Thanks to partners NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Emma Lord’s Begin Again. The book is out today!
Emma Lord has become one of my go-to YA authors. Her books are sweet but not saccharine, they’re romances but not *just* romances, and they focus on characters whose struggles are authentic and require some real growth.
I should say that I still—somehow—haven’t read Tweet Cute, but I’ve adored each of her other books, including this newest one, Begin Again.
Andie Rose has clawed her way into a mid-year transfer to Blue Ridge State, her dream school, the college where her parents met . . . and her boyfriend Connor’s school. In a moment of misplaced romance, she decides to make her transfer a surprise. And then she discovers, in a sort of Gift of the Magi twist, that her boyfriend has also made a surprise transfer to Andie’s much-less-prestigious college. Cue chaos and angst.
Despite the less-than-fortuitous start, Andie decides that her boyfriend can just transfer back after this current semester, and she resolves to make the best of the situation, as she often does. She and her new roommate, Shay, hit it off, and though she faces some academic challenges, she’s ready to dive into the traditions that her parents and, particularly, her deceased mom told her about.
I’m going to pause here to say that I absolutely loved this book. Lord captures Andie’s college experience so well, the promise and peril of seeking a promised fresh start when you know that you’re still just the same person you’ve always been. Andie is an amazing character who is strong and inspiring and always willing to help her friends, yet she’s simultaneously fragile and all too willing to avoid conflict, even if it means sacrificing something that means a lot to her.
The development of Andie’s formative relationships is clearly a huge part of Andie’s identity. Lord shows us the grandmas who dropped everything to raise her after her mom’s death, the father who became distant in his grief, Connor who has been her friend since childhood and whose family became a second sort of family for her, and of course the mother she lost who has become such an inspiration—and someone to live up to—for her. Yet Lord balances the ways that her new relationships help to shape who she’s becoming. Those include Shay but also Milo, the RA who quickly becomes a source of support, and Valentina, who starts as her much-needed math tutor but quickly becomes another friend.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this book. There’s so much here that it’s tough to cover it all in a review, but it doesn’t ever feel like there’s too much going on. Instead, Andie’s story feels like the real story of a college freshman who is both building a new life for herself and still working to figure out the life she has.
I read this one in as close to one sitting as I could because I just had to know what would happen next. I can’t recommend Emma Lord’s Begin Again enough.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Macmillan USA for the digital ARC of Amber McBride’s We Are All So Good at Smiling. The book will be published on Tuesday, January 10!
Amber McBride’s We Are All So Good at Smiling is a sort of allegorical novel in verse that draws from the author’s own experiences with clinical depression. She begins her book with a note to the reader, cautioning about its potential triggers, which I advise all readers to consider.
The book is about Whimsy, who has been struggling with clinical depression since she was young, when her older sister—her idol—disappeared. She has been in and out of hospitals and programs since that time, working through her sense that things in her world just are not right. She’s always been a collector of fairy tales, a passion that began with her grandmother, and she often uses them both to understand the world around her and to escape, even briefly.
Her situation changes when Faerry joins her program, sharing his own story, which they soon realize holds many parallels and connections to hers.
As Whimsy and Faerry get to know each other—his family moves into her neighborhood, and he enrolls at her high school—their mutual understanding begins to make a difference for each. But as they start to uncover the truths that have been hidden from them, they realize that the battle that lies ahead may be more perilous than anything they’ve been through.
The key part of the novel takes place in the forest at the end of their neighborhood, which Whimsy has always avoided, fearful of its secrets. When Faerry is lost in the forest, however, Whimsy becomes determined to find him, to save him, and to confront the fears that have plagued her.
As in her debut, Me (Moth) (a book that I absolutely loved), McBride’s verse is gorgeous and evocative, and I appreciate her vulnerability in sharing her own experiences, which I have no doubt will be valuable for so many readers. While We Are All So Good at Smiling certainly addresses important issues, it did not quite live up to my expectations: I liked the idea of the allegory more than its execution.
Still, We Are All So Good at Smiling is a compelling book dealing with a topic of vital importance to so many people—particularly teenagers. It is powerful both in Whimsy’s own story, in the ways that her relationship with Faerry helps her, and in its consideration of how the teenagers’ families deal with their mental health. I love the consideration of the ways that stories can help both to understand the world and to offer the tools that people need to make a change or confront a difficult truth. I look forward to following McBride’s career.
Thanks to partner NetGalley and St. Martin'S Press for the digital ARC of Sophie Sullivan’s A Guide to Being Just Friends. The book will be published on Tuesday, January 17!
Sophie Sullivan’s A Guide to Being Just Friends is book three in her Jansen Brothers series (following Ten Rules for Faking It and How to Love Your Neighbor). This one may just be my favorite of the three.
Book three centers on Wes Jansen, the oldest brother who set himself the goal, when he was very young, of protecting his younger brothers from the trauma of his parents’ vicious fights and eventual divorce. This has left him proud of the lives that they lead but convinced that loving someone will lead only to misery.
Hailey Sharp has moved to a small town and opened a new salad restaurant, By the Cup, in hopes of starting fresh after a toxic relationship and ugly breakup. Though her business is struggling, she’s determined to make her new life work.
Hailey and Wes’s meet cute is not so cute. Hailey, seeking to drown her sorrows about her new business in chocolate, has picked up a to go order at the neighboring bakery when Wes approaches her, convinced that she’s his date. When she protests—she’s Hailey, not Hayden—his reaction is less than kind.
But Wes is determined to admit and apologize for his mistakes (unlike his dad!), so when circumstances bring him together with Hailey again, their friendship begins.
While Wes’s determination to be friends-and-nothing-more meets with approval from Hailey, still fragile from her last relationship, it did eventually strain my credulity. Still, with a bit of suspension of disbelief, I was immersed in this romance and enjoyed the slow build of their relationship. I’m also a fan of romance series, allowing the reader to see the couples from previous books living out their happily ever afters, so this one was a joy.
I’m sad that Sophie Sullivan’s first series is over, but I look forward to what comes next!
Thanks to partner NetGalley, Salaam Reads, and Simon Teen for the digital ARC of Priyanka Taslim’s The Love Match. The book is out today!
After my epic, #readausten22 buddy read in 2022, I’m primed for some amazing retellings of Jane Austen’s books, and Priyanka Taslim’s The Love Match exceeded my expectations.
Zahra Kahn is a Bangladeshi American teenager who has just graduated from high school. She lives with her mother and two younger siblings in a small apartment in Paterson, New Jersey, where they try to make ends meet after her father’s death several years before. (This book is billed as a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, but there are some elements of Sense and Sensibility woven in, too!) Zahra was accepted to Columbia University but knows her family can’t afford either the tuition or the loss of her income, so she has deferred her acceptance. Now, she’s trying to figure out what her future might be as she works at the tea shop owned by her friends’ family.
Her mother has a firm idea of the right answer: marriage. Specifically, marriage to someone wealthy who can support Zahra. With that goal in mind, she begins matchmaking, resting her eye on Harun Emon, the son of a wealthy—and “new money”—family who might be willing to make a match in exchange for the Zahra’s family’s distant (very distant!) connection to Bangladeshi royalty. The only problem? Harun. Zahra immediately nicknames him the robot because of his apparent lack of interest in her . . . or anything, really.
That lack of interest is in strong contrast to the reaction Zahra gets from Nayim Aktar, the new, handsome employee at the tea shop.
I loved so much about The Love Match. Zahra is an amazing character: she’s smart, confident, and devoted to her family, even when they frustrate her. Her friendships with Dalia and Daniya Tahir and with Dani’s girlfriend Ximena provide a strong center for her, but they also provide conflict as they other girls make preparations to attend college, emphasizing how out of reach Zahra’s dream is.
Watching Zahra grow and change as she comes to understand both how important her family is to her and also how necessary becoming a writer is to her happiness follows the pattern of many coming of age books, yet Taslim offers something new here. Because of the death of her father, Zahra approaches life and her responsibilities with a sense of maturity that many people her age would not feel.
I’m typically okay with love triangles, but I think even those opposed might like this one: both Harun and Nayim (once Zahra gets to know them) offer compelling reasons for Zahra to develop an attachment. As Harun and Zahra pretend to date to divert their parents’ attention and matchmaking efforts, their developing friendship becomes another anchor for Zahra. And Nayim’s encouragement of her writing gives her the courage to take some risks related to that goal for herself.
Taslim plays with the notes of Austen’s novels—Zahra compares Harun to Mr. Darcy more than once—in a way that pays tribute to her source material without being beholden to it. She incorporates details of Bengladeshi culture, opening the novel with a note to the reader about her choices in writing the story to make it more faithful to her real, Paterson, NJ community. She also weaves details of Zahra’s and her friends’ Muslim heritage into the book, enriching the depth of the story.
There’s so much going on in The Love Match, yet it never felt like too much. Whether you’re an Austen fan or not, Priyanka Taslim’s YA novel is well worth putting at the top of your 2023 TBR!
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Sophie Gonzales's Never Ever Getting Back Together. The book is available for purchase!
Sophie Gonzales’s Never Ever Getting Back Together features a fun premise: Maya and Skye are each vying—along with several other young women—to win back Jordy, their ex-boyfriend, on a reality show called Second-Chance Romance. It’s a Bachelor-type show that brings together a selection of Jordy’s exes with the supposition that the relationships that didn’t work before may work now. Because. Growth(?).
It seems a bit convoluted on the surface, and it’s even more complex deep down. Jordy is the brother of a newly crowned princess, which means he’s been in the public eye: a public eye that has also fallen on Maya. After their breakup, Jordy painted her as a dangerously clingy, at least partially unhinged person, bypassing the fact that he’d been cheating on her for months with his new girlfriend, Skye. Maya accepts the invitation to appear on the show with the hope that she can reveal the truth about their breakup to the world that has blamed her for years. Skye accepts because she believes Jordy that he misses her *and* appreciates his warning that Maya is ready to unleash her unjust rage on both of them.
So, when Maya and Skye arrive at the set of their show and realize that they’re rooming together . . . well, neither one is thrilled.
The story alternates between Maya and Skye’s points of view, and each has been given plenty of reasons by Jordy to dislike the other. Yet that dislike goes only so far.
I thoroughly enjoyed Never Ever Getting Back Together, which leans into the ridiculousness inherent in its reality show-foundation with its highly manufactured moments of drama (particularly since Jordy’s wealthy family made sure they had final editing rights). I didn’t completely buy the connection between Maya and Skye, and I thought that too many of these young women believed Jordy’s lies for just a bit too long. But overall, I liked the way Gonzales set up the evolution of each character’s arc and the way that the show, despite its artificiality, resulted in real self-reflection and growth.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and One More Chapter for the digital ARC of Cassie Connor’s Love Under Contract. The book is out tomorrow!
Cassie Connor’s Love Under Contract plays with several romance tropes—fake dating, love (well, lust) at first sight, opposites attract—and it does so in an engaging way. When Rebecca Madison learns that her sister is going to marry Rebecca’s own ex, she’s miserable. The best way she can come up with to save face is inspired by The Wedding Date: she can pay her recent one-night-stand partner to be her date for the engagement party. And, since Rebecca is an attorney, she’ll draw up an unbreakable contract that requires no sex and no kissing and no feels with absolutely no loopholes.
Of course, that’s not quite what happens. When she and Hudson Strong, a furniture designer in need of some quick money, make their way from England to the U.S., she discovers that he’s even more appealing than she first thought. As he charms everyone in sight, including her, Rebecca realizes that the way she’s always approached her life, with a firm focus on work at the sacrifice of family, partners, and friends, may not be quite as appealing as she previously thought and that her outlook is rooted in some pretty deep places.
This was a fun, quick read, and I absolutely loved Hudson and his family. I thought that Rebecca’s revelations about why she focused on what she did were believable, and I liked the way that each new step with Hudson helped her to see herself more clearly. While I thought the writing could have been a bit stronger, Connor has a real touch with characters, and the relationship itself felt real. This steamy read is well worth picking up for fans of open-door romance!
Thanks to partners NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the egalley of Erin Hahn's Built to Last, which will be published next week, on October 18!
This is a sweet and satisfying second-chance romance about two child stars who are trying to recapture their love. Shelby Springfield and Cameron Riggs starred with Lyle Jessup—their former friend and Shelby's ex-boyfriend—on a super-popular tv show when they were teenagers. Shelby and Cameron had a secret romance before Cameron left the show, and her life, leaving Lyle to console her.
A decade later, Shelby has created a new career for herself with her dad, restoring furniture in the old homes he flips. Cameron has become a successful documentary filmmaker. They're brought back together, ironically, by Lyle, who has an idea for a new home renovation show, one that he'll produce. For very different reasons, they agree, despite their reservations about Lyle's involvement.
As they start to become reacquainted, they also understand things about each other that weren't clear before. I read this one in close to one sitting, drawn in by Hahn's compelling characters, intriguing plot—fueled by flashbacks that illuminate the past, and steamy romance.
Thanks to Bradeigh Godfrey, NetGalley, and Blackstone Publishing for the egalley of Bradeigh Godfrey's Imposter, which will be out on Tuesday!
Bradeigh Godfrey is going on my list of must-read authors! First, it was her collaboration on The Beach Trap that grabbed my heart, and now her suspense novel Imposter bent my brain in the best possible way.
Imposter is the story of two sisters, Lilian and Rosie. As children, they were incredibly close, with Lilian often acting as a mother to Rosie. When Lilian left for medical school, however, Rosie's feelings of abandonment began the slow process of driving them apart.
Now, it's been too long since they've seen each other. Lilian is reeling from a professional trauma and learning to be a good mom for her adorable baby girl when Rosie gets in touch, suddenly desperate to see her sister and to tell her something of vital importance. They're driving to dinner when they're in a car accident, and Rosie's injury has left her unable to communicate or to recognize her significant others: Lilian and Rosie's fiance.
Lilian is determined to figure out what her sister wanted to tell her and to rebuild their relationship. But the barriers to both goals are larger than she'd imagined.
Imposter is a propulsive, deliciously twisty suspense novel whose flawed characters made the plot even more compelling. I absolutely loved it!
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Harlequin Books for the digital ARC of Jean Meltzer’s Mr. Perfect on Paper. The book is out today!
Dara Rabinowitz is a third-generation Jewish matchmaker . . . who hasn’t made a match for herself. She’s used her family’s expertise to create a wildly successful Jewish dating app and teams up with her grandmother to go on a morning show with the aim of promoting the newest update of the app.
The host of the morning show just so happens to be Dara’s non-Jewish crush, Chris Steadfast. Chris is desperate to grab attention for the show, which is in danger of being canceled. So, when Dara’s grandmother embarrassed her completely by sharing Dara’s list of “must haves” in a man, Chris sees an opportunity: his show will focus on the attempt to find the perfect man for Dara. But is her perfect man really the man she’s envisioned?
Like Meltzer’s debut novel, The Matzah Ball, Mr. Perfect on Paper shows off the author’s touch with characters. Dara lives with generalized anxiety disorder, and the way that’s woven into the plot works beautifully to show how Dara works to cope with different situations. Her commitment to her Judaism is also such an important part of the novel that was a big strength for me.
I didn’t find the chemistry between Dara and Chris quite as believable or compelling as I would have hoped based on The Matzah Ball, but I liked their individual storylines, which alternate between their points of view, and watching Dara’s dates with potential matches is hilarious.
Overall, this is a sweet, unique romance novel that I enjoyed from beginning to end, even if the central relationship wasn’t the strongest component.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Avon Books for the digital ARC of Julia Whelan’s Thank You for Listening. The book will be out on Tuesday, August 2!
Julia Whelan is one of my all-time favorite audiobook narrators (I know I’m not alone!). Once I found out that she was a writer, too, I was eager to discover if her talents traveled. Oh, they do, my friends. They do.
Thank You for Listening immerses us in the world of audiobook recording and, specifically, romance audiobooks. After an accident ended Sewanee Chester’s career as an actress, she transferred her talents—her deep connection to characters’ motivations, her facility with languages and voices—to narration. While she started in romance, she long ago transferred her allegiance to literary fiction.
When her career takes her to an audiobook conference, Sewanee—who is definitely not looking for romance and, in fact, has rejected the idea of happily ever afters altogether—is nonetheless drawn into a one-night stand with a charming, clever stranger. She returns home knowing that the relationship won’t go anywhere but feeling more desired than she has in a while.
All at once, opportunities arise: Her best friend, now a successful actress, thinks that her new movie may offer Sewanee a chance to act again. Then, Sewanee has a chance to record with Brock McNight, the undisputed king of romance audio, for mind-boggling amounts of money, and they strike up a friendly relationship via text, one complete with flirting and humor and sooo much cleverness.
Suddenly, Sewanee’s life looks full of promise that she’s not sure she should trust.
I don’t want to share more of the plot, but it’s not what won me over anyway. This is a smart, beautifully written novel whose characters are unbelievably empathetic and compelling. Everyone from Sewanee’s grandma to the other audiobook narrators Sewanee works with is well drawn and quirky and real. The book is funny and offers the charm and banter of the best rom coms on the page and screen. I absolutely loved Thank You for Listening and will be looking for more work by Julia Whelan immediately.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.