Murder For the Modern Girl: A Review

Murder for the Modern Girl by Kendall KulperChicago, 1927 is a positutely marvelous place to find parties if you’re a flapper like Ruby. It’s also a city rampant with crime, corruption, and murder.

But Ruby can explain every single one of her murders. Honest.

In a time and place where women are always vulnerable, Ruby has found an unlikely niche for herself doling out vigilante justice between parties with a variety of poisons that have left a trail of unsolved crimes in her wake. She isn’t particularly worried about being caught. Not when her father, the state’s attorney, is the only one with a good head on his shoulders in Chicago’s law enforcement.

Which is why it’s not entirely surprising when someone targets Ruby and her father.

Luckily, Ruby isn’t just a pretty face or a vigilante. She’s her father’s protege as much as anything with her own keen eye for the law. One she’s ready to use to find whoever hurt her father. Unluckily, Ruby realizes that her brand of justice isn’t quite as anonymous as she thought after an encounter with a bland morgue technician in an alley.

Guy hasn’t used his real name–or his real face–for a long time. How can he when he’s working so hard to hide from his shameful past? Working in the morgue might be the break Guy needs to understand his strange shapeshifting ability. Until an exuberant flapper upends his careful plans.

Together this unlikely duo will have their hands full trying to fight corruption, find the would-be assassin, and keep themselves out of prison in Murder for the Modern Girl (2022) by Kendall Kulper.

Find it on Bookshop.

Murder for the Modern Girl alternates between Ruby and Guy’s first person narrations. All characters are assumed white.

Kulper delivers jazz age vibes and surprising fantasy elements in this story where Ruby uses her ability as a mind reader to deliver justice while Guy struggles to understand his own strange power–elements that are never fully explained or integrated into the story although they are key to the plot. Readers dive right into the fast-paced story with minimal backstory for either protagonist as the action keeps coming. Readers questioning Ruby’s motives may have a hard time getting on board with her status as a vigilante and, essentially, a serial killer but it is an arc that’s fully explored throughout the novel and does end with Ruby turning her back on her life of crime to fight for justice through more conventional means.

Filled with slang, speakeasies, and fabulous dresses, Murder for the Modern Girl is an inventive mystery filled feminist justice and more adventure than you can shake a stick at.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, Born of Illusions by Teri A, Brown, A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson, Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz, Spectacle by Jodie Lynn Zdrok

The Other Merlin: A Review

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

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

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

At least, she used to.

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion: A Review

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Thing About You: A WIRoB Review

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

The First Thing About You by Chaz Hayden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

Bounce Back: A Graphic Novel Review

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick by Diana PeterfreundJust when everyone thought things couldn’t get worse at the formerly prestigious Blackbrook Academy, an accident strikes bringing another tragedy to the school’s door and into the lives of the infamous Murder Crew.

Orchid has survived her toxic former career and a deadly encounter with her stalker. But she isn’t sure how to survive losing Vaughn when they were just getting started.

Beth is still recovering from her injuries in the car crash that killed Vaughn. Tennis is a wash. But maybe that will give her a chance to focus on something else.

After losing her status as part of Blackbrook’s best platonic power couple, Scarlett’s confidence in choosing the right people is shaken. She can support Orchid and help her launch Vaughn to posthumous super-stardom. But it’s just not the same as plotting and dominating with Finn.

Finn is desperate to get back in Scarlett’s good graces for help protecting his invention as much as for their friendship. But he isn’t sure what to do if winning Scarlett’s friendship means risking whatever it is he has with Mustard.

Mustard doesn’t know what to do about his growing feelings for Finn or the deteriorating state of his new school. Things get even worse when Mustard’s roommate turns up dead and Mustard is the prime suspect.

With Blackbrook crumbling around them, the Murder Crew will have to rally together one more time to save one of their own, finally unearth the last of Blackbrook’s secrets, and throw a prom that no one is going to forget in In the Ballroom With the Candlestick (2021) by Diana Peterfreund.

Find it on Bookshop.

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick is the final book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers. Like its predecessor, this novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six main characters. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx, the rest of the cast is presumed white.

This final installment picks ups soon after the dramatic conclusion of book two with the entire Murder Crew still picking up the pieces as they sort through the school’s remaining secrets–most notably Vaughn’s past and his history with the school.

Readers who have been with the series from the beginning will appreciate the growth of all of the characters as they work together to solve one final round of mysteries at everyone’s least favorite boarding school. Finn and Mustard in particular have a lot of development as they try to navigate their fledgling relationship. Unfortunately, the primary focus of this series remains squarely on Orchid and Vaughn despite them arguably being some of the least interesting characters among the Murder Crew.

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick stay true to the board game (and the now classic 1985 film!) that inspired this series delivering murder, mayhem, and multiple endings that guarantee that this finale will have something for everyone.

