You Truly Assumed: A Review

You Truly Assumed by Laila SabreenIn the wake of a terrorist attack three Black Muslim teens find unlikely comfort online.

Sabriya is close enough to the attack in DC that her father picks her up from the dance studio; close enough that Bri, her younger sister, and their father all hold their breaths until Bri’s mother walks through the door. With the news cycle stuck on the attacks, on the terrorist with a name that sounds just Muslim enough for people looking for an excuse, Bri doesn’t know what to do with all of her big feelings about the attack and the aftermath and the way her perfectly planned summer of conservatory auditions is impossible now. Usually she’d write it all down in a notebook but this time she goes to a blog instead. Which changes everything.

Every Muslim in the US feels the ramifications of the attacks, worries about the Islamaphobia it will help justify. But it all feels far away for Zakat in the idyllic Muslim community she has always known in her town in Georgia. Until a childhood enemy is hired at the bookstore alongside Zakat and her best friend. While Aafreen is quick to trust and offer second chances, Zakat can’t help but wonder if this new addition to their social circle has anything to do with the vandalism at their mosque and other hateful incidents. Contributing her artwork to a new blog called You Truly Assumed should be a refuge and a distraction. But it becomes anything but as hateful commenters find the site.

Farah’s summer pushes her way out of her comfort zone. Instead of spending it with her mother, Farah is sent across the country to get to her father and meet her step-mother and half-siblings for the first time. The trip is a chance to explore college options on the east coast and test the waters of a long distance relationship. Farah doesn’t expect to also find community as a co-runner of You Truly Assumed much less as someone helping to plan a vigil after another attack.

As the blog gains momentum and attention Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah will all have to deal with the fallout as they try to make a place for themselves and other Black Muslim teens in You Truly Assumed (2022) by Laila Sabreen.

Find it on Bookshop.

You Truly Assumed is Sabreen’s debut novel. Chapters alternate between Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah’s first person narrations. While the three start as strangers in different areas their growing connection brings both the characters and their divergent stories together. These protagonists also help break down the idea of the Muslim or Black experience as a monolith. Zakat, a hijabi, is an aspiring artist attending a Muslim school who is very active in her local mosque. Farah and her mother are Muslim but Farah is spending the summer with her Black father and his family who are Christian while she considers STEM college options on the east coast.  Sabriya comes from a inter-faith household and is weighing the pros and cons of attending college or a conservatory ballet program after high school before the blog takes off.

While the advent and maintenance of the blog is what initially starts the story, each girl has their own arc as the novel progresses with navigating new family dynamics, micro-aggressions, friendships, and romantic relationships. Sabreen balances these multiple plots and protagonists well giving each girl adequate page time to stand out. Questions of how each girl negotiates being Black or Muslim enough in spheres that try to treat the two as mutually exclusive also lead to empowering moments as each heroine comes into her own. Unfortunately the writing doesn’t always do as much work to distinguish between the narrators with the voices sometimes blending together. (I listened to the audiobook and even having three different voice actors as narrators didn’t help.)

You Truly Assumed offers an authentic perspective on what it means to navigate online spaces showcasing both the highs–as Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah form a real friendship thanks to running the blog together–and the lows–when a conservative, alt right site lists the blog for a targeted harassment campaign. The girls’ families are also refreshingly present and, as situations escalate, involved in the resolution including some hard conversations about what happens next. Although Farah is in a relationship for the entirety of the novel, the story remains firmly focused on friendship and community rather than romance.

You Truly Assumed is an empowering story about finding your voice and your community. A must read in these disconnected times.

Possible Pairings: Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali, Girls Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, Love Times Infinity by Lane Clarke, Does My Body Offend You? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Seton Girls by Charlene Thomas

Only a Monster: A Review

Only a Monster by Vanessa LenSixteen-year-old Joan Chang-Hunt has a lot to look forward to this summer. She is once again staying with her mother’s eclectic family in London but this year is even better. Not only does she have a dream job at the historic Holland House–she gets to work alongside fellow nerd and crush Nick.

Going on a date with Nick is truly a dream come true. Or at least it should be. Unfortunately, the day of the date does not go as planned.

Instead of the start of a perfect summer, Joan finds herself in a nightmare as she learns more about her family–and their secrets.

Joan comes from a long line of monsters. Actual monsters with horrifying powers. Powers Joan might have herself.

Monsters are the least of Joan’s problems when she realizes that Nick is a hero–a monster hunter from the stuff of legend whose only goal is destroying monsters like Joan. And her family.

Desperate to protect her loved ones, Joan is willing to do anything even if it means working with a snobby stranger who happens to be the equivalent of monster royalty. Aaron Oliver is insufferable but he also knows how to navigate a world of actual monsters and heroes and maybe, just maybe, how to help Joan survive it too.

Joan is a monster. Nick is a hero. Everyone knows how that story ends. But Joan also knows that if she wants to keep her family safe it’s time for a rewrite in Only a Monster (2022) by Vanessa Len.

Find it on Bookshop.

Only a Monster is Len’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy. Joan is biracial (her mother is white and her father Chinese Malaysian) with other main characters assumed white although there is diversity among the monster families and secondary characters.

Distinct world building including a sprawling network of monster families and magical powers ranging from perfect memory to time travel create a rich landscape for Joan’s adventures as she struggles against enemies and even time itself to try to save her family. Ethical questions of what separates so-called heroes and villains inform Joan’s character arc. These moral questions also lend nuance to male leads Aaron and Nick as as their own backgrounds and development factor into the plot.

Readers will appreciate Len’s eye for detail as she brings both present and 1993 London to life while also expanding Joan’s knowledge of the monster world. In a community where everything from clothes to mannerisms carry loaded meaning Joan is doubly aware of her status as a biracial teen and–more dangerously in her current circumstances–as a half-human, half-monster girl in a world that usually sticks to strict binaries.

Only a Monster is a fascinating urban fantasy where nothing is as it seems. Well-drawn characters, action, and numerous surprises make Only a Monster an unforgettable read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: In Every Generation by Kendare Blake, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, This Savage Song by V. E. Schwab, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Seoulmates: A Review

Seoulmates by Susan LeeHannah Cho’s dreams of perfect summer before senior year go up in smoke when her boyfriend dumps her. Nate, like most of their friend group, is obsessed with K-pop and K-dramas. While Hannah is Korean American, she has no use for Korean pop culture. After years of leaning into the American parts of her identity to better fit in, Hannah doesn’t know how to handle this shift. Especially when it leaves her suddenly single.

As a rising K-drama star, Jacob Kim struggles with questions of whether he’s committed enough–and Korean enough–to succeed. After years of training, he isn’t sure how much longer he can deal with the pressure to make himself constantly available to his publicity team, his costars, and the press. When a press junket leads to Jacob needing some down time, he’s excited. Until he finds out his mom plans to have them stay with the Chos.

Jacob and Hannah used to be inseparable as kids. But that was before everything soured between them. The two strike an uneasy bargain–and an even more tenuous truce–when Hannah enlists Jacob’s help to win back her boyfriend and Jacob, in turn, asks Hannah to help him complete his summer bucket list of all the things he’s missed in San Diego over the years.

As Hannah and Jacob get to know each other again they’ll have to decide if new memories are enough to make up for old hurts and whether they’re headed for a happy ending or some K-drama level tears in Seoulmates (2022) by Susan Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Seoulmates is Lee’s debut novel. The novel alternates close third person perspective between Hannah and Jacob with some fun vignettes from their mothers’ points of view along the way. All principle characters are Korean or Korean American.

Hannah’s relationship with K-dramas and K-pop is partially inspired by the author’s own journey to embrace her heritage and cultural identity. As such, Seoulmates is lovingly filled with as many zany adventures and heart-string tugs as K-drama fans would expect. While Hannah starts the novel bitter and angry at Jacob, her hurt is clearly defined on the page never leaving readers in doubt of the long history between these characters and the difficult conversations they have in order to get back to each other.

Their hate to love relationship plays out against the backdrop of a summer filled with big questions. Hannah has to figure out what it means to be Korean American when, at last, being Korean finally seems to make her cool enough without trying to change herself. Jacob, meanwhile, has to figure out if continuing as an actor is worth the lack of privacy and the pressure–a stressful question to consider when he’s also been supporting his family since his father’s death years ago.

Lee balances these different plot threads well leaving room for the characters to realistically learn and grow as they reconnect while also delivering gasp-worthy twists in the rocky road of Hannah and Jacob’s relationship.

Seoulmates is a fun and breezy summer romance where finding love is tempered well with finding yourself.

Possible Pairings: The Charmed List by Julia Abe, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Susan Lee here on the blog.

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

Sugar Town Queens: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Sugar town queens never back down from a fight.”

Sugar Town Queens by Malla NunnAmandla Zenzile Harden is familiar with her mother’s strange visions and her difficult days. But even she is taken aback when, on the morning of her fifteenth birthday, her mother Annalisa tells Amandla that she has to wear a blue sheet as a dress to bring her father home. It’s been only Amandla and her mother for as long as Amandla can remember. She has never met her father. Wearing an ugly sheet isn’t going to change that.

Life in Sugar Town isn’t what anyone would call easy. Everyone has their struggles and their problems in the township near Durban, South Africa. Although their shack is shabby by some standards, it’s home and it’s always tidy thanks to Annalisa’s meticulous cleaning. But even in the township, Amandla and her mother stand out not just for Annalisa’s strange behavior and uneven memory but because Annalisa is white and Amandla is brown.

After years of trying to piece together the scraps of her mother’s fractured memories into something resembling a family history, Amandla is ready for answers. When she finds more cash than she’s ever seen in her mother’s purse along with an address, Amandla decides it’s a sign to find answers.

With help from her best friend Lil Bit and newer friend Goodness, Amandla follows the clues to the truth about herself, her mother, and old family secrets that will change Amandla’s understanding of family forever in Sugar Town Queens (2021) by Malla Nunn.

Find it on Bookshop.

Sugar Town Queens is Nunn’s first novel for young adults. Amandla is biracial (her mother is white and her father is described as Zulu in the narrative–one of the few things Amandla knows about him), Amandla’s friends and other township residents are Black.

Amandla’s first person narration is direct and to the point in the way of young people who have to grow up quickly because of hard circumstances. Amandla is well aware of the poverty she and her mom live with but, over the course of the novel, she also finds moments of lightness with Lil Bit and Goodness and even starts a romance with Goodness’s earnest brother. Although the romance is entirely age appropriate and sweet, I admit that I would be very happy to never hear another character describe someone’s lips as “juicy” ever again.

While friendship (and first love) are key parts of the story, the main focus here is family as Amandla literally stumbles upon her maternal grandmother after following the clues she has found. Learning more about her grandparents, Amandla realizes that a family reunion will not mend everything that has broken in her mother nor will it erase her grandfather’s racist opinions of his poor, biracial granddaughter. With new family and new relationships, however, Amandla does begin to understand that forgiveness can have its place as much as justice when more of Annalisa’s past is revealed.

With her grandmother’s declining health and Annalisa’s limited mental stability, the urgency is real to find answers before it’s too late making Sugar Town Queens a page turner as the novel builds to a striking finish. The contrast between the affluent Harden family and Amandla’s own upbringing in Sugar Town further highlights the inequalities that still exist in South Africa long after the end of Apartheid thanks to Nunn’s carefully detailed descriptions of both Sugar Town and Durban.

Sugar Town Queens is a fast-paced story about family, grief, and the power to be found in asking for–and accepting–help where themes of family and female friendship emphasize the importance of community and support systems.

Possible Pairings: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Truth About White Lies by Olivia A. Cole, All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney, Tiffany Sly Lives Here by Dana L. Davis, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, The Means That Make Us Strangers by Christine Kindberg, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Belladonna: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Do not change the parts of yourself that you like to make others comfortable. Do not try to mold yourself to fit the standards someone else has set for us.”

Belladonna by Adalyn GraceSigna Farrow has spent her entire life moving from house to house as each of her numerous guardians meets an untimely end. With caretakers increasingly more interested in her wealth than her happiness, Signa’s loneliness is palpable. She craves the day she will come into her inheritance and can set up her own household filled with laughter and company–never solitude and especially not Death. The one constant in Signa’s life aside from her precarious living arrangements has been the ability to see and, regrettably, interact with Death himself–a shadowy figure of a man who is as mystified by their connection as Signa.

At the age of nineteen, there is only one year left until Signa enters society. One she needs to use well if she hopes to banish the dismal reputation her numerous deceased guardians have built for her. After years of begging–and even demanding–that Death leave her alone, Signa is more suspicious than grateful when he promises to improve her current situation. Nonetheless, she is cautiously excited to find she has some living relatives in the Hawthorne family.

Thorn Grove is a stately manor with far more luxury than Signa is used to, but it is also a house in crisis with patriarch Elijah Hawthorne lost in grief and intent on running the family business–and reputation–into the ground while eldest son Percy watches helplessly. With mourning not yet over for Elijah’s beloved wife, it seems his daughter Blythe is suffering from the same mysterious illness. With no obvious cure and her condition worsening, Death warns that it won’t be much longer before he has to claim the ailing girl as one of his own.

Experiencing stability and family for the first time is a heady mixture for Signa, reminding her of how much Thorn Grove still has to lose. Signa knows that society would frown upon a young woman experimenting with folk remedies and digging into the Hawthorne’s secrets. But she also knows that she will do anything to keep Blythe and Thorn Grove safe–even if it means risking her reputation by working with Death to search for answers in Belladonna (2022) by Adalyn Grace.

Find it on Bookshop.

Belladonna is the first book in a projected duology that will continue with Foxglove. Signa and most main characters are cued as white with more varied skin tones among the supporting cast including one of Signa’s childhood friends, Charlotte, who is described as having brown skin.

Belladonna is a gothic mystery with just the right amount of magic in the form of death personified and Signa’s own strange powers that allow her not just to speak with Death but take on some of his abilities including a resistance to poison. Sumptuous descriptions of Signa’s new surroundings set the mood as Signa familiarizes herself with Thorn Grove and its occupants while highlighting the privation of her previous homes.

Armed with nothing but an old etiquette book and her wits, Signa thinks she is prepared for what society will expect of her as a young woman. But the longer she spends at Thorn Grove and the more she embraces her own powers, the clearer it is that the societal standards Signa has clung to are skewed against her and may not be worth striving for after all. Signa’s inheritance adds another layer to this conversation as she begins to understand her privilege and realizes other women are not so fortunate when it comes to future marriages and life choices.

Haunted by spirits all her life, Signa’s innate need to investigate the happenings at Thorn Grove only increases as she is haunted by–and begins to communicate with–the ghosts of the stately manor. This novel is filled with a well-rounded cast of both the living and dead who add dimension to this rich story as the complexities of relationships among the Hawthorne family and its staff begin to unfold. At the center of this is Signa’s complicated dynamic with Death who starts the story as her greatest frustration only to become a foil, a confidante, and perhaps much more. The tension between these two characters moves the story along as much as the mystery with its own twists and surprises.

Belladonna is a thoughtful story where Signa spends as much time investigating her own wants and needs as a young woman entering society as she does trying to uncover Thorn Grove’s secrets. Belladonna capitalizes on a well-developed magic system and atmospheric prose to deliver both a satisfying mystery and romance.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Ferryman by Claire McFall, A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson, Gallant by V. E. Schwab

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

The Immortalists: A Review

The Immortalists by Chloe BenjaminNew York City, 1969: The Gold siblings are looking at another monotonous summer together on New York City’s Lower East Side. But even as they anticipate the days blend together, they know that things are about to change. This is the last summer they’ll all be together like this before summer jobs and school and so many other things get in the way.

It seems like the perfect time to do something drastic like visit the mystical psychic Daniel has heard about in whispers all around the neighborhood, leading them to the cluttered apartment on Hester Street. They say the woman can tell you exactly when you’ll die. But none of them understand what that means when they still have so much life left. At least, they think they do.

As time passes, they’ll all be shaped by that hot summer day and the dates the fortuneteller told them. Simon–the youngest, the golden boy–will never stop running; throwing himself into anything and everything as he tries to find love and, if he’s lucky, his truest self as he runs away to San Francisco in the 1980s.

In the 1990s Klara lands in Las Vegas. After years of trying to make a go of her show as an illusionist, her act might finally be taking off. But after years performing as a mentalist, Klara is no longer sure where reality ends and the magic begins–a blurred line that could lead to her greatest performance ever. Or have disastrous consequences.

Daniel, the eldest, has spent his life as a doctor. It isn’t always glamorous but he’s happy, isn’t he? When one unexpected Thanksgiving shows Daniel everything he could have had–and everything he never will–he becomes obsessed with understanding the truth of the mystical woman all those years ago.

Varya never had much use for people–or for the prediction she received on Hester Street–but as she finds herself more and more entrenched in her work on longevity research, even practical Varya begins to wonder if things would have–could have–been different if they’d all made different choices on that long ago summer day in The Immortalists (2018) by Chloe Benjamin.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Gold family is white and Jewish with varying levels of faith with more diversity among the secondary cast. The story is broken into four parts–one following each sibling–over the course of twenty some odd years.

Benjamin’s sweeping generational family saga tackles big questions of fate vs agency without offering many answers one way or another. Crossing the country and spanning decades, The Immortalists captures the zeitgeist of the times starting with the frenzied energy of San Francisco in the 1980s and the ensuing panic and grief of the growing AIDS crisis. Simon’s section starts when Simon is only sixteen leading to a lot of instances of reading about Simon’s underage sexual encounters with much older men. While not unrealistic for the time it still felt uncomfortable to read about in relation to a character who is still essentially a child.

The omniscient third person narrator also clings closely to the female gaze–particularly with Simon but also even in the opening page with Varya–focusing needlessly on objectification particularly with instances when Simon wants the “challenge” of another “hard” body like his own. There could be arguments that this adds nuance to literary fiction but, for me, it only served to constantly draw me out of the story.

Ultimately The Immortalists raises some interesting questions by putting a family through an increasingly unpleasant series of events across a generation. Readers interested in philosophical questions about life choices will find a lot to appreciate here while readers hoping to lean more into the fantastical elements will be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, An Extraordinary Destiny by S. N. Paleja, One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle

The Perfect Escape: A Review

The Perfect Escape by Suzanne ParkNate Jae-Woo Kim is a young entrepreneur with his eye on the prize. By which he means money. With college ahead, a much younger sister, and parents already stretched thin Nate’s main goal is to make lots of money so his family can stop struggling.

Which is why it’s so tempting when one of his entitled classmares offers Nate an obscene amount of money to help him cheat and manipulate the grading curve. The money on offer would be life changing. But so would the legal ramifications if Nate participates in this level of fraud.

Sometimes Kate Anderson feels like all she has is money. After her mother’s death Kate certainly doesn’t have her father’s attention. Or his support.

Which is why Kate’s new job at a zombie-themed escape room has to remain secret. Playing a zombie is exactly what Kate needs to stretch her makeup skills and keep a hand in when it comes to acting until she earns enough money to move out and try her luck in New York’s theater scene.

Surprisingly, a zombie-themed survivalist competition could help both Nate and Kate get exactly what they need. Together. Teaming up to win the zombie run would mean a big cash prize–even if it’s split. What neither of them counted on is the fact that secrets–and growing feelings–could be just as dangerous as zombies in The Perfect Escape (2020) by Suzanne Park.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Perfect Escape alternates first person narration between Nate–who is Korean American–and Kate–who is white. The audiobook narrators–Raymond J. Lee and Kate Rudd–do an excellent job of bringing these characters to life.

Park’s background as a stand-up comedian is on full display in this laugh-out-loud funny story where all’s fair between love and zombies. Although Nate and Kate start with a lot of secrets between them their obvious chemistry comes across in banter filled dialog and their adventure filled trek through the zombie run.

Nate is a no-nonsense character very focused on his future (by which he still means money) and I knew he was my favorite as soon as he detailed his deep admiration of Scrooge McDuck (described by Nate: “Scrooge McDuck was rich, focused, and no-nonsense.”). Kate’s troubled home life and her own aspirations further flesh out this dynamic duo. Fast-paced action and a race that will test both wits and loyalty serve as the perfect backdrop for Nate and Kate’s blossoming relationship as both characters wonder if sticking together might be more important than sticking to their plans.

The Perfect Escape is a quirky, often hilarious story where getting what you want might mean incapacitating a few zombies along the way.

Possible Pairings: This Will Be Funny Someday by Katie Henry, There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon, The Knockout by Sajni Patel, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, Geek Girl by Holly Smale, Love Decoded by Jennifer Yen, Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon

Finding Audrey: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Finding Audrey by Sophie KinsellaAudrey hasn’t left the house in mouths. How can she when she can’t even take off her dark glasses in the house? After everything that happened during her last brief moments in an actual high school, it’s all too much. Audrey doesn’t want to think about what the other girls did or the breakdown that came after. It’s hard enough to think about the anxiety she’s stuck with as a result.

Audrey knows it hasn’t been a picnic for her parents or her siblings either. She’s just not sure how to get from where she is–in her house, mostly alone, in dark glasses–to actually going out again.

Enter Linus, her brother’s friend and Audrey’s unlikely support as she tries to venture out into the world, or at least to Starbucks in Finding Audrey (2015) by Sophie Kinsella.

Find it on Bookshop.

Finding Audrey is Kinsella’s first YA novel. The audiobook is primarily narrated by Gemma Whelan but features full cast moments when Audrey is filming scenes of a documentary about her family as part of her therapy (which appear as film transcripts in print copies). All characters are assumed white.

This is a small story about big issues as Audrey tries to deal with the aftermath of intense bullying that led to a mental breakdown and ensuing mental health problems that primarily manifest as extreme anxiety. Nothing about this is sugarcoated and Audrey’s recovery (and pitfalls when she tries to stop her medication) feels earned through processing her trauma and work with her therapist.

Laugh out loud moments with her absurd parents and long suffering siblings add levity to what could have become an overly heavy and maudlin plot. The slice-of-lice nature of this story offers a brief glimpse into Audrey’s life as she learns how to cope with her anxiety and other challenging things like flirting with cute Linus.

Finding Audrey is an authentic story of recovery with genuinely funny moments throughout.

Possible Pairings: Off the Record by Camryn Garrett, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

A Disaster in Three Acts: A Review

A Disaster in Three Acts by Kelsey RodkeyEighteen-year-old Saine Sinclair prides herself on her ability to shape a narrative on film. Her eye for storytelling is why she knows her friendship with Holden Michaels has been over for some time now. As if him publicly rejecting her during a middle school game of spin-the-bottle wasn’t enough, Holden has also dated and broken up with Saine’s current best friend Corinne. In other words, both loyalty and pride dictate that Saine never speak to Holden again.

Which is what makes it so awkward when Saine needs Holden’s help to complete her documentary for a prestigious filmmaking program at Temple University after her original subject drops out. Her preliminary application has already been submitted and approved which means that Saine has to stick to her original topic–following a contestant through a series of live action gaming competitions to win a prototype virtual reality headset–which is where Holden comes in.

Following her ex-best-friend around to film everything he does while thinking she’s telling a familiar tale about a white boy getting what he wants is hard. Doing that while worrying if her current best friend is jealous is even harder.

Saine’s fixation on the success of her film makes it easy to put her growing feelings for Holden and crumbling relationships on hold while she tries to figure out how to shape real life to make sure her documentary wins a spot at Temple by inventing financial problems as motivation and even resorting to sabotage. As her lies and manipulations grow, Saine faces a reality check when she realizes that sometimes narrative growth hurts–especially when it comes to facing the consequences her actions in A Disaster in Three Acts (2022) by Kelsey Rodkey.

Find it on Bookshop.

Saine and Holden, like most main characters, are white with some secondary characters cued as BIPOC based on names/skin tones including Saine’s other best friend Kelsey and Holden’s best friend Taj. The cast also includes characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum and a cute side plot romance between two girls in Saine’s friend group. Saine is self-described as fat and she and her mother are lower income both of which play into the plot.

While A Disaster in Three Acts has a well-rounded and nuanced cast of supporting characters, Saine remains deeply flawed throughout the story. Her fixation on the documentary seems to be excused by her grief over her grandmother’s sudden death and the confusing process of moving on alongside her divorced mother as they process the loss and try to move on. Unfortunately that’s a poor excuse for Saine’s choices to make up numerous plots for her documentary (notably manipulating footage and interviews to imply that Holden’s family is struggling financially and that he wants to win the competition to sell the prize), interview subjects without their consent while pretending her camera is turned off, and even outright sabotage when Holden needs her help during a competition.

As the story progresses Saine does have to contend with the consequences of her manipulative, self-centered behavior and her multiple lies to all of her friends. Unfortunately her contrition–even at the end of the book–seems to stem more from being caught behaving badly than from her actual bad behavior.

Saine spends a lot of the documentary lamenting that if Holden wins the competition his success in her documentary will not feel “earned” because he’s just another white boy succeeding. The irony of this is that, by the end of the novel, Saine’s own redemption arc feels similarly unearned and–compared to her egregious behavior–unjustified.

A Disaster in Three Acts is a fast paced story that is often humorous albeit with a main character whose singular focus often works against her character development.

Possible Pairings: A Show For Two by Tashie Bhuiyan, Jasmine Zumideh Needs a Win by Susan Azim Boyer, Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura

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

Small Favors: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Small Favors by Erin A. CraigAmity Falls is isolated. Bordered on one side by the Blackspire Mountain range and dense forest on the other, visitors are rare but dangers from the encroaching forest are not. The earliest townsfolk fought to claim the land from literal monsters–the kind that are still, to this day, whispered about after dark. Everyone knows that safety comes from simple things like following the rules of the community and avoiding the forest except for annual supply runs.

Until the last supply run fails.

With no survivors and no provisions, everyone in Amity Falls is facing a long winter.

Even with this coming scarcity, Ellerie Downing’s life remains safe and predictable. Perhaps too predictable as she chafes under the restrictions placed on her as a girl while her feckless brother is expected to take on responsibilities he seems incapable of managing for both the family and the bees that are their livelihood.

As the seasons change, strange things come to the town. Animals born with horrific defects. Inexplicable occurrences in the fields. Visitors claiming to be trappers including a handsome stranger Ellerie can tell is keeping at least one secret.

When the winter proves harder than usual, monstrous creatures come out of the shadows offering to grant wishes–to provide help–so long as they receive small favors in return. The requests seem harmless at first. Until it becomes clear that denying them will have dire consequences in Small Favors (2021) by Erin A. Craig.

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Small Favors combines supernatural and horror elements in this page turner narrated by Ellerie. Most principle characters are assumed white. The growing tensions among the insulated community of Amity Falls contrast well with the bees kept by Ellerie’s family with beekeeping playing a major role in the story.

Within the confines of Amity Falls, Ellerie is frustrated by the expectations she faces as a young woman to be passive and docile while her twin brother is largely able to do as he likes–often with unfavorable results for Ellerie and the rest of her family and minimal repercussions for himself.  As the story progresses and Ellerie sees more and more cracks in the tenets of the community, she begins to push back against the strict confines of her role in Amity Falls while also discovering her own agency leading to a well-managed treatment of feminist themes and provocative commentary on the importance  to balance individual needs with the greater good.

Craig expertly builds suspense and a growing sense of urgency as Faustian bargains slowly erode everything Ellerie has taken for granted about her home and her family. Small Favors combines the eerie seclusion of The Village, the escalating ferocity of Needful Things, and a unique magic system to create a distinctly unsettling atmosphere where nothing is as it seems. Small Favors is a quiet blend of horror and fantasy sure to keep you up all night reading.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Five Midnights by Ana Davila Cardinal, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Ferryman by Claire McFall, Red Wolf by Rachel Vincent, Needful Things, The Village