Vinyl Moon: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. BrowneFive weeks ago Angel was dating Darius. Five weeks ago she still believed he loved her. Five weeks ago, after one terrible night, all of that changed.

Now Angel is across the country in Brooklyn. She’s getting used to living with her uncle Spence and exploring the Flatbush neighborhood that’s now home. She’s trying to figure out who she is when she doesn’t have Darius telling her everything she’s doing right–or wrong–and who she is when she doesn’t have her younger brother Amir or the triplets to take care of.

After that horrible night and the argument that changed everything, Angel know she needs to heal. She just isn’t sure if she deserves to yet.

As she makes new friends and discovers books and music that feel like they were made for her, Angel starts to realize her world could be bigger than her family, bigger than Darius. For the first time in years, Angel has space to be anything she wants to be–once she figures out who that is in Vinyl Moon (2022) by Mahogany L. Browne.

Find it on Bookshop.

Set over the course of a school year, Vinyl Moon is a deceptively short novel with quick vignette-like chapters narrated by Angel as she gets situated and begins to feel at home in Brooklyn. Free verse poems are interspersed with the prose highlighting different elements of the story and adding a lyrical quality to this unique reading experience. The audiobook is narrated by Bahni Turpin (quickly becoming one of my favorite voice actors) who does a fantastic job bringing Angel’s world–and her voice–to life.

Angel and most characters are Black. Angel’s classmates include characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum with a variety of lived experiences including a single mother finishing high school, secret poets and DJs, and alternatives to college with potential love interest Sterling who is in the ROTC. The story is also deeply and authentically grounded in its New York City setting and specifically Brooklyn as Angel explores many neighborhood instituations that local readers will readily recognize.

The novel features flashbacks that slowly unpack exactly what happened to get Angel to Brooklyn and her complicated past with her family. As she gains distance from everything that happened with Darius, Angel begins to understand what happened and her agency in making sure it does not happen again. New friendships, her uncle, and support from teachers at her new school also help Angel view her fraught relationship with her mother in a new light and realize some relationships are worth saving.

My favorite part of Vinyl Moon is Angel’s journey to understand her own past while discovering a love for books, poetry, and music–Browne presents this plot thread with joy and passion as Angel’s world starts to expand. As Angel observes, “It’s not that I don’t like reading. I’ve just never had room to do anything for myself.”–a sentiment that applies to so many people making their way back to (or discovering) things they love.

Vinyl Moon is empowering, hopeful, and not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, Push by Sapphire, Genesis Begins Again by Alicia Williams

Blackout: A Review

Blackout by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola YoonEveryone who’s ever lived in New York City has a blackout story. Maybe it involves the looting and chaos of the 1977 blackout. Maybe you were at your first part-time job orientation about to get your ID photo taken when the blackout in 2003 hit the entire northeast (that’s mine). Maybe you were without power for five days after Superstorm Sandy in 2011 (still me). Maybe you have a different story.

For a group of Black teens things get a lot clearer after the lights go out. Like, all the lights. Everywhere.

They all start in different places. Stranded in Manhattan, isolated from friends, worried about elderly relatives, thinking about what comes next.

But tonight is the last block party of the summer. Missing it is not an option. Whether walking, biking, or going rogue in a NYC tour bus (for real) everyone has somewhere to be tonight. And, along the way, everyone has something to learn about themselves and their heart in Blackout (2021) by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon.

Find it on Bookshop.

Blackout is a collaborative novel featuring six interconnected stories from some of the best voices in writing YA fiction right now. Clayton–the initiator of the project–pulled these authors together to create their own version of the ubiquitous Hallmark romantic comedies that often fail to feature Black characters (or any characters of color) finding love. The audiobook is pitch perfect with narrators Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Dion Graham, Imani Parks, Jordan Cobb, Shayna Small, A.J Beckles and Bahni Turpin bringing the characters to life.

The book starts with “The Long Walk” by Tiffany D. Jackson, a story told in five acts throughout the novel as exes Tammie and Kareem reluctantly travel together back to Brooklyn after the blackout (and finding out they were both offered a single internship) leaves them stranded at the Apollo theater in Harlem. Tammie’s narration is sharp and still smarting after the breakup but as the two make their way to a block party where Kareem will be DJing, both teens realize that maybe growing apart doesn’t mean they have to stay apart.

