If We Were Villains: A Review

If We Were Villains by M. L. RioSeptember 1997: Oliver Marks is finishing his fourth and final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois. After surviving the yearly cuts to his acting program as students fail to meet expectations, it feels like the world is laid at his feet. Everything is ahead of him. This year, it seems, anything can happen.

It will take months for Oliver to realize how right he is.

Ten years later Oliver is finishing the final days of his decade-long prison sentence when the man who arrested him arrives with a surprising ask. Detective Colborne is retiring, leaving his life with the police behind. But he wants answers first. He wants to know what happened at Dellecher all those years ago and, this time, he wants to know the truth.

Returning to the scene of the crime–of so many smaller crimes, if he’s being honest–Oliver sets the scene for Colborne as he remembers that final year with the players in this tale: Richard the tyrant, Alex the villain, James the hero, Wren the ingenue, Meredith the temptress, and Filippa–the one everyone always forgets, always to their disadvantage. And then there’s Oliver, never quite sure where he fits on stage or off.

After three years of settling into roles they seem to know by heart, everything changes during their final year. One of the seven is dead. More than one of them is guilty. One will take the blame. And, ten years later, Oliver will finally tell the truth in If We Were Villains (2017) by M. L. Rio.

Find it on Bookshop.

Rio’s debut novel is part atmospheric thriller, part suspenseful mystery all steeped in Shakespeare and the dangerous energy that can make relationships both exhilarating and toxic.

Structured as a play, the story unfolds over five acts as Oliver narrates key scenes with prologues before each act where he further sets the scene for Colborne. This character driven story is dynamite building slowly to an explosive and often surprising conclusion enhanced by Rio’s excellent foreshadowing and parallels to Shakespearean tragedies.

While If We Were Villains keeps a tight focus on Oliver and his fellow theater students, not all characters are created equal. Oliver and James in particular are so nuanced and so authentically flawed that the other characters often seem flat in comparison as they play to type (this may in part be due to Oliver’s own lens as narrator but still felt like something that could be explored more). Meredith and Wren are especially are disappointingly lacking in depth returning, again and again, to the same concerns and the same shortcomings while Filippa remains, in many ways, a mystery herself.

Set in 1997 and 2007, If We Were Villains is surprisingly hesitant to consider sexuality beyond binaries. While some characters are, understandably, hesitant to let themselves be labeled the novel as a whole refuses to even consider the possibility of both bisexuality and pansexuality as queer identities. This is not damaging to the story but it is erasure worth considering when deciding whether or not to consider this title.

If We Were Villains is a tense, thoughtfully executed story of love, obsession, and missed chances. Perfect for readers fascinated by all-consuming relationships, drama in the classic sense, and of course Shakespeare in every sense. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Macbeth by William Shakespeare, King Lear by William Shakespeare, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Serious Moonlight: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You have the chance to make different choices.”

Serious Moonlight by Jenn BennettBirdie Lindberg’s previously small life is in flux after her strict grandmother’s death. In a bid to gain some independence after finishing homeschooling and earning her high school equivalency, not to mention getting some work experience before college, Birdie convinces her grandfather to let her job hunt on the mainland.

Working the graveyard shift at a historic Seattle hotel won’t be interesting, but it should be easy. Plus, there’s the added bonus of giving Birdie plenty of opportunities to hone her observation skills as an aspiring detective.

At least until Birdie realizes that she’ll be working with Daniel Aoki–amateur magician, graveyard shift van driver, and the other half of an awkward one-afternoon fling that Birdie thought she could safely pretend never happened.

Ignoring Daniel to preserve what’s left of her dignity proves impossible when he asks for her help investigating a reclusive writer holding secret meetings at the hotel. Faced with Daniel’s smoking hotness, his genuine need, and her own curiosity, Birdie knows she has to help.

As Birdie and Daniel work on this real-life mystery together, she soon realizes that the bigger mystery might be what to do about her own feelings for Daniel in Serious Moonlight (2019) by Jenn Bennett.

Find it on Bookshop.

