Salt Magic: A Graphic Novel Review

Salt Magic by Hope Larson and Rebecca MockVonceil is ecstatic when her older brother, Elber, comes home after serving on the front in the Great War. But the brother who comes back isn’t the one the Vonceil remembers. Wartime has made him serious and responsible–ready, even, to marry the girl he left behind–when Vonceil thought they’d have more time to play and get to know each other again.

Things get stranger when a sophisticated and mysterious woman arrives at their Oklahoma farm dressed all in white. She blames Elber for leaving her behind in France. She wants him to join her now.

When Elber refuses, she curses the family well and turns the entire town’s fresh water supply into saltwater.

To save her town and try to rescue her brother, Vonceil will have to travel far from everything she’s ever known into a world filled with magic, shapeshifting animals, and witches including a fickle Sugar Witch and the lady in white herself–a Salt Witch in Salt Magic (2021) by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock.

Find it on Bookshop.

Salt Magic is the latest standalone graphic novel from Larson and Mock. All characters are presented as white.

Vonceil’s adventure blends historical fiction set at the end of World War I with larger than life fairytale magic–a contrast that mirrors Vonceil’s own mixed feelings about getting older and growing up. Mock’s artwork is sophisticated and layered as she captures both the vast emptiness of the midwest and the lush, decadent magical world Vonceil discovers. Detailed and vibrantly colored artwork fully capitalizes on the full color page design and perfectly conveys the lush magic of the story–especially the Sugar Witch’s confections.

A well-paced plot and nuanced characters elevate this story filled with action, adventure, and magic.

Possible Pairings: A House Divided by Haiko Hornig, Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi, Pony by R.J. Palacio, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, Oyster War by Ben Towle

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

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion: A Review

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Deserve Monuments: A Review

We Deserve Monuments by Jas HammondsSeventeen-year-old Avery Anderson is still smarting after breaking up with her first girlfriend over an argument she’d rather not remember. But that doesn’t mean she’s excited to have her entire life uprooted so that she can move from DC with her Mom and Dad to the middle of nowhere in Bardell, Georgia.

Avery barely knows her grandmother, Mama Letty, but with news of a terminal diagnosis Avery’s mother tells the family they have to be there for Mama Letty–whether she wants them there or not. Avery has known about the tension between her mom and Mama Letty for longer than she can remember. Based on the less-than-warm welcome they receive, Mama Letty dying seems unlikely to change anything.

Thank goodness for Simone Cole the cute girl next door who offers Avery some much-needed fresh air while being totally crush-worthy. Simone is a big personality and she’s quick to let Avery into her inner circle alongside best friend Jade Oliver–daughter of one of the town’s most prominent families with one of the most notorious reputations.

Secrets run deep in Bardell. As Avery unpacks the town’s racist past she also begins to fill in the gaps in her own family’s tragic connection to the town. As endings get wrapped up with new beginnings Avery has to decide if some secrets are worth burying when it also means keeping the peace in We Deserve Monuments (2022) by Jas Hammonds.

Find it on Bookshop.

We Deserve Monuments is Hammonds’ debut novel. Avery is biracial (Black mother and white father) and queer, Simone and her family are Black, and Jade’s family is from one of the wealthiest white families in Bardell. Avery’s first person narration alternates with short vignettes throughout the novel exploring different aspects of Bardell including painful pieces of the past as well as moments of first love and even an unlikely refuge for the local queer community highlighting just how varied even a small town can be for each of its residents.

Hammonds packs a lot into this deceptively slim novel with explorations of generational trauma, racism, and identity both through Avery’s story and her investigation into her family’s legacy in Bardell. Avery’s changing feelings about her family, especially Mama Letty, serve as a counterpoint to her complicated new friendships with Jade who Avery is hesitant to trust and Simone who might end up being something more.

In learning more about Mama Letty’s history in Bardell, Avery also starts to understand more about her own identity as a biracial and queer young woman and how to embrace both of those pieces of herself to take up space in her own life. Spare prose and evocative descriptions immediately draw readers into both Avery’s story and her search for answers.

We Deserve Monuments is grounded in a post-pandemic world that feels both timeless and current. Come for the romance, stay for the story of two girls learning how to love every part of themselves and their families–even the pieces no one wants to talk about.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Sugar Town Queens by Malla Nunn, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Jagged Little Pill: The Novel by Eric Smith et al, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Be sure to also check out my interview with Jas!

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

This Golden State: A Review

“I didn’t even know the choices, because I didn’t have the information.”

This Golden State by Marit WeisenbergPoppy has grown up with five family rules:

1. No using your real name.
2. No staying in one place too long.
3. If something’s weird, take one thing and run to the meeting spot.
4. Keeping our family together is everything.
5. Don’t ask about the past. For your own safety. It’s the smallest mistake that will get us caught.

Lying constantly, hiding all the time, always waiting for one disastrous slip up hasn’t left much room for seventeen-year-old Poppy to ask questions. When she was little it all seemed normal. Now, Poppy has her little sister Emma and her parents. What more does she need?

Right away, Poppy knows that their latest move is different. Her parents never answer Poppy’s questions but once they arrive in California, Poppy has even more: like how a room prepared in a safe house can feel more like hers than anywhere else she’s ever lived and why it feels like pieces of her family’s secrets are waiting to be discovered.

With her parents distracted, Poppy has more freedom than she’s used to with a chance to attend an advanced math class, earn her own money, and maybe make a real friend in the unlikely form of ultra-wealthy and popular Harry. Family has always been enough for Poppy. It has to be. But as Poppy begins to dig deeper into her parents’ past with a secret DNA test and to think more about her own desires, Poppy also realizes that no secret can be kept forever in This Golden State (2022) by Marit Weisenberg.

Find it on Bookshop.

This Golden State is a tense standalone novel narrated by Poppy. The Winslow family and most characters are cued as white with Harry’s DNA results showing ancestry going back to Jamaica, South India, and Europe.

Perfect pacing and an urgent, close-focus narrative amps up the tension immediately as readers are drawn into Poppy’s world where nothing can be taken at face value. While family secrets and the looming results from Poppy’s DNA test drive the plot, this is ultimately a story about a girl who is leaning to dream and understanding how much bigger her world can be. As Poppy tries to keep up with her wealthier classmates who have had more consistent schooling, Poppy also starts to unpack the privilege that comes with stability and everything that she has lost growing up on the run–losses that her younger sister Emma has already begun to chafe under.

Harry gives Poppy a window into a world she knows she can never inhabit living the way she currently does–one fileld with opportunity and growth. Brief moments with Harry’s verbally abusive father also underscore to Poppy how much her parents have sacrificed to keep their family safe and intact. Weisengerg thoughtfully unpacks Poppy’s loyalty and deep love for her parents alongside her growing resentment at their rules and how they have to live. As she learns more about her parents’ roles in leading the family to this point, Poppy also has to learn how to maintain her affection and fond memories while leaving room for the anger that comes with understanding.

This Golden State is a taut exercise in suspense where family is everything. Until it isn’t. While the payoff for all of Poppy’s questions and investigating can feel anticlimactic, This Golden State is a story that will stay with readers long after the open-ended conclusion. Recommended for readers seeking a thriller focused on tension instead of scares.

Possible Pairings: Don’t Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, My Mechanical Romance by Alexene Farol Follmuth, The Safest Lifes by Megan Miranda, The Liar’s Daughter by Megan Cooley Peterson, Remember Me Gone by Stacy Stokes, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

Listen, Slowly: A Review

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha LaiTwelve-year-old Mai has a lot of plans for the summer including hanging out the at the beach with her friends, being cool, and maybe even talking to HIM. Mai’s plans do not by any means include traveling to Vietnam with her grandmother, Ba, to find out what happened to Ba’s husband during the Vietnam War. Although her parents thing the trip is important and a great chance for Mai to connect with her Vietnamese culture, all Mai can see is missed opportunities in her actual home which is California.

Arriving in Vietnam Mai is unprepared for the hear, the smells, or how isolated she feels in a country that everyone says is hers where she still feels like a stranger. With limited Vietnamese and even less familiarity with local customs, Mai can’t wait for this summer trip to end. At least she’s with her grandmother.

Ba doesn’t speak much English and Mai doesn’t speak much Vietnamese but they always understand each other. As Ba returns to a country she never thought she’d see again and Mai discovers a place she never imagined visiting, Mai begins to understand that embracing her Vietnamese heritage isn’t going to diminish her life in Califorina; instead, if she lets it, this trip has the potential to make her world a lot bigger in Listen, Slowly (2015) by Thanhha Lai.

Find it on Bookshop.

Listen, Slowly is set primarily in Vietnam–all main characters are Vietnamese. Lulu Lam’s narration in the audiobook perfectly captures Mai’s conversational voice along with pronunciation of all the included Vietnamese words and phrases which might be harder for non-Vietnamese speakers to parse from print.

Mai’s snappy narration captures her California aesthetic and barely contained energy with an exciting crush on HIM, dashed summer plans and, eventually, tentative excitement about seeing Vietnam herself for the first time. With no previous interest in her cultural identity, Mai experiences a series of shocks as she learns about Vietnamese customs, foods, and how to deal with the unbearable heat and bugs.

The heaviness of the journey with Ba making what might be a final trip to the country she had to flee as a much younger woman to confront the truth of her husband’s death add melancholy to this story but are handled well. Lai expertly balances all of these nebulous feelings to create a story that focuses on resolution and progress rather than leaving any character stagnant. Mai navigating being decidedly out of her comfort zone as well as a potential friend who would much rather talk to her frogs than to Mai add levity and humor to the plot.

Mai’s explortation of Vietnam and tentative new connections with both family and her prickly friend contrast with Mai’s efforts to keep in touch with her American (presumed white) friends. Feeling isolated and left out from summer adventures back in California, Mai begins to wonder if having to make herself smaller and deny keys parts of herself–like being Vietnamese–are things she should have to do to keep up any friendship.

Listen, Slowly is a beautiful middle grade novel that blends a coming of age story with a travelogue as Mai and her grandmother explore Vietnam, reconnect with relatives and, for Mai, with her heritage.

Possible Pairings: Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm, Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly, Dumpling Days by Grace Lin, Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh, Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia, Front Desk by Kelly Yang

The Last Graduate: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things: A Review

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya PrasadFour sisters, four seasons, four romances as Nidhi, Avani, Rani, and Sirisha Singh find love at their family home, The Songbird Inn, which just happens to be the Most Romantic Inn in America.

As the oldest, Nidhi is always the sister with a plan. That is until autumn crashes onto Orcas Island with a sudden storm that brings a tree crashing through Nidhi’s bedroom wall. Once Nidhi starts thinking about what could have happened, she can’t stop wondering if her perfect plan to study baking in France before starting college is perfectly wrong. Getting to know Grayson–one of the construction crew fixing the storm damage–brings even more doubts as Nidhi starts to imagine a future where she lets herself live in the moment and maybe even discover India for herself instead of only hearing stories about it in family stories.

Avani knows that she can seem scattered and flighty–especially to perfect Nidhi–but the truth is if she stops moving she thinks the grief over Pop’s sudden death last year might overwhelm her. Pop was more than their dad’s husband, he was part of what made the inn and their family so special. So when it’s time for the first winter without him, Avani knows she has to throw the perfect Winter Ball in his honor. Except planning a giant party requires a lot of attention to detail. And a lot of help. Which is how Avani ends up working with Fernando Gutiérrez, the boy she accidentally stood up and has been avoiding ever since.

Painfully shy, Sirisha has always been more comfortable hiding behind a camera and letting her older sisters fill in the silence. But when a cute actress named Brie shows up at the Songbird with a seasonal theater troupe in the spring, Sirisha thinks it might be a sign to make some changes and finally speak up for herself. If only everyone would give her time to find the right words.

Rani loves all things love. Which is why it has been so frustrating watching all of her sisters–even her twin Avani!–find love while she languishes alone. Helping her father plan his next wedding is the perfect preparation for Rani’s own shot at love. But what happens when summer comes to the Pacific Northwest bringing not one but three potential suitors? After acting as the official love guru to all of her sisters, Rani will have to follow her heart if she wants to find her own Bollywood-worthy ending in Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things (2022) by Maya Prasad.

Find it on Bookshop.

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things is Prasad’s debut novel. Set over the course of the year, the story is broken up by season–complete with a wealth of seasonal touches and locales–with a close third person narration following each sister on her own personal and romantic journey.

The Singh family is North Indian and cued as Hindu with love interests who are from a variety of backgrounds including Mexican American Fernando, Black Brie, and more. I especially appreciate the care Prasad takes with the girls’ father–a man who immigrated with his wife (their mother) from India, met Pop–a white man–while opening the Songbird, and has his own journey both in love with Pakistani Amir and with his family including relatives who were slow to accept his second marriage to a man.

Through the different relationships this book explores first love, second chances, missed connections, and what it means when feelings change and grow. With lots of humor and a coterie of popular tropes Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things has a romance for everyone while highlighting the empowerment the genre offers despite the ways that it is often dismissed by mainstream media as “fluffy” or “silly.” Emotional arcs including grief over Pop’s sudden death and reconciliation with estranged relatives contrast well with humorous meet-cutes and other shenanigans the Singhs encounter throughout the year.

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things is a joyful story about family, romance, and finding yourself–whoever that may be. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, We Are Inevitable by Gayle Forman, What I Like About You by Marisa Kanter, Seoulmates by Susan Lee, Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, The Perfect Escape by Suzanne Park, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi, Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Maya Prasad here on the blog.

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

Henry Hamlet’s Heart: A Review

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

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

Until they kiss.

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds, 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

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*