Akshaya Raman's THE IVORYY KEY
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!
Sajni Patel's FIRST LOVE, TAKE TWO
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Forever for the digital ARC of Sajni Patel’s First Love, Take Two in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on September 21!
I absolutely loved Sajni Patel’s The Trouble with Hating You, so when I saw her new book, First Love, Take Two was available, I requested it immediately! This is a great follow-up, a steamy, second-chance romance that builds on the first book’s events but doesn’t rely on them. (I think you could read this one even if you haven’t read book one.)
Here, Preeti Patel is trying to embrace an arranged marriage with Yuvan. He checks all the right boxes: he’s part of her conservative, Indian community, and his parents are close with hers. He’s successful, as is she, and this seems like the perfect match. But she has absolutely no chemistry with him.
Preeti has been the subject of gossip before, six years ago when she had an interracial relationship with Daniel Thompson. When her father’s sisters found out that she was dating outside the culture and the race—Daniel is Black—they set the full force of community shaming upon her and her family. Daniel’s parents were no more accepting of her, and so Preeti broke off their relationship.
Since then, Preeti has built a successful career as a doctor—she’s almost done with her residency—has taken care of her parents, and has made every effort to fly under the radar of the gossip mongers. All of that has kept Daniel from the forefront of her mind and heart . . . until her friends and his sister conspire to throw them together once more.
This book does a great job dealing with a number of serious issues: anxiety and racism and touch aversion and, above all, both the blessing and curse of being part of a close-knit community. As a doctor, Preeti deals with heartbreak—miscarriage, death, and the expectations of her patients’ families—and more and more, she’s feeling overwhelmed by expectations both at work and in her personal life.
Watching Preeti and Daniel work through their relationship to support each other is fantastic: this is such a wonderful, second-chance romance, filled with a deep backstory and nuanced characters. As always in a romance series, I love seeing Liya and Jay from book one, and I have high hopes that there will be at least one more book involving Liya and Preeti’s friend group.
First Love, Take Two is a worthy, steamy, beautiful follow-up to The Trouble with Hating You.
May 23rd, 2021
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.
Xio Axelrod's THE GIRL WITH STARS IN HER EYES - A Sweet, Second-Chance Romance that Rocks
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 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!
Hena Khan's AMINA'S VOICE and AMINA'S SONG - Beautiful, Diverse, Middle-Grade Reads
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 for the digital ARC of Roshani Chokshi’s The Silvered Serpents in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, September 22, 2020.
***PROCEED WITH CAUTION: SPOILERS FROM BOOK ONE, THE GILDED WOLVES, APPEAR.
Roshani Chokshi’s The Silvered Serpents focuses again on the crew of Séverin as they come back together for another heist. After being driven apart by the loss of one of their own in book one, their trust has been fractured. Séverin is desperate to find The Divine Lyrics, a book that can make him a god, able both to protect his friends and to become impervious to being hurt by them or by their loss. Laila, too, wants to find the book--she believes it’s the only thing that can keep her alive. Enrique is desperate once again to prove himself: he has lost confidence since separating from his friends, unable to make his mark as an academic. And Zofia is ready to quit so she can be with her dying sister . . . until Séverin convinces her otherwise.
As in The Gilded Wolves, the strengths here for me are the diversity of the group, who each come from different races, different countries, different classes, and different religions. Their disparate talents and ways of thinking mean that they can each contribute a unique strength to the group--and, of course, their magical talents are different, as well. The world here is one of a series of magical houses, unified in asserting their own superiority but also in competing against each other for new treasures and wealth and prominence, and each of the protagonists wants (or needs) something from the ruling class who runs the houses.
There’s a cinematic quality to so many scenes within the novel--I love the different locations that Choskhi imagines so beautifully--and I like each of the characters and the personal challenges each is undergoing, as well. Shifting between the four points of view works well for me. I did wish for more from Séverin’s sections. I empathized with his grief, which has made it difficult for him to interact with his friends the way he used to, but I didn’t completely believe the personality change he underwent, and I wanted more from his chapters, which were my least favorite. I found Laila, Enrique, and Zofia each to be more believable and more nuanced.
Overall, Roshani Chokshi’s The Silvered Serpents is a compelling story, a worthy sequel to The Gilded Wolves.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, September 8, 2020.
I will need to read Claudia Rankine’s Just Us again. I think it is brilliant and important and thoughtful, but I know that there’s more to absorb, more to contemplate. I read it too quickly this time, wrestled with the format of the e-book (I’m definitely going to buy it in print), and so I know that I missed details, connections, and nuance that would have enriched my reading experience even more.
Still, even on a first read, I loved it.
As she did in her gorgeous book Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine uses a mixture of poetry, essays, and images through Just Us: An American Conversation. The book moves between the main pieces and connective pieces that are woven alongside the text, providing sources, in-the-moment fact checks, and further reflection.
Rankine uses the intensely personal to explore the universal. She is wrestling with her own experiences as a way to grapple with American experience. She is both keenly aware of when she has been wronged . . . but she’s reflective and vulnerable enough to admit when she wrongs others, too.
Her scope is wide ranging. She uses brief meetings with strangers in airports and on planes, longer conversations with friends that puzzle her, and disagreements or moments of dissatisfaction with her husband to explore her topic. She’s aiming to define whiteness, as she does in one of her classes at Yale, to try to figure out what it means to be white and how her own identity relates to that definition. She’s constantly challenging her own assumptions, her friends’ assumptions, small comments that seem to offer a key that will unlock a new insight into race in America.
As she did in Citizen, Rankine presents her response in abstract and lyrical poetry, in meditations on things like tennis and college admissions, in social media, in her cancer, in her interracial marriage to a white husband. She’s looking for answers wherever she can. Often, after having written an essay about a conversation with someone, she then shares the essay with that person and shares his/her response. It’s fascinating, a true series of conversations that she’s developing with others and with herself.
At one point, a friend critiques what Rankine has written because “there’s no strategy here,” and Rankine replies, “response is my strategy. Endless responses and study and adjustments and compromises become a life” (334). It’s what we all do, on some level, I think (or at least I do!): we respond to what happens and then test our responses, absorbing new information and events and meetings and conversations into our understanding. And then we do it again.
This is a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
Suzanne Park's LOATHE AT FIRST SIGHT - A Romantic Comedy that's More Serious than Romance
Thanks to Partner Edelweiss for the digital ARC of Suzanne Park's Loathe at First Sight in exchange for an honest review. The book is available now for purchase.
Suzanne Park's Loathe at First Sight, which I read as part of a buddy read with @thechicklitbookclub, is a rom-com that defies that label. Though there is a romance, for me, it fades into the background; though there is comedy, this is a book with some serious messages.
Melody Joo has started a new job as a video game producer at Seventeen Studios, a company centered on superstar CEO Ian McKenzie. Almost immediately, she faces a backlash from her officemate, Asher; intern Nolan (Ian's nephew); and Ian himself. After she makes a joke about creating a videogame featuring male strippers and fully clothed female warriors ends up becoming the company's next project, Melody's life takes a sharp turn. While she's expecting (sadly) some amount of misogyny and discrimination since (1) she's a woman and (2) she's Korean-American, she's NOT expecting the level of vitriol she gets from online trolls.
After she's doxxed, the threat levels increase. Along with her work life, Melody has a lot going on. She's maid of honor for Jane, a true bridezilla, and is managing her relationship with her parents, who pressure her constantly to get married. When the threats from work start bleeding into her personal life, Melody is unable to ignore them.
While the romance here is sweet, for me, it wasn't the star of this book. Watching the way Melody deals with such horrible misogyny and racism and with the challenges she faces as a woman of color in the video game industry was sobering and thought provoking. Yes, there are moments of great comedy--Melody is sarcastic and, at times, filterless, which makes for some great dialogue--but the most compelling angle was that of her journeys in this challenging workplace.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.