Bennett’s latest standalone novel is filled with all of my favorite things including tons of references to classic detective stories. Birdie is a capable, smart heroine still learning how to come into her own with support from her grandfather and her nonconformist artist aunt, Mona. Daniel is charismatic, funny, and everything Birdie (and readers) could want in a male lead.

The hotel mystery and Birdie’s approach to life as she works to pursue her dream of becoming a private investigator add a lot of intrigue and fun to this contemporary romance.

On a personal level, it also felt like this book was written just for me. I identified so much with Birdie throughout the story as she struggles to come out of her shell and give herself the space and permission she needs to grow and thrive. This book is also the first time I have ever seen a story truly capture the weird blend of abject panic and genuine desire inherent to actually wanting to interact with someone.

Serious Moonlight is fantastic, filled with just enough tension to make the mystery aspect interesting while keeping the main focus on Birdie and her relationships. Birdie and Daniel are delightful lead characters complimented by an eccentric and entertaining cast of supporting characters. A new favorite for me, and maybe for you too. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore; Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert; The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo; Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson; Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus; Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke; The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee; The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe; Past Perfect by Leila Sales; Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith; This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

All the Birds in the Sky: A Review

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane AndersPatricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead were friends once, a long time ago.

That was before Patricia found out from the Parliament of Birds that she was a witch. Before her education on spells, magic, and how to avoid Aggrandizement began at Eltisley Maze.

It was before Laurence found the blueprints for his first two second time machine and started building an artificial intelligence. Before he found his people and his place with other mad scientists so desperate to save the world that they don’t think too hard about how they’re changing it.

They were friends when they were children. Before Patricia saved Laurence’s life and vanished.

Now they’re grown up, living in San Francisco although they travel in different orbits. After years of circling each other something has brought Patricia and Laurence back together. But neither of them can tell if their reunion is meant to fix all of the things that have started going wrong in the world or break them beyond repair in All the Birds in the Sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders.

(Find it on BookShop.)

Anders’ ambitious blend of sci-fi and fantasy starts when Patricia and Laurence are children, following them through middle school into adulthood. The breakneck pacing contrasts sharply with the way Patricia and Laurence’s carefully drawn characters develop and grow over the years.

All the Birds in the Sky is an exercise in contrasts as Laurence and Patricia find themselves on opposite sides of a struggle to save a rapidly declining plane. This shift is particularly evident in the protagonists’ dramatically different worldviews and all of the ways it becomes clear that there may not be any good choices left for either of them.

Snappy prose, witty dialog, and intricate world building will immediately draw readers into this action-filled plot story. Recommended for readers who like their speculative fiction as timely as it is snarky.

Possible Pairings: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

Past Perfect: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Past Perfect by Leila SalesThere are only three types of kids who get summer jobs at Colonial Essex Village as historical reenactors living their best 1700s lives instead of working at the mall like everyone else:

There are the history nerds. You may recognize them by how hotly they debate the virtues of bayonets over pistols, their pale skin, and their generally unappealing personalities.

There are the drama kids. While they couldn’t care less about historical accuracy, drama kids are all about dressing up and staging cool scenes where they get fake shot and fall down fake dead while the history nerds gripe about how that isn’t how it really happened blah blah blah.

The third type of teenager working at Colonial Essex Village is, arguably, the rarest type: The kids whose parents already work there.

Chelsea’s father is the Essex Village silversmith and her mother is the silversmith’s wife, which means that Chelsea has been spending every summer as the silversmith’s daughter for basically forever.

Now that she’s sixteen Chelsea is looking forward to working at the mall with her best friend, Fiona, where they can hone their skills as ice cream connoisseurs and Chelsea can finally get over Ezra, the boy who broke her heart.

Except Fiona is very much a drama kid and very much looking forward to working at Colonial Essex. So obviously Chelsea has to work there too. Even if Ezra is also working there. Even if it means Chelsea gets sucked into being second-in-command in the annual war all of the teen staffers at West Essex stage every year against the Civil Warriors from the Civil War reenactment site across the street and, worst of all, even if Chelsea’s new crush is one of those very same Civil Warriors in Past Perfect (2011) by Leila Sales.

Find it on Bookshop.