Possible Pairings: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett, Heist Society by Ally Carter, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Killing November by Adriana Mather, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

Alice Austen Lived Here: A Review

Alice Austen Lived Here by Alex GinoSam and TJ love being best friends and they love being nonbinary. Sam knows they’re lucky to have a family that gets it and is supportive and even luckier to have cool neighbors like femme Jess (who is fat and fabulous like Sam) and her family right in the same building.

Even at twelve, Sam already knows that not everyone is going to be as supportive which is why it’s no surprise that Sam and TJ’s history teacher is way more interested in teaching about Dead Straight Cis White Men (DSCWM for short) than anything really interesting. When they have to work on a presentation to create a new statue for Staten Island, Sam and TJ are determined to find someone outside of the DSCWM spectrum. Someone like photographer Alice Austen who lived right on Staten Island for years with her female partner.

When the kids find out that Alice Austen lived right in Sam’s very own apartment, the two become even more committed to their project. In researching Alice Austen and preparing their contest entry Sam learns more about the queer history surrounding his own friends and neighbors like Jess and 82-year-old lesbian Ms. Hansen as well as the larger history found throughout New York City.

Sam has never felt more connected to the queer community but as the contest deadline looms Sam and TJ worry their passion for representing Alice Austen might not be enough in Alice Austen Lived Here (2022) by Alex Gino.

Find it on Bookshop.

Gino’s latest novel taps into the moment as Sam and TJ become part of the movement to create monuments throughout New York that are more representative of the city’s diverse population. Be sure to check out the audiobook to hear Gino read their own words but check out a print copy for an author’s note about Gino’s connection to the story (and Alice) as well as some pictures of Alice Austen.

Sam is described as pale and blonde while TJ is described as having dark hair and tan skin. Most of Sam’s neighbors are presumed white. In addition to immersing readers in Sam and TJ’s ultra supportive community, this story also introduces readers to both Alice Austen and (later on) Audre Lorde–both real people whose work had lasting impact in New York, in queer communities, and beyond.

Alice Austen Lived Here is a gently told story about queer community, found family, and standing up for what you believe in. While Sam and TJ aren’t always sure their statue will win, their commitment is unwavering and an object lesson in staying true to yourself.

Possible Pairings: A High Five for Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner, Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker, Pride: An Inspirational History of the LGBTQ+ Movement by S. A. Caldwell, Twelfth by Janet Key, Ciel by Sophie Labelle, Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff, A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll, Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

The Last Graduate: A Review

“They were saving me, and I was going to save them. It felt more like magic than magic. As though it could make everything all right. As if the whole world had become a different place.”

The Last Graduate by Naomi NovikAt the Scholomance, surviving the schoolyear is only part of the story. The real test, the final hurdle, is surviving the literal gauntlet of graduation. Every student knows the real challenges start senior year with alliances formed, weapons being tested, and the final run from the dorms through a hall filled with all of the worst magic-eating monsters waiting for the annual all-they-can-eat buffet.

This is the way it’s always been at the school. But with two once-in-a-generation talents in this year’s senior class it’s clear that things are about to change.

After spending his entire tenure at the Scholomance saving every student he can, Orion Lake is used to fighting mals and protecting everyone–often to his own detriment. With a tight rein on her own monstrous dark magic Galadriel “El” Higgins has spent the last year trying to protect Orion from himself and everything else the school has to throw at them.

Now, with senior year upon them, El has to build her alliance, prepare for graduation, and figure out if her mom’s advice to stay the hell away from Orion is prescient or just common sense. She’s going to ignore it either way, but it’s good to know when it comes to her mom’s edicts.

With no teachers or staff of any kind, the school’s motivations are always opaque but as graduation nears, it becomes clear the magical building is trying to say something to El specifically. If El listens in time it could change everything at the Scholomance–not just for this graduating class but for every wizard who will come after in The Last Graduate (2021) by Naomi Novik.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Last Graduate is the second book in Novik’s Scholomance series and picks up mere moments after the conclusion of book one A Deadly Education–start there to avoid spoilers and get the most out of this story.

There was a lot happening around the release of book one including a passage that had to be removed from the text and criticism of racist world building. My review of A Deadly Education provides links to articles detailing all of that–I decided I wanted to see how Novik built and improved on book one.

I won’t say that The Last Graduate is perfect–as a white reader I’m not the reader who needs to make that call–but I think Novik does take a lot of the potential with the world building that was baked into book one and works to do better here. Other readers may not want to give this series a second chance which is also fair.

After laying out what students–and readers–can expect from the Scholomance, Novik expertly upends all of that multiple times as not only the game but every rule is changed while El and her allies-turned-friends (or is it friends-turned-allies) prepare for graduation. Although still narrated by El, readers get to see and learn more about many characters within El’s widened social circle (most notably Aadhya and Liu).

El’s status as potentially the worst villain the magical world has ever seen is as fundamental to her character as her choice every day to fight against that destiny. This internal battle to choose to be better and do better rather than taking the easy or self-serving option is writ large as El is forced into an unexpected direction by the school itself which becomes a character in its own right in this installment.

The Last Graduate takes the raw potential of this series and makes it even better with thoughtful explorations of love, friendship, and classism within the confines of a magical adventure.

The Last Graduate is a dramatic, laugh-out-loud story where magic has sharp edges and villains can be heroes.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; The Cruel Prince by Holly Black; All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman; Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey; An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard; Killing November by Adriana Mather; The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix; Deadly Class by Rick Remender, Wes Craig, Lee Loughridge; Carry On by Rainbow Rowell; And I Darken by Kiersten White; Fable by Adrienne Young

Seton Girls: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Seton Girls by Charlene ThomasSeton Academic High is an elite prep school with an affluent and mostly white student body. With numerous teams, extracurriculars, and a student paper with thousands of subscribers, Seton is best known for its Varsity (always capitalized) football team. And with good reason. The team has been on a winning streak for twelve years–undefeated in every game leading up to the state playoffs.

Sixteen-year-old Aly Jacobs has always felt special being a part of Seton which was never a given for her the way it is for some of Seton’s legacy students. Aly and her boyfriend J already stand out as some of the only Black students–especially ones being bussed into Seton from a poorer neighborhood. Aly has always felt the pinch, keenly aware that she lacks the disposable cash to keep up with her classmates; knowing that she and J will never live closer enough to Seton to be true insiders on all of the inside jokes and routines because “it’s hard when you live an hour away, and you don’t have a car, and you don’t have twenty dollars in spare change for a pastry, and you can’t be at the coffee shop or the moves or the Galeria for pictures like these.” But every long commute, every missed hangout will be worth it because a Seton education is the first step to opportunity.

Aly deals with imposter syndrome as a junior editing the school paper while J is already getting attention as the next Varsity quarterback. Will J be able to keep the team’s undefeated streak alive? Will he take Varsity to new levels as the first Black quarterback in the school’s history? No one knows yet. Either way Parker Adams–the younger brother of the now legendary Cooper Adams who started Seton’s streak all those years ago–plans to make his own mark first.

Parker’s dream of eclipsing his brother takes a darker turn when the schoolyear starts with rumors that Parker hooked up with Britt MacDougal–his longtime girlfriend Michelle Rodriguez’s best friend–over the summer. As the school’s most popular clique fractures everything students thought they knew about Seton begins to erode. Aly learns more about Seton’s history as she befriends social outcast Britt. As their bonds deepen Aly questions the importance of Seton’s traditions and history and if her own legacy will be helping to perpetuate Seton’s privilege or speaking out against its insidious past in Seton Girls (2022) by Charlene Thomas.

Find it on Bookshop.

Thomas’ debut novel lays out “What it is.” in chapters of the same name with Aly’s first person narration beginning in August 2019 at the start of Aly’s junior year at Seton alongside flashbacks of “What it was.” where a third person narrator teases out key events that led to the advent and progression of Seton’s infamous winning streak. A prologue from The Seton Story–the paper Aly edits–immediately puts readers on alert as everything that has previously made Seton so great is stripped away with the ominous observation, “If you thought that that made us the lucky ones … You were wrong.” While there is some diversity among the principal cast including Black students Aly, J, and Britt as well as other characters cued as BIPOC based on their surnames, it is clear that Seton is predominantly white and wealthy. This income disparity in particular weighs heavily on Aly who is eager to blend in with the assumed privilege at Seton not wanting anyone to “feel like we’re different.”

Short, fast-paced chapters and prose laden with foreshadow like Parker’s description of Britt as a bomb–“And maybe you meet her and survive it and it’s a miracle that you’ll talk about forever with anyone who’ll listen. Maybe that’s what happens, and it feels like magic. Or maybe the bomb goes off and she destroys you.”–add intensity to this story as both Aly and readers begin to unpack what exactly has made Seton’s varsity team so unbeatable.

True to its title, Seton Girls, keeps the focus squarely on the school’s female student body even as it unpacks the misogyny and sexism that has long been the source of many of Seton’s storied traditions. Aly’s narration is filled with naked longing to be part of Britt’s magical group of girlsfriends, “Britt’s term, so it never, ever gets confused with the less important role of being a girlfriend,” alongside Britt, Michelle and their other friends Bianca Patel and Kelly Donahue. Aly is not alone in her fascination with “the four of them together like this weightless, perfect, intoxicating aura everywhere they go” attracting both objectifying male gazes and envious female ones adding homoerotic subtext to many of Aly’s interactions with Britt and her friends since “those girls are distracting in the most addictive way.”

