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!
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Ashley Schumacher’s Full Flight in exchange for an honest review. The book is out on February 22!
I absolutely loved Schumacher’s debut, Amelia Unabridged, sobbing my way through that gorgeous YA romance, so I was eager to read her second book, Full Flight. This one did not disappoint! This tale of young love and marching band set in small-town Texas made my heart happy.
Weston Ryan is an outcast in Enfield, set apart by his divorced parents, his leather jacket, and his disdain for everything but music. He’s also so, so lonely.
Anna James seems to be his opposite: she has a lot of friends, a close-knit family and protective parents, and an unrelentingly sunny personality represented by the Christmas socks she wears year-round. But really, she’s lonely too.
When Anna and Weston are assigned to play a duet in the marching band’s competition show, Anna is way outmatched. So, she asks Weston to help her learn the music, a simple question that ends up drawing them together and bridging their loneliness.
Schumacher has such a brilliant touch with characters: I could feel Weston’s reluctance to take a chance at trusting someone new, afraid that he might be left behind once again. And for Anna, keeping on that cheerful, overachieving mask has covered up years of never feeling as if she’s quite good enough. Their emotions are so real and so authentic—about each other, about the role of marching band in teenagers’ lives, about the power of music—that I just loved watching both characters work through their vulnerability to come to trust the other.
I actually hope that you haven’t read the synopsis of Full Flight yet because I think it gives away too much. I’ll just say that this is another book by Ashley Schumacher that I didn’t want to stop reading.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Emma Lord's When You Get the Chance in exchange for an honest review. The book is out Tuesday, January 4!
When You Get the Chance is my second book by Emma Lord. (I loved You Have a Match and have Tweet Cute on my shelf to read ASAP.) Yes, she’s now an auto-read author for me.
This one focuses on Millie Cooper, a super-extroverted, self-described way-too-much actress who has big dreams of Broadway and has put in the work to make that a real possibility. After she learns that she’s gotten into an amazing pre-college program for her senior year, she’s ecstatic . . . until she shares the news with her dad and he’s decidedly NOT as ecstatic.
What ensues is Millie’s desperate attempt to actualize her dream into existence. First, she gets the help of her best friend and next door neighbor Teddy, an expert at geocaching and (as he says) human caching. Teddy does some research and, after the two delve into Millie’s dad’s LiveJournal from college (hello, the 90s!), begins unraveling the central secret of Millie’s life: her mother’s identity. When her dad was 20, Millie’s mother dropped her off with her dad, and that was the end of her mother’s involvement in her life. But Millie hopes that if she can find her birth mother, she’ll be on Team Millie and help convince her dad that moving across the country to this pre-college program is the right move.
The search for Millie’s mom leads to three likely candidates and the second part of Millie’s plan. She happens upon an internship with a Broadway management company where one potential mom candidate works. The only problem? Millie is vying for the internship with her nemesis: Oliver. Oliver is the manager of their fine arts school’s musical theater department, and he and Millie are *always* at odds with completely different visions for what the program should look like. So, when Georgie, the woman in charge of the internship, gives Millie and Oliver two weeks to compete and prove themselves before choosing a winner, it means that the mortal enemies have two weeks of forced collaboration, as well.
The setup is worthy of any Broadway musical, and references to shows—and especially Mamma Mia!—abound. For anyone who’s a fan of musicals, there are plenty of allusions here to feed your Broadway-loving soul. Sometimes, I have to work to get past premises like the “meeting-three-candidates-who-might-be-my-mom” kind of story, but when cast in the light of Broadway, I suspended my disbelief and just gave into the ride. Because Emma Lord has such a fabulous sense of character and because, in Millie, she created such an empathetic, realistic character, that ride is a great one. Though the plot here is so much fun, it’s watching Millie go through some pretty rough self-reflection that is the real strength of this book. Yes, there are beautiful friendships (seriously: this author REALLY understands friendship), some fun romance, and compellingly complex family dynamics (Millie’s relationships with her dad and her aunt Heather are strong anchors for the plot), but it’s Millie’s coming of age story that made me love this book so much.
Now, on to Tweet Cute.
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!
Thanks to partners NetGalley, Wednesday Books, and St. Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich's If This Gets Out in exchange for an honest review. The book is out today!!
I’m a big fan of author collaborations—I almost always really like them. (I’m not sure why, but maybe, just as in my life, collaborating pushes authors to be better?) Since I was already a fan of both Sophie Gonzales, author of Perfect on Paper, and Cale Dietrich, author of The Love Interest, requesting If This Gets Out seemed like a good choice. I was so, so right.
At the center of If This Gets Out is a boy band, Saturday, made up of four kids who met at a summer camp, threw together a fun performance for the end-of-camp concert, and have never looked back. The four teenagers—Ruben, a classically trained singer who grew up on Broadway; Zach, a fan of punk and emo who is painfully shy; Angel, an outgoing, fun-loving partier; and Jon, a Type A, conservative heart throb whose dad manages the group—have remained close friends and have enjoyed their meteoric success, even as they strain against the roles in which they’ve been cast. Their carefully curated image presents all of them as straight (Ruben is not) and each of them somehow playing against type. Angel’s role, for example, is the sweet, conservative, shy boy, which he is *definitely* not.
The story centers on Ruben and Zach and is told in their alternating points of view. Though all four are friends, Ruben and Zach are best friends, so Ruben has kept his attraction to Zach a secret. And then something happens that makes Ruben think Zach may return his feelings. Their relationship changes, at first bringing tension to the group and highlighting the tight control their management wields over their lives, and then causing each of them to understand new things about themselves.
I loved so much about this book. First, it is propulsive: I had a hard time putting it down. The romance at its heart is lovely, and I appreciated the way Gonzales and Dietrich worked through its complications, both early on—when Zach is exploring his understanding of his sexuality—and later, when Ruben and Zach are contending with what they each need from the other. Dietrich and Gonzales create fully realized characters here who are dealing with fame but also with their relationships with their parents and friendships and all the drama that happens with teenagers.
I also enjoyed the consideration of the boy band phenomenon. While I’m no student of the music industry, and boy bands aren’t really a part of my current listening, I was a HUGE fan of New Kids on the Block back in the day. So much of the novel here rang true, from the desperate need to have one type of boy for each fan to the denial that fans can handle the truths that all four band members want to share with their public. (I will say that the way the book employs social media certainly adds an angle that would not have been possible in the early NKOTB days!)
If This Gets Out will work for so many readers, and I would definitely be in for further collaborations between Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich (though I do plan to explore the rest of their individual backlists regardless!). This fabulous YA novel is emotional and thought provoking and sweet. I absolutely loved it.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.