In “Mask Off” by Nic Stone JJ (Tammie’s brother, who is bisexual) is trapped in a subway car with his longtime crush Tremain. Helping Tremain manage his claustrophobia as they escape the crowded subway allows the two to talk–and connect–more than their years at school together and JJ’s suspicions about Tremain’s sexuality have allowed. This is one of the shorter stories but Stone uses every word to great effect drawing readers into JJ and Tremain’s dramatic subway exit.

Even when her heart is broken, Nella loves visiting her grandfather at his nursing home, Althea House in “Made to Fit” by Ashley Woodfolk. There’s nothing like hearing about her grandparents’ love story or hanging out with all the cool seniors–especially when Joss and her therapy dog come around. When a cherished photo goes missing, the girls work together to try and track it down leading to a search through the house that reveals as much about their mutual interest as it does about the missing photo. Come for the cute banter, stay for the matchmaking grandfather.

“All the Great Love Stories … and Dust” starts with Lana’s big plans to finally confess her feelings for her best friend Tristan. A plan that is delayed when the blackout strands the two teens in the main branch of the New York Public Library. While Tristan never quite feels like a worthy love interest for her, Lana’s internal dialog as she tries to figure out how to finally admit her feelings is compelling and authentic.

Kayla thought she had problems before her class trip to New York City in “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” by Angie Thomas but that’s nothing compared to how the trip has been going. Things have felt stale with her longtime boyfriend Rashad for a while but that doesn’t mean that Kayla is prepared for her entire class to discuss the intricacies of her love life when Micah starts trying to get her attention. Kayla is an anxious, fast talker and her narration here is exhausting as she spins out when–with the advent of the blackout–it feels like things between her, Rashad, and Micah are about to come to a head. Unlikely advice from the class’s tour bus driver (Tammie’s dad) remind Kayla that before she can choose either boy, she has to remember how to choose herself.

Blackout wraps with “Seymour and Grace” by Nicola Yoon. Grace’s ride share to the block party takes an unexpected turn when she connects with her driver Seymour. Her entire plan for the night was to get to the block party looking sharp as hell while she gives her ex Tristan the earful he so righteously deserves. But plans change all the time. Maybe this ride share is a sign that Grace should make some changes too. Yoon brings her usual excellent prose and clever characters to this story making it a powerful conclusion to this collection.

Blackout is a fun, multifaceted story centering Black joy and highlightling love in many forms. The interconnected nature of the stories leaves room for fun Easter eggs to tie the different pieces together while leaving space for each author to shine in this book filled with humor, pathos, and plenty of love. Blackout is a must read for fans of contemporary romance–short story or novel–and a perfect introduction to these talented authors.

Possible Pairings: Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson, Summer Days and Summer Nights edited by Stephanie Perkins, The Meet-Cute Project by Rhiannon Richardson, Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie Rigaud, Up All Night: 13 Stories Between Sunset and Sunrise edited by Laura Silverman, The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith, Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm*

Instructions for Dancing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola YoonEvie Thomas is done with love.

After watching her parents’ marriage fall apart, she knows firsthand that love is a scam. Real life doesn’t have happy endings. The romance novels she used to adore are all lies.

While her mother tries to move on and her younger sister falls headfirst into every relationship she can, Evie is still angry at her father. And she’s furious that she wasted so much time believing in something that never lasts.

Giving up on love seems like the easiest course of action until Evie’s plan to donate her romance novel collection to a little free library goes horribly wrong. After accepting a mysterious book from a stranger, Evie can suddenly see people fall in love when they kiss. Her new visions trace each relationship from its tender beginning to the inevitable conclusion. It’s more than anyone can take but especially someone who is done with love.

Evie’s hunt for a way to stop whatever is happening leads her to La Brea Dance Studio and the owners’ charming, very cute nephew X. Where Evie is cautious, X is impulsive. If Evie is reserved, X is open–he always says yes. In other words, they are complete opposites and, through a series of events Evie barely understands, they are also suddenly partners in an amateur dance competition.

All Evie wants to do is stop her weird visions. If that means hanging out with X, fine. Falling for him is definitely not part of the plan, no matter how cute X might be. But the more time Evie spends with X, the more obvious it is that falling for him is as inevitable as standing close during the tango.

After witnessing so many heartbreaks firsthand, Evie knows that love always ends. As she gets closer to X, she’ll have to decide if having love at all is enough to risk the inevitable heartbreak in Instructions for Dancing (2021) by Nicola Yoon.

Find it on Bookshop.

In many ways Instructions for Dancing feels like a natural next step (pun intended) to follow up Yoon’s blockbuster sophomore novel The Sun is Also a Star. Through Evie’s visions this story spins out from main character Evie’s first person narration to show a world that is much larger, and more beautiful, that cynical Evie is at first willing to acknowledge. Elements of fabulism (think magic realism but not by latinx authors) add unexpected magic and whimsy to this subtle story. Evie and X are Black and backed up by an inclusive cast with strong friendships and memorable adults notably including X’s grandparents.

Evie’s reluctant immersion in the world of competitive dance adds a lot of humor to a story that tackles weighty topics like love and loss with nuance and care. Evie’s friend group also plays an important role in the novel as all of them prepare for the end of high school and what that will mean for each of them and their friend web.

Instructions for Dancing is the definition of bittersweet with an ending that is sure to garner a few tears from even the coldest of hearts. With a story that carefully balances hope and pragmatism, Instructions for Dancing is affirming and, ultimately, an ode to love in all of its forms.

Possible Pairings: What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, The Love Curse of Melody McIntyre by Robin Talley

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

Rise to the Sun: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Rise to the Sun by Leah JohnsonOlivia is trying to make her way through yet another heartbreak with help from her best friend and trying to figure out how she can ever face going back to school after her latest romantic disaster.

Toni is grieving the death of her roadie father and trying to figure out what happens next when pursuing her dreams feels a lot like making the same mistakes her father seems to have made.

Two different roads lead to the same destination and Olivia and Toni end up at the Farmland Music and Arts Festival. The festival is a chance to enjoy live music and for both girls a chance to have one last really good time before everything changes.

What neither of them counted on is meeting each other. With chemistry that feels inevitable, Olivia and Toni are immediately drawn to each other. But after spending so long making bad choices, will either of them be ready to make the right one this time?

When the festival goes from a safe haven to anything but, both Olivia and Toni will have to dig deep to find their way back to each other and to the music they both love in Rise to the Sun (2021) by Leah Johnson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Rise to the Sun is Johnson’s sophomore novel. This standalone contemporary can be read alone but readers familiar with Johnson’s previous novel You Should See Me in a Crown will recognize secondary character Mack and everyone’s favorite band. Olivia, Toni, and Olivia’s best friend are Black. Toni’s best friend Peter is presumed Indian (last name Menon). The story alternates between Olivia and Toni’s first person narrations.

This story is an ode to music–both performing and listening–as well as live performance. Farmland is such a well described setting that it quickly becomes a character in the story as the novel builds to a final act where the fate of the long-running music festival is called into question.

At the start of the novel, Toni is still grieving her father’s death and still unsure how to reconcile her love of music with her father’s seeming lack of success in the same profession before his premature death. Scared to be hurt again, she instead closes herself off with self-destructive choices to deny what (and who) she really wants.

Olivia, meanwhile, is a self-described nightmare person. Constantly surrounded by drama from her endless search for love, Olivia is used to having her hand held by best friend Imani through any and every stumbling block. The tension between long-suffering Imani and oblivious Olivia adds another layer to this story as Johnson explores what makes a healthy friendship alongside the specific pain of unrequited love.

Rise to the Sun is a story of first love, second chances, friendship, and one epic music festival. Recommended for readers who enjoy books with festivals or road trips, music, and characters with chemistry.

Possible Pairings: Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender; Blackout by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon; I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest, Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker, Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud, The Summer of Jordi Perez and the Best Burgers in Los Angeles by Amy Spalding

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; Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne; Blackout by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon; 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