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

Past Perfect: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Past Perfect by Leila SalesThere are only three types of kids who get summer jobs at Colonial Essex Village as historical reenactors living their best 1700s lives instead of working at the mall like everyone else:

There are the history nerds. You may recognize them by how hotly they debate the virtues of bayonets over pistols, their pale skin, and their generally unappealing personalities.

There are the drama kids. While they couldn’t care less about historical accuracy, drama kids are all about dressing up and staging cool scenes where they get fake shot and fall down fake dead while the history nerds gripe about how that isn’t how it really happened blah blah blah.

The third type of teenager working at Colonial Essex Village is, arguably, the rarest type: The kids whose parents already work there.

Chelsea’s father is the Essex Village silversmith and her mother is the silversmith’s wife, which means that Chelsea has been spending every summer as the silversmith’s daughter for basically forever.

Now that she’s sixteen Chelsea is looking forward to working at the mall with her best friend, Fiona, where they can hone their skills as ice cream connoisseurs and Chelsea can finally get over Ezra, the boy who broke her heart.

Except Fiona is very much a drama kid and very much looking forward to working at Colonial Essex. So obviously Chelsea has to work there too. Even if Ezra is also working there. Even if it means Chelsea gets sucked into being second-in-command in the annual war all of the teen staffers at West Essex stage every year against the Civil Warriors from the Civil War reenactment site across the street and, worst of all, even if Chelsea’s new crush is one of those very same Civil Warriors in Past Perfect (2011) by Leila Sales.

Find it on Bookshop.

Chelsea is a very specific type of protagonist who will not work for everyone. She is often self-centered to the point of being low key unreliable and she’s incredibly snarky. I, for one, think she is a riot and appreciate the conversational tone Sales manages to evoke in Chelsea’s first person narration.

While Chelsea is a reluctant historical reenactor, she is nothing if not loyal to Essex and its legacy as the superior historical site in town compared to the subpar Civil Warriors. (Don’t even get her started on the Ren Fairies from the renaissance faire.) This loyalty leads to some difficult choices when Chelsea has to decide how far she’s willing to go to help her side win–not to mention if there’s such a thing as too far when it comes to war.

There is definitely some romance and some flirting, but the real love story here is between Chelsea and her best friend Fiona. As they are pulled in different directions by their jobs at Colonial Essex (and the war), their friendship experiences growing pains for the first time as both girls are forced to evaluate their priorities.

This book explores themes of friendship and ethics while asking interesting questions about history and the past–especially if anything can ever truly be in the past. Past Perfect is a funny, clever story about friendship, ethics, history and the unexpected moments where they intersect. Recommended for readers who like their stories of summer employment with a lot of history and snark.

Possible Pairings: All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Pilgrim’s Don’t Wear Pink by Stephanie Kate Strohm, My Faire Lady by Laura Wettersten

Fire & Heist: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fire & Heist by Sarah Beth DurstFor the Hawkins family, successfully pulling off your first heist is a major accomplishment. It’s an introduction into society, a rite of passage, and of course the best way for a were-dragon to start building their first hoard of gold.

The technical term is actually wyvern, but Sky has always thought calling herself and her family were-dragons really gets to the point even if no wyvern has been able to take on their true dragon form since they lost their connection with Home generations ago.

With Sky’s first heist coming up fast, Sky has to start picking her crew and figure out how to get over her ex-boyfriend Ryan once and for all. But with her mother missing and an ancient jewel in the mix that could change everything for the wyvern community, Sky’s first heist is going to be anything but routine in Fire & Heist (2018) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Find it on Bookshop.

This standalone fantasy is part adventure and part heist as Sky tries to uncover the truth about her mother’s work and the jewel she was tracking before her disappearance. High stakes heist scenes contrast well with high fantasy elements as Sky learns more about her dragon past.

Snark, light romance, and real mystery make Fire & Heist a page-turning adventure with distinct characters in a truly unique world. Recommended for readers looking for a new spin on both dragons and heist tropes.

Possible Pairings: Heist Society by Ally Carter, Wicked Fox by Kat Cho, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston, The Iron King by Julie Kagawa

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

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager: A Review

“It wasn’t the happy ending he wanted but, then again, there were no such things as happy endings. Happy endings were artificial things manufactured out of less-than-ideal circumstances.”

Norris Kaplan is too smart for his own good, decent at hockey and ice skating by Canadian standards (amazing by American standards), and perfectly fine with burning bridges–it’s so much faster than building them.

Now, thanks to his mother’s quest for a tenure track position, Norris is also Austin, Texas’ newest and unhappiest resident. As a black French Canadian, everything in Texas feels like a personal affront. No one knows cares about hockey. His school assumes he won’t speak English. Not to mention going literally anywhere outside feels exactly like walking on the surface of the sun.

In this fresh hell Norris is expected to attend school, make new friends (as if any of them can replace his best friend back home in Canada), and actually make an effort to fit in. The only problem is that Norris would much rather go it alone and convince everyone (including himself) that he likes it that way.

The real question for Norris is if after spending so long pushing everyone away, is there anyone left in his high school (or the entire city) who is actually willing to accept Norris as he is? in The Field Guide to the North American Teenager (2019) by Ben Philippe.

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is Philippe’s debut novel. Philippe’s close third person narration is as snarky as it is on point as Norris shares observations about his new surroundings ranging from caustic to poignant. Each chapter opens with an observation pulled from the field guide Norris begins keeping about his new high school while trying his best to avoid enjoying anything in Texas.

This romantic comedy is the perfect blend of humor and literary prose as Norris tries to make sense of his new surroundings and the ever-confusing world of dating. The story subverts several familiar tropes as Norris tries to connect with the local Manic Pixie Dream Girl and horrifyingly finds himself the captain of a misfit community hockey team.

Snappy dialogue and a winning cast of characters more than make up for a meandering plot and an ending that is widely open to interpretation as readers (and Norris himself) wonder what a happy ending might actually look like for him.

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is the aged up Diary of a Wimpy Kid/Harriet the Spy mashup that we have always deserved. Recommended for readers who prefer their protagonists to be 85% snark, 10% enthusiasm, and 5% genuine sincerity.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, American Panda by Gloria Chao, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty, Barely Missing Everything by Matt Mendez, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke; Past Perfect by Leila Sales, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, Frankly in Love by David Yoon

Bring Me Their Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara WolfZera hardly remembers what it was like to be alive. For three long years she has been a Heartless, the immortal soldier of a witch. While she is in Nightsinger’s service, the witch keeps Zera’s heart in a jar making Zera immune to injury and ensuring that she can never venture far away.

Zera’s one chance of freedom comes in the unlikely form of growing tensions between witches and humans. In order to stave off another war, the witches need a hostage–one who will do their bidding and won’t try to escape. In other words, a Heartless.

If Zera can deliver the crown prince’s heart, she can win back her freedom. Stealing a heart is simple but infiltrating court won’t be easy when Nightsinger is prepared to destroy Zera’s heart before she’ll let Zera be captured and tortured.

Court is as vapid and frustrating as Zera anticipated, But Crown Prince Lucien d’Malvane is far from the useless noble she expected. Instead he is an able–and dangerously fascinating–opponent in Bring Me Their Hearts (2018) by Sara Wolf.

Bring Me Their Hearts is the first book in a fantasy trilogy.

Bring Me Their Hearts is a high action, high drama fantasy. Zera’s efforts to infiltrate the royal court widen her world but also serve to underscore exactly what she has become. Her fascination with the luxury of her new surroundings is a stark contrast to her struggle to tame her inner hunger and maintain her cover.

Zera’s first person narration is snarky and often anachronistic, especially given the quasi medieval setting. She is a smart-mouthed, wise cracking heroine that many readers will immediately love. Lucien and the other secondary characters in the novel are equally developed and often just as entertaining.

Bring Me Their Hearts is a thrilling start to a series that promises even more twists and surprises to come. Perfect for anyone looking for a new badass heroine to love.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Selection by Kiera Cass, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows,

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

Nothing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Nothing ever happens to Charlotte and Frankie. Their lives are never going to be immortalized in the pages of a YA novel because they are way too boring. They don’t have glorious red hair or super hot love interests. Theirs lives aren’t falling apart and they definitely aren’t werewolves. Charlotte and Frankie just live at home with their parents who are pretty normal. They go to high school. That’s about it. Nothing.

Charlotte decides to prove how boring their lives are by writing all about everything that happens to both of them during their sophomore year. But as Charlotte tries to prove that life doesn’t have a plot or character development she starts to realize that real life might have its charms after all in Nothing (2017) by Annie Barrows.

Nothing is Barrows’ YA debut novel. The story was inspired by Barrows’ own children bemoaning their totally mundane and non-book-worthy lives.

The novel is written in alternating first person narration with Charlotte’s writing project and Frankie’s more traditional prose. Despite having distinct personalities and unique arcs, it’s often hard to distinguish between Frankie and Charlotte’s narrations as their voices blend together thanks to similar phrasing and cadence.

Charlotte and Frankie are authentic teens who fall decidedly on the younger end of the YA spectrum. There are no soul mates or life and death situations here but there are crushes, party-induced hangovers, and a couple of big surprises.

A quick, contemporary read ideal for anyone who enjoys realistic fiction with a healthy dose of laughs, strong friendships, and minimal drama or tears.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, Where I Belong by Gwendolyn Heasley, Confessions of a Not It Girl by Melissa Kantor, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales

The Girl at Midnight: A Review

The Girl at Midnight by Melissa GreyThe Avicen have lived beneath New York City for years. Bird-like creatures with feathers for hair, the Avicen can use scarves and sunglasses to blend in when they have to. The rest of the time magical wards make sure they remain hidden from prying human eyes. Except for Echo–the human pickpocket who considers the Avicen, at least some of them, her family.

Echo is used to fending for herself and she has the fierce, brusque persona to prove it. When she isn’t busy being reckless and stealing things around the world for the thrill of it, she is also extremely loyal.

When word surfaces of a way to end the centuries-long war between the Avicen and their dragon-like enemies the Drakharin, Echo jumps at the chance to help.

Legend suggests that the Firebird is the only thing with the power to end the war. The only problem is no one knows what the Firebird is or where to find it. But if life as a thief has taught Echo anything, it’s how to enjoy a challenge in The Girl at Midnight (2015) by Melissa Grey.

The Girl at Midnight is Grey’s debut novel and the start to a trilogy.

The Girl at Midnight starts strong with a fantastically intricate world complete with magic, mythical creatures and a conflict that has lasted centuries. Both the Avicen and Drakharin make sense within the story and have complex cultures to match. In fact, the only thing that doesn’t make sense is trying to picture them while reading as imagining feathers as hair continues to be a sticking point.

Unfortunately the characters who populate The Girl at Midnight pale in comparison to the world within the novel. Most of the characters are defined by one carefully chosen trait and little else. Echo is slightly more developed although she too often comes across as a collection of eccentricities and behaviors (between her preoccupation with food, collecting words, hoarding books and throwing out pop culture references with zero context) that never quite rang true. The logistics of Echo’s living unnoticed in a library also begins to fall apart under any kind of scrutiny.

The Girl at Midnight is a decent urban fantasy in places but it also one that will immediately feel familiar to anyone well-read in the genre. Grey’s admirable world building only serves to underscore the predictable, lackluster plot and weak characters. Recommended for readers looking to discover new places (both real and imagined) rather than find their next engrossing read.

Possible Pairings: Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray, Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Archived by Victoria Schwab, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Deadly Pink: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Deadly Pink by Vivian Vande VeldeWhen Grace’s mother pulls her out of class Grace knows something is wrong. What she never would have guessed is that it’s Grace’s smart, talented, generally better sister Emily who is in trouble.

After working at Rassmussem as a game programmer for college credit, Emily has inexplicably decided to go into the game she was building. According to the note she left behind, Emily doesn’t plan to come out. Ever.

With time running out before the immersive reality game equipment does permanent damage to Emily, Rassmussem is running out of options to get Emily out of a game she clearly doesn’t want to leave. They hope Grace might be able to help.

But inside the game is nothing Grace expected. Her sister has taken refuge inside a game designed for little girls complete with frilly dresses and unicorns. Worse Emily wants nothing to do with Grace and she definitely doesn’t want to leave.

Grace always considered herself the average sister compared to Emily. But with her sister in real danger, this average girl will have to think her way out of this problem before it’s too late in Deadly Pink (2012) by Vivian Vande Velde.

Deadly Pink is Vande Velde’s third novel featuring Rassmussem games with the first and second being Heir Apparent and User Unfriendly respectively.

Fourteen-year-old Grace is an authentic narrator with equal parts sarcasm and (especially later in the novel) ingenuity. While the game itself is not the most interesting, or well-developed, setting Vande Velde does an excellent job presenting Grace’s complicated relationship with her older sister.

Unlike Heir Apparent the focus of this book is more on the characters than the game play. With most of the non-playing characters playing minor roles in the plot, most of the story deals with Grace trying to convince Emily to leave the game.

While both sisters are well-rounded characters, the lack of setting and secondary characters for the majority of the novel is a major weakness. The game is never explained to Grace or the reader giving the effect of Grace running blindly through the game with little understanding of where she is supposed to go or how she is going to save Emily. Grace’s constant plodding through the game while never asking advice from anyone makes for a plodding plot that drags.

The story picks up in the last third of Deadly Pink as Grace comes into her own. Finally embracing her strengths andalso using the limitations of the game’s play to her own advantage, Grace proves at last that she is a heroine worth reading about. If the entire book had been like this small part, it would have been a definite winner.

Unfortunately the story falters once again with a rushed ending to explain Emily’s motivations to go into the game as well as a hurried explanation of what happens after the game is over.

If there are more Rassmussem stories to be told, one can only hope they will return to the style of Vande Velde’s earlier novels.

Possible Pairings: Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Alter Ego by Robbie Cooper, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin

Slide: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Slide by Jill HathawaySylvia “Vee” Bell has passed out often enough in class for everyone to know she’s narcoleptic. What no one would believe is that Vee doesn’t just pass out during her episodes.

When Vee loses consciousness she can slide into someone else’s mind. Most of the time when Vee slides she discovers secrets she’d rather not know like seeing her sister, Mattie, cheating on a math test or watching a teacher sneak a drink before class.

When Vee slides late one night she sees something much worse: the murder of her sister’s best friend, Sophie. While everyone else believes that Sophie killed herself, Vee knows the truth. Even if she has no way to prove it.

As Vee learns more about her sliding and unearths secrets about her friends and family, she’ll have to try to stop the killer herself before they strike again in Slide (2012) by Jill Hathaway.

 Slide is Hathaway’s first novel.

In this sharp mystery with a sly supernatural twist, Hathaway introduces a heroine with equal parts candor and spunk. Vee’s narration is frank and unapologetic making her easy to identify with and even easier to love.

At a slim 256 pages, Slide is a finely tuned page-turner filled with unexpected surprises for Vee and readers alike. Vee’s father and sister are well-developed characters with their own flaws and, more troubling for Vee, their own secrets. Similarly Vee’s best friend Rollins is an admirable foil to Vee and adds another dimension to the story as he and Vee try to untangle their newly-complicated friendship.

While Vee works to use her sliding to uncover the killer, Vee also comes into her own as she learns more about how she slides as well as how to simply be herself. Slide finishes with an ending that is as shocking as it is satisfying. Hathaway skillfully completes most story threads while leaving room for future installments in what will hopefully be a long running series.

Possible Pairings: The Infinity of You & Me by J. Q. Coyle, The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison, Clarity by Kim Harrington, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten

Check back June 1, 2012 to see my exclusive interview with the author!