Remember Me: A Review

Remember Me by Estelle LaureSomething is not right on Blue Owens’ seventeenth birthday. Her art teacher seems mad at her. Her grandmother and best friends are oddly gentle, timid. Her backpack is filled with orange juice which everyone keeps reminding her to drink.

Then there’s the note to meet someone on a little shuttle bus outside of her small ski town Owl Nook, New Mexico.

When a stranger named Adam gets on the bus, Blue starts to put the pieces together. The boyfriend–Adam Mendoza–she doesn’t remember, the painful loss she’s desperate to forget.

Following the clues brings Blue to a doctor to who can help her get back the memories she asked to have removed. But Blue will have to move through the memories herself–process the joys and the sorrows that have been erased–if she wants to get back to herself in Remember Me (2022) by Estelle Laure.

Find it on Bookshop.

Blue and her family are white. Adam’s family is Latinx and one of Blue’s best friends, Jack, is nonbinary. The linear story includes a larger story within the story as Blue rediscovers her lost memories making for an interesting structure and unique reading experience.

Laure’s prose is imbued with a deep and abiding love for Blue’s New Mexico landscape and its natural wonders. The speculative fiction framework is used well to tell Blue’s story although the greater ramifications of memory erasures are not fully explored in the story outside of Blue’s immediate circle.

Blue moves inexorably toward the memories she’s tried to forget as she and readers put together the pieces of Blue’s past. Moments of sweetness with Adam and her friends contrast against the sharper loss–and grief–as Blue understands everything that has been lost.

Set in 2031 Remember Me is an eerie and powerful story about moving through grief and making it to the other side.

Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, No One Here is Lonely by Sarah Everett, Loud Awake and Lost by Adele Griffin, Edited by Barry Lyga, The Program by Suzanne Young, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Ophelia After All: A Review

Ophelia Rojas knows who she is: a girl who’s all about Cuban food, supporting her best friends, and her roses–both the ones she grows in her garden and the ones that embellish almost every piece of clothing she owns.

Ophelia has a reputation for one other thing: her numerous crushes on way too many boys. Ophelia gets a little tired of all the teasing sometimes but she is who she is.

Except when Talia Sanchez shows up at school, Ophelia realizes she might not know who she is quite as well as she thought. With high school ending, friendships changing, and a new crush that is totally off script, it feels like everything is up in the air. Now Ophelia has to decide if she can stay true to this new version of herself while holding onto the things and people she cares about in Ophelia After All (2022) by Raquel Marie.

Find it on Bookshop.

Ophelia After All is a standalone contemporary and Marie’s debut novel. Ophelia’s is biracial-Cuban on her mother’s side and white on her father’s leading to some thoughtful observations on racial stereotypes, microaggressions, and colorism. There’s a lot of diversity among the supporting cast including characters across the LGBT spectrum.

Ophelia’s narration is funny and thoughtful as she navigates her senior year of high school and the growing understanding that she might be bisexual–or something else she hasn’t learned the name of yet. With support from new friends like Wesley, Ophelia realizes that sexuality, like most things about a person’s identity, can be fluid and changeable. By the end of the story, Ophelia (and readers) also see that the queer community is open to all even if you’re still figuring things out.

With a crush that doesn’t go to plan and the bittersweet understanding that not all friendships are meant to last, Ophelia After All is a hopeful story about about endings and new beginnings.

Possible Pairings: The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel by Moe Bonneau, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju, All the Invisible Things by Orlagh Collins, The One True Me and You by Remi K. England, The Year I Stopped Trying by Kate Heaney, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve

The Luminaries: A Review

The Luminaries by Susan DennardWinnie Wednesday used to dream of becoming a Luminary hunter. But now, several years into her family’s shunning after her father’s outing as a traitorous witch, the most Winnie can hope for is helping with Corpse Duty after Wednesday hunting shifts in the forest.

It isn’t enough. It will never be enough.

Everyone in Hemlock Falls can try to complete the Luminary hunter trials on their sixteenth birthday. Most prepare with rigorous training and study to survive the forest and fight its literal nightmares. Winnie no longer has access to any of that thanks to her father’s crimes and her family’s subsequent disgrace. But even years deep into a decade-long punishment, Winnie can still compete in the trials. She can, she hopes, still succeed and restore her family’s status in the Wednesday clan.

Grit got Winnie to compete but it won’t make up for the years of missed training or the horrifying reality of facing a nightmare in the flesh. What she needs is help from an actual hunter. Like her oldest friend and the one who was quickest to stop talking to her: Jay Friday.

The more time Winnie spends in the forest, with Jay, the more she knows it’s exactly where she’s meant to be. But dangers are lurking outside Hemlock Falls–including a new monster that only Winnie has seen. After years of being ignored and dismissed, Winnie hopes that becoming a hunter will be enough to be heard. But first she has to survive all three trials in The Luminaries (2022) by Susan Dennard.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Luminaries is the first book in a new series. Winnie and her family are white but there is diversity among the cast thanks to the international nature of the Luminary clans. This book started as an interactive story that Dennard launched on Twitter (more on that in her acknowledgements at the end of the book) but readers don’t need to have any familiarity with its origins to enjoy this iteration. Caitlin Davies provides an excellently narrated audiobook version.

Dennard once again delivers an action-packed plot and carefully developed world building in this series starter. Winnie knows that entering the hunter trials with her limited training is a risk that could have deadly consequences. She also knows it’s the only way to redeem her family and bring her mother, older brother, and herself back into the Wednesday fold–a hypocrisy that is not lost on Winnie as the Luminaries quickly change face after her first trial. Although Winnie’s doubts and insecurities loom large throughout the novel, her actions display Winnie’s abilities and commitment as she perseveres and works to prove herself both to the Luminary families and to herself.

The Luminaries is very much an introduction exploring the world of Hemlock Falls and the Luminary clans before a jaw-dropping conclusion that will leave readers eager to see what happens next. Starting The Luminaries is like stepping into another world; one filled with magical nightmares, dangerous witches, and a heroine trying to distinguish herself in a clan that has already dismissed her. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Lightlark by Alex Aster, A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy Banghart, The Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron, Monsters Born and Made by Tanvi Berwah, The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima, Small Favors by Erin A. Craig, Court of Fives by Kate Elliott, Crown of Oblivion by Julie Eshbaugh, All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

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

The Other Merlin: A Review

In the great kingdom of Camelot, Arthur is reluctant to take up his roles as prince and future king ever after pulling the sword from the stone. He was drunk, it was a joke! How can an old sword mean he’s destined to be a great hero when he would much rather be a botanist who spends all his time in the library?

Lancelot is happy to flirt with almost anyone who crosses his path. Except the last time he picked very badly and everything went very wrong leaving him demoted to a castle guard instead of following his dreams of becoming a knight who will faithfully serve Arthur.

Emry Merlin’s future has never been as certain as her twin brother’s. It’s always been clear that Emmett would be the child to follow in their father’s footsteps serving as Camelot’s court wizard. Never mind that Emry works harder and better when it comes to all things magic. Instead, Emry has to settle for using her magic to create alarmingly realistic stage effects.

At least, she used to.

With the sword out of the stone, things are changing in Camelot and Emmett is summoned to court to take up his role as court wizard. Except he can’t go. Which the current king, Uther, is not going to appreciate. At. All.

It seems simpler–and safer–for everyone if Emry go instead. It’s not hard to disguise herself as Emmett. It will only be a week. Except the longer Emry spends at court the more she’s caught up in the court’s intrigues and scandals, more drawn into Arthur’s inner circle, and even his longtime enemies like Lord Gawain. The more time Emry spends at court the more she learns about her magic. The more she finds herself drawn to Arthur.

When secrets are revealed and alliances threatened, Emry will have to choose between her own ambition and the prince she’s come to love in The Other Merlin (2021) by Robyn Schneider.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Other Merlin is the first book in Schneider’s Arthurian duology which continues in The Future King. Most characters are cued as white with characters falling across the LGBT spectrum notably including our narrator Emry who is bisexual.

With irreverent banter, anachronisms, and a healthy dose of teen spirit The Other Merlin is a fresh a take on familiar source material. Emry breathes new life into Camelot as she contemplates how privilege (especially in the form of wealth) and gender identity offer different characters wildly different opportunities. Emry knows she is as deserving, possibly more deserving, than her brother to act as court wizard. Whether the rest of Camelot will be able to see that beyond her gender remains to be seen in this first installment.

Multi-faceted characters, numerous side plots, and lots of action and humor make The Other Merlin a page-turning adventure. Readers faithful to the Arthurian canon may be flummoxed by Schneider’s numerous changes but those looking for an original retelling will appreciate her interpretations and updates.

Possible Pairings: Once & Future by AR Capetta and Cory McCarthy, Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst, Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion: A Review

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra RehmanCorona, Queens in the 1980s is changing as the area’s first wave of primarily Italian immigrants are replaced with Pakistani family’s like Razia Mirza’s. The tension between the old and new in the neighborhood is palpable; the criticism clear as carefully tended gardens turn to weeds in the hands of new tenants and change keeps coming.

That tension between old and new is familiar to Razia Mirza. As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who herself feels increasingly more American than Pakistani, Razia sees that same tension in herself; in her own life. Being a kid in Corona felt easy. Razia could understand the dimensions of her childhood even while she chafed against the narrow boundaries of her role as a “good girl” and a respectful part of her Muslim community.

But now, like her neighborhood, Razia is changing. She buys miniskirts from thrift stores, she listens to music her mother would call wild. Then she gets accepted to Stuyvesant all the way in the East Village in Manhattan where, for the first time, Razia feels like she has the space to be who she wants to be and not who her parents expect.

When her deepest friendship at Stuyvesant blossoms into something bigger, Razia has to decide if she can reconcile her family, her heritage, and her faith with the future she is chasing in Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion (2022) by Bushra Rehman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Short, vignette-like chapters unfold Razia’s story from early childhood into adolescence. For an even more immersive reading experience, check out the audiobook read by the author. Be aware of a few incidents of animal violence (mostly off page, but described after the fact) throughout the book if that’s a point of concern for you as a reader.

Vivid descriptions bring Razia’s world to life as her sphere slowly expands from the careful influence of her conservative parents into the punk scene surrounding Stuyvesant’s East Village neighborhood. Razia’s first person narration hints at larger stories unfolding with the circle of girls and women that comprise the Pakistani-American community in Corona but the tight focus on Razia’s experiences leave many plot threads open to interpretation by readers as they unpack Razia’s experiences alongside out protagonist.

Although romance in the conventional sense doesn’t appear in the story until the final act, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion is a love story at its core. Again and again, Razia’s world expands as she discovers learning whether it’s at school, borrowing books from her local library, or gaining a deeper understanding of what her faith means to her while reading the Quran with her mother and other female community members at regular Vazes–religious parties–in the neighborhood.

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion is a tantalizing window into one girl’s life as her world starts to expand, creating a friction between family obligations and personal growth as Razia tries to reconcile her own wants with the expectations of her family and community. Richly detailed prose bring Razia–and New York City–to life alongside provocative feminist themes of agency and freedom; this book and its author are ones to watch.

Possible Pairings: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, All the Rage by Courtney Summers, All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir, The Girls in Queens by Christine Kandic Torres, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Frankly in Love by David Yoon

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

The Rules of Magic: A Review

“For what you fix, there are a hundred remedies. For what cannot be cured, not even words will do.”

The Rules of Magic by Alice HoffmanIt was always clear that siblings Franny, Jet, and Vincent Owens were different from other children. Raised in New York City, they grow up with no knowledge of their family’s long history in Masscusetts or the curse Maria Owens cast in 1620 that changed the family trajectory forever.

Instead, determined to keep the truth of their family–and themselves–from her children for as long as possible, their mother sets down rules: no walking in the moonlight, no Ouija boards, no candles, no red shoes, no wearing black, no going shoeless, no amulets, no night-blooming flowers, no reading novels about magic, no cats, no crows, no venturing below Fourteenth Street. But even with all these rules, the children were still unusual.

At the start of the 1960s, the New York branch of the Owens family finally returns to the family home. And that changes everything. Meeting Aunt Isabelle for the first time, it starts to feel like Franny, Jet, and Vincent are meeting themselves for the first time. In a world where magic is suddenly everywhere, it seems like anything is possible–especially falling in love. But as they learn more about their family blunt and stubborn Franny, beautiful and dreamy Jet, and charismatic troublemaker Vincent will all realize no one can escape love no matter how much they might want to in The Rules of Magic (2017) by Alice Hoffman.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Rules of Magic is a prequel to Hoffman’s now classic novel Practical Magic. This novel focuses on Sally and Gillian’s aunts Franny and Jet when they were young women first discovering their magic and can be read on its own with only minor spoilers for Practical Magic. The story is told by an omniscient third person narrator with a close focus on Franny, Jet, and Vincent. The Owens family and all major characters are assumed white.

Hoffman perfectly captures the heady effervescence of the 1960s when the Owens family–and the country–are on the cusp of big changes. While The Rules of Magic does return to the family home in Massachusetts and even spends some time in France, the bulk of this novel is set in New York City as Franny, Jet, and Vincent come of age and come to terms with their magical abilities and the family curse. Set in Greenwich Village (specifically 44 Greenwich Street!), the novel explores cultural touchstones including the Stonewall riots and the Vietnam draft through the eyes of the Owens siblings.

Readers familiar with Hoffman’s work will recognize the lyrical style and looping narrator that slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion that will have a lasting impact for the entire Owens family. Although all three siblings play a major role in the story, the novel primarily focuses on Franny as she shifts from obstinate eldest daughter to the matriarch of the family. Franny’s role in the family is pivotal but if, like me, you find her (and her love interest Haylin) the least interesting member of the family some of this novel will feel especially slow.

The Rules of Magic perfectly captures the strange alchemy that makes New York City–especially Greenwich Village–so special while also expanding the Owens saga and the larger family story in interesting directions; a must read for fans of the series and an appropriate entry point to those new to the series.

Possible Pairings: Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert, Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim, The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, In the Shadow Garden by Liz Parker, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Among Others by Jo Walton

The First Thing About You: A WIRoB Review

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

The First Thing About You by Chaz Hayden

Moving from California to New Jersey is a great chance for 15-year-old Harris Jacobus to reinvent himself. After growing up surrounded by inaccessible beaches and being defined by his wheelchair, he’s ready for some more traditional high-school experiences. Having spinal muscular atrophy means he’ll never be able to do some things the way other people do, but it doesn’t mean he can’t use this move to try to become more popular, go to parties, and maybe find a girlfriend.

Honestly, he’d settle for finding any real friends.

Unfortunately, using a wheelchair in a school that’s supposedly accessible is still hard. And working with the school on an individualized plan for his disability is met with resistance; a lot of people need to understand that “inclusivity was not making someone feel uncomfortable for the enrichment of others.”

Instead of finding a cool crowd, Harris finds himself sitting at the loser table with Zander, a freshman who turns to “Mean Girls” for wisdom since the film “provides all the answers to our adolescent questions. How do I determine the cliques? What will it take to become popular? When do I wear pink? You see, it’s not just a movie, but a guide for the weak and afraid. Not to mention a great resource for devastating comebacks.”

Then there’s Nory, the cute girl who refreshingly treats Harris like any other guy who blocks her locker or flirts badly. (In his defense, have you ever tried to flirt while your mom — saying she’s your executive assistant — accompanies you to school?)

Harris has a foolproof strategy for gauging whether he’ll get along with someone: Ask their favorite color. “I thought about colors a lot, actually,” he explains. “Especially when I was about to meet anyone new. It was always the first question I asked them. A person’s favorite color says a lot about who they are.”

A blue himself, Harris knows that greens and purples are too close on the color wheel to make good friends, while yellows like Zander can encourage a more outgoing nature. But Nory won’t tell Harris her favorite color, leaving him unsure if it’s worth pursuing her.

After struggling to find a nurse young enough to blend in around school (and that insurance will cover), Harris’ family hires Miranda, a nursing student as eager for the work experience as she is to help Harris on his mission of reinvention. She seems perfect. Her favorite colors are orange and red, and she even graduated from Harris’ new school.

With Miranda’s help, Harris figures out how to flirt with Nory, starts sitting with the popular kids, and even gets invited to his first party. But as she pushes him to try newer, riskier things, it becomes clear that having complementary favorite colors might not be enough for a lasting relationship in The First Thing About You (2022) by Chaz Hayden.

Find it on Bookshop.

Hayden channels his own experiences growing up with spinal muscular atrophy into this contemporary debut. Harris’s wry, matter-of-fact narration clearly outlines how Harris navigates the world with his disability including daily nebulizer treatments to clear his lungs, using a laptop to complete all of his classwork, and how he eats: “My disability makes it difficult for me to life my arms and feed myself. Even small things like a piece of cereal or a plastic spoon pose a challenge. I used to have the muscles to eat independently, but over time I’ve lost them.”

This narrative lens hints at how the rest of the Jacobus family adjusts to the move, with Harris’ father balancing a big promotion with a long commute, and his mother taking on more work than ever before as Harris’ de facto nurse both at home and (later in the story) at school. Meanwhile, Harris’ older brother, Ollie, is trying to fit in at his own new school, where his lacrosse teammates resent his rising-star status and his willingness to speak out against their ableist comments.

As Harris learns more about Miranda and her history — which includes the death of a close friend and an abusive relationship — he begins to realize that growing closer to her might mean losing his friendships with Nory and Zander. It’s a loss he must weigh against Miranda’s ability to pull him out of his shell and toward the kinds of encounters he thinks he wants.

While Hayden teases out the complicated dynamic between these two characters, the questionable nature of Miranda’s behavior as an adult working with a teen — she not only encourages Harris to take risks but fosters an inappropriate bond between them, such as when she climbs into his bed after he gets sick — is never fully addressed.

Despite this plot hole, The First Thing About You presents a well-rounded story about first love, friendship, and high school with disability representation that will serve as a much needed window (or mirror) for all readers.

We Deserve Monuments: A Review

We Deserve Monuments by Jas HammondsSeventeen-year-old Avery Anderson is still smarting after breaking up with her first girlfriend over an argument she’d rather not remember. But that doesn’t mean she’s excited to have her entire life uprooted so that she can move from DC with her Mom and Dad to the middle of nowhere in Bardell, Georgia.

Avery barely knows her grandmother, Mama Letty, but with news of a terminal diagnosis Avery’s mother tells the family they have to be there for Mama Letty–whether she wants them there or not. Avery has known about the tension between her mom and Mama Letty for longer than she can remember. Based on the less-than-warm welcome they receive, Mama Letty dying seems unlikely to change anything.

Thank goodness for Simone Cole the cute girl next door who offers Avery some much-needed fresh air while being totally crush-worthy. Simone is a big personality and she’s quick to let Avery into her inner circle alongside best friend Jade Oliver–daughter of one of the town’s most prominent families with one of the most notorious reputations.

Secrets run deep in Bardell. As Avery unpacks the town’s racist past she also begins to fill in the gaps in her own family’s tragic connection to the town. As endings get wrapped up with new beginnings Avery has to decide if some secrets are worth burying when it also means keeping the peace in We Deserve Monuments (2022) by Jas Hammonds.

Find it on Bookshop.

We Deserve Monuments is Hammonds’ debut novel. Avery is biracial (Black mother and white father) and queer, Simone and her family are Black, and Jade’s family is from one of the wealthiest white families in Bardell. Avery’s first person narration alternates with short vignettes throughout the novel exploring different aspects of Bardell including painful pieces of the past as well as moments of first love and even an unlikely refuge for the local queer community highlighting just how varied even a small town can be for each of its residents.

Hammonds packs a lot into this deceptively slim novel with explorations of generational trauma, racism, and identity both through Avery’s story and her investigation into her family’s legacy in Bardell. Avery’s changing feelings about her family, especially Mama Letty, serve as a counterpoint to her complicated new friendships with Jade who Avery is hesitant to trust and Simone who might end up being something more.

In learning more about Mama Letty’s history in Bardell, Avery also starts to understand more about her own identity as a biracial and queer young woman and how to embrace both of those pieces of herself to take up space in her own life. Spare prose and evocative descriptions immediately draw readers into both Avery’s story and her search for answers.

We Deserve Monuments is grounded in a post-pandemic world that feels both timeless and current. Come for the romance, stay for the story of two girls learning how to love every part of themselves and their families–even the pieces no one wants to talk about.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Sugar Town Queens by Malla Nunn, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Jagged Little Pill: The Novel by Eric Smith et al, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Be sure to also check out my interview with Jas!

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

Bounce Back: A Graphic Novel Review

Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!Moving to a new country means a lot of changes for Lilico Takada. In Japan Lilico was popular and the captain of her school basketball team. In Brooklyn, Lilico has to start from scratch with her best friends on the other side of the world and a whole new school culture to figure out–all while working on improving her English. When Lilico’s hopes of finding new friends on the basketball team ends with a painful rejection, Lilico finds unlikely help from her cat, Nico, who turns out to be way more than a regular housecat.

With magical Nico dispensing advice and two new friends excited about Japanese culture (and talking cats), Lilico finally start to find her footing. As Lilico navigates a year full of changes for her entire family, she’ll take any help she can to figure out where she fits in Bounce Back (2021) by Misako Rocks!

Find it on Bookshop.

Bounce Back is a standalone graphic novel filled with sports, friendship, and some magic. The book reads in the Western (left-to-right) style with artwork in Misako’s typical manga-infused style. The pages include quick asides, footnotes, and even back matter with a guide to draw Nico, create some of the characters’ signature fashions, and learn Japanese. Nico’s transformation from beloved pet cat to talking guardian spirit also makes this a great stepping stone from magical girl stories to more contemporary fare.

Lilico comes from a close-knit family and Bounce Back does a great job of showing the upheaval for both Lilico and her parents as they adjust to the move–especially Lilico’s mom who has to work even harder to make her own friends and learn English since she doesn’t work outside of the home. With a strong focus on basketball this graphic novel blends sports with Japanese culture and even fashion as Lilico and her new classmates find intersecting interests.

Full color illustrations are easy to follow and bring Lilico and her semi-magical world vibrantly to life. Bounce Back is a fun manga-style graphic novel perfect for anyone whose ever had to deal with being the new kid.

Possible Pairings: Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas, New Kid by Jerry Craft, Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza, Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai, Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte, Front Desk by Kelly Yang

This Golden State: A Review

“I didn’t even know the choices, because I didn’t have the information.”

This Golden State by Marit WeisenbergPoppy has grown up with five family rules:

1. No using your real name.
2. No staying in one place too long.
3. If something’s weird, take one thing and run to the meeting spot.
4. Keeping our family together is everything.
5. Don’t ask about the past. For your own safety. It’s the smallest mistake that will get us caught.

Lying constantly, hiding all the time, always waiting for one disastrous slip up hasn’t left much room for seventeen-year-old Poppy to ask questions. When she was little it all seemed normal. Now, Poppy has her little sister Emma and her parents. What more does she need?

Right away, Poppy knows that their latest move is different. Her parents never answer Poppy’s questions but once they arrive in California, Poppy has even more: like how a room prepared in a safe house can feel more like hers than anywhere else she’s ever lived and why it feels like pieces of her family’s secrets are waiting to be discovered.

With her parents distracted, Poppy has more freedom than she’s used to with a chance to attend an advanced math class, earn her own money, and maybe make a real friend in the unlikely form of ultra-wealthy and popular Harry. Family has always been enough for Poppy. It has to be. But as Poppy begins to dig deeper into her parents’ past with a secret DNA test and to think more about her own desires, Poppy also realizes that no secret can be kept forever in This Golden State (2022) by Marit Weisenberg.

Find it on Bookshop.

This Golden State is a tense standalone novel narrated by Poppy. The Winslow family and most characters are cued as white with Harry’s DNA results showing ancestry going back to Jamaica, South India, and Europe.

Perfect pacing and an urgent, close-focus narrative amps up the tension immediately as readers are drawn into Poppy’s world where nothing can be taken at face value. While family secrets and the looming results from Poppy’s DNA test drive the plot, this is ultimately a story about a girl who is leaning to dream and understanding how much bigger her world can be. As Poppy tries to keep up with her wealthier classmates who have had more consistent schooling, Poppy also starts to unpack the privilege that comes with stability and everything that she has lost growing up on the run–losses that her younger sister Emma has already begun to chafe under.

Harry gives Poppy a window into a world she knows she can never inhabit living the way she currently does–one fileld with opportunity and growth. Brief moments with Harry’s verbally abusive father also underscore to Poppy how much her parents have sacrificed to keep their family safe and intact. Weisengerg thoughtfully unpacks Poppy’s loyalty and deep love for her parents alongside her growing resentment at their rules and how they have to live. As she learns more about her parents’ roles in leading the family to this point, Poppy also has to learn how to maintain her affection and fond memories while leaving room for the anger that comes with understanding.

This Golden State is a taut exercise in suspense where family is everything. Until it isn’t. While the payoff for all of Poppy’s questions and investigating can feel anticlimactic, This Golden State is a story that will stay with readers long after the open-ended conclusion. Recommended for readers seeking a thriller focused on tension instead of scares.

Possible Pairings: Don’t Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, My Mechanical Romance by Alexene Farol Follmuth, The Safest Lifes by Megan Miranda, The Liar’s Daughter by Megan Cooley Peterson, Remember Me Gone by Stacy Stokes, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner