the magic they all share and what it means for their fledgling friendship in The Scapegracers (2020) by Hannah Abigail Clarke.

Find it on Bookshop.

Sideways’s first person narration is descriptively lyrical observing the pale “bruise-lavender blue” air even as she remains extremely grounded when it comes to her own loneliness and lack of social skills. Sideways sees herself better suited to “skulking under bridges” than befriending the most popular clique in school, let alone flirting with Madeline–the stranger recruited as a fifth for their coven. Despite meddling efforts from her new friends, the course of love, much like magic, does not run smooth for Sideways.

Clarke cleverly dismantles classic popular girl tropes as Sideways and readers learn more about the triumvirate who quickly adopt Sideways into their ranks with surprising loyalty and affection. Sideways, Daisy, and Madeline are described as white, Yates is Black, and Jing is Asian—presumably Chinese. The characters are also diverse in terms of sexuality with lesbian Sideways and bisexual Jing among others.

Clarke’s debut is the start of a trilogy filled with magic, lilting prose, snappy dialog, and witches embracing their own power. Feminist themes and strong character bonds make this book an ideal companion to Kim Liggett’s The Grace Year, Hannah Capin’s Foul is Fair, and Leslye Walton’s Price Guide to the Occult. The Scapegracers is an excellent addition to the recent crop of novels highlighting sisterhood (especially unlikely ones) fueled by both feminist rage and solidarity.

Possible Pairings: Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Eventide: A Review

Eventide by Sarah GoodmanSeventeen-year-old Verity Pruitt knows she is perfectly capable of caring for herself and her younger sister, Lilah. But after her father’s very public descent into madness, The Children’s Benevolent Society is far less certain.

In June, 1907 Verity and Lilah are sent west on an orphan train to Wheeler, Arkansas where eleven-year-old Lilah is quickly adopted and just as quickly begins to adapt to her new circumstances.

Verity does not. Desperate to stay close to her sister, Verity signs on as an indentured farmhand to an elderly couple where she soon learns that her aspirations of attending medical school have done little to prepare her for the manual labor of farm life despite her kind employers and their charismatic nephew, Abel. Worse, Verity’s plan to get herself and Lilah back to New York seems more impossible every day.

Folks in Wheeler are friendly enough but local superstitions, a strange aversion to the neighboring woods, and even Lilah’s mysterious new adoptive mother all suggest that something is wrong in this small town.

As Verity learns more about Wheeler and her own parents’ history with the place, long-buried secrets threaten to once again send Verity adrift–or worse in Eventide (2020) by Sarah Goodman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Eventide is Goodman’s debut novel.

Evocative prose and snippets of fairytale-like passages come together to bring both Wheeler and its mysterious past to life. Verity’s obstinate pragmatism contrasts well with this western gothic’s small town superstitions and secrets. While Verity is rash–often jumping to conclusions readers may realize are wrong before she does herself–her heart is in the right place and her compassion as she tries to protect her sister and her new friends shines through on every page.

Eventide is an atmospheric, spooky story filled with old secrets and ghosts. A meditative, melancholy story where nothing is quite what it seems. Recommended for readers looking to unearth old ghosts in an atmospheric and sometimes bittersweet setting.

Possible Pairings: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, 13 Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth

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

The Insomniacs: A Review

The Insomniacs by Marit WeisenbergMost of Ingrid Roth’s life is a mess. Her mother is barely home, always taking extra shifts at the hospital. Their house is rundown and falling apart. Ingrid hasn’t spoken to any of her friends in the neighborhood cul de sac in years. And, of course, Ingrid’s father is long gone. But Ingrid has always had diving under control.

Competitive diving is supposed to be a safe space–her ticket to a college scholarship, the way she’ll one day get her father’s attention. Diving is the one thing Ingrid always does right.

Until she doesn’t.

Ingrid doesn’t remember the accident. She knows she must have frozen up, lost control. She knows her head hit the board and she’s supposed to be resting to recover from the head trauma.

The only problem is Ingrid hasn’t been able to sleep in days.

Haunted by her lack of memory of the accident, as scared to return to the diving board as she is to fall behind in training, Ingrid spends her nights watching the neighborhood and Van–her neighbor, her former best friend, the boy she’s had a crush on forever.

Then Ingrid finds Van watching her.

Van and Ingrid start spending their sleepless nights together as they both try to find a way to rest. Will the promise of answers be the thing that brings Ingrid and Van back together? Or will it drive them apart once and for all? in The Insomniacs (2020) by Marit Weisenberg.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Insomniacs is a heady blend of the vague menace reminiscent of the Hitchcock classic Rear Window and the summery nostalgia and romance in The Summer I Turned Pretty. Ingrid’s narration is choppy and tense as she tries to put together the pieces to explain her accident.

While both Ingrid and Van are focused on fixing their insomnia, the lack of sleep soon becomes a stand in for other problems. After years of letting her athleticism and physicality shape her daily life, Ingrid is paralyzed in the face of so much introspection as she has to confront her feelings about diving and, worse, the memories she can’t quite summon of the moments leading up to the accident. Van, meanwhile, struggles to understand what secrets his girlfriend and best friends seem to have been keeping from him and what they have to do with the abandoned house on the cul de sac.

The Insomniacs is an atmospheric story filled with secrets and suspense. Ingrid and Van drive the story but their neighborhood is as much of a character in this tense story where both characters have to confront some hard truths–including acknowledging when they need to ask for help. Ideal for readers who like their protagonists to have a lot of chemistry and their suspense to have tension thick enough to cut with a knife. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee, Tonight The Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, We Are the Wildcats by Siobhan Vivian, Rear Window (1954)

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

You Should See Me in a Crown: A Review

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah JohnsonLiz Lighty has never been one to break from the ensemble to go solo. That has served her quite well during her time at her high school in Campbell County, Indiana where she’s been able to focus on band, getting good grades, and doing everything she needs to in order to attend her mother’s alma mater Pennington College.

Unfortunately, even doing everything right isn’t enough to get Liz the last scholarship she needs to be able to afford tuition at Pennington. If her grandparents find out, they’ll want to sell the house to help Liz. But if they do that Liz and her younger brother will lose the last link they have to their mother who died from Sickle Cell Anemia. Liz isn’t going to be the reason for that. Not a chance.

Instead, Liz realizes her best option is running for prom queen. Liz has never cared about prom–not the way people are supposed to in her town where prom is a full-time obsession–but becoming prom queen comes with a crown and a scholarship.

Now Liz will have to complete community service, dodge spontaneous food fights, and deal with the friend who broke her heart when he he chose popularity instead of their friendship. That’s all while campaigning to climb the ranks running for prom queen and figuring out what to do when new girl Mack turns from enigmatically cute to new crush and maybe even potential girlfriend.

Prom season is always hectic in Campbell and competition is always fierce. Liz knows most people in Campbell don’t see her as prom queen material. The better question is if Liz is ready to step out of the ensemble and use her solo to convince them otherwise in You Should See Me in a Crown (2020) by Leah Johnson.

Find it on Bookshop.

You Should See Me in a Crown is Johnson’s debut novel. This funny contemporary is set over the course of the six weeks of Liz’s prom campaign culminating in the prom itself. I won’t spoil the prom queen results, but maybe you can guess. Despite the prom focus the main event is watching Liz come out of her shell and embrace all of her personality (and her queer identity) while making space for herself in both her school and her town.

Campaign shenanigans and gossip from the school’s social media app Campbell Confidential add drama and humor to this story. Although she doesn’t tell them everything she’s struggling with, Liz’s grandparents and brother are great supports for her and quite funny in their own rights.

Liz’s friends also try to help with the campaign which leads to questionable decisions from best friend Gabi as she lets winning overshadow being a good friend–an ongoing problem as Gabi begins to understand that being a friend (and an ally) has to more than offering campaign advice.

Then of course, there’s Mack and one of the sweetest romances you’ll find in YA Lit.

You Should See Me in a Crown is a prom-tastic read with a story that is as funny, smart, and endearing as its heroine. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin, The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby, The Prom by Saundra Mitchell with Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, Matthew Sklar, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker, Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud, The Summer of Jordi Perez and the Best Burgers in Los Angeles by Amy Spalding, The Wrong Side of Right by Jenn Marie Thorne, Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board: A Graphic Novel Review

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board by Kristen GudsnukDany finally feels like she’s getting the hang of middle school. Her best friend Madison has found her own place in town after her confusing start as a drawing in Dany’s magical sketchbook.

With their school opening again after being destroyed in no small part by Dany’s shenanigans at the start of the school year, it’s a busy time. So busy, in fact, that Dany decides it might be time to duplicate herself so she will have someone to help her with mounting homework and figure out how to navigate the still confusing waters of middle school social climbing.

When Dany and … Dany accidentally let a magical dog loose in town, chaos unsurprisingly ensues before Dany, Madison, their other friends, (and the other Dany) work together to try and stop the dog and save the school dance in Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board (2019) by Kristen Gudsnuk.

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board is the second installment in Gudsnuk’s wacky graphic novel series.

Gudsnuk takes the humor, friendships, and zaniness from book one and turns it up to twelve in this flashy, full color, graphic novel.

Things you’ll find in these pages: five Solar Scouts, one Pikkiball, one mean girl, several magic flying rings, a dog genie. Do I even need to say more?

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board positions Gudsnuk as a must-read for anyone who enjoys their graphic novels tempered with great humor, good friends, and a whole lot of silly pop culture references.

Possible Pairings: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, All Summer Long by Hope Larson, Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson, Lumberjanes by Noelle Stephenson, Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi, Audrey’s Magic Nine by Michelle Wright, illustrated by Courtney Huddleston and Tracy Bailey

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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

10 Blind Dates: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

10 Blind Dates by Ashley ElstonWhen her parents decide to spend Christmas with Sophie’s very pregnant older sister, Sophie plans to stay behind for some quality time with her long-term boyfriend Griffin.

Unfortunately, Griffin isn’t as excited about this plan as Sophie had hoped. Heartbroken, she retreats to her grandparents’ house where her nonna proposes a radical plan to help Sophie get over the sudden breakup: For the next ten days Sophie’s entire extended family can sign up to set her up on blind dates.

Sophie doesn’t know what to expect from the dates, especially with her boisterous relatives involved, but it soon becomes obvious that Nonna’s crazy plan might be the perfect way to avoid wallowing for her entire vacation.

With dates including an elite underground party, a living nativity, and a drive through that does not bear further mention, Sophie’s in for a whirlwind of excitement and maybe even some fun with her estranged cousins.

But with Griffin suddenly keen to win Sophie back, a boy who is probably not available, plus the suspense of waiting for her baby niece to arrive, Sophie will need more than her family’s support to figure out what really matters this holiday season in 10 Blind Dates (2019) by Ashley Elston.

Find it on Bookshop.

10 Blind Dates is a standalone contemporary set over the course of Sophie’s hectic winter break with chapters for each day (and date). Sophie is an approachable, authentic narrator who handles (almost) everything her family throws with a lot of humor and grace.

While she’s slow to realize her breakup might not be the end of the world, Sophie’s growth throughout the novel is obvious as she begins to understand her own role in the awkward space that has grown between herself and her cousins and their childhood friend. Even better, Sophie starts to realize her priorities need to shift and puts in the work to make some necessary changes.

10 Blind Dates is as funny as it is festive. A delightfully entertaining novel filled with memorable, lively characters and lots of seasonal shenanigans. Recommended for anyone in search of a sweet holiday romance that will leave them smiling.

Possible Pairings: Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway; 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz; Snow in Love by Melissa de la Cruz, Aimee Friedman, Nic Stone, Kasie West; I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo; Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks; Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno; Save the Date by Morgan Matson; My True Love Gave to Me edited by Stephanie Perkins; My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma; Recommended For You by Laura Silverman; This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

The Okay Witch: A Graphic Novel Review

Moth Hush has never felt like she fits in among the other kids in Founder’s Bluff. On her thirteenth birthday she finds out that might not be entirely her fault.

It turns out Moth comes from a long line of witches.

Moth thinks that having magic powers will make things easier, or at least make her cooler. But even with support from her new friend Charlie and her old friend Mr. Lazlo (now a cat and sort of Moth’s familiar), making sense of her new powers isn’t easy.

Moth will have to confront old secrets and her hometown’s legacy before she can truly embrace her powers or her family’s past in The Okay Witch (2019) by Emma Steinkellner.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Okay Witch is Steinkellner’s graphic novel debut.

Steinkellner blends witchcraft and magic with a classic story of friendship, family and all of the complications therein. Full color illustrations with expressive characters and detailed backdrops bring Moth’s world and Founder’s Bluff to life. A careful use of color also accentuates the different light in scenes as the story shifts between day and night and, later, between Moth’s present and flashbacks about her family.

The Okay Witch is a funny, sweet graphic novel perfect for the autumn season. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever felt like a misfit and witchy types everywhere. Guaranteed to be a new favorite.

Possible Pairings: Little Witches by Leigh Dragoon; Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale, Nathan Hale, Dean Hale; The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson; The Power of Poppy Pendle by Natasha Lowe; The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag; Audrey’s Magic Nine  by Michelle Wright, illustrated by Courtney Huddleston and Tracy Bailey; Kiki’s Delivery Service

Be sure to also check out my interview with Emma!

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*