ARC Review: The Mall by Megan McCafferty

The Mall by Megan McCafferty
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: July 28, 2020
Source: ARC via Netgalley

New York Times bestselling author Megan McCafferty returns to her roots with this YA coming of age story set in a New Jersey mall.

The year is 1991. Scrunchies, mixtapes and 90210 are, like, totally fresh. Cassie Worthy is psyched to spend the summer after graduation working at the Parkway Center Mall. In six weeks, she and her boyfriend head off to college in NYC to fulfill The Plan: higher education and happily ever after.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans…

Set entirely in a classic “monument to consumerism,” the novel follows Cassie as she finds friendship, love, and ultimately herself, in the most unexpected of places. Megan McCafferty, beloved New York Times bestselling author of the Jessica Darling series, takes readers on an epic trip back in time to The Mall.

I was a big fan of Megan McCafferty back in the day. I was probably around thirteen years old when I started reading her Jessica Darling series, hiding the books under others in my room so that my mom wouldn’t find out I was reading something called Sloppy Firsts. (As if she would have cared that I was reading a YA romance novel.)

A couple years ago, I went to a YA panel moderated by Megan McCafferty. I thought about how much I’d loved her books when I was younger, but still didn’t read more from her. Then I saw The Mall show up on Netgalley and knew I had to read it. 90s nostalgia set in New Jersey, where I lived for seven years of my adult life? PLEASE.

And I will say that The Mall is a fun book. It’s a very, very easy read, and it probably took me no more than three hours to read all 320 pages. It has a little bit of everything: romance, heartbreak, a treasure hunt, rekindling of an old friendship, family drama… there’s a lot here to love.

But unfortunately, because there’s so much going on, it never really focuses on anything aside from the mall. The best way I can summarize this book is “a summer at the mall,” because that’s really the only constant in the story. Sure, there’s a romance, but it’s never at the forefront of the book. Sure, there’s some heartbreak, but it’s honestly pretty brief. Sure, there’s a treasure hunt, but it never seemed to me that Cassie took it all that seriously. And sure, there’s some family drama, but Cassie seems like she just wants to pretend it isn’t happening. (Which, of course, was completely understandable.) Of all the plot threads in this book, the rekindling of an old friendship between Cassie and her coworker Drea is probably the biggest, but even that never really feels like the point of the book.

So in the end, while I had fun reading this book, I can’t say that I particularly loved it. For me, it was a solid three-star read.


Have you read The Mall? Is it on your TBR?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Mini-Reviews: The Bear and the Nightingale, Before the Devil Breaks You, and Let Me Hear a Rhyme

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: January 10, 2017
Source: Borrowed

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

I love Katherine Arden’s middle-grade books, but as much as it pains me to say it, I did not love her YA. I really have hardly anything to say about this one because I was just bored from the time I started it until I finally finished. I kept waiting for the story to pick up and for anything to spark my interest, but nothing did.

I only stuck with it until the end because of that love for Arden’s other books. Unfortunately, I won’t be continuing on with this series.


Before the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray
Series: The Diviners #3
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: October 3, 2017
Source: Borrowed

New York City.
1927.
Lights are bright.
Jazz is king.
Parties are wild.
And the dead are coming…


After battling a supernatural sleeping sickness that claimed two of their own, the Diviners have had enough lies. They’re more determined than ever to uncover the mystery behind their extraordinary powers, even as they face off against an all-new terror. Out on Ward’s Island, far from the city’s bustle, sits a mental hospital haunted by the lost souls of people long forgotten–ghosts who have unusual and dangerous ties to the man in the stovepipe hat, also known as the King of Crows.

With terrible accounts of murder and possession flooding in from all over and New York City on the verge of panic, the Diviners must band together and brave the sinister ghosts invading the asylum, a fight that will bring them face-to-face with the King of Crows. But as the explosive secrets of the past come to light, loyalties and friendships will be tested, love will hang in the balance, and the Diviners will question all that they’ve ever known. All the while, malevolent forces gather from every corner in a battle for the very soul of a nation–a fight that could claim the Diviners themselves.

I was a little nervous about reading Before the Devil Breaks You since it had been about four years since I’d read Lair of Dreams, but I didn’t need to worry. Libba Bray did a great job at casually reminding the reader of most of what had happened previously. I loved being back in this world. I love these characters and this setting so much.

