Realm Breaker: A Review

Realm Breaker by Victoria AveyardCorayne an-Amarat is a pirate’s daughter eager to embark on her own adventures at sea in Allward. But she is also the last of the ancient Cor bloodline and the only one who can use the ancient spindleblade to protect her realm and make sure the Spindles that can open destabilizing passages between realms are closed.

Reluctant to embrace this lineage, Corayne joins weary immortal Dom as he attempts to mount a second quest to succeed where the first failed in closing the Spindles. Aided by a mercenary assassin and Andry, a squire and the only mortal to survive the first quest, the group will face numerous obstacles as they struggle to work together to save the world in Realm Breaker (2021) by Victoria Aveyard.

Find it on Bookshop.

Aveyard follows up her blockbuster Red Queen series with this homage to high fantasy that works to make more space for women and offer a more inclusive cast. The realm of Allward features people with a range of skin tones and backgrounds–Andry is described as “honey brown” while Corayne has “golden skin.”

Shifting viewpoints, flashbacks, and changing locations cut through much of the novel’s potential urgency as the narrative pauses continuously to ruminate on the failed quest seen in the prologue and offer character backstories.

Aveyard creates a compelling world with ample space for female characters in a traditionally male genre. Despite its start and stop pacing, Realm Breaker is action packed with plentiful fights, chases, and other derring-do.

Possible Pairings: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Furyborn by Clarie Legrand, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser, Fable by Adrienne Young

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

Happily Ever Afters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Happily Ever Afters by Elise BryantAs a shy introvert, there’s nowhere Tessa Johnson would rather be that sitting down at her laptop writing. Tessa rarely sees herself in the romance novels she loves to read. So instead she writes her own, creating love stories where she and her best friend Caroline can finally see themselves as leading ladies. Writing is the one place Tessa feels like she is fully in control of her life. Sharing her writing with anyone but Caroline is a different story.

While moving for her father’s promotion is hard, Tessa hopes that starting her junior year at an arts school with a creative writing program will make the transition easier. The only problem is that Tessa fails to consider that being in a writing program means people will want to read–and critique!–her writing. Suddenly Tessa’s dream school turns into a nightmare when she loses all of her inspiration and her confidence.

Without any other ideas, Tessa agrees to follow Caroline’s advice: find some real-life inspiration with romance-novel inspired ideas while getting close to the incredibly cute, romance-cover-worthy visual arts student Nico. Checking things off her list turns out to be easy, but Tessa isn’t sure if it’s really going to help her find her words again–or the right guy for her own perfect ending in Happily Ever Afters (2021) by Elise Bryant.

Find it on Bookshop.

Happily Ever Afters is Bryant’s debut novel. The story is narrated by Tessa.

Having a Black father and a white mother, Tessa was used to never fitting in at her previous school where she and Caroline (who is Filipina) initially bonded as two of the only students of color. In addition to the culture shock of a conservatory program, Tessa is thrilled to find a much more diverse group of students at her new school as she bonds with new friends on her own for the first time.

Although Tessa struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, the novel is imbued with humor even as things go wrong. This levity is much needed to counter heavier parts of the story as Tessa balances her own life with the responsibilities and expectations her parents have for Tessa to help with her older brother Miles who has athetoid cerebral palsy which has led to mobility challenges and mental impairment.

While Tessa tries, with varying levels of success, to get closer to Nico, readers can appreciate Tessa’s swoony moments with neighbor and culinary arts student Sam. Both Tessa and Sam struggle with impostor syndrome as Tessa wonders if her romantic stories really “count” as creative writing while Sam tries to justify baking as an art to himself as much as to anyone else.

Happily Ever Afters is an ode to romance novels, creativity, and fandoms. A sweet story about how sometimes you have to learn to love yourself–and your passions–without apology before you can learn to love someone else.

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Felix Ever After: A Review

Felix Ever After by Kacen CallenderFelix Love has never been in love–an irony that weighs heavily on him as he starts the summer before his senior year in high school. Felix is mostly happy with his life and loves who he is but he also wonders as a Black, queer, transgender teen if he’s ever going to find his happy ending.

Felix knows he’s lucky to be fully accepted by his best friend Ezra and his classmates. He knows not all fathers would pay for their son’s top surgery or support his choice to be his true self. Felix reminds himself of that every time his father stumbles a little when he tries to call Felix by his name.

But there’s no excuse when someone in Felix’s summer art program puts up an exhibit with photos of Felix as a kid before he transitioned along with his deadname. When he starts receiving transphobic messages on Instagram, Felix decides it’s time to fight back.

Creating a secret profile to try and out his harasser should be simple since Felix is so sure it’s his longtime nemesis Declan. But when Felix and Declan start talking, he starts to realize nothing is exactly as it seems–especially Felix’s own feelings for Declan and for Ezra in Felix Ever After (2020) by Kacen Callender.

Find it on Bookshop.

Felix has to deal with some heavy topics throughout the book including the anonymous transphobic harassment and offhand comments from classmates as well as his father’s mixed efforts to support Felix. Callender presents all of this thoughtfully and, thanks to Felix’s first person narration, keeps the focus on Felix’s own experiences without giving extra page time to his traumas. (One example: Although we see Felix being deadnamed–with his childhood photos and captions using the name Felix was given by his parents before he transitioned–in the rogue art exhibit, we do not ever see the actual name used in the book.)

Despite being his story, Felix is not always an easy character to cheer on as he embarks on his own catfishing scheme for revenge. That said, Felix learns a lot and grows a lot as the story progresses and he begins to stand up for himself and more fully understand his own gender identity.

With a flashy, feel-good finale at the New York City Pride parade, Felix Ever After is a summery, romantic story that will leave you with a smile on your face.

Possible Pairings: Simon Vs. the Homo-Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver, Some Girls Bind by Rory James, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg, Birthday by Meredith Russo, Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Non-Fiction Review

All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. JohnsonAll Boys Aren’t Blue (2020) by George M. Johnson (find it on Bookshop) collects essays by Johnson about his life growing up as a Black queer boy (and young man) in New Jersey and in his college years in Virginia.

The essays cover a range of topics from Johnson’s first identity crisis when he found out his name was George despite his family always calling him Matt (his middle name) to when his teeth were knocked out at five years old by neighbor kids. Stories of pushing against gender binaries, navigating high school while publicly closeted, and working up to coming up and living his true life in college all illustrate the challenges of triumphs of growing up to become your best self even if that is often in the absence of any support in terms of seeing yourself in media like TV shows or books like this one.

Each essay works well on its own presenting a contained story or anecdote from Johnson’s life although transitions between each chapter/essay fail to create a cohesive whole. Johnson addresses topics of drug use, sexual abuse with care guiding readers through these challenging topics while also giving them space to step away from the book if needed.

All Boys Aren’t Blue celebrates Black Joy, family, and individuality in a book that begins to fill a gap in written experiences for teen readers. If you decide to pick this one up and are able to read audiobooks, I highly recommend this one which is read by the author.

The Silvered Serpents: A Review

“What is magic but a science we cannot fathom?”

The Silvered Serpents by Roshani ChokshiMonths ago Séverin and his crew beat the remnants of the exiled Fallen House back into hiding. But the victory came at a steep cost. A loss that has left Séverin and his friends reeling and weakened the once unbreakable bonds between them.

Determined to never lose anything–or anyone–ever again, Séverin follows clues to the Fallen House’s Sleeping Palace in Russia. Once there he believes he can uncover their greatest treasure: The Divine Lyrics, a book that is said to bestow godlike powers to whoever uses it and may also unite the Babel Fragments spread across the globe that make Forging magic possible.

While Séverin chases invulnerability to protect those he cares about, Laila hopes the book might save her before time runs out. Historian Enrique thinks the high profile recovery will earn him the respect that eludes him. And scientist Zofia wants to prove that she can take care of herself even if she sometimes needs help understanding other people.

After so many years working together, so much time trying to prove themselves, Séverin and the others will all have to choose what matters most and how far they are willing to go in pursuit of it in The Silvered Serpents (2020) by Roshani Chokshi.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Silvered Serpents is the second book in Chokshi’s Gilded Wolves trilogy.

Chokshi expertly builds tension and suspense in this sequel as the team delves deeper into the mysteries surrounding the Fallen House, the secret of the Divine Lyrics, and the Lost Muses who may be able to tap into the artifact’s power. The theme of who is able and allowed to shape history continues to be a major underpinning of this series as all of the characters question how best to make their own voices heard in a world that often refuses to truly see them.

Chapters alternating between Séverin and the rest of the team explore their varied motivations and subplots offering many insights into each character while moving inexorably toward the novel’s shocking conclusion that will leave readers eagerly anticipating the final installment.

The Silvered Serpents is the sleeker, smarter, sharper, and bloodier sequel fans of this series deserve. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Roshani Chokshi discussing this book!

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Lady Rogue by Jenn Bennett, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Reader by Traci Chee, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Enchantée by Gita Trelease

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the February 2020 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Grown: A Review

“Because if I keep denying the memory, it’ll make it untrue.”

Grown by Tiffany D. JacksonEnchanted Jones thought she had everything figured out. She isn’t what anyone would call happy at her new school, but she makes it work. She has swim team and she has her best friend Gabriella. With Gab’s help Enchanted auditions for BET’s version of American Idol. It doesn’t go well.

But it does bring her face to face with legendary R&B artist Korey Fields who is even hotter in person and could be Enchanted’s own ticket to stardom. It starts with secret texts and flirting. Then there are singing lessons and an invitation to go on tour.

It ends with Enchanted beaten bloody and Korey Fields dead.

Enchanted wishes she could forget the events leading up to Korey’s death. But she can’t do that any more than she can remember what happened that night.

Did Enchanted plunge the knife into Korey’s chest? Was she the only one who wanted him dead? With more questions than answers Enchanted will have to piece together the pieces before Korey’s livid fans–or the police–do it for her with Enchanted as the culprit in Grown (2020) by Tiffany D. Jackson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Jackson’s latest standalone is a tense mystery as Enchanted navigates her sudden infamy while still trying to process the abuse she suffered at Korey’s hands. (Please note the content warnings in this book for: mentions of sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction to opioids.) The case in the book is heavily influenced by the sexual abuse allegations leveraged against R. Kelly over the past two decades as covered in the documentary Surviving R. Kelly.

Grown is a crushing read. It’s easy to see the red flags in retrospect with the shifting timeline that starts with Enchanted discovering Korey’s dead body. It’s much harder for Enchanted to see them as she is drawn in to Korey’s orbit and desperate to be seen as a young woman instead of the little girl her family still sees.

Grown offers a scathing commentary on how quickly the media is willing to blame young Black girls like Enchanted saying they are grown and know what they are doing while excusing predatory behavior from influential Black men like Korey. While this story is by no means an easy read, Jackson’s writing is on point as this taut and suspenseful story builds to one surprising twist after another.

I do also want to talk about how mental illness is explored in the book. This is a spoiler so click read more to my thoughts or back away to avoid them:

Continue reading

Now That I’ve Found You: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Now That I've Found You by Kristina ForestEvie Jones is about to be Hollywood’s next big thing when her chance at stardom blows up in her face. After a self-imposed exile for most of the summer, Evie might have one chance to get her career back on track.

Unfortunately for Evie that plan relies on her grandmother Gigi (AKA bonafide movie star and now notorious recluse Evelyn Conaway) making her first public appearance in years. Evie is certain she can convince Gigi right until the moment Gigi disappears rather than hear Evie’s pleas.

With only days before the big appearance, Evie is running out of options to find Gigi and save her career. She reluctantly teams up with Milo–a cute musician Evie isn’t sure she can trust no matter how much Gigi seems to like him–for a madcap search across New York City.

As Evie and Milo try to follow Gigi’s trail they’ll also learn a lot about how best to blaze their own in Now That I’ve Found You (2020) by Kristina Forest.

Find it on Bookshop.

Now That I’ve Found You is Forest’s second novel and includes a fun nod to her debut.

Forest delivers one charming ensemble cast in this story of celebrity, family, and letting people in. Positioning Conaway as Hollywood royalty and an Oscar winner for best actress in the 1970s also shifts the world in the book to give Black creators and their contributions in Hollywood the space and respect they deserve but didn’t receive in the form of Oscar recognition until decades later in real life.

Set over the course of a week this fast-paced story lets Evie and Milo shine as foils and, eventually, reluctant allies in the hunt for Gigi. Milo is a sweet contrast to cynical Evie and the ideal sidekick on their search. The story’s romance and humor set the perfect stage for Evie’s powerful arc as she learns that she is the only one who can determine her own worth.

Now That I’ve Found You is a gentle, perfectly paced romantic comedy with a protagonist learning to appreciate both her loved ones and herself. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Permanent Record by Mary H. K. Choi, The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

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

You Should See Me in a Crown: A Review

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah JohnsonLiz Lighty has never been one to break from the ensemble to go solo. That has served her quite well during her time at her high school in Campbell County, Indiana where she’s been able to focus on band, getting good grades, and doing everything she needs to in order to attend her mother’s alma mater Pennington College.

Unfortunately, even doing everything right isn’t enough to get Liz the last scholarship she needs to be able to afford tuition at Pennington. If her grandparents find out, they’ll want to sell the house to help Liz. But if they do that Liz and her younger brother will lose the last link they have to their mother who died from Sickle Cell Anemia. Liz isn’t going to be the reason for that. Not a chance.

Instead, Liz realizes her best option is running for prom queen. Liz has never cared about prom–not the way people are supposed to in her town where prom is a full-time obsession–but becoming prom queen comes with a crown and a scholarship.

Now Liz will have to complete community service, dodge spontaneous food fights, and deal with the friend who broke her heart when he he chose popularity instead of their friendship. That’s all while campaigning to climb the ranks running for prom queen and figuring out what to do when new girl Mack turns from enigmatically cute to new crush and maybe even potential girlfriend.

Prom season is always hectic in Campbell and competition is always fierce. Liz knows most people in Campbell don’t see her as prom queen material. The better question is if Liz is ready to step out of the ensemble and use her solo to convince them otherwise in You Should See Me in a Crown (2020) by Leah Johnson.

Find it on Bookshop.

You Should See Me in a Crown is Johnson’s debut novel. This funny contemporary is set over the course of the six weeks of Liz’s prom campaign culminating in the prom itself. I won’t spoil the prom queen results, but maybe you can guess. Despite the prom focus the main event is watching Liz come out of her shell and embrace all of her personality (and her queer identity) while making space for herself in both her school and her town.

Campaign shenanigans and gossip from the school’s social media app Campbell Confidential add drama and humor to this story. Although she doesn’t tell them everything she’s struggling with, Liz’s grandparents and brother are great supports for her and quite funny in their own rights.

Liz’s friends also try to help with the campaign which leads to questionable decisions from best friend Gabi as she lets winning overshadow being a good friend–an ongoing problem as Gabi begins to understand that being a friend (and an ally) has to more than offering campaign advice.

Then of course, there’s Mack and one of the sweetest romances you’ll find in YA Lit.

You Should See Me in a Crown is a prom-tastic read with a story that is as funny, smart, and endearing as its heroine. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin, The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby, The Prom by Saundra Mitchell with Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, Matthew Sklar, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, 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, The Wrong Side of Right by Jenn Marie Thorne, Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian

Raybearer: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Raybearer by Jordan IfuekoTarisai has grown up with every luxury imaginable–except for a loving family. Her mother, known as The Lady, has kept Tarisai isolated save for a group of revolving tutors and servants afraid to get too close as she prepares her daughter for a mysterious future.

At the age of eleven Tarisai finally learns The Lady’s plan when she is sent to compete for a spot on the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. Joining the Council will give Tarisai the family she has always craved. But it will also bring her one step closer to completing her mother’s magical request: killing the Crown Prince after Tarisai has earned his trust.

As Tarisai learns more about the empire, the Crown Prince, and herself she will have to decide where her loyalties lie and if she is strong enough to choose her own path in the face of her mother’s magical compulsion in Raybearer (2020) by Jordan Ifueko.

Find it on Bookshop.

Ifueko’s debut fantasy blends Nigerian folklore with a melange of other influences to create a multicultural world where colonization and imperialism inform the story as much as Tarisai’s own choices. Tarisai’s first person narration offers a limited perspective increasing suspense as she tries to guess The Lady’s motives.

Large scale but vague world building and a plot with far reaching elements beyond Tarisai’s immediate concerns make this story needlessly convoluted at times. Raybearer is a dense but promising standalone fantasy ideal for readers who prefer their magic with a strong dose of political intrigue.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Ever Cursed by Corey Ann Haydu, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

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

The Voting Booth: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Voting Booth by Brandy ColbertMarva Sheridan has been preparing for this day for years. She has campaigned, phone banked, and helped register voters. Now she’s ready to vote in her first election because she knows it’s the best way to make a difference.

Duke Crenshaw is over the election even before he gets to his polling site. His family has always been politically minded thanks to his big brother, Julian. But it hasn’t been the same since Julian’s death. Now all Duke wants to do is get voting over with and focus on his band’s first ever paid gig that night.

Except when Duke gets to the polling place, he can’t vote.

Marva isn’t about to let anyone get turned away from the polling place–not even a stranger. So she volunteers to do everything she can to make sure Duke gets his vote in.

What starts as a mission to get one vote counted quickly turns into a whirlwind day filled with drives across the city, waiting in lines, hunting for one Instagram famous cat, grassroots organizing, and maybe even some romance in The Voting Booth (2020) by Brandy Colbert.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Voting Booth is Colbert’s best book yet and my personal favorite. Set over the course of one hectic election day, the novel follows Marva and Duke along with flashbacks expanding key details of their lives throughout the novel.

Colbert pulls no punches as her characters confront with voter suppression and racism. Both of them also try to deal with how best to “explain their Blackness” as Marva examines her relationship with her white boyfriend and Duke navigates being biracial while living with his white mother.

The story is tense and authentic but it’s also gentle and often extremely funny. Although Duke’s life especially has been touched by tragedy before the start of the novel, you know the characters are going to be okay. Marva and Duke carry the story but they have a lot of help from excellent secondary characters notably including Duke’s younger sister Ida and Marva’s parents.

The Voting Booth is a hopeful, zany, romantic comedy complete with an Internet famous cat but also an empowering story about politics and pushing back against injustice. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed, You Say it First by Katie Cotugno, The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Today, Tonight, Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon, Running by Natalie Sylvester, Watch Us Rise by Renee Watson, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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