When We Vanished: A Review

When We Vanished by Alanna PetersonAndi Lin and her mother are doing everything they can to keep anyone from finding out that her father’s new job is actually participating in a clinical trial at the food corporation Nutrexo.

After Andi hears executives whispering about a dangerous research study at a company party, she worries it might be the same study her dad is involved with–especially since she hasn’t heard from him in over a week. When Andi asks her neighbor Cyrus Mirzapour to help, they wind up in over their heads when a nonviolent protest ends with a bombing and both of them being held captive alongside Cyrus’s older brother, Naveed and younger sister, Roya.

Trapped and desperate to discover the truth and save themselves, Andi and Cyrus find themselves at the center of a conspiracy with consequences that are hard to imagine–and closer to home than either of them realize in When We Vanished (2020) by Alanna Peterson.

Find it on Bookshop.

When We Vanished is Peterson’s debut novel and the start of her Call of the Crow quartet. The book is published by Peterson’s newly created publishing company Rootcity Press which, as their website states, “operates on a not-for-profit model, and donates a portion of all proceeds to grassroots-based organizations focused on racial justice and food equity”

As such, this eco-thriller works to raise awareness about the dangers of fast/processed foods and genetically modified foods some of which can be seen on the book’s companion site Nutrexo Truth.

Unfortunately in sharing these timely messages Peterson’s novel highlights graphic scenes of animal cruelty with “EcoCows” kept in unsanitary and inhumane conditions at Nutrexo and scenes of torture when Naveed is sprayed with a noxious pesticide as part of the villain’s continued experiments leaving him with lasting nerve damage.

While these scenes viscerally showcase the dangers of modifying foods, particularly the increased spread of antibiotic resistant infections, the violence that will stay with readers far longer than the message.

When We Vanished is an unflinching eco-thriller best suited to readers comfortable with gore and grit.

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

Tweet Cute: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tweet Cute by Emma LordPepper has spent her high school career maintaining a perfect GPA while captaining the swim team and adjusting to life in New York after her family’s burger stand Big League Burger became a major national chain. Not to mention secretly running Big League Burger’s Twitter account for the company’s meme-illiterate social media manager.

The only place where Pepper can admit how little she knows about what she wants next is when she’s talking to Wolf on Weazle–the anonymous chat app that is completely against school rules and impossible to ignore.

Unlike Pepper, Jack doesn’t worry about overachieving at all–his identical twin Ethan has that covered. Especially when Jack is always ready behind the scenes to take over the things Ethan can’t quite manage. Being the lower profile brother has its perks as it gives Jack time to teach himself to create and manage Weazle.

Talking to Sparrow anonymously on his app is the one place where no one is disappointed that Jack isn’t Ethan. It’s also a distraction from working at his family’s shop Girl Cheesing and worrying about the pressure he feels to one day take over the family business.

When Big League Burger steals the recipe for Girl Cheesing’s iconic grilled cheese sandwich, Jack is ready to throw down one Tweet at a time. And Pepper, it turns out, can give as good as she gets when it comes to snark.

All’s fair in love and fast food, but when Pepper and Jack’s Twitter battle escalates to viral proportions they will have to figure out if either of them can transcend their family’s expectations–not to mention their epic rivalry–to give their fledgling friendship a chance to become something more in Tweet Cute (2020) by Emma Lord.

Find it on Bookshop.

Tweet Cute is Lord’s debut novel. The story alternates between Pepper and Jack’s first person narrations. If the premise sounds a little like You’ve Got Mail or The Shop Around the Corner, that’s not just you. The book stays close to the plot of those classics with a few modern twists (and a lot more grilled cheese).

Viral Twitter feud aside, Tweet Cute is a gentle contemporary romance about two characters trying to do the best they can even when they are actively getting in their own way partly due to their own preconceived notions and a lack of communication with friends and family.

Surprising plot twists, satisfying character arcs, and the inventive incorporation of rom-com tropes keep this story from ever feeling stale or predictable.

Tweet Cute is an unexpectedly delightful story of mistaken identity, social media feuds, baking, and fast food. All wrapped up in character arcs centered on forgiveness and learning to understand yourself while you’re still figuring out who that is. In other words: ALL OF MY FAVORITE THINGS. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett; Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake; Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman; Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum; Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan; Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest; Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks; Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon; Analee in Real Life by Janelle Milanes; Lucky Caller by Emma Mills; Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales; Recommended for You by Laura Silverman; Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon; Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood; The Shop Around the Corner; You’ve Got Mail

Stay Sweet: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“But maybe the only things stopping her were the limits she put on herself.”

Molly Meade began making ice cream with a hand churn ice cream maker in 1944 to cheer up the girls left behind while their loved ones were fighting overseas. From those humble beginnings Molly created Meade Creamery–the local ice cream stand that makes Sand Lake a tourist destination as much as the nearby lake.

The stand is always managed by local girls and known for the easygoing atmosphere and camaraderie between the staff. Amelia and her best friend Cate have worked there together for the past three summers–it’s how they became best friends. When Amelia is chosen to be “Head Girl” and manage the stand, both girls are looking forward to a perfect summer before they start college in the fall.

Except Molly dies before the stand opens for the summer, leaving the stand’s future uncertain. Amelia agrees to stay on to help Molly’s grandnephew figure out how to run the stand and,they hope, find Molly’s secret ice cream recipes. But Grady has big plans to modernize Meade Creamery based on his college business classes that make Amelia wonder if he understands anything about Molly’s legacy.

During a summer where everything is about to change, Amelia will have to figure out how to hold onto the past while forging ahead into an uncertain future in Stay Sweet (2018) by Siobhan Vivian.

This standalone contemporary is an ode to ice cream, the bittersweet nature of changing friendships, and of course to summer itself. Written in close third person the novel follows Amelia from the start of her summer when she finds Molly’s body through a season filled with growth and unexpected changes for both Amelia and the ice cream stand.

While everyone in Amelia’s life is eager to see her move on to college, Amelia is overwhelmed by nostalgia for life in Sand Lake and everything it has represented for her growing up. That love for her hometown and the ice cream stand makes it easy to tie her own summer plans to Grady and Meade Creamery–even at the detriment of her already tenuous friendship with Cate who sees her chance for a perfect last summer with Amelia slipping away.

This character driven novel is partly a contemporary romance but it’s also a love story on a much larger scale as Amelia discovers her passion, the strength of truly solid friendships, and yes a bit of young love too.

Stay Sweet is as sweet as the ice cream served at Meade Creamery. Come for the summery vibe, the romance, and the ice cream; stay for the solid themes of feminism, entrepreneurship, and female friendship.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, Infinite In Between by Carolyn Mackler, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, Small Town Hearts by Lillie Vale

You can also check out my interview with Siobhan about this novel!

With the Fire on High: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

cover art for With the Fire on High by Elizabeth AcevedoEmoni Santiago knows that when people see her name, they get an idea of the person they’re going to meet — the same way people thought they knew the kind of girl she was when she got pregnant her freshman year at Schomburg Charter High School.

She didn’t want to give away information like that for her daughter. Instead, she explains:

“I wanted to give Babygirl a nice name. The kind of name that doesn’t tell you too much before you meet her, the way mine does. Because nobody ever met a white girl named Emoni, and as soon as they see my name on a résumé or college application they think they know exactly what kind of girl they getting.”

But even if people who see her as a teen mother think they know her, Emoni knows they don’t see the full picture. They don’t understand that her top priority since Babygirl was born is to be a good mother.

Even with help from her grandmother, ‘Buela, at home, Emoni has a lot more than college plans on her mind at the start of senior year in Philadelphia. While her best friend, Angelia, is looking at the best graphic-arts programs and enjoying her relationship with her new girlfriend, Emoni is trying to decide if college (or a relationship) can have a place in her future alongside the hopes and dreams she wants to make a reality for Babygirl. And she wonders if it’s time to focus on doing rather than “spending four years pretending to do” in college.

When an opportunity to take an immersive culinary-arts class comes up at school, Emoni knows this is one thing she has to do even if she isn’t sure what to expect — or even if she can afford the class’ trip to Spain alongside the day-to-day costs of helping ‘Buela keep their house afloat.

“If you ask her to tell it, ‘Buela starts with the same story” of Emoni hopping up on a stool and seasoning her first meal at age 4. Emoni doesn’t know what to believe, but “ever since then ‘Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don’t know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I’m happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty.”

Unfortunately, her natural affinity for food and years of experimentation in the kitchen don’t go far when it comes to prepping Emoni for the rigors of the culinary class. Chef Ayden wants to prepare them for work in a restaurant, but Emoni chafes under the structure and restrictions that seem designed to impede her creativity.

Emoni already knows a lot about taking care of herself and the people she loves, but over the course of her senior year, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to learn even more about cooking, family, and opening her heart in With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevdo.

Find it on Bookshop.

Author Elizabeth Acevedo’s follow-up to her blockbuster verse-novel debut, The Poet X, is another sensational contemporary story. Broken into three parts, With the Fire on High follows the sour, savory, and bittersweet moments as Emoni moves toward graduation and tries to figure out what’s next both for herself and her family.

Emoni’s first-person narration is frank and introspective. She is confident and secure in who she is and the choices she has made, but she also knows that people may have misconceptions about her as a result — something that the novel explores especially well through Emoni’s rivalry and eventual cautious friendship with her classmate “Pretty Leslie Peterson,” about whom Emoni has her own preconceived notions.

