Happily Ever Afters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amelia Unabridged: A Review

Amelia Unabridged by Ashley SchumacherAmelia Griffin and her best friend Jenna met because of N. E. Endsley’s Ornan Chronicles. They’re the books that gave Amelia a refuge after her father left and her family fell apart. They’re the books that gave her Jenna and, through her, a second family.

Seeing N. E. Endsley at an author festival should be the perfect start to their last summer before college. Instead, it all goes horribly wrong when Jenna has a chance encounter with the author and Amelia doesn’t.

Before either of them can back away from their biggest fight ever, Jenna is killed in a car accident.

Without Jenna Amelia isn’t sure who she is, let alone what her future should look like.

When a rare edition of the Ornan Chronicles makes its way to Amelia, she’s certain the book is a last gift–maybe even a last message–from Jenna. Amelia tracks the book’s journey back to a charming bookstore in Michigan where she also finds the reclusive author himself.

Amelia knows the book is a clue, a message. But it’s only as she gets to know N. E. Endsley that Amelia begins to realize the book is just the beginning of what Jenna was trying to share with her in Amelia Unabridged (2021) by Ashley Schumacher.

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Amelia Unabridged is Schumacher’s debut novel. The story is written in Amelia’s first person narration with some flashbacks to key moments in her friendship with Jenna.

This book holds a special place for me after I had the chance to read an early copy in 2020 to potentially blurb it. Schumacher’s writing is top-notch as she delivers a story that is both wrenching and hopeful.

This ode to books and magic (and books about magic) offers a meditative exploration of grief and healing as Amelia and Nolan (N. E. Endsley) both work through their own tragedies and figure out how to move forward in a world that their losses have rendered unrecognizable.

Amelia Unabridged is a nuanced and poignant story about finding your place and your people when all of the things you’ve learned to take for granted are torn away. Whimsical without being twee, authentic without being brutal; Amelia is a heroine readers won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Everything All At Once by Katrina Leno, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Eliza and Her Monster by Francesca Zappia, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

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

No One Here is Lonely: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Change almost always starts with something tiny, far from the surface. With movement too small to notice or gauge, that travels up and changes something else, until there’s a long chain of altered things and then everything is different.”

No One Here is Lonely by Sarah EverettEden has always cared about two people a little more than anything else: her best friend Lacey and her longtime crush Will, even if he doesn’t know it.

When Will is killed in a car crash, Eden is haunted by the chances she didn’t take, the what ifs that she’ll never be able to answer. Worse, she realizes that she’s losing Lacey too as they begin to grow apart and the last summer before college that Eden envisioned for them goes up in smoke.

Alone with her grief, alone as she discovers that her parents’ perfect marriage might not be so perfect, Eden isn’t sure who to confide in when it feels like everything is changing. Then she finds out Will set up an account with In Good Company–a service that uses a person’s voice, emails, and other online records to create a digital companion.

The Will Eden talks to on the phone isn’t real. She knows that. But he also feels like the only person who has time for her now. As Lacey tries to figure out who she is without Lacey, she starts a new job and makes new friends. All with Will cheering her on.

As Eden is drawn to Oliver–Lacey’s twin brother–Eden will have to decide if choosing to focus on the future is worth letting go of the last pieces of her past in No One Here is Lonely (2019) by Sarah Everett.

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Everett’s sophomore novel blends light sci-fi elements with contemporary themes in this story of grief and growth. Eden and Will are Black (as is one of Eden’s new coworkers) while the other characters are assumed white.

Eden is completely adrift at the start of this novel. Will and the future with him that Eden imagined was one bold move away are gone. Lacey, a constant in Eden’s life for years, acts like their previous inside jokes are immature and wants to spend time with other newer friends. Then, at the worst possible time, Eden ends up in the middle of her parents’ marriage when she discovers signs of infidelity.

Despite knowing that In Good Company only offers a digital facsimile of a person, Eden clings to it–and to Will–as she tries to figure out who she is without all of the previous constants in her life. While there are hints of romance as Eden is drawn to Oliver, a friend she was never allowed to consider as more than an acquaintance out of loyalty to Lacey, this is really a story about a girl coming into her own and learning howto be her own best support.

No One Here is Lonely is a thoughtful story about grief, friendships, and learning to love yourself best.

Possible Pairings: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

You Have a Match: A Review

You Have a Match by Emma LordWhen Abby signs up for a DNA service with her best friends Leo and Colleen, she doesn’t expect any surprises. Abby knows she isn’t adopted and she knows her family. Things have been so awkward with Leo since the BEI (Big Embarrassing Incident) that Abby is willing to do almost anything to try and get back to normal–especially support him while he tries to find out more about his own biological parents.

Instead of finding out everything she already knew, Abby’s results share something shocking: she has an older sister.

Savannah Tully is a bonafide Instagram influencer complete with the athleisure wardrobe, type A personality, and life mantras. Savvy is a year and a half older than Abby but Abby can’t imagine anyone farther away from her interest in photography (and her reluctance to share her photos with anyone), her chaotic home life, and her less-than-stellar grades in school.

Both girls want to know more and find out why Savvy was put up for adoption, so when the opportunity comes up for them to attend the same summer camp it seems like the ideal chance to get answers.

Savvy and the camp are not what Abby expects–especially when she finds out Leo will also be there. Facing a whole summer with a sister she’s never met and the best friend she can barely look in the eye, Abby’s summer is poised for some big changes. Or to completely self-destruct in You Have a Match (2021) by Emma Lord.

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Lord’s sophomore novel tackles themes of belonging and family with her signature humor and a wholly evocative summer setting. Abby, Savvy and their families are white. Leo is Filipino and adopted by white parents although he has the chance to connect more with his Filipino heritage through his cooking at camp.

Although Leo is central to the story as a love interest, his own feelings as a person of color adopted by white parents receive only a surface treatment here. Savvy’s rocky relationship with her girlfriend and potential crush on her own friend are also secondary to the main story although a nice touch.

Abby is a chaotic protagonist. She takes risks and often actually leaps without considering the consequences. The most satisfying part of this story is watching Abby and Savvy rub off on each other as they learn the value of goals/structure and the importance of loosening up respectively.

You Have a Match is summery and often funny while aptly negotiating heavier themes in a story of (literal) found family and romance.

Possible Pairings: Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills, Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

Lore: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It’s not always the truth that survives, but the stories we wish to believe. The legends lie. They smooth over imperfections to tell a good tale, or to instruct us how we should behave, or to assign glory to victors and shame those who falter.”

Lore by Alexandra BrackenEvery seven years Zeus punishes nine Greek gods by forcing them into the Agon. Warrior families have hunted the gods in every Agon for generations hoping to absorb their powers and receive blessings in the intervening years.

Lore always knew she was destined for greatness and glory in the Agon, meant to restore her family house’s honor. That was before Lore’s own disastrous mistake brought about the death of her entire family.

Now, seven years later, Lore thinks she’s finally made it out and started a new life. But the return of her childhood friend Castor and the goddess Athena appearing at Lore’s door prove she never escaped the brutality of the Agon. Not really.

After years of hiding and trying to forget, Lore will have to come out of the shadows and embrace her complicated past if she wants to live long enough to have a future in Lore (2020) by Alexandra Bracken.

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Lore is a standalone fantasy novel. Although the world building is heavily intertwined with Greeky mythology, the story itself includes enough information to make it approachable to those unfamiliar with the inspiration material. The book also includes a character list broken down by the family houses and lines. Lore and Castor are white although several members of the Agon families (including dark skinned Van and Iro) are from other racial backgrounds.

Lore is a fierce and often reluctant narrator. Most of her past is colored by trauma and regret over events that slowly unfold in flashbacks for readers as the novel builds to its explosive final act. Despite her desire to isolate herself and avoid further losses, Lore is surrounded by a strong group of friends and allies who add drama and levity to this potentially grim story. Lore’s best friend Miles Yoon–an outsider to the world of the Agon–is an especially fun addition to the cast and a steadfast friend to Lore.

Set over the course the week-long Agon this fast-paced story plays out against the backdrop of New York City as Lore and her allies search for a way to end the Agon forever. Lore’s efforts to find a place for herself as a young woman, both away from the Agon and within it, in a world all too quick to dismiss her is both timely and empowering.

Lore seamlessly blends elements from Greek mythology with a modern fantasy setting for a perfectly paced story of survival and fighting for what we deserve.

Possible Pairings: Antigoddess by Kendare Blake, Starling by Lesley Livingston, The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan, Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

Elysium Girls: A Review

Elysium Girls by Kate PentecostSal Wilkinson has had visions of rain coming to the walled city of Elysium for years. Sal knows her vision is true, knows it’s just taking a little longer. But no one else in town believes that and most people don’t have much use for her.

No one is more surprised than Sal when she is named Successor to Mother Morevna, the powerful witch who banded Elysium together the day the city was wrench out of our world in 1935 and become the game board for the latest game between the sister gods Life and Death.

After nearly ten long years building up the city, the day of judgement if months away. If the city succeeds, Life will restore them to the world. If the city is deemed a failure, Death will claim every person within its walls as a sacrifice.