Since this is the third book in a series, I’m going to be a little vague about what happens in this book. Overall, I was impressed. Bray is an excellent storyteller and she’s created an incredible series. I will say, though, that this book is 552 pages and, unlike the previous books in the series, it shows. There are definitely some parts that drag and some scenes that could have probably been cut, but I cannot wait until my hold on The King of Crows comes in so I can finally find out how this series ends.

Content warnings for:racism, anti-antisemitism, abusive relationship, attempted rape/sexual assault, poor treatment of characters with mental illness — however, all of these are handled well by the author

Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: May 21, 2019
Source: Borrowed

In this standalone novel, Tiffany D. Jackson tells the story of three Brooklyn teens who plot to turn their murdered friend into a major rap star by pretending he is still alive.

Biggie Smalls was right. Things done changed. But that doesn’t mean that Quadir and Jarrell are okay letting their best friend Steph’s tracks lie forgotten in his bedroom after he’s killed—not when his beats could turn any Bed-Stuy corner into a celebration, not after years of having each other’s backs.

Enlisting the help of Steph’s younger sister, Jasmine, Quadir and Jarrell come up with a plan to promote Steph’s music under a new rap name: The Architect. Soon, everyone in Brooklyn is dancing to Steph’s voice. But then his mixtape catches the attention of a hotheaded music rep and—with just hours on the clock—the trio must race to prove Steph’s talent from beyond the grave.

Now, as the pressure—and danger—of keeping their secret grows, Quadir, Jarrell, and Jasmine are forced to confront the truth about what happened to Steph. Only each has something to hide. And with everything riding on Steph’s fame, together they need to decide what they stand for before they lose everything they’ve worked so hard to hold on to—including each other.

I’ve had a few of Tiffany D. Jackson’s books on my TBR for a while now, but Let Me Hear a Rhyme is the first one I’ve actually read. I had kind of high expectations based on the reviews I’ve read of her books, but this one ended up just being okay for me.

I thought that the premise was great. A group of kids trying to get their deceased friend a record deal? Coming up with reason after reason after reason for why he couldn’t come to these meetings himself? Trying to remix his songs and searching for other demos he’d made? Honestly incredible. Where this book fell flat for me was in how many things it tried to do in 384 pages. Because it’s not just the music, it’s also a murder mystery and a romance. It was too much, and I felt like each plot suffered because of it. Also, the characters sucked their teeth on just about every other page, and it was really grating by the end.

I’m still excited to read more from Jackson.


Have you read any of these books? Are any of them on your TBR?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Mini-Reviews: Recent DNFs

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably seen me talk about how rarely I DNF books. It happens, at most, a couple times a year. But when I get in a DNF-ing mood, I really get into it. I DNFed three books in one day recently, and here’s why.

Meet Cute by Helena Hunting
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: April 9, 2019
Source: Borrowed

Talk about an embarrassing introduction. On her first day of law school, Kailyn ran – quite literally – into the actor she crushed on as a teenager, ending with him sprawled on top of her. Mortified to discover the Daxton Hughes was also a student in her class, her embarrassment over their meet-cute quickly turned into a friendship she never expected. Of course, she never saw his betrayal coming either…

Now, eight years later, Dax is in her office asking for legal advice. Despite her anger, Kailyn can’t help feeling sorry for the devastated man who just became sole guardian to his thirteen-year-old sister. But when her boss gets wind of Kailyn’s new celebrity client, there’s even more at stake than Dax’s custody issues: if she gets Dax to work at their firm, she’ll be promoted to partner.

The more time Kailyn spends with Dax and his sister, the more she starts to feel like a family, and the more she realizes the chemistry they had all those years ago is as fresh as ever. But will they be able to forgive the mistakes of the past, or will one betrayal lead to another?

I’ve previously read one other book by Helena Hunting (I Flipping Love You) and I thought it was fun! I’d seen a lot of good things about Meet Cute, and it sounded just like the kind of book I’d enjoy.

Well, I didn’t. I made it to 7% before I quit.

There’s nothing overtly wrong with this book. It’s just not for me. Kailyn is a grown woman practicing law and she still spends an inordinate amount of time obsessing over one small event from college. There’s nothing sexy about her love interest other than, I guess, he’s supposed to be really hot?

I don’t know, I just couldn’t get into this story or these characters.


The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: August 9, 2016
Source: Borrowed

Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the forest, Xan, is kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, Fyrian. Xan rescues the abandoned children and deliver them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. 

One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this enmagicked girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. To keep young Luna safe from her own unwieldy power, Xan locks her magic deep inside her. When Luna approaches her thirteenth birthday, her magic begins to emerge on schedule–but Xan is far away. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Soon, it is up to Luna to protect those who have protected her–even if it means the end of the loving, safe world she’s always known.

I checked this book out from the library because it sounded so interesting and I figured the whole “moon” thing would make it count for one of my reading challenges. Well, I made it a whopping 5% into this one before I gave up.

This is the kind of book I would have probably loved as an actual middle grader. As an adult, not so much. Much like with Meet Cute, there wasn’t anything wrong with this book. I just didn’t like it.

#ps19: a book with a zodiac sign or astrology term in the title


Ziggy, Stardust and Me by James Brandon
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: August 6, 2019
Source: ARC via publisher

The year is 1973. The Watergate hearings are in full swing. The Vietnam War is still raging. And homosexuality is still officially considered a mental illness. In the midst of these trying times is sixteen-year-old Jonathan Collins, a bullied, anxious, asthmatic kid, who aside from an alcoholic father and his sympathetic neighbor and friend Starla, is completely alone. To cope, Jonathan escapes to the safe haven of his imagination, where his hero David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and dead relatives, including his mother, guide him through the rough terrain of his life. In his alternate reality, Jonathan can be anything: a superhero, an astronaut, Ziggy Stardust, himself, or completely “normal” and not a boy who likes other boys. When he completes his treatments, he will be normal—at least he hopes. But before that can happen, Web stumbles into his life. Web is everything Jonathan wishes he could be: fearless, fearsome and, most importantly, not ashamed of being gay.

Jonathan doesn’t want to like brooding Web, who has secrets all his own. Jonathan wants nothing more than to be “fixed” once and for all. But he’s drawn to Web anyway. Web is the first person in the real world to see Jonathan completely and think he’s perfect. Web is a kind of escape Jonathan has never known. For the first time in his life, he may finally feel free enough to love and accept himself as he is.

A poignant coming-of-age tale, Ziggy, Stardust and Me heralds the arrival of a stunning and important new voice in YA. 

Of the three books I DNFed, this is the one I wanted to like the most. I’d really been looking forward to this book and even did an interview with the author. But after reading this book for more than a month and only making it to 28%, I had to be honest with myself. I was not enjoying it.

To be fair, I’m not sure this is really the kind of book that you enjoy reading. It’s about conversion therapy, bullying, and an alcoholic parent. It’s really heartbreaking and it’s just not something that I need in my life right now.

I didn’t really get along with the writing style either. I didn’t mind it at the beginning of the book, but as it continued on, it just got to be way too much for me. Like, when Jonathan slams a door, the description is “whambamthankyouma’amSLAM.” Too much.

A lot of people have rated this book highly, but it wasn’t for me.


Have you read any of these books? What’s the last book you DNFed?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Author Interview: James Brandon

Ziggy, Stardust and Me by James Brandon
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: August 6, 2019

The year is 1973. The Watergate hearings are in full swing. The Vietnam War is still raging. And homosexuality is still officially considered a mental illness. In the midst of these trying times is sixteen-year-old Jonathan Collins, a bullied, anxious, asthmatic kid, who aside from an alcoholic father and his sympathetic neighbor and friend Starla, is completely alone. To cope, Jonathan escapes to the safe haven of his imagination, where his hero David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and dead relatives, including his mother, guide him through the rough terrain of his life. In his alternate reality, Jonathan can be anything: a superhero, an astronaut, Ziggy Stardust, himself, or completely “normal” and not a boy who likes other boys. When he completes his treatments, he will be normal—at least he hopes. But before that can happen, Web stumbles into his life. Web is everything Jonathan wishes he could be: fearless, fearsome and, most importantly, not ashamed of being gay.

Jonathan doesn’t want to like brooding Web, who has secrets all his own. Jonathan wants nothing more than to be “fixed” once and for all. But he’s drawn to Web anyway. Web is the first person in the real world to see Jonathan completely and think he’s perfect. Web is a kind of escape Jonathan has never known. For the first time in his life, he may finally feel free enough to love and accept himself as he is.

A poignant coming-of-age tale, Ziggy, Stardust and Me heralds the arrival of a stunning and important new voice in YA.

I’ve been really intrigued by Ziggy, Stardust and Me ever since the beginning of the year when I was scrolling through upcoming YA debuts. Between the cover and the synopsis, I was super excited to read it, and I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with the author today!

Thank you so much to Penguin and James Brandon for making this post possible!


Between acting, producing, becoming a certified yoga instructor, and the different committees you belong to, you’ve had a really interesting life! Can you talk a little bit about the process of adding “published author” to that list?

Well, how’s this for an answer: astrologers have always told me I should be writing, but I resisted it my entire life for some reason. Maybe the thought terrified me. (It still does even after I’ve become published.) But I’d been mulling on the idea of Ziggy for almost a decade when my agent, who also happens to be my best friend, encouraged me to write it. After taking some classes, immersing myself in craft books, and reading a thousand more YA novels, I finally decided I had the tools to start writing. So I did. Over a hundred and fifty drafts later (a number that I assure you is not exaggerated), I turned in the manuscript and within three months it sold to Stacey Barney at Penguin. (My #1 Top Choice Editor, by the way!) Because I come from an acting background, and the immense amount of work I do to dive into each character I portray, it was surprisingly easy for me to transfer my knowledge of character building onto the page. And it was such an enormous thrill to create the words rather than speak someone else’s.

I haven’t seen a lot of YA historical fiction set in the 1970s. What inspired you to write this book?

After a friend brought me an episode of This American Life, titled “81 Words,” the seed for Ziggy, Stardust & Me was planted. The episode documents the moment in time—December 15, 1973—when homosexuality was officially removed from the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, otherwise known as the Big Book of Mental Illnesses), and suddenly all those who identified on the LGBTQ+ spectrum were cured. This, after coming on the heels of the Stonewall Riots, birthed the modern-day LGBTQ+ movement as we know it today. And I knew nothing of this time. 

Queer history isn’t taught. Currently only four US states require it in public high schools and even then it’s taking a long time to implement exactly how it will be included in curriculum. So my main goal in writing the book was to educate readers of all ages about our history, and to honor those LGBTQ+ peoples who’ve struggled, survived, and pioneered our paths so we can live out and proud today.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

There were many, but one stands out as the most challenging on a personal level. After Stacey Barney (my editor at Penguin) bought the book, we worked on two major rewrites together. Every character must have an arc, a personal journey of internal and external change they make through the course of the narrative. One of the notes Stacey gave me was that she didn’t believe Jonathan’s journey to self-acceptance. This was painful to acknowledge and incredibly hard for me to hear. Out of all the facets of the novel, and being out for over half of my life, I thought for sure I’d at least mastered this aspect of his character. But upon deeper reflection, I started to question how much I actually accept my self. Self-introspection is never easy, but this one hurt because I realized how far I have yet to go in this arena. In subsequent drafts, I wrote a line for Jonathan that says something like, “Once a seed of shame is planted within it never goes away.” This is true for anyone who’s ever been told they’re wrong for something they innately know is right. But once I discovered this truth, and embraced the complexities behind it, I was able to unlock the key to Jonathan’s journey, and maybe more importantly, my own.

I won’t make you choose which of the characters in this book is your favorite, but is there one that you relate to or connect with more than the others?

I suppose there’s a small piece of me in every character, but I think my protagonist, Jonathan, is the one I’m most connected with. He’s not me, but we definitely share some similarities. I purposely set the story in St. Louis because it’s my hometown, and growing up gay in St. Louis came with many emotional complexities I knew I could more easily attach to in his character. I also have had asthma my entire life, and although I never considered it a disability, it certainly limited my activities as a child. And because of it, because I grew up an only child and had to mostly play indoors, I developed a wild imagination. (Which you’ll note is quite prevalent to Jonathan’s character.) There are many “wishful thinking” moments I’ve incorporated into Jonathan’s voice: things I wish I was brave enough to do then, things I wished I’d said, believed, or understood. I guess in many ways writing him was a personally cathartic experience for me, one I’m incredibly grateful I had the opportunity to explore.

