500 Words or Less: A Review

cover art for 500 Words or Less by Juleah del RosarioWhat happens when your attempt to be a better person might be making you worse?

Nic Chen isn’t going to spend her senior year known only as the girl who cheated on her boyfriend with his best friend. She had enough grief when her mom left under a cloud of scandal. This year isn’t going to be a repeat of that.

To revamp her reputation with her Ivy League obsessed classmates, Nic has a simple plan: she will write college admission essays. For a price.

But as Nic learns more about her classmates, she realizes she still has a lot to learn about herself and her moral compass in 500 Words or Less (2018) by Juleah del Rosario.

500 Words or Less is a shining verse novel with a strikingly original story. Through free verse poems Nic contends with painful memories from her past including when her mother left and her last year in high school that changed everything.

Nic is a flawed character well aware of her own shortcomings both in reality and in the eyes of her peers. She grapples with her identity, both as a biracial teen and an outsider at her school, as she tries to figure out how to embrace all of herself–even the ugly pieces.

500 Words or Less is a unique story whose format works well to emphasize elegant prose and complex characterization. An excellent debut that proves del Rosario is an author to watch. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Starry Eyes: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Starry Eyes by Jenn BennettZorie and Lennon used to be best friends. But that was before the homecoming dance last year and well before their families started feuding around the time that Lennon’s moms opened a sex toy shop right next to the massage shop that Zorie’s parents run.

Seeing Lennon and remembering how close they used to be still stings, but they’ve gotten good at avoiding each other. At least, Zorie thought they had until her mom adds a surprise adventure to Zorie’s carefully scheduled summer. (Even though she knows that being spontaneous gives Zorie hives. Literally.)

What starts as a luxe week-long glamping trip to cheer up a friend (and maybe hook up with her longtime crush) turns into a nightmare when Zories realizes that Lennon is rounding out the group. Then things go really wrong and Zorie and Lennon are stranded in the wilderness. Alone.

Needing each other to survive without any distractions might be just what Zorie and Lennon need to reconnect as they try to get back to civilization. But even after working through old hurts and secrets, they’ll have to see if their renewed friendship is ready for the real world in Starry Eyes (2018) by Jenn Bennett.

Bennett’s latest standalone contemporary romance is an absolute delight and has made me an instant fan. I also love the way this book is designed. The book is broken into three parts, each accompanied by a sketch by Bennett (who has a fine arts degree) of Zorie and Lennon’s camping gear. Lennon is an amateur mapmaker and Bennett also created maps to accompany the story which really help bring their down and the trails they travel to life.

Starry Eyes has a refreshingly varied cast and also highlights two of the many alternatives to a “traditional” nuclear family. Lennon lives with his moms but is also close with his Egyptian-American father–something that becomes more important as the plot progresses. Meanwhile Zorie’s mother died when she was eight and since then Joy, her Korean-American stepmother, has been more of a parent than her father leading to divided loyalties as Zorie uncovers a secret that could  tear her parents’ marriage apart.

Zorie is a type A nerd who plans and micromanages her own life to fend off her anxiety while also pursuing her passion for astronomy. She’s a fun and honest narrator who takes being pushed way out of her comfort zone (mostly) in stride. Laid back Lennon is the perfect foil to Zorie. His interests lie in horror, snakes, maps, and (luckily for Zorie) hiking and camping–two things that just might get them back home in one piece. While the hurt on both sides is obvious as they try to piece together what went wrong, their chemistry crackles throughout the novel.

Starry Eyes is a rich and entertaining romance. Come for the witty banter and tension, stay for the evocative descriptions, clever plotting, and nuanced characters. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

The Opposite of Here: A Review

“There’s always somewhere else I want to go, but when I get there I always want to leave.”

cover art for The Opposite of Here by Tara AltebrandoThe last thing Natalie wants to do for her seventeenth birthday is go on a “sail-a-bration” cruise with her parents and best friends. Even nine months after her boyfriend died in a car accident it still feels too soon.

But once the plan is in motion, Natalie realizes there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

Her best friends Lexi, Nora, and Charlotte are excited so Natalie tries to be too. Lexi is ready for all the fun the cruise has to offer–especially if her boyfriend Jason never has to hear about it. Nora has been down for a while and Natalie hopes that maybe the cruise will do her some good. Maybe she’ll even find a new guy to like, it’s been a while. Charlotte is used to keeping a low profile at school and following the rules. On the cruise no one cares if she’s black enough or white enough–she can just be herself.

Natalie’s low expectations for the cruise rise when she unexpectedly meets a cute guy. He’s funny and exciting and Natalie’s attraction is immediate. But she doesn’t see him after their moonlit conversation and he blows off their plans to meet later.

At first the rejection stings and Natalie is prepared to move on. But then she starts to wonder if there might be more to it than that. How can a guy disappear on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean? Is it crazy to think he might have jumped?

Natalie isn’t sure where to start when she doesn’t even know his name. But she knows she has too look. The only problem is that the harder Natalie looks for answers, the more questions she seems to uncover in The Opposite of Here (2018) by Tara Altebrando.

Altebrando’s latest standalone thriller is a perfect balance of suspense and intrigue as Natalie begins to investigate the bizarre disappearance of the guy she meets on the first night of her cruise.

Instead of chapters the novel is broken into days with the cruise itinerary marking the start of each new section. Assigned by her film studies teacher to shoot a two line film during the cruise, Natalie also imagines various scenarios in short screenplay snippets.

While not quite unreliable, Natalie is a restrained narrator holding back information from readers, and maybe even form herself, as she tries to move past the worst events of the last year. She is sardonic, capable, and singular in her search for the (possibly) missing boy.

Because of its short length and close focus on Natalie the rest of the characters in The Opposite of Here can feel less dimensional by comparison although they do each have their own arcs–something Natalie and readers realize together as Natalie comes to understand that she wasn’t the only one affected by her boyfriend’s death or the events of the cruise.

Taut pacing and menace imbue the pages as the narrative toes the line between reality and the power of suggestion in this story that asks readers to separate fact from fiction. The Opposite of Here is a tense thriller sure to keep readers guessing right until the last page. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, Fragments of the Lost by Megan Miranda, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roerhig, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

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

The Cruel Prince: A Review

“True power isn’t granted. True power can’t be taken away.”

cover art for The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackTen years ago Jude’s parents were murdered and she and her sisters were stolen away to the High Court of Faerie. Life at Court is a constant nightmare full of treachery and danger–especially for mortal children like Jude and her twin sister, Taryn.

Raised among the fey, Jude is painfully aware that she is not one of them the way her older sister, Vivi, is with her furred ears and cat eyes. She knows better than to fall for the seductive beauties of the fey or to ever believe they can see her as an equal. But that doesn’t stop her from striving for that recognition and approval, always grasping for that means of protection.

Drawn into a web of intrigue and deceptions, Jude finds her chance to make a place at Court while moving herself into the center of violence that threatens to break the Faerie Courts apart. Raised on strategy and brutality, Jude can see a way out of the conflict but only if she aligns with the person she hates most–Cardan, the youngest son of the High King and the one member of Court determined to make sure she never forgets her mortality. Jude and Cardan have spent years circling each other, hating each other, but it’s only as they begin to work together toward a common goal that they begin to understand each other in The Cruel Prince(2018) by Holly Black.

The Cruel Prince is the start of Black’s new trilogy, The Folk of the Air. Set in the same world as her other faerie novels it also references back in small ways to her Modern Faerie Tales series and The Darkest Part of the Forest.

Jude’s first person narration is pragmatic to the point of being fatalistic even while adopting the lilting cadence of the faerie creatures who surround her. Jude has no illusions about her place in the hierarchy of the High Court or her expendability. While Vivi tolerates living among the fey and Taryn sees the beauties amongst the dangers, all Jude sees is the savagery. She knows that her only chance to survive and find her place among the fey is through power–a strategy she has learned all too well from her adopted father, Madoc. Madoc, a violent redcap, also murdered Jude’s real parents leaving Jude uncertain of her footing even in her own family.

Every victory Jude has earned down below with the faeries is hard won; every lesson painfully learned. Thanks to her repeated encounters with Cardan, Jude is especially well-versed in hate. She hates Cardan beyond all reason and he hates her nearly as much. But as fans of the classic film Gilda know all too well, hate can be a very exciting emotion and Jude and Cardan’s interactions practically sizzle as a result–even while they are doing everything they can to destroy each other.

Everything in The Cruel Prince is very artfully done. Jude’s story is about politics, intrigue, and fear—particularly being afraid but charging ahead anyway. Because there is no other option. Intricate plotting and a restrained narration make for a very clever conclusion as quite a few of Jude’s cards are laid on the table only to raise more questions for what will happen next in the series.

For Jude there are no good choices. Similarly, it’s hard to say if there are any good people among the High Court. Thanks to the strength of Black’s writing, that hardly matters. It takes real skill to take the villain of the story and make him not just sympathetic but precious. It takes as much work to have a first person narrator who is ruthlessly cold and calculating while also being devastatingly human and compassionate. The Cruel Prince is a must read for faerie enthusiasts, high fantasy connoisseurs, and especially for anyone looking for a book filled with twists that will leave them breathless. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2017*

One of Us is Lying: A Review

Here’s what we know:

Bronwyn always follows the rules. She’s heading to Yale next year and she would never risk that or disappointing her immigrant father.

Cooper is an all-star baseball player. His pitching abilities are sure to lead the Bayview team to victory and pave Cooper’s way to the majors–just like his father wants. But Cooper wants other things that he’s afraid to talk about out loud.

Addy is homecoming princess and not much else. She isn’t ambitious or independent but she isn’t sure why she has to be when she already has the perfect life with her boyfriend.

Nate really belongs in detention. He’s always doing something wrong and has been for years. What do you expect from a guy who’s already on probation for drug dealing.

Simon is the outcast of Bayview but he’s also one of the most powerful students there thanks to the gossip app he created that dishes all of Bayview High’s worst secrets.

All of them were caught using cell phones during school hours. All of them claim they were framed. On Monday afternoon the five of them walk into detention at Bayview High. Only four of them walk out alive. Every one else has a motive for killing Simon. But no one has any proof. Yet. As the investigation heats up Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper all have to decide how far they’ll go to keep their secrets in One of Us is Lying (2017) by Karen M. McManus.

One of Us is Lying is McManus’ debut novel. This standalone thriller was partially inspired by the 1980s movie The Breakfast Club. The novel is written in alternating first person chapters between Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper as they try to make sense of what happened to Simon.

Despite the numerous narrators each character manages to sound distinct and stand out in their own sections. Anyone who is familiar with teen movies or YA novels will recognize some of the plot points (such as staight-laced Bronwyn pursuing a relationship with the resident bad boy) but they manage to feel fresh and interesting within this story. McManus keeps a tight rein on the plot as the story’s twists which are revealed at a satisfying pace throughout the novel. Unlikely friendships, surprising romances, and quite a few surprises make One of Us is Lying a winning mystery for even the most jaded fans of the genre.

While I was a big fan of most of this novel, there are two things I need to talk about. Avert your eyes if you want to avoid spoilers.

——START SPOILERS——

Every character in the book has a big secret. We eventually learn that Cooper’s secret isn’t steroid use as everyone suspects. Instead, Cooper is gay. And he is outed during the course of the investigation. Cooper being outed by reporters during the investigation is rightly treated as egregious behavior but it also felt tiresome and a little sad to still have it be a plot device. Maybe it’s realistic but I wish we were beyond that point already.

Then there’s the big reveal about Simon’s killer. It turns out that Simon was depressed from constantly trying and failing to be one of the popular kids. Refusing to discuss other courses of action Simon kills himself and use his suicide to frame a classmate for his death.

While the suicide-as-murder-frame-up is a familiar trope in mystery novels, it’s a troubling one in a young adult novel. It’s problematic to still have mental illness be treated as a plot device and especially to not have it be addressed in any way beyond being part of Simon’s brilliant plan.f

——END SPOILERS——

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

In Some Other Life: A Review

Three years ago Kennedy Rhodes made a choice. She turned down admission to elite Windsor Academy to stay in public school near her crush.

Three years later it seems like Kennedy made the right choice. She and Austin are still dating, she has good grades, and she has completely revamped the school newspaper making it an award winning student paper (and chasing a record breaking fourth year win). Windsor Academy students have a much higher probability of getting into Columbia, but Kennedy knows that the student paper will set her over the top. It has to.

When she finds out that her boyfriend has been seeing her best friend in secret, Kennedy wishes she made a different choice. And, thanks to a knock on the head, Kennedy wakes up in that other life where she chose to attend Windsor Academy after all. But as Kennedy explores her shiny new life she starts to realize there might not be one right choice, especially when nothing is quite what she expects, in In Some Other Life (2017) by Jessica Brody.

Brody’s latest standalone novel offers a fun blend of contemporary and light fantasy as Kennedy tries to answer that ineffable question: “What if?”

Structured like an if/then equation (half of the books chapters are titled with “if” scenarios, the other half with “then” outcomes) this story explores both paths Kennedy could have taken complete with her delightfully precocious younger brother explaining the ins and outs of the parallel universe theory.

Kennedy’s first person narration can be grating thanks to the obvious chip on her shoulder thanks to her singular focus on all of her disadvantages and obstacles on the path to Columbia instead of her assets and successes. In Some Other Life uses an innovative structure to good effect and offers a well-rounded story that proves the tried and true adage about grass being greener. Recommended for readers who enjoy plot driven stories as well as alternate history or parallel universe tales in general.

Possible Pairings: In a World Just Right by Jen Brooks, The Infinity of You & Me by J. Q. Coyle, Two Summers by Aimee Friedman, Parallel by Lauren Miller, Just Like Fate by Cat Patrick and Suzanne Young, The Square Root of Summer by Harrier Reuter Hapgood, Now That You’re Here by Amy K. Nichols, Pivot Point by Kasie West

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

Wildlife: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“The only person you should be is yourself. You can’t control perception. All you can control is how you treat someone else.”

Just before her term at her school’s outdoor education campus, Sibylla unexpectedly winds up on a billboard advertisement near her school. She also kisses her super popular and super cute longtime crush Ben Capaldi.

Lou is the unexpected new girl at school when the new term begins. She isn’t at the school to make friends or to fit in. Mostly she just wants to be left alone and get by without having to think about her old friends, her old school, or the fact that her boyfriend Fred is dead.

Sib thought going through a term of outdoor education at her school would be upheaval enough. But adding the billboard, the kiss, and her often rocky and now definitely changing relationship with her best friend Holly makes everything even more complicated. Lou thought a term in the wilderness would give her a chance to hide and grieve. Instead, she slowly finds herself drawn into the dramas of the girls around her like Sib and finds that she doesn’t want to stay quiet as she sees a betrayal unfolding in Wildlife (2014) by Fiona Wood.

Widlife is Wood’s second novel. It is a companion set in the same world as Six Impossible Things and Cloudwish although it does function as a standalone and can be read without knowledge of the other titles. (For the most impact I do recommend reading these in order though.)

Wildlife‘s narration alternates between Sib and Lou. Sib relates her story to readers in conversational prose while Lou’s story is written in journal form–a coping mechanism suggested by her therapist as she transitions to a new school and out of therapy.

While Sib spends a lot of the novel trying to make sense of her confusing relationship with Ben and Lou is mourning Fred, the crux of Wildlife is really the growing friendship between these two girls. Sib and Lou are unlikely friends and both are reluctant to take a chance on adding a new person to their lives. But in the wilderness where most of their coursework is about building strength and stepping outside of their comfort zones, both Sib and Lou realize it might be worth the risk to trust someone new.

Wildlife is a thoughtful story about friendship, first love, and all of the complicated moments in between. Recommended for readers of contemporary novels, fans of humorous narratives with a lot of heart, and anyone who loves the great outdoors.

Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung, Kissing in America by Margo Rabb, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin