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Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

This story begins where the familiar one ends – with two ugly stepsisters, each rejected by the prince, each missing pieces of a foot in a last, desperate effort to fit themselves into a shape that isn’t their own, and a life they only think they should want.

Isabelle, Tavi, and Ella used to be friends, like sisters are, until they realized that the world, and their mother, saw them in very different lights.  With moonbeam hair and a quiet smile, and a little help from the fairy queen, Ella is destined to sit on a throne, despite all her stepmother’s maneuverings.  Isabelle, more interested in riding her wild stallion Nero in the fields with her best friend Felix, reading about famous generals, and fighting pirate battles with a mop handle for a sword than she is in dresses, parties, and flirtations, and Tavi, who rarely emerges from her beloved books, numbers, and scientific experiments, have never fit the the mold of what their mother, and the village, believes girls should be.  Girls like Isabelle are too hungry, too fierce, and too strong.  Girls like Isabelle are destined for dark endings in grim tales.  Girls like Isabelle are not meant to be at all.  So when the prince comes to the door, searching for a girl to make his queen, Maman orders Isabelle to lock Ella away while they try on the shoe.  Already having cut away so many pieces of their hearts to become who they think they have long been told they should be, it is, really, no more difficult to cut off a heel or some toes.  We, of course, know how the story ends – Ella is freed and her lovely foot fits the dainty slipper perfectly – but what becomes of the stepsisters?

Her family outcasts, decried by all for their ugliness, Isabelle knows that, in trying to reshape herself into someone she is not, she has become what everyone calls her – ugly.  Still, she does her best to keep things going for her mother and sister – shopping, gathering eggs, caring for their one remaining old horse, Martin, and protecting what little they have left.  But war looms close on the horizon – a marauding army draws closer to her village every day, led by bloodthirsty general Volkmar.  Lovely Queen Ella works to spirit away orphans to safe houses, while the prince fights in the fields.  Refugees and wounded soldiers fill the roads, and Isabelle does not know what she, only a girl, an ugly stepsister, can do.  But with a little help from a wish, a quest, new friends, Fate, Chance, a fairy queen, and the lost pieces of her heart, she begins to believe that perhaps being beautiful is more than what everyone has always told her it is.

Fairy tale retellings are some of my absolute favorite books to read, and Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister did not disappoint!  Isabelle is one tough cookie, and I loved how everyone from the fairy tale is fully rounded out into real people with many faults – even the lovely Ella (and the prince even gets a name that isn’t Charming!).  There are new characters and old, an age-old battle between Chance and Fate, some seriously smelly cheese, brave steeds, daring deeds, pearl-stealing monkeys, a lot of cabbage, and plenty of magic to go around.  If you love Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles, binge-watched Once Upon a Time on Netflix, or can’t stop singing “Into the Woods,” then this one’s for you!

The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen

Emma Saylor is one hundred percent okay with her clean, orderly, maybe a little predictable life with her dad and Nana in Lakeview.  Change makes her nervous anyway (maybe not quite as nervous as driving, which, new license or no, she is absolutely never doing, no matter how much her dad pushes her into it), and she likes everything to be organized, tidy, and exactly where it’s supposed to be.  Maybe it’s because she lost her mom to addiction when she was a kid, and her dad is all about careful and cautious (and clean teeth, but then, he’s a dentist), but Emma likes it when she knows she can be sure where everything – and everyone – is going to be.

So when her plans to stay with her best friend while her dad is on his honeymoon trip fall through at the last minute, Emma is more than a little frazzled.  But after the roller coaster ride that was life with her mom, she wants her dad to be happy, and she really like Tracy, her new stepmom, which means going to stay with her mom’s mom, Mimi, and her cousins, all of whom she last saw when she was four years old, at the lake is going to have to be okay.  Even if they’re virtually strangers.  Emma’s sure she’ll be fine  – after all, her mom told her tons of stories about the lake right up until she died.

When Emma gets to the lake, she finds a whole new world – one where she’s Saylor, not Emma.  One where everyone knows her, but she doesn’t know them.  One where everyone remembers her mom, and isn’t afraid to talk about her.  One that’s messy, and chaotic, and a little wild, and overflowing with family and new friends and love.  Full of cousins, childhood best friends that might maybe turn into more, hotel housekeeping trials and tribulations, boats and docks, crash courses behind the wheel, impromptu proms, invisible lines between the two sides of the lake and the people that occupy them, and nothing, nothing, nothing that’s predictable.

Is it really summer without a Sarah Dessen novel?  Nope!  The queen of summer is back with a fabulous new novel, one that’ll have you grabbing your towel, flip flops, a bottle of sunscreen, a big thermos of sun tea and hitting the dock to sink into this delicious novel of family, first love, and figuring out where you come from – and where you’re going.  Tuck The Rest of the Story into your beach bag this summer – and then indulge in a good re-read of some of Sarah Dessen’s other delicious novels!

Last Things by Jacqueline West

Anders Thorson lives for the music.  It’s everything to him – his blood, his breath, his bones, his life.  He, together with his band, Last Things, is spectacularly, eerily talented.  Only a few weeks away from graduation in their small northern Minnesota town, they’re right on the edge of fame and everything that comes with it.  Last Things can be found onstage at the Crow’s Nest, way out in the woods outside of town, every Friday and Saturday night, and so can everyone else in Greenwood, screaming for more.  Everyone, including Thea Malcolm, almost-invisible town odd girl, niece of a rumored witch, and Anders’s most loyal follower.

Anders has always been talented.  He and his buddies Jezz on bass and Patrick on drums have been performing at the Crow’s Nest for a few years – moving from Talent Night appearances to Tuesdays, then Thursdays, then weekends – and the band was definitely starting to get good before that weird night in the woods.  Before Anders got Yvonne, his beloved electric guitar, and before new songs started coming out of him – no, flowing through him – like floodwaters.  He’s always practiced, and practiced, and practiced.  But he’s not sure if he’s earned it yet, all the fame, and the screaming, and the fans, and the attention of gorgeous Frankie Lynde.  Really paid for what was given to him.  And until he knows the music is really his, Anders isn’t ready to take the next step forward, into the future that waits for him and the guys after graduation.

Thea Malcolm is always waiting.  Watching.  Following.  Waiting and watching and following Anders, and the woods, and all the dark things that wait there, crouching in the shadows, looking for the cracks to slither through.  She knows they’re coming, but she isn’t sure yet how, and when, or where.  Or what they’ll take along the way.  So until she does, Thea will keep watch, following Anders into the music and into the woods – and into the darkness.  She wants only one thing – to keep Anders safe.  But what does that really mean?  And what does Anders want for himself?

A dark, deliciously creepy driving bass line of a book, rock star author Jacqueline West’s newest novel completely freaked me out in all the best ways.  A superb mix of metal and music culture, small town and high school politics, and more than a splash of creeping horror, this had me reading frantically through the night to get to the end with all the lights on – inside and out.  I’ll never drive down a dark, wooded road the same way again – and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for any flashes of blonde girls on bikes in the woods in my rear view mirror.  If you love Stranger Things, Brenna Yovanoff’s novels, or local music with some serious edge, don’t miss Last Things!  And pick up some salt and river rocks on your way home.