Symptoms of a Heartbreak: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Symptoms of a Heartbreak by Sona CharaipotraEight years ago Saira helped diagnose her best friend Harper’s cancer and conferred with her doctors about treatment options. It wasn’t enough to save her. Since then, Saira has been working toward helping other kids the way she couldn’t help Harper.

Saira is used to balancing friends and her boisterous Indian-American family with schoolwork–especially after graduating from med school at sixteen. But none of that prepared her for the rigors of her new internship in pediatric oncology. Or dealing with her mother running the pediatric department in the same hospital.

When she starts to fall for a patient, Saira is willing to do whatever it takes to try and improve his chances in treatment–even if it means risking her career in Symptoms of a Heartbreak (2019) by Sona Charaipotra.

Symptoms of a Heartbreak is Charaipotra’s solo debut.

Saira is a winning narrator with a lot of book smarts and a charming naivete that underscores the ways in which growing up often has nothing to do with learning more and everything to do with getting older.

There’s no way around this novel being a book about cancer. Saira is the lead doctor treating several patients and just like in real life, not all of them get better. While the novel ends on a hopeful note, the story remains bittersweet as it acknowledges that surviving cancer isn’t the same as curing it.

Despite the novel’s hospital setting, Symptoms of a Heartbreak does have a lot of humor. Saira has a big extended family to support her along the way including her doting parents, sassy grandmother, and caring older sister along with more aunties, uncles, and cousins than you can shake a stick at. Charaipotra expertly depicts the unique chaos of Saira’s life (and family) with tender and snappy prose.

Symptoms of a Heartbreak is a unique blend of humor, hospital drama, and a sweet romance. Recommended for readers who have always wanted an aged down Grey’s Anatomy and anyone with a soft spot for Doogie Howser.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, Happy Messy Scary Love by Leah Konen, Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott, There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Virtually Yours by Sarvenaz Tash

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Save the Date: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“These memories, I was now realizing, had never been mine. They’d never been real, just ink and paper that I’d somehow folded into my real life, a revisionist history that I’d bought without a second thought.”

cover art for Save the Date by Morgan MatsonCharlie has always been proud to be a Grant. Not everyone gets to say their family inspired a beloved comic strip like her mother’s, Grant Central Station.

Charlie has been looking forward to the weekend of her big sister’s wedding for months. Finally, she’ll get to hang out with her siblings all at once without any distractions before the wedding and before her parents sell the family home.

But even before the big day, things start to go wrong. The wedding planner is on the run. The house alarm won’t stop going off. A shelter dropped off a dog for when Good Morning America talks with Charlie’s mom about ending her comic strip after twenty-five years. Then Mike, who has been estranged from the family for the last eighteen months, suddenly decides he does want to come home for the wedding. And that’s all before the guests start to arrive and the groom’s suit goes missing. Not to mention the wedding cake disaster.

Charlie is already having a hard time processing the sale of the house and starting college in the fall. She isn’t sure how to cope with all of these other problems. Pining after her longtime crush and helping Bill, the new wedding planner’s cute nephew, problem solve are both good distractions. But after she gets through the wedding, Charlie still has to decide how she’s going to get through the rest of her life when it feels like nothing stays the same in Save the Date (2018) by Morgan Matson.

Matson’s latest standalone contemporary is an absolute delight. The novel starts with a cast of characters and also features fun chapter titles and key comic strips from Grant Central Station. Despite its length the madcap shenanigans and pacing of this story–set over one short weekend–make Save the Date a quick and utterly entertaining read. (It might also be my favorite Matson novel to date!)

Save the Date features a true ensemble cast filled with characters who are as memorable as they are lovable. I would happily read a book any and all of the other Grant siblings (or long suffering paper girl Sarah Stephens). Matson makes this large cast shine in scenes filled with snappy dialog and witty banter while making sure every character is worthy of their own story.

Charlie’s family home, the site of numerous wedding mishaps and much drama, also feels like another character as evocative descriptions help readers understand Charlie’s grief over losing this key part of her youth.

While Save the Date is ostensibly a story about a wedding where everything that can go wrong does, Charlie’s character arc is about a lot more as she comes to terms with growing up and realizes that her longtime crush and even her family memories have realities that don’t quite match up with her idealized memories and hopes.

Save the Date is a fast-paced, hilarious novel filled with big personalities and memorable moments. A sold story about accepting change, embracing imperfections, and making peace with life’s complexities. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett, Once and For All by Sarah Dessen, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Love and Other Train Wrecks by Leah Konen, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud, Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy by Tiffany Schmidt, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

Carry On: A Review

cover art for Carry On by Rainbow RowellSimon Snow is not the chosen one anyone expected. He might not even be the chosen one we deserve. But he’s the only one we have.

Simon is supposed to be the most powerful wizard alive. But most of the time his wand doesn’t work properly, he can’t remember spells when he needs them, or he starts massive fires. All told, Simon would much rather spend his time eating sour cherry scones than trying to fight the Mysterious Humdrum–the magic eating monster that’s been tormenting Simon, and the rest of the magical world, since Simon arrived at Watford School of Magicks when he was eleven.

On top of that Simon’s girlfriend just dumped him and his roommate is missing. Baz being out of the picture might actually be a plus. Except Baz is from one of the most notoriously evil magic families out there. Also he’s a vampire so he could be causing all sorts of trouble while he’s away.

Simon doesn’t know what to expect from his last year at Watford but he certainly didn’t realized he’d be spending so much of it worried about Baz–or at least worried about Baz hurting people–in Carry On (2015) by Rainbow Rowell.

Carry On is partially inspired by Rowell’s earlier novel Fangirl–a book which included slash fiction written by one character about a Harry Potter-esque series. Rowell takes those elements and reworks them in this story. I will say up front that this book was a lot more fun and a lot smarter than I expected it to be given the story’s origins.

Carry On is witty, sexy, and just familiar enough to catch the in-jokes. It also offers a fascinating commentary on what it means to have a chosen path only to realize it might not be the path you want—aside from being completely wrong–as Simon struggles to figure out what his future will look like outside of Watford.

The novel alternates narration between Simon and Baz (who is tragically absent for the novel’s first act) which works well to showcase the dynamic between these characters while also amping up the tension as they shift somewhat reluctantly–and much to their own dismay–from sworn enemies to boyfriend and boyfriend. While the romance is fun, the subversion of the usual nemesis tropes are also well done as both Simon and Baz are forced to admit that the person they thought they hated above all others might also be the only one who might understand them.

I will say I still have trepidation about whether this romance between two boys is a story that a straight woman should be telling. But at the same time, Baz is a vampire and Simon is a wizard so there are a lot of reasons this book is positioned differently than if it were a truly contemporary story.

Carry On is a fun, campy boarding school fantasy with two precious idiots doing the best they can. Recommended for readers who have read Harry Potter a zillion times and are looking for something different but still familiar.

Possible Pairings: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Fence by C. S. Pacat, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Timekeeper by Tara Sim, Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu

The Vanishing Stair: A (WIRoB) Review

Here’s a teaser from the start of my review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

cover art for The Vanishing Stair by Maureen JohnsonEllingham Academy is a prestigious Vermont boarding school founded by eccentric billionaire Albert Ellingham. Its students are encouraged to think of learning as a game while pursuing their passions. Some of them come to the academy to write, others to create. That’s the one thing that binds the students together: “Everyone at Ellingham Academy had a thing.”

Stevie Bell’s thing is crime; specifically, solving the Ellingham case.

In 1936, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. Despite doing as the kidnappers asked and paying a ransom, Ellingham never reunited with his family. Iris’ body was soon found; Alice was never recovered.

The biggest clue in the case was the “Truly Devious” letter — an eerie poem reminiscent of Dorothy Parker that promised violence and maybe even death.

Stevie isn’t the first person to try to solve the case. But she has something no one else does: new evidence. It’s all contained in an old tea tin filled with “a bit of white feather, a bit of beaded cloth, a tarnished, gold-colored lipstick tube with the mummified remains of a red lipstick, a tiny enameled pillbox in the shape of a shoe, some pieces of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem.”

Together, these “humble objects” are proof that the infamous Truly Devious letter may not have been tied to the case at all, but a student prank.

The problem is that Stevie’s parents pull her out of Ellingham mere weeks into her first term, after the death of another student, Hayes Major (whose murder Stevie tried to solve). Knowing what happened to Hayes, and knowing that another student was likely involved, Stevie senses missing pieces.

You can read my full review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/the-vanishing-stair

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Famous in a Small Town: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Famous in a Small Town by Emma MillsSophie has very specific plans for the summer before her senior year at Acadia High School.

She needs to stay on track with the goals listed in her College Collective handbook including continuing to volunteer at the local library. She has to make time to practice with the Acadia High School Marching Band as they prepare for the school year, fit in babysitting gigs for her neighbors, and of course hang out with her four best friends when they have time. Honestly, it’s a lot like every other summer Sophie has spent growing up in Acadia.

There are two big differences this year: the first is that Sophie has to figure out a way to help the marching band raise enough money to get to the Rose Parade. The second is August–the mysterious younger brother of her regular babysitting client who appears seemingly out of nowhere.

Sophie is immediately drawn to August. And it seems like the feeling might be mutual. Except that August keeps pushing her away. And Sophie doesn’t know what to do about it.

It turns out solving the marching band’s fundraising problem might be a lot easier. Megan Pleasant, country music superstar, is Acadia’s one claim to fame. All Sophie has to do is invite Megan back to headline a fundraising festival. What could be easier?

