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



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



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


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


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



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


  • Release Date: June 7th, 2016
  • Author: Ilana Manaster
  • Website:
  • ISBN: 9780762459629


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


  • Release Date: June 7th, 2016
  • Author: Nina LaCour and David Levithan
  • Website: and
  • ISBN: 9781250098641


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


  • Release Date: May 24th, 2016
  • Author: Stacey Lee
  • Website:
  • ISBN: 9780399175411


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


  • Release Date: May 17th, 2016
  • Author: Evelyn Skye
  • Website:
  • ISBN: 9780062422583

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


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.

Review: Places No One Knows



Brenna Yovanoff is a seasoned author at this point, but Places No One Knows is going to be her break-out hit.

People who know me in real life know what a fan I am of the Merry Sisters of Fate, a trio of authors comprised of Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff. All three write a particular brand of eerie, unconventional modern fantasy that draws me in like nothing else. Although I’ve read most of Stiefvater’s work and am working my way through Gratton’s, so far I have only had the opportunity to read one of Yovanoff’s novels, The Replacement. Its blend of personal drama, fairy intrigue, and horror prepped me to expect (and enjoy) more of the same from Yovanoff. You can imagine my surprise when I got a copy of her newest novel, Places No One Knows, and realized it was primarily a high school drama. But oh, was I delighted when I delved into it and realized it was so much more than the stereotypical school angst I have — perhaps wrongly — come to expect from contemporary YA.

My first thing to say about this novel isn’t a criticism, but a caveat. I love lyrical prose, the slow burn of good character development, and watching a story unfold a piece at a time. Not everyone does. If you’re looking for something with snappy action and a quirky premise, this one probably isn’t for you — it takes its time getting to the end, though I think it’s a better book for it.

The heroine, Waverly, seems ordinary to her peers: high strung, maybe, but aren’t they all? Yet inside her head, she is a calculating, marvelous wonder, just one accident of birth away from being a great political or military strategist in another era. She reads The Art of War and Machiavelli to understand how to navigate the interpersonal complexities of high school. She plots with her best friend to carefully dethrone and replace other girls in the social hierarchy as ruthlessly as she might plan a coup. And, gripped by nightly insomnia, she runs through her suburban neighborhood every night like a person possessed. I’ve never encountered a heroine like Waverly in contemporary fiction, and she is so deliciously startling that you can’t help but love her, flaws and vicious streak and all.

Meanwhile, our troubled hero Marshall would be easy to fumble in another author’s hands. He parties, drinks too much, and makes out with girls he doesn’t really care about to cover up the stresses of his home life. He doesn’t care about school and school mostly doesn’t care about him. He is, by our academic-driven standards, a failure. It would be easy to loose him in stereotypes about dark, brooding love interests, but Yovanoff plucks him from his wallowing and gives him something few YA love interests have: personality. By the end of the novel, I couldn’t help loving him, too.

Star-crossed lovers are always a fun plot to play with. How do they meet? Why should they care about one another? These two in particular have no reason to know each other’s names, much less to become friends. So what happens when Waverly starts dreaming herself into Marshall’s bedroom at night?

It would be wrong to label Places No One Knows as an urban fantasy. “Magical realism” would be closer. The splash of fantasy that drives the premise is a clever, dangling “what if?” that comes to life on the page with both dream-like prose and a cutting look at the characters at their most vulnerable. It doesn’t stop at the heroes, either. The entire novel is an excruciatingly beautiful portrait of life in a modern high school, with all the anxieties and triumphs it encompasses. It’s no secret that this is what grips me most in novels: the ability to take any setting, any plot, and crack it open to show us what the people are really like inside, as if they breathed the same air we do. At this, Yovanoff excels.