Check, Please!: #Hockey: A Graphic Novel Review

Check, Please!: #Hockey by Ngozi UkazuBitty is a former junior figure skating champion, a vlogger, and a master baker. He’s also a freshman at Samwell University where he has a scholarship spot on the hockey team. Bitty is known for his speed on the ice, but he isn’t sure he’s ready for college hockey–especially if it means getting checked!

The Samwell team is . . . different than Bitty expected. There’s a lot of swearing and a lot of nicknames. Shitty (Bitty doesn’t know his real name and isn’t sure if anyone does), and Holster and Ransom are quick to welcome him, but Bitty still doesn’t know what to make of the team captain Jack who is as cute as he is moody.

As Bitty finds his footing in college and on the ice, Bitty starts to think he might just have found his place at Samwell. But only if he can get over his fear of getting checked and find a way to get past Jack’s aloof exterior in Check, Please!: #Hockey (2018) by Ngozi Ukazu.

Check, Please!: #Hockey collects part of Ukazu’s popular Check, Please! webcomic. The story is broken into seasons and this volume collects seasons one and two (Bitty’s freshman and sophomore years at Samwell). A second volume is set to follow which will cover junior and senior year.

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Bitty or anyone else on the Samwell team when I started this comic. I never imagined I could actually become invested in a sports comic or laugh out loud learning about hockey butt and flow. But all of those things happened in this magical, hilarious comic.

Bitty is definitely an outlier on the team with his small stature and his penchant for baking. He’s also worried his teammates won’t accept him if they find out he’s gay. But Bitty, and readers, will be pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie and loyalty of the Samwell team. These guys are family and they are a damn delight to read about.

The fate of the Samwell team’s standing on the ice is interspersed with Bitty’s misadventures during hazing, inevitably bizarre course work, and some crazy intense tension with Jack. Is Bitty crazy to think they might become friends? Is it even crazier to hope for more?

Ukazu’s artwork is almost as cozy as Bitty’s kitchen with bright colors and smooth line work. The panels are often larger than you’d expect (especially for a story that’s adapted from a webcomic) and because of that all of the characters have extremely expressive faces too.

Check, Please!: #Hockey is a hilarious introduction to a series that is as entertaining as it is endearing. A must read for all–even the non-hockey fans. Recommended!

Emergency Contact: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Loving someone was traumatizing. You never knew what would happen to them out there in the world. Everything precious was also vulnerable.”

cover art for Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. ChoiPenny Lee is a college freshman at the University of Texas in Austin. She’s eager to get away from the drama that always seems to surround her mom who is, sadly, super hot and super clueless about the attention she attracts from sketchy guys. High school was fine but Penny knows that college is going to be her real chance to shine as she starts taking English classes and pursues her longtime dream to become a published author.

Sam Becker dropped out of college when he couldn’t afford it. He’s twenty-one and manages a coffee shop where he is in charge of all the baking and has a room upstairs. He’s taking an online course to get back on track with his goal of becoming a documentary filmmaker and dreading the arrival of his “niece” Jude who is about to start her freshman year of college. Sam’s still trying to piece his life together post-breakup but he’s getting there. At least until his Instagram famous ex (aka Liar) drops a bombshell.

When Sam has a panic attack in the middle of the street it’s Penny–Jude’s new roommate–who finds him and talks him down. She’s the one who wants him to text her when he gets home and, maybe most importantly, she’s the one that suggests they could be each other’s emergency contact.

As they start texting all the time, Penny and Sam realize they might have more in common than they thought. Their friendship helps both of them step outside of their comfort zones. But neither of them is sure if they’ll ever be ready to take the biggest leap by bringing their virtual relationship offline and into the real world in Emergency Contact (2018) by Mary H. K. Choi.

Emergency Contact is Choi’s debut novel. It has received two starred reviews as well as a glowing write up in the New York Times. The story alternates between chapters written in close third person following Penny and Sam along with the expected sections of text messages and emails.

As the title suggests, the entirety of the book revolves around support systems. How do you build a support system from scratch? What happens when the people you thought you could rely on let you down? And perhaps even more troubling: What happens when the person you never thought you could count on becomes a lifeline?

Penny and Sam are authentic, flawed protagonists. I’ve started calling them lovable train wrecks when I talk about this book. They don’t have all the answers. They may not have any of the answers (a realization that is almost as enlightening for Penny in terms of her relationship with her mother as, you know, actual enlightenment). But they both persevere, strive, and ultimately learn how to go after what they want–things they only accomplish thanks to confidence gained through their friendship.

I say friendship because while a lot of this story plays out against the backdrop of whether or not Penny and Sam will get together, the real meat of this novel are the friendships that both Penny and Sam build (with each other and with other people) as they try to survive this crazy thing called life. You can cut the romantic tension in this story with a knife, but first Choi carefully builds up Penny and Sam’s friendship. Both of them have to grow a lot and learn to care about themselves before they can start to care about someone else—character arcs which Choi expertly portrays throughout the novel.

Before meeting Sam, Penny is used to having a running internal dialog of all the things she wants to say–especially to people who try to belittle her or think their microaggressions and other racist remarks about Penny’s Korean heritage aren’t a big deal. Thanks to the freedom of being away from home for the first time and also having someone who genuinely supports her, Penny is finally able to speak up. She can tell her roommate Jude’s best friend that her racist remarks aren’t okay. She can admit what her French tutor did–what she never even told her Mom. And she can also learn how to move past those things instead of stewing in self-doubt and regret.

Sam, meanwhile, has been stagnating for quite some time. His life is a disaster and he’s used to it–especially when his ex-girlfriend announces that she is pregnant triggering Sam’s first panic attack. With Penny’s support and the knowledge that she cares, Sam realizes the first step in making better life choices isn’t waiting for things to change. Instead, it’s time for Sam to accept that his parents are incapable of being there for him—and haven’t been for some time. It’s time to take action to change things by pursuing his passions and standing up to his ex-girlfriend instead of letting her steamroll him yet again.

Emergency Contact is authentic and sardonic as it follows these two unlikely friends who fear connection almost as much as they crave it. This tension is the driving force for both the characters and the plot. Choi expertly uses close third person perspective and language to amplify that tension and to explore its limits as Penny and Sam try to figure out how to relate to each other even while, internally, they feel hopelessly inadequate by comparison.

(During one of their first “in real life” encounters Penny bemoans her casual outfit and generally messy appearance while being completely fascinated–and attracted–by Sam’s glasses. Sam, meanwhile, is completely self-conscious about his glasses and trying to avoid openly ogling Penny. A push and pull that repeats throughout the novel and perfectly captures the dynamic between these two characters.)

Emergency Contact is a sparkling debut about taking chances and dreaming big. A timely story with a singular voice sure to win over even the most cynical among us, Emergency Contact is an exemplar of what a great contemporary novel can look like.

Possible Pairings: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Nice Try, Jane Sinner: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“The past doesn’t exist. It’s just a story we tell ourselves. And stories change each time you tell them.”

“If you don’t like what you’ve written, write something else.”

cover art for Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne OelkeJane Sinner is tired of pity and talking about what happened. She isn’t surprised at her expulsion from high school or her lack of plans for the future. She’s just surprised that anyone else is shocked.

In an effort to appease her parents and possibly get something right Jane agrees to attend a high school completion program at Elbow River Community College. She only has one condition: she gets to move out. Affordable housing appears in the form of a student-run reality show along the lines of Big Brother. Jane jumps at the chance to join the cast of House of Orange, live within her limited means, and compete to win a car (used, but whatever it’s still a car).

Stepping away from her conservative, religious parents and forgetting about what happened is exactly what Jane needs to start over. On campus she can reinvent herself as Sinner–the cynical and ultra-competitive version of herself that comes through in House of Orange edits–even if the HOOcaps (House of Orange production team) might be watching Jane’s every move and real life is becoming uncomfortable hard to separate from the game.

When House of Orange goes from low-rent web series to a local community tv sensation, Jane is forced to consider how far she’s willing to go to win. And how much she has to prove to herself and the world (or viewers of substandard reality tv anyway) in Nice Try, Jane Sinner (2018) by Lianne Oelke.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is Oelke’s debut novel. The book is written as Jane’s journal complete with dialog popped out as if it were a screenplay. This format allows Jane’s snappy comebacks and other banter between characters to really stand out.

