A Dark and Starless Forest: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah HollowellDerry has been living in a secluded house in the woods with her siblings and their protector, Frank, for years. They don’t have luxuries like cosmetics or snack foods or even new books and DVDs. They’re not spoiled at all. But they’re taken care of. They’re safe.

Which Frank has told them is much more important in a world that fears their magic. It’s the same reason he calls them alchemists instead of that more dangerous word: witches.

White, fat, sixteen-year-old Derry and her siblings dislike Frank and fear him even as Frank reminds them that he took them in when no one–not even their parents–wanted them. Derry and her siblings–eldest Jane (who is Black); Winnie (who is fat and white); Brooke (fat, Deaf, Mexican-American); white twins Elle and Irene (Irene is trans); nonbinary, Mexican-American Violet; and the youngest identical Black twins Olivia and London–have fierce bonds between them. Which makes it so much worse when first Jane and then Winnie disappear.

Frank says the girls must have died in the dense forest surrounding their home. But as Derry explores the forest she wonders if the disappearances might be tied to Frank himself.

As she learns more about Frank and her own magical affinity for growing both real and imagined plants Derry will have to decide how far she is willing to go to keep her loved ones safe in A Dark and Starless Forest (2021) by Sarah Hollowell.

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Despite each sibling having distinct magical abilities, this element of the story is largely set dressing for the novel’s plot which is a blend of horror and suspense sprinkled with hints about a dark moment in Derry’s past that makes her reluctant to re-enter the forest in her search for Jane (and later Winnie). The novel is also notable for its focus on the bond between Derry and her siblings with a total absence of romance subplots.

Derry’s first-person narration amplifies the siblings’ isolation with a palpable fear of Frank and his punishments, including the dreaded time out room whose horrors are honed to each sibling’s worst nightmares (blaring lights and erratic, staticky noise for Derry). The restricted narrative works to amp up the tension but leaves many questions about how the siblings’ magic works and, more importantly, the implications of said magic in the outside world.

Hollowell is at pains to create an inclusive cast with some elements (Violet being nonbinary, Irene’s trans identity, everyone’s use of ASL–designated by single quotes around signed dialog–to communicate with Brooke) integrated into the narrative better than others. Derry’s quest to find her missing siblings and save all of them from Frank drives the story but leaves little room for character development of the other siblings who are often absent from the action and remain little more than names and attributes.

Derry’s moral ambiguity is unresolved by the end of the novel as she embraces darker choices to save her siblings heedless of the consequences. Questions about world building and what will come next for all of the siblings are also up in the air. A Dark and Starless Forest is a dark, inclusive blend of horror and extremely light fantasy. Ideal for readers looking for a slightly supernatural tale of suspense.

Possible Pairings: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Half Bad by Sally Green, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton, Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

The Bone Maker: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Maybe there were no perfect choices for anyone to make, hero or villain. Maybe there was only doing the best you could with the time you had. That was an unsatisfying thought, but just because it was uncomfortable didn’t mean it wasn’t true.”

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth DurstTwenty-five years ago, the Heroes of Vos saved the world when they ended the Bone War by stopping Eklor and his monstrous bone constructs. Ballads are still sung about their now-mythic deeds. But the cost of victory was steep for the five heroes.

Stran, the team’s strong man is keen to leave his memories of the Bone War behind. He’s a farmer now with a young family–two things that need to be tended and leave little time to dwell on the horrors of battle.

Marso was the most proficient bone reader in all of Vos, able to read the bones and anticipate the enemy’s next move. But something changed after the Bone War. The bones still want to tell Marso something. But the truth the bones hold is so unthinkable, Marso would rather shatter his own fragile psyche than face it.

Zera barely survived the final battle. Jentt gave his own life to save her–a cost the bone wizard knows she can never repay. Instead she now focuses on honing her craft and building an empire selling her bone talismans to the elite from her tower in the city of Cerre.

Kreya, the leader and a bone maker like Eklor himself, dealt the killing blow–a victory that feels meaningless when her husband Jentt is lost to her. Unwilling to accept his death, unable to share her grieve, Kreya hides herself away searching through Eklor’s texts. The Bone War started because of Eklor’s quest to bring back the dead–forbidden magic requiring human bones and a terrible cost. But Kreya is willing to pay any cost if it will bring Jentt back.

When Kreya’s efforts to resurrect Jentt reveal that Eklor may not be as defeated as the world thought, the Heroes of Vos will have to reunite once more to fight impossible odds and face an unimaginable enemy in The Bone Maker (2021) by Sarah Beth Durst.

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The Bone Maker is a standalone adult fantasy. The novel is written in close third person following various characters (primarily Kreya) throughout the story.

Durst once again creates a carefully rendered world with a complex, if often macabre, magic system. Kreya and her five friends walk a fine line saddled with the legacy of their past deeds while acknowledging that their stories–and their work–is far from over when Eklor resurfaces. Heroes past their prime, who have already completed their great mission, are rarely seen in fantasy making The Bone Maker unique. This focus gives the story space to unpack the burdens of heroism and moving on after completing your supposedly greatest act.

Although much of the story focuses on Kreya and Jentt’s marriage–and the lengths Kreya is willing to go to bring Jentt back–friendships are the real heart of The Bone Maker as the Heroes of Vos find their way back to each other after years apart. The bond between Kreya and Zera is a particularly strong anchor in this character-driven adventure.

The Bone Maker is a story of fierce friendship, duty, and what it means when your story doesn’t end when you get to “the end.”

Possible Pairings: A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan, The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

They Wish They Were Us: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Why did the boys have the power? Why did they make the rules while we dealt with the consequences?”

Everything on Gold Coast, Long Island has a shine; a glimmer from expensive, well-made things and the people who can acquire those things so effortlessly.

Watching her parent’s struggle to keep up with their affluent neighbors and to pay her brother’s hefty tuition at Gold Coast Prep, Jill Newman has always known she doesn’t belong among the Gold Coast elite. The pressure she feels to maintain her scholarship and make good on all of her parents’ hard work is constant.

Being a Player is supposed to make it all easier. After a hellish year of hazing from the older members of the Gold Coast Prep secret society, Jill is in. With the Players’ impressive alumni network and not-so-secret app Jill has access to the answers to every test she might encounter at school and contacts to open any doors she wants for college and beyond. Once you get a seat with the Players, you’ll do anything to keep it.

Jill’s best friend Shaila Arnold never made it that far. Three years ago she was killed by her boyfriend, Graham, during the final night of initiation–the night Jill can barely think about. Graham confessed. The case has been closed for years. It’s over and Jill and her other friends have moved on.

Until Graham’s sister tells Jill that his confession was coerced. But if Graham didn’t kill Shaila, who did? As Jill delves deeper into the events leading up to Shaila’s death she’ll unearth old secrets about the Players on her way to the truth. But when you set yourself against a group that can get everything they want, they also have everything to lose in They Wish They Were Us (2020) by Jessica Goodman.

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They Wish They Were Us is Goodman’s debut novel. A TV adaptation called ‘The Players Table” is in development at HBO Max.

Jill is Jewish and most characters are presumed white aside from Jill’s other best friend Nikki whose family are Hong Kong emigres. Jill’s first person narration is tense as she reluctantly digs into Shaila’s murder while also reluctantly unpacking unpleasant memories from her own initiation into the players.

This plot-drive story tackles a lot while Jill deals with the pressures of her elite school and her complicated feelings about the Players and their hazing. Privilege, wealth, and self-presentation are also big topics as Jill begins to realize she isn’t the only one struggling to keep up appearances at Gold Coast Prep. Toxic masculinity and feminism also play big roles in the story although Goodman’s treatment of both can feel heavy-handed in its service to moving the story along.

Obvious red herrings, salacious twists, and the backdrop of luxe Gold Coast locales make They Wish They Were Us a frothy page turner.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, Admission by Julie Buxbaum, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, These Vengeful Hearts by Katherine Laurin, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

The Girl From the Sea: A Graphic Novel Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Girl From the Sea by Molly Knox OstertagFifteen-year-old Morgan Kwon is counting down the days until she finishes high school. Once she graduates Morgan will be able to start her real life at college where she won’t have to worry about her divorced mom or her moody younger brother, Aiden.

Best of all, Morgan won’t have to keep any more secrets–like the fact that she’s gay. Even with a supportive family and a great group of friends, Morgan isn’t sure how anyone will take that news. She isn’t sure she wants to find out.

Everything changes one night when Morgan falls into the water. Saved by a mysterious girl named Keltie, Morgan starts to wonder if she doesn’t have to wait for her real life to start after all.

