Roses and Rot: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Roses and Rot by Kat HowardImogen has spent her life reading fairy tales and wishing she could live in one herself. Surely even an evil stepmother would be better than her actual mother. Surely a chance at adventure–even a dangerous one–would be better than waiting, constantly and always, to see what new ways her mother would find to hurt her, to try and turn her and her younger sister Marin against each other.

By the time she’s sixteen, Imogen has found a way out. She has to leave Marin behind. But their mother never hurts Marin the same way she hurts Imogen. And sometimes there is no happily ever after. Sometimes there’s just survival.

Now Imogen and Marin are adults, trying to mend their years-long estrangement and about to live together for the first time since their adolescence at an elite artists’ colony–Imogen for her creative writing and Marin as a dancer. Everything about the program, from its list of accomplished mentors to the patina of success that seems to cling to every alumni, seems too good to be true.

It’s also impossible to pass up.

Once they arrive the program seems to be everything the brochures promised and more. But the pressure is real too. Marin knows taking a year off from performing as a dancer is risky and she isn’t sure it will pay off–even with the attentions of her famous mentor. Imogen, meanwhile, knows the colony is the perfect place to begin piecing together her novel.

But not everything is as it seems. As Imogen and Marin learn more about the program and its background, the sisters realize that success can mean very different things–and have a much higher cost–than either of them ever imagined in Roses and Rot (2016) by Kat Howard.

Find it on Bookshop.

Roses and Rot is Howard’s debut novel. Most major characters, with the exception of Ariel who is described as dark skinned, are white. The novel is narrated by Imogen with excerpts from the fairy tales she is working on during her fellowship.

Howard’s writing is beautiful as she brings the secluded artist’s colony to life with atmospheric descriptions of the changing seasons and the woods looming nearby. References to Imogen’s abusive mother in narrative asides and small flashbacks lend menace to the story as readers learn more about the events leading up to Imogen and Marin’s estrangement.

While all of the pieces are there, the ultimate reveal in Roses and Rot feels abrupt with a payoff that is disproportionate to the buildup as fantasy elements are added to the narrative. Imogen makes sense as the center of the story however her arc is ultimately one of the least interesting as she works to save her sister from her own success. Added elements of competition between the sisters also crop up with almost no explanation beyond the existence of their previous estrangment.

Roses and Rot is a strongly evocative debut that explores the power of both success and creativity as well as the deeper motivations that drive artists to strive for their best. Themes of sacrifice and belonging are explored to better effect in Howard’s stronger sophomore novel An Unkindness of Magicians, an urban fantasy and obvious progression from this debut.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Bunny by Mona Awad, War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

Amber & Clay: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia IredaleThe god Hermes draws readers into “the tale of a girl as precious as amber, / the tale of a boy as common as clay” as he introduces Melisto, a pampered girl in Athens, and Rhaskos, a Thracian slave in Amber & Clay (2021) by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale. Find it on Bookshop.

Although close in age, the two “weren’t alike, but they fit together, / like lock and key.” In normal circumstances, they would never meet, but what is ever normal when the gods are watching?

Their stories begin when both are young children. In segments of verse, Rhaskos remembers his early years as a slave up to the night his mother tattoos him in the Thracian tradition, only to be sold before she can explain the markings to him. Renamed Thratta, Rhaskos’ mother joins Melisto’s household, where she is meant to tend the little girl and ease some of the child’s wildness.

While Rhaskos misses his mother and treasures small moments of beauty observing the horses in his master’s stables in Thessaly, Melisto has her own struggles in Athens. Her mother resents Melisto’s disobedience and willfulness. She also fears that she will “crack her skull / or black her eye, or shake her / so hard” that she will break her daughter’s neck.

Rhaskos’ lyrical, carefully structured blank verse provides contrast with Melisto’s prose passages as the story weaves in voices from Hermes and Hephaistos to Athena and Artemis, among other members of the Greek pantheon. A comprehensive author’s note explains the creative choices Laura Amy Schlitz made in drawing from Greek history and embracing the strophe-antistrophe technique common in Greek plays — as seen in the “Turn and Counterturn” poems, where two characters share their different perspectives on parts of the plot. The book also includes a helpful cast of characters at the beginning.

Archaeological images (illustrated by Julia Iredale) and exhibit-style captions add further dimension to this sprawling narrative. Artifacts that prove key to the story include an “unusually fine” amber gold necklace “found on the Athenian Akropolis, near the ruins of the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia”; Rhaskos’ first pottery casting; and others.

Everything changes for both children when Melisto is called on to serve as a Little Bear at the Sanctuary of Artemis in Brauron. As Hermes explains: “My point is: little is known. / What was meant to be a mystery / is still a mystery. / Except we’re going to lift the veil a little, / and peek. We’ll see Brauron / through Melisto’s eyes— / Melisto’s going to Brauron, / to serve as a Little Bear.”

At the sanctuary, Melisto enjoys unprecedented freedom, allowing her to explore nature, indulge her wildness, and finally thrive as she begins tending a bear cub reserved for a future sacrifice to honor Artemis. Back in Thessaly, Rhaskos’ world becomes even smaller under his abusive new master, Menon, inspiring Hephaistos, the god of fire, metalworking, and masonry, to form a plan to intervene on Rhaskos’ behalf to “send my boy to Athens / and wrest him away from Menon.”

While Melisto decides to honor what she knows is right at Brauron despite Artemis’ supposed wishes, and Rhaskos dreams of a life where he is free and able to make art, events are set in motion that will put the pair on a life-changing, utterly unexpected collision course.

Schlitz’s ambitious standalone middle-grade story is meticulously researched and brings ancient Greece to life as Hermes instructs readers on the country’s proper name (“Don’t call it Greece”), and Rhaskos is shown Athenian attractions like the Trojan Horse and the Akropolis, where “the stones of the temples were bathed in gold” for the first time.

What begins as a story about a spoiled girl and a common boy becomes, in the author’s capable hands, a much larger commentary on art, friendship, and identity as we watch Melisto and Rhaskos transform, becoming “the girl as electric as amber, the boy, indestructible as clay.”

Possible Pairings: The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, Stone River Crossing by Tim Tingle

Happily Ever Afters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Happily Ever Afters by Elise BryantAs a shy introvert, there’s nowhere Tessa Johnson would rather be that sitting down at her laptop writing. Tessa rarely sees herself in the romance novels she loves to read. So instead she writes her own, creating love stories where she and her best friend Caroline can finally see themselves as leading ladies. Writing is the one place Tessa feels like she is fully in control of her life. Sharing her writing with anyone but Caroline is a different story.

While moving for her father’s promotion is hard, Tessa hopes that starting her junior year at an arts school with a creative writing program will make the transition easier. The only problem is that Tessa fails to consider that being in a writing program means people will want to read–and critique!–her writing. Suddenly Tessa’s dream school turns into a nightmare when she loses all of her inspiration and her confidence.

Without any other ideas, Tessa agrees to follow Caroline’s advice: find some real-life inspiration with romance-novel inspired ideas while getting close to the incredibly cute, romance-cover-worthy visual arts student Nico. Checking things off her list turns out to be easy, but Tessa isn’t sure if it’s really going to help her find her words again–or the right guy for her own perfect ending in Happily Ever Afters (2021) by Elise Bryant.

Find it on Bookshop.

Happily Ever Afters is Bryant’s debut novel. The story is narrated by Tessa.

Having a Black father and a white mother, Tessa was used to never fitting in at her previous school where she and Caroline (who is Filipina) initially bonded as two of the only students of color. In addition to the culture shock of a conservatory program, Tessa is thrilled to find a much more diverse group of students at her new school as she bonds with new friends on her own for the first time.

Although Tessa struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, the novel is imbued with humor even as things go wrong. This levity is much needed to counter heavier parts of the story as Tessa balances her own life with the responsibilities and expectations her parents have for Tessa to help with her older brother Miles who has athetoid cerebral palsy which has led to mobility challenges and mental impairment.

While Tessa tries, with varying levels of success, to get closer to Nico, readers can appreciate Tessa’s swoony moments with neighbor and culinary arts student Sam. Both Tessa and Sam struggle with impostor syndrome as Tessa wonders if her romantic stories really “count” as creative writing while Sam tries to justify baking as an art to himself as much as to anyone else.

Happily Ever Afters is an ode to romance novels, creativity, and fandoms. A sweet story about how sometimes you have to learn to love yourself–and your passions–without apology before you can learn to love someone else.

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie Rigaud, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, By the Book by Amanda Sellet, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Felix Ever After: A Review

Felix Ever After by Kacen CallenderFelix Love has never been in love–an irony that weighs heavily on him as he starts the summer before his senior year in high school. Felix is mostly happy with his life and loves who he is but he also wonders as a Black, queer, transgender teen if he’s ever going to find his happy ending.

Felix knows he’s lucky to be fully accepted by his best friend Ezra and his classmates. He knows not all fathers would pay for their son’s top surgery or support his choice to be his true self. Felix reminds himself of that every time his father stumbles a little when he tries to call Felix by his name.

But there’s no excuse when someone in Felix’s summer art program puts up an exhibit with photos of Felix as a kid before he transitioned along with his deadname. When he starts receiving transphobic messages on Instagram, Felix decides it’s time to fight back.

Creating a secret profile to try and out his harasser should be simple since Felix is so sure it’s his longtime nemesis, Declan. But when Felix and Declan start talking, Felix realizes nothing is exactly as it seems–especially Felix’s own feelings for Declan and for Ezra in Felix Ever After (2020) by Kacen Callender.

Find it on Bookshop.

Felix has to deal with some heavy topics throughout the book including the anonymous transphobic harassment and offhand comments from classmates as well as his father’s mixed efforts to support Felix. Callender presents all of this thoughtfully and, thanks to Felix’s first person narration, keeps the focus on Felix’s own experiences without giving extra page time to his traumas. (One example: Although we see Felix being deadnamed–with his childhood photos and captions using the name Felix was given by his parents before he transitioned–in the rogue art exhibit, we do not ever see the actual name used in the book.)

Despite being his story, Felix is not always an easy character to cheer on as he embarks on his own catfishing scheme for revenge. That said, Felix learns a lot and grows a lot as the story progresses and he begins to stand up for himself and more fully understand his own gender identity.

With a flashy, feel-good finale at the New York City Pride parade, Felix Ever After is a summery, romantic story that will leave you with a smile on your face.

Possible Pairings: Simon Vs. the Homo-Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver, Some Girls Bind by Rory James, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg, Birthday by Meredith Russo, Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

I Wanna Be Where You Are: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina ForestChloe Pierce knows it will be hard to break into ballet as a Black dancer–especially one coming back from a bad ankle injury. What surprises Chloe is her mother’s reluctance to support Chloe’s plan to apply to a dance conservatory instead of college.

When her mom and her boyfriend take their first vacation in years, Chloe sees the perfect opportunity to apply to her dream program in secret. All she has to do is drive two hundred miles to the nearest audition. Easy.

But then Eli–longtime neighbor, former friend, and constant annoyance–sees Chloe leaving and insists on coming along if Chloe doesn’t want her mom to find out. And that’s before Chloe realizes that Eli’s smelly dog, Geezer is coming along too.

Chloe has her eyes on the prize, a sweet playlist on repeat, and two passengers she never expected. As the trio gets closer to Chloe’s audition, Chloe and Eli might even start to unpack the baggage that’s come between them and their friendship in I Wanna Be Where You Are (2019) by Kristina Forest.

Find it on Bookshop.

I Wanna Be Where You Are is Forest’s debut novel. Chloe and Eli are both Black–Chloe’s best friend is Latinx.

Chloe is a truly fun narrator. She is focused, driven, and quite snarky when her perfect plans have to change. She also struggles with stage fright and confidence as she works on coming back to dance after a badly broken ankle. While the cause of Chloe’s injury (walking to school in five inch heels instead of carrying them and walking in flats) never quite made sense to me, Chloe’s recovery and her efforts to rediscover what she loves about dance are totally relatable.

Eli is Chloe’s complete opposite and it makes their banter and shenanigans on their unexpectedly long road trip even more enjoyable. While the focus of the story is very firmly on Chloe and her audition, this book is also filled with a fantastic supporting cast including Chloe’s mom and best friend.

I Wanna Be Where You Are is a cute and often funny story about finding love–and confidence–in unexpected places.

Possible Pairings: Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, To All the Boys I’ve Love Before by Jenny Han, Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson, I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn, I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Charming As a Verb by Ben Philippe, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, This Train is Being Held by Ismee Williams

The Invention of Sophie Carter: A Review

“None of us are the same, and we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Our comparisons are invariably false when we compare their strengths to our weaknesses.”

The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha HastingsEngland, 1851: Orphaned and grudgingly cared for by their reluctant guardian, identical twins Sophie and Mariah Carter don’t think they need anyone else when they have each other.

What the sisters need, desperately, is a chance at lives filled with more than the drudgery they’ve known for the last ten years. Sophie dreams of using her clockmaking skills to become a renowned inventor while, with the right instruction, Mariah’s artistic talents could make her a leading painter.

Sophie’s plan to get them both to London for the summer to see the Queen’s Great Exhibition (for Sophie) and London’s finest art (for Mariah) almost works. The problem? Their aunt will only accommodate one sister. To avoid separation the girls travel to London together agreeing to take turns being “Sophie.”

At first, the plan is simple enough since no one can tell the twins apart. But as Sophie forges an unlikely friendship with businessman Ethan and Mariah warms to their aunt’s prickly ward Charles both girls will have to contend with their own feelings and ambitions as well as the two young men who each think they’re falling in love with the real Sophie in The Invention of Sophie Carter (2020) by Samantha Hastings.

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The Invention of Sophie Carter is Hastings’ second novel. Chapters alternate between close third person following each sister during their adventures around London and in their aunt’s house.

Breezy narration, a pitch perfect historical setting, and just the right amount of romance make this story a delight. Themes of sisterhood and individuality elevate this romance adding dimension to both sisters as their horizons expand with the opportunities they are able to seize in London. Ethan and Charles are also excellent foils to both sisters.

The Invention of Sophie Carter is a delightful read and just what I needed right now. Readers are sure to be as smitten with the Carter sisters as their suitors are by the end of this utterly charming novel. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my interview with Samantha about the book here on the blog!

Possible Pairings: Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Antsey, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, Dangerous Alliance by Jennieke Cohen, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

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

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board: A Graphic Novel Review

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board by Kristen GudsnukDany finally feels like she’s getting the hang of middle school. Her best friend Madison has found her own place in town after her confusing start as a drawing in Dany’s magical sketchbook.

With their school opening again after being destroyed in no small part by Dany’s shenanigans at the start of the school year, it’s a busy time. So busy, in fact, that Dany decides it might be time to duplicate herself so she will have someone to help her with mounting homework and figure out how to navigate the still confusing waters of middle school social climbing.

When Dany and … Dany accidentally let a magical dog loose in town, chaos unsurprisingly ensues before Dany, Madison, their other friends, (and the other Dany) work together to try and stop the dog and save the school dance in Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board (2019) by Kristen Gudsnuk.

Find it on Bookshop.

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board is the second installment in Gudsnuk’s wacky graphic novel series.

Gudsnuk takes the humor, friendships, and zaniness from book one and turns it up to twelve in this flashy, full color, graphic novel.

Things you’ll find in these pages: five Solar Scouts, one Pikkiball, one mean girl, several magic flying rings, a dog genie. Do I even need to say more?

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board positions Gudsnuk as a must-read for anyone who enjoys their graphic novels tempered with great humor, good friends, and a whole lot of silly pop culture references.

Possible Pairings: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, All Summer Long by Hope Larson, Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson, Lumberjanes by Noelle Stephenson, Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi, Audrey’s Magic Nine by Michelle Wright, illustrated by Courtney Huddleston and Tracy Bailey

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

The Beauty of the Moment: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Nothing lasts forever. Not this snowflake. Not our homes, not our families. But it doesn’t mean you can’t live in the beauty of the moment.”

Susan Thomas doesn’t cause trouble. She does well in school and she always meets her parents exacting expectations. Maybe that’s why she goes along with her family’s move to Canada without much fuss. Now, instead of spending her senior year with her friends in the familiar surroundings of Saudi Arabia, Susan is in Canada dealing with winter, a school that– while less demanding–is co-ed, not to mention her mother’s depression while they both wonder if Susan’s father will actually make the move to join them in this new country.

According to almost everyone in his life, Malcolm Vakil is trouble. He remembers when he used to care about things like school and making his parents proud but it was a while ago. Before his mother died, before Malcolm found out about his father’s affair, and long before his father finally stopped hitting him and his younger sister. He knows what people see when they look at him. He doesn’t care enough to prove them wrong.

Susan and Malcolm have nothing in common except for wanting desperately to run away from their lives and, maybe, finding a welcome distraction in each other. But the problem with running away is that eventually you have to figure out somewhere–and maybe someone–to run to in The Beauty of the Moment (2019) by Tanaz Bhathena.

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Bhathena’s sophomore novel is a contemporary romance set in the same world as her critically acclaimed debut novel A Girl Like That.

The Beauty of the Moment is a light story but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means it is slight. Bhathena effectively contrasts Susan and Malcolm’s points of view to highlight their differences as well as the common threads that draw them to each other in this story about perceptions and expectations.

This novel is as self-aware as its two main characters. Bhathena artfully explores typical conventions found in romantic comedies while subverting the familiar trope of the smart girl meets bad boy to move the story in unexpected directions. Like all of the best comedies, The Beauty of the Moment isn’t afraid to make fun of itself even drawing its title from a line that Malcolm himself recognizes as being incredibly corny seconds after he shares it.

The Beauty of the Moment is everything you could want in a romantic comedy. As with many things, it’s easy to ignore the work–the strength of Bhathena’s writing– because so much of it is hidden behind well-drawn characters and an engrossing plot. Not to mention beautiful sentence level writing that is sure to immediately draw readers into Susan and Malcolm’s world.

The Beauty of the Moment is a breezy, sweet story about an unlikely romance, complicated families, changed circumstances, and perception. Highly recommended for fans of the genre, readers looking for a new take on some familiar tropes, and anyone looking for a genuine story with authentic, intersectional characters.

Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, 96 Words for Love by Ava Dash and Rachel Roy, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Frankly in Love by David Yoon, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

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

The Astonishing Color of After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. PanLeigh knows that her mother turned into a bird after she killed herself. The bird came to her before the funeral. She came again with a box for Leigh to take with her when she goes.

She isn’t sure what the bird wants or how to help her mother. All she knows is that she and her father are now in Taiwan and Leigh is meeting her maternal grandparents for the first time.

Nothing about the trip or her family is what Leigh expected. Her world feels colorless and confusing–coated with grief and filled with ghosts. But as Leigh learns more about her family, her heritage, and her mother’s past it starts to feel like Leigh might be able to find a way through in The Astonishing Color of After (2018) by Emily X.R. Pan.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Astonishing Color of After is Pan’s debut novel.

It’s taken me a while to review this book because I’ve been struggling with separating how hard this book is to read with how very good it is.

The novel opens shortly after Leigh’s mother has killed herself. Leigh comes home just in time to see her body being taken away, to see the blood, and she is haunted by the thought that she might have been able to do something if only she’d been home instead of celebrating 2.5s Day with her best friend and longtime crush Axel.

Leigh finds a way to channel her grief when a bird comes to her. Leigh knows it’s her mother. She knows the bird is real. She also knows that her mother the bird has things she shouldn’t have–photographs that were burned, heirlooms that were sent to Taiwan.

In traveling to Taiwan Leigh thinks she can somehow rescue her mother the bird and bring her home. Instead Leigh embarks on a journey of discovery and understanding as she learns more about her heritage and her family’s past. She still hurts, she still mourns, but she also begins to learn how to move on and how to forgive.

In traveling to Taiwan Leigh also begins to learn more about her family’s heritage and culture–things that were hard to hold onto as a biracial girl–especially with her mother eager to embrace her new life in America and leave the past behind.

The Astonishing Color of After is not an easy read–Pan’s writing is too visceral, too evocative for that. Instead readers are immediately drawn into Leigh’s journey. Flashbacks shed light on Leigh’s relationship with Axel–a thread that ties the novel together from its painful opening to its hopeful conclusion–while memories from Leigh’s relatives shed light on her mother’s past while also underscoring the flaws in Leigh’s memories and the things she has tried to forget.

The Astonishing Color of After is a powerful and nuanced story about loss, forgiveness, art, and all of the things that make a family–whether it’s blood or a deeper bond. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Boman, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, Tell Me No Lies by Adele Griffin, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Tell Me No Lies: A (WIRoB) Review

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

cover art for Tell Me No Lies by Adele GriffinIt’s October 1988, and Lizzy Swift is finally in 12th grade at her all-girls high school. She was promised glamor and excitement, certain that, at Argyll, “there was no bigger prize” than being a senior.

But now, all she feels is tricked.

So far, the year has been just like every other; she hasn’t taken part in any of the big moments that she always thought would make up her senior year. Instead, Lizzy is busy filling her transcript with items to add to her Princeton application.

She studies to stay on the honor roll, works on drawings for her AP art portfolio, and tries to convince her best friends and fellow nerds, Gage and Mimi, to step outside of their comfort zones with her. But athlete Gage is happy just marking time until college, while Mimi’s free time is spent chatting with her boyfriend.

Lizzy used to think all she wanted was to blend in, to make it easier to pretend no one knows about her epilepsy. It’s been years since she had a grand mal seizure during chorus class, after all.

Since then, Lizzy has managed to largely ignore her condition, never talking about her medication, the doctor, or the risk of seizures that makes her parents overprotective. But she’s constantly on guard, always waiting for her next seizure. And being dubbed “spaz” by popular Wendy Palmer hasn’t helped her social standing.

Lizzy is as shocked as anyone when new girl Claire Reynolds chooses to lavish attention on her, first with shared eyeliner and later with secret trips into the city. Claire is effortlessly cool in a way Lizzy desperately wants to emulate.

Of course, Claire has her own secrets about why she came to Argyll during her senior year, but Lizzy is so thrilled with the friendship that she’s willing to overlook Claire’s secrecy in Tell Me No Lies (2018) by Adele Griffin.

Find it on Bookshop.

(While Lizzy’s epilepsy plays a large role in her character arc, readers may lament that there is no author’s note included to detail the research and resources Griffin may have used to try to authentically portray the condition.)

She also keeps picking up the tab for Claire, despite the fact that Claire and her divorced mother now live with their extremely wealthy aunt and her 16 cats. These, Claire explains, “had the run of the house and could do anything they wanted, plundering like pirates, knocking over vases, scratching curtains and portraits, sleeping anywhere.”

Despite her misgivings about Claire, Lizzy treasures their friendship, as it allows her to present a new version of herself for the first time in years. Her newfound confidence even leads Lizzy to date a longtime crush, Matt Ashley.

But even with their obvious chemistry and affection, which Griffin sweetly shows on the page, every time Lizzy and Matt try to connect physically, it feels like something is off — especially during an awkward hand job that seems to push them further apart instead of bringing the couple closer together.

Is it because Lizzy skipped third grade and is the youngest in her class? Or is something else making Matt hold back every time they’re alone together?

While Lizzy’s focus for most of the novel is her relationship with Claire and Matt, she — and readers — come to appreciate the constant and familiar presence of her best friends, who support her even as they struggle to understand her changing tastes and attitude.

Attention from Mimi’s older brother, Theo, a college student and model described as a “Korean James Bond,” is a confusing addition to Lizzy’s rather overfilled senior year, as their once-easy friendship shifts to a more intense flirtation.

This YA novel about the excitement of new relationships and experiences plays out against the backdrop of fear and paranoia surrounding the AIDS crisis and the shifting norms and politics of the times.

Offhand references to Keith Haring, Joy Division, and other key figures of the period further help set a scene which may feel very remote for today’s teen readers. Plot threads, including sexual abuse by a teacher, closeted gay teens, and the constant fear of HIV, are timely given the setting, if somewhat unnecessary additions to this already jam-packed novel.

Still, Tell Me No Lies is an atmospheric ode to the joys of self-discovery and true friendships. It’s an ideal choice for anyone interested in the 1980s or looking for a compulsively readable piece of historical fiction.

Possible Pairings: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan