We Deserve Monuments: A Review

We Deserve Monuments by Jas HammondsSeventeen-year-old Avery Anderson is still smarting after breaking up with her first girlfriend over an argument she’d rather not remember. But that doesn’t mean she’s excited to have her entire life uprooted so that she can move from DC with her Mom and Dad to the middle of nowhere in Bardell, Georgia.

Avery barely knows her grandmother, Mama Letty, but with news of a terminal diagnosis Avery’s mother tells the family they have to be there for Mama Letty–whether she wants them there or not. Avery has known about the tension between her mom and Mama Letty for longer than she can remember. Based on the less-than-warm welcome they receive, Mama Letty dying seems unlikely to change anything.

Thank goodness for Simone Cole the cute girl next door who offers Avery some much-needed fresh air while being totally crush-worthy. Simone is a big personality and she’s quick to let Avery into her inner circle alongside best friend Jade Oliver–daughter of one of the town’s most prominent families with one of the most notorious reputations.

Secrets run deep in Bardell. As Avery unpacks the town’s racist past she also begins to fill in the gaps in her own family’s tragic connection to the town. As endings get wrapped up with new beginnings Avery has to decide if some secrets are worth burying when it also means keeping the peace in We Deserve Monuments (2022) by Jas Hammonds.

Find it on Bookshop.

We Deserve Monuments is Hammonds’ debut novel. Avery is biracial (Black mother and white father) and queer, Simone and her family are Black, and Jade’s family is from one of the wealthiest white families in Bardell. Avery’s first person narration alternates with short vignettes throughout the novel exploring different aspects of Bardell including painful pieces of the past as well as moments of first love and even an unlikely refuge for the local queer community highlighting just how varied even a small town can be for each of its residents.

Hammonds packs a lot into this deceptively slim novel with explorations of generational trauma, racism, and identity both through Avery’s story and her investigation into her family’s legacy in Bardell. Avery’s changing feelings about her family, especially Mama Letty, serve as a counterpoint to her complicated new friendships with Jade who Avery is hesitant to trust and Simone who might end up being something more.

In learning more about Mama Letty’s history in Bardell, Avery also starts to understand more about her own identity as a biracial and queer young woman and how to embrace both of those pieces of herself to take up space in her own life. Spare prose and evocative descriptions immediately draw readers into both Avery’s story and her search for answers.

We Deserve Monuments is grounded in a post-pandemic world that feels both timeless and current. Come for the romance, stay for the story of two girls learning how to love every part of themselves and their families–even the pieces no one wants to talk about.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Sugar Town Queens by Malla Nunn, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Be sure to also check out my interview with Jas!

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

This Golden State: A Review

“I didn’t even know the choices, because I didn’t have the information.”

This Golden State by Marit WeisenbergPoppy has grown up with five family rules:

1. No using your real name.
2. No staying in one place too long.
3. If something’s weird, take one thing and run to the meeting spot.
4. Keeping our family together is everything.
5. Don’t ask about the past. For your own safety. It’s the smallest mistake that will get us caught.

Lying constantly, hiding all the time, always waiting for one disastrous slip up hasn’t left much room for seventeen-year-old Poppy to ask questions. When she was little it all seemed normal. Now, Poppy has her little sister Emma and her parents. What more does she need?

Right away, Poppy knows that their latest move is different. Her parents never answer Poppy’s questions but once they arrive in California, Poppy has even more: like how a room prepared in a safe house can feel more like hers than anywhere else she’s ever lived and why it feels like pieces of her family’s secrets are waiting to be discovered.

With her parents distracted, Poppy has more freedom than she’s used to with a chance to attend an advanced math class, earn her own money, and maybe make a real friend in the unlikely form of ultra-wealthy and popular Harry. Family has always been enough for Poppy. It has to be. But as Poppy begins to dig deeper into her parents’ past with a secret DNA test and to think more about her own desires, Poppy also realizes that no secret can be kept forever in This Golden State (2022) by Marit Weisenberg.

Find it on Bookshop.

This Golden State is a tense standalone novel narrated by Poppy. The Winslow family and most characters are cued as white with Harry’s DNA results showing ancestry going back to Jamaica, South India, and Europe.

Perfect pacing and an urgent, close-focus narrative amps up the tension immediately as readers are drawn into Poppy’s world where nothing can be taken at face value. While family secrets and the looming results from Poppy’s DNA test drive the plot, this is ultimately a story about a girl who is leaning to dream and understanding how much bigger her world can be. As Poppy tries to keep up with her wealthier classmates who have had more consistent schooling, Poppy also starts to unpack the privilege that comes with stability and everything that she has lost growing up on the run–losses that her younger sister Emma has already begun to chafe under.

Harry gives Poppy a window into a world she knows she can never inhabit living the way she currently does–one fileld with opportunity and growth. Brief moments with Harry’s verbally abusive father also underscore to Poppy how much her parents have sacrificed to keep their family safe and intact. Weisengerg thoughtfully unpacks Poppy’s loyalty and deep love for her parents alongside her growing resentment at their rules and how they have to live. As she learns more about her parents’ roles in leading the family to this point, Poppy also has to learn how to maintain her affection and fond memories while leaving room for the anger that comes with understanding.

This Golden State is a taut exercise in suspense where family is everything. Until it isn’t. While the payoff for all of Poppy’s questions and investigating can feel anticlimactic, This Golden State is a story that will stay with readers long after the open-ended conclusion. Recommended for readers seeking a thriller focused on tension instead of scares.

Possible Pairings: Don’t Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, My Mechanical Romance by Alexene Farol Follmuth, The Safest Lifes by Megan Miranda, The Liar’s Daughter by Megan Cooley Peterson, Remember Me Gone by Stacy Stokes, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea: A Review

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie OhDeadly storms have plagued Mina’s village for generations. It wasn’t always like this way. Many year ago the countryside was protected by the great Sea God–both a protector and confidant of the emperor. Everything changed when the emperor died. Now instead of blessing the area with protection, many believe the Sea God curses them with death and destruction.

Every year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea to become the Sea God’s bride in an attempt to appease him and break the curse. Eventually villagers hope one girl might be the Sea God’s true bride–able to love him and remind him of his duty to protect the people and stop the storms.

No one is surprised when Shim Cheong is chosen as this year’s bride. She is, by far, the most beautiful girl in their village. But she is also the only girl Mina’s older brother loves. Rather than watch them both suffer, Mina sacrifices herself in Cheong’s place.

Beneath the sea Mina finds another kingdom in chaos filled with lesser gods and magical creatures all waiting for the Sea God to wake from an enchanted sleep. Trapped in the land of spirits with a god unable to break his own curse, Mina will have to take fate into her own hands to break the curse and save both her people and the Sea God himself in The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea (2022) by Axie Oh.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a standalone, feminist take on the Korean folk story “The Tale of Shim Cheong.” Mina’s narration is practical but also open to wonder as she explores the literal magic (and dangers) of the spirit world. Oh introduces many of the elements found in the traditional story, even including one version in the text of the novel, so that readers do not need to have familiarity with the source material before reading.

Throughout the novel female friendship and matriarchal bonds take center stage as Mina again and again makes her own fate. Alone in the spirit world, Mina draws strength from memories of her beloved grandmother and support from the other former sea brides that she finds in beneath the sea. In saving Cheong, Mina claims agency over her fate in a figurative sense but also, later, in a literal sense as her red String of Fate repeatedly tries to steer Mina in directions she refuses to follow in the spirit realm.

Mina is a proactive, clever heroine who is very aware of her strengths as well as her vulnerabilities as a mortal trapped in the spirit world. With support from surprising allies including a trio of ghosts and other mythical creatures, Mina slowly begins to make a place for herself beneath the sea while also making inroads with understanding and ending the Sea God’s curse. But it isn’t until Mina embraces her role as a bride and accepts help from other brides, including Cheong, that Mina is fully able to understand how to break the curse and save everyone she loves.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a retelling that is as evocative as it is inventive; a gripping story where a girl has to learn how to save herself in order to save her world. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones, A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar, Spirited Away

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The King Will Kill You: A Review

The King Will Kill You by Sarah HenningPrincess Amarande is finally poised to have everything she wants. After a brutal trek across the Torrent and back she is reunited with her love Luca, a lost prince himself raised in hiding as a stable boy. Having fended off invaders, rivals, and her own mother Amarande is about to become queen in her own right–no need to marry except if she chooses–while Luca works to gather his own allies and begin rebuilding Torrance.

Flush with hope and dreams of new beginnings, Amarande and Luca and their allies are eager for the opportunity to rebuild the kingdoms of the Sand and Sky into something new as the continent puts the recent regicides and threat of war behind them.

But even as one queen and king hope to rebuild, there are others just as eager to burn everything to the ground if it means holding onto their own power.

No woman has ever ruled outright in the thousand year history of the Sand and Sky. If the patriarchal establishment has its way, no woman ever will. As obstacles old and new stand in Amarande’s way, she will have to rally all of her forces to stand against her enemies once again in The King Will Kill You (2022) by Sarah Henning.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Kill Will Kill You is the final book in Henning’s Kingdoms of Sand and Sky trilogy. Start at the beginning with The Princess Will Save You and The Queen Will Betray You to avoid spoilers and get the most out of the series. Amarande is cued as white but there is a variety of skintones among the kingdoms of the continent and among the cast in this novel. A close third person perspective primarily follows Amarande but does shift to other key characters including Luca.

Every book in this series builds upon the last expanding both the world and the feminist themes that underpin the entire plot. Having laid the groundwork for this strong cast in book one and set up the political landscape in book two, The King WIll Kill You is positioned as both the best and the strongest book in this series.

Throughout this series Amarande, and readers, have seen characters strive for various goals–most notably power for the various monarchs–only to have the sweetness of success turn to ash upon achieving their goals. Henning reworks that conceit here one more time as Amarande’s supposed happy ending is torn away leaving her and Luca once again scrambling to find safety.

Shifting viewpoints give a wide view of this story that spans multiple kingdoms and a well-utilized ensemble cast. After dispatching many of their enemies both Amarande and Luca hope to be able to work within the system to reform the Sand and Sky into something better not just for the kingdoms and their ruling class but for every person on the continent–something that other rulers attempt to thwart at every turn. After the intense action of previous installments, this shift to political maneuvering offers an interesting but no less engrossing change of pace as the action and intrigue of this series moves to a different stage. (Don’t worry there are still quite a few sweeping battles and sword fights to be had here.)

While Amarande still faces some very real enemies and brutal gaslighting while trying to claim her power once and for all, the real enemy in The King Will Kill You turns out to be the establishment that has worked so long to help those in power and no one else. Faced with trying to operate within a system that was never meant to help anyone like her–despite her own father’s successes as king–Amarande has to confront the fact that sometimes the best way to rebuild is to tear down everything that came before.

The King Will Kill You is an ambitious and ultimately satisfying conclusion to a fundamentally feminist series where action and adventure are tempered well with political intrigue and moral questions. After all, what can be more feminist than a book that literally tears down the patriarchy?

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Violet Made of Thorns by Gina Chen, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Little Thieves by Margaret Owen, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things: A Review

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya PrasadFour sisters, four seasons, four romances as Nidhi, Avani, Rani, and Sirisha Singh find love at their family home, The Songbird Inn, which just happens to be the Most Romantic Inn in America.

As the oldest, Nidhi is always the sister with a plan. That is until autumn crashes onto Orcas Island with a sudden storm that brings a tree crashing through Nidhi’s bedroom wall. Once Nidhi starts thinking about what could have happened, she can’t stop wondering if her perfect plan to study baking in France before starting college is perfectly wrong. Getting to know Grayson–one of the construction crew fixing the storm damage–brings even more doubts as Nidhi starts to imagine a future where she lets herself live in the moment and maybe even discover India for herself instead of only hearing stories about it in family stories.

Avani knows that she can seem scattered and flighty–especially to perfect Nidhi–but the truth is if she stops moving she thinks the grief over Pop’s sudden death last year might overwhelm her. Pop was more than their dad’s husband, he was part of what made the inn and their family so special. So when it’s time for the first winter without him, Avani knows she has to throw the perfect Winter Ball in his honor. Except planning a giant party requires a lot of attention to detail. And a lot of help. Which is how Avani ends up working with Fernando Gutiérrez, the boy she accidentally stood up and has been avoiding ever since.

Painfully shy, Sirisha has always been more comfortable hiding behind a camera and letting her older sisters fill in the silence. But when a cute actress named Brie shows up at the Songbird with a seasonal theater troupe in the spring, Sirisha thinks it might be a sign to make some changes and finally speak up for herself. If only everyone would give her time to find the right words.

Rani loves all things love. Which is why it has been so frustrating watching all of her sisters–even her twin Avani!–find love while she languishes alone. Helping her father plan his next wedding is the perfect preparation for Rani’s own shot at love. But what happens when summer comes to the Pacific Northwest bringing not one but three potential suitors? After acting as the official love guru to all of her sisters, Rani will have to follow her heart if she wants to find her own Bollywood-worthy ending in Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things (2022) by Maya Prasad.

Find it on Bookshop.

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things is Prasad’s debut novel. Set over the course of the year, the story is broken up by season–complete with a wealth of seasonal touches and locales–with a close third person narration following each sister on her own personal and romantic journey.

The Singh family is North Indian and cued as Hindu with love interests who are from a variety of backgrounds including Mexican American Fernando, Black Brie, and more. I especially appreciate the care Prasad takes with the girls’ father–a man who immigrated with his wife (their mother) from India, met Pop–a white man–while opening the Songbird, and has his own journey both in love with Pakistani Amir and with his family including relatives who were slow to accept his second marriage to a man.

Through the different relationships this book explores first love, second chances, missed connections, and what it means when feelings change and grow. With lots of humor and a coterie of popular tropes Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things has a romance for everyone while highlighting the empowerment the genre offers despite the ways that it is often dismissed by mainstream media as “fluffy” or “silly.” Emotional arcs including grief over Pop’s sudden death and reconciliation with estranged relatives contrast well with humorous meet-cutes and other shenanigans the Singhs encounter throughout the year.

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things is a joyful story about family, romance, and finding yourself–whoever that may be. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, We Are Inevitable by Gayle Forman, What I Like About You by Marisa Kanter, Seoulmates by Susan Lee, Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, The Perfect Escape by Suzanne Park, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi, Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Maya Prasad here on the blog.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Seton Girls: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

Seton Girls by Charlene ThomasSeton Academic High is an elite prep school with an affluent and mostly white student body. With numerous teams, extracurriculars, and a student paper with thousands of subscribers, Seton is best known for its Varsity (always capitalized) football team. And with good reason. The team has been on a winning streak for twelve years–undefeated in every game leading up to the state playoffs.

Sixteen-year-old Aly Jacobs has always felt special being a part of Seton which was never a given for her the way it is for some of Seton’s legacy students. Aly and her boyfriend J already stand out as some of the only Black students–especially ones being bussed into Seton from a poorer neighborhood. Aly has always felt the pinch, keenly aware that she lacks the disposable cash to keep up with her classmates; knowing that she and J will never live closer enough to Seton to be true insiders on all of the inside jokes and routines because “it’s hard when you live an hour away, and you don’t have a car, and you don’t have twenty dollars in spare change for a pastry, and you can’t be at the coffee shop or the moves or the Galeria for pictures like these.” But every long commute, every missed hangout will be worth it because a Seton education is the first step to opportunity.

Aly deals with imposter syndrome as a junior editing the school paper while J is already getting attention as the next Varsity quarterback. Will J be able to keep the team’s undefeated streak alive? Will he take Varsity to new levels as the first Black quarterback in the school’s history? No one knows yet. Either way Parker Adams–the younger brother of the now legendary Cooper Adams who started Seton’s streak all those years ago–plans to make his own mark first.

Parker’s dream of eclipsing his brother takes a darker turn when the schoolyear starts with rumors that Parker hooked up with Britt MacDougal–his longtime girlfriend Michelle Rodriguez’s best friend–over the summer. As the school’s most popular clique fractures everything students thought they knew about Seton begins to erode. Aly learns more about Seton’s history as she befriends social outcast Britt. As their bonds deepen Aly questions the importance of Seton’s traditions and history and if her own legacy will be helping to perpetuate Seton’s privilege or speaking out against its insidious past in Seton Girls (2022) by Charlene Thomas.

Find it on Bookshop.

Thomas’ debut novel lays out “What it is.” in chapters of the same name with Aly’s first person narration beginning in August 2019 at the start of Aly’s junior year at Seton alongside flashbacks of “What it was.” where a third person narrator teases out key events that led to the advent and progression of Seton’s infamous winning streak. A prologue from The Seton Story–the paper Aly edits–immediately puts readers on alert as everything that has previously made Seton so great is stripped away with the ominous observation, “If you thought that that made us the lucky ones … You were wrong.” While there is some diversity among the principal cast including Black students Aly, J, and Britt as well as other characters cued as BIPOC based on their surnames, it is clear that Seton is predominantly white and wealthy. This income disparity in particular weighs heavily on Aly who is eager to blend in with the assumed privilege at Seton not wanting anyone to “feel like we’re different.”

Short, fast-paced chapters and prose laden with foreshadow like Parker’s description of Britt as a bomb–“And maybe you meet her and survive it and it’s a miracle that you’ll talk about forever with anyone who’ll listen. Maybe that’s what happens, and it feels like magic. Or maybe the bomb goes off and she destroys you.”–add intensity to this story as both Aly and readers begin to unpack what exactly has made Seton’s varsity team so unbeatable.

True to its title, Seton Girls, keeps the focus squarely on the school’s female student body even as it unpacks the misogyny and sexism that has long been the source of many of Seton’s storied traditions. Aly’s narration is filled with naked longing to be part of Britt’s magical group of girlsfriends, “Britt’s term, so it never, ever gets confused with the less important role of being a girlfriend,” alongside Britt, Michelle and their other friends Bianca Patel and Kelly Donahue. Aly is not alone in her fascination with “the four of them together like this weightless, perfect, intoxicating aura everywhere they go” attracting both objectifying male gazes and envious female ones adding homoerotic subtext to many of Aly’s interactions with Britt and her friends since “those girls are distracting in the most addictive way.”

Subtle characterization illustrates the income disparity between Aly and her classmates in small details like Aly’s obsession with Glad Plugins which “For a while we had to use them, when they were paving the road near our house and it made everything inside smell like tar. That’s over now, but I’m still obsessed.” These sharp observations are often undercut early in the story with Aly’s gushing sentimentality for all things Seton where “Kyle can be drunk ranting on my left and Gina-Melissa can be reciting perfection on my right, and it’s not weird, or ironic, or some wild juxtaposition. It just is. We all just belong here. And it just works.” The impact of the novel’s opening with Aly’s article in The Seton Story about Parker promising to share the truth about Seton is similarly diluted as Aly spends most of the novel debating how best to support Britt before finally delivering on the story we see on page one.

Details surrounding the varsity football team’s success are often mired in specific details of football gameplay including the playoff model change observed by Cooper Adams years ago where the team doesn’t “make it to States anymore just because we have a better regular season record than everyone else. We just need to be good enough to make it to the playoffs.” which might be pull readers out of the otherwise suspenseful backstory. The ultimate payoff for the plot, especially Britt’s character arc, comes in a final act shift that casts the entire story in a different light while highlighting the power of both agency and female solidarity.

Seton Girls is a timely novel adding to the conversation surrounding the #MeToo movement alongside questions of both privilege–especially white male privilege–and consent. As Britt aptly tells Aly “If the door is open but you know you can’t get up and walk out of it that is force. That’s, like, the greatest kind of power that exists. That is corporation-level power. And it’s that kind of power–not the muscles or the dumb boy-tanks they wear–that guys like Parker will tell you isn’t real. And swear they’re not that type. But it’s the realest thing in the world.”

Possible Pairings: One Great Lie by Deb Caletti, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories edited by Janet Gurtler, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma

Henry Hamlet’s Heart: A Review

Henry Hamlet's Heart by Rhiannon WildeHenry is well aware of his limitations. He knows he probably should not drink at parties given how it usually ends with him throwing up. He knows his penchant to make situations awkward is unparalleled. He is also painfully aware that he has no idea what he wants to do after high school–a problem when it’s his last semester of high school.

Regardless of his shortcomings, Henry always knows he can count on his best friend Len to see him through. Len has seen Henry at his clumsiest and most neurotic. Henry saw Len through the death of his mother and, more recently, his father’s frequent absences and volatility. Together Henry and Len have always made sense.

Until they kiss.

Len has a reputation as a flirt and a heartthrob ready and willing to kiss everyone. Henry doesn’t know what it means when he falls into that kissable category. Are they dating? Is it another of Len’s flings? Will Len soon realize he’s made a terrible mistake? Will Henry be able to admit it might be love? Henry has no idea. Harder than all that, Henry will also have to figure out if he can hold onto his best friend when everything is changing in Henry Hamlet’s Heart (2022) by Rhiannon Wilde.

Find it on Bookshop.

Henry Hamlet’s Heart is Wilde’s debut novel. It was originally published in Australia in 2021 where it won Queensland Literary Awards Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer in 2019. Henry and Len are white, there is some diversity in the secondary cast.

Set in Australia and published here after the fact, much of this story feels oddly out of time. References to Russell Brand (in relation to Vince–the emo friend in Henry’s friend group) exist alongside mentions of emails and cellphones making it unclear when exactly this story is really supposed to take place.

It is worth noting that although the two main characters in the story are male the author ostensibly is not (not to police Wilde’s identity or imply she has to provide so-called credentials to write the story she chooses to tell but merely to be aware). While Len is clearly cued as bisexual or pansexual with his reputation for “kissing everyone” his sexual orientation is never defined or interrogated as closely as Henry’s. For his part, Henry spends much of the novel aware of his own homosexuality but unwilling to admit it fully to his friends or family.

Henry and Len’s evolving relationship is presented with all of the messiness and confusion you’d expect from two teens trying to redefine a friendship that has seen them through childhood and adolescence into fast approaching adulthood. Len’s focus on photography and the pending remarriage of Henry’s grandmother (to her girlfriend) also add additional layers to this story where most characters are trying to figure out where they fit in the wider world.

Henry Hamlet’s Heart combines lyrical prose with big unknowns as Henry tries to figure out his future and his love life in this story about growing up and accepting change.

Possible Pairings: Kate in Waiting by Becky Albertalli, How Not to Ask a Boy to Prom by S. J. Goslee, Ready When You Are by Gary Lonesborough, Ophelia After All by Raquel Marie, If I Tell You by Alicia Tuckerman, The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde, Wild Life by Fiona Wood

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

You Truly Assumed: A Review

You Truly Assumed by Laila SabreenIn the wake of a terrorist attack three Black Muslim teens find unlikely comfort online.

Sabriya is close enough to the attack in DC that her father picks her up from the dance studio; close enough that Bri, her younger sister, and their father all hold their breaths until Bri’s mother walks through the door. With the news cycle stuck on the attacks, on the terrorist with a name that sounds just Muslim enough for people looking for an excuse, Bri doesn’t know what to do with all of her big feelings about the attack and the aftermath and the way her perfectly planned summer of conservatory auditions is impossible now. Usually she’d write it all down in a notebook but this time she goes to a blog instead. Which changes everything.

Every Muslim in the US feels the ramifications of the attacks, worries about the Islamaphobia it will help justify. But it all feels far away for Zakat in the idyllic Muslim community she has always known in her town in Georgia. Until a childhood enemy is hired at the bookstore alongside Zakat and her best friend. While Aafreen is quick to trust and offer second chances, Zakat can’t help but wonder if this new addition to their social circle has anything to do with the vandalism at their mosque and other hateful incidents. Contributing her artwork to a new blog called You Truly Assumed should be a refuge and a distraction. But it becomes anything but as hateful commenters find the site.

Farah’s summer pushes her way out of her comfort zone. Instead of spending it with her mother, Farah is sent across the country to get to her father and meet her step-mother and half-siblings for the first time. The trip is a chance to explore college options on the east coast and test the waters of a long distance relationship. Farah doesn’t expect to also find community as a co-runner of You Truly Assumed much less as someone helping to plan a vigil after another attack.

As the blog gains momentum and attention Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah will all have to deal with the fallout as they try to make a place for themselves and other Black Muslim teens in You Truly Assumed (2022) by Laila Sabreen.

Find it on Bookshop.

You Truly Assumed is Sabreen’s debut novel. Chapters alternate between Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah’s first person narrations. While the three start as strangers in different areas their growing connection brings both the characters and their divergent stories together. These protagonists also help break down the idea of the Muslim or Black experience as a monolith. Zakat, a hijabi, is an aspiring artist attending a Muslim school who is very active in her local mosque. Farah and her mother are Muslim but Farah is spending the summer with her Black father and his family who are Christian while she considers STEM college options on the east coast.  Sabriya comes from a inter-faith household and is weighing the pros and cons of attending college or a conservatory ballet program after high school before the blog takes off.

While the advent and maintenance of the blog is what initially starts the story, each girl has their own arc as the novel progresses with navigating new family dynamics, micro-aggressions, friendships, and romantic relationships. Sabreen balances these multiple plots and protagonists well giving each girl adequate page time to stand out. Questions of how each girl negotiates being Black or Muslim enough in spheres that try to treat the two as mutually exclusive also lead to empowering moments as each heroine comes into her own. Unfortunately the writing doesn’t always do as much work to distinguish between the narrators with the voices sometimes blending together. (I listened to the audiobook and even having three different voice actors as narrators didn’t help.)

You Truly Assumed offers an authentic perspective on what it means to navigate online spaces showcasing both the highs–as Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah form a real friendship thanks to running the blog together–and the lows–when a conservative, alt right site lists the blog for a targeted harassment campaign. The girls’ families are also refreshingly present and, as situations escalate, involved in the resolution including some hard conversations about what happens next. Although Farah is in a relationship for the entirety of the novel, the story remains firmly focused on friendship and community rather than romance.

You Truly Assumed is an empowering story about finding your voice and your community. A must read in these disconnected times.

Possible Pairings: Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali, Girls Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, Love Times Infinity by Lane Clarke, Does My Body Offend You? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt, Until We Break by Matthew Dawkins, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Seton Girls by Charlene Thomas

Only a Monster: A Review

Only a Monster by Vanessa LenSixteen-year-old Joan Chang-Hunt has a lot to look forward to this summer. She is once again staying with her mother’s eclectic family in London but this year is even better. Not only does she have a dream job at the historic Holland House–she gets to work alongside fellow nerd and crush Nick.

Going on a date with Nick is truly a dream come true. Or at least it should be. Unfortunately, the day of the date does not go as planned.

Instead of the start of a perfect summer, Joan finds herself in a nightmare as she learns more about her family–and their secrets.

Joan comes from a long line of monsters. Actual monsters with horrifying powers. Powers Joan might have herself.

Monsters are the least of Joan’s problems when she realizes that Nick is a hero–a monster hunter from the stuff of legend whose only goal is destroying monsters like Joan. And her family.

Desperate to protect her loved ones, Joan is willing to do anything even if it means working with a snobby stranger who happens to be the equivalent of monster royalty. Aaron Oliver is insufferable but he also knows how to navigate a world of actual monsters and heroes and maybe, just maybe, how to help Joan survive it too.

Joan is a monster. Nick is a hero. Everyone knows how that story ends. But Joan also knows that if she wants to keep her family safe it’s time for a rewrite in Only a Monster (2022) by Vanessa Len.

Find it on Bookshop.

Only a Monster is Len’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy. Joan is biracial (her mother is white and her father Chinese Malaysian) with other main characters assumed white although there is diversity among the monster families and secondary characters.

Distinct world building including a sprawling network of monster families and magical powers ranging from perfect memory to time travel create a rich landscape for Joan’s adventures as she struggles against enemies and even time itself to try to save her family. Ethical questions of what separates so-called heroes and villains inform Joan’s character arc. These moral questions also lend nuance to male leads Aaron and Nick as as their own backgrounds and development factor into the plot.

Readers will appreciate Len’s eye for detail as she brings both present and 1993 London to life while also expanding Joan’s knowledge of the monster world. In a community where everything from clothes to mannerisms carry loaded meaning Joan is doubly aware of her status as a biracial teen and–more dangerously in her current circumstances–as a half-human, half-monster girl in a world that usually sticks to strict binaries.

Only a Monster is a fascinating urban fantasy where nothing is as it seems. Well-drawn characters, action, and numerous surprises make Only a Monster an unforgettable read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: In Every Generation by Kendare Blake, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, This Savage Song by V. E. Schwab, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Seoulmates: A Review

Seoulmates by Susan LeeHannah Cho’s dreams of perfect summer before senior year go up in smoke when her boyfriend dumps her. Nate, like most of their friend group, is obsessed with K-pop and K-dramas. While Hannah is Korean American, she has no use for Korean pop culture. After years of leaning into the American parts of her identity to better fit in, Hannah doesn’t know how to handle this shift. Especially when it leaves her suddenly single.

As a rising K-drama star, Jacob Kim struggles with questions of whether he’s committed enough–and Korean enough–to succeed. After years of training, he isn’t sure how much longer he can deal with the pressure to make himself constantly available to his publicity team, his costars, and the press. When a press junket leads to Jacob needing some down time, he’s excited. Until he finds out his mom plans to have them stay with the Chos.

Jacob and Hannah used to be inseparable as kids. But that was before everything soured between them. The two strike an uneasy bargain–and an even more tenuous truce–when Hannah enlists Jacob’s help to win back her boyfriend and Jacob, in turn, asks Hannah to help him complete his summer bucket list of all the things he’s missed in San Diego over the years.

As Hannah and Jacob get to know each other again they’ll have to decide if new memories are enough to make up for old hurts and whether they’re headed for a happy ending or some K-drama level tears in Seoulmates (2022) by Susan Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Seoulmates is Lee’s debut novel. The novel alternates close third person perspective between Hannah and Jacob with some fun vignettes from their mothers’ points of view along the way. All principle characters are Korean or Korean American.

Hannah’s relationship with K-dramas and K-pop is partially inspired by the author’s own journey to embrace her heritage and cultural identity. As such, Seoulmates is lovingly filled with as many zany adventures and heart-string tugs as K-drama fans would expect. While Hannah starts the novel bitter and angry at Jacob, her hurt is clearly defined on the page never leaving readers in doubt of the long history between these characters and the difficult conversations they have in order to get back to each other.

Their hate to love relationship plays out against the backdrop of a summer filled with big questions. Hannah has to figure out what it means to be Korean American when, at last, being Korean finally seems to make her cool enough without trying to change herself. Jacob, meanwhile, has to figure out if continuing as an actor is worth the lack of privacy and the pressure–a stressful question to consider when he’s also been supporting his family since his father’s death years ago.

Lee balances these different plot threads well leaving room for the characters to realistically learn and grow as they reconnect while also delivering gasp-worthy twists in the rocky road of Hannah and Jacob’s relationship.

Seoulmates is a fun and breezy summer romance where finding love is tempered well with finding yourself.

Possible Pairings: The Charmed List by Julia Abe, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Susan Lee here on the blog.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*