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 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.
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 Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Ashley Schumacher’s The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway. The book will be published on Tuesday, March 14!
Ashley Schumacher’s The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway, her third novel, centers on the story of Madeline Hathaway. Maddy’s life is just a bit unusual: since she was born, she’s traveled with her parents on the Renaissance Faire circuit. She’s never attended in-person school. Instead, her mother homeschooled her for a while, and then she shifted over to online school.
As the book opens, Maddy and her father are approaching the one-year mark since her mother’s death from cancer. Maddy has plans for how she’ll honor her loss: they’re returning to her mother’s favorite faire where Maddy plans to document what has changed and what has stayed just as her mother loved it. This is part of her ongoing project to “notice” things by documenting them in her journal, to keep track of everything that happens so that she’ll remember it in case she loses someone else. And she’s going to keep the circle of those who matter to her very, very small.
Life doesn’t work out quite the way she planned. The faire has changed. A lot. It was taken over by new owners who have completed a dramatic overhaul, creating a polished—but perhaps less charming—version of what Maddy’s family loved. The plan to not care about people? That comes up against an obstacle, too: the teenaged bard of the faire, Arthur, who also happens to be the new owners’ son and who declares upon first sight that Maddy shall be called “Gwen” and, soon after, that she should be the faire’s princess.
Soon Maddy is pulled into Arthur’s plans: she joins his fathers as the princess, despite her concerns that people will criticize her since she doesn’t fit the normal, svelte image of royalty. She also joins Arthur in a series of adventures that he declares will help her “find her Gwen.”
I really, really loved this book, which brought me back to the joy I felt after reading Schumacher’s first book, Amelia Unabridged. Maddy’s grief—and the ways that she tries to hold back the onslaught of that grief—is beautifully and empathetically portrayed. Maddy and Arthur are both basically kind and decent human beings who have insecurities and who make mistakes with each other, often as a result of those insecurities. While they’re really the focus of the novel, the secondary characters—their dads, Maddy’s best friend who left the faire circuit, and a few friends from Arthur’s high school—round out the story well. But it’s Maddy and Arthur’s growing friendship and the chances each takes in trusting someone else that warmed my heart.
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, 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 Macmillan Usa for the digital ARC of Tasha Suri’s What Souls Are Made Of. The book is out today!
I’m a long-time fan of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights—I first read it in high school and fell in love with the Gothic setting, with the brilliant frame structure as housekeeper Nelly tells the multi-generational story to a random traveler, with the doomed love stories that plague the residents of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.
I’m also always in for a retelling, so Tasha Suri’s What Souls Are Made Of, a YA retelling, was an easy sell for me.
I can’t share a full review of the book since I want to avoid spoilers, but here are some thoughts:
Suri zooms in here on the time after Heathcliff has overheard Cathy saying that she couldn’t be with him because, essentially, he’s beneath her. In Wuthering Heights, he leaves without hearing the end of her declaration or giving her the chance to explain, and he doesn’t come back (to Wuthering Heights or the narrative itself) until years later. I love the idea that we find out what is happening with Heathcliff during their separation, filling in that narrative gap.
I enjoyed Suri’s decision to alternate points of view so that we see both characters’ self-discovery through this period of time. Suri also brings in some clever revelations about Cathy and her older brother Hindley that illuminate some elements of the story. Overall, though, I found Heathcliff’s half of the book to be more engaging, a real addition to the original, and I thought the new characters who Heathcliff meets in Liverpool were great. Since Brontë’s original novel centers on Nelly’s storytelling, the shift to two, first-person points of view that reveal Cathy and Heathcliff’s inner thoughts is a big change.
Suri makes clear from the beginning that, while Heathcliff doesn’t know all of the details of his background, he does know that he’s the child of immigrants, and that heritage is a large reason why Hindley—and Hindley and Cathy’s mother—treats him poorly. His growing knowledge of his heritage also informs the coming of age story centered on his time in Liverpool, offering insights into colonialism and into the prejudice that he faced. (These decisions echoed, for me, another Wuthering Heights retelling, Maryse Condé's Windward Heights, set in Guadeloupe.) As Heathcliff learns more about his past, some childhood memories become clearer, as does his understanding of who he is now.
Cathy’s sections hewed more closely, of course, to the original narrative, and Suri doesn’t truly depart from her original arc until later in the novel. (Many reviews/synopses I’ve seen give away a lot of Cathy’s revelations, so I recommend picking up the book without too much background reading.)
While What Souls Are Made Of didn’t quite capture the magic of Wuthering Heights for me, I do think that it’s a thoughtful and compelling book that is perfect for its YA audience.
Thanks to PartnerS NetGalley and Simon and Schuster for the digital ARC of Rachel Lynn Solomon’s See You Yesterday in exchange for an honest review. The book is out today!
I love a time loop story. Groundhog Day. Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Russian Doll. And now? Rachel Lynn Solomon’s See You Yesterday takes its place among my favorites.
I’m regrettably late to Solomon’s work, but I’m so excited to read more—she excels at both YA and adult romance. In See You Yesterday, Solomon uses the time loop premise to explore exactly what a fresh start can mean.
Barrett Bloom has been convinced that college will be the best time in her life, a new beginning after the wretchedness of her high school experience. She’s entering college a loner whose best friend is her mother, but she’s determined that she’ll pursue a career in journalism, bond with her roommate, and generally just get her life together
Then, she finds out that her high school nemesis is her roommate, she blows her interview for the school newspaper, and she has a horrible experience in physics, a class she doesn’t even want to take. Add in a tragic ending to a sorority party, and Barrett has had a worse day than she could have imagined. She goes to bed, ready for a second chance.
And she wakes up in the same day.
Solomon makes great use of the pop culture references we all know as Barrett tries to figure out how to escape her loop. Eventually, she discovers that she’s not alone, that an uptight guy named Miles is looping with her. So they—grudgingly—join forces to figure out how to escape September 21.
I could not have loved this book more. Barrett is such a phenomenal character: she’s smart and somehow both optimistic AND cynical. She wants to believe that people are good, even though they’ve shown her, again and again, that they aren’t. As she and Miles try different ways of conquering the time loop (conducting research, doing good deeds, seeking vengeance, conducting more research), she starts to view both her past and her future through a new lens.
This is a brilliant novel that makes me even more eager to read absolutely everything Rachel Lynn Solomon has written. Do yourself a favor and pick up See You Yesterday right away!
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.