Quick, evocative descriptions bring Emoni’s Philadelphia to life as she moves through her neighborhood, where “the sounds of West Allegheny Avenue rush in to greet [her]: cars honking, buses screeching to a stop, rapid Spanglish yelled from the corners as people greet one another, and mothers calling out last-minute instructions to their kids from open windows” and beyond to other parts of the city.

While a romance as sweet as any of her desserts unfolds between Emoni and a new student, the core of this story is the found family and support system that Emoni creates for herself and Babygirl — a family that gets even bigger once she is willing to ask for help when she needs it, because, “like Chef Ayden always says, sometimes you need a team to help you.”

With the Fire on High is a delectable confection filled with optimism, humor, and an obvious affection for each and every character — especially Emoni, a heroine readers will not soon forget.

Possible Pairings: A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

The Way You Make Me Feel: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene GooClara Shin is good at two things: getting into trouble and making people laugh. With her two friends, Patrick and Felix, Clara has coasted through her first two years of high school leaving a trail of chaos and epic pranks. Along the way she has also managed to infuriate her nemesis Rose Carter quite a few times. But that’s just a bonus. It’s not like Clara’s an actual bully or anything.

When her latest joke goes too far ending in a fight and a fire, even Clara’s usually laid-back father Adrian knows that things have gone too far. Clara’s plans for a laid-back summer and a vacation with her Instagram-famous influencer mom are cancelled. Instead Clara gets to look forward to working on her dad’s food truck, the KoBra, to pay back the school for fire damage. Worse, she’ll be working with Rose.

Clara isn’t sure how to deal with having actual responsibilities let alone working with uptight, perfectionist Rose whose ambitions and extracurriculars make the Obama daughters look like slackers. But there is Hamlet Wong–the boy who is as earnest and open as a Labrador, really cute, and totally not Clara’s type even if he does think she’s hilarious.

As Clara starts to learn more about the food truck, Rose, and her own family she starts to care about what happens with the KoBra and, more importantly, what other people think of her. After years of treating life as one big joke, Clara might be ready to let herself be more than a punchline in The Way You Make Me Feel (2018) by Maurene Goo.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Way You Make Me Feel is a delightfully funny contemporary filled with food, family, and evocatively described Los Angeles locations.

Clara’s parents are Korean by way of Brazil–a cultural identity that comes through in their personalities as much as in the food that Adrian prepares on the KoBra–they’re also young and not married, things that don’t come through a lot in contemporary YA. While I’m never a fan of stories where the main character pines after an absentee parent the way Clara does with her mother. However Goo handles the inevitable dose of reality well and in a way that makes sense for her character.

Clara’s first person narration is acerbic, sarcastic, and often laugh out loud funny. She is used to not being well-liked and she doesn’t care as long as it doesn’t impact the persona she has created for herself. One of the only people to call Clara on her attitude and her bad behavior is Rose, an overachiever trying to balance dance classes, school, and her punishment on the food truck. Rose is also struggling with anxiety–the one chink in the otherwise perfect image she presents to the world.

While there’s some romance with Clara and the always adorable Hamlet, the main event in this novel is friendship as Clara and Rose start to understand and, much to their own dismay, appreciate each other the more they’re thrown together.

The Way You Make Me Feel is a funny, smart, and utterly entertaining story that reminds you it’s never too late to make a few changes. A novel that’s guaranteed to make you laugh and leave you smiling. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, It Started With Goodbye by Christina June, The Secret Ingredient by Stewart Lewis, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks, Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy by Tiffany Schmidt, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner, Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Better Off Friends: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Better Off Friends by Elizabeth EulbergMacallan and Levi are great as friends. In fact, they’re best friends. Family. Which is great for both of them.

Most of the time.

The problem is not everyone understands how a boy and a girl can be such good friends. It gets weird when Levi starts dating one of Macallan’s other friends but still keeps joking with her. It gets worse when Macallan gets a boyfriend.

Both Macallan and Levi are pretty sure they’re better as friends than anything else. Except they can’t help wondering if the complications that come with being more than friends might just be worth it in Better Off Friends (2014) by Elizabeth Eulberg.

Find it on Bookshop.

Better Off Friends is another cheerful confection from Eulberg complete with a beautifully designed book package. Written with chapters that alternate between Macallan and Levi’s narration, Eulberg’s story here spans years from the day our protagonists meet through the highs and lows of their friendship.

While Levi’s interest veers toward sports, Macallan discovers a fondness for culinary arts. United by a common love for a British comedy, Macallan and Levi are both approachable characters who are extremely easy to like.

Eulberg brings the Wisconsin setting to life with a brief, beautiful told jaunt to Ireland thrown in as well. Every word counts here and is used to good effect, from the first chapters to the dialogues Macallan and Levi share between chapters. Better Off Friends is an effervescent read that is sure to leave readers smiling.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Take Me There by Susane Colasanti, Just One Day by Gayle Forman, To All the Boys I’ve Love Before by Jenny Han, The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith, The Book of Love by Lynn Weingarten, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin