Thanks to partners NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Jennifer Chen's Artifacts of an Ex. The book is out today!
Jennifer Chen’s Artifacts of an Ex is a thoughtful YA romance with a nuanced relationship at its center. Main character Chloe Chang has been dumped via U.S. mail after moving across the country with her family to take care of her ill grandmother.
Chloe’s taking out her rage and heartbreak on the box of mementos her ex sent along with the breakup letter when she meets Francesca, who has also recently ended a relationship. As they bond over their stories, Chloe gets an inspiration: a curated art show focused on “Heartifacts,” the artifacts of failed relationships. She puts out a social media request for people willing to share their own symbols of heartbreak.
On opening night, Chloe is outraged by Daniel Kwak who is filming his friend’s reaction to one of the pieces, but as Chloe and Daniel talk, they find common ground and a new friendship.
Chloe, however, wants more.
For Daniel, relationships are perilous ground: he’s been the rebound boyfriend who sends girls back to their exes five times, and he’s not eager to have a sixth such experience. So, Daniel and Chloe vow to keep things friendly, bonding over their art (Daniel is a filmmaker; Chloe sees herself as a curator) and becoming closer as they come to know each other more.
As their lives and hearts become more entangled, Chloe has to work through the feelings lingering from her own relationship, and Daniel has to deal with the vulnerability he has to embrace.
Artifacts of an Ex is such a thoughtful romance, one that focuses as much on Chloe’s need to understand her own identity as it does on the relationship at its center. Chen’s development of her characters is quite strong, and I thought the consideration of art and its goals for both Chloe and Daniel was an excellent part of the novel. Overall, this was a strong first novel by an author I’ll watch.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Jacqueline Firkins’s The Predictable Heartbreaks of Imogen Finch. The book will be published on October 31!
The Predictable Heartbreaks of Imogen Finch is Jacqueline Firkins’s fourth book—I’ve loved every single one of them. Her first two books, How Not to Fall in Love and Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things (a retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), are young adult romance novels; the next two, Marlowe Banks, Redesigned and this one, are adult romance. She excels at writing for both audiences—all of these books completely swept me away.
What I appreciate most about Firkins’s books is the way she develops her characters. These are real, complex, flawed people with lives outside of the central relationship. Love conquers a lot, but not all, and sometimes, characters’ lives aren’t in a place where they can embrace love just yet.
That dynamic is very much at play here.
Imogen Finch has known her whole life that she’ll never be first at anything, even at love. When she was a child, her mother shared this prophecy, and now, 20+ years later, it has proven to be true: Imogen’s heart has been broken 17 times, and she has lost at everything she’s ever tried to do: every game, every contest, every election. She’s never been higher than second.
The heartbreak started with her first crush, Eliot Swift, who is also one of her two best friends, though she hasn’t heard from him since he left a decade ago. When he returns for his estranged father’s funeral, however, Eliot decides that he’s going to help Imogen break her losing streak.
The premise is fun enough, but it’s these people, these characters, who resonated with me. Imogen loves her mother dearly and has committed to caring for her in her childhood home, despite the dreams she once had of being an artist and living in the city. Imogen’s mother’s eccentricities mean that she can’t keep a job, so Imogen has cobbled together several, waiting tables and walking dogs and working at the hardware store, while her mom pursues her need to see and share the future.
Eliot has wandered since he left, seeking adventure and amassing millions of YouTube followers for his channel, The Un-lonesome Wanderer, which details his travels around the globe. Though his life strikes many as glamorous, he’s also escaping the wealth and privilege and confining expectations that his parents gave him instead of affection.
As Imogen and Eliot and their best friend Franny re-forge their friendship, they also begin to share the truths that they had held back as teenagers, and Imogen starts to come to terms with the decisions she’s made and the part she has played in living out her mother’s prophecy.
I love the friends’ conversations, the ways that they show their friendship and affection for each other, and the ways that they both accept each other and encourage each other to grow. Watching Imogen navigate the return of her very first heartbreaker is a beautiful journey. This book confirmed, once again, that I will read absolutely everything Jacqueline Firkins writes.
Thanks to NetGalley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the digital ARC of Ashley Winstead's Midnight Is the Darkest Hour. The book will be published on October 3!
