Instructions for Dancing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola YoonEvie Thomas is done with love.

After watching her parents’ marriage fall apart, she knows firsthand that love is a scam. Real life doesn’t have happy endings. The romance novels she used to adore are all lies.

While her mother tries to move on and her younger sister falls headfirst into every relationship she can, Evie is still angry at her father. And she’s furious that she wasted so much time believing in something that never lasts.

Giving up on love seems like the easiest course of action until Evie’s plan to donate her romance novel collection to a little free library goes horribly wrong. After accepting a mysterious book from a stranger, Evie can suddenly see people fall in love when they kiss. Her new visions trace each relationship from its tender beginning to the inevitable conclusion. It’s more than anyone can take but especially someone who is done with love.

Evie’s hunt for a way to stop whatever is happening leads her to La Brea Dance Studio and the owners’ charming, very cute nephew X. Where Evie is cautious, X is impulsive. If Evie is reserved, X is open–he always says yes. In other words, they are complete opposites and, through a series of events Evie barely understands, they are also suddenly partners in an amateur dance competition.

All Evie wants to do is stop her weird visions. If that means hanging out with X, fine. Falling for him is definitely not part of the plan, no matter how cute X might be. But the more time Evie spends with X, the more obvious it is that falling for him is as inevitable as standing close during the tango.

After witnessing so many heartbreaks firsthand, Evie knows that love always ends. As she gets closer to X, she’ll have to decide if having love at all is enough to risk the inevitable heartbreak in Instructions for Dancing (2021) by Nicola Yoon.

Find it on Bookshop.

In many ways Instructions for Dancing feels like a natural next step (pun intended) to follow up Yoon’s blockbuster sophomore novel The Sun is Also a Star. Through Evie’s visions this story spins out from main character Evie’s first person narration to show a world that is much larger, and more beautiful, that cynical Evie is at first willing to acknowledge. Elements of fabulism (think magic realism but not by latinx authors) add unexpected magic and whimsy to this subtle story. Evie and X are Black and backed up by an inclusive cast with strong friendships and memorable adults notably including X’s grandparents.

Evie’s reluctant immersion in the world of competitive dance adds a lot of humor to a story that tackles weighty topics like love and loss with nuance and care. Evie’s friend group also plays an important role in the novel as all of them prepare for the end of high school and what that will mean for each of them and their friend web.

Instructions for Dancing is the definition of bittersweet with an ending that is sure to garner a few tears from even the coldest of hearts. With a story that carefully balances hope and pragmatism, Instructions for Dancing is affirming and, ultimately, an ode to love in all of its forms.

Possible Pairings: What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, The Love Curse of Melody McIntyre by Robin Talley

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

A Spindle Splintered: A Review

“Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it. It’s aimless and amoral and chauvinist as shit. It’s the fairy tale that feminist scholars cite when they want to talk about women’s passivity in historical narratives. Even among the other nerds who majored in folklore, Sleeping Beauty is nobody’s favorite. Romantic girls like Beauty and the Beast; vanilla girls like Cinderella; goth girls like Snow White. Only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty.”

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. HarrowZinnia Gray has always known Sleeping Beauty has its problems, even before she read about the medieval version Zelladine (don’t Google that one, you don’t want to know). She also knows that Sleeping Beauty is the one story where a girl like her manages to turn things around and get a happy ending. Of course Zinnia loves Sleeping Beauty.

After years of moving fast and trying to pretend her clock isn’t running out thanks to the rare Generalized Roseville Malady that causes protein to build up in all the places it shouldn’t be in her organs, Zinnia knows she’s almost out of time. She rushed through high school, a degree in folklore at the local college, and she tried to rush away from her parents’ stifling efforts to save her.

Now Zinnia is here at her twenty-first birthday. She knows no one else with GRM has lived to see twenty-two. She knows true love’s kiss isn’t going to save her because she never gave herself permission to fall in love. That doesn’t stop her best friend Charmaine “Charm” Baldwin from loving Zinnia fiercely and giving her the exact kind of Sleeping Beauty themed birthday party she’d want for her last one.

The party is about what you’d expect: Whimsical and ironic until it turns maudlin and sad. Until things go sideways when Zinnia pricks herself on a spindle (she has to try it, okay?) and finds herself in another version of Sleeping Beauty with another dying girl trying to dodge her supposed happy ending–one that Zinnia might actually be able to save–in A Spindle Splintered (2021) by Alix E. Harrow.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Spindle Splintered is a novella inspired by Harrow’s desire to “spiderverse” a fairytale and the start of a new series. The story includes silhouette illustrations by Arthur Rackham that, as the copyright page notes, “were unavoidably harmed, fractures, and splintered during the design process.” These illustrations add an eerie note to the physical book while hinting at the darker origins behind many fairy tales that have become sanitized over time.

Zinnia’s narration is sharp-witted and often bitter–fitting for a character who knows she’s almost out of time–while her unshakeable friendship with Charm provides a grounding force throughout the fast-paced story. On the other side of the portal (or whatever it is that transports her, Zinnia was never big on science) she meets another dying girl. Primrose is the epitome of a fairy tale princess. Except that after she’s saved from her own hundred year sleep, she has no desire to marry her rescuer, Prince Harold, or any other man for that matter.

Part portal fantasy, part retelling, A Spindle Splintered offers a new interpretation of Sleeping Beauty both for Zinnia and the girl she meets after that fateful spindle prick. Recommended for readers looking for a no-nonsense protagonists and a decidedly modern take on a classic fairy tale.

Possible Pairings: Sleepless by Cyn Balog, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Stain by A. G. Howard, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Ash by Malinda Lo, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, Into the Spider-Verse

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

Steelstriker: A Review

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Will Find Your Hat!: An Early Reader Review

We Will Find Your Hat! by Candy JamesGet ready for Hat Day, the hattiest day of the year.

Reddie is very excited to have some hat-tastic fun with her friend, Archie. But Archie has a problem. He can’t find his favorite hat!

Archie’s home is filled with a lot of things that could be hats (or drums, or pizza) but where is his favorite hat? in We Will Find Your Hat! (2021) by Candy James.

Find it on Bookshop.

We Will Find Your Hat! is the second book in a new early reader series by the wife-and-husband team of Candy (illustrator) and James (author). The characters are inspired by their daughter’s real life plush toys which saw her through many adventures.

This series straddles the line between early reader and graphic novel. The story includes full-page and double page spreads as well as smaller (comic book style) panels to showcase different scenes and add motion to the illustrations. The page design and a background palette featuring shades of green add interest to the book and give We Will Find Your Hat! a unique feel.

The text in the story is all dialog presented in speech bubbles (white for Archie and orange for Reddie) making the style reminiscent to Willem’s Elephant and Piggie series–this is also an element that stays consistent across books. Fans of the hat-related humor in Jon Klassen’s Hat picture books will find the same energy and wackiness here.

Archie’s unearthing of numerous hat adjacent objects adds humor to the story and is sure to encourage conversation about what items young readers might want to repurpose themselves.

We Will Find Your Hat! is another fun installment that proves two heads (and many hats) are better than one.

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

Kaleidoscope: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Really Dig Pizza!: An Early Reader Review

I Really Dig Pizza! by Candy JamesWhat could be luckier than finding a gift-wrapped pizza in the forest? Archie certainly doesn’t know. Thrilled with his luck, the quick-thinking fox grabs a nearby digger and buries the pizza to keep it safe until dinner.

Unfortunately right when Archie is ready to dig in, Reddie announces that she is solving a mystery. A mystery involving a new pile of dirt and digger tracks.

Reddie is undeterred by Archie’s efforts to derail the investigation. But will following the clues end with a solved mystery and a shared dinner? And who lost the pizza in the first place in I Really Dig Pizza! (2021) by Candy James.

Find it on Bookshop.

I Really Dig Pizza! is the first book in a new early reader series by the wife-and-husband team of Candy (illustrator) and James (author). The characters are inspired by their daughter’s real life plush toys which saw her through many adventures.

This book straddles the line between early reader and graphic novel. The story includes full-page and double page spreads as well as smaller (comic book style) panels to showcase different scenes and add motion to the illustrations. The page design and a color palette featuring orange, yellow , white, and peach add interest to the book and give I Really Dig Pizza! a unique feel. The color scheme is also a fun reference to the fact that both characters are foxes although I admit Archie looks more feline to me.

The text in the story is all dialog presented in speech bubbles (white for Archie and orange for Reddie) making the style reminiscent to Willem’s Elephant and Piggie series. While there is some conflict in the story as Archie tries to distract Reddie from her investigation, all is resolved by the end when (spoiler) readers learn that Reddie had bought the pizza for Archie only to lose it before she could add a gift card.

Panels with Archie asking readers questions and breaking the fourth wall of the story to draw them in add an interactive element to this book as do Archie’s attempted diversions as he explains to Reddie that the digger noises must be a storm, the digger tracks are actually snake tracks, and so on.

I Really Dig Pizza! is a fun early reader with fast friends and plenty of humor (and pizza) that’s sure to garner a few laughs from young readers.

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

The Bone Maker: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Maybe there were no perfect choices for anyone to make, hero or villain. Maybe there was only doing the best you could with the time you had. That was an unsatisfying thought, but just because it was uncomfortable didn’t mean it wasn’t true.”

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth DurstTwenty-five years ago, the Heroes of Vos saved the world when they ended the Bone War by stopping Eklor and his monstrous bone constructs. Ballads are still sung about their now-mythic deeds. But the cost of victory was steep for the five heroes.

Stran, the team’s strong man is keen to leave his memories of the Bone War behind. He’s a farmer now with a young family–two things that need to be tended and leave little time to dwell on the horrors of battle.

Marso was the most proficient bone reader in all of Vos, able to read the bones and anticipate the enemy’s next move. But something changed after the Bone War. The bones still want to tell Marso something. But the truth the bones hold is so unthinkable, Marso would rather shatter his own fragile psyche than face it.

Zera barely survived the final battle. Jentt gave his own life to save her–a cost the bone wizard knows she can never repay. Instead she now focuses on honing her craft and building an empire selling her bone talismans to the elite from her tower in the city of Cerre.

Kreya, the leader and a bone maker like Eklor himself, dealt the killing blow–a victory that feels meaningless when her husband Jentt is lost to her. Unwilling to accept his death, unable to share her grieve, Kreya hides herself away searching through Eklor’s texts. The Bone War started because of Eklor’s quest to bring back the dead–forbidden magic requiring human bones and a terrible cost. But Kreya is willing to pay any cost if it will bring Jentt back.

When Kreya’s efforts to resurrect Jentt reveal that Eklor may not be as defeated as the world thought, the Heroes of Vos will have to reunite once more to fight impossible odds and face an unimaginable enemy in The Bone Maker (2021) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Bone Maker is a standalone adult fantasy. The novel is written in close third person following various characters (primarily Kreya) throughout the story.

Durst once again creates a carefully rendered world with a complex, if often macabre, magic system. Kreya and her five friends walk a fine line saddled with the legacy of their past deeds while acknowledging that their stories–and their work–is far from over when Eklor resurfaces. Heroes past their prime, who have already completed their great mission, are rarely seen in fantasy making The Bone Maker unique. This focus gives the story space to unpack the burdens of heroism and moving on after completing your supposedly greatest act.

Although much of the story focuses on Kreya and Jentt’s marriage–and the lengths Kreya is willing to go to bring Jentt back–friendships are the real heart of The Bone Maker as the Heroes of Vos find their way back to each other after years apart. The bond between Kreya and Zera is a particularly strong anchor in this character-driven adventure.

The Bone Maker is a story of fierce friendship, duty, and what it means when your story doesn’t end when you get to “the end.”

Possible Pairings: A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan, The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

All Our Hidden Gifts: A (WIRoB) Review

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

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue Unlike her successful and much older siblings, Maeve Chambers has never been known as an exemplary student. While Maeve and her former best friend Lily O’Callaghan both made it out of the slow reading class where they met, school is still a struggle for Maeve. A lot of things are a struggle for her when “sometimes frustration and rage surge through [Maeve], sparking out in ways [she] can’t predict or control.”

Adrift at her Catholic school, St. Bernadette’s, where she struggles to keep up with classwork and make new friends after her estrangement from Lily, Maeve is familiar with detention. “The story of how [Maeve] ended up with the Chokey Card Tarot Consultancy can be told in four detentions, three notes sent home, two bad report cards, and one Tuesday afternoon that ended with [her] locked in a cupboard.” After locating a mysterious deck of tarot cards while cleaning out said cupboard, Maeve discovers an unexpected knack for interpreting the cards for herself and classmates earning a certain notoriety (and some pocket money) as her reputation grows. Every card is easy to learn and understand except for one: The Housekeeper–a card that has no known meaning in any tarot guide Maeve can find.

What starts as a mysterious extra card soon invokes disastrous results when Maeve is goaded into offering a reading to Lily in front of their entire class. The Housekeeper’s appearance leads to harsh words between the former friends before Lily’s sudden disappearance.

Without a clear explanation for what happened to Lily, Maeve knows she’s an obvious person of interest in the case. As she tries to understand what happened to Lily and if it connects to the sudden increased popularity of a local fundamentalist group called the Children of Brigid, Maeve realizes that she, and the Housekeeper card, may have played a bigger role in Lily’s disappearance than she realized.

With help from Lily’s older brother Rory (Roe to those closest to him) and new friend Fiona, Maeve will have to uncover the truth behind the Housekeeper and her own affinity for magic if she wants to bring Lily home. Maeve describes Fiona as having an Irish first name, an English last name (Buttersfield), brown skin from her Filipina mother and limited “patience for other people’s bullshit” as many people try to fit her into various boxes. Most of the rest of the cast is presumed white.

All Our Hidden Gifts is Caroline O’Donoghue’s YA debut and the projected start of a series. Find it on Bookshop.

Black and white illustrations by Stefanie Caponi of different tarot cards–including the infamous Housekeeper–are included throughout the novel. Readers will learn tarot basics along with Maeve as she begins to interpret cards while readers familiar with tarot will recognize key symbology and common card meanings. Readers especially well-versed in tarot might also recognize the cover artwork by Lisa M. Sterle, the artist behind the Modern Witch Tarot deck and guide journal.

O’Donoghue folds many different elements into this often sprawling narrative that tries to unravel the dual mysteries of Lily’s disappearance and the Housekeeper card while also tackling increased intolerance throughout the Irish city of Kilbeg as escalated by the Children of Brigid and their eerily savvy American leader, Aaron. Mysticism and folklore add another layer to this already packed story as one character asserts “every culture you can think of has some version of the White Lady” whether or not she is called the Housekeeper.

Against this larger backdrop, Maeve tries to understand her–and the Housekeeper’s–role in Kilbeg’s unrest while navigating her new friendship with Fiona. Maeve’s fledgling romance with Roe–who sees his pronouns and gender identity as negotiable as he works on expressing his truest self with his chosen name and genderqueer fashion—adds some sweetness to an otherwise grim story trying to find Lily.

Flashbacks to the events leading up to Maeve and Lily’s falling out contrast with the tense present as the story builds to a dramatic conclusion that readers can only hope will be followed with a second book.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell, Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling

One Great Lie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“She will imagine a ghost library of all the other books that aren’t there, and will never be there. All the voices and stories of women behind one kind of wall or another. Voices and stories stolen by thieves.”

One Great Lie by Deb CalettiWinning a scholarship to a writing workshop should be a dream come true for Charlotte Hodges. The workshop is led by Luca Bruni, Charlotte’s favorite author of all time at his private villa in Venice.

Being in Venice also gives Charlotte the chance she’s longed for to look into her ancestor Isabella Di Angelo. For generations, Charlotte’s family has held onto the knowledge that Isabella wrote a very famous poem that’s taught in just about every school now. A poem that’s always been attributed to a man. Without concrete proof, the true authorship is more family lore than fact. Charlotte hopes this summer she can change that.

Arriving in Venice, Charlotte finds the city more picturesque than she could imagine. But the villa is also more secluded–isolated, really. Bruni is even more charismatic in person. More brilliant. But he’s also much more erratic and, as Charlotte and the other young women on the retreat begin to realize, much more unsettling.

With help from an Italian grad student named Dante, Charlotte begins to uncover the truth about Isabella and the stolen poem. But as some secrets are revealed, Charlotte will have to decide if she wants to speak out about others about Bruni in One Great Lie (2021) by Deb Caletti.

Find it on Bookshop.

One Great Lie is written in close third person following Charlotte’s perspective. Charlotte is white as are most characters although there is some diversity among the other students at the retreat. Each chapter in the book is prefaced with a brief epigraph detailing a different female writer from the Renaissance and the reasons why her works are not as well known as they should be or, in many cases, as they could be.

From the beginning the prose is so charged–the foreshadowing so deliberately ominous–that are immediately drawn in waiting for the ground to fall out from under Charlotte; knowing that it’s only a matter of time before a writing retreat that seems too good to be true is proven to be just that.

Charlotte’s work dismantling her admiration for Luca Bruni after witnessing his predatory behavior firsthand connects well to Charlotte’s efforts to prove Isabella’s authorship of a poem previously attributed (and stolen by) a prominent male Renaissance poet. Themes of feminism play out in both plot threads as Charlotte sees firsthand the damage Bruni has wraught while researching the ways her ancestor Isabella’s poem was stolen.

A sweet romance with Dante and Charlotte’s growing love for Venice tempers the otherwise tense narrative.

One Great Lie is a tautly paced novel filled with evocative settings and suspense as Charlotte unearths the truth and tries to right an historical wrong.

Possible Pairings: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Da Vinci’s Tiger by L. M. Elliott, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories by Janet Gurtler, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Love and Olives by Jenna Evans Welch

Baby and Solo: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Baby and Solo by Lisabeth PosthumaRoyal Oaks, Michigan, 1996: After being in and out of mental hospitals for years, seventeen-year-old Joel Teague is almost Normal. He hasn’t had any visible signs of What Was Wrong With Him since he was fifteen, he goes to therapy, and he even has a new prescription from his therapist: Get a part-time job. While Joel’s overbearing mother is wary of the advice, Joel’s father is hopeful. So is Joel, as he puts it, “Maybe all that remained between me and being Normal again was providing goods or services to my peers for minimum wage for a while. It was worth a try.”

Enter ROYO Video where Joel is soon working part-time and well on his way to becoming the “Doogie Howser of the video store corporate ladder.” In a store where every employee goes by the name of a movie character, Joel is more than ready to become Solo, short for Han Solo Star Wars—Joel’s favorite movie and a movie that’s been forbidden in his home since the Bad Thing Happened. With the new name, Joel also gets a tabula rasa (clean slate) to try making friends, working, and proving he is totally capable of being Normal.

At the store, Joel finds routine work surprisingly comforting as he gets to know his motley assortment of coworkers including sexy manager Jessica (Scarlet at the store) who claims “Scarlett O’Hara’s her favorite movie character” but lacks “the decency to spell her name with both t’s,” The Godfather—an Asian girl who “had presence in the way someone ballsy enough to call herself ‘The Godfather’ should,” and Nicole/Baby (from Dirty Dancing).

What starts as a routine job quickly becomes something more as Joel discovers the potential for real connection with his coworkers—especially Baby who is dealing with her own Something Wrong With Her while introducing Joel to the ins and outs of the video rental world and improving his film education one movie viewing at a time in Baby and Solo (2021) by Lisabeth Posthuma.

Find it on Bookshop.

As Joel becomes friendlier with Baby, he realizes that getting to know her might also involve letting her get to know him—including What Was Wrong With Him even after establishing his clean slate—a risk he isn’t sure he’s willing to take. As he notes, “It’s a lot of responsibility, knowing the entire truth about a person, and I was too busy trying to become what I might have been to get involved in What Was Wrong with someone else.”

This character-driven novel slowly unspools the intensely mutual (and notably platonic) friendship between Solo and Baby as they share their vulnerabilities and help each other through a tumultuous year including a pregnancy and continued mental health struggles. When new employee Maverick (Andres in real life) joins the ROYO video team, Joel is also forced to confront his own internalized homophobia courtesy of his mother and his family history with The Bad Thing That Happened and partially led to What Was Wrong with Joel.

Joel’s first-person narration is wry and straight to the point with careful asides hinting at his years “in and out of the psych ward” and how they impacted him (one notable example being that Joel is “hard to scandalize” now) alongside practical advice from his years of therapy that he shares with both readers and other characters processing complex emotions including grief and loss. After years of keeping people at a remove, Joel is terrified of connection, even as he craves it—a push and pull that continues throughout the story as Joel begins to understand that “if you want to experience healthy intimacy in relationships, you’re going to have to be emotionally vulnerable with someone at some point.”

As the title suggests, Joel and Baby are the central point of this story but they are far from the only worthwhile characters. The mostly white cast is fully developed and well-realized. 1990s pop culture, movie references thanks to the video store setting and an in-theater viewing of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and day-to-day retail struggles including quirky customers, a mandatory Secret Santa exchange, and more highlight Joel’s new reality while he hints at The Bad Thing that happened and works to find closure with What Was Wrong.

Whether or not readers were around for the 1990s and the pre-streaming world of video rental, Baby and Solo is a universal and timeless story of friendship, growth, retail employment and the ups and downs of all three.

Possible Pairings: Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes, The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle, Nice Try Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner