ya fiction

Review: Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

9780399175411_OutrunTheMoon_BOM.indd “No, the key to wealth was opportunity. And if opportunity didn’t come knocking than Mrs. Lowry says you must build your own door.”

Outrun The Moon is author Stacey Lee’s second book, and it is just as stunning and well-researched as her debut, Under a Painted Sky (which I reviewed here).

Set in San Francisco in 1906, Outrun the Moon details the journey of Mercy Wong, a fifteen-year-old girl living in Chinatown. Mercy is a US citizen, although her parents are not, and her family and friends live and thrive within the confines of Chinatown’s industry. Mercy’s father is a launderer, and her mother is a well-respected fortune teller. Mercy also lives with her younger brother, Jack, whose weak lungs keep him from running and playing as other children might. Aided by the medicine of their neighbor, Ah-Suk, Jack’s health remains in check.

Mercy is smitten with her longtime friend, Tom. Tom is Ah-Suk’s son and is expected to take over the family trade. However, Tom has dreams of flying, and he has even crafted a hot air balloon. Similarly, Mercy has dreams that would take her outside of Chinatown: she wants to run a successful business.

Mercy is an intelligent narrator who, despite her modern ways of thinking when it comes to business and the role of the female, deeply respects her upbringing and Chinese traditions. She has a dislike of the unlucky number four, and she frequently uses her mother’s body-mapping techniques to discern qualities in individuals. For example, Mercy’s high cheekbones (sometimes referred to as “bossy cheeks”) denote an assertive nature. I found this mixture of modern thinking and respect for tradition to be incredibly refreshing and interesting to read. Mercy is also witty and quick to act, and I would happily read another book narrated by her.

Mercy Wong knows that she needs to further her education if she wants to make a name for herself in the business world, and so she strikes a deal with the wealthy Du Lac family. Chocolatiers by trade, Mr. Du Lac also serves on the board of St. Clare’s School for Girls, one of the most exclusive private schools. An elaborate ruse is concocted, and Mercy is granted a trial period at the school where she must pretend she is a Chinese heiress.

Being the first non-white person at the school, Mercy garners a lot of attention – not all of it favorable. Soon after settling in, however, disaster strikes: the historic earthquake of April 18, 1906 sends San Francisco into turmoil, and the girls of St. Clare’s have to put aside their differences to survive.

Outrun the  Moon features a cast of unique and likable characters, each with their own flaws and inner battles. From enemies, to friends, to grumpy headmistresses, Mercy deals with them all. Reduced to living in a park together after the earthquake, the girls’ true natures come to light.

Although Lee takes some liberties with historical accuracy (she changes the time that the earthquake hit Chinatown, among a few other things that she mentions in an author’s note), I found Outrun the Moon to be a wonderful glimpse into a time period and a culture that I am not entirely familiar with. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was a history lesson reduced to one class when I was in school, and I never stopped to think about the myriad of ways that people were affected and what this tragedy meant to the city. Between this book and Under a Painted Sky, Lee has single-handedly made me want to research periods in history to learn more. Anyone who can do that outside of a classroom is doing something right!

I want to thank Stacey Lee for providing me with an advanced copy of Outrun The Moon in exchange for an honest review. The book was released in May by GP Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, and I cannot recommend it enough. Go – read – and fall in love with a time and a place.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: The Two Princesses of Bamarre

The Two Princesses of Bamarre Cover“I was no hero. The dearest wishes of my heart were for safety and tranquility. The world was a perilous place, wrong for the likes of me.”  

I’ve been downsizing and that means I’ve been going through my bookshelves. And it’s something that really makes me pause when I see how well-worn some of the books I have are. There are books I read over and over and over again, so entrenched I was in their stories. And they didn’t even have to be big names.

One of them was The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine. She’s best known for writing Ella Enchanted (which in no way is at all similar to the movie).

The Two Princesses of Bamarre is set in a classic fairy tale kingdom, focusing on two royal sisters. There’s twelve-year-old Addie, who looks up to her courageous sister Meryl. Meryl wants to follow in Drualt, their legendary hero’s footsteps and do the same as he did–go on adventures and rid the kingdom of the evil beasts that lurk in the wilderness.

Addie would be content with staying at home, and not doing any of those things. After all, they already lost their mother, why risk endangering themselves any further?

But Meryl falls victim to another one of the kingdom’s evils—the illness known as the Gray Death. Finding courage she didn’t know she had, Addie sets out into her kingdom to do the impossible and find a cure.

This story reminds me of The Princess Bride because it has everything: adventure, danger, twists and turns, wit, and romance that won’t make you gag. Spectres, ogres, griffins, and even dragons lie in her path, but she keeps going for her sister. She doesn’t have strength to rely on, just her own pluckiness and willpower. As a kid who was athletically-challenged and constantly with my nose stuck in books, this appealed to me. If I ran into danger, I just had to persevere and keep fighting in spite of fear.

Acting as a backdrop against Addie and Meryl’s story is the story of the legendary hero who disappeared mysteriously ages ago. It fleshes out the kingdom’s history, a bit of world building for future readers of A Song of Fire and Ice or Lord of the Rings. 

The novel has a complex ending, one that doesn’t tie things up as nicely as you might expect in a children’s book. Like life, there is both happiness and sadness in the ending. But the one constant through the story is the sisters’ unshakable love and devotion to one another.

This is not one of your “one day my prince will come” fairy tales. Gail Carson Levine has a penchant for taking the fairy tale world and empowering girl characters within her worlds to face their fears and overcome challenges.

Even as a middle grade novel, I am ready to read this book again! And… again. Addie’s quest speaks to the feelings within all of us. About finding our inner strength, and doing what we need to for the people we love.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Review: Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton

fullcicadamoon At 400 pages, Marilyn Hilton’s Full Cicada Moon may look intimidating to YA readers, but this coming-of-age story is a novel-in-verse, and the pages fly by. Similar to Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, the protagonist of Full Cicada Moon is a young female contemplating her identity and role in an environment that is less-than-welcoming.

Mimi Yoshiko Oliver is entering the seventh grade in 1969. She has just moved from a progressive town in California to a small town in Vermont because her father has accepted a teaching position at a college.

Mimi’s mother is Japanese and honors all of the culture’s traditions. The New Year’s festivities feature prominently in the beginning and end of the story. Mimi’s father is African American. He is very proud of his family and works hard to make sure they feel comfortable and secure.

Mimi and her family face racism in both outright and more subtle ways throughout the book. In this prominently-white town, Mimi has to deal with being a minority: half-Japanese, half-African American. On her first day of school she is asked, “What are you?” The friends she makes – as sweet as they are – are not allowed to invite her over to their houses. Mimi’s confusion and hurt is apparent in her thoughts, translated so brilliantly into verse.

Some readers may be worried that they won’t connect to a character in a novel told in verse, but Mimi is complex, rich, and a joy to read about. She has dreams of becoming an astronaut, and she follows along on television with the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. She is encouraged by her science teacher to study this subject, despite the students who have laughed at her dreams.

Mimi questions the school’s rule that dictates that female students must take home economics classes and male students must take woodshop. What about boys, like her neighbor, Tim, who want to learn how to cook? Mimi already knows how to make a cake from her mother; she’d like to learn to make a bookshelf. This subject addresses gender roles in an accessible way for younger readers while also offering readers a glimpse into another time, when girls couldn’t wear blue jeans and there weren’t a myriad of school electives to choose from.

At the heart of Full Cicada Moon is Mimi’s journey towards self-acceptance and understanding. While I would love to read more prose novels about this period in time and these issues, I think this is a great introduction to a time in history for young readers.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

shadow and bone coverAlina Starkov is just a mapmaker. Not a good mapmaker, mind you. But it’s what the orphaned teen can do for her country as they prepare to cross the Shadow Fold, a land of darkness and monsters that splits Ravka in two. Plus, at least she has her best friend Mal with her, even if the fellow orphan’s too busy chasing other girls to notice her sometimes.

But everything changes when their ships sets upon the Fold and is attacked. In a display of magic that hasn’t been seen in centuries, Alina saves them all. Sun magic. Her new powers catch the eye of the mysterious Darkling, the all-powerful leader of Ravka’s magicians, the Grisha.

He whisks Alina away to the Ravkan capital, where he tells her that her magic alone could heal the Shadow Fold and war-ravaged Ravka for good. But it means losing herself in the process, as she is swept into courtly life and the rules of Grisha society. Alina misses Mal, and the Darkling’s attentions are becoming what’s she craved from Mal for so long. Plus her powers are hard to control, and Alina feels the weight of her entire nation on her shoulders.

I love that the setting of the Grisha trilogy is based on 1800s Tsarist Russia. So many fantasy stories are based off of Arthurian legends, or Tolkien imitations, that Ravka and its culture was a breath of fresh air. Russian history is nuanced with so much beauty and chaos, that it was incredible to see reinterpreted with a fantasy scope. There are echoes of Eastern Christianity with the saints and churches. And a sharp contrast between how the upper and lower echelons live. Ravka and its neighbors create an intricate world, but not one bogged down with lengthy descriptions or paragraphs upon paragraphs of unnecessary exposition.

The Grisha are part of an interesting magic system, reminiscent to me of the elemental bending system in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Leigh Bardugo said she was inspired to make the Grisha trilogy a literal fight of light and darkness. The Shadow Fold was inspired by the idea of making darkness and the monsters ‘beneath your bed’ into a literal place. Like on Once Upon a Time, magic sometimes comes with a price, but sometimes that price is something worth paying, even at the risk of hurting yourself.

And Alina herself is a great protagonist. She’s scrappy and snarky, but her insecurities and fears make her human. The ensemble cast of characters that emerges throughout the trilogy are equally fantastic (especially one very moody cat).

Shadow and Bone is an engrossing dark fantasy, full of adventure and twists, people who disappoint and people who surprise, and of course, at the heart of it all, is magic. The story continues in Siege and Storm, and the final book is Ruin and Rising. Leigh Bardugo just came out with another book that takes place in one of Ravka’s neighboring lands, called Six of Crows. It takes a lot to stand out as a YA series these days, but the Grisha trilogy does it.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Movie Review: Mockingjay – Part 2

mockingjaypart2 Though the first Hunger Games book was published less than a decade ago in 2008, it was an instant hit with fans, with tens of millions of books sold in the trilogy. The first film was released only four years later, with book author Suzanne Collins helping to write the screenplay. It was a massive success, with almost $700 million in box office sales worldwide. With the release of Mockingjay – Part 2, the last film in the cinematic quartet – modified from the original published trilogy – premiering last week on November 20th, excitement has reached a fever pitch.

We return to the world of Panem in the middle of an all-out war between the government and the rebellion. Katniss, played by the renowned actress Jennifer Lawrence, is fighting along with other rebels to free the districts from the evil President Snow, who has been skillfully played throughout the film series by Donald Sutherland. She’s been reunited with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who was previously tortured and brainwashed into hating Katniss, which puts a damper on their ambiguously romantic relationship.

Overall, the continuation of this story follows the immense and numerous difficulties faced by both our beloved characters and the viewers who have already invested time and emotion into the three earlier films, which can now be seen on Hulu or cable TV. Katniss finds herself doubting what and who she’s truly fighting for, realizing that both sides of the war she’s in really aren’t that different from each other. The element of propaganda also plays a huge part on both sides of the war, with Katniss at the center of the rebellion’s strategic display of propos.


Though darker in tone and more action-oriented than the other films, Mockingjay – Part 2 successfully portrays its evolution from focusing on just one part of corruption within the government (the actual Hunger Games) to the bigger picture, in which everyone realizes the very existence of President Snow’s Panem will ultimately lead to society’s collapse. Because of this, we are able to delve deeper into Katniss’ desperation and anger even more than the novels did. Certainly more of the intricacy of the battles are put on display for the viewers: all the better to show the carnage and fear of war. This is perhaps even a reflection of today’s war-torn world, with soldiers young enough to still be called children.

Katniss is portrayed as more vulnerable initially, and President Coin (Julianne Moore) is more present and more obviously willing to do whatever it takes to win the war, including using Katniss and other innocent people in whatever ways needed. Both the nobility of the war and the savageness of it is on full display. The government heads of both the rebellion and the establishment are portrayed as cold and calculating – a clear indication of how governments are viewed in today’s actual society, where little trust is given to even our elected leaders.

Overall, the film will definitely satisfy fans and give them what they need rather than what they want. Plot points are neatly wrapped up and the drama that was created by the earlier releases continues to build through most of the film. Although it has all the elements of a war movie, Mockingjay – Part 2 does not fail to build upon the themes it has established in the last three movies and continues to comment on the problematic orders of dystopian societies. This ending to a long-loved franchise will continue to resonate with fans long after leaving the movie theaters.

Spencer Blohm is a writer and blogger based in the windy city of Chicago, IL. On the rare occasion he isn’t busy with work or catching up on much-needed sleep, you can find him indulging his other passions: pie-making and classic silent films. He’s a Gemini and his favorite food is SPAM. Find him on Twitter @bspencerblohm.

Review: Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

dumplin cover“I guess sometimes the perfection we perceive in others is made up of a whole bunch of tiny imperfections, because some days the damn dress just won’t zip.”  

Just a few pages into Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, and I was ready to push it into the hands of several friends. I read it in just a few days, caught up in the life of Willowdean Dickson.

Willowdean Dickson is a fat girl, and she knows it. After all, her mom’s always lovingly referred to her as “Dumplin’,” so she might as well own it. Her best friend Ellen is tall, blonde, and gorgeous, but they’ve always gotten along through their mutual love of Dolly Parton. But things are changing—El has her boyfriend Tim, and… Will has a job at the local fast-food joint, Harpy’s.

But at least Harpy’s has Private School Bo, a super hot jock. Will’s drooling over him, of course, but she’s floored when she finds out the feeling is mutual. But Willowdean starts doubting herself. How could anyone like her for real, when she has thunder thighs and chub all over? She decides to retake her confidence by doing the craziest thing possible–she dares herself to enter the Miss Clover City beauty pageant.

Of course, there are a few hitches in her plan. Her mom’s a former winner of the pageant and now runs the thing every year. Willowdean’s already grown up knowing all too well that her mom’s constant diets and weight loss fads are targeted at her. Joining the contest puts not only her mom’s scrutiny on her, but the entire high school and town. Still. She holds her head up high.

“I don’t like to think of my hips as a nuisance, but more of an asset. I mean, if this were, like, 1642, my wide birthing hips would be worth many cows or something.”

Despite her seeming abundance of confidence, Willowdean is flawed. Her relationships with everyone in her life are nuanced. She’s reeling from the death of her morbidly obese aunt, and the chasm between her and her mom left in her aunt’s wake. Her best friend and her are drifting apart. But she’s also profoundly candid about herself and her feelings. She doesn’t let her mom bully her about her weight; this is not a makeover-the-fat-girl transformation book.

“I hate seeing fat girls on TV or in movies, because the only way the world seems to be okay with putting a fat person on camera is if they’re miserable with themselves or if they’re the jolly best friend. Well, I’m neither of those things.”   

The book ends up being fiercely body-positive, about identity and being yourself. It’s about celebrating all of your self-perceived flaws and insecurities. This book is a sucker punch of hilarity and poignancy, backdropped against a Texas small town, and with special appearances from drag queens, Dolly Parton songs, and girl power. There are mean girls and nice girls, and bullies getting some real satisfying comeuppances.  I can already see the movie that this book will inevitably spawn, a mix of Pitch Perfect and My Mad Fat Diary.

It’s such a deliciously satisfying read, I want a sequel! But I’m happy with how it ended. I’m ready to read whatever Julie Murphy comes up with next.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Chilling Reads for Halloween

It’s almost time for Halloween, bookworms! If you’re stumped and looking for an easy-peasy literary-inpsired costume, look no further than my post from last year.

In case you wanted to make a mad dash to the bookstore or library this weekend, here are some recent reads of mine that amped up the spooky factor. Pro tip: Don’t read these at night if you want to keep the nightmares at bay. Alternatively, read them at night for a really good thrill.


Survive the Night by Danielle Vega

Casey, recently out of rehab, cannot say no to her enabler of a friend, Shana. When Shana wants to tag along with a group to “Survive the Night,” a rave taking place in an abandoned New York City subway tunnel, Casey finds herself along for the ride. But after the rave is broken up, the small group of friends finds themselves trapped in the tunnels. When Casey and Shana’s friend, Julie, is found dead – her body ripped apart and strewn up – the friends realize they may not be alone in the abandoned tunnel. Now they really have to survive the night.

This second novel by the author of The Merciless is full of spine-tingling silences and horrifying moments full of gore.


The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle

Perfect for fans of E. Lockhart’s We Were LiarsThe Accident Season is a story of family, connections, and secrets with a frightening twist. Every October for many years, Cara’s family becomes accident-prone during the month. From bruises to minor scrapes, the accidents escalate to broken bones and even – in some cases – death. As readers try to uncover the mystery of the accident season, they must also decipher the meanings behind the strange, intense relationships between the various characters. And what about the classmate who shows up in the edges of all of Cara’s family’s photographs?

With its pivotal scenes taking place on Halloween night in the most beautiful, terrifying haunted house – The Accident Season is a stunning debut that’s sure to make you shiver.


You by Caroline Kepnes

If you’re friends with me in real life (or on various social media platforms), you’ve probably heard me swoon over You, the debut novel by Caroline Kepnes. Released in September 2014, You is narrated by Joe Goldberg, an intelligent young man working at a rare bookstore in New York City. Joe becomes obsessed with Guinevere Beck, a wannabe-writer who comes into the shop one day, and he uses his every resource to find out everything he can about her. If he knows everything about her – her likes, her dislikes, where she lives, who she sleeps with – surely he can become the man of her dreams…

Joe’s unreliable narration, paired with memorable scenes and a lot of dark humor, make You a chilling read for any time of the year. I highly suggest reading it NOW, as the sequel, Hidden Bodies, is coming out on February 23, 2016 from Atria.


(Spoiler alert: Hidden Bodies is just as creepy and as fun as You. I can’t wait for you all to read it!)

Have you read any of these favorite books of mine? I’d love to know what you think. Be sure to share your favorite scary reads in the comments below. Hope your weekend is full of tricks and treats, BiblioSmilers!

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.