As Sophie tries to figure out why Megan has publicly promised she’ll never return to Acadia, she’ll learn a lot about first love, and all of the things that can hold a friendship together–or tear it apart in Famous in a Small Town (2019) by Emma Mills.

Mills’ latest standalone contemporary is another delight filled with humor and introspection. Sophie’s first person narration is self-aware and sardonic.

Famous in a Small Town is a lot like a welcome hug. This story is very character driven with a meandering plot that even at its most urgent promises readers everything will be okay. You might also think of it as a Hallmark movie but with characters who are more inclusive and nuanced, subtler sincerity and, in this case, more dick jokes.

Famous is a Small Town is an ode to the quirks and charms of small towns, big personalities, and friendship in all of its forms. An endearing book that is as welcome as a breeze on a warm summer day. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

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

Truly Devious: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stevie Bell had a simple desire: she wanted to be standing over a dead body.”

cover art for Truly Devious by Maureen JohnsonStevie Bell has two great passions: the study of crime in general and the Ellingham case specifically. She has read all the books, all the articles, and all of the case transcripts about the kidnapping of Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter. She knows the contents of the Truly Devious letter–the biggest clue in the case–by heart. She knows every facet of the case and she knows that she is going to be the person to solve.

That passion, that certainty, is what earns Stevie admission to the elusive and prestigious Ellingham Academy–a Vermont boarding school where learning is a game. In the school students can create, learn, and study their own passions whatever they may be. There are geniuses, novelists, artists, and more.

Stevie still thinks there’s a possibility that her admission might have been a mistake.

But she isn’t going to let that, or her anxiety, stop her from solving the Ellingham case–no matter how cold it may be. She just needs to get a handle on her new classes and her housemates. Except someone has other plans. When death returns to Ellingham Stevie finds herself at the center of a case that’s anything but cold in Truly Devious (2018) by Maureen Johnson.

Truly Devious is the first book (and first act) in Johnson’s tightly plotted Truly Devious trilogy which continues in The Vanishing Stair. The story follows Stevie in close third person along with chapters interspersed throughout following key players in the Ellingham case as the kidnapping and failed ransom drop unfold.

Stevie’s knowledge of mystery conventions and true crime contrast well with her open bewilderment and naiveté when it comes to dealing with her classmates–especially David the mysterious prankster who is almost as annoying as he is attractive to Stevie.

When a student dies on campus, Stevie is drawn even deeper into Ellingham’s myriad secrets and discovers that there might be more to both cases than she initially thought. Evocative settings and an intricate plot are only somewhat impeded by poorly executed characterization with some behaviors that never quite hit the mark.

Truly Devious is an ode to classic boarding school mysteries. Recommended for true-crime enthusiasts, amateur detectives, and of course anyone who’s ever dreamed of finding a body in the library.

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Analee in Real Life: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Analee in Real Life by Janelle MilanesAnalee Echevarria knows she doesn’t come across that great in real life. Her mom died three years ago and it feels like it’s never going to stop hurting. Her father is marrying a yogi who drives Analee crazy–don’t even get her started on her soon-to-be stepsister. Then there’s Analee’s best friend who isn’t her best friend, or really any friend at all, anymore.

All in all, Analee is much happier spending her time playing her favorite online game where she can be Kiri–the night elf hunter who never struggles to say or do the right thing. It doesn’t hurt that her in-game sidekick Xolxar (played by a boy named Harris) has quickly become her best friend even though Analee and Harris have never met in person.

High school is just something to get through, and Analee knows she can do that if she just keeps her head down and stays out of the way of the popular kids. The only problem is that Seb Matias–undisputed school heartthrob and jerk–wants Analee to pose as his girlfriend while he tries to make is ex jealous.

Much to his surprise, and Analee’s, she agrees hoping the fake relationship can help her practice real connections and work up the nerve to finally meet Harris. But as their fake relationship threatens to turn into a real friendship, Analee has to wonder if she’s ready to connect with anyone in the real world–especially herself in Analee in Real Life (2018) by Janelle Milanes.

Analee in Real Life is equal parts thoughtful and funny as Analee navigates grief, friend breakups, and her future step-mother’s nightmare diet schemes (kale chips, anyone?).

Analee is a no-nonsense narrator. She knows she has work to do and she knows she is one hundred percent terrified of putting in that work when it means doing scary things. As much as this novel explores romance and friendship, it’s really a story about Analee learning how to start to like herself and understand her place in a family that has irrevocably changed.

Analee in Real Life is an empowering and sometimes painfully realistic story about a girl who realizes that the most challenging role she has to play is herself. Recommended for readers who like their characters sharp, their humor sardonic, and their romances to toe the line between reality and hoax.

Possible Pairings: Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario., To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, In Real Life by Jessica Love, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Bright Before Sunrise by Tiffany Schmidt