Sugar Town Queens: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

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

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Immortalists: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

A Disaster in Three Acts: A Review

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherwood: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Who are you to say that being a lady, in itself, is not its own kind of war?”

Sherwood by Meagan SpoonerWhen Robin of Locksley dies fighting in the Crusades for his king, it leaves Marian’s entire future uncertain. For years, Marian knew she would marry Robin and stand beside him when he became Lord of Locksley. They would make a life together, the way they had always planned, and they would protect Locksley town and its residents from the Sheriff of Nottingham. Together.

Now Marian is painfully aware of her uncertain future. Guy of Gisborne serves as the sheriff’s right hand. He hopes to cement his place as a gentleman first by laying claim to Locksley land and then by claiming Marian herself.

With her options dwindling and time running short, Marian is driven to a desperate decision to don Robin’s green cloak and act as a protector when he no longer can. What began as one impulsive act quickly gains a life of its own as news of Robin’s return spreads and brings hope to people with in desperate need of it.

Marian never meant to hide behind a hood, she never meant to become Robin. With Guy getting closer to her secret, with the sheriff enraged, Marian knows she has to stop. But with so many people counting on her–on Robin Hood–she isn’t sure how she can in Sherwood (2019) by Meagan Spooner.

Find it on Bookshop.

Spooner continues her series of standalone retellings of classic tales with Sherwood. All characters are assumed white.

Sherwood reinterprets familiar source material with new twists and imbues the story with strong feminist themes. Marian has always been aware of her vulnerabilities and limitations as a woman in medieval society where the paths available to her include marriage or life in a convent and much in between. These restraints gain new urgency when Marian’s planned future is stripped away with Robin’s unexpected death–leaving her to grieve her lost future as much as her childhood best friend.

This impressive take on Robin Hood features familiar characters and plot points retold with clever changes that make Sherwood into something new. Marian’s precarious role as a noblewoman is portrayed well as societal pressures call for her to stop mourning Robin and choose a new suitor. At the same time, as she works with Sherwood’s most notable outlaws, Marian’s privilege is checked by her new (and sometimes reluctant) allies who keep her grounded in the realities of living in poverty or on the run from the law.

Without revealing too much about the plot, I will say Spooner’s treatment of Guy of Gisborne is one of my favorite character reinterpretations of all time. This story reimagines Guy as a more nuanced character than the usual dour enforcer and positions him to serve as a foil and counterpoint to Marian throughout.

Sherwood stays true to the source material and the spirit of the characters while also being entirely unique and adding new layers to a familiar tale. Sherwood is a richly layered and deeply feminist story filled with adventure and surprises; perfect for fans familiar with Robin Hood and new readers alike.

Possible Pairings: No Good Deed by Kara Connolly, The Forest Queen by Betsey Cornwell, Hood by Jenny Moke Elder, Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, Bravely by Maggie Stiefvater, The Bone Spindle by Leslie Vedder, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

The Perfect Escape: A Review

The Perfect Escape by Leah KonenNew friends Sam, Margaret, and Diana bonded over their messy divorces–different trajectories that all ended in the same place. Now they’re all single, ready to move on, and maybe in Sam’s case still just a little bitter.

A road trip out of New York City is exactly what all three of them need.

Which makes it even more of a bummer when their car breaks down in the Catskills and puts the trip on hold while their car is being repaired. It’s the same place Sam’s ex–Harry–chose to move in with his other woman, the one he left Sam to go back to. But that doesn’t have to mean anything. They can still have fun at a bar. Unless maybe Sam can use the opportunity to get Harry back.

Margaret is nervous about the trip, the expenses, her ex-husband’s increasingly erratic behavior in the apartment they’re still sharing because neither can afford to move out. But she’s also ready for a break and a distraction. Which she finds when sparks start to fly with a younger man at the bar.

When a night promising fresh starts instead leads to bad decisions, both Sam and Margaret aren’t sure what their night out means for the rest of the trip–or their futures. Then they realize that Diana never made it back from the bar. Then things get worse.

It should have been the perfect trip. None of them expected it to include a body count in The Perfect Escape (2022) by Leah Konen.

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Konen’s latest thriller is a wild ride through secrets and lies set in upstate New York. All main characters are cued as white.

As the story alternates between first person narrations, it’s clear that all of the characters are keeping their secrets close. Konen slowly teases out Sam, Margaret, and Diana’s backstories as this pressure cooker of a story builds to a twist-filled conclusion and doubts begin to rise between the close-but-new friends.