For years, since her friendship with Everett began, Ruth has waited for their sin to catch up with her. Drawn together by their crime, Ruth—confined by her father’s role as her small Louisiana town’s judge and confessor—and Everett—an outcast whose fate was cemented by his father’s evil—find refuge, affection, and understanding in each other, which brings them comfort as they ride out the end of their teenage years together.
And then a skull is found in the swamp. Suddenly, the peril of discovery that has been looming over her life arrives at her doorstep. Everett now only visits Bottom Springs in the summer, so Ruth has sought refuge and her parents’ approval by stepping tentatively into their vision for her: no college; marriage to a hometown boy; a family; and a fundamentalist Christian lifestyle. But when Everett returns, Ruth feels pulled again to a different way of living.
As the investigation speeds up, Winstead reveals the truths of Ruth’s past and present in alternating passages, revealing some secrets she’s kept and some that have been kept from her.
Midnight Is the Darkest Hour was my first book by Winstead, and wow, was it compelling. I didn’t want to stop reading! The non-chronological structure of the novel creates twists and turns, solving one mystery only to uncover another. The role of books and reading in Ruth and Everett’s characters, and in their relationship, made my heart happy. Most of all, I loved watching Ruth work through her vision of who she wanted to be in the face of her parents’—and the town’s—oppressive expectations. What a satisfying read!
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Sourcebooks Fire for the digital ARC of Sara Raasch and Beth Revis's Night of the Witch. The book will be published on October 3!
I absolutely loved Sara Raasch and Beth Revis's Night of the Witch, which uses a historical foundation to delve into the world of witches, witch hunts, and hexenjägers (hunters).
The book opens in fourteenth century Germany with the decimation of Fritzi’s village as her mother, friends, and family are killed or imprisoned. Fritzi herself escapes after her mother hides her—against her will—in the basement, as Fritzi listens to the sounds of destruction and terror. When she realizes that her young cousin has been taken by Dieter Kirch, the head hunter, she vows to get her back, following the pack of hunters to the city that is their headquarters.
Alternating chapters tell the story of Otto, a hunter who is Dieter’s second in command. Otto’s father was one of the earliest hunters, and his heritage has led him to the heights of the fervor. The hunters are plotting a spectacle, the burning of 100 witches, and Otto takes a small group out to arrest his sister, Hilde, to make her a part of the group. That’s where he meets Fritzi, who hears the ruckus and steps in to save Hilde.
The writing and characterization here are gorgeous, and both Fritzi and Otto are nuanced figures who wrestle with their own responsibility in the face of their society’s manic attacks on anyone who lies outside the narrow path available to its citizens. Raasch and Revis raise questions about women’s power, about obligations to one’s community and the greater good, about the role of religion in morality. This is the first book in a series that I’ll definitely be continuing.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Bloom Books for the digital ARC of Lucy Score’s Things We Left Behind.
Things We Left Behind is the final book in Lucy Score’s Knockemout trilogy: this one returns to the small town to focus both on the second-chance AND enemies-to-lovers romance of Lucian, a successful businessman, and Sloane, the town’s librarian.
Lucien and Sloane had a strong friendship and almost-love story when they were teenagers until a falling out ended their relationship. Now, they’re brought together only by their mutual friends, Knox and Waylon and Nash and Lina (the couples from the first two books of the series), sniping at each other during every encounter.
Of course, their chemistry is there from the beginning, and their mutual past is revealed through flashbacks that are interspersed through the novel, while they’re desperately trying—in their present—to uncover the source of peril that has plagued the community from book one.
Several subplots enrich the book: Sloane is mourning the death of her father, who was also a mentor for Lucian; Lucian is running his business, employing several characters from previous novels; Sloane is working to help an innocent woman win her freedom from prison; and more. I didn’t mind these little offshoots from the main plot, as they all serve to flesh out who these characters have become. There were two plot developments that I didn’t care for, but they’re in spoiler territory, so message me if you’re interested!
Overall, I found this to be a satisfying, steamy romance and a solid conclusion to the plot that had been developing throughout the trilogy: fans of Knockemout will, I think, be pleased.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Avon Books for the digital ARC of Mhairi McFarlane’s Between Us. The book will be published next Tuesday, August 8!
Mhairi McFarlane has long been on my list of authors to read—I’ve seen so many rave reviews from readers I trust that I just knew I would love her work . . . and I was right!
Between Us is a lovely, compelling romance centered on Roisin Walters, a young woman who joins her boyfriend Joe and their long-time friends for a celebration at a luxurious weekend getaway. They’re going to celebrate the launch of Joe’s new show, their friend Dev’s engagement to Anita, and their friend Gina’s birthday, along with Meredith and Matt, the final two members of the group who first bonded when they worked together right out of college.
The weekend does not go as planned. The tension that has been simmering in Roisin and Joe’s relationship surfaces, prompted by the revelation that Joe has used some of Roisin’s family’s secrets on his show. Joe and Matt, who have never been the tightest friends, are sparring, and Matt fumbles through some horrific missteps with Gina, who has had a crush on him forever. It seems their friend group may not survive the weekend.
The novel focuses on the aftermath of the disastrous getaway, on Roisin’s attempts to avoid tension by returning to her hometown to help her mom with her family’s pub, as well as her desire to get to the bottom of Joe’s behavior . . . and on Matt’s valiant efforts to maintain a friendship with Roisin.
McFarlane brilliantly builds both a sense of what made this group so central to each character and also the ways that the years have changed the dynamics between the friends. Roisin is a strong central character whose complex relationships—with Joe, with her friends, and with her family—have shaped her into a compelling and compassionate woman who nevertheless expects to be treated with care and respect and honesty.
I love the way that Roisin and Matt’s friendship grows through the novel, the way that they work through the conflicts of the initial weekend and the challenges that occur as they contend with all that was uncovered. There’s a nuance throughout the novel that in no way took away from the romance. Between Us will definitely not be my last McFarlane novel!
Thanks to NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Amanda Quain’s Ghosted, which will be published Tuesday, July 25!
Amanda Quain’s Ghosted, a YA retelling of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, far exceeded my expectations. Quain uses her source material creatively but isn’t beholden to it, instead finding an emotional core that (I must admit) I found missing from Austen’s novel.
Hattie Tilney attends Northanger Abbey, a ritzy private boarding school her family can afford because her mother, Dr. Tilney, is the headmaster. Despite the fact that her school is notorious for being haunted, Hattie is entirely anti-paranormal, convinced that those who hope to find a ghost are deluding themselves.
Then, along comes Kit Morland, a handsome, quirky new student who is decidedly pro-paranormal. Normally, Hattie would avoid Kit completely, but her mother has assigned Hattie to be his ambassador, so she resigns herself to a few tours, some friendly chats, and that’s it.
As the layers peel back on Hattie’s story, it becomes clear that this is really a novel about grief and healing. Immediately before her family moved to Northanger Abbey, her beloved father died of a cancer that killed him quickly. Hattie decided that her new school offered a chance at a fresh start, so she rejected the study of history, of hauntings, of ghosts that had so captivated her and her father. She makes new friends, does what she needs to do to be successful and moderately popular, and blends into the background.
Kit immediately gets under Hattie’s defenses, and when they’re assigned to work together for their journalism class on a semester-long project focused on the ghosts of Northanger Abbey, Hattie realizes that everything she had suppressed is coming to the surface.
Quain crafts brilliant, complex characters. Hattie, whose first-person narration drives the novel, is vivid and empathetic and sad. It’s clear that, while she looks out for her younger brother, Liam, and tolerates her older sister, Freddie, she’s not really connected with her family, particularly her mother, who she most often calls Dr. Tilney. As Hattie works through her college applications (she’s a senior), it becomes clear that she’s also not connected to the college path she’s committed to. Even her friends see only her surface. It’s only Kit who begins to see who Hattie really is and could be.
I absolutely loved this novel, which so beautifully delves into both Hattie’s healing but also into the inevitably difficult transitions that all teenagers at this age must undertake and, of course, into the relationship that grows between Hattie and Kit. Watching her again feel her feelings is an incredible journey.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Katherine Center’s Hello Stranger. The book will be published next Tuesday, July 11!
