The Thief: A (Reread) Review

Gen can steal anything. As he is quick to tell  anyone who will listen. Or he could before he was arrested after successfully stealing Sounis’ royal seal (and unsuccessfully boasting about it).

Gen doesn’t know long he’s been in prison. Time is hard to measure based on circuits around his small cell. Certainly long enough to lose much of his strength and for sores from his shackles to begin to fester.

The achingly monotonous routine is broken when the king’s scholar, the magus, recruits Gen for a hunt of sorts. The magus knows the location of an ancient and valuable treasure that could change the balance of power between Sounis and Eddis in Sounis’ favor. The magus thinks Gen is the perfect tool to steal the object away. But like any good thief, Gen has secrets and plans of his own in The Thief (1996) by Megan Whalen Turner.

It’s hard to talk about this series without talking about myself. Eugenides and these books have been part of my life for more than a decade now; they’re in my blood and they are part of why I see the world the way I do and who I am in ways that are not always easy to explain.

In 2000 my mother did freelance data entry for HarperCollins where she could bring home free books (for me) including a lot of the books that I now think of as formative to who I have become. One of those books was The Queen of Attolia. I read it on its own and years later when I started working in my local library, I discovered The Thief and realized that I had read the second book in a series.

The Thief received a Newbery Honor in 1997 and, along with the rest of Turner’s Queen’s Thief novels, has garnered a faithful following and classic status among fantasy readers. Turner creates a world inspired by visits to Greece as well as the culture and pantheon of gods found in Ancient Greece. Using these bones Turner then develops the world further with a unique language and naming conventions, geography, and technology over a wide span of history (including clocks, pens, and maps) leading to parallels to the technologically advanced ancient Byzantines.

The Thief introduces readers to Eugenides, a thief, in this first-person narration where Gen is ostensibly relating exactly what happened after his arrest in Sounis. It is only as the story progresses that it becomes obvious that Gen is keeping secrets not just from the magus but from readers as well.

As Gen, the magus, and his retinue begin their journey Turner’s skills as a writer shine. Evocative descriptions bring the land of Sounis (and later pieces of Attolia and Eddis) to life. Gen’s razor sharp observations and cutting language paint his companions in stark detail while also chronicling his journey with a perfect mix of humor and annoyance.

Eugenides is an ingenious and clever  thief, of course, but also unbelievably sympathetic and unique. His fierce intelligence, skills of deception, and keen grasp of the powers of language and presentation are all key aspects of his personality. They are also, because he guards his secrets so closely, things readers only begin to understand about Eugenides as The Thief nears its conclusion and it becomes obvious that Gen is always at least five steps ahead of everyone and always holding all of the cards.

The Thief presents a memorable cast of brilliant characters who will later populate the rest of Turner’s novels including royalty, spies, soldiers, and even gods. This story also lays groundwork for one of the most carefully plotted and intricate series I have ever read. Even seventeen years after I first read The Thief, even after re-reading it twice more, this novel manages to surprise and impress me with new details to discover and old memories to cherish.

If you enjoy The Thief, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings and Thick as Thieves.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Don’t You Trust Me?: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Don't You Trust Me? by Patrice KindlMorgan has known for a long time that she is different–cold, even. She is very good at mimicking and reading people. But she doesn’t care about anyone except herself.

When her parents decide to send Morgan away to a school for troubled teens even though she is obviously not troubled and knows exactly what she’s doing, Morgan knows it’s time to move on before her plans to attend a top-tier college, become a lawyer, and make lots of money are completely ruined.

Morgan’s one weak point has always been impulsiveness. When Morgan sees a sad sack girl sobbing hysterically at the airport over being separated from her boyfriend, Morgan doesn’t think twice before offering to switch places.

Suddenly Morgan is living across the country under an assumed name with her very well off “aunt” and “uncle.” And her overly trusting “cousin” Brooke. Morgan knows she has found a good thing here–something that can help her achieve that grand future she has planned. The only question is whether or not Morgan can keep such a complex con going indefinitely in Don’t You Trust Me? (2016) by Patrice Kindl.

While Morgan never calls herself a psychopath or sociopath during the course of the novel, it’s safe to say that she has Antisocial Personality Disorder and the related lack of empathy at the very least.

Kindl packs a lot into this slim novel where Morgan learns very quickly how to use her unique skills to get ahead. Morgan is a classic unreliable narrator as she leads her new “family,” friends, and readers on a wild ride through her months living a double life in an affluent Albany suburb.

Morgan’s first person narration is as humorous as it is heartless as she explains exactly how she changes identities and begins conning local charities and rich neighbors in her constant quest for money and security.

Unsurprisingly, not everything comes easily to Morgan as lies begin stacking up and secrets threaten to come out in Don’t You Trust Me? Short chapters and Morgan’s blunt narration make this book ideal for readers looking for a fast-paced story. Thriller fans looking for something a little different and readers who enjoy dark humor will also find a lot to recommend here.

Possible Pairings: The Graces by Laure Eve, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Thieving Weasels by Billy Taylor, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

The Graces: A Review

The Graces by Laure EveEveryone says that the Graces are witches.

Thalia might dress the part with her spangly skirts and scarves, and Fenrin might bewitch all the girls in town with his good looks and charm. But Summer, the youngest Grace, is the only one willing to admit that she is exactly what everyone in town whispers.

Everyone wants to get close to the Graces. Everyone knows how much it must hurt to lose their interest. Because everyone, inevitably, loses the Graces’ interest.

River is new in town and desperate to attach herself to the Graces. She’s in love with Fenrin, like everyone, even though it’s a cliche. She hopes that seeing into their strange world might understand some of what’s been happening to her. But first River has to become one of the Graces. And she’s will to do whatever it takes to get their attention in The Graces (2016) by Laure Eve.

The Graces is Eve’s first novel and the start of a series.

Eve builds tension early with a narrator who remains nameless for the first part of the novel. Readers know that River arrived in town under a cloud, forced to move for reasons she will not divulge. River sees herself as different and other–just like the Graces themselves–and her narration is suitably calculating and cold.

While The Graces is atmospheric, the beginning remains slow with River carefully circling the Grace siblings as she tries to break into their orbit. The push and pull between what is true and what is not works well with the interplay between magic and reality throughout the novel.

Recommended for readers looking for a trippy book with twists reminiscent of Liar and readers who enjoy an unsympathetic main character–whether to root for them or to watch them fail.

Possible Pairings: The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Wink, Poppy, Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2016*

With Malice: A Review

“They’re hinging everything on meeting the legal term of having done something with malice aforethought. That you wanted to do something badly, and you planned it.”

With Malice by Eileen CookEighteen-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital room recovering from a broken leg and a traumatic brain injury with no memory of how she got there.

She doesn’t remember anything about her study abroad trip to Italy six weeks ago with her best friend Simone. She doesn’t remember the car crash that killed Simone or the flight her wealthy father chartered to get her to an American hospital. She doesn’t remember why she might need the lawyer her father has hired.

Everyone thinks they know what happened between Jill and Simone thanks to witness accounts and the sensational news coverage, but it’s up to Jill to figure out the truth for herself in With Malice (2016) by Eileen Cook.

This character-driven thriller teases out what might have happened between the two girls as the events leading to the accident slowly unfold. Jill’s recovery in the hospital includes realistically portrayed rehab for her broken leg and speech therapy for the aphasia that leaves her forgetting words. Therapy sessions allow Jill to process the trauma of the accident while working through her retrograde amnesia.

Cook intersperses Jill’s first person narration with supplemental materials including police interviews, news coverage, and blog posts about the car crash. Travel guide excerpts are as close as readers will get to any Italian locations as Jill’s memories of the trip remain elusive for most of the novel.

Flashbacks, Facebook posts, and emails help to further develop Jill and Simone’s characters as well as their complicated relationship. The rest of the cast fall more comfortably into stock character territory including the rich-but-absent dad, the smooth-talking lawyer and the wannabe-Casanova-tour-guide.

Questions of what Jill remembers and what might have been a dream or suggested memory lend a chilling quality to the conclusion of this novel. A solid thriller that expertly navigates familiar territory, With Malice will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

Possible Pairings: The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Breaker by Kat Ellis, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the April 2016 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen on various sites online*

The Walls Around Us: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We were alive. I remember it that way. We were still alive, and we couldn’t make heads or tails of the darkness, so we couldn’t see how close we were to the end.”

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren SumaAmber is an inmate at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center. She might have been innocent once but that’s a hard quality to hold onto on the inside. Like most of the girls at Aurora Hills, Amber is obsessed with the regrets inherent in choosing one path over the other; with the moment everything goes wrong.

Violet, on the other hand, is at the start of a promising ballet career on the outside. Violet has never had much use for co-dependence when her own success and future are at stake. She has a singular focus on the future, on what comes next, on endings.

Then there’s Orianna. Her story is inextricably linked to both Amber’s and Violet’s, but it’s only in the gaps and overlaps in both of their stories that anyone can begin to understand Ori’s.

These three girls had lives and dreams and futures on the outside. They have secrets they keep close inside the walls of Aurora Hills and in their own hearts. At some point three girls arrive at Aurora Hills. But only time will tell if all of them get to walk away in The Walls Around Us (2015) by Nova Ren Suma.

Every aspect of The Walls Around Us comes together to deliver a story about contrasts in one form or another, something that often comes across in terms of themes like guilt vs. innocence and perception vs. reality. Even the title of the book and the vines on the cover hint at the dichotomy between what is “inside” and “outside” for these characters whose lives are all defined in some way by arriving at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center as well as by the secrets that they hold close.

Subtle characterization and Suma’s deliberate writing serve to bring the two narrators, Amber and Violet, to life.

Amber’s narration is filled with short sentences and staccato declarations. She has spent so long defining herself as part of the whole at Aurora Hills that for much of her narration she describes herself as part of a collective “we”; part of a group comprised of her fellow inmates even when she is usually on the periphery as an observer. Everything about Amber’s narration focuses on beginnings and the past. Her chapter titles are always taken from the first words of her chapters. She has an intense and pathological fear of choosing the unknown and having to start again–a motif that is brought to disastrous fruition by the end of the novel.

Violent, despite being on the outside, is a harder character with sharper edges. Her narrative is filled with racing thoughts and run-on sentences. Her chapters are all titled for the final words in her chapters. Throughout the novel she returns, again and again, to what her future will hold. Until the end of the novel when her ever-forward momentum is cut abruptly and permanently short.

Although she is not a narrator and is most often seen in flashbacks or memories, Orianna is the third pivotal character in the novel. Everything Violet and Amber do within the arc of the book is informed by their relationships to Orianna. If Amber is meant to signify the past in The Walls Around Us and Violet is meant to exemplify the future, it’s safe to argue that Orianna is firmly grounded in the present with all of the opportunity and promise that position implies.

Suma’s lush writing moves readers between the past and the present as the story shifts fluidly between Amber and Violet’s memories of what brought them to Aurora Hills and what comes after in this novel that explores the cost of freedom and the power of hope.

The Walls Around Us received 5 starred reviews and much critical acclaim. It is a masterful blend of literary writing, magic realism and a decidedly eerie ghost story. With a layered and thoughtful plot, vivid prose, and skillfully explore themes and characters, The Walls Around Us is not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Tumbling by Caela Carter, Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, With Malice by Eileen Cook, The Graces by Laure Eve, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

The Truth Commission: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“When you tell a story, you shape the truth.”

The Truth Commission by Susan JubyAfter years of being fodder (along with her parents) for her sister Kiera’s best-selling graphic novel series, The Diana Chronicles, Normandy Pale is ready to come into her own. She’d like to be known for her own strengths and accomplishments instead of constantly being compared to her hapless counterpart in the Chronicles.

But it turns out it’s hard to stop being a muse. Especially when you never asked to be one.

How can Normandy focus on her projects at the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design when she is terrified of what fresh humiliations her character will be subjected to in Kiera’s highly anticipated new book? How can she embark on a search for truth with the Truth Commission she accidentally started with best friends Dusk and Neil when it feels like secrets are the only things holding her fragile and peculiar family together?

In searching for secrets at Green Pastures, Dusk, Neil and a reluctant Normandy hope to bring some kind of peace and honesty to their school. But when their hunt for truth reveals some uncomfortable secrets and shocking truths about Kiera and her work, Normandy will have to decide how much honesty she wants in her own life in The Truth Commission (2015) by Susan Juby.

The Truth Commission is an ambitious novel presented as a work of narrative non-fiction complete with footnotes and illustrations (by Trevor Cooper). Written as Normandy’s spring project for the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, The Truth Commission is a sleek and self-aware novel.

In watching Normandy work through the process of writing her own book (when to add chapter breaks, how to move the plot along, etc.) The Truth Commission also becomes a sort of primer on how to write and write well. The one-sided dialog (in footnotes) between Normandy and her teacher Ms. Fowler also adds another dimension to a novel that is already delightfully complex.

Speaking of Ms. Fowler, it’s also refreshing to see that Normandy has adults in her life who are present and offer support throughout the novel–even if they aren’t always the ones who should be at the forefront in terms of support. This novel is about a lot of other things but seeing Normandy create and nurture her own support system is very powerful.

As the title suggests, The Truth Commission is a story about truth and honesty. It’s also a story about family and what it means when the family you are born into is not always as good or healthy as the family you might choose. It’s a story about art–both making it and engaging with it. It’s a story about the push and pull of friendships. It’s even a bit of a story about love. Most importantly, The Truth Commission is about how people–both creators and not–shape their own worlds and stories in the telling.

The Truth Commission is a thoughtful, smart, and funny story that works on many different planes. What starts as a humorous and promising project for Normandy and her friends becomes much more in Juby’s expert hands in this meditation on subjectivity, consent and how telling the truth (or choosing not to) can change everything. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Feed by M. T. Anderson, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Romantics by Leah Konen, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, In Real Life by Jessica Love, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti, This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Susan!

Consent: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Consent by Nancy OhlinBetween all of the lies she tells at school about her non-existent piano teacher and her supposedly okay home life, Beatrice Kim has a lot of secrets even before starting her senior year at Andrew Jackson High School.

Then Bea meets her music history teacher. Mr. Rossi is young, good-looking, and completely believes in Bea’s potential as a professional pianist–something Bea hasn’t ever allowed herself to consider.

When their shared passion for music turns into something else, Bea and Rossi begin a sexual relationship that could ruin them both. Bea thinks she knows what she is doing and what she wants. She thinks Rossi understands her and loves her. But with the threat of discovery looming, Bea will have to confront uncomfortable truths about herself and her relationship with Rossi in Consent (2015) by Nancy Ohlin.

Consent delivers two stories in one slim volume. One, reminiscent of Sara Zarr’s The Lucy Variations, explores how Bea lost her love for the piano and how she can reclaim it; the other is an often uncomfortable examination of a relationship that never should have happened.

Despite the problems Bea hints at in her home life and the lies she tells, everything comes very easily to Bea in Consent. She is at the top of her class despite having no real interest in college. She is a piano prodigy with perfect pitch although she has never had formal lessons. She is also, conveniently, at a recently rebranded  “Campus for Baccalaureate and Performing Arts” despite having a nearly pathological desire to avoid the piano at the beginning of the novel. Readers who can get past these contrivances will be rewarded with a layered and thoughtful contemporary novel.

The push and pull between what is perceived and what is true throughout Consent adds another dimension to Bea’s often unreliable first person narration as readers, and Bea herself, contemplate Rossi’s agenda.  Despite some heavy-handed moments, Ohlin delivers an open-ended novel ripe for discussion as readers follow the plot’s twists and turns.

Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, With Malice by Eileen Cook, The Graces by Laure Eve, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Teach Me by R. A. Nelson, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten, The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the September 2015 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen on various sites online*

You can also read my review with Nancy Ohlin starting November 12.