Subtle characterization illustrates the income disparity between Aly and her classmates in small details like Aly’s obsession with Glad Plugins which “For a while we had to use them, when they were paving the road near our house and it made everything inside smell like tar. That’s over now, but I’m still obsessed.” These sharp observations are often undercut early in the story with Aly’s gushing sentimentality for all things Seton where “Kyle can be drunk ranting on my left and Gina-Melissa can be reciting perfection on my right, and it’s not weird, or ironic, or some wild juxtaposition. It just is. We all just belong here. And it just works.” The impact of the novel’s opening with Aly’s article in The Seton Story about Parker promising to share the truth about Seton is similarly diluted as Aly spends most of the novel debating how best to support Britt before finally delivering on the story we see on page one.

Details surrounding the varsity football team’s success are often mired in specific details of football gameplay including the playoff model change observed by Cooper Adams years ago where the team doesn’t “make it to States anymore just because we have a better regular season record than everyone else. We just need to be good enough to make it to the playoffs.” which might be pull readers out of the otherwise suspenseful backstory. The ultimate payoff for the plot, especially Britt’s character arc, comes in a final act shift that casts the entire story in a different light while highlighting the power of both agency and female solidarity.

Seton Girls is a timely novel adding to the conversation surrounding the #MeToo movement alongside questions of both privilege–especially white male privilege–and consent. As Britt aptly tells Aly “If the door is open but you know you can’t get up and walk out of it that is force. That’s, like, the greatest kind of power that exists. That is corporation-level power. And it’s that kind of power–not the muscles or the dumb boy-tanks they wear–that guys like Parker will tell you isn’t real. And swear they’re not that type. But it’s the realest thing in the world.”

Possible Pairings: One Great Lie by Deb Caletti, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories edited by Janet Gurtler, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman by Kristen R. Lee, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma

Henry Hamlet’s Heart: A Review

Henry Hamlet's Heart by Rhiannon WildeHenry is well aware of his limitations. He knows he probably should not drink at parties given how it usually ends with him throwing up. He knows his penchant to make situations awkward is unparalleled. He is also painfully aware that he has no idea what he wants to do after high school–a problem when it’s his last semester of high school.

Regardless of his shortcomings, Henry always knows he can count on his best friend Len to see him through. Len has seen Henry at his clumsiest and most neurotic. Henry saw Len through the death of his mother and, more recently, his father’s frequent absences and volatility. Together Henry and Len have always made sense.

Until they kiss.

Len has a reputation as a flirt and a heartthrob ready and willing to kiss everyone. Henry doesn’t know what it means when he falls into that kissable category. Are they dating? Is it another of Len’s flings? Will Len soon realize he’s made a terrible mistake? Will Henry be able to admit it might be love? Henry has no idea. Harder than all that, Henry will also have to figure out if he can hold onto his best friend when everything is changing in Henry Hamlet’s Heart (2022) by Rhiannon Wilde.

Find it on Bookshop.

Henry Hamlet’s Heart is Wilde’s debut novel. It was originally published in Australia in 2021 where it won Queensland Literary Awards Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer in 2019. Henry and Len are white, there is some diversity in the secondary cast.

Set in Australia and published here after the fact, much of this story feels oddly out of time. References to Russell Brand (in relation to Vince–the emo friend in Henry’s friend group) exist alongside mentions of emails and cellphones making it unclear when exactly this story is really supposed to take place.

It is worth noting that although the two main characters in the story are male the author ostensibly is not (not to police Wilde’s identity or imply she has to provide so-called credentials to write the story she chooses to tell but merely to be aware). While Len is clearly cued as bisexual or pansexual with his reputation for “kissing everyone” his sexual orientation is never defined or interrogated as closely as Henry’s. For his part, Henry spends much of the novel aware of his own homosexuality but unwilling to admit it fully to his friends or family.

Henry and Len’s evolving relationship is presented with all of the messiness and confusion you’d expect from two teens trying to redefine a friendship that has seen them through childhood and adolescence into fast approaching adulthood. Len’s focus on photography and the pending remarriage of Henry’s grandmother (to her girlfriend) also add additional layers to this story where most characters are trying to figure out where they fit in the wider world.

Henry Hamlet’s Heart combines lyrical prose with big unknowns as Henry tries to figure out his future and his love life in this story about growing up and accepting change.

Possible Pairings: Kate in Waiting by Becky Albertalli, How Not to Ask a Boy to Prom by S. J. Goslee, Ready When You Are by Gary Lonesborough, Ophelia After All by Raquel Marie, If I Tell You by Alicia Tuckerman, The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde, Wild Life by Fiona Wood

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