Every time I pick up a new book by Katherine Center, I’ve come to expect joy. In 2020, when we interviewed her for the Unabridged Podcast upon the release of What You Wish For (shameless shoutout—you can listen here: https://www.unabridgedpod.com/post/134-whatyouwishfor-katherinecenter), Center talked explicitly about working toward joy, both in her life and her writing. She said, “[O]ne of the things that I really wanted to write about in this book in particular, like the kind of the place where I started with the story, was I wanted to write about joy. . . . [W]hen you find the right story for you, whatever that story is that you need at that particular moment in your life, it's so satisfying that it feels like joy.”
With Center’s new book Hello Stranger, that feeling of joy was in full effect for me. At times, I was giddy as I read about Sadie Montgomery’s fierce attempts to wrestle back control over her life, her relationships, and her career—to find joy in the face of adversity.
Sadie is a portrait artist on the cusp of finding the success she’s dreamed of ever since the tragic death of her mother—also a portrait artist—when she was a child. Her relationship with her father has never been what she wanted, and her relationships with her stepmother and stepsister are downright confrontational. But she has a good friend, Sue, and a sweet, aging dog she loves and a place to live and work (thanks to some gracious rule breaking from Sue’s parents, her unofficial landlords).
And then she falls one day, merely walking across the street, and everything changes.
Sadie finds out that she needs immediate brain surgery, and while the surgery is successful, it results in prosopagnosia. Face blindness. She can’t recognize anyone’s face, even her own, and she certainly can’t paint portraits, which means that the art competition on which she was counting is going to be a real challenge.
The situation unfurls from there, of course, complicated by a potential romance with her dog’s veterinarian and a burgeoning friendship with the superficially-jerky-but-maybe-not neighbor who turns out to be pretty helpful when she needs it.
In retrospect, there were a few elements of the plot that stretched my credulity just a bit, but they didn’t impact my reading experience at all. The story here is gorgeous and sometimes heart wrenching but ultimately joyful. Center considers the impact of Sadie’s face blindness on her life and her career and her relationships with great sensitivity, making excellent use of the need for Sadie to see things differently both literally and figuratively.
I loved Hello Stranger.
Aiden Thomas's Cemetery Boys was one of my favorite books of the year in 2021, so I'm not sure why it took me so long to pick up Lost in the Never Woods, his gorgoous, YA, modern retelling of Peter Pan.
Wendy has basically been surviving since she and her brothers disappeared five years before. She returned after a few months, dressed in strange clothing, with no memories of where she'd been, but there's been no sign of her brothers. She and her parents have avoided talking about the tragedy, and Wendy has come to exist in solitude except for her best friend, just waiting for the day they can go to college and escape the absence her brothers have left. Recently, though, kids have started disappearing, and Wendy has to work harder not to think about those missing months.
One night, Wendy is on her way home from work and decides to take a short cut through the woods, despite her parents' warnings against them, and she nearly hits a boy who looks just like the face she's been compulsively drawing for months.
Thomas's decision to shift this retelling to Wendy's point of view works beautifully, allowing the author to consider grief and recovery as well as the inevitable transition into adulthood. His curation of that original story, the details he included and those he transformed, are just delightful.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and One More Chapter for the digital ARC of Linda Corbett’s What Would Jane Austen Do?. The book is out June 16!
Linda Corbett’s What Would Jane Austen Do? makes great use of its Austen source material, spinning out this romance between an “agony aunt” (an advice columnist) who writes a “Dear Jane” column and a suspense novelist who’s a total Darcy when they first meet.
Maddy Shaw meets Cameron Massey on the day she’s fired—via email—from her column, when they’re scheduled to do a radio interview together. This is not a meet cute. Massey immediately gets under her skin with his scorn for Austen and, really, romances in general.
Maddy plans never to see him again, and then an unexpected inheritance from a disgraced and distant family member she never met requires her to live in a small English village for a year before she can sell. So, jobless, she moves from London to the country to wait out her twelve-month sentence.
But she doesn’t the move as much as she’d anticipated, coming to recognize the charms of life in a small village, even as she’s pulled into running the literary festival that her relative began. And then Cameron shows up . . .
This is a sweet, closed-door romance that centers on friendship as much as love, on making one’s own judgments about those around us, and on the virtues of carving out one’s own path. I devoured it!
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.