Chelsea is a very specific type of protagonist who will not work for everyone. She is often self-centered to the point of being low key unreliable and she’s incredibly snarky. I, for one, think she is a riot and appreciate the conversational tone Sales manages to evoke in Chelsea’s first person narration.

While Chelsea is a reluctant historical reenactor, she is nothing if not loyal to Essex and its legacy as the superior historical site in town compared to the subpar Civil Warriors. (Don’t even get her started on the Ren Fairies from the renaissance faire.) This loyalty leads to some difficult choices when Chelsea has to decide how far she’s willing to go to help her side win–not to mention if there’s such a thing as too far when it comes to war.

There is definitely some romance and some flirting, but the real love story here is between Chelsea and her best friend Fiona. As they are pulled in different directions by their jobs at Colonial Essex (and the war), their friendship experiences growing pains for the first time as both girls are forced to evaluate their priorities.

This book explores themes of friendship and ethics while asking interesting questions about history and the past–especially if anything can ever truly be in the past. Past Perfect is a funny, clever story about friendship, ethics, history and the unexpected moments where they intersect. Recommended for readers who like their stories of summer employment with a lot of history and snark.

Possible Pairings: All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Pilgrim’s Don’t Wear Pink by Stephanie Kate Strohm, My Faire Lady by Laura Wettersten

Loveboat, Taipei: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing WenThe last thing Ever Wong wants to do is spend her summer in an educational program in Taiwan learning Chinese and preparing to start at Northwestern’s pre-med program in the fall.

But Ever is used to not having a say in her own life and isn’t surprised when her parents ship her off and ruin her plans to spend one last summer dancing before she gives up (like always) and does what her parents want (like always).

But the program isn’t what ever expects. Instead of rigorous study with Chien Tan Ever finds herself in a program with minimal supervision and her exuberant roommate Sophie Ha egging her on, Ever is ready to break every one of her parents rules–especially when it comes to no dating.

With its reputation as a party program to meet up (and hook up), there’s no shortage of cute guys–most notably including Xavier Yeh the sexy heir to a fortune who’s already caught Sophie’s eye and has a secret he’s reluctant to admit. Then there’s Rick Woo who, as the bane of Ever’s existence and object lesson of how she’ll never be good enough for her parents, is totally not dating material. No matter how much he gets under Ever’s skin.

But the more time Ever spends doing all of the things her parents would hate, the less sure she is what she wants for herself in Loveboat, Taipei (2020) by Abigail Hing Wen.

Find it on Bookshop.

Loveboat, Taipei is Wen’s debut novel. Although Ever’s narration sometimes skews towards hyperbolic metaphors (“But why did you let me dance when I was little? I want to cry. Why give me honey when you knew my future was diabetic?”) her struggle to reconcile her own desires with honoring the sacrifices her parents have made to give Ever so many opportunities.

Ever is a complex, fully realized heroine with her own strengths and flaws. What starts as a summer of rebellion becomes a chance for her to learn how to articulate and pursue her dream to become a dancer and choreographer instead of the doctor her parents always wanted her to become.

Loveboat, Taipei shines when the focus is on ever and her own journey. The other characters, in comparison, often feel one-dimensional. A tertiary character’s struggle with depression becomes a plot device in the final act and does not receive as thorough a treatment as it should have. In contrast another character’s dyslexia is addressed much more conscientiously.

Over the course of the summer, Ever travels through Taipei’s glittering nightlife and tourist destinations while negotiating her identity as an American visitor in Taiwan compared to her life as the only Asian American in her small Ohio town. With clubbing, loads of drama, and a messy love triangle, Ever’s summer is more than she bargained for and forces her to confront her best and worst qualities before she can figure out what comes next.

Loveboat, Taipei is as thoughtful as it is sensational. Recommended for readers looking for a splashy romance with soul searching in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Practically Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Our Wayward Fate by Gloria Chao, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, Anna K.: A Love Story by Jenny Lee, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar

Young Jane Young: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle ZevinWhat if the worst mistake you ever made is the only thing anyone remembered about you?

Aviva Grossman never planned to have an affair with a married congressman. She certainly never planned to become the center of the scandal that might end his political career and definitely stops hers before it has a chance to start.

But a scandal doesn’t happen to just one person, or even two. It has a much wider orbit drawing others into the fallout.

Rachel Grossman doesn’t know what her daughter did or didn’t do. But she does know that Aviva’s heart is in the right place. She knows she wants to protect her daughter even if she has no idea how to do that when Aviva’s private life becomes front page news.

Jane Young always thought she could keep her head down, focus on raising her daughter Ruby, and everything would work out. She’s wrong, it turns out, and soon finds herself drawn into the Maine political scene as she runs for local office.

Ruby knows her mother is hiding something and she knows being thirteen isn’t as easy as her mom thinks. But she doesn’t know what to do about either of those things and hopes her online pen pal Fatima might be able to help.

Then there’s Embeth Levin. Embeth has built her life on being a congressman’s wife and cleaning up his messes. But who will be there to clean her up when things start to spin out?

Five women, lots of secrets, one scandal, and one way to move forward in Young Jane Young (2017) by Gabrielle Zevin.

Find it on Bookshop.

Young Jane Young is a story told in five parts–each focusing on one of the women above. Zevin plays with different narrative forms and styles to tease out a complicated story about feminism, identity, reputation and the dangerous moments when all three intersect.

The less you know about this story going in, the better. Part of the magic is the way in which Zevin weaves these five seemingly disconnected narratives together into one cohesive and powerful story about all the ways to be a woman when it feels like the entire world has an opinion on who you’re supposed to be.

Young Jane Young is as smart, funny, and incisive as the woman at the center of its story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

The Night of Your Life: A Review

The Night of Your Life by Lydia SharpJJ and Lucy made pact to go to prom together if they both wound up dateless. While JJ’s being single is pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point, he’s surprised to find Lucy still dateless and going with him on the day of the prom.

Prom is the perfect chance for JJ to have a last hurrah with all of his friends and he can’t imagine anyone he’d want to spend it with more than Lucy.

Except everything goes wrong.

JJ wants nothing more than to forget that prom ever happened. But when he wakes up, it’s prom day again.

With endless chances to try and fix things, JJ has to figure out if he can chase his perfect prom while holding onto his best friend in The Night of Your Life (2020) by Lydia Sharp.

Find it on Bookshop.

This standalone contemporary takes on a speculative twist as JJ relives his prom over and over again trying to improve events and break the loop. Despite the high concept premise, The Night of Your Life‘s main strength is the LGBTQ+ representation which adds a nice layer to an otherwise flat story.

JJ is an extremely vanilla narrator with few defining traits beyond being excited about prom and an unfortunate predilection for making up words (like “twibble). He is a terrible friend who chooses not just to ditch Lucy when a cute girl’s car breaks down but also never tells her what is actually happening. Why he deserves numerous chances to fix his prom night, let alone why he deserves a friend like Lucy, remains unclear.

Stilted writing in both JJ’s first person narration and the dialog make most of the relationships in the novel feel forced and do nothing to hint at even a little chemistry between JJ and Lucy as the next phase of their friendship (and if they should pursue anything more) becomes the main question of the story.

The Night of Your Life is an uninspired take on a familiar premise. Unless you’re all about that prom setting, skip this one and read A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody for a better executed version of the same conceit.

Possible Pairings: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Two Summers by Aimee Friedman, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, Parallel by Lauren Miller, Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills

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

Practically Ever After: A Review

Practically Ever After by Isabel BandeiraGrace Correa has always been the girl with a plan. She knows exactly what she’s going to study in college (at her first choice university, naturally), she picked the perfect extracurriculars to balance her love of dance and make her a more desirable applicant, she is popular and fashionable. Grace even has the perfect group of friends and the perfect girlfriend, Leia.

At the end of her senior year, Grace’s perfect life turns into a perfect mess. With responsibilities mounting, projects looming, and pressure on all sides she’s no longer sure how to balance everything while making it look effortless–or even if she’s balancing the right things.

When a fight with Leia goes too far it seems like breaking up is the obvious choice–especially since long distance college relationships never last. Except Grace is starting to realize that maybe, just maybe, life (and love) don’t always have to be perfectly planned in Practically Ever After (2019) by Isabel Bandeira.