Sal thinks becoming Successor is her chance to prove her worth to the city once and for all. Instead, her first attempt to lead the city ends in disaster. Exiled alongside a mysterious outsider, Sal will have to join forces with Olivia Rosales, another Elysium exile and a young witch herself, if any of them hope to save Elysium by beating Life and Death at their own game in Elysium Girls (2020) by Kate Pentecost.

Find it on Bookshop.

Elysium Girls is Pentecost’s debut novel. The novel alternates between Sal’s first person narration and third person narrations following other characters including Asa and Olivia.

Pentecost’s story is grounded with a strong sense of place. Descriptive prose bring the Dust Bowl ravaged city and its steampunk-inspired blend of steel and magic to life. Despite the promising start, a large cast and sprawling premise still make this story unwieldy.

Despite a countdown to Judgement Day at the start of every chapter, this book is largely lacking in a sense of urgency where any stakes for at least the first thirty percent of the novel are entirely absent.

Readers drawn to Elysium Girls based on the synopsis should prepare themselves for a long haul as Pentecost takes her time building up the story. A potential win for readers seeking an immersive fantasy with steampunk elements and only minimal romance between secondary characters.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, Lovely War by Julie Berry, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool

Star Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Star Daughter by Shveta ThakrarSheetal Mistry has grown up keeping secrets. Only her father, her aunt, and her closest friend Minal know the truth: that Sheetal’s mother is a star who returned to her celestial court when Sheetal was five years old.

Since then, Sheetal has learned to keep her own celestial song buried deep where it cannot affect humans or give her away. She dyes her starlight silver hair black, she ignores the call from her family in the stars. It has never been easy to deny half of herself but her father’s love, Minal’s support, and her new boyfriend Dev have all helped.

But as her seventeenth birthday approaches, Sheetal finds it harder to ignore the way the night sky calls to her. When her father is injured by starfire, Sheetal will have to answer her star family’s summons to try and save him. But first she will have to help her celestial family secure their place as the next ruling house of the heavens.

After years of hiding and denying her true self Sheetal will have to embrace all of herself, her family, and her own complicated place with them to save her father in Star Daughter (2020) by Shveta Thakrar.

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Star Daughter is Thakrar’s debut novel.

This standalone fantasy is filled with richly detailed world building bringing both Sheetal’s magical family and her earthbound Gujarati community of friends, cousins, and other family to life. Evocative, carefully drawn magic adds dimension and nuance to this story that, unfortunately, has a several lacking love interest in Dev who remains one dimensional and flat for most of the story.

Sheetal’s friendship with Minal remains much more convincing than any love match here adding a strong element of friendship and girl power to this story with a friendship that literally spans worlds.

Star Daughter is a thoughtful fantasy about friendship, growing up, and family. Recommended for readers who have always wondered what treasures can be found at the Night Market.

Possible Pairings: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno

The Scapegracers: A (WIRoB) Review

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

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail ClarkeThe “township of Sycamore Gorge doesn’t fuck around where Halloween is concerned” which is why October is the one time of year where Eloise “Sideways” Pike earns a modicum of respect and attention from classmates who would otherwise ignore her as the resident lesbian witch whose dads run the local antique shop.

After years of “skulking near the bottom, lurking behind the bleachers, doing magic tricks for bottles of Coke,” Sideways is suddenly and irrevocably catapulted to the top of the West High social pyramid when Jing Gao, Lila Yates, and Daisy Brink pay Sideways forty dollars to add some real magic to the start of “scare-party season.”

Sideways is almost as surprised as Jing and Yates and Daisy when the magic works. As she puts it: “Even following my spell book by the letter, the most I could do was burn paper, unbreak dishes, make scrapes and cuts scab faster. What the four of us could do was something else. I felt seasick and disgustingly in love with it, with them.”

Party magic soon leads to dead deer in a drained pool, an unknown party guest nearly assaulting Yates, devils, and trouble as the girls start to learn more about the magic they all share and what it means for their fledgling friendship in The Scapegracers (2020) by Hannah Abigail Clarke.

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Sideways’s first person narration is descriptively lyrical observing the pale “bruise-lavender blue” air even as she remains extremely grounded when it comes to her own loneliness and lack of social skills. Sideways sees herself better suited to “skulking under bridges” than befriending the most popular clique in school, let alone flirting with Madeline–the stranger recruited as a fifth for their coven. Despite meddling efforts from her new friends, the course of love, much like magic, does not run smooth for Sideways.

Clarke cleverly dismantles classic popular girl tropes as Sideways and readers learn more about the triumvirate who quickly adopt Sideways into their ranks with surprising loyalty and affection. Sideways, Daisy, and Madeline are described as white, Yates is Black, and Jing is Asian—presumably Chinese. The characters are also diverse in terms of sexuality with lesbian Sideways and bisexual Jing among others.

Clarke’s debut is the start of a trilogy filled with magic, lilting prose, snappy dialog, and witches embracing their own power. Feminist themes and strong character bonds make this book an ideal companion to Kim Liggett’s The Grace Year, Hannah Capin’s Foul is Fair, and Leslye Walton’s Price Guide to the Occult. The Scapegracers is an excellent addition to the recent crop of novels highlighting sisterhood (especially unlikely ones) fueled by both feminist rage and solidarity.

Possible Pairings: Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Do You Dream of Terra-Two?: A Review

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi OhA century ago, an astronomer discovered a planet orbiting a star. Decades before anyone had the technology to confirm it, she predicted that the planet was Earth-like and habitable; that humanity would one day colonize it. She dreamed of the animals and plant life astronauts would find there.

Now, six teenagers are about to embark on the twenty-three year trip that will bring them to Terra-Two. They, along with four veteran astronauts commanding the crew, are Earth’s best hope for a second chance.

After years of training, the crew will travel for twenty-three years to get to Terra-Two. Along the way some of them will dream of their new home, some of them will fear it and the gaping unknown of their journey. They will mourn what they have left behind and what they might never see if their missions fails in Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (2019) by Temi Oh.

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Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is Oh’s first novel.

There’s no gentle way to say this: Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is a downer. Readers well-versed in stories of space travel know, as well as these characters do, that something always goes wrong. In this book many things go wrong leaving every characters scrambling to salvage a mission that may or may not be sheer folly.

Oh packs a lot of interesting things into this story with alternating third person point of view between the young astronauts. Unfortunately these voices often become indistinguishable as the characters contend with similar moments of existential dread and imposter syndrome alongside any of their individual issues.

The world building in Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, particularly the shady practices of the school that has trained the young astronauts, is fascinating but fails to gel thanks to an ending that leaves most questions unanswered. Will the mission succeed? Will it be worth the sacrifice? Neither the characters nor readers may be entirely sure by the end of this character driven story.

Possible Pairings: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, Dare Mighty Things by Heather Kaczynski, The Final Six by Alexandra Monir, Strange Exit by Parker Peevyhouse

Fable: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We weren’t supposed to owe anyone anything, but that was just a lie we told to make ourselves feel safe. Really, we’d never been safe. And we never would be.”

Fable by Adrienne YoungFable’s father, Saint, has five rules for surviving in the Narrows. Only five.

  1. Keep your knife where you can reach it.
  2. Never, ever owe anyone anything.
  3. Nothing is free.
  4. Always construct a lie from a truth.
  5. Never, under any circumstances, reveal what or who matters to you.

The rules are even truer on Jeval, the island of thieves and cutthroats where Fable was abandoned when she was fourteen.

After four long years of constant fear and scrambling for every scrap she can scavenge, Fable is ready to escape Jeval and find her father. Saint said Fable could never survive in the Narrows if she couldn’t get off Jeval on her own. Now, with her departure so close, it is past time for Saint to answer for stranding her and give her everything he promised.

Throwing in her lot with a trade ship whose crew has secrets of their own, Fable may have finally found a way off Jeval but securing passage is only the first of her problems. As her  obligations mount, Fable will have to weigh her loyalties against her debts and decide if creating her own place in the Narrows can replace everything that has been stolen from her in Fable (2020) by Adrienne Young.

Find it on Bookshop.

Fable is the first book in a duology that concludes in Namesake.

Young subtly weaves magical elements into the dangerous and often cruel world of the Narrows–a home that pulls at Fable’s heart as much as she wishes she could deny it. . Fable’s first person narration is both deliberate and lyrical as she struggles to make a place for herself in this world determined to shut her out. Her resilience and persistence are admirable throughout the story and so relatable for readers trying to make it through this trying year

This nautical fantasy brims over with action and suspense as Fable tries to make sense of her father’s promises, her past, and her own place among the crew that has reluctantly given her passage–especially their enigmatic helmsman, West. Fable and West are described as white while other members of the crew are not including two male characters who are romantically involved.

A subtle thread of romance runs through this plot where themes of loyalty and vulnerability go hand in hand. Fable is a riveting adventure sure to appeal to readers looking for a swashbuckling fantasy filled with both well-drawn characters and surprises. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier, Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer, The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser