If the Shoe Fits: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

If the Shoe Fits by Julie MurphyCindy barely made it through her senior year in design school. She filled her portfolio with old shoe designs while all of the pent-up grief from her father’s death just before college finally caught up to her. Even now, as a fresh college graduate, Cindy is completely uninspired. No wonder she has no industry job prospects.

Leaving her chosen home in New York City to return to California to nanny her much-younger triplet siblings could be a much-needed chance to refocus. The plan starts to sound even better after Cindy has a meet-cute on the plane with dreamy Henry who could easily pass for Prince Charming.

Adrift and not sure how to restart her creativity, Cindy makes a surprising choice when she volunteers to appear as a contestant on her step-mother’s popular reality dating show. Sure, it’s unexpected. But it will give Cindy a chance to showcase her work and get some exposure. Plus she’ll be appearing with her other step-sisters so it’s not like Cindy will be on her own. She knows she won’t win the Suitor. But maybe she’ll land a job.

When the producers decide it would make more sense if Cindy has no connections on the show, she’s worried. When the show’s suitor turns out to be a certain charmer that Cindy got to know on a plane, she’s concerned–what are the rules for dating someone you already know while on national television?

Just when Cindy is ready to go home, she finds out that the show’s viewers have embraced her as the first plus-size contestant pushing body positivity one group date at a time. She has to stay for her new fans. As the sparks fly between her and Henry and her inspiration slowly returns, Cindy might have to stay for herself too in If the Shoe Fits (2021) by Julie Murphy.

Find it on Bookshop.

If the Shoe Fits is Murphy’s first novel written for adults. The book is also the start of Disney’s Meant to Be series of romances which will retell different Disney classics. Being a Disney property, this novel is high on the swoons while being light on the steam.

Fans of Murphy’s previous novels will appreciate Cindy’s no-nonsense first person narration as well as her comfort in her own skin as a fat woman who isn’t afraid of being called fat. That doesn’t mean Cindy doesn’t have to confront fatphobia throughout the novel as the show’s stylists refuse to stock clothing in her size and, during one group date, Cindy is forced to cobble together an outfit out of designer clothes from a label that doesn’t make anything in her size. Rather than becoming pain points for Cindy or readers, these moments showcase Cindy’s ingenuity as a designer and underscore the book’s continued message of inclusivity.

Cindy and Henry are white. There is diversity among the show contestants, staff, and designers met along the way including one of my favorite secondary characters, Jay, who is a non-binary style icon.

While comparing If the Shoe Fits to the original Cinderella is a stretch in some respects, fans of the original will recognize key details from the original including Cinderella’s squad of helpful mice, beautiful shoes, and even a reimagining of the Disney princess’s iconic outfit. Obvious chemistry between Cindy and Henry along with their smile-inducing banter move the story along even when it gets bogged down in the conventions of the dating competition–a show that fans of The Bachelor will immediately recognize.

If the Shoe Fits is a Cinderella retelling replete with positivity in a story that centers romance and magical moments without any of the toxic feminity inherent to the original as Murphy reinterprets Cindy’s relationships with both her step-mother and her step-sisters. A must-read for Disney fans and romance readers alike.

Possible Pairings: Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall, Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert, Natalie Tan’s Books of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim, Charlie Glass’s Slippers by Holly McQueen

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

Sunkissed: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sunkissed by Kasie WestAvery’s expectations for her summer vacation are low. Her college professor parents always make summer vacations an event but now, the summer before her senior year, Avery’s parents are more determined than ever to have a summer full of family bonding. Unfortunately that means a summer at a hokey family camp. Without WiFi.

While Avery mourns her now inaccessible playlists, she relishes the chance to completely unplug and avoid her best friend–the one who betrayed her right before they left. Watching her younger, extroverted sister struggle without access to all of her social media accounts is an added bonus.

The summer starts to look up when Avery meets Brooks–the aloof frontman for the camp’s band. Who tells Avery that all of the camp’s guests are hopeless snobs before he realizes she is, in fact, one of those guests.

Despite a disastrous first meeting, circumstances keep bringing Avery and Brooks together while giving Avery a chance to step out of her comfort zone. After years of curating the perfect playlist for every occasion, this summer could be Avery’s chance to write her own song–and sing it center stage in Sunkissed (2021) by Kasie West.

Find it on Bookshop.

If the plot of West’s latest standalone contemporary sounds a lot like the film Dirty Dancing, that’s because it is. Sunkissed offers an aged down, somewhat sanitized version of the film where the main characters connect while preparing for a battle of the bands contest instead of a dancing showcase. The family camp here feels a bit less plausible and is, notably, not a destination for Jewish families as was the case in the film.

Avery’s first person narration is breezy and immediately draws readers into her story. She is also an extremely introverted and conflict averse character, making it painfully clear to readers early on that her problems could largely be resolved with some honest conversations–all of which Avery avoids for most of the book.

West brings her ususal skill to writing swoony banter and characters with chemistry even if, at times, the story seems to be shoehorned into the Dirty Dancing style plot. Where this story really shines is in watching Avery and Brooks connect as they ultimately push each other to strive for their goals–things neither was willing to fight for until their fateful meeting.

Sunkissed is a summery romance filled with characters who love music and are learning to dream big.

Possible Pairings: Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, Sunny Song Will Never Be Famous by Suzanne Park, Love Songs and Lies by Jessica Pennington, Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker, Dirty Dancing

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

Steelstriker: A Review

*Steelstriker is the conclusion to Lu’s Skyhunter duology. Start at the beginning with Skyhunter to avoid spoilers.*

Steelstriker by Marie LuSix months after the fall of Mara, the Karensa Federation works mercilessly to absorb the formerly free nation into its sprawling empire. Mara’s artifacts are carted to Federation museums and sculpture gardens, their heritage erased. Prisoners await execution or transformation into Ghosts–the hideous monsters the Federation uses so effectively against both its enemies and its subjects.

Talin Kanami watches helplessly. Once an elite Striker, Talin and her friends tried to stop the Federation’s invasion but they were too late. Now Talin stands at the Premier’s side as a Skyhunter–a human turned war machine with lethal strength and steel wings. Talin is the Premier’s unspoken threat against all who would defy him. She is also his hostage; her good behavior ensuring her captive mother’s continued survival until Talin’s transformation is complete and the Premier controls her completely.

Red escaped the Federation once, his desperate flight bringing him to Mara and to Talin. Her hope made him believe things could change. But now watching another invasion, his wings damaged in battle, the first Skyhunter knows he will need more than rage and regret to help his new friends–especially Talin in Steelstriker (2021) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Steelstriker is the conclusion to Lu’s Skyhunter duology. Start at the beginning with Skyhunter to avoid spoilers.

Chapters alternate between Talin and Red’s first person narrations as the protagonists try to find their way back to each other and continue fighting the Federation. The strong link they shared in book one is weaker now as Talin struggles to contain her emotions before the Premier can use them against her. Isolated and worried about each other, this leads to repetition in the story as both Talin and Red wonder what has become of the other.

Seeds of rebellion and resistance spark action in this story which expands the sophisticated and nuanced world building from book one. Questions of who is fit to run a nation and how power is bestowed add further depth to the book’s political landscape while references to Talin’s tortuous transformation (which occurred between books) remind readers how very dangerous and cruel the Federation can be. As the Premier tries to harness (presumably nuclear) technology from the Early Ones, it becomes clear that sometimes mistakes are doomed to repeat.

Lu once again delves into the brutality of war and invasion as Talin–whose vocal chords were damaged in the invasion of her birthplace, Basea–and Red–who was recruited by the Federation as a child soldier–both reflect on what has brought them to this point. Steelstriker fast-paced and brutal but ultimately a satisfying conclusion to a strong dystopian duology.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

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

Kaleidoscope: A Review

“Maybe this is what it’s like to be inside the mind of God. The past and the future mean nothing, and the time is always now.”

Kaleidoscope by Brian SelznickIt starts with a ship going to see. Or exploring a wondrous garden. It begins when a boy named James leaves a message for his father with a doll that will be discovered years later, encased in ice.

Always there is searching. There is missing, hoping. There is saying goodbye.

It ends with an invisible key. A spirit machine born out of a dream made reality. With answers found inside inside an apple.

Every spin of the kaleidoscope fragments one story while bringing another into focus. The beginning is always different. The end keeps changing. But always, slowly, there is peace in Kaleidoscope (2021) by Brian Selznick.

Find it on Bookshop.

Selznick’s latest illustrated novel reads as a series of interconnected short stories–mediations on the same themes of loss and separation examined through different lenses. In his author’s note Selznick explains the inspiration he drew directly from the early days of the pandemic when Selznick and his husband were separated for three months–a fracture that inspired more abstraction in his art and eventually led to this story.

Each chapter (or self-contained story depending on your interpretation of the text) begins with a kaleidoscopic image followed by the unabstracted image pulled directly from the story. A namesless narrator tells each story and although the characters change, always there is a nameless character trying to make their way back to James. In some stories like “The Ice” or “The Spirit Machine” the grief is overt while other standout stories (“The Apple” or “In the Dark”) offer more optimism.

Common images and themes throughout each story slowly unfold to bring a larger narrative of connection and loss into focus. While the story lacks any significant female characters, the nameless narrators do serve as a cipher of sorts allowing readers to insert themselves fully into each story.

Kaleidoscope is very much a product of the pandemic. Readers will see that in Selznick’s carefully rendered artwork, the disjointed narratives, the stories that almost but don’t quite but maybe do intersect. Kaleidoscope is a meditative and ultimately hopeful book, ideal for readers seeking a puzzle-like diversion. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales by Chris Van Allsburg et al

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

Charming As a Verb: A Review

All kids are charming as an adjective. Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger has always been charming as a verb.

It’s a skill that has served him well as he smiles and Smiles his way through his various hustles on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Henri is a straight A student on scholarship at the elite FATE academy where he manages to keep up with his affluent friends and stay on top of academics. He is also, secretly, the owner (and sole dog walker) at Uptown Updogs.

As the child of Haitian immigrants, Henri is used to facing a lot of pressure. His father works as the superintendant of their building, his mother is close to becoming a firefighter after leaving her career as a paralegal. Henri himself is, hopefully, on his way to Columbia University–the dream he and his father have been chasing for as long as Henri can remember.

Everything seems to be falling into place until two obstacles land in Henri’s path. First, his alumni interview at Columbia does not go well making him question his eventual acceptance which had previously seemed inevitable after all of his hard work. Then Corinne Troy, his classmate and neighbor, threatens to blow Henri’s dog walking hustle apart. In exchange for keeping his secret, Corinne demands that Henri help her loosen up before own Ivy League dreams are ruined by a recommendation pointing out her “intensity.”

Henri reluctantly agrees only to realize that Corinne might actually be kind of fun. And cute. As he and Corinne grow closer, Henri grows more frantic to ensure his acceptance at Columbia. After working so hard, for so long, Henri is pretty sure he’ll do anything it takes to get in. What he didn’t count on is the people he might hurt along the way in Charming As a Verb (2020) by Ben Philippe.

Find it on Bookshop.

Charming As a Verb is, for lack of a better word, a charming story. Henri is just the right blend of calculating, sympathetic, and totally oblivious as he navigates the challenges of senior year and the college application process–not to mention his confusing feelings for Corinne, the one girl he can’t seem to charm with an easy Smile. Henri makes a lot of bad choices along the way (reader, I screamed at him while reading) but those decisions make his growth by the end of the story all the more satisfying.

While Henri is the linchpin holding this novel together, the supporting cast and evocative New York settings really make the story shine. Henri’s best friend Ming, a Chinese student adopted by Jewish parents, offers a contrast to Henri’s scrimping and saving while also providing rock solid support for Henri throughout his questionable decisions. It’s rare to find male friendship depicted so purely and it’s great to see. The fellow members of the debate team (and the debate competitions themselves) also add a lot of humor to the story while showcasing more of life at FATE Academy.

Henri’s complicated relationship with his family–especially his father whose Columbia dreams have shaped so much of Henri’s life thus far–is handled beautifully in this story as all of the Haltiwangers find their ways back to each other by the end of the story in a final act filled with hard conversations and a lot of love.

Charming As a Verb delivers on all fronts, cementing Ben Philippe as a go-to author for characters who are as sardonic as they are endearing. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Admission by Julie Buxbaum, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forrest, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, Again Again by E. Lockhart, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

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

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

By the Book: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

Allergic: A Graphic Novel Review

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated Michelle Mee Nutter
Maggie has been feeling like the odd one out at home for a while. Her parents are busy getting ready for the new baby. Her younger brothers are twins and always speaking their own language. Literally. Maggie hasn’t had anything just for her for a while.

Which is why getting a puppy for her tenth birthday is the best gift ever.

But there’s one problem: Maggie breaks out in hives the minute she tries to choose her new dog.

Turns out Maggie is allergie to anything with fur. With her pet options severely limited Maggie will have to get creative if she wants to find the perfect pet in Allergic (2021) by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated Michelle Mee Nutter.

Find it on Bookshop.

Allergic is a really fun, full color graphic novel. Maggie’s father is depicted as white while her mother is darker skinned.

This story packs a lot into a slim volume. It’s sure to appeal to fans of contemporary graphic novels. Maggie struggles to come to terms with her allergies–and the numerous shot treatments she needs for them–while letting go of her idea of the perfect pet.

At the same time, Maggie makes new friends with a boy at school who has food allergies helping her put her own situation in perspective as something that just happens sometimes. She also befriends new neighbor Claire who is a grad ahead at school and tries to support Maggie on her pet search. While the girls have some growing pains with jealousy and related arguments, their friendship is back on solid ground by the end of the story.

Allergic is a relatable, funny story perfect for readers who enjoy slice-of-life comics and animals–with or without fur.

Possible Pairings: Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker, Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Even and Odd: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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