Thanks to partners NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Sophie Sullivan’s How to Love Your Neighbor in exchange for an honest review. The book is out today!
Sophie Sullivan’s How to Love Your Neighbor is the sequel to Ten Rules for Faking It (check out my review here). That book was the story of Chris and Everly, and this new one focuses on Chris’s brother Noah Jansen who is trying to make a clean break from the toxicity of his father and his company. As part of his fresh start, Noah has bought a house that he loves . . . though it’s missing a pool. His plan? To buy the property next door, raze the house, and put in the pool. The only problem is that his neighbor doesn’t want to sell.
That neighbor is Grace Travis. She’s trying for a new beginning, too. Grace is almost done with design school, she’s almost made a break from her neglectful and manipulative mother, and she’s got a brand-new home that she inherited from the grandparents she never knew. This home, of course, is the one that Noah wants to buy.
This is a fun, sweet romance. It begins as enemies to lovers, though the “enemies” part doesn’t last long. Instead, Noah and Grace pretty quickly realize that they should be friends. Noah brings on Grace to help design his house, and as they start to know each other, they realize how much they have in common and the type of support they can offer each other.
While this one didn’t quite have the depth of Ten Rules for Faking It, I absolutely enjoyed watching Noah and Grace’s relationship develop, and I recommend How to Love Your Neighbor—and whatever Sullivan writes next—to romance fans.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Emma Lord's When You Get the Chance in exchange for an honest review. The book is out Tuesday, January 4!
When You Get the Chance is my second book by Emma Lord. (I loved You Have a Match and have Tweet Cute on my shelf to read ASAP.) Yes, she’s now an auto-read author for me.
This one focuses on Millie Cooper, a super-extroverted, self-described way-too-much actress who has big dreams of Broadway and has put in the work to make that a real possibility. After she learns that she’s gotten into an amazing pre-college program for her senior year, she’s ecstatic . . . until she shares the news with her dad and he’s decidedly NOT as ecstatic.
What ensues is Millie’s desperate attempt to actualize her dream into existence. First, she gets the help of her best friend and next door neighbor Teddy, an expert at geocaching and (as he says) human caching. Teddy does some research and, after the two delve into Millie’s dad’s LiveJournal from college (hello, the 90s!), begins unraveling the central secret of Millie’s life: her mother’s identity. When her dad was 20, Millie’s mother dropped her off with her dad, and that was the end of her mother’s involvement in her life. But Millie hopes that if she can find her birth mother, she’ll be on Team Millie and help convince her dad that moving across the country to this pre-college program is the right move.
The search for Millie’s mom leads to three likely candidates and the second part of Millie’s plan. She happens upon an internship with a Broadway management company where one potential mom candidate works. The only problem? Millie is vying for the internship with her nemesis: Oliver. Oliver is the manager of their fine arts school’s musical theater department, and he and Millie are *always* at odds with completely different visions for what the program should look like. So, when Georgie, the woman in charge of the internship, gives Millie and Oliver two weeks to compete and prove themselves before choosing a winner, it means that the mortal enemies have two weeks of forced collaboration, as well.
The setup is worthy of any Broadway musical, and references to shows—and especially Mamma Mia!—abound. For anyone who’s a fan of musicals, there are plenty of allusions here to feed your Broadway-loving soul. Sometimes, I have to work to get past premises like the “meeting-three-candidates-who-might-be-my-mom” kind of story, but when cast in the light of Broadway, I suspended my disbelief and just gave into the ride. Because Emma Lord has such a fabulous sense of character and because, in Millie, she created such an empathetic, realistic character, that ride is a great one. Though the plot here is so much fun, it’s watching Millie go through some pretty rough self-reflection that is the real strength of this book. Yes, there are beautiful friendships (seriously: this author REALLY understands friendship), some fun romance, and compellingly complex family dynamics (Millie’s relationships with her dad and her aunt Heather are strong anchors for the plot), but it’s Millie’s coming of age story that made me love this book so much.
Now, on to Tweet Cute.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Clarion Books for the digital ARC of Akshaya Raman's The Ivory Key in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, January 4!
Akshaya Raman’s The Ivory Key is part family drama, part fantasy, part adventure. It centers on four siblings in the kingdom of Ashoka who have been driven apart by the pressures of ruling their country. Riya fled her family’s control after a horrible fight with her mother and now lives with a group of thieves called the Ravens who try to move magic, the true wealth within Ashoka, from the hands of those with privilege to those in need. Riya’s twin Ronak has vowed to gain freedom for himself and for his brother Kaleb, to leave Ashoka by any means necessary, even if it means betraying his family. Vira became the maharani after their mother’s murder and bears the great burden of that responsibility. One of her actions was to allow Kaleb, their half-brother, to be accused of conspiring in their mother’s death; he’s been imprisoned ever since.
Raman alternates between each sibling’s point of view, and she does some excellent character- and world-building early in the book, so readers have a rich sense of each sibling’s motivation and of the intricacies of their realm. In Ashoka, magic is mined from the ground, and there are legends that drive the way magic is venerated. Magic was first found by the family’s ancestor, and she gave it away to neighboring countries as a way to build connections and protect their society. That action forestalled any need from other kingdoms to invade or to try to grab the magic for themselves. As magic has dwindled, however, threats from within and outside of the kingdom have weakened every part of Ashoka, including the royal family.
Though it seems their conflicts can’t be overcome, the four siblings are drawn together by their dead father’s search for the Ivory Key, which their family legend says could unlock other mines, thus resurrecting their access to magic, their protection from invaders, and their ability to keep peace for the kingdom both inside and out.
I loved the sense of a team here, one in which each member has different skills, and I appreciated what those skills reveal about each sibling’s relationship with their parents. Their father created challenges for them constantly, which nurtured each ability (one wields magic, one is most adept physically, and so on). There’s also a vivid look at what the power of their position can do to teenagers: Riya fled; Vira denies her own personality and emulates their mother to her own detriment; Ronak considers betrayal; and Kaleb gives in completely to the unfairness of the ruler’s—his sister’s—decisions, surrendering all hope.
The Ivory Key is quite complex and is the first in a duology, so it lays out their situation patiently and spends time on details of the world. I love the backstory and the way that we see how close the siblings were before power drove them apart. I’ve seen it compared to The Gilded Wolves, which makes sense to me, though there’s less of a focus on heists through the early parts of the novel, and I also thought more than once of the siblings in Succession who are both beneficiaries and victims of power and greed. This is a confident, compelling debut. Now I just have to settle in to wait for book two!
Thanks to partners NetGalley, Wednesday Books, and St. Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich's If This Gets Out in exchange for an honest review. The book is out today!!
I’m a big fan of author collaborations—I almost always really like them. (I’m not sure why, but maybe, just as in my life, collaborating pushes authors to be better?) Since I was already a fan of both Sophie Gonzales, author of Perfect on Paper, and Cale Dietrich, author of The Love Interest, requesting If This Gets Out seemed like a good choice. I was so, so right.
At the center of If This Gets Out is a boy band, Saturday, made up of four kids who met at a summer camp, threw together a fun performance for the end-of-camp concert, and have never looked back. The four teenagers—Ruben, a classically trained singer who grew up on Broadway; Zach, a fan of punk and emo who is painfully shy; Angel, an outgoing, fun-loving partier; and Jon, a Type A, conservative heart throb whose dad manages the group—have remained close friends and have enjoyed their meteoric success, even as they strain against the roles in which they’ve been cast. Their carefully curated image presents all of them as straight (Ruben is not) and each of them somehow playing against type. Angel’s role, for example, is the sweet, conservative, shy boy, which he is *definitely* not.
The story centers on Ruben and Zach and is told in their alternating points of view. Though all four are friends, Ruben and Zach are best friends, so Ruben has kept his attraction to Zach a secret. And then something happens that makes Ruben think Zach may return his feelings. Their relationship changes, at first bringing tension to the group and highlighting the tight control their management wields over their lives, and then causing each of them to understand new things about themselves.
I loved so much about this book. First, it is propulsive: I had a hard time putting it down. The romance at its heart is lovely, and I appreciated the way Gonzales and Dietrich worked through its complications, both early on—when Zach is exploring his understanding of his sexuality—and later, when Ruben and Zach are contending with what they each need from the other. Dietrich and Gonzales create fully realized characters here who are dealing with fame but also with their relationships with their parents and friendships and all the drama that happens with teenagers.
I also enjoyed the consideration of the boy band phenomenon. While I’m no student of the music industry, and boy bands aren’t really a part of my current listening, I was a HUGE fan of New Kids on the Block back in the day. So much of the novel here rang true, from the desperate need to have one type of boy for each fan to the denial that fans can handle the truths that all four band members want to share with their public. (I will say that the way the book employs social media certainly adds an angle that would not have been possible in the early NKOTB days!)
If This Gets Out will work for so many readers, and I would definitely be in for further collaborations between Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich (though I do plan to explore the rest of their individual backlists regardless!). This fabulous YA novel is emotional and thought provoking and sweet. I absolutely loved it.
"Martin is very fast, Quietus nearly as so, but Pat lags behind at a very slow and human pace. So, Martin wheels and scoops them up in his arms. Pat squawks and slings a death grip around Martin's neck—but luckily Martin's already dead. . . . It's an anxiety [Martin] hasn't felt in years, that heady thrum in his chest, creeping up his throat, and he begins to fret, frantic and tearing, of things undone. Of Quietus, there for him and at his heels. Of Pat, a friendship begun and doomed in the same second. . . . Of how he really, really, really wanted to do this PodCon panel" (141).
E. G. Reger's Grave Mistakes: The Story of a Podcast by the Undead, for the Living, is one of those books that completely captivates. It starts innocuously enough: Martin, a vampire, and Quietus, a supernatural being whose exact species is uncertain, have a podcast called (of course!) Grave Mistakes. The podcast is modestly successful, but they hope for more, so when they're invited to present at PodCon, they're thrilled.
What begins then is a bit of a picaresque as the two friends take off an an epic—and rushed (Quietus found the email buried in Martin's email inbox, just before the conference begins)—adventure. They're attacked by a jelly monster, confront a pair of hunters, and save a person named Pat who becomes their companion. And that's all before the hellmouth opens. (Okay, I did think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer more than once.)
I absolutely loved the tenderness of the friendship between Martin and Quietus, the way that they are so accepting of each other and of those they adopt into their friendship circle. The book is funny and sweet and often suspenseful, and I was eager to discover just what force was behind the evil that seems to chase the podcasters. There are layers upon layers here: Martin and Quietus pretend to be pretending to be supernatural creatures, which adds some fun moments to the story.
After each chapter that advances the plot, there's an excerpt from one of their podcast episodes, and those moments never failed to make my heart happy. (While I'd say that humor prevails through most of the book, I did tear up more than once—there are some really sweet moments, too.) For me, that focus on friendship, on the essential kindness of Martin and Quietus that survives all of their adventures, is the heart of the novel.
This is Reger's debut (it's available on Amazon in both print and Kindle formats), and she's already working on her next. (Check out her Twitter account @egregerwrites—she's a great follow, and I love the updates about her work.) I'll definitely be following her career!
Thanks to partners NetGalley, Wednesday Books, and St. Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Estelle Laure’s Remember Me in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on March 22!
I was really intrigued by the premise of Estelle Laure’s Remember Me: I got total Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind vibes, and I absolutely love that movie.
The book starts when Blue Owens wakes up one day with the sense that her world doesn’t make sense. She goes through her normal morning routine and, in the course of getting ready for school, finds a note that says “Meet me on the Little Blue Bus, 7:45 5/19/32.” She has no idea what it means.
Everyone is acting weird—her grandmother, her best friend Turtle and her partner Jack, even her art teacher Mrs. Duran—and Blue becomes convinced that the reason will reveal itself on that bus. And she’s right.
Here’s where things get spoilery, so proceed with caution. (This part is in the synopsis, but I wish I hadn’t known.)
Blue gets on that bus and meets Adam Mendoza, and it quickly becomes clear that they know each other. Ultimately, Blue figures out that she’s had her memories erased, including her memories of Adam. Now, she just has to figure out why.
The book comes in at only 272 pages, and it’s ambitious, mixing romance and sci fi and mystery. For me, the mystery parts were the strongest. I was intrigued by just what caused Blue to have her memories erased. While I didn’t think the book quite lived up to its ambitions, I did enjoy it, and I was rooting for Blue the whole time. I just think it needed to be a bit longer to fully realize its potential.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and St Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Tracey Garvis Graves’s Heard It in a Love Song in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on November 9!
In Tracey Garvis Graves’s Heard It in a Love Song is a lovely tribute to second chances.
Layla and Josh are recovering from failed marriages. Layla left her ex after years of mental games, financial conflict, and adultery. Josh and his wife have separated because they’ve just grown in different directions, united only in their love for their young daughter.
The two meet when Josh is doing the daily school drop-off at Layla’s school, where she’s the music teacher. She took the job out of necessity, after the realities of her marriage made her dream of being a musician an unsustainable choice.
Now, she’s slowly finding her love of playing, singing, and performing again, finding her confidence again, just when she’s meeting Josh.
This is a lovely, patient romance, and Graves develops Layla and Josh vividly as individuals and friends before their romance truly emerges. It’s a fabulous choice, one that makes each character vivid and that lets the reader understand the way they’ll work together before it happens.
The novel alternates between Layla’s and Josh’s points of view, and that structure works well to let us see their different perspectives on life, love, and friendship, and to watch as their perspectives begin to move toward the other’s.
Thanks to partners NetGalley, Putnam Books, and @lovearctually for the digital ARC of Vanessa King’s A Certain Appeal in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on November 2!
I love retellings of Jane Austen novels, so when I saw that there was a Pride and Prejudice retelling coming, set in the world of New York burlesque shows, I was so excited!
Vanessa King’s A Certain Appeal met all of my expectations. Liz Bennet (called Bennet by her friends) is stage kitten at Meryton, a burlesque venue where she works with her best friends, including Jane (here, he’s her best friend and roommate and a singer in the burlesque). The performers find out that Meryton is up for sale and have high hopes that one of their own can buy it . . . with the help of a kind man named Charles. But some people are more skeptical than supportive, including Charles’s best friend Will Darcy.
Just the premise demonstrates the creativity with which King takes the building blocks of Austen’s novel and shifts them—just a bit—to our contemporary world and this setting, in particular. She ramps up the steam and the chemistry between Bennet and Darcy and modifies the subplot with Wickham to suit the modern situation, too.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the burlesque element, but I absolutely loved it. Every moment of the burlesque is a celebration of individual women, of their joy in their bodies, and of their power over their own sexiness. There’s tons of banter, too, which I also enjoyed, and then King deepens that element, too, showing how banter can be both inviting and standoffish.
Bennet herself is clever and confident, but she’s also still recovering from a betrayal related to her work as a designer. She sees, in the changes at Meryton, a chance to recapture her passion for her career, but she’s also fragile in a way that’s masked by her onstage presence and her quick wittedness.
Will Darcy is completely fabulous, and I loved the secondary characters so much (the relationship between Jane and Charles is just dreamy). Fans of Pride and Prejudice will love this, but I’d also recommend Vanessa King’s A Certain Appeal to anyone who just loves a good, super-steamy romance.
Thanks to partners NetGalley, St. Martin's Press, and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on October 19!
Those of you who follow me know that I love a new version of a classic, and I’m particularly a sucker for a Jane Eyre retelling, so when I saw that there was a Jane Eyre retelling set in Ethiopia with a fantasy twist, I requested immediately. Wow, did Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls satisfy my every hope and expectation!
This book does what the best retellings do: it takes its source material as inspiration and then spins out a new story and a new world. Here, the Jane character is Andromeda, a debtera—a type of exorcist—who can cleanse homes of the Evil Eye. In desperate straits after her mentor cast her out, Andromeda takes on a job at which ten other debteras have failed. She’s employed by the mysterious Magnus Rochester who lives in near-solitude at the far end of a desolate desert. All but a few servants and the nanny who raised him have abandoned him, apparently scared away by the curse no one can defeat.
We experience the story through Andromeda’s eyes, and what a fabulous protagonist she is. Like Jane, she’s been raised in unusual circumstances, and her values differ from those of her world. She calls herself plain but cares little about her appearance. Instead, she values her strength and skills in her profession and communicates with a blunt honesty that shocks Magnus. He, in turn, is lacking social graces after having grown up as an outsider from his family and from society, so for a while, their bluntness seems to put them at odds. And then, of course, things change.
I loved SO much about this story. Andromeda’s narrative voice is so much fun—I love her strength and her defiance of convention. Watching Magnus meet his match in Andromeda is so satisfying, and their chemistry is great. I also, however, appreciated the secondary characters: Saba, the silent and mysterious woman who takes joy in helping others; Jember, the debtera who raised Andromeda, whose complexity I found to be appealing; and even Kelela, the beautiful young woman who is Andromeda’s rival for Magnus’s affections.
Most of all, I reveled in Blackwood’s development of the magic behind the curse that Andromeda is fighting. The way it manifests throughout Magnus’s estate is haunting and imaginative and creepy: it preys on characters’ compassion for others and on their unique weaknesses, and watching Andromeda strategize the best way to fight each new Manifestation shows her intelligence, her perseverance, and her strength.
I was shocked to find out that Within These Wicked Walls is Blackwood’s debut, and it is certainly a confident, brilliant first novel. I can’t wait to see what she tackles next.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, Roaring Brook Press for the digital ARC of Jennifer Mathieu’s Bad Girls Never Say Die in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on October 19!
I’m a huge fan of Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie, which is a fabulous feminist YA novel—we had a great discussion about that one on Unabridged Podcast!—and of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (though it’s been a while since I read it! Stay gold, Ponyboy). So, when I saw that Mathieu had a new book coming out that flipped The Outsiders to a female perspective, I was All. In.
Did it work? Well, here’s what I loved. As in Moxie, Mathieu builds a compelling protagonist, a fifteen-year-old named Evie who struggles with the limited expectations of her 1964 Houston, Texas, society and of her mother and grandmother. They are thrilled that Evie’s sister is married, even though it means that she moved far away and is so, so lonely. They make it clear to Evie that she should aspire to do the same.
But Evie wants more from her life. She wants choices. She wants to have friends who are tuff. She wants to think there’s a possibility that she can leave Houston.
With her best friends—Connie, who is the toughest of them all; Juanita, Evie’s sweet neighbor; and Sunny, whose sweet sincerity has led her into a controlling relationship with her boyfriend—Evie has started skipping school and wearing makeup and defying anyone to challenge her group.
I loved this part of the book, where we see exactly why Evie loves her friends so much, how much she wishes she could regain the close relationship with her mom and grandmother without limiting herself again, and the way Evie yearns for more without always being able to articulate exactly what “more” is.
Then, everything changes. And Evie is caught up in a situation that being tough can’t get her out of.
Mathieu beautifully depicts this world. There’s a huge disparity between the “tea sippers” of upper-class Houston and Evie’s own, lower socio-economic realm. Evie is a fabulously complex character, and we feel her connection to her friends, who step up to support her as much as they can.
But at a certain point (and I can’t say much more without spoilers), I felt like the book became focused on unfurling certain plot elements—often connected to its origin story—to the detriment of its rich characters. While the book certainly shares some elements with The Outsiders, it was most successful for me when it stepped out on its own, exploring Evie’s life and the limitations she defied, again and again.
Overall, though, this book is worth reading, and I would recommend it to students—this could be a foundation for many important discussions.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.