A Girl Like That: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Girl Like That by Tanaz BhatenaAt sixteen, Zarin Wadia’s reputation already precedes her. She is an orphan, the daughter of a gangster, the product of a scandalous marriage. She is a smoker, she is reckless, she has left a trail of boyfriends in her wake despite the constant need to dodge the Religious Police. She is the subject of endless rumors at her school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Everyone knows that no one would want to get involved with a girl like that.

Which is why it’s so shocking when Zarin dies in a car crash with eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia–her childhood friend and, by all counts, a boy with a good head on his shoulders.

Everyone thought they knew Zarin but as her story and the circumstances of the crash come together, it’s very clear that Zarin was always more than the rumors would have you believe in A Girl Like That (2018) by Tanaz Bhatena.

A Girl Like That is Bhatena’s debut novel. The story unfolds from multiple viewpoints with Zarin and Porus observing the aftermath of the car crash and flashbacks from both Zarin and Porus as well as other characters in Zarin’s life. Through these multiple first person viewpoints the novel explores both the events leading up to the crash and its fallout.

Zarin is a strongly feminist heroine who pushes against the limits placed on her by both her family and her surroundings in the conservative city of Jeddah. Through Zarin and her classmate Mishal’s narratives, Bhatena expertly explores themes of feminism and agency as both girls find their worlds unfairly narrowed because of little more than their gender.

A Girl Like That is a poignant and bittersweet story and perception versus reality, rumors, and truth. A quiet meditation on all of the ways society as well as friends and family can fail young people trying to make their way through a world that is often far from gentle. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll, Life By Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, The First Part Last by Angela Johnson, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed, The List by Siobhan Vivian, Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Sloppy Firsts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCaffertyDon’t let the last name fool you, Jessica Darling is anything but darling. Not that she cares. With her best friend Hope all the way across the country, it’s not like Jessica has anyone nearby who understands her or makes her want to try harder.

She tolerates the Clueless Crew at school, tries to ignore her dad’s constant nagging about her running technique, and does her best to stay out of the line of fire as her mother helps plan her older sister’s wedding.

In other words: Jessica is prepared for a hopeless year–especially with her insomnia spiraling out of control, constant anxiety, and the rather confusing matter of why she hasn’t had her period in months.

Add to that the mysterious and elusive Marcus Flutie who, for reasons that remain a mystery to Jessica, keeps turning up at the oddest times and Jessica’s year might still be hopeless, but it certainly won’t be boring in Sloppy Firsts (2001) by Megan McCafferty.

Sloppy Firsts is the start of McCafferty’s Jessica Darling book series (which as of this writing was recently optioned for a TV series). This epistolary novel left a lasting mark in YA literature and is an obvious influence for many of the books that followed in this style.

That said, this book is from 2001 and it shows–especially when reading it for the first time in 2019. The book is very white and very dated. The story is written as letters Jessica sends to her best friend Hope because of the cost of long distance calls and their lack of cell phones or much computer access. A lot of what Jessica says (for instance discussing her “gimphood” at one point when she breaks her leg) would not get a pass were the book to come out now. Does that make it a bad story? No. Does it mean I would be very deliberate in how I recommend this book and to whom? Yes.

Despite being a scathing narrator, Jessica is often very relatable. She struggles with anxiety and peer pressure and other common travails of high school–many of which are things that were barely being articulated in YA books when Sloppy Firsts was originally published.

While Sloppy Firsts is a slice-of-life story, fans of the series will tell you that the book’s main focus is Jessica’s complicated and meandering relationship with Marcus Flutie who manages to be both incredibly entertaining and a complete nightmare throughout the novel. The chemistry and tension between Jessica and Marcus is immediately obvious and largely unresolved by the end of this installment.

Sloppy Firsts taps into a very specific type of character in a very specific moment. Recommended for readers who like their contemporary novels with a ton of snark, a bit of absurdity, and a whole lot of secondhand embarrassment.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo; What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen; The Truth Commission by Susan Juby; The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart; The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe; Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

There Will Come a Darkness: A Review

“An impossible beginning and an inevitable end.”