Kelie is pretty and funny. She helps Morgan see Wilneff Island in a new light. She’s also a little strange. But by the time Morgan learns the truth about Keltie, she knows she’ll do whatever it takes to help Keltie. Even if it means revealing some of her own secrets in The Girl From the Sea (2021) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

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The Girl From the Sea is a summery standalone graphic novel illustrated in full color.

The story closely follows Morgan as she balances summer fun with her friends (including clever pages of texts between the group of girls interspersed throughout the book) alongside getting to know Keltie. This sweet story of first love and embracing yourself is rounded out with hints of environmentalism and selkie folkore that Morgan and Keltie unpack together as Keltie reveals her secrets.

Tight plotting, carefully detailed illustrations, and fully realized characters make The Girl From the Sea a graphic novel that readers will want to revisit again and again.

Possible Pairings: The Lucky List by Rachael Lippincott, Bloom by Kevin Panetta, You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez, Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

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

One Great Lie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“She will imagine a ghost library of all the other books that aren’t there, and will never be there. All the voices and stories of women behind one kind of wall or another. Voices and stories stolen by thieves.”

One Great Lie by Deb CalettiWinning a scholarship to a writing workshop should be a dream come true for Charlotte Hodges. The workshop is led by Luca Bruni, Charlotte’s favorite author of all time at his private villa in Venice.

Being in Venice also gives Charlotte the chance she’s longed for to look into her ancestor Isabella Di Angelo. For generations, Charlotte’s family has held onto the knowledge that Isabella wrote a very famous poem that’s taught in just about every school now. A poem that’s always been attributed to a man. Without concrete proof, the true authorship is more family lore than fact. Charlotte hopes this summer she can change that.

Arriving in Venice, Charlotte finds the city more picturesque than she could imagine. But the villa is also more secluded–isolated, really. Bruni is even more charismatic in person. More brilliant. But he’s also much more erratic and, as Charlotte and the other young women on the retreat begin to realize, much more unsettling.

With help from an Italian grad student named Dante, Charlotte begins to uncover the truth about Isabella and the stolen poem. But as some secrets are revealed, Charlotte will have to decide if she wants to speak out about others about Bruni in One Great Lie (2021) by Deb Caletti.

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One Great Lie is written in close third person following Charlotte’s perspective. Charlotte is white as are most characters although there is some diversity among the other students at the retreat. Each chapter in the book is prefaced with a brief epigraph detailing a different female writer from the Renaissance and the reasons why her works are not as well known as they should be or, in many cases, as they could be.

From the beginning the prose is so charged–the foreshadowing so deliberately ominous–that are immediately drawn in waiting for the ground to fall out from under Charlotte; knowing that it’s only a matter of time before a writing retreat that seems too good to be true is proven to be just that.

Charlotte’s work dismantling her admiration for Luca Bruni after witnessing his predatory behavior firsthand connects well to Charlotte’s efforts to prove Isabella’s authorship of a poem previously attributed (and stolen by) a prominent male Renaissance poet. Themes of feminism play out in both plot threads as Charlotte sees firsthand the damage Bruni has wraught while researching the ways her ancestor Isabella’s poem was stolen.

A sweet romance with Dante and Charlotte’s growing love for Venice tempers the otherwise tense narrative.

One Great Lie is a tautly paced novel filled with evocative settings and suspense as Charlotte unearths the truth and tries to right an historical wrong.

Possible Pairings: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Da Vinci’s Tiger by L. M. Elliott, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories by Janet Gurtler, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Love and Olives by Jenna Evans Welch

It Sounded Better In My Head: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina KenwoodNatalie isn’t sure if she should be madder that her parents waited until Christmas to announce their divorce–months after they reached the decision–or that neither of them seem to be that upset about it. Where’s the fighting?

Even venting about the whole thing to her best friends, Zach and Lucy, is awkward now that they’ve become a couple. Natalie should have seen it coming. Objectively, the signs were all there. But she also always thought she and Zach would be the ones to end up together. If Natalie had just managed to be brave and say the right thing for once in her life.

That never happens to Natalie. She used to be able to blame things like that on her cystic acne and her relatedly low self-confidence. Now that her skin is clear, her life hasn’t suddenly become the one she’s always imagined. She’s still single, still a third wheel, and still very awkward most of the time.

Natalie is used to being uncomfortable in her own skin–and in most other places as well, if she’s being honest. So she’s as confused as anyone when Zach’s hot older brother Alex starts paying attention to her, and talking to her, and maybe kissing her. After years of doing everything she can to disappear, Natalie has to decide if she’s ready for someone to finally see all of her in It Sounded Better in My Head (2020) by Nina Kenwood.

Find it on Bookshop.

It Sounded Better in My Head is Kenwood’s debut novel. It was a finalist for the 2021 Morris Award. All characters are presumed white.

A conversational narrative voice makes it clear that Natalie still bears scars from her acne–both literal and figurative–after being defined for so long by the thing that shattered her self-esteem. Natalie’s first-person narration also amplifies her confusion and stress navigating attention from Alex after years of knowing him only as her best friend’s cool older brother.

Natalie’s self-deprecating humor and wry observations make her anxiety bearable combining levity and pathos in one story. Set in Melbourne this character-driven plot plays out during the end of Natalie’s senior year in high school as she (and friends Zach and Lucy) try to decide what comes next. The trio’s focus on college admissions contrasts well with Alex’s efforts to become an apprentice chef.

It Sounded Better in My Head is a truly funny novel with a truly clever narrator. Ideal for readers looking for a contemporary novel that is both sweet and genuine. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Past Perfect by Leila Sales, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

By the Book: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

By the Book by Amanda SelletMary Porter-Malcolm knows all of the potential pitfall for a young woman navigating the murky waters of socializing from engaging with a scoundrel, falling victim to ennui, to falling literally in front of a train. All of which was very hand information in the 19th century (the focus of her literature concentration at her alternative school) but less applicable to modern times.

Which is to say that Mary is feeling less than prepared on the first day of her sophomore year at the local public high school. Mary knows exactly three people, including one of her older sisters. That number quickly drops when Mary realizes the friend she was counting on during this scary transition is more interested in climbing the high school social ladder than hanging out with her.

A quick warning to another new girl at school gives Mary the false reputation of savvy advice giver and a new group of friends. As she helps her friends flesh out the Scoundrel Survival Guide, Mary embraces new experiences and even the prospect of new love.

But with Mary so focused on preserving her reputation with her friends, she might be missing all the signs that one potential scoundrel might not be as scandalous–or as uninterested in her–as she thought in By the Book (2020) by Amanda Sellet.

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By the Book is Sellet’s debut novel. It’s narrated by Mary and includes excerpts from her diary at the start of each chapter. Check the end of the book for a full listing of all the classic novels mentioned in the Scoundrel Survival Guide.

At the start of By the Book, Mary is naive to the point of being cringe-worthy. But she quickly grows on readers as her oblivious navigation of her own life is contrasted with wry (if sometimes entirely inaccurate) observations about her friends, siblings, and classmates in the context of her 19th century literature interests.

Mary’s large, white family includes absent-minded academic parents, three older sisters, and a younger brother all of whom are well-developed and enhance the story with their own dramas and contributions to Mary’s various dilemmas. While Mary does have some romance (and tension) with would-be scoundrel Alex, the story really shines as Mary learns about the gives and takes inherent to friendship with her new (and first) group of friends–girls who also defy stereotypes including Latinx Terry who is objectively beautiful but also obsessed with all things related to forensic pathology.

By the Book is a sweet story with a lot of heart and humor. Come for the witty banter and endearing friendships, stay for surprisingly on point 19th century literature jokes and high school shenanigans.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina Kenwood, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie Rigaud, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman

Luck of the Titanic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.

Valora Luck almost misses her chance to be one of those passengers when her entry is blocked thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricts the admission of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Valora is used to obstacles, though, and isn’t about to let a silly policy stop her from getting on board and seeing her twin brother Jamie for the first time in years.

Jamie is traveling on the Titanic as a seaman on his way to Cuba with the rest of his crew but Val has bigger plans for both of them. Reunited for the first time since their father’s death, this is the perfect opportunity for the twins to revive their acrobatics act–an act that Val knows will be good enough to attract the attention of the Albert Ankeny Stewart. One look at their performance and Mr. Stewart will have to recruit them for the Ringling Circus. Then Val and Jamie can finally get back to being family again instead of near strangers.

Val’s plan is perfect. Until disaster strikes and, as the Titanic begins its last night as an ocean liner, Val and her brother will have to worry about surviving the present before they can plan for the future in Luck of the Titanic (2021) by Stacey Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Luck of the Titanic is narrated by Val as she struggles to board the luxury liner and secure passage into America for herself and her brother. The story is inspired by the real Chinese passengers on the TitanicYou can read more about Lee’s real-life inspiration to write this story in an essay she wrote for Oprah Daily.

Lee once again delivers a masterful work of historical fiction. Luck of the Titanic is carefully researched with front matter that includes a cast of characters and diagrams of the famous ship. The balances portraying the very real racism and intolerance Val and her fellow Chinese passengers would have encountered on the ship (or in attempting to travel to the United States) while also highlighting small joys as Val reconnects with her brother, befriends his crewmates, and as all of them discover the magic of this larger-than-life ship before it strikes an iceberg and begins to sink.

Val is an accomplished acrobat which adds a fun dimension to the story. Because of the novel’s setting, this aspect of Val’s life can never be the main point of the story but it still adds so much to her character as readers see her talent and joy in her work–and the contrast in how Jamie feel’s about the same performance skills.

Readers familiar with the history of the Titanic will recognize many key points including the iconic state rooms and grand stairway while the story also shows more of third class (steerage) where Jamie and his crew are located. The novel does include an attempted sexual assault which moves the plot forward (necessitating the separation of Val and some of her friends as the iceberg hits) but also feels excessive in a story that already has plenty of tension and strife for the characters.

Lee also includes nods to common theories about contributing factors to the disaster including the lack of binoculars for crew working in the crow’s nest, the pressure on Captain Smith to drive at speed, and of course the lifeboats (of which there were too few) being launched without reaching full capacity. Other details (the lack of proper warnings from the Marconi operators, the confusion as Titanic tried to signal for help from nearby ships) are left off-page in favor of a focus on the characters. While Lee shows more behind-the-scenes areas of the ship, this novel is largely populated by fictional characters whenever possible leaving notable survivors like Molly Brown and crew member Violet Jessop out of the narrative entirely.

Luck of the Titanic is both gripping and melancholy as the novel builds to its inevitable conclusion. This story of survival and family is completely engrossing while also asking readers to consider whose stories are deemed worth telling in history–and how we can work to widen that scope. Recommended for fans of adventure and historical fiction novels.

Possible Pairings: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

Even and Odd: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth DurstEven and Odd are sisters who share magic on alternating days. On her even days twelve-year-old Emma “Even” Berry tries to pack in as much magic use as she can while she prepares for her next exam from the Academy of Magic. With her level five exam looming, Even needs all the practice time she can get to make sure she stays on schedule with her plans to become a hero. As a hero Even will be able to accept quests and travel throughout the neighboring magical kingdom of Firoth helping people.

Eleven-year-old Olivia “Odd” Berry would be just as happy skipping her magic days altogether. Except for turning her sister into a skunk when she’s annoying, Odd rarely has control of her magic. Odd’s magic might improve with practice, but she’d much rather focus on spending time volunteering at the animal shelter in their sleepy town in Connecticut where the Berrys run a border shop helping visitors from Firoth navigate the mundane world.

When the hidden portal behind Fratelli’s Express Bagels suddenly closes, no one can access their magic. Worse, a lot of magical Firoth residents are stranded far from home and cut off from their families. Even is eagerto help investigate as hero practice and Odd is excited to get to know the unicorn Jeremy who also offers assistance if it means getting home before his parents ground him.

When they find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the border, both sisters will have to rely on all of their skills–magical and otherwise–to figure out who is stealing the border magic and how to fix it in Even and Odd (2021) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Find it on Bookshop.

Even and Odd is filled with humor and timely commentary on the harms of closed borders. Narrated in close third person following Even, the story explores magic from both sides as Even embraces all things magical and Odd is readier to find magic in the mundane world (like new kittens!).

With help from Jeremy, a unicorn with a surprising fondness for soda, Even and Odd explore their birthland Firoth for the first time while trying to fix the border. The magic system here is logical and has several parallels to climate change as magical energy is treated as a limited resource–a fact that leads to dangerous consequences for the border and all of Firoth.

Whimsical magical elements and humor help temper these weightier topics as the sisters realize that sometimes being a hero has a lot less to do with proper training and a lot more to do with offering to help. Even and Odd is a fast-paced, magical adventure perfect for readers who like their fantasy with a bit of humor and a lot of sisterhood.

Possible Pairings: The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer, Shadow Weaver by MarcyKate Connelly, Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger, The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

*An advance 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, 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