A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A classic story of love and friendship, sacrifice and resilience, A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers also just happens to be located in a fantasical world of distant planets, casual space travel and aliens of every variety.

Lovelace is an artificial intelligence (AI) that has been transferred into a humaniod form (a “kit”) by an alien named Pepper. At first confused and disoriented (her previous work had been within the walls of a spaceship) she names herself Sidra. She quickly gains intelligence, but struggles to live in chaotic world without walls.

Jane 23 is an enhanced human bred to work in a factory sorting scrap. Her life is strictly regulated and anything outside of the factory is completely unknown to her. One day an explosion blows a hole in one of the walls and she sees sky for the first time. Consumed by curiosity, she goes back to see it again. Nearly caught by one of the Mothers (robot caretakers) she runs blindly, is chased by wild animals and is almost caught until a small shuttle in the massive scrap pile opens a door and helps her escape. The shuttle is run by Owl, an AI that lives in the ship.

Many years later Jane, with Owl’s help, escapes the planet and arrives in Port Cortisol, a busy international space port where she changes her name to Pepper and blends into the world around her. However she is haunted by the loss of the shuttle and her beloved Owl who had raised her as a true mother would and for whom she is always searching.

I would categorize this as a “cozy sci-fi”. There are no space battles or massive alien invasions wiping out civilizations. Bad things happen – witness the factory planet of enslaved girls – but there is a lot of good too. Many diverse aliens with many diverse forms co-exist, mostly peacefully and respectfully.  These stories quickly connect in interesting and satisfying ways. Friendships are formed, adventures are shared and the line between AI and humanoid blurs. The world building is intricate and well developed but never intrusive. A lovely and heartwarming novel.

The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune

Do you remember Anna’s excellent review of TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea? If you liked that book, or his newer Under the Whispering Door, you may want to try his young adult series, starting with The Extraordinaries – and followed up by 2021’s Flash Fire.

The Extraordinaries is set in Nova City, a city with an established set of superheroes (the titular Extraordinaries). Nick is their biggest fan, and is particularly obsessed with Shadow Star, a hero on the rise and constantly in the news. Writing fanfiction about Shadow Star is more enjoyable than real life, where he’s facing a new ADHD medication, an uncomfortable relationship with his ex (kind of) boyfriend, changes in his group of friends, and worries about his dad’s safety as a Nova City police officer. An attempted mugging foiled by Shadow Star makes Nick determined to be a hero too, and he drags his best friend Seth along for the ride as he chases down a spectacular destiny. But he’s got a lot to learn about what it really means to be extraordinary.

Klune is fantastic at putting a human face on a fantasy universe, without skimping on any of the breathtaking fantasy elements. In this case he shows just how wide a gulf stands between being a fan of superheroes and actually being one – to great humorous effect. Nick eventually brands himself the clueless comic relief, but he also has a great deal of emotional depth, including how his ADHD affects his sense of self-worth and self-efficacy, his lingering grief around his mother’s death, and his anxiety for his cop father’s safety. Overall, his story is one grounded in the discomforts and stupid mistakes that abound during the process of growing up, but overflowing with warmth and hope for brighter futures.

For a similar read I recommend Super Adjacent by Crystal Cestari, Hero by Perry Moore, or All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner. Less superhero-focused, but with a similar emphasis the average-citizen perspective in a world of Chosen Ones, is The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness.

The Woods Are Always Watching by Stephanie Perkins

Perkins’ second horror offering strikes a much more menacing tone with grimly realistic depictions of predators – both human and animal – in a wilderness that has no mercy for the inexperience of new adulthood.

In The Woods are Always Watching, we meet Neena and Josie, high school best friends who are about to be separated when Neena goes away to college. As a last hurrah, Neena has insisted they go backpacking for three days in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just the two of them. But after they enter the forest and are cut off from all creature comforts and technology, their relationship quickly starts to unravel as they realize how ill-equipped they are for camping – and maybe, life in general – on their own. But as their mistakes, annoyances, and discomforts pile up, one slip-up plunges them into a gruesome cat-and-mouse game that they’ll be lucky to survive at all.

Full disclosure: I did not enjoy this book as much as its predecessor, There’s Someone Inside Your House, which had a more exciting, teen slasher movie vibe. This, on the other hand, reads like a 21st century Grimm’s fairy tale – a pastiche of Little Red Riding Hood, full of hard lessons and gore and the end of innocence. Where There’s Someone Inside Your House showed relationships growing and strengthening in the face of terror, The Woods Are Always Watching shows a friendship cracking under pressure, to never truly be the same again. Frankly, I came away a little depressed, reminded of the 2019 film Black Christmas which has a similarly bleak outlook for college-age women.

But while it may be less fun to read, the book rings with a frightening truth: that life and adulthood are hard, unpleasant slogs with real danger lurking around corners, and no matter how well prepared you think you are, you’re probably not ready for it — and you’re definitely too dependent on your phone. Which is not to say that Neena and Josie lack any intelligence or power over their fates; although terrified they learn, improvise, fight back, and face the truths they’ve been trying to avoid.

A survival story, a coming-of-adulthood story, an examination of friendship in transition, and a feminist parable, The Woods Are Always Watching is recommended for strong-stomached readers looking for an unflinching look at the realities of growing into a woman in today’s world.  Those who enjoy Perkins’ romances will want to look elsewhere, for there’s no sweetness here.

Out of Character by Annabeth Albert

Conventionally Yours captured hearts with its story of card gamers falling from hate to love, and now Annabeth Albert is back with its sequel, Out of Character, the story of a devoted card gamer and the former jock who once lost his trust – and who now might steal his heart.

Jasper Quigley is usually the ‘funny friend’, the third wheel or the comic relief. And frankly, it’s getting old. But he’s not so desperate as to be happy when his ex-best-friend comes begging for his help. Milo wasn’t there for him when he needed it most, and that’s not something Jasper ever wants to forgive. But Milo’s been conned out of his brother’s rare, expensive Odyssey game cards and only Jasper can help him replace them. Since Jasper also needs someone to help with his cosplay group’s visit to the children’s hospital, he figures they can make a deal which helps them both – but also keeps Milo at arm’s length. But the more time they spend together, the more he sees Milo’s regret over the past, and his desire to make things right.  And if their friendship can get a second chance, who’s to say love isn’t on the cards?

There was so much to love in this book. The characters were so distinct, with unique perspectives, that it was easy to tell everyone apart and get invested. As in its predecessor, this book touched on the full spectrum of abilities, from the chronically ill to learning disabilities, which was a refreshing and grounded take. I liked that this book focused on a very different angle than Conventionally Yours, so the reader gets introduced to a different side of fan culture, including its mainstream reception: Milo is embarrassed to be in costume in public, until he sees what a difference it makes to the kids at the children’s hospital to play with their favorite characters. I also thought Albert did a good job showing the many different anxieties and coming-out experiences that people have, depending on their family life and circumstances. It’s an excellent story of mutual respect and meeting each other halfway to make a real relationship work.

If you like card games, cosplay, a quest for redemption, or a romance with just enough drama and lots of heart, this might well be the book for you.

The Backstagers by James Tynion IV, Rian Singh, and Andy Mientus

Today I’ve got something to recommend for lovers of both prose chapter books AND graphic novels! The Backstagers, by James Tynion IV and Rian Singh, started out as a young adult graphic novel series, but then was adapted into middle grade novels of the same name by Andy Mientus, and both give you an avenue into a tale of high school theater as a gateway into fantastical realms.

Here’s the basics: a boy named Jory transfers to an all-boys private high school, St. Genesius, and is pushed by his parents to join a club. First he considers joining drama club, only to discover that it’s much more exciting (and welcoming) being a backstager, the techs behind the scenes that make all the magic happen. Magic in this case is also meant literally: the backstage corridors lead into wild and unpredictable worlds of odd creatures, shifting passageways, and general mayhem. Jory jumps in feet-first and quickly bonds with the Backstagers crew: Hunter, Aziz, Sasha, Beckett, and two kindly senior stage managers. Together, it’s their job to keep the theater safe AND make sure the show goes on. It’s not an easy task, but the power of new friendship and budding romance is more than up to the challenge.

I started with the graphic novels, and I thought the art style was charming and the characters were diverse and full of personality. I’m very excited to read the prose novels and see this world fleshed out in more detail, with new adventures to experience. If you were a theater kid, have a devoted squad of friends, or loved either Stranger Things or Ouran High School Host Club, I recommend you try reading about The Backstagers (one way or another)!

Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu

Have you ever unexpectedly read a book in a day? You sit down with it, figuring you’ll just start it, and before you know it, you’re done? That happens to me a lot, especially with fiction and graphic novels, so I wasn’t too surprised when I read Check, Please! Book 1 by Ngozi Ukazu from cover to cover in an afternoon. If you need a quick and lighthearted read, then I can’t recommend this book enough.

Originally published in 2018, this upbeat story follows Eric Bittle, dubbed “Bitty” by his teammates, as he starts school at Samwell University as part of the men’s hockey team. He navigates a much more challenging atmosphere than he’s accustomed to, including hockey that includes violent physical ‘checking’, of which he is deathly afraid. Luckily, his teammates are true friends – utterly supportive, relentlessly funny, and deeply appreciative of Bitty’s skill as a baker. Over the course of his freshman and sophomore years at Samwell, Bitty finds his place on the team and forges a strong bond (and an equally strong crush) on team captain Jack. But what happens when Jack and the others graduate?

I found this book completely adorable, with an endearing art style and lovable characters. The immersion into Canadian hockey culture was fascinating, and I appreciated that Ukazu didn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details, giving just enough information to keep you engaged. I also really liked that the story was told in the form of Bitty’s video blog entries; this was a clever narrative tactic that worked perfectly for the graphic novel medium. However, I wasn’t always satisfied with how the scenes were fleshed out: a lot of backstories and events had to be inferred from context or brief mentions, or understood only after multiple throwaway lines. Especially in the case of romantic storylines, I just wanted more. Luckily, there was a lot of additional material after the story – bonus comics and Bitty’s Twitter feed – which helped add some details and context.

If you’re a graphic novel lover, reluctant reader, hockey fan, or are looking for a fluffy read about friendship, falling in love, and LOTS of baking, this book may be for you.

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

I recently came across this 2019 middle grade fiction book, Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It covers heavy subjects (content warning: including miscarriage) and doesn’t shy away from hard feelings and uncomfortable situations, but it does these things with incredible gentleness, authenticity, and hope. If you’re looking for a warm and wholesome read about family, friendship, and personal growth, you may like Hazel’s Theory of Evolution.

The main character of this book is Hazel, a thirteen-year-old going into 8th grade at a new school, thanks to local redistricting. She refuses to be open or optimistic about this development, determined to keep her head down and “hibernate” her way through one last year before being reunited with her best friend in high school. Unfortunately for her, her best friend grows increasingly distant and mysterious, befriending Hazel’s longtime bully and trying out for cheerleading (which Hazel has always deplored as a ridiculous and sexist activity). Meanwhile, in her new school, a green-mohawked classmate starts pushing his way into her self-isolation, and she makes an unexpected connection with Carina, a fellow transfer looking for a fresh start. At the same time as her social life grows increasingly confusing, her moms announce that one of them, Mimi, is pregnant again…after suffering two miscarriages. Unable to face the agony of hope and loss again, Hazel tries to live in denial: the baby isn’t real until its born safe and healthy. But painful or not, some things can’t be denied or ignored, and Hazel will have to find her way through her new realities.

There are many good things about this book, as mentioned above, including positive representation of multiple identities (ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual identities), and positive parenting: Hazel’s moms do a good job talking to her about her feelings as well as their own, while giving her space to process what she’s going through. I also appreciated reading a modern and well-formed school Health class, complete with discussions of family relationships and positive and comprehensive sex ed. The book is also peppered with Hazel’s articles for the Encyclopedia of Misunderstood Creatures she’s writing, which make delightful educational asides. I recommend this book for a wide range of ages (though be prepared to cry); Hazel has something to resonate with anyone who’s struggled with change and feeling misunderstood or alone in the world.

The Love Study by Kris Ripper

I’ve got two ways out of a reading slump: sweet, fluffy romances and children’s chapter books. Since I got into a bit of a slump as winter turned to spring, I went for a fluffy romance – that I liked – The Love Study by Kris Ripper. This book is a win for portraying happy endings, casual positive representation, and the power of friendship!

The main character and narrator is Declan, a temp with a great group of friends and major commitment issues. His friends love to introduce him by saying he left his last boyfriend at the altar, which he did. Since then, he’s sworn off romance, but now he’s starting to wonder if it’s time to try again. Enter Sidney, the group’s newest friend, who’s looking for someone to come on their YouTube show for a series called The Love Study. Declan agrees to go on a series of blind dates arranged by Sidney, and then to discuss them on the YouTube show, both to explore his relationship issues and to give dating advice to the viewers. The dates go okay, though he doesn’t really connect with any of them. That’s probably because the only person he is connecting with is Sidney — but since Sidney also doesn’t date, can they overcome their respective relationship fears and make something work for them?

I really loved how self-aware Declan is; he never tries to be macho or hide his feelings. He cares a lot, and he expresses that care in long, endearing rambles. He never stops apologizing to his former boyfriend, now good friend, Mason, who he left at the altar, but instead acknowledges how horrible it was for him to do that to someone he cared about and never fails to drop in a sincere “So sorry for that, again” every time it comes up. He’s always aware of his own faults and tries to make other people comfortable and put their feelings first. Frankly, I’ve never read a romantic hero like him before and I found it so refreshing. I also loved Sidney because they were such a distinct character with their own personality, their own fashion sense, and their own approach to things. They’re more reserved and thoughtful, but don’t hesitate to voice their honest and transparent opinion when asked. Two romantic characters that can and do communicate with each other? Shocking (and delightful)! Of course, their communication isn’t perfect, and Declan has some mental health issues to work through — or there wouldn’t be a story — but as these kind of issues, resolutions and happily-ever-afters go, I think this book did a good job of presenting a unique and realistic scenario.

The whole book was beautifully wholesome and transparent; I’ve never read a less problematic romance (or book in general) for adults. Sidney’s gender and pronouns are treated casually and with complete acceptance; no inappropriate or invasive questions were asked. Declan’s group of friends is loving and supportive, even though they don’t hesitate to roast Declan mercilessly; the group also includes a range of personalities, ethnicities, and gender identities which again receive full and unquestioned support.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone for a gentle read, a utopian view of the world, and a sweet romance.

Friendshipping by Trin Garritano and Jenn Bane

Most people can agree that making friends as an adult is HARD. Finding time to meet up with people, not to mention knowing what to say when you do, often means a lot of loneliness and ghosting when it comes to adult friendships. If you’re like me, you’ll be thrilled to know that you can stop googling “how to make and keep friends” and just read this great new book: Friendshipping: The Art of Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends. Written by Trin Garritano and Jenn Bane, the team behind the feel-good podcast of the same name, this is a practical guide to the confusing world of 21st century friendship.

My favorite thing about this book is its clear division into three sections (named in the full title): Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends. Each section features real-life tips and tricks for being the best friend you can be, along with specific questions submitted by their listeners. Full of empathy, their tips and tricks acknowledge that everyone is a little different, which means the tips will need to be customized, AND that making friends is a process, which requires patience. One of the keys to success, according to the authors, is to be kind to yourself through a practice called “metathinking”: listening to your thoughts and questioning whether or not they’re actually true. For example, if you find yourself thinking “I’m so annoying” or “This is going to go badly”, you’d challenge that thought and think carefully about where it’s coming from and what’s more likely to be an accurate statement.

One of the other unexpected gems in this book is the authors’ acknowledgment that sometimes we ARE the problem and need to make realistic changes. They provide tools for the reader to examine their behavior and habits to see if anything toxic or unhelpful is going on, and if the reader does come to the conclusion that their behavior is harming their friendships, the authors encourage them to seek therapy and other assistance. Warmth, inclusion, kindness, and yes, recommending therapy, are big themes in this book.

If you’re struggling with loneliness, want to do better at keeping up with people, are looking to make new friends, or feel like social awkwardness is really getting in your way, you might enjoy reading Friendshipping by Trin and Jenn. And if you love podcasts, check out all their new and archived episodes of the Friendshipping podcast on their website.

Online Reading Challenge – April

Hello Challenge Readers!

New month, new author for our Online Reading Challenge! This month we’re reading books by and similar to Jojo Moyes.

Jojo Moyes writes about women, friendship and community. Many of her novels are classified as romance, but her newer titles are catalogued as fiction. Her break-out novel was Me Before You, followed by After You and Still Me. In addition she’s written favorites such as The Girl You Left Behind and The Giver of Stars.

If you’ve read everything by Moyes, or would like to try similar authors, take a look at these titles:

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Landline by Ranbow Rowell

One Day by David Nicholls

The Summer I Found You by Jolene Perry

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

You Me Everything by Catherine Issac

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Welcome to Pine Away Motel and Cabins by Katarina Bivald

The Oysterville Sewing Circle by Susan Wiggs

Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Lots of great choices, right? I’m planning to read The Giver of Stars which picked up a lot of interest when Reese Witherspoon chose it for her book club. It’s also garnered some controversy and mixed reviews since it was released a few months after another book on the same topic, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Richardson was published (which I have read and it is excellent) The topic is fascinating – the horseback librarians of rural Appalachia during the Great Depression – and I’m looking forward to seeing how this compares to Book Woman.

What about you – what will you be reading this month?