Newest review: Where It All Lands by Jennie Wexler

By Ekta R. Garg

July 14, 2021

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: July 6, 2021

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A trio of teens navigate young love and personal challenges while trying to figure out how to balance their friendships with one another. Just as the culmination of their story is revealed, a coin toss changes the entire scenario. Author Jennie Wexler makes the subject of first love sweet and refreshing while navigating her plot in the most subtle yet dynamic of ways in her excellent debut novel Where It All Lands.

High school sophomore Stevie Rosenstein arrives in New Jersey knowing one thing for sure: being the new girl sucks. She’s lived in so many places and had so many friends that it doesn’t even seem possible anymore to become good friends with anyone. And she’s never sure whether the kids who do want to be her friends are sincere or trying to score tickets to football games, all because her father is a coach for the NFL. It doesn’t matter how good she is on the saxophone or that she loves music and is basically a normal teenager.

As she walks into her new school, her guard is up. Then Stevie meets best buds Drew and Shane, and all of a sudden she discovers that both of them know how she feels. Drew’s dad is a famous music producer, leaving Drew to struggle with the same questions about friendships. Shane is a talented musician, a beast of a drummer, and he knows how music is the one thing that can make the world seem all right for a little while.

The boys spot Stevie at band practice at the start of the year, and they’re both drawn to her. They know, though, that fighting about who’s going to ask her out is dumb. Their friendship has survived more than a crush—Drew’s dad had an affair with an assistant and is on the verge of moving out. Shane’s dad died, leaving Shane with a huge hole in his life. The friends have supported each other through the worst; they’re not going to let a girl come between them.

There’s no denying that they both like her, though, and they both want to ask her out. In a moment of inspiration, Drew suggests flipping a coin for it. Shane is reluctant at first, but even he can’t argue with the logic that it’s basically the way they decide everything. They know it might seem a little skeevy, but Stevie never has to know.

As they call heads and tails, the boys have no idea just how their lives are going to change. Life is about to challenge each of them and the strength of their friendship. Both of them want to get to know Stevie better. Both of them have a fair reason to ask her out. But none of them will ever be the same again.

Debut author Jennie Wexler manages to navigate the tropes of YA romance without falling into a stereotypical plot. Telling the story first from when the coin lands on heads and then when it lands on tails, Wexler gives each of the boys an opportunity to explore a relationship with Stevie. In the hands of a less confident writer, the result might have felt caricaturish or melodramatic. Instead, Wexler provides depth and heft to the storyline both times she tells it.

Moreover, she’s able to find new details to share about all three of her main characters in both storylines, no easy job at all. As readers progress through Stevie’s budding relationship with one, they might think they’ll find out everything there is to know about Drew, Shane, and Stevie. Yet Wexler manages to hold back several surprises, both in terms of character development as well as the plot.

The biggest surprise may come in the fact that the stories with each of the boys ends in the same climactic moment, yet here too Wexler wields a deft hand that allows her to navigate possible story traps with ease. There’s no doubt readers will be reading as fast as possible to find out what actually happened.

Those who enjoy YA novels about first love and solid friendships that don’t follow the stereotypes will definitely want to check this out. I recommend readers Binge Where It All Lands.

Brand new review: Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

By Ekta R. Garg

March 24, 2021

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: March 16, 2021

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

When a young Native American woman witnesses a horrific crime, she’s approached by law enforcement for help on solving a much bigger problem. As the teen tries to make sense of the threat to her community, she also fights to save it. Author Angeline Boulley writes with confidence and authority in her debut young adult novel Firekeeper’s Daughter.

Although her blood marks her a member of the Native American community, Daunis Fontaine has always felt like she’s never quite fit in. One parent of her parents is white; the other is a member of the Ojibwe tribe in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Daunis has lived in the town of Sault Ste. Marie in the U.P. her entire life, but both non-Native residents and Native residents let her know she doesn’t fit in with them.

Daunis does her best to ignore both. She wants to take the culture she loves and respects into the future. With her eye on medical school, Daunis wants to use the knowledge she’s gained of plants to study their medicinal properties and then use that information later as a doctor.

Even before her dreams can get going, though, they seem to be crashing around her. Her Uncle David, the science teacher at her high school, dies from what looks like a drug overdose. Her grandmother suffers a debilitating stroke, and Daunis’s mother commits to taking care of her. As much as Daunis wants to go away to college, she makes the difficult decision to defer her enrollment for a year and take classes at the local university instead.

The local hockey club is a welcome distraction. In high school Daunis was one of the few girls who made it to the boys’ varsity team, and even though an injury has pretty much ended her athletic career she still hangs out with the players. They include her half-brother, Levi, the new captain of the team. Daunis can’t wait to see him get on the ice with the C on his jersey. It makes Uncle David’s death and her grandmother’s stroke almost bearable.

A new player moves to town, and he notices Daunis right away. Her best friend, Lily, teases Daunis mercilessly, but Daunis won’t allow open herself to heartbreak again. The first time it happened, she almost didn’t recover. She has to be strong on defense this time, even if Jamie Johnson has the most amazing eyes.

An awful crime involving Lily renews Daunis’s grief, but it’s only the beginning of the senseless acts in town. Meth has made its way through the Native community, and Lily’s ex-boyfriend, Travis, is its latest victim. After the situation with Lily, the FBI approaches Daunis and asks her to do something that leaves her speechless. They want her to help them figure out who’s making the meth, who’s transporting it, and how.

Despite her reluctance, Daunis agrees. She can’t bear to watch others fall victim to the torturous drug that literally hollows people out. Although she’s always been nothing but honest with her family members, now Daunis finds herself keeping secrets from the people who love her the most. Jamie is becoming more and more of a distraction from everything, and more kids fall victim to the drug ring. As Daunis works her way closer to the center of the illegal action, she comes to realize it may strike closer to home than she first believed.

Debut author Angeline Boulley uses her firsthand knowledge as a member of the Chippewa Indians in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan to inform this important story. Readers will find a book rich in cultural education in a way that is neither preachy nor condescending. Daunis informs readers about the things that matter the most to her in her culture in a way that feels organic and personal.

The book digs deep into issues that will be relatable for anyone, no matter their ethnic or cultural background. It showcases situations and customs specific to the Ojibwe tribe, but it does what successful novels should. It proves that despite differences, at their hearts people are all the same.

Some situations and scenes might be better suited for the upper young adult market, and occasionally the influx of information can make some Native customs a little hard to keep apart. Regardless, readers will find themselves appreciating the Native American culture with more informed opinions. I recommend readers Bookmark Firekeeper’s Daughter.

Brand new review: Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher

By Ekta R. Garg

March 3, 2021

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: February 16, 2021

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A high schooler mourns the loss of her best friend after a terrible accident. When she receives an unexpected gift, she traces it to its origin and discovers a secret. Debut author Ashley Schumacher uses innovative prose to explore the depth of grief and the healing power of love in her novel Amelia Unabridged.

High school senior Amelia Griffin knows two things: she’s the biggest fan in the entire world of the Orman Chronicles by author N.E. Endsley, and Jenna Williams is her best friend. In fact, the Chronicles are the reason the girls became friends in the first place. Now they’re inseparable.

Ultra-planner Jenna has it all mapped out: they’ll leave hot, sticky Dallas and go to college at the University of Montana, have practical careers, and always be by one another’s side. Amelia is beyond grateful for Jenna’s friendship. After her father left in freshman year, her mother has spent all of her time either at a part-time job or in front of the TV. Amelia craves family, and Jenna and her parents give it to her.

In the summer before college starts, the girls travel to California to meet the N.E. Endsley. Famously reclusive, the young author has agreed to an appearance at a book festival. The publication date for the third book in the Orman Chronicles has been pushed out, but no one knows when the book will drop. Amelia and Jenna, like hundreds of other fans, have come to the festival hoping for answers.

An hour before the event, though, Endsley cancels, and in the Uber ride to the airport back to Texas Jenna reveals she’s partly responsible. The girls fight, and Amelia struggles to forgive Jenna. Less than two weeks later, during a study abroad program in Ireland, Jenna dies in a car accident.

Amelia doesn’t want to accept this new reality. How is she supposed to go to college without Jenna? How is she supposed to read books without Jenna?

Days after the funeral, Amelia receives a gift: a limited edition copy of the first book in the Orman Chronicles. When she calls the Michigan bookstore on the return label, though, they claim to have no knowledge of where the book came from. According to them, they never processed the order. Amelia and Jenna aren’t even in their computer system. Something about the bookstore employee’s explanation doesn’t ring true to Amelia. She decides to go to Michigan to find answers. If Jenna ordered the book for her, she wants to know the story behind it.

Her trip brings her to a little town in Michigan straight out of a fairy tale. Not only does Amelia find the bookstore that shipped her the gift, but also she meets N.E. Endsley himself. As Amelia works through her shock and her grief at the same time, she rediscovers the power of stories to transform anything and the healing factor of love.

Author Ashley Schumacher shines in her debut novel. Although the events in the opening pages move at a brisk pace, Schumacher doesn’t compromise on Amelia’s depth of gratitude for Jenna’s friendship nor the grief from losing Jenna. The emotions feel so real that the events following Jenna’s death make complete sense in the story world Schumacher has constructed.

Schumacher sets for herself a huge challenge. Creating a fictional novel that readers in the story world love and adore and making it just as appealing to real-life readers is not for the faint of heart. Yet she meets the challenge and endears Amelia to readers all in the process. The Orman Chronicles come across as an old-fashioned fairy tale, exactly the kind an older sibling might invent to keep their younger siblings entertained. Given Amelia’s challenges, it’s obvious why this type of story would appeal to her and reiterates the power of a good book in all the best ways.

Like many YA novels, the adult characters are somewhat underdeveloped or absent altogether. Making them more three-dimensional would have enriched Amelia and Jenna’s story even more. It’s a testament to the novel that the lack of that character development doesn’t hurt the plot. It would have been a rich addition but doesn’t take away from the lovely writing already in place.

Readers who love a good story about good books and good friends should definitely pick this one up. I recommend readers Bookmark Amelia Unabridged.