Find it on Bookshop.

Practically Ever After is the final book in Bandeira’s contemporary Ever After trilogy which begins with Bookishly Ever After and Dramatically Ever After. Although the books are set sequentially each book follows a different character and all can be read as a standalone.

After playing a supporting role to both Phoebe and Em, Grace finally shares her story as she struggles to balance the perfect plan for her life with the person she thinks she wants to be in the future. As the title suggests, Grace is imminently practical with a no-nonsense outlook that forces her to think very hard about what pursuing her dreams can look like and the risks inherent to following her heart when a future with Leia (who is going to a different college) is uncertain.

Partially informed by the author’s own career path, Grace also tries to find a happy medium to balance her interest in dance and cheering with her professional aspiration to become an engineer as she maps out her college plans.

Grace and Leia are used to being a power couple among their friends and it’s an interesting contrast watching them try to figure out how to stay together instead of watching them get together over the course of the story.

Practically Ever After is a satisfying conclusion to a light, funny trilogy that celebrates friends, love, and big dreams in all of their forms. Recommended.

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, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen

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

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

A Girl Like That: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Girl Like That by Tanaz BhatenaAt sixteen, Zarin Wadia’s reputation already precedes her. She is an orphan, the daughter of a gangster, the product of a scandalous marriage. She is a smoker, she is reckless, she has left a trail of boyfriends in her wake despite the constant need to dodge the Religious Police. She is the subject of endless rumors at her school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Everyone knows that no one would want to get involved with a girl like that.

Which is why it’s so shocking when Zarin dies in a car crash with eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia–her childhood friend and, by all counts, a boy with a good head on his shoulders.

Everyone thought they knew Zarin but as her story and the circumstances of the crash come together, it’s very clear that Zarin was always more than the rumors would have you believe in A Girl Like That (2018) by Tanaz Bhathena.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Girl Like That is Bhathena’s debut novel. The story unfolds from multiple viewpoints with Zarin and Porus observing the aftermath of the car crash and flashbacks from both Zarin and Porus as well as other characters in Zarin’s life. Through these multiple first person viewpoints the novel explores both the events leading up to the crash and its fallout.

Zarin is a strongly feminist heroine who pushes against the limits placed on her by both her family and her surroundings in the conservative city of Jeddah. Through Zarin and her classmate Mishal’s narratives, Bhathena expertly explores themes of feminism and agency as both girls find their worlds unfairly narrowed because of little more than their gender.

A Girl Like That is a poignant and bittersweet story and perception versus reality, rumors, and truth. A quiet meditation on all of the ways society as well as friends and family can fail young people trying to make their way through a world that is often far from gentle. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll, Life By Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, The First Part Last by Angela Johnson, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed, The List by Siobhan Vivian, Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Fire & Heist: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fire & Heist by Sarah Beth DurstFor the Hawkins family, successfully pulling off your first heist is a major accomplishment. It’s an introduction into society, a rite of passage, and of course the best way for a were-dragon to start building their first hoard of gold.

The technical term is actually wyvern, but Sky has always thought calling herself and her family were-dragons really gets to the point even if no wyvern has been able to take on their true dragon form since they lost their connection with Home generations ago.

With Sky’s first heist coming up fast, Sky has to start picking her crew and figure out how to get over her ex-boyfriend Ryan once and for all. But with her mother missing and an ancient jewel in the mix that could change everything for the wyvern community, Sky’s first heist is going to be anything but routine in Fire & Heist (2018) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Find it on Bookshop.

This standalone fantasy is part adventure and part heist as Sky tries to uncover the truth about her mother’s work and the jewel she was tracking before her disappearance. High stakes heist scenes contrast well with high fantasy elements as Sky learns more about her dragon past.

Snark, light romance, and real mystery make Fire & Heist a page-turning adventure with distinct characters in a truly unique world. Recommended for readers looking for a new spin on both dragons and heist tropes.

Possible Pairings: Heist Society by Ally Carter, Wicked Fox by Kat Cho, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston, The Iron King by Julie Kagawa