Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Macmillan for the digital ARC of Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades in exchange for an honest review. The book will be released on Tuesday, June 1.
I wasn’t very far in Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades when I started to realize that something really strange was happening with the characters. Some of the pieces of this YA novel are familiar from other books about the power of privilege and the difficulty of navigating systems of power as an outsider, but other parts are wholly original.
There’s a predominantly white private academy with a few key student honors for Senior Prefects. The narrative focuses on two students, the only Black students in their grade: Chiamaka Adebayo who has been forging a path to the top of her class, of the social scene, of every extracurricular, since she was a freshman; and Devon Richards who tries to stay as invisible as possible, banking on his talent as a musician to pave his way (and his family’s way) out of poverty.
On the first day of their senior year, they attend the opening assembly with a new headmaster and find out the prefects. It’s no surprise that Chiamaka is named Head Prefect, but everyone is shocked when Devon receives one of the other Prefect spots. This is not part of the plan, and this initial contrast between Chiamaka’s confident acceptance of what she sees herself as being owed and Devon’s complete shock was immediately compelling.
Chiamaka is surrounded by people, but they’re not really friends (at least mostly). Instead, she has a series of transactional relationships that help her to maintain her popularity—maybe her “popularity”—while doing the same for them. The one exception is Jamie, her absolute best friend . . . and the guy she’s had a crush on forever. Finally, she thinks it’s time for them to define their relationship differently. Devon, conversely, is a loner. He has one person, Jack, who has been his friend for a long time, but lately, that friendship seems to be based more in memory than in reality. Àbíké-Íyímídé develops these characters effectively as she shows how they are both so alone but in different ways.
Clearly, Chiamaka and Devon are complete opposites. The only things they have in common are their race AND that they each have secrets that could ruin all of their plans. So when someone who goes by the moniker Ace of Spades starts sharing those secrets with the entire student body, Chiamaka and Devon are drawn to each other for support and to work together to solve the mystery.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which earns its comps to Get Out. It took me a few chapters to be pulled in completely, but once the plot started unfurling, I couldn’t wait to pick up this book, which was just wild. Àbíké-Íyímídé writes the book in chapters that alternate between Chiamaka’s and Devon’s points of view, which amped up the suspense as I tried to piece together the real story behind the sabotage. The author addresses issues of race, sexuality, privilege, and class, all while developing two complex characters and a thrilling plot.
Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Delacorte Press for the digital ARC of Nicola Yoon’s Instructions for Dancing in exchange for an honest review. The book will be released on Tuesday, June 1.
Since her first novel, Everything, Everything, which I devoured in one sitting, Nicola Yoon has been an auto-buy author for me. I was therefore thrilled to get an early peek at her upcoming release Instructions for Dancing, which met my (very) high expectations.
The book opens with Evie Thomas’s broken heart. Her parents’ marriage has ended, eradicating her idealistic view that some love is forever. She takes steps to remove all forms of her former foolishness from her life, including getting rid of all of the romance novels, which used to anchor her avid reading. She wants no reminders of the depths of her disappointment.
While she’s donating her books to a Little Free Library, she meets a mysterious woman who gives her a book called Instructions for Dancing. She returns home, feeling lighter without the romance books, but Evie soon discovers a strange new ability: she sees—randomly, it seems—the entire course of couples’ relationships, including their inevitable endings. While she doesn’t understand exactly what magic is happening, these endings of beautiful love stories, one right after another, reinforce her disbelief in love.
One of Evie’s best friends encourages her to do something to figure out what’s happening: he identifies the LFL lady as the source for Evie’s new power and advises her to go to the dance studio, La Brea Dance, where Instructions for Dancing originated. It’s there that Evie meets X, the grandson of the studio owners, and gets swept up in his grandparents’ efforts to save the studio through an amateur ballroom dancing competition. So, Evie and X are learning to dance—together—and getting to know one another.
Oh, I loved this book so much. Evie is just a fabulously layered character, one whose fears and fragility about love are understandable. X also knows loss, which has affected his own outlook on life and on risk taking in a different way from Evie. As they come to understand what has made the other feel the way they do, their closeness shapes the way they move forward together.
This book made me laugh, and it made me ugly cry; I love a dancing competition, so I was a sucker for watching Evie and X’s journey toward being a couple both on the dance floor and off. The secondary characters—Evie’s family, their ballroom dance teacher Maggie, Evie and X’s friends—are richly drawn, and the way they both support and challenge Evie and X is just brilliant. Instructions for Dancing moved Nicola Yoon even higher on my list of auto-buy authors.
Thanks to Partners NetGalley, Book Club Girls, and William Morrow Books for the digital ARC of Brina Starler’s Anne of Manhattan in exchange for an honest review. The book will be released on Tuesday, June 1.
I love a good retelling, and I love, love, love L. M. Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables. My best friend and I read every L. M. Montgomery book, and we watched the 1980s adaptation with Megan Follows more than once. So when I saw that Brina Starler had a romance retelling coming out in June, I requested it immediately.
Anne of Manhattan is a contemporary retelling focused on Anne and her long-time enemy Gilbert Blythe who has been the bane of her existence since they first met, right after she moved to Green Gables on Prince Edward Island, adopted by siblings Marilla and Matthew. He immediately drew her ire by getting her in trouble with the teacher and by calling her “Carrots.” Ever since, they have been rivals at school, each vying to be the best, and while they circle each other because of their friend group, Anne can’t get over her bad feelings.
So, when—in the book’s present day—Anne is out with her friends Diana and Philippa at a bar in NYC and unexpectedly sees Gilbert across the room, she has mixed feelings. He’s from home, but he’s her enemy; he’s her enemy, but they shared that kiss . . .
What ensues is an enemies-to-lovers story of Anne and Gilbert in their last year in college, complete with flashbacks to their childhoods back home, which inform so much of their current relationship. I loved it! I re-read Anne of Green Gables a few years ago via audio (the edition narrated by Rachel McAdams is fantastic!), and I adored the graphic novel adaptation by Mariah Marsden and illustrator Brenna Thummler. This, while quite different, captures the same magic, the same bittersweet longing of the original story (with, of course, a complete emphasis on the romance—the original novel has a wider lens).
My one hesitation—and this is not a fault of the novel but is just an issue with me—is that I was a little uncertain how I felt about sweet Anne and Gilbert being at the center of such a steamy novel. I ended up being okay, but the first super-steamy scene was not entirely comfortable for me (and I’m usually totally fine with open-door romance!). Just know that this is definitely a retelling that embraces all of the conventions of its genre.
So, if you love Anne of Green Gables OR great, enemies-to-lovers romances, watch for Brina Starler’s Anne of Manhattan, coming out on June 1!
Thanks to Partners NetGalley, Let's Talk Books, and Sourcebooks Casablanca for the digital ARC of Xio Axelrod’s The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes in exchange for an honest review. The book was just released on May 4, so I’m thrilled to join the Book Tour to highlight this fabulous novel.
Toni Bennette is content with her recurring gig at a rundown bar in Philadelphia—it gives her a chance to sing and play but doesn’t push her (much) to be the center of attention. Her dream is to go into music production, and so she uses her talents to gain entrance in recording studios and to make connections behind the scenes.
Sebastian Quick is a sort of facilitator for the up-and-coming, all-female band The Lillys, and he’s struggling with the increasingly toxic relationships within the band. Seb, Candi, and Lilly formed the band, drawn together by a passion for music and by sheer talent. But Candi’s dedication to the lifestyle is spiraling, and Seb—who has assigned himself a job as her keeper—has been drawn into that downward trajectory, endangering the future of the band when they’re on the cusp of true success.
Toni and Seb are drawn together through a series of accidental meetings, and as the narrative unfolds, it flashes back on their shared childhood and on Seb’s betrayal of their dreams. Now, as The Lillys take steps to salvage their chances for greatness, Toni is drawn definitively back into Seb’s life, and he has to deal with the mistakes he made in the past.
This second-chance romance is more than just a romance. Axelrod builds a rich history for Toni and Seb, one that looks at the way the past can inform who people become, the temptations that cycle through people’s lives over and over again, and the ways that characters can seek redemption for past mistakes. I really appreciated the rich characters, the complexity of the book’s structure—that slow unveiling of the full story, and the vivid descriptions of music and what it means to these characters. As a reader, I was propelled forward by the plot but also by the way that easy, initial judgments are made more complex as the book continues, the ways that the characters surprise the reader and each other.
The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes brilliantly balances heavy and light content, some serious stories with a lovely romance. This is also the first book in Xio Axelrod’s The Lillys series, and I can’t wait to read about the other characters in the band!
Thanks to Partner NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Dahlia Adler’s Cool for the Summer in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, May 11.
Lara returns to high school after a summer break away in the Outer Banks to her dream-come-true: Chase Harding is noticing her. She’s had a crush on him forever, and though he’s always been friendly and kind (one of the qualities she most admires about Chase), he’s never really noticed her before.
She’s thrilled. Really. She and her three best friends giggle and scheme, reveling in one of their own getting her wish.
But then Jasmine walks into her school, and Lara is taken back to summer and to the friendship—and maybe more?—she had with Jasmine.
It’s a great, compelling setup, but nevertheless, I was a little bit worried that I wouldn’t love this one. I wasn’t sure I could empathize with Lara or dig into the love triangle. But Adler masterfully shifts back and forth, unveiling both the story of Lara and Jasmine’s summer AND the journey through Lara’s year at school when she tries to navigate what happens when your dream isn’t so dreamy anymore.
I thought these characters were compellingly flawed, and I genuinely liked the complexities of Lara’s friends, of Chase, and, of course, of Jasmine. Lara’s working through of her identity is all-too-believable, and I appreciated that Adler didn’t provide easy answers to who Lara should be. Dahlia Adler’s Cool for the Summer is a strong, thoughtful YA romance that breaks the mold of anything I’ve read lately.
Thanks to Partners Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the digital ARC of Amy Suiter Clarke’s Girl, 11 in exchange for an honest review. The book is out today!
Elle Castillo is a true crime podcaster who investigates cold cases. A former social worker with her own history as a victim of crime, Elle chooses a different serial killer for each season of her podcast, determined both to rejuvenate the investigation and to focus attention on the victims.
Now, in season five, Elle decides to focus on The Countdown Killer. TCK’s first known victim was 20 years old. Three days after kidnapping her, he kidnapped a young woman who was 19. The body of the first victim was revealed seven days after she was taken. TCK is methodical, obsessed with numbers, and incredibly careful, leaving only very particular details for the police to investigate. He continues with his countdown, kidnapping and killing girls in order until one of his victims escapes. This is the 11-year-old girl, and though she recovers, she’s unable to provide any clues about TCK’s identity. His countdown ends, and most people think he’s dead. But Elle doesn’t agree.
Elle is in the midst of the season when she gets a tip from someone who thinks he knows who TCK might be. When she arrives at the caller’s apartment, she finds him dead, and there’s some indication that it might be his message to her that caused his death.
So, that’s the premise of the book, and I found that to be intriguing enough. What I really enjoyed about this one, though, is not this bare outline of the plot. Elle is a great protagonist: we know that her work as a podcaster and investigator is based on her desire to help people in ways she couldn’t always manage as a social worker. She also consults with the police, offering her investigative skills to help them uncover clues. She has a strong web of found family and friends—her husband Martín is a forensic investigator (he sometimes appears on the podcast); she also has a close friend Sash, and though Elle and Martín can’t have children, Sash’s daughter Natalie is like a part of their family. The sense of community support, of the ways that Elle has reached out—though she’s not close with her biological family—to make connections is lovely.
The style here is also great: the first part is told in alternating chapters, with transcripts of podcast episodes providing the background of TCK through interviews and Elle’s narration, and then the other chapters focusing on the current course of Elle’s investigation.
Though there were some twists and turns of the plot that I predicted, there were also some great surprises. Amy Suiter Clarke’s Girl, 11 is a strong, compelling, and thoughtful thriller that I’d recommend to readers looking for a balance of plot and character.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley and Sourcebooks Casablanca for the digital ARC of Roni Loren’s Yes & I Love You in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, March 2.
Roni Loren’s Yes & I Love You is such a brilliant surprise of a novel. It’s a romance with steam, with heart, and with some brilliant characters—I couldn’t put it down.
Hollyn forces herself to go to the office every day. She makes her way through the crowded main floor, grits her teeth through her daily coffee order, and then flees to her office, where she stays in safety until it’s time to go home. Her therapist insists that it’s important for Hollyn to be around people, to work through the social anxiety that has plagued her since she was small, when she was the subject of bullying because of her Tourette’s syndrome.
Generally, she’s able to abide by the letter of her therapist’s advice without actually diving into the spirit of it: she doesn’t really interact with anyone. Instead, she dedicates herself to her written persona, Miz Poppy, a vibrant—and hilarious—entertainment critic whose witticisms shine as long as Hollyn can write them. Until Jasper.
Jasper has returned to New Orleans after a failure in Hollywood. He and his improv partner (and girlfriend) took their shot. She rose to success. He did not. So, he’s back in New Orleans in the hopes that the improv group he abandoned on the cusp of their big break will take him back.
These descriptions cover only the most surface elements of Hollyn and Jasper because Loren here has created real, nuanced individuals who change through the narrative as their growing relationship pushes each of them. There are new friends and some fake dating, steamy sex and sweet conversations, uncomfortable moments and times that each shines. As they reveal their full histories to each other, they also learn to work through their insecurities and to support the other through the worst of theirs.
As soon as I finished the book, I messaged my buddy read group and then checked out Roni Loren’s backlist. Yes & I Love You will not be my last book by this author!
Thanks to Partners NetGalley, Salaam Reads, and Simon & Schuster for Young Readers for the digital ARC of Hena Khan’s Amina’s Song in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, March 9.
Hena Khan’s Amina’s Song, the sequel to Amina’s Voice, begins in the summer after book one, when Amina and her family are visiting their relatives in Pakistan before she begins seventh grade. Amina feels braver after having mustered her courage both to recite the Quran and sing in front of a crowd, but she’s still working on figuring out what is most important: she wants to say and to whom.
Amina absolutely loves her extended family, including her uncle, who visited the United States when she was in sixth grade (that’s in Amina’s Voice), and her cousin Zohra, who is an amazing guide to the community and culture of her parents’ home country. It’s while she’s still visiting that Amina begins to work through the way we think about other places: she had been afraid to travel because of stories about Pakistan that she heard on the news. When she talks to Zohra about visiting Amina’s home, she finds that Zohra feels the same way, afraid of visiting the U.S. because of similar reports of violence and discrimination.
When Amina returns home, feeling utterly changed, she finds that her friends seem to be the same and are uninterested in exploring what Amina has discovered about herself. She wants to share and to work through her complicated questions, but she’s either brushed aside or met with resistance.
What I love about both of these books centers on Amina herself. She is (as many middle schoolers are) working through some big questions: Can people change? How do we share what’s most important to us with the people we love? What does it mean to be someone’s friend? How do we share our pride in a country or community while also acknowledging its faults? What does it mean to be a good person? These are questions that I hope my own children consider, and I love that Khan is presenting them in a narrative that is both compelling and relatable for a middle-school audience.
While I do think that Amina’s Song could work as a standalone, I highly recommend both books: do yourself a favor and pick up both Amina’s Voice and Amina’s Song!
Thanks to partner NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Sophie Gonzales’s Perfect on Paper in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, March 9.
Darcy Phillips, the protagonist of Sophie Gonzales’s Perfect on Paper, is a more-mature-than-usual high school junior . . . but she’s still a teenager. She uses her need to stay late after school with her teacher mom as a way to manage her thriving advice letter business: people put their questions into Locker 89, Darcy does some research, and she emails her well-informed advice. Her business is top secret: only her sister, Ainsley, knows about it. And then, one day, Alexander Brougham, leaving swim practice, catches Darcy retrieving letters from the locker. It turns out that Brougham wants advice in resurrecting his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and he’s willing to blackmail Darcy into helping him.
In addition to Locker 89, Darcy has a lot going on: she has a long-term crush on her best friend, Brooke; she’s invested in keeping strong the Queer and Questioning Club that her trans sister Ainsley started; and now she not only has to answer the Locker 89 letters but also deal with Brougham’s issue so that she can keep her identity a secret.
Darcy has to navigate SO many issues in this book: she’s keeping secrets from almost everybody, has made decisions she regrets, and—when she starts to have feelings for a boy—worries about what it means for her bisexual identity. Her mom is incredibly busy, so Darcy doesn’t feel as if she can bother her with her problems, and Ainsley is supportive but also in college, so she’s a bit removed from the high school scene.
Gonzales incorporates all of these details into her narrative with grace, weaving them seamlessly into the narrative. Darcy is a great character—fun and funny and flawed, but also vulnerable. I love the way that the author also put Darcy’s relationships at the forefront of the story: her sibling relationship with Ainsley, her friendship with Brooke, as well as (of course) her romantic relationships.
Perfect on Paper is an excellent YA novel that balances romance with all of the other concerns teenagers have to deal with. Gonzales handles all of this while crafting a beautiful, moving, and quite funny story.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley and Kensington Books for the digital ARC of Kate Clayborn’s Love at First in exchange for an honest review. I’m also thrilled to have read this as part of a buddy read with @lovearctually! The book will be published on Tuesday, February 23.
I’m a fan of Kate Clayborn’s romances, from the Beginner’s Luck trilogy (which centers on three friends who win the lottery) to Love Lettering (a romance focused on fonts?! Yes, please.). I’m adding Love at First to my collection.
What do I appreciate about Clayborn’s books? Her characters are so well developed: nuanced and flawed and quirky. They’re not over the top. But they’re vivid enough to feel distinctive. Love at First centers on Will, a doctor, and Nora, a graphic designer who works from home. They meet—officially—when Will inherits an apartment from his uncle, and Nora, who manages the building, tries to convince him to act in the best interests of the other tenants. Nora moved to the building to take care of her grandmother, and after her grandmother’s death, she cares for her neighbors and friends and tries to preserve as much as she can in honor of her grandmother.
Unfortunately, Will has different goals: he wants to rent the apartment, and since it’s quite outdated . . . that means renovation. Nora? Not a fan.
Will and Nora’s central conflict stems from the way each was raised: Nora saw her grandmother’s home as a place where she felt secure and loved—her parents traveled every summer, and so it was a place of stability. For Will, who was neglected by his parents, stability is not a priority because he’s never had it.
As the two get to know each other, they’re surrounded by an ensemble of zany secondary characters, the neighbors who were Nora’s grandmother’s friends and act now as her family. They’re grumpy and eccentric, but they’re also kind and wise and brilliant, and they’re a great backdrop to Will and Nora’s relationship.
There’s some humor here, but I wouldn’t call it a rom com: it’s a gentle humor that contributes to the warmth of the story Clayton tells. I also appreciate the unique premises of Clayton’s work (lottery winners, font specialists, and unique apartment buildings with velvet wall paper(!) build quite a resumé). I absolutely loved Love at First, highly recommend it, and can’t wait until Clayton’s next romance.