The Seven Prophets guided humanity for generations building the fated cities and ending wars. Their visions–gifts from the Grace of Mind each possessed–predicted the ruin of dynasties and united countries. Until one hundred years ago when they disappeared leaving behind one final prophecy, a secret vision predicting an Age of Darkness and the arrival of the Last Prophet–the only person who might be able to stop it.

Hassan, Prince of Herat, was forced to flee his country when a strange zealot known as the Hierophant staged a coup in his bid to eliminate all of the Graced and pave the way for a new age. Hassan left everything and everyone he loved behind. Now he’s willing to do almost anything to get it all back.

Ephyra should be able to heal with her Grace of Blood but she has no training and no matter how hard she tries, it’s not enough. She has become a vigilante known as the Pale Hand to try and keep her sister alive, but the lines between right and wrong are getting thinner every day.

Anton has never met a game he couldn’t win. But even his luck isn’t enough to outrun the nightmares that plague him whenever he tries to use his Grace. With his past chasing at his heels, Anton will have to confront the truth of his nightmares if he wants to escape.

Jude is a leader in charge of an elite guard meant to find and protect the Last Prophet at all costs. But how can he stay true to his duty when his heart keeps pulling him away from his chosen path?

Beru knows she is dying even if her sister can’t admit it. After fighting the inevitable for so long, she’s starting to wonder if giving up is really the worst thing that can happen to her.

One prophecy, one common enemy, and five souls who all have the potential to save the world–or destroy it in There Will Come a Darkness (2019) by Katy Rose Pool.

There Will Come a Darkness is Pool’s debut novel and the start of her Age of Darkness trilogy. The novel alternates close third person point of view between the five main characters.

Pool creates a lush world where magic is seen as a gods-given gift and, instead of haves and have nots, the social order is divided between the Graced and those without magic. The action of the story plays out against this sprawling world framed by a complex magic system and polytheistic society where Prophecy has shaped civilization for generations. Lush and vividly described settings help bring this story to life.

Every character in There Will Come a Darkness is driven by fear or desperation–all five are running away, or in some cases running towards, something. The choices they make while pursuing these goals underscore the question of predestination versus free will that permeates the story as it builds quickly, and sometimes unevenly, to a conclusion filled with sudden twists and betrayals.

There Will Come a Darkness is a fantasy filled with suspense and action as each character is forced to ask themselves how far they will go to protect everything they love. Recommended for readers looking for a fast-paced fantasy with a large ensemble cast and anyone who has ever asked themselves what they’d do at the end of the world.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Black Wings Beating by Alex London, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

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

The Beauty of the Moment: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Nothing lasts forever. Not this snowflake. Not our homes, not our families. But it doesn’t mean you can’t live in the beauty of the moment.”

Susan Thomas doesn’t cause trouble. She does well in school and she always meets her parents exacting expectations. Maybe that’s why she goes along with her family’s move to Canada without much fuss. Now, instead of spending her senior year with her friends in the familiar surroundings of Saudi Arabia, Susan is in Canada dealing with winter, a school that– while less demanding–is co-ed, not to mention her mother’s depression while they both wonder if Susan’s father will actually make the move to join them in this new country.

According to almost everyone in his life, Malcolm Vakil is trouble. He remembers when he used to care about things like school and making his parents proud but it was a while ago. Before his mother died, before Malcolm found out about his father’s affair, and long before his father finally stopped hitting him and his younger sister. He knows what people see when they look at him. He doesn’t care enough to prove them wrong.

Susan and Malcolm have nothing in common except for wanting desperately to run away from their lives and, maybe, finding a welcome distraction in each other. But the problem with running away is that eventually you have to figure out somewhere–and maybe someone–to run to in The Beauty of the Moment (2019) by Tanaz Bhatena.

Bhatena’s sophomore novel is a contemporary romance set in the same world as her critically acclaimed debut novel A Girl Like That.

The Beauty of the Moment is a light story but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means it is slight. Bhatena effectively contrasts Susan and Malcolm’s points of view to highlight their differences as well as the common threads that draw them to each other in this story about perceptions and expectations.

This novel is as self-aware as its two main characters. Bhatena artfully explores typical conventions found in romantic comedies while subverting the familiar trope of the smart girl meets bad boy to move the story in unexpected directions. Like all of the best comedies, The Beauty of the Moment isn’t afraid to make fun of itself even drawing its title from a line that Malcolm himself recognizes as being incredibly corny seconds after he shares it.

The Beauty of the Moment is everything you could want in a romantic comedy. As with many things, it’s easy to ignore the work–the strength of Bhatena’s writing– because so much of it is hidden behind well-drawn characters and an engrossing plot. Not to mention beautiful sentence level writing that is sure to immediately draw readers into Susan and Malcolm’s world.

The Beauty of the Moment is a breezy, sweet story about an unlikely romance, complicated families, changed circumstances, and perception. Highly recommended for fans of the genre, readers looking for a new take on some familiar tropes, and anyone looking for a genuine story with authentic, intersectional characters.

Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, 96 Words for Love by Ava Dash and Rachel Roy, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Frankly in Love by David Yoon, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

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

With the Fire on High: A (WIRoB) Review

Here’s a teaser from the start of my review of With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevedo (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

cover art for With the Fire on High by Elizabeth AcevedoEven with help from her grandmother, ‘Buela, at home, Emoni Santiago has a lot more than college plans on her mind at the start of senior year in Philadelphia. While her best friend, Angelia, is looking at the best graphic-arts programs and enjoying her relationship with her new girlfriend, Emoni is trying to decide if college (or a relationship) can have a place in her future alongside the hopes and dreams she wants to make a reality for Babygirl. And she wonders if it’s time to focus on doing rather than “spending four years pretending to do” in college.

When an opportunity to take an immersive culinary-arts class comes up at school, Emoni knows this is one thing she has to do even if she isn’t sure what to expect — or even if she can afford the class’ trip to Spain alongside the day-to-day costs of helping ‘Buela keep their house afloat.

“If you ask her to tell it, ‘Buela starts with the same story” of Emoni hopping up on a stool and seasoning her first meal at age 4. Emoni doesn’t know what to believe, but “ever since then ‘Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don’t know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I’m happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty.”

Unfortunately, her natural affinity for food and years of experimentation in the kitchen don’t go far when it comes to prepping Emoni for the rigors of the culinary class. Chef Ayden wants to prepare them for work in a restaurant, but Emoni chafes under the structure and restrictions that seem designed to impede her creativity.

Emoni already knows a lot about taking care of herself and the people she loves, but over the course of her senior year, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to learn even more about cooking, family, and opening her heart.

You can read my full review of With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevedo here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/index.php/bookreview/with-the-fire-on-high

Possible Pairings: A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

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*

Past Perfect Life: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Past Perfect Life by Elizabeth EulbergAlly Smith loves her life in small-town Wisconsin. After moving around with her father for most of her childhood, Ally is thrilled that they landed in a place where she can feel at home surrounded by friends who are more like family.

She knows that things are going to change soon since she’s a senior in high school but that still feels far away–especially when figuring out if she and her friend Neil are still just friends or becoming something more seems much more urgent.

Ally isn’t sure what to do when she finds out that everything she thought she knew about her perfectly ordinary life has been a lie. Ally’s past isn’t what she’s been told. Her family isn’t what she thought. In fact, her name isn’t even Allison–it’s Amanda.

With her old life blown apart, Ally has to figure out how she can fit herself into this strange new life. And if she even wants to try in Past Perfect Life (2019) by Elizabeth Eulberg.

Eulberg’s latest standalone novel veers into mystery and suspense territory with a plot reminiscent of Caroline B. Cooney’s classic The Face on the Milk Carton.

While Past Perfect Life could have become sinister, the story manages to stay upbeat thanks to the vast support system that Ally has around her while her world begins to fall apart. With everything changing, she finds comfort in old friends and new family both in Wisconsin and her new home in Tampa, Florida.

Ally’s first person narration complements the tension of the plot as she learns the truth about her life although the novel’s slow pacing diminishes some of the impact as readers begin to understand the truth about Ally’s family and her past. Well-drawn characters shift the story from black and white to morally ambiguous grey as Ally and readers try to understand what happened and who should be blamed (or forgiven).

Past Perfect Life is a surprisingly gentle story about found family, embracing the messy parts of your past, and learning who you are. Recommended for readers who want a thriller with less nail biting and more friendship and romance.

Possible Pairings: The Opposite of Here by Tara Altebrando, The Last Forever by Deb Caletti, The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney, Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan, Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King

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