A Book Like Summer

The weather is warm, school is officially over, and the season of lounging in the backyard with a good book and a glass of lemonade is upon us. Summer is a great time for fun, flirty stories that make you feel as bright and happy as a day at the beach. Below you’ll find some of my favorites for 2017!

All cover photos courtesy Goodreads

Geekerella by Ashley Poston

I am 1) not big on contemporary romance and 2) eternally skeptical of books about fandom, but Geekerella charmed the (Star Wars-patterned) pants right off of me. Our heroine is a geeky, grouchy orphan named Elle who is trying to survive her last year stuck with a cold and controlling stepmother and two stepsisters who wandered out of Mean Girls. The one thing keeping Elle afloat is her love of Starfield — a cult TV show that calls back to all your faves — which is about to get a film reboot. To her horror, the lead role is given to Darien Freeman, the star of an uber-popular soap opera, aka the last person on Earth who should be allowed to play her beloved Federation Prince Carmindor — except that Darien is secretly a superfan who’s wanted this role his whole life, and no one can ever, ever know or his sexy romance star image will be destroyed.

This novel has a bit of everything — believable romance, wacky escapades, unlikely meetings, drama, and a punk rock lesbian fashion designer as the fairy godmother — but the part that makes it really shine is how much it deeply, genuinely understands what fandom means to people. If you have every really loved a piece of media and found community with other fans, you WILL cry ugly tears at least a few times while you read this. Bring tissues.

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

There was some controversy when the (badly written) blurb for this title was initially released, and even after it was fixed, there was still a lot of vitriol floating around review sites. Ignore all of that and listen to your Auntie Tori: this book is for bisexual girls who don’t feel queer enough. It is my fave, my baby, my precious candle in the dark. Beyond that, it is everything that people love about Murphy’s writing all wrapped up in a very attractive cover. Do you want a coming-of-age drama about family, identity, privilege, and the South? Here you go.

The story follows the titular Ramona, a tall, gangly, blue-haired girl from the coastal South who lives in a trailer with her single dad and her adoring, recently pregnant sister. Ramona has always been attracted to girls, so she is very, very unsure of herself and where she stands when a (male) childhood friend moves back to town and her feelings for him become somewhat more than friendly. Cue all. The. Bi. Feelings. To make everything harder, Ramona finds out she’s really good at swimming — maybe good enough for college scholarships. But if she leaves, who will take care of her family? How can she choose between them and her future?

I cried a lot reading this one because it made me feel seen and validated, and even if you’re not bi or queer yourself, I’d recommend giving it a read for the raw, real emotions and relationships. Plus, the gorgeous Southern coast is so vividly alive that it feels like you’re really visiting.

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

Unlike literally every person I know, I have not read Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, — yes, I know, I’m getting to it, but there are so many galleys — so this was my first Albertalli book, and I adored it. This is the epitome of the cute, feel-good summer romance that will please even the most anti-romance of readers (like me) and will probably make them giggle a little, too.

The story follows Molly, who has had twenty-six unrequited crushes and zero boyfriends. Mostly because she has never, ever told a boy how she feels. Her twin sister, Cassie, desperately wants to help her nab a boyfriend who will make her as happy as Cassie’s new girlfriend makes her feel, but that isn’t going to be easy when Molly’s insecurities about her body and her own shyness keep getting in the way. Enter hipster Will and nerdy Reid. Suddenly, Molly has not one but two boys who seems to like her as much as she likes them, yet somehow that doesn’t make anything simpler…

Meanwhile, it’s summer of 2015 and her two moms are getting married right heckin’ now before anyone repeals anything. I thought I was going to die of how cute and happy their subplot was.

If you want body positivity, diverse characters, a YA story with a loving and understanding family, and love interests that aren’t another example of Why Straight Boys Are the Worst, this should be on your list.

Grendel’s Guide to Love and War by A. E. Kaplan

You don’t have to be as big of a Beowulf nerd as I am to enjoy the heck out of this weird, wild comedy about family feuds, escalating prank wars, and artisanal pig farms, but you’ll enjoy the many punny names a lot more if you are.

Tom Grendel just wants the obnoxious parties next door to stop before they trigger his father’s PTSD any more than they already have, but he’s going to have to go through Rex and his beefy pal Wolf first. Which would be less awkward if Tom didn’t have a crush on Willow, Rex’s sister. Or if his increasingly dramatic pranks didn’t seem to make the party-goers more determined to be the loudest thing in the retirement community of Lake Heorot.

I laughed a lot while reading this one. The romance did not leave a lasting impression on me, but then again, the romance is really not the point of the novel. It’s a lot more about the complicated ties of family and community, the weight left behind by memories and grief, and why cranky old ladies whose tranquil neighborhoods have been disturbed by Kids Not Getting Off Their Lawns are the most terrifying creatures in North America.

The Edge of the Abyss by Emily Skrutskie

Finally, finally, it is here. The sequel to my absolute favorite science-fiction novel of 2016. Cas and Swift are back in action. This title puts the “adventure” in summer with high stakes, heated romance, and my favorite thing to think about at the beach: ravenous sea monsters.

Set once more in the dangerous waters of the Neo-Pacific, we rejoin Cas and the pirate crew she has only recently decided to join as they stumble upon something far worse than enemy ships — a plague of rogue Reckoners, giant ship-eating monsters that are only meant to exist under the strict control of a trainer like Cas. As the seas turn deadly and a new ecological crisis looms, what can a ragtag crew of pirates do against the worst threat mankind’s genetic engineering has ever conceived?

Meanwhile, Cas and Swift struggle to get their act together. Get ready for a hideously delightful amount of hate sex while these nerds work out their issues from the first book, The Abyss Surrounds Us.

The Crown’s Fate by Evelyn Skye

Speaking of sequels, if you want to take a break from the oppressive summer heat and take a trip to snowy Russia in the 1800s, it’s time to pick up the follow-up to Skye’s bestselling first novel, The Crown’s Game.

After the events of the first book, there is a lot to resolve. One of our main characters is presumed dead and the other has become literally shackled to the role of Imperial Enchanter. Revolution looms and threatens the future of our young tsar-to-be, Pasha. And, of course, magic is never as safe as it seems to be, especially with dark forces wandering the world and using it to their own ends.

The love triangle we know and love from the first book is back with a vengeance in the sequel even as loyalties shift and characters change. Just as passionate as ever, you’ll swoon and sigh as our three heroes deal with the consequences of their actions in The Crown’s Game and try to forge the best path forward, even if that path won’t let all of them survive.

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Review: Now I Rise

 

 

(This review was originally written in November 2016.)

I needed this book today.

I wrote my review for the first book in this trilogy, And I Darken, a few days before the Pulse shooting in Orlando, FL. The review went live on the book’s release date, as scheduled, and I remember looking at it and wondering how I had written so cheerfully about a book where one half of the story is about a young, gay, Muslim man, not knowing that hours later, amidst grief and anger, the compatibility of those identities would be up for national debate. Mostly, I wondered how my self-of-a-few-hours-ago had been so hopeful. People were writing beautiful, powerful books that couldn’t have been published ten years ago, or even five years ago. Things were changing. Things were better.

Then, 49 people died. I felt naive. I felt vulnerable.

I’m writing this review in late November, 2016, not quite two weeks after the most horrifying election upset in our nation’s history, and I’m writing it about a book about young, queer Muslims struggling with faith and identity while a young, angry woman — a “nasty woman,” if you will — rips down a decrepit system to reclaim her throne and save her people. It feels surreal that this book wasn’t written about this exact moment in time. As I write this review, I wonder if it will feel relevant to June of 2017, too, or if the moment will have passed. I wonder if you will get to read this review at all.

The heroes of this book stopped being children somewhere in the empty space between And I Darken and its sequel. I think that’s true of its intended audience, too. Early in the novel, Radu finds himself embroiled in the siege of Constantinople. Lada struggles to bring Wallachia to heel. Both make hard choices that would stagger an adult. Through it all, they fight to hold to their ideals and to their truth. It isn’t easy: with the world telling them one thing and their consciences telling them another, one or both of them could be led astray. It’s up to the reader to decide if, by the end of the book, they have.

Through it all, thought, neither sibling is alone. Separated from each other by distance and political alignment, they surround themselves with staunch allies. Radu has the fierce and marvelous Nazira, whom we met in And I Darken, on his right hand, and the kind and complicated Cyprian, a new addition to the series, on his left. They provide an interesting counterbalance to one another and to Radu’s shifting views, loyalties, and loves. Readers who like internal turmoil and gut-wrenching relationships will love this trio.

Lada, meanwhile, has her usual entourage of former Janissaries — assuming she can trust them. She also finds herself drawn into the political machinations of Hunyadi, a Hungarian revolutionary, and the schemes of nobles and usurpers alike. Without her brother’s skill at persuasion, Lada finds herself off balance. That’s when things get interesting.

I can’t overemphasize how much I appreciate White’s nuance when it comes to issues of faith, sexuality, morality, and the price of hard choices. Nazira and Radu must each come to terms with their queerness through the lens of their religion, and while Radu may always struggle, I found myself tearing up every time Nazira spoke of her love for her partner, Fatima. My heart ached as Constantinople came under siege, with fanatics of all stripes killing each other for dubious gains, and while the ordinary Christians and Muslims in the cast sought out what little peace and hope they could find. The conflict feels utterly futile, and it’s supposed to: we see the human cost of the war, and like Radu, readers will wonder why people do this to each other. It might be all too relevant.

I needed this book today, yes, but I think you’re going to need it even more in June of 2017. If you’re still here, if you’re still reading, then I give you nothing but my love.

Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning

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Review:

As soon as I read the name “Henrietta Howell,” I knew I was going to like this book. The novel as a whole is a lot like that name — frank, charming, and old-fashioned, with a big heart and a lot of whimsy. Oh, and there are Lovecraftian horrors. Big, angry horrors.

If you’d told me someone could mash up the flavor of Howl’s Moving Castle with Stranger Things, I’d have been skeptical, but Cluess won me over. It turns out eldritch abominations go really well with the stiff-upper-lip facade of Victorian society under siege, if you do it right. You can feel the darkness seeping into the world from the first scenes in the gloomy north of England, and it follows our heroine, Henrietta, into the heights of London society after her gift of magic is discovered. Still, it doesn’t stifle the wonder or elegance in the novel. The household of sorcerers Henrietta goes to live in has little shades of Hogwarts and Baker Street with better manners. The characters she meets there are faceted and interesting, and more so than in some books, you’re actually convinced that they have their own agendas that have nothing to do with the heroine’s journey. I look forward to seeing how they play out in future installments.

I wanted to add a paragraph about Cluess’s prose, but it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself in the best way possible. The characters and story are too dynamic to need it. Once you start reading, you’re in. No rhetorical bells and whistles required.

As a bookseller, I’m excited about this one. It’s exactly the kind of historical fantasy I want to hand off to new readers, and whims of the market permitting, this one is going to be a hit. It’s been a while since something’s come along that charms me as much as Diana Wynne Jones and scares me as much as Neil Gaiman.

 

Review: Girl in Pieces

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Review:

Kathleen Glasgow’s debut is one of the hardest books I’ve read, and at the same time, one of the easiest. It falls firmly on the “Adult” side of “Young Adult” literature, ironically because of its unflinching focus on issues that affect millions of real teenagers: self-harm, mental illness, suicide, addiction, homelessness, and physical and sexual abuse. Parents will balk at the content, but the sad truth is that most teens are probably not strangers to these topics.

The story follows 17-year-old Charlotte “Charlie” Davis as she struggles with recovery from a failed suicide attempt. Homeless and fleeing an abusive mother, she finds herself in a rehabilitation center, only to be thrown out into the cold when her insurance stops paying for treatment. Soon she finds herself on a bus to Tuscon, Arizona, to meet up with a high school friend and to try to start life fresh. Once there, Charlie struggles to make ends meet and finds herself spiraling dangerously toward old habits.

Glasgow’s gorgeous, poetic prose drew me into the story immediately and carried the narrative like a tune. It was legitimately hard to put down: I think I devoured more pages on my meal breaks than food until I finished it. I don’t know how long she spent working on the manuscript, but it paid off — and, like all the best writing, the final product seems effortless.

While lyrical writing charms me, the book’s strongest appeal is its characters. Charlie was vulnerable and raw, but the first-person perspective didn’t diminish the secondary characters. Glasgow adds depth and nuance to people who are far too easy to pigeonhole in stereotypes: an ex-rockstar addict, a troubled goth girl, a haunted artist, a cocky patient from rehab. The settings themselves have their own vibrant personality, too, from a freezing Minnesota winter to a grungy cafe to a Day of the Dead celebration in Tucson.

This one is going to leave a mark in the genre, not for its unflinching presentation of the darker sides of life, but for its unrelenting movement forward. Failure, hurt, and heartbreak don’t vanish from the pages as you move toward the end of the book, but the message is upbeat: “you can survive this.” At the end of the day, the core of Girl In Pieces is hope.

Review: The Obelisk Gate

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  • Release Date: August 16th, 2016
  • Author: N.K. Jemisin
  • Website: http://nkjemisin.com/
  • ISBN: 9780316229265

Review:

When a customer comes to me for a science-fiction recommendation, the first thing I pull from the shelf is N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. “It’s like Between the World and Me written as an apocalyptic revenge saga,” I say with a grin, probably for the seventh time that day. It’s no secret that I’m a little in love with this book. Set in a world where bizarre extinction events happen every  couple of centuries, it begins with an earthquake that may have literally split the continent in two. The story follows Essun, a powerful orogene — a person with the ability to control (and cause) seismic events — after she discovers that her young son was murdered by her husband, who has fled with their daughter as the aftershocks of the earthquake begin to hit.

With The Obelisk Gate, Jemisin maintains her position as one of the most talented sci-fi/fantasy writers in the field. The Obelisk Gate is the middle installment in the trilogy and it picks up right where the first book left off (which is too big of a spoiler to reveal, so I won’t.) Unlike the first book, which carried readers to all corners of this strange world, the sequel stays fairly stationary. Indeed, in a lot of ways, The Obelisk Gate is a bridge book: compared to the kinetic years-spanning narrative of The Fifth Season, the sequel is a breather, giving the story and the readers a chance to process what has been learned while feeding in new twists of its own.

The most notable addition is the introduction of a new perspective character: Essun’s daughter, Nassun. Nassun begins the novel on the road with her father, who has just murdered her baby brother — and might murder her, too, if he realizes she is an orogene. Jemisin does a powerful and heartbreaking job of depicting the fear, trauma, and toxic coping mechanisms that emerge from cycles of abuse. I’m almost hesitant to see how it all plays out in Book 3.

But that’s just the thing: like I did when I finished The Fifth Season, I nearly chucked The Obelisk Gate across the room because I was so frustrated that Book 3 won’t be out for another year or so. This trilogy knows how to leave you hungry.

Review: And I Darken

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Review:

ETA: I wrote this review after I finished an advanced copy of the book in April, before the Pulse shooting in Orlando that claimed 49 lives. As I’ve been reflecting on this novel, the political climate, and the impact of the shooting on the LGBT+ community as well as the Muslim community, I wanted to add something: a thank you to the author. We need books with queer characters. We need books with Muslim characters. We especially need books that let these two identities intersect, and we need ones that handle religion with all of the nuance and complexity that it deserves. Writing any of those things is risky in the current market, though, and I applaud Kiersten White for doing it anyway.

You are standing on the peak of a cold, northern mountain. Below you, a wilderness spreads out over the foothills like a quilt. You see a castle, crumbling; the prince within it is not a prince, but a servant to the overwhelming power of the Ottoman Empire. War broils outside the walls of Constantinople. The Pope prepares for crusade. And at home, you and your little brother are leagues away from safe, even if you do not know it yet. What role will you play in your own future?

This is the world Kiersten White presents in her new historical thriller, And I Darken, a daring retelling of the life of Vlad the Impaler — except, in this world, Vlad was born a woman.

I know. I was skeptical, too. My first thought was, Oh, God, not more vampires. My second thought was, How could anyone possibly pull this off? The good news is that (so far) there are no vampires. The better news is that White pulls this unconventional concept off with flying colors.

Every so often, an upcoming YA book is touted as Game of Thrones for teens. Usually that just means it’s vaguely medieval and a lot of people die. This is the only one I’ve read so far that truly captures the kind of intrigue and rich characterization that makes GoT such a perennial favorite, instead of just the violence. Not that And I Darken is lacking in murder. Between assassinations, wars, coups, and the heroine’s own bloodlust, this book definitely has a body count.

Our heroine, Lada, is zealously devoted to proving herself better than the men in her life. And she is, in every aspect of her harsh medieval life: she’s a master tactician, a cunning politician, and a fierce warrior. She ruthlessly denies herself any attachments in order to protect herself from manipulation and “weakness.” I expected to find the latter trait obnoxious — how many times have I read a book with a “cold-hearted” character who melted at the first smile from a cute boy? — but what makes Lada so delightful is that she is uncompromising. Where she has convictions, she sticks to them, even if she burns the world and all the people in it in the process. Did you wish there was a whole book about Arya Stark kicking ass and taking names? Well, here you go.

(I’ve seen other reviews complaining that Lada is game-breakingly unlikable, and I call sexist bullshit on those reviews. First of all, she isn’t. Second of all…did you not read “gender-swapped Vlad the Impaler” in the blurb? Third of all, you know you wouldn’t say that if “she” was “he.” Come talk to me when you’re as harsh with Ender Wiggin or Holden Caulfield.)

Her brother, Radu, who provides a vivid counterpoint to Lada’s viciousness, is a kind and charming boy who is no less devious for it. Bullied by his sister and considered the “soft” one of the pair, he nonetheless brings a quiet strength of character to the story — that is, the strength to be himself, even behind an unshakable courtly mask.

Both siblings contrast beautifully with Mehmed, the future ruler of the vast and fierce Ottoman Empire at its height of influence. He’s ambitious, sometimes foolishly so (or is he? History will tell.) He’s also a devoted friend to them both at a time when they need a friend the most. He arrives partway through the book, but his impact is immediate: Lada and Radu find a companion and patron in him, but also a rival and a potential enemy. The trio begins a toxic balancing act of power and loyalty even as Lada and Radu both begin to fall helplessly in love with Mehmed.

At that point, I set the book down and said, Whoa.

(I also gave myself a moment to cry happy tears, because medieval gays. I guess Santa decided I was a good girl this year.)

There aren’t enough good things I can say about this novel. I wish I’d had sticky notes with me when I read it, because I would have passed it on to the next bookseller fully annotated.

It is a great, great pity that a lot of adult fans of historical fiction will likely ignore this title just because it’s sold as Young Adult, because their bookshelf will be lesser for it. I’m not an expert on the late 1400s, but White’s world-building and attention to detail is so razor-fine that I can only assume she is. From the brooding forests of Wallachia to the opulence of an Ottoman palace to the siege-grounds of a Bohemian castle, the history in this novel is viscerally alive. This is a novel to be savored. Readers of The Historian, Outlander, and (as mentioned) Game of Thrones should snatch up this gem and treasure it.

Review: Doreen

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  • Release Date: June 7th, 2016
  • Author: Ilana Manaster
  • Website: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25361916-doreen
  • ISBN: 9780762459629

Review:

If you’ve ever wished that Oscar Wilde could have taken a crack at writing Mean Girls, do I have a book for you.

Doreen takes place in a New England prep school for the luxuriously wealthy and follows the (mis)fortunes of three students: Heidi Whelan, a vicious socialite hiding a modest background and immodest secrets; Biz Gibbons-Brown, an awkward but talented photographer struggling to find her muse; and Doreen Gray, Biz’s younger cousin, a shy, bullied, and plain-looking girl who is only there on the whim of her estranged father. After Biz photographs Doreen and doctors the final image, Doreen wakes up the next morning and finds that she looks like the beautiful, photoshopped girl in the picture.

As you may have guessed, the novel is a modern, gender-swapped retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it plays out exactly as you might hope it would. The prose leans heavily on Wilde’s style, particularly in its elevated and pointedly formal dialogue, but it never feels like an affectation. The characters are complicated and mostly unlikable, but they are not necessarily people — just as in Wilde’s original, they are larger than life because their story is more allegory than novel. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but Manaster makes it work for her. The modern American setting brings Wilde’s original dissection of the upper classes back to the forefront of the story. Though it doesn’t talk about the 1% or the Occupy movement, Doreen shines on a spotlight on the ugly lives of people who are simply too rich to care about consequences.

There is a lot of aspects of the novel that I didn’t care for. The addition of the character Roland only harms the novel. Dorian and Henry had the luxury of being morally bankrupt for the sake of being morally bankrupt. Doreen and Heidi need an overwrought backstory with a cruel, distant father figure to motive their actions. It’s a dull and disappointing loss of agency that serves no purpose except, I suppose, to reinforce the idea that girls are only villainous if they’ve been corrupted. Heidi even has a passing encounter with redemption through true love.

Worst of all is not one, but two false accusations of assault in the book. I understand that it shows how truly horrible the characters are. They’re lying about something you should never lie about. I get it. But I can’t tolerate it. You don’t get to use that as a plot device until we live in a world where people don’t assume sexual assault allegations are false, especially not when you’re writing for and about teenagers, who are the most likely to be disbelieved and silenced.

So, overall, did I like Doreen? I did. Its flaws don’t outweigh its moments of brilliance, and I’d like to see more YA books experiment with the style and the kind of narrative. However, its flaws are still pretty big and glaring, and for some readers, they’re going to be as impossible to ignore as the monster Doreen sees in her photograph.

Review: You Know Me Well

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  • Release Date: June 7th, 2016
  • Author: Nina LaCour and David Levithan
  • Website: http://davidlevithan.com/ and http://ninalacour.com/home
  • ISBN: 9781250098641

Review:

At the end of the day, all you really need to know about this book is that it’s a fantastic collaboration between two of YA’s best and brightest, Nina LaCour and David Levithan. There is no question of the quality of the work with this one — these two are at the top of their game, and You Know Me Well brings the best of their styles together seamlessly.

The breezy novel clocks in at a little over 250 pages and cheerfully sprints after Kate, an artistic lesbian, and Mark, a gay boy from the baseball team, as their relationships and their lives start to fall apart around them. Oh, and it’s set during Pride Week in San Francisco, with all of the celebrations and other rainbow characters that implies. Doesn’t it sound awesome? Well, it is.

To give a bit more detail, this is a novel about uncertainty. Mark is in love with his sort-of boyfriend, sort-of best friend Ryan, but the two are drifting apart and Mark is desperate to figure out a way to bring the two of them back together. Kate is a talented artist with the biggest case of impostor syndrome I’ve seen in a YA book — something I’m sure lots of teens will relate to, even if they don’t yet have a name for the feeling — and she’s been nursing a crush on her best friend’s cousin to keep herself distracted from the start of her new life at UCLA.

These characters are a trainwreck. They’re dysfunctional. They hurt themselves and each other. They fall in and out of love. They sneak into elite San Francisco parties. They make mistakes that have real consequences. It’s all gloriously messy, just like real life, and I wish more YA books captured the chaos and the anxiety of early adulthood as well as LaCour and Levithan have.

Best of all, the ensemble cast is almost entirely queer. I think the kids’ parents may be the only straight characters in the book. Some people might think that’s somehow excessive or unrealistic, but for me, it’s incredibly real. Even before I came out (to myself or anyone else), I was hanging out with the queer kids at my college. We gravitate toward each other like light towards a black hole, except that the black hole is actually rainbow flags and hugs and acceptance. The message to queer kids is: don’t worry, there’s a place out there where you won’t be alone. We need that message badly.

Review: Outrun the Moon

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  • Release Date: May 24th, 2016
  • Author: Stacey Lee
  • Website: http://www.staceyhlee.com/
  • ISBN: 9780399175411

Review:

San Francisco, 1906. On the eve of one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history, racism against Chinese immigrants is at an all-time peak. Strict, prejudicial laws work to keep the city’s non-white citizens in drudgery even as they work harder and harder to break out of poverty and segregation. A bold teenager named Mercy Wong hatches a daring plan to earn a place in a prestigious school for girls — a school for white girls. Despite the odds, her plan works, but her success is soon overshadowed by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Now Mercy may be the only one who can help the people who revile her the most.

I’m not usually drawn to historical fiction, but Stacey Lee brings the turn-of-the-century city to life. You can feel the hot California sun on your face and see the bustle skirts and ridiculous hats as if you were there yourself. The emphasis on the social issues of the time brought to mind A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray or Lee’s other excellent historical drama, Under a Painted Sky. Readers hoping for an idyllic glance at history won’t find it here: Lee doesn’t smooth over the blemishes. The everyday racism Mercy faces hits like a slap, and it hits often.

However, the book does not take a melancholy tone. Mercy is a determined, driven young woman with a big heart and a fierce sense of justice, and the narrative allows these qualities to shine. Readers will have no trouble connecting to Mercy and cheering for her triumphs, even if they also weep for her losses. The message of the novel is positive: people can overcome their hatred and band together in times of crisis, and that might be enough to enact change. That said, I’m not sure that message worked for me. Without spoiling anything, it felt like some of the tragedies in the second half of the novel soured the hopefulness of the conclusion. Maybe that was the point, but either way, it didn’t sit well on my stomach and I found it hard to rejoice with the characters on the last few pages.

Nonetheless, we need more YA that focuses on historical voices that are all too often forgotten. We can’t move forward as a society if we forget the mistakes we’ve made in the past, and Outrun the Moon reminds us of those mistakes through a thrilling, heartfelt story. Readers looking for a unique voice in an exciting historical setting will adore this novel.

Review: The Crown’s Game

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  • Release Date: May 17th, 2016
  • Author: Evelyn Skye
  • Website: http://www.evelynskye.com/the-crowns-game/
  • ISBN: 9780062422583

This review was originally written in January, 2016, after receiving and advanced reader’s copy.

Review:

I’ve been eager to get my hands on the advanced copy of this title for some time now. Evelyn Skye is a local author, a delightful host of many of our YA events, and a lovely person.

That said, a good heart doesn’t guarantee a great writer. I was cautious about The Crown’s Game even though the premise tugged at all the parts of me that loved fairy tales and The Night Circus and the animated film Anastasia. My coworkers who had already read it had spoken highly of it, but I wanted to see for myself.

I cracked it open when I got home from my closing shift around 10:30pm. Four hours later, at a bit past 2:30am, my roommates were sleepily asking if I planned to turn off the living room lamp and go to bed any time soon. It was, after all, a work night.

I did, but reluctantly. I was enthralled. I woke before my alarm the next morning and toddled out to finish the book over my coffee, which was quickly forgotten.

The story follows a fiery young enchanter named Vika and her counterpart, the reserved and gentlemanly Nikolai, as they are drawn against their will into a deadly contest to decide which of them shall become the next Imperial Enchanter of Russia. Neither can afford to lose: only the winner is allowed to survive the Crown’s Game. But, because all the best 19th-century stories are about forbidden love, Nikolai begins to fall for Vika — as does his best friend, the future tsar, Pasha.

Now, I don’t typically like romance, especially not in YA. The mention of a love triangle put me on guard immediately. Triangles are too often a source of cheap interpersonal drama to liven up dull characters, usually at the expense of whatever interesting motivations or traits they had in the first place. So, naturally, I was pleasantly surprised when I found my heart racing at each new spark of attraction that flew between the characters. Skye found the golden ratio between making the characters individuals and developing their group dynamic, and she doesn’t pull her punches.

My favorite aspect of the novel, though, was the world it inhabited. Setting is hard to pull off: I’ve read too many historical novels that drown the reader in details of a cityscape and forget to let them come up for air through a plot. Not so here. At every turn, I felt I was walking the streets of Saint Petersburg in 1825, but I never felt disconnected from the story. The characters inhabited their world as if it were a living, breathing thing, so as a reader, I could, too.

And the magic. Oh, my word, the magic. Perhaps not as eerie as the circus acts in The Night Circus, but every ounce as lush and opulent and marvelous as the Russian court it is meant to impress.

In short, this is an engrossing, charming novel with the bones of a bestseller. It strikes the perfect balance between historical fiction, fantasy, and romance, and I highly encourage fans of any of those genres to mark their calendars for the release date.