Firekeeper’s Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Firekeepers Daughter by Angeline BoulleyDaunis Fontaine has always felt like an outsider. Sometimes she’s “too Indian” for her mother’s white relatives. As an unenrolled tribal member thanks to the scandal surrounding her parents’ relationship and her own birth, Daunis never feels like she’s fully part of life on the Ojibwe reservation no matter how much time she spends with that side of her family.

With her pre-med college plans on hold after her grandmother’s debilitating stroke, Daunis feels more adrift than ever. Enter Jamie the newest member of her half-brother Levi’s hockey team. Jamie and Daunis click but that doesn’t change all of the little things about his background that don’t quite make sense.

In the wake of a tragedy that hits too close to home, Daunis learns the truth about Jamie and finds herself at the center of a far-flung criminal investigation as a confidential informant. Delving deeper into the investigation, Daunis will have to confront uncomfortable truths about her own family’s past and the reservation community to discover the truth. After years of admiring her elders, Daunis will have have to embrace being a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) herself to see things through in Firekeeper’s Daughter (2021) by Angeline Boulley.

Find it on Bookshop.

Firekeeper’s Daughter is Boulley’s debut novel.

Boulley describes this story as the indigenous Nancy Drew she always wanted to read and that really is the best description. With plot threads exploring opioid addiction (and dealing), grief, and sexual assault, Firekeeper’s Daughter is a heavy read.

Subplots involving hockey, Daunis’s complicated feelings about her family, and more can make the story seem sprawling at times although Boulley admirably ties every single thread together by the end.

Daunis’s high stakes investigation and her intense relationship with Jamie plays out against the fully realized backdrop of life in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and on the Ojibwe reservation. Daunis’s focus on her own culture and heritage are crucial to the plot bringing Daunis closer to the real culprit complete with a focus on traditional (herbal) medicine and the importance of community elders.

Firekeeper’s Daughter is a taut, perfectly plotted mystery with a protagonist readers won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Every Stolen Breath by Kimberly Gabriel, Fake ID by Lamar Giles, The Bodies We Wear by Jeyn Roberts, Sadie by Courtney Summers, Veronica Mars

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

A Deadly Education: A Review

“It’s always mattered a lot to me to keep a wall up round my dignity, even though dignity matters fuck-all when the monsters under you bed are real. Dignity was what I had instead of friends.”

A Deadly Education by Naomi NovikScholomance is a school for magically gifted students and a solid way to avoid the deadly monsters intent on eating tasty young magicians until you can form a strong alliance, learn the proper spells, and build out your arsenal of magical supplies. All of this is complicated for Galadriel “El” Higgins, whose powerful dark magic means that the school would much rather teacher her deadly incineration spells than simple spells for cleaning her room.

El has a good plan for surviving her junior year at Scholomance and coming out of it with a solid alliance to survive her senior year and the literal gauntlet that is graduation. A plan that goes out the window when Orion Lake saves her life for the second time.

Now instead of biding her time waiting for a chance to demonstrate her own immense powers, El has to waste her time convincing everyone she isn’t another of Orion’s lost causes. She also has to do this while adhering to strict mana–fueling magic with her own effort–lest she accidentally become a maleficer unleashing the full scope of her deadly magical potential.

No one has ever liked El and that’s made it easy to observe the inner workings of the school. It’s also left El prepared for the school’s cutthroat atmosphere and isolation. What El is not prepared for her is Orion’s continued efforts to save her, befriend her, and maybe date her.

Sticking with Orion could be the answer to all of El’s fears about surviving senior year. But with more monsters prowling the school than ever, El has to figure out to keep Orion from sacrificing himself for the greater good and how to avoid accidentally killing any other students while surviving her junior year in A Deadly Education (2020) by Naomi Novik.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Deadly Education is the first book in Novik’s Scholomance trilogy. The series started life as a Harry/Draco fan fic before being rewritten to be its own book. While I enjoyed this book a lot, it does have some problems including one correction to the text and some possibly racist portrayals/imagery (opinions vary widely so if you’re concerned, I’d read reviews before you pick up the book).

In the first print run a scene in the middle of the book (page 186) singled out the locs hairstyle as being targeted by some of the monsters in the school. This evokes racist stereotypes about Black hair and was a late addition to the book that was not present during sensitivity reads. It was a hurtful addition and Novik has issued an apology including actions being taken moving forward with the series. Reading the book as a white woman, this was the most obvious concern and I am glad it’s being addressed (removed from future printings and digital editions) and glad Novik issued an apology including next steps.

Asma’s review on Goodreads was one of the first to raise these concerns while sharing others about racist portrayals in the book. I’m not equipped (or entitled) to comment on any of these concerns but will say a lot of the textual issues pointed out do make sense with the worldbuilding. The Mary Sue calls the book’s problems a lack of “authentic representation” which feels like a more accurate statement.

El’s mother is Welsh and her father is Indian. El is only raised by her mother after her father dies making sure El’s pregnant mother survives graduation. Readers learn early on that El is also the subject of an incredibly dark prophecy which makes her paternal relatives want to kill her as a small child. So El, understandably, has no interactions with them. While there are many issues surrounding white authors (like Novik) writing non-white or biracial characters (like El), it’s always a balancing act. BookRiot has a post discussing this and also discussing why it’s okay for a character like El to be disconnected from the Indian half of her identity. This is a thread Nickie Davis also explores.

Lastly I want to direct you to the very thoughtful review from Thea at The Book Smugglers who helped me figure out how to approach my own review (and direct to the links above as well) and also this review from A Naga of the Nusantara which offers another response to some of the concerns about this book.

So that’s a lot. I absolutely understand and respect those who will choose to avoid this book after hearing about the initial error and fallout. That’s a fair and valid choice. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had heard about it all before I had bought and started reading my copy. That said, after disliking Uprooted and being impressed but not dazzled by Spinning Silver, I loved a lot of this book. I felt like A Deadly Education was exactly my speed.

El is an exhausting narrator. Her prose is snappy with a clipped cadence that makes the novel very fast-paced and makes the world building daunting as readers are introduced to El and her world. This choice feels fitting as the Scholomance itself is incredibly daunting and intimidating to students who can be (and are) eaten or killed at every turn by monsters attracted to their untapped magic.

A Deadly Education introduces readers to a sprawling, high stakes world set at a magical school where mistakes are deadly. A strong series starter that, I hope, will improve with later installments (and learning experiences). A Deadly Education is a dark, smart fantasy filled with a snarky, anti-hero protagonist, reluctant friendships, and surprisingly funny dark humor. Recommended with reservations (do your homework before you pick this one up).

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; The Cruel Prince by Holly Black; All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman; Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey; An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard; Killing November by Adriana Mather; The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix; Deadly Class by Rick Remender, Wes Craig, Lee Loughridge; Carry On by Rainbow Rowell; And I Darken by Kiersten White; Fable by Adrienne Young

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

Harley in the Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn BowmanHarley never thought she’d have to run away to the circus. Not when her parents already run a successful one in Las Vegas. After years of dreaming of becoming an aerialist and performing on the static trapeze, Harley hopes her parents will finally see how serious she is and let her begin training professionally after high school.

Instead they double down on their demand that Harley focus on college first and then consider the circus–even though Harley knows she is in her prime as a performer right now, something that may not be true after four years in school studying something she has no interest in learning.

After her latest fight with her parents goes too far, Harley feels like she only has one choice: join a rival traveling circus.

Life on the road isn’t what Harley expected. The performers at Maison du Mystère don’t trust her, the trapeze artist who is supposed to mentor Harley actively hates her, and worst of all Harley has to live with the guilt over what she did to her parents so that she could snatch this opportunity. Harley has never felt like she fit into her family–never enough of any one thing to truly share her biracial parents’ and her grandparents’ histories–and now she’s afraid she may not be enough for the circus either.

As she struggles to carve out a place for herself at the Maison du Mystère and prove to herself and her parents that she has what it takes, Harley will have to decide if the sacrifices–and the choices–that she’s made to get to this point are worth it in Harley in the Sky (2020) by Akemi Dawn Bowman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Harley in the Sky tackles a lot but it’s all handled exceptionally well and works to create a well-rounded, character-driven story. While trying to earn a spot in the circus Harley  grapples with her identity as the child of two biracial parents and what that means for her own cultural identity (or her lack thereof when she feels she is not quite enough of any one thing to truly claim it). She also tries to explain the coping mechanisms she has created for herself to deal with depression and mania and the stigma her own parents carry toward discussing mental illness. (Harley remains undiagnosed in the novel because, as she tells other characters, the way she moves through the world is normal to her and not something she needs help handling right now.)

Harley is a smart, passionate narrator. She understands her world through her physicality–something Bowman captures beautifully–and she isn’t afraid to go after what she wants even if she sometimes goes too far chasing those dreams. But she is also constantly learning and growing and, perhaps most importantly, she is always trying to do better–something that can never be undervalued in a novel or in real life.

Harley in the Sky is an ode to the beauty and the work of circus life as seen through the eyes of someone who loves every aspect of it. Come for the circus setting, stay for the sweet romance and thoughtful conversations on friendship, intersectionality, and work. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Akemi Dawn Boman about this book!

Possible Pairings: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean, The Circus by Olivia Levez, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, American Girls by Alison Umminger

The Voting Booth: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Voting Booth by Brandy ColbertMarva Sheridan has been preparing for this day for years. She has campaigned, phone banked, and helped register voters. Now she’s ready to vote in her first election because she knows it’s the best way to make a difference.

Duke Crenshaw is over the election even before he gets to his polling site. His family has always been politically minded thanks to his big brother, Julian. But it hasn’t been the same since Julian’s death. Now all Duke wants to do is get voting over with and focus on his band’s first ever paid gig that night.

Except when Duke gets to the polling place, he can’t vote.

Marva isn’t about to let anyone get turned away from the polling place–not even a stranger. So she volunteers to do everything she can to make sure Duke gets his vote in.

What starts as a mission to get one vote counted quickly turns into a whirlwind day filled with drives across the city, waiting in lines, hunting for one Instagram famous cat, grassroots organizing, and maybe even some romance in The Voting Booth (2020) by Brandy Colbert.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Voting Booth is Colbert’s best book yet and my personal favorite. Set over the course of one hectic election day, the novel follows Marva and Duke along with flashbacks expanding key details of their lives throughout the novel.

Colbert pulls no punches as her characters confront with voter suppression and racism. Both of them also try to deal with how best to “explain their Blackness” as Marva examines her relationship with her white boyfriend and Duke navigates being biracial while living with his white mother.

The story is tense and authentic but it’s also gentle and often extremely funny. Although Duke’s life especially has been touched by tragedy before the start of the novel, you know the characters are going to be okay. Marva and Duke carry the story but they have a lot of help from excellent secondary characters notably including Duke’s younger sister Ida and Marva’s parents.

The Voting Booth is a hopeful, zany, romantic comedy complete with an Internet famous cat but also an empowering story about politics and pushing back against injustice. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed, You Say it First by Katie Cotugno, The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Today, Tonight, Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon, Running by Natalie Sylvester, Watch Us Rise by Renee Watson, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations: A Nonfiction Review

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira JacobThe trouble starts when Z is six. He has a lot of questions about everything from who taught Michael Jackson to dance, if moonwalking has anything to do with how to actually walk on the moon, to if it’s bad to be brown.

Artist and author, Mira Jacob tries to answer all of his questions–but it isn’t always easy to explain to a half-Jewish, half-Indian boy that not everyone is going to understand him or want to make space for him.

Using Z’s questions as a spring board, this graphic novel memoir explores the tensions leading up to the 2016 US election, the author’s own history growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in small town American, and more to get at what we really talk about when we talk about race, sexuality, belonging, and love in Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations (2019) by Mira Jacob.

Good Talk was both heavier and lighter than I expected. Jacob combines photographic backgrounds with realistic black and white drawings of characters to create high contrasts pages. Although the pages are often static with speech bubbles doing most of the work to move the book along, the story remains dynamic and engrossing.

Good Talk is an excellent introduction to graphic novels for readers looking to try that format for the first time. Jacob’s frank exploration of identity and racism in her own life and in the larger context of the 2016 US election also makes Good Talk a great entry point for difficult conversations about race, politics, and what it means to be an ally.

In addition to providing a thoughtful window into a very painful moment in US politics and the hard conversations we all need to have in the wake of that moment, Good Talk is a laugh out loud funny memoir about growing up and speaking up. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib; The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish; How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones ; March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell; So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo; We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

Dramatically Ever After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Dramatically Ever After by Isabel Bandeira

Em Katsaros’s senior year is not quite what she imagined. Her boyfriend is dreamy and sweet. But he’s also five thousand miles away–and still not the best at English since he spent most of his semester in the US making out with Em instead of studying, which makes emailing and texting a challenge.

Then there’s the fact that Em’s dad just got laid off. With money tight and the future uncertain, Em has to hustle for scholarships if she wants to be able to afford to attend her first choice university and its amazing acting program.

Luckily, Em has the perfect plan. All she has to do is channel her scene-stealing acting skills for a speech competition. Making it to the national round of the US Youth Change Council competition means a week in Boston and the chance to win a national scholarship.There’s only one thing standing in her way: Kris Lambert–senior class president, total jerk, Em’s long-time nemesis, and unbelievably her fellow state representative for New Jersey.

Kris seems different once they get to Boston, but Em isn’t easily fooled. With so much on the line, Em is willing to do whatever it takes to secure her win–even if it means she’ll have to pretend to flirt with Kris to throw him off is his game. But as the final competition gets closer, Em starts to realize her strategy to foil Kris might have spectacularly backfired when Kris starts to give as good as he gets in Dramatically Ever After (2017) by Isabel Bandeira.

Find it on Bookshop.

Dramatically Ever After is the second book in Bandeira’s Ever After trilogy which begins with Em’s best friend Phoebe in Bookishly Ever After. Each book in the series functions as a standalone so they can be read independently.

As the title suggests, Em is a dramatic narrator who is always ready to add a little drama to her life whether it means pretending to flirt with Kris during their trip to Boston or over romanticizing her long-distance relationship that may have run its course. Em isn’t always the nicest or easiest heroine. She embraces those parts of her personality and has no patience for anyone who is unwilling to accept all of her on her own terms.

Kris and Em are great foils as both are incredibly aware of each other’s strategies to win the speech competition and determined to prove who’s the best once and for all. As a result Dramatically Ever After is filled with witty banter and aggressive flirting on both sides as Em and Kris start to realize they might have met their match in each other (and that it might not be a bad thing).

Dramatically Ever After brings readers back to Lambertfield and all of its wonderful characters while also expanding the world and giving readers a new perspective on everyone’s favorite drama queen. Romantic comedy style plots, writing that gets better with each installment, and swoons galore make this series a winner. Be sure to start it now so you’re ready when book three, Practically Ever After, hits shelves!

Possible Pairings: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre, Nothing by Annie Barrows, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, Crow Mountain by Lucy Inglis, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Between the Notes by Sharon Huss Roate, The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti, Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Isabel too!

*A copy of this title was acquired for review consideration from the publisher at BEA 2017*

Darius the Great is Not Okay: A Review

cover art for Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib KhorramDarius Kellner is more comfortable talking about Star Trek than he is about his status as a Fractional Persian. He doesn’t speak Farsi very well and a lot of Persian Social Cues still mystify him (Persian Casual anyone?).

Not that connecting with his father’s side of the family is any easier. Darius isn’t cut out for their Teutonic stoicism and he is no Übermensch like his father Stephen Kellner. The only things they seem to have in common are a love of Star Trek and clinical depression. Not exactly the makings of strong familial ties.

Darius doesn’t know what to expect on his first trip to Iran with his family. He’s excited to meets his grandparents and the rest of his family in person for the first time ever. But he doesn’t know what they’ll make of his limited Farsi or his medication.

He never expects to make a new friend, let alone a potentially lifelong one like Sohrab. As Darius starts spending more time with Sohrab he learns what it’s like to have a friend and, maybe, what it’s like to be himself and embrace his namesake—Darioush the First aka Darius the Great in Darius the Great is Not Okay (2018) by Adib Khorram.

Darius the Great is Not Okay is Khorram’s marvelous debut. It was a BookExpo 2018 YA Editor’s Buzz Selection and if it doesn’t get a nod from this year’s Morris Award I will be extremely surprised.

Darius’s first person narration immediately draws readers into his world as he explains his passions (tea and Star Trek, in that order) and his frustrations as he struggles to fit in with his own family. Khorram’s writing, especially as Darius begins to discover his family and his heritage in Iran, is vivid and evocative. This book is also filled with delicious descriptions of food, so be sure to read with snacks nearby.

I love the way Khorram uses dialog and voice throughout the book as Darius struggles to connect with relatives who don’t speak English and how to express himself in any language. Darius the Great is Not Okay is a gentle, contemplative read perfect for readers looking to satisfy their wanderlust without leaving home.

Possible Pairings: In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sarah Farizan, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonneblick, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

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

500 Words or Less: A Review

cover art for 500 Words or Less by Juleah del RosarioWhat happens when your attempt to be a better person might be making you worse?

Nic Chen isn’t going to spend her senior year known only as the girl who cheated on her boyfriend with his best friend. She had enough grief when her mom left under a cloud of scandal. This year isn’t going to be a repeat of that.

To revamp her reputation with her Ivy League obsessed classmates, Nic has a simple plan: she will write college admission essays. For a price.

But as Nic learns more about her classmates, she realizes she still has a lot to learn about herself and her moral compass in 500 Words or Less (2018) by Juleah del Rosario.

500 Words or Less is a shining verse novel with a strikingly original story. Through free verse poems Nic contends with painful memories from her past including when her mother left and her last year in high school that changed everything.

Nic is a flawed character well aware of her own shortcomings both in reality and in the eyes of her peers. She grapples with her identity, both as a biracial teen and an outsider at her school, as she tries to figure out how to embrace all of herself–even the ugly pieces.

500 Words or Less is a unique story whose format works well to emphasize elegant prose and complex characterization. An excellent debut that proves del Rosario is an author to watch. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, Analee in Real Life by Janelle Milanes, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner