Viviane’s sister Natalia and Natalia’s daughter Maxine take in Raven, supporting her as she struggles to recover her memories and her sense of self. She also balances the travails of high school, where she takes on mean girls, a romantic interest in Tommy Torres, . . . and a realization that she is hearing both strange voices and other people’s thoughts. Oh, and her shadow sometimes looks like a raven. The mystery of Raven’s past and powers grows as she comes to rely more on her new family, whose support and love for Raven was my favorite part of the book.
As Raven works to reconcile the slow emergence of her memory, the reader comes to know her snarky personality, sympathy for the underdog, and total girl power. The narrative is layered with humor, a respectful treatment of voodoo, and nods to the greater DC mythology. Garcia and Picolo have created a great merging of story and art, with the beautiful purple wash of the book providing a gorgeous reinforcement of the central story’s tone and as a nod to its protagonist. Solid graphic novel introduction to this superhero backstory.
At the novel’s center is an alternate reality that I, for one, would love to live in. The winner of the 2016 U. S. Presidential election was Ellen Claremont, a blonde, divorced Texan with a second husband and mixed-race kids who is seriously dedicated to liberal causes. Our protagonist is her son, Alex Claremont-Diaz, a college student who is ready to launch his own political career upon graduation. Alex is driven, brilliant, mouthy, and a social icon for the country along with his older sister June and their best friend Nora, the granddaughter of the Vice President. Together, the White House Trio plays with the media, throws amazing parties-that-are-fundraisers, and begins working on Ellen’s reelection campaign.
Everything is going smoothly until the Trio’s attendance at a royal wedding. Alex and his friends travel to England where Alex dreads seeing his nemesis, Prince Henry. Since their first meeting, when Henry asked his staff to get rid of Alex, Alex has loathed Henry, his list of crown-approved hobbies and interests, and his ridiculously good looks. When they face off during the reception for Henry’s brother and his new wife, Alex and Henry cause an international incident. After the pair creates some unfavorable headlines, the two governments craft a plan to convince the world that the two are best friends. That plan goes awry, however, when romance blooms (love it!).
I absolutely adored this novel. McQuiston does a beautiful job building intriguing, realistic, nuanced characters who are relatable, even though they’re in the White House and Buckingham Palace. (Also, somewhat trivially, I loved it because Alex is a perfect fictional descendant of his namesake Alexander Hamilton, with whom I--along with the rest of the world--am obsessed because of the musical.) The romance is the perfect balance of steamy and tender, and the subplots behind the main storyline are thoughtful and brilliant. I picked up my Kindle, not knowing what to expect, and had a hard time putting it down. Please pick up Red, White, & Royal Blue as soon as you can and love it as much as I do.
The book opens after Nikolai’s abdication, when the family has been moved to Tobolsk, Siberia. Anastasia, the 16-year-old narrator, is known as Shvibzik, or imp, and her nickname reveals a great deal about her character. Nastya is a strong-willed and mischievous trickster who enjoys entertaining her family to maintain a sense of normality and playing pranks on the soldiers who are their captors. Brandes does a brilliant job establishing the strong bonds within this family, which includes Nastya’s parents, her three sisters, and her 13-year-old brother Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia. Nastya’s father, Nikolai, acts with a humility surprising for his prior role, and he urges Nastya to honor life, to find forgiveness, and to prioritize the Russian people. Alexei was also a strong character for me, dealing with the pain of his hemophilia and the loss of his destiny as tsar with bravery and grit.
The world building is just great, and Brandes’s vision of magic centers on spell ink, a rare substance that allows spell masters and their apprentices (like Nastya) to “write” their spells as a way of enacting them. This grounding of magic works well both to expand the story of the Romanovs and to anchor it in practical concerns that occupy much of Nastya’s thoughts.
Brandes telegraphs clearly a romance with a Bolshevik soldier who serves as one of the family’s guards; it took me a while to warm to the authenticity of the match, but eventually (no spoilers here!) I appreciated the complexity of its development. Successful for me, from the beginning, is Nastya’s character arc. Watching her struggle, with her family, to acclimate herself to her new living situation, to accept that her family does not have control over their own destiny, is quite moving. Her constant attempts to be worthy of her former title and of her father’s care enhance this already-nuanced character.
The novel’s basis in history allows those familiar with the legend to appreciate the character development and the addition of magic and those unfamiliar with the stories to feel firmly grounded in what happened. (An excellent Author’s Note is also helpful!) While I don’t want to give anything away, I think that the way Brandes played with the mythology surrounding Anastasia is incredibly smart. This strong YA novel bridging history and fantasy is a great addition to the collection of works studying the royal family. Look for Nadine Brandes’s Romanov on May 7!
“It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor. When she told her friends in New York about this curious historical anomaly and the pervasive ethnic bias, they were incredulous at the thought that the friendly, well-mannered Japanese they knew could ever think she was somehow criminal, lazy, filthy, or aggressive—the negative stereotypical traits of Koreans in Japan.”
Upon beginning this novel, I was immediately swept away by the tender, compelling story of the young Sunja, child of Hoonie and Yangjin, and their family's challenges as they worked to make their living by running a boarding house for people in the small village where they lived in Korea. When Sunja found herself in a position of dishonor and shame, I was moved by her resolution and her courage. As she makes the move to Japan, the story shifts into an exploration of Korean life in Japan. The epic novel moves through generations of Koreans in Japan, and Lee highlights the systemic oppression faced by Koreans in Japan, moving from the early 1900s all the way to present day.
I loved the way the novel showed the complexities of identity and the weight of family. I also found the treatment of Koreans in Japan both appalling and a bit surprising -- I found that it was something about which I knew very little. I loved the way that Lee showed the various reactions and feelings toward the Japanese and life in Japan.
I'm kind of thankful that I didn't realize how long the book was or how many generations would be covered -- I might have felt a little intimidated, or I might have put it off for another time. Instead, I knew nothing about it other than what I know about current day pachinko parlors in Japan, and I found myself wrapped up in the complex story of this family and their struggles to understand their identity (both as individuals and as a collective group). It was a phenomenal read.
By tracking the pathways of so many individuals, this novel spans the scope of human experience, and Lee explores the common threads within that experience. “He was suffering, and in a way, he could manage that; but he had caused others to suffer, and he did not know why he had to live now and recall the series of terrible choices that had not looked so terrible at the time. Was that how it was for most people?” Although this thought came from a more minor character, it incapsulates the scope of this powerful narrative and its examination of human experience. Such a profound novel.
This was definitely one of the best reads of 2019 so far for me, and one of the most impactful books I've read in a long time.
Nira lives with her parents and her grandmother in Canada—her family escaped from Guyana in search of safety and security but had to leave without their money. As in many novels about the children of immigrants, Nira walks the line between appreciating her parents’ culture and yearning to blend in with her classmates at her new school. As the only brown girl, Nira feels both incredibly conspicuous and tragically invisible, discounted by everyone but her best friend Emily. Her one escape is her music. Though her parents have decided that she will become a doctor and therefore needs to focus only on her studies, Nira convinced them to buy her a used trumpet, which she taught herself to play via YouTube. When Nira plays, she expresses all of the love, conflict, and confusion that dominate her life.
A brilliant student, Nira vies always to meet the high expectations of her family. She always, however, falls short. After her family emigrated, her father’s brother Raj brought his family to Canada as well, taking advantage of a new loophole that allowed him to escape with his bank account intact. The brothers’ relationship is one of constant comparison: of belongings, of ambition, of their daughters’ academics. Nira’s cousin Farah attends a private school where she blends in with the “Farahbots,” other wealthy girls who share their heritage and culture. Anchoring both girls is Grandma, one of my favorite characters. Grandma is wise, funny, and realistic about the challenges Nira faces as she struggles to find her place. Most of the time, Grandma sits back and lets her family figure things out for themselves, but when she intervenes, she’s a “puppet master” who pulls all the right strings (loc. 664).
Though Nira fights against the superficial judgments of others, she does herself fall prey to judging based on appearances. Much of the novel involves Nira learning to peel back layers, to understand that everyone has secret fears and hopes. Her friendship with Emily changes as they begin to invite others to her group—much to Nira’s chagrin—and Nira must deal with feeling pushed out of the relationships that anchor her. Emily becomes close to McKenzie, a popular girl whose constant misunderstandings about Nira—she’s Hindi, she’s Muslim, she’s from India, and SO many more—and Nira can’t understand how Emily can look past McKenzie’s prejudiced behavior. Nira’s love for music leads her to know Noah, a popular boy in the jazz band. Nira decided early on that Noah is out of her league, so she suppresses her crush in favor of being his friend. Eventually, Farah (despite Nira’s best efforts) joins this friend group, and Nira must strive to figure otu where she fits in this new arrangement of five.
All of these elements are made essential by Deen’s writing: even when, as a reader, I became frustrated with characters, I understood their perspective. Deen crafts characters of such complexity that we understand both why Nira wants new, name-brand clothes and why the entire idea is anathema to her parents. We understand why Grandma insists on making tea in every situation and why her use of sugar in the tea signals the kind of situation she’s dealing with. We understand why Emily is Nira’s best friend, why Nira is jealous of their new friends, and why Emily is insisting that Nira be more understanding. Most of all, we understand both why Nira desires so strongly to please her parents and why she just can’t give up on music. Emily tells Nira early on that her playing reminds her of Neil—not Louis—Armstrong because when Nira plays, “[she] make[s] [Emily] think of moonlight and defying gravity” (loc. 74).
Through the book, Nira becomes a keeper of secrets, both her own and others’, and each secret “steals the stars from the sky and the light from the moon” (loc. 1538). As a reader in on those secrets, I felt every moment of Nira’s story, of her imperfections and her pursuit of growth, of her moments of being an outsider and of belonging, of seeing her path clearly and being pushed off of that path. Watching her figure out herself and those around her is a journey I won’t forget, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Pre-order Natasha Deen’s In the Key of Nira Ghani immediately. You won’t regret it.
In a structure that I appreciated, these tales from Legendary Leaders continue throughout the novel, reinforcing the feeling that we’re reading a story rooted in folk tales and history and reinforcing the experiences and lessons of the book’s protagonists.
Saeed launches into the story of Aladdin and Jasmine a few days after they’ve met, alternating between their points of view. Fans of the movie know that Jasmine meets Aladdin, a “street rat,” when she has disguised herself to explore the “true” Agrabah--with his knowledge of the streets, the impoverished orphan is able to keep her safe. Now, however, Aladdin has used his first wish from the genie to transform him into Prince Ali of Ababwa, a show off who is failing to impress Princess Jasmine.
For a while, Saeed follows the movie, which is both satisfying for fans and a little frustrating for those who want more. The author does effectively create a character in Jasmine who yearns for real leadership opportunities: she is frustrated with her father’s distant and cold rule over Agrabah and wishes that she could act as her deceased mother did to bring real compassion to her kingdom.
When Aladdin and Jasmine take off on their magic carpet ride (who else is singing “A Whole New World” in their heads?), Saeed begins to build her own facet of the narrative. Jasmine requests a detour to visit Prince Ali’s home in Ababwa, and Aladdin uses a loophole to convince Genie to make it happen. It’s in Ababwa that the couple truly connects and also begins to develop a firm idea of what it means to be both a good leader and a good person.
I appreciated so much the details of the kingdom of Ababwa, and the people Aladdin and Jasmine encounter teach them a plethora of lessons throughout their visit. It’s here, however, that I most felt my distance from the young readers at whom this book is aimed: the overly explicit expression of neatly encapsulated morals to the story left me wishing for more subtlety. These lessons fit more in the sections from Legendary Leaders but feel less an organic part of the main narrative. Saeed takes on compassion, economic disparity, education, truth, the importance of actions . . . watching Aladdin and Jasmine grow and seeing Jasmine become more determined to take on a leadership role in Agrabah (go, feminism!) offers clear character arcs but left me wishing for the more complex and nuanced Amal Unbound.
I do think many young readers will enjoy Aisha Saeed’s Aladdin: Far from Agrabah in advance of the release of the new film, and the novel will certainly enrich their experience.
Thank you to Partner Netgalley for my advance copy of this novel. I loved The Belles and was so excited to read the sequel, The Everlasting Rose. Set in the dystopian world of Orléans , this novel reveals the way that quests for beauty and power can spiral out of control as the quest to become the most beautiful and most powerful gets in the way of compassion, equity, and all forms of understanding.
The Belles opens in a world where most people are born gris, meaning that their natural complexion is gray, with red eyes, straw-like hair, and gray whiskers on their faces. This condition is both unattractive and painful. The only exception to this natural state is the Belles, who are born lovely with all different complexions, shapes, and demeanors, but who are all able to use the power within their blood to help others beautify themselves. The Belles are raised to beautify others, and when they come of age, that becomes their duty. In order to avoid this natural but uncomfortable state of being gray, the citizens of Orléans must have routine beauty procedures done, which can only be performed by the Belles. They pay high prices and suffer extreme pain to endure the beauty procedures. Camille Beauregard and her sisters are coming of age at the beginning of The Belles, and they become the group of Belles able to assist all of the people of Orléans, including the royal family, with these procedures. However, as Camille gets deeper into her journey, she quickly realizes that the world is not as it seems and that her talents can be misused and can cause harm.
The Everlasting Rose picks up where The Belles left off, and it captivates the reader immediately. I loved the main characters in the novel and found myself swept up in their riveting adventure, rooting for them to succeed, even though they were facing staggering odds. Camellia Beauregard leads us through the complex world of the royal family as Princess Sophia makes her way toward the throne. Camille discovers that she has powers she did not realize she possessed, but she also realizes that she can be forced and manipulated into doing things that are horrendous. Her unlikely companion, Rémy, and her sister Edel, are both fascinating supporting characters with their own agendas and desires. Additionally, the teacup dragons who travel with them are so precious and fun!
I love the way Clayton demonstrates the power of suggestion, the pressure to fit in, and the role of gossip and the media in what shapes society. I also love her commentary on the way that subliminal messages and peer pressure can lead us all to feel that there is some kind of artificial beauty ideal that we should achieve-- and that the pursuit of that false ideal can destroy us or cause us to destroy others.
Camille's courage, determination, loyalty, and resolute unwillingness to back down make her the kind of woman I hope to be and hope for my daughters to be. She is ready to bring about change, and she faces the uncertain future with resilience and passion.
In short, I cannot wait for Book Three!
Enter: Edgar’s muse. Yes, his muse, Lenore, comes into his life as the physical embodiment of a grotesque drawing, there to provoke and bully Poe into accepting his affinity for death and all things Gothic. Lenore can be seen not only by Eddy, but by everyone, and as she moves through his world, she unsettles everyone because of her ghastly appearance and her disturbing behavior. The novel moves through the alternating perspectives of Poe and Lenore, and her presence is a definite reminder of the place of women (and, particularly, dead women) in Poe’s stories, of women’s morbid hold on his imagination and of “the beauty in horror” (loc. 376).
In The Raven’s Tale, Winters takes the historical facts of Poe’s life and embeds them into a world reflective of the fantasy he embraces in his writing, one where ghosts and spirits are real, where his muse torments him (and competes with a second, more conventional, male muse), and where Poe’s sporadic use of alcohol makes him unable to write . . . because it makes his muse sleep. Through the novel, Poe fights his inclination toward darkness because he does not think he will find acceptance if he follows that path.
The strength of this book lies in its enthusiasm for its subject matter. Winters clearly loves Poe, his life, and his poetry, and she immerses the reader in his style. This immersion happens most clearly in Lenore’s chapters, where Winters writes in mimicry of Poe: “I awaken in the shadows, ravenous for words, hungering for delicacies dripping with dread” (loc. 155). As Lenore strengthens, the style intensifies, demonstrating the increasing bond between artist and muse. Winters’s describes her research in an extensive Author’s Note, which is fascinating in its consideration of the connections between this novel and Poe’s life.
Though I found many elements of The Raven’s Tale appealing--including the grounding in historical detail and the incorporation of Poe’s early writing process--the novel didn’t completely work for me. The characters fell short: though I love fantasy (the more complex and strange the world, the better), I never felt as if I had my footing in this realm of embodied muses, and Poe himself felt more like a collection of character traits and information than a fully realized character.
The Raven’s Tale, which will be published on April 16, 2019, is a solid choice for those readers interested in learning more about Poe or beginning to imagine how he embraced the darkness that came to dominate his art. It did not, however, succeed in capturing my imagination or the spirit that makes Poe’s works so captivating for readers.
Over the last few years, I have so begun to appreciate the art of the celebrity memoir. I have consumed the memoirs of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kevin Hart, and Tiffany Haddish. What I have come to realize with this particular genre is if you can listen to the audio of these books and they are read by the author, you must choose that medium. It adds a whole other element to the enjoyment of the book.
I have loved Busy Philipps for a long time. Although, I wasn’t an early adopter of Freaks & Geeks, I was a HUGE fan of Dawson’s Creek, and when Busy Philipps burst onto the scene as Audrey–I loved her. She spiced up the show in just the right way. After Dawson’s ended, (and just a side note, Audrey should totally have been in the series finale–I can’t even…) I have to admit I lost track of Busy’s career, but was always interested when I saw her in US Weekly or People. (In case you didn’t know—I LOVE celebrity news and gossip. Can’t help it. Won’t apologize.)
Enter Instagram and my exposure to podcasts and my reacquaintance with one of my early favorites, you guessed it, Busy Philipps. To be completely honest, I didn’t know she was on Instagram until one of my favorite podcasters (I am looking at you Jamie Golden from The Popcast) gave a list of some of her favorite Instagram celebrity follows. Busy Philipps was one of those celebrities that Jamie crowned a “must follow.” And of course, I immediately followed. What I found when I went to Busy’s account was a down-to-earth mom, a wife, and a career person who was willing to chronicle the good, the bad, and the ugly in Instagram stories. So, even though, I am not a celebrity (I know, shocking!), I was able to relate as a mother. And a wife. And as a mother who is also trying to juggle a career and a side business that takes up a ton of time. And as a woman, who is just trying to find her own happiness.
When Busy (no, I am definitely not on a first name basis with Busy Philipps, but it feels weird to keep typing her first and last name. It also feel weird to say Ms. Philipps. So, Busy it is.) and Touchstone Books started promoting her memoir, I knew I had to read it.
Friends, I just finished it. I loved it. My favorite part about this memoir is that Busy is matter-of-fact and no-holds-barred. Seriously, she calls people out on their bullsh*t, and I really appreciate that. She also gives a really clear and authentic (as far as I am concerned) look at being a female in Hollywood. And, it ain’t pretty, friends. I think what Busy does so well is she shows the struggle, the fight, and the determination a female has to have to have a career in a business that notoriously marginalizes women. I feel like I knew that, but after reading Busy’s book–there is ABSOLUTELY no doubt. In addition, she just shares a lot about her life before fame, the struggles of being a teenager and navigating life in Scottsdale, AZ. It’s just good, readers. It’s just good.
The other thing about this book is that I received a hard copy of the book for Christmas (Thanks, Mom!), but I chose to listen to most of it because Busy reads it. I have to say when you can read (hear) a celebrity (or really any) memoir in the author’s own voice–take that opportunity. It just adds something to the narrative that merely reading the words cannot manifest.
So, if you can’t tell–I love Busy Philipps. I loved This Will Only Hurt a Little. But, please take my advice–listen to the audio. You won’t regret it.
Bottom Line: In the genre of celebrity memoir, this is a 5/5 for me. Funny, poignant at times, and completely honest–if you are a fan of this genre, you will want to read this one immediately.
At the opening of the novel, Rhen, the daughter of an Upper society mother and a Lower father, is fighting with her Da to find a cure for a crippling illness that is afflicting residents, including her mother, of Lower villages. She yearns to be seen by those in power, the ones who could make a difference for those who are suffering. She dreams of breaking out of the cage of her gender, which seems to have sentenced her to—at best—a life as a politician’s wife without choices who must hide her intelligence and scientific aptitude. She pines for Lute, a fisherman who wants only to care for his family and to make a simple living.
With her cousin Seleni, a member of Upper society, Rhen does her best to work toward each of these goals while respecting the bounds of her world. There is, however, a catalyst that causes her to make a leap, disguise herself as a boy, and enter the Labyrinth. To Best the Boys reminded me, at different times, of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, but it establishes a new angle on that YA trend.
Weber’s world building here is just brilliant, juxtaposing the science that consumes Rhen with a fantasy world containing sirens, ghouls, and basilisks. I so appreciated Rhen’s coming of age as she struggles to define who she is in a society that gives women few choices. Weber balances Rhen’s personality with her cousin Seleni’s desires, and we see Seleni focusing on a quite different life for herself. The right to carve one’s path, regardless of what that path is, is a major theme in the novel.
The writing is strong, and I found myself marking quotations and beautiful phrasing throughout the book. The book’s strength doesn’t lie in surprises—I found this type of plot, including the quest within the labyrinth, Rhen’s self discovery, and the romantic relationships, to be fairly predictable. Instead, the quality of the details of world and of the character distinguish this book from others like it.
A strong standalone novel that is both rich and complete, Mary Weber’s To Best the Boys will satisfy readers seeking fantasy, action, and some excellent feminism. Great YA read!
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
We're pleased to share some of our book reviews with you all here. Note that the title of the post also indicates the author of the review. The books reviewed are linked for purchase.