Jane’s misadventures, like her narration, are sardonic and ridiculous in the best ways as she balances competing on the show and using everything she learns in Intro to Psychology to destroy her opponents with her high school completion work and maybe, just maybe, making some new friends. Jane has no allusions about herself or the nature of the show–it’s the worst and she might not be much better as she chases the win.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is simultaneously contemplative and literally laugh-out-loud funny. A must-read for readers looking for a laugh and fans of reality shows (or anyone who likes to complain about those unsatisfying reality show outcomes).

Possible Pairings: Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, American Panda by Gloria Chao, Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandyha Menon, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

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

Always and Forever, Lara Jean: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Always and Forever, Lara Jean is the sequel to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and  P. S. I Still Love You. As such there are major spoilers for both preceding books in this review.*

“There’s so much to be excited about, if you let yourself be.”

It feels like everything is changing for Lara Jean the spring of her senior year in high school. She and Peter K. are still together but she is waiting for those much-anticipated college acceptance letters. Margot seems farther away than ever in Scotland especially as their father announces his plans to remarry. Kitty, the youngest Song girl, is ecstatic about the wedding and seems to be growing up all too quickly.

Lara Jean knows exactly how she wants the rest of her senior year and college to go. But even with all of her careful planning it seems like Lara Jean will still have to face some unexpected decisions and opportunities in Always and Forever, Lara Jean (2017) by Jenny Han.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean is the unexpected third book in Han’s Lara Jean trilogy which began with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and  P. S. I Still Love You. Han wrote this book in secret as a surprise for her readers who are fans of this series and these characters.

This final installment starts near Easter as Lara Jean is anxiously waiting to hear back from colleges and trying to plan what will come next for her own future as well as her future with Peter. Surprise college decisions and other changes prove that even the best laid plans can be changed and, more importantly, your future is your own to shape.

Lara Jean remains a sweet and thoughtful narrator here facing some universal dilemmas particularly when she realizes her dreams about college are not going to resemble her reality. Lara Jean has always had an excellent support system with her family, friends, and Peter but it’s especially nice to see Lara Jean making her own decisions here even if sometimes they are scary choices. Throughout this quiet novel Lara Jean demonstrates her signature blend of resilience and optimism.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean is the perfect conclusion for this series and these characters. A memorable and satisfying send off for fans of this much loved series.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen, Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, The Key to the Golden Firebird by Maureen Johnson, Undercover by Beth Kephart, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle

Don’t forget to check out all of my buttons inspired by To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before & P. S. I Still Love You

When Dimple Met Rishi: A Review

cover art for When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya MenonWhat happens if you meet the exact right person for you at the exactly wrong time?

Dimple Shah wants to go to Stanford, focus on coding, and start her career. She would like to go to Insomnia Con this summer before she starts college to participate in the coding competition and possibly meet her idol Jenny Lindt.

Dimple isn’t interested in clothes, contacts, or makeup. She definitely doesn’t want a relationship or an “Ideal Indian Husband”–not right now and possibly not ever. When her parents agree to pay for Dimple to attend Insomnia Con, it feels like maybe they’re both finally understanding who Dimple is and embracing her dreams and ambitions.

Then again, maybe not.

Rishi Patel knows that it’s up to him to follow tradition and respect his parents’ wishes. It’s possible that Rishi isn’t passionate about engineering or MIT but he knows he should stick to the responsible and safe choice.

Rishi is a romantic but he also wants a solid partnership in the future. He trusts his parents when they try to set up an arranged marriage with the daughter of family friends. It should be simple. Rishi can even meet her at Insomnia Con and woo her. It will be perfect.

Or will it?

Dimple and Rishi figure each other out pretty quickly. They have nothing in common. They want different things. But they also make each other laugh and might be able to help each other be their best selves–if they can just give each other a chance–in When Dimple Met Rishi (2017) by Sandhya Menon.

When Dimple Met Rishi is Menon’s debut novel.

Menon’s writing is filled with evocative descriptions of San Francisco over the course of the three weeks Dimple and Rishi spend there for Insomnia Con. Dimple and Rishi’s relationship plays out against this backdrop of coding and competition along with a few side plots involving Dimple’s roommate Cecelia and Rishi’s younger brother Ashish.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a sweet romantic comedy with a lighthearted premise but it doesn’t stop there. Dimple and Rishi are both first generation Indian-Americans (their parents immigrated from India) and they are dealing with it in different ways. Dimple rails against traditions and values that seem determined to relegate women to successful marriages and not much else; she wants to make her own way in the world and she isn’t sure it matters if that goes against her parents’ expectations. Rishi revels in being part of such an old and amazing culture; he places so much value on traditions that he’s willing to sacrifice his own dreams because of them.

Although Dimple and Rishi are both eighteen they read young and feel like authentic teens facing big changes as summer ends and college approaches. Slow pacing toward the middle and some contrivances near the end of the book do little to diminish this enjoyable story. When Dimple Met Rishi is a thoughtful, clever read. A satisfying story about two teens who manage to find a lot to appreciate (including themselves) once they find each other. Highly recommended and guaranteed to leave readers smiling.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Say You’ll Remember Me by Katie McGarry, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Lucky in Love by Kasie West, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

Giant Days, Volume 1: A Comic (Chick Lit Wednesday) Review

Giant Days, Volume 1 by John Allison, Lissa Tremain, and Whitney CogarDaisy Wooton has been homeschooled for her entire life. Her worldview as she starts college verges on painfully naive and dangerously sweet.

Ester De Groot is a statuesque consumptive who continues to conjure unprecedented levels of drama at university thanks to her personal drama bubble.

Susan Ptolemy is a no-nonsense young woman at college to learn and move on to better things. If she happens to save Daisy and Esther from themselves (several times) along the way, so be it.

Susan, Esther, and Daisy are unlikely friends but somehow work remarkably well together as roommates during their first term as college freshman. All three are hoping for a fresh start at university where Daisy is eager to finally find herself (whoever that may be), Esther is looking for love (in all of the wrong places–as usual), and Susan is hoping to leave her past behind (especially McGraw who, unfortunately, shows up on campus soon after the start of term.

With drama, friendship, romance, and pesky classes vying for their attention, Susan, Esther and Daisy are sure to have an exciting first semester in Giant Days, Volume 1 (2015) by John Allison, Lissa Treiman (illustrator), Whitney Cogar (colors).

Volume 1 is a bind-up of the first four issues of the popular comic Giant Days.

Susan’s pragmatic attitude and tough-talking feminism temper the near-absurdity in various points of the plot particularly in relation to Esther. Readers who have survived college will find a lot of familiar moments here from overwhelming classes to freshman plague. And even some familiar faces (two of my closest college friends could be Susan and Esther).

Readers looking forward to that experience will find a thoughtful, humorous, and highly entertaining preview of things to come.

Giant Days is funny, smart, and delightfully entertaining. Highly recommended.

Breaker: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Breaker by Kat EllisNaomi doesn’t want to board at Killdeer Academy but she can’t stay with her grandparents now that her grandmother has so much to do taking care of Naomi’s grandfather as his Alzheimer’s progresses.

Kyle hopes to be able to remake himself at Killdeer Academy with a new last name and a determination to forget all about his serial killer father. His mother’s decision that Kyle should board is a surprise. But he’s dealt with worse.

Kyle expects to have a completely blank slate at the Academy. The only problem is that he recognizes Naomi immediately. She was the daughter of his father’s last victim. Kyle wants to stay away from Naomi but he isn’t sure how to ignore when she seems to actually want to be his friend–and maybe even more. When people start dying on campus both Naomi and Kyle will have to confront their pasts to stop the murders in Breaker (2016) by Kat Ellis.

The book alternates first person narration between Kyle and Naomi which makes both protagonists well-rounded. While other characters factor into the story in crucial ways, they remain decidedly secondary to Kyle and Naomi and are consequently somewhat less developed. Excerpts from ephemera related to Kyle’s father further complicate the story.

In a departure from her debut mystery fantasy, Blackfin Sky, Ellis delivers a much darker story here. Kyle is haunted by his father’s legacy as a serial killer, terrified that the stigma will cling to him forever and the thought that he could have turned out like his father. Naomi saw her mother’s murder and has spent the intervening years doing her best to not think about her mother at all to avoid the pain of that traumatic loss.

Kyle and Naomi are a completely unlikely pair but their chemistry in Breaker, not to mention their draw to each other is undeniable in this fast-paced thriller that is sure to appeal to fans of the genre. Breaker is a creepy and atmospheric story filled with choice details that bring Killdeer Academy to life in all of its eerie and dilapidated glory.

Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, With Malice by Eileen Cook, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

You can also read my interview with Kat about Breaker!

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