What are some songs that you feel fit well with your book?

Well, if you aren’t listening to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album while reading this book, you’re definitely missing out. This goes for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Roberta Flack’s First Take albums as well. There’s an entire soundtrack written throughout the narrative and I created a Spotify playlist so you can listen to each song that’s talked about for a fuller immersion into the story. You can find it on my website or linked in my bios on Twitter or Instagram.

Are there any books that you’ve read recently that you’d recommend checking out?

So many, it’s hard to know where to start! I’ll name my top recent fab five: Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian, The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante, Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay, The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg, and okay, six, The Whispers by Greg Howard (MG title), and fine, fine, fine, seven: River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy. 

What’s your all-time favorite book?

How dare you. 


About the Author

 

James Brandon produced and played the central role of Joshua in the international tour of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi for a decade, and is Co-Director of the documentary film based on their journey: Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption. He’s Co-Founder of the I AM Love Campaign, an arts-based initiative bridging the faith-based and LGBTQ2+ communities, and serves on the Powwow Steering Committee for Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) in San Francisco. He’s also a certified Kundalini Yoga teacher, spent a summer at Deer Park Monastery studying Zen Buddhism, and deepened his yogic practice in Rishikesh, India. Brandon is a contributing writer for Huffington PostBelieve Out Loud, and Spirituality and Health MagazineZiggy, Stardust, and Me is his first novel.


Have you read Ziggy, Stardust and Me? What’s the best YA historical fiction you’ve read recently? Let’s talk in the comments!

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ARC Review: The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer

The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer
Rating: ★★★★★
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: October 8, 2019
Source: ARC via author/publisher

A powerful middle grade debut that weaves together folklore and history to tell the story of a girl finding her voice and the strength to use it during the final months of the Communist regime in Romania in 1989.

Ileana has always collected stories. Some are about the past, before the leader of her country tore down her home to make room for his golden palace; back when families had enough food, and the hot water worked on more than just Saturday nights. Others are folktales like the one she was named for, which her father used to tell her at bedtime. But some stories can get you in trouble, like the dangerous one criticizing Romania’s Communist government that Uncle Andrei published—right before he went missing.

Fearing for her safety, Ileana’s parents send her to live with the grandparents she’s never met, far from the prying eyes and ears of the secret police and their spies, who could be any of the neighbors. But danger is never far away. Now, to save her family and the village she’s come to love, Ileana will have to tell the most important story of her life.

Once upon a time, something happened. If it had not happened, it would not be told.

From the first time I heard about this book, I was intrigued. A middle grade historical fiction novel set in Communist Romania? That’s a little different from what I usually read, and a little different from what I usually see floating around the book blogging world.

The thing is, I’ve been in kind of an extended reading slump for a few months now. It’s very rare that I want to pick up a book for more than a few minutes at a time, but this one had me hooked from the first page. Quite honestly, I probably could have finished it in one sitting if I hadn’t had other things to do.

So, where do I even start with this review? I guess, first, I’ll talk about Ileana and what a great heroine she was. Sure, she’s a great storyteller. But she’s also smart and perceptive and a little bit sassy, and above all, she’s a normal little girl. She makes mistakes and lives through the consequences. She questions the Communist government that she’s grown up in without it feeling forced or overly political. Her character growth over the course of this book is incredible and I was so, so proud of her by the end of the book.

The next thing I want to talk about is the story itself. I’ve never read a book quite like this before, and I think that was another thing that kept the pages turning. Not only was there the story of Ileana moving from the city to the country to (hopefully) escape the Romanian Securitate, but interspersed throughout the story are chapters of Romanian folktales, which I loved. Toward the end of the book, I actually got goosebumps reading about how everything played out.

As always, I want to avoid spoilers, so I’m going to cut myself off here. I’ll end by saying that this is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and I’m really looking forward to reading more from this author.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

J. Kasper Kramer is an author and English professor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in creative writing and once upon a time lived in Japan, where she taught at an international school. When she’s not curled up with a book, Kramer loves researching lost fairy tales, playing video games, and fostering kittens.

Twitter • Website • InstagramFacebook


Have you read The Story That Cannot Be Told? What are some of your favorite historical fiction books?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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