The Perfect Escape is the kind of book that you’ll enjoy the most with no expectations and minimal information. Konen continues to hone her craft with this smart and suspenseful story where she strikes the perfect balance between dropping clues and foreshadowing future events while also leaving space for truly surprising reveals.

Descriptive prose and well-realized backstories for both Sam and Margaret add substance to this stylish thriller.

Possible Pairings: The Weekend Away by Sarah Alderson, We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, The Guest List by Lucy Foley, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

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

In the Wild Light: A Review

“Because for every way the world tries to kill us, it gives us a way to survive. You just gotta find it.”

“Every hurt, every sorrow, every scar has brought you here. Poetry lets us turn pain into fire by which to warm ourselves. Go build a fire.”

In the Wild Light by Jeff ZentnerNothing in Cash’s life has been easy in Sawyer–his small Appalchian town. His mother died because of her opioid addiction when Cash was a child. Now, as a teen, Cash is watching his Papaw deteriorate from emphysema while he and his Mamaw are powerless to help. Cash knows he’s lucky to have his grandparents at all, to be on the river he loves, to have his summer work mowing lawns, to have these small pieces of safety and stability.

Sometimes it feels like the one bright spot is his best friend, Delaney. But Cash has always known Delaney will eventually leave–that’s what happens when your best friend is a genius. When Delaney discovers a life-changing bacteria-eating mold in a cave, Cash knows she’s headed for better things. Without him. And even sooner than he expected when she receives a full scholarship to Middleford Academy, an elite boarding school in Connecticut.

Except Delaney has plans of her own. None of which include leaving Cash behind. When Delaney tells Cash a scholarship is his for the taking he will have to choose between an unimaginable opportunity with the best friend he’s ever had and his love for his grandparents and the only place he’s ever called home.

As Cash grapples with everything he has to let go, he’ll remember everything worth holding onto and learn new ways to dream bigger in In the Wild Light (2021) by Jeff Zentner.

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Zentner’s latest novel can be read as a standalone but is set in the same world as all of his other novels. The story here is most closely connected to Goodbye Days with direct references to those characters. Cash and Delaney are white, secondary characters include Cash’s new friend Alex who is Korean-American (and also on scholarship) and Delaney’s Brazilian roommate Vi who is wealthy leading to thoughtful commentary on income diversity throughout the novel. Cash’s poetry-teacher-turned-mentor is queer and she and her wife also play key roles in the plot.

Cash’s first person narration is eloquently introspective as he describes the river and nature he dearly loves but less self-aware when it comes to identifying his own wants and, as his world expands at Middleford Academy, understanding what he needs to continue growing.

Cash is keenly aware of his past traumas and how they have shaped him and his loved ones in a small town where poverty is high and many have fallen victim to the opioid epidemic as he describes them, “Here we are, survivors of quiet wars.” At the same time, Cash and especially his Papaw and Mamaw are free with their affection, their praise, and their unconditional love. In a world where toxic masculinity is still so dangerous it is refreshing and powerful to see a teenaged boy given space to cry and grieve and feel while also seeing the same things in his grandfather.

While Delaney is eager to start fresh, Cash is hesitant to embrace this new chapter and let himself imagine a world beyond his quiet life with his grandparents. Even as he makes new friends, joins crew, and discovers an unexpected passion for poetry, he’s still waiting for the ground to fall out from under him the way it always does–a fear that will resonate with readers who have struggled with unpredictability and chaos in their own lives. On first glance, I don’t have much in common with Cash, so it was a surprise when I identified so deeply with his story, his grief, and his dread of the next calamity. When Cash says “I have nothing in my life that isn’t falling apart,” I felt it in my bones.

In the Wild Light is a quiet, meditative story about nature, poetry, love, and all of the things that can save us. In the Wild Light is a resonant story about healing; the perfect book to see you through a rough season.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

The Charmed List: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Charmed List by Julie AbeEllie Kobata has been looking forward to her road trip with best friend Lia Park for months. Driving from Palo Alto to the California Magical Retailers’ Convention where magical merchants like Ellie’s parents can showcase their wares will be the perfect summer adventure even if traveling with non-magic-aware Lia poses some challenges. Luckily, Ellie is used to keeping magical secrets. Plus she will have Lia’s help knocking items off her Anti-Wallflower List which Ellie hopes will be able to change her quiet girl persona at school into someone more interesting to her classmates and herself.

Ellie’s high hopes for the trip are dashed when item four–getting revenge on her ex-best-friend Jack Yasuda–goes horribly wrong leaving Ellie grounded for the foreseeable future, in a fight with Lia, and worst of all driving to the convention with Jack.

With so many disasters, Ellie’s list is starting to feel like it might be cursed but as Ellie and Jack are forced to spend time together they might also have the chance to rehab their friendship and maybe even check off some other items from Ellie’s list like dancing under the stars and falling in love in The Charmed List (2022) by Julie Abe.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Charmed List is Abe’s YA debut but you might recognize her name from her middle grade series Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch.

Ellie is Japanese American, Jack is half-Italian American, half-Japanese American.

The Charmed List is a delightful standalone filled with romance and magic. Artist Ellie’s initially prickly narration will win readers over as she explains details of her magic-aware world including charms for things like joy or ambition and reveals more of her fraught history with Jack.

With road trip stops including quirky shops, welcoming inns, and magical cottages The Charmed List is as cozy as it is engrossing. Fans of the romance genre will recognize tropes including hate to love, there’s only one bed, and more in this story about second chances and new beginnings.

Possible Pairings: The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, Seoulmates by Susan Lee, Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan

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

Clark and Division: A Review

Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara1944: Twenty-year-old Aki Ito and her parents have just been released from Manzanar–the camp where they were detained by the US government after Pearl Harbor with thousands of other Japanese Americans.

With everything they knew in California gone, the family is being resettled in Chicago with help from Aki’s older sister, Rose, who was released and sent there months earlier to pave the way for a new Japanese American neighborhood near Clark and Division streets.

The sisters’ relationship changed during Manzanar and Aki is eager for their reunion to sweep away the last of the tensions and secrets between them. But instead of finding Rose waiting for them, the remaining Itos arrive in Chicago to the shocking news that Rose is dead–killed by a subway car in what officials are calling a suicide.

Aki refuses to believe her sister would do this to herself, especially on the eve of their Chicago arrival. While she and her parents try to start new lives, Aki also delves into Rose’s past trying to piece together the missing months and understand what really happened to her sister in Clark and Division (2021) by Naomi Hirahara.

Find it on Bookshop.

Clark and Division is a thoughtful and well-researched historical fiction novel. Most main characters are Japanese American. Aki also starts a friendship with a Jewish American woman and a Black woman working at a local library which leads to conversations about intersectionality and the different baggage all three carry while navigating a world where the default is thought to be white and male.

Although Hirahara is an Edgar award winning author writing under a crime imprint, the investigation into Rose’s death (and the mystery such as it is) are secondary plot elements. The real story here is the experience of Japanese Americans like Aki–a Nisei (Japanese American born in America)–and her parents who are both US citizens during World War II when they are detained and after as they try to rebuild their lives. Aki’s first person narration strikes a good balance between exposition and background introducing readers to 1944 Chicago with richly detailed descriptions. The narrative also slowly teases out details about Rose’s past and the cultural landscape of the Japanese American community the Itos have joined in Chicago.

While some conclusions feel anticlimactic compared to the buildup of the mystery, Hirahara presents a well-rounded and complex story. Readers looking for inclusive and layered historical fiction will enjoy spending time with Aki on her search for answers in Clark and Division.

Possible Pairings: The Artist Colony by Joanna Fitzpatrick, Best Laid Plans by Gwen Florio, Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, The Hollywood Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal, Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

We Are Inevitable: A Review

We Are Inevitable by Gayle FormanAaron Stein doesn’t really believe in happy endings or new beginnings.

It’s impossible to think those things can happen to him when he’s slowly falling apart. Aaron’s older brother is dead, his family is drowning in the debt they incurred paying for stints in rehab and trying to treat the overdose that killed him. Aaron is ostensibly the owner of the family bookstore, Bluebird Books, but he doesn’t care about it the way his father Ira does or even the way his mother did before the divorce.  Aaron knows the decrepit store is on its way out just like the dinosaurs he’s been reading about obsessively.

The crack in the bookshelf feels like the last straw, the sign Aaron has been waiting for to cut his losses, to sell the store, to move on.

But then his old classmate Chad drops by the store and asks about a wheelchair ramp so he can navigate the entrance. What starts as an old board thrown over the steps becomes an actual ADA accessible ramp when the out of work lumberjacks see what Aaron is doing and decide to help.

Then the lumberjacks see the cracked shelf. And they want to repair it because that kind of shelving is quality. Then they’re fixing the other shelves because they’re already there. And updating the store layout so Chad can fit his chair into the aisles. Then they’re adding a record section. Chad is running an inventory. There’s an espresso machine, a café.

Then there’s Hannah, the band lead Aaron meets at a show with Chad who feels like she could be exactly who Aaron needs.

Suddenly, the downward spiral that was Aaron’s life doesn’t feel so inevitable. There might even be something like hope in the air.

The only problem is Aaron already sold the store. And he’ll have to confront everything that led him to this latest choice–and lot of others from his past–if he wants to give the bookstore and his fractured family one more chance in We Are Inevitable (2021) by Gayle Forman.

Find it on Bookshop.

We Are Inevitable is a standalone contemporary set near the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. The audiobook is narrated by Sunil Malhotra. Most characters are presumed white.

There’s no getting around this, so I’m just going to say it: We Are Inevitable is a heavy book. Aaron and his father are despondent and depressed at the start of the novel. Themes of addiction and recovery play important roles in the plot as Aaron learns about love interest Hannah and also as he begins to come to terms with his brother’s overdose.

Forman presents a melancholy but deliberate look at addiction with respect for all parties involved despite Aaron’s initial hard line response. The financial hardship and Ira’s anxiety (which manifests a panic attack in an early chapter) add further tension to an already fraught story. Moments of humor alleviate some of the story’s weight but you have been warned.

Readers willing to come along for the ride with We Are Inevitable will be rewarded with a story that is ultimately hopeful both for Aaron and his family as well as for the unlikely independent bookstore that keeps trucking along.

Possible Pairings: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher, Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm*

The Maidens: A Review

The Maidens by Alex MichaelidesAfter so many years of defining herself in relation to her husband Sebastian, Mariana Andros is no longer sure who she is or how she can keep going after his sudden death.

She still has her work as a group therapist but that’s cold comfort when she has nothing but memories to hold onto.

A distressed call from Zoe, the niece she and Sebastian raised, is enough to rouse Mariana from her grief. One of Zoe’s friends at Cambridge University has been murdered. The death is violent and sinister. Worse, it is only the first.

Reluctant to leave her niece in a time of crisis, Mariana agrees to stay at the college surrounded by memories of her own time as a student when she and Sebastian first met. The longer Mariana spends on the familiar campus, the more certain she is that Edward Fosca is the killer.

Fosca is a charismatic and well-liked Greek Tragedy professor. Sharp and formidable, his cult of personality is so strong among his female students that it’s not hard to intuit his guilt despite an alibi.

As Mariana is drawn further into the investigation, her fixation on Fosca grows. Pursuing Fosca could ruin Mariana’s professional reputation, her personal relationships and–as she gets closer to the killer–even her life might be forfeit in The Maidens (2021) by Alex Michaelides.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Maidens is Michaelides’ second novel. Most of the story follows Mariana with a close third person narration. All main characters–including one readers may recognize from Michaelides’ debut–are presumed white.

The Maidens is a tense university-set thriller with an audiobook version ably narrated by Louise Brealey and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Michaelides covers similar territory here to his debut, once again featuring a psychoanalyst protagonist and a shocking case.

Although it is decidedly high concept, The Maidens does little to capitalize on any of its potential. Mariana–a theoretically complex protagonist dealing with intense grief, a patient who is stalking her (which causes her surprisingly little distress), and an increasingly obsessive interest in Fosca as the book progresses–is reduced to little more than a grieving widow. If she has a personality beyond missing Sebastian and investigating Fosca, Michaelides never shows it.

Abrupt chapter breaks eliminate any chance for readers (or Mariana) to meditate on plot points not to mention leaving no room for anything in the way of character development. The breakneck pace of the story and its focus on plot are perhaps why so much of The Maidens feels heavy-handed. Information key to solving the mystery is obscured with plot devices including intermittent chapters from a nameless male character while the identity of the murderer is heavily broadcast even as their motivations remain frustratingly opaque.

With a resolution that is as unsavory as it is unsatisfying, The Maidens feels less like a thriller by the end and more like an object lesson in the veracity of the maxim “physician, heal thyself.” Readers looking for a twisty thriller where no one is quite who they expect would be better served by Alice Feeney’s Rock Paper Scissors which although not a dark academia novel employs similar narrative devices to better effect.

Posssible Pairings: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Now You See Me by S. J. Bolton, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, House of Correction by Nicci French, Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian,  Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

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