Lobizona: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Lobizona by Romina GarberManuela “Manu” Azul has always been told that her father is part of an infamous criminal family in Agentina. She has always been told her strange eyes with their star-shaped pupils, could be fixed with a special surgery. She has always been told that hiding is the only way to stay safe.

None of these things are true.

Manu’s small world as an undocumented immigrant is blown apart when her mother is detained by ICE. After years of dodging raids and hiding with her mother in Miami, Manu doesn’t know what would be worse: leaving her mother in ICE detention or being caught herself.

Plague by debilitating menstrual pains without medication provided by her mother and terrified that she’ll be separated from her mother forever, Manu knows she has to do something. But she isn’t sure how one girl can stand strong with so many obstacles in her way.

Manu’s quest to find her mother leads to surprising truths about her father, her strange eyes, and Manu’s powerful connection to a world she thought only existed in Argentine folklore in Lobizona (2020) by Romina Garber.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lobizona is the first book in Garber’s Wolves of No World series. She has also published the Zodiac series under the name Romina Russell. All characters are Latinx or Argentine with a range of skintones and other identities that are further explored throughout the series.

Garber expertly blends Argentine folklore surrounding witches, werewolves, and the powerful magic of so-called “Septimus” the seventh children of seventh children into a nuanced and enchanting urban fantasy. Complex magic and highly evocative settings draw readers immediately into a story where magical powers are no guarantee of belonging and secrets have power.

As Manu struggles to find a world willing to make space for her, Lobizona offers a scathing commentary on our own world where children are left in cages and the government can callously decide who does and does not belong or qualify as “legal”. Manu thoughtfully interrogates these concepts as she learns more about the world of the Septimos and her own tenuous place in it.

Lobizona is the action-packed start to a sophisticated, high concept series for genre and literary fans alike. Come for the timely look at current events, stay for the inventive folklore inspired fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Labryinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laeken Zea Kemp, Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag, Infinity Son by Adam Silvera, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Rachel Gilliland Vasquez

Ferryman: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Ferryman by Claire McFallWhen Scottish teenager Dylan boards a train from Glasgow to Aberdeen to meet her estranged father for the first time in years she is certain that the momentous trip will change everything. What she won’t realize until later is that instead of meeting her father she will never complete her journey–dying when her train crashes.

Except Dylan wakes up inside her train car, alone and in the dark after the crash, where “Her imagination filled in the blanks, packing the route through the carriage with upturned seats, luggage, broken glass from the windows, and squishy, slick things that were solidifying in her mind’s eye into limbs and torsos.” Outside of the wreckage there is no sign of  disaster recovery; all Dylan sees is a solitary, sandy-haired teenage boy watching her.

It’s clear that something is different about this cobalt eyed boy who does not “stand or even smile when he [sees] her looking at him” and “just continue[s] to stare.” The only two people in an isolated area, Dylan reluctantly agrees to follow Tristan across the unwelcoming landscape away from the wreckage. Along the way Dylan begins to realize that she is not trekking across the Scottish highlands with a startlingly attractive teenage boy–the kind who always “made her nervous” because “they seemed so cool and confident, and she always ended up getting tongue-tied and feeling like a total freak.”

Dylan is dead, traveling through the aptly named wasteland alongside Tristan, her personal ferryman.

As a ferryman Tristan “guide[s] souls across the wasteland and protect[s] them from the demons” keen to devour new and pure souls like Dylan’s. Along the way he also “break[s] the truth to them, then deliver[s] them to wherever they’re going.” Tristan has shepherded more souls than he can count across the wasteland, a task that has become increasingly transactional as his journeys blend together into goodbyes. “Each soul that waved goodbye at the end of the journey had taken a small piece of him with them, torn off a tiny piece of his heart. After a while, he had hardened.” As he reminds Dylan, everyone has to cross the wasteland which he describes as “Their own personal wilderness. It’s a place to discover the truth that you have died and come to terms with it.”

The wasteland is not a place to make friends or fall in love. But as they learn more about each other, and themselves, Dylan and Tristan realize they are not prepared to admit that reaching the end of their path will also mean their inevitable separation as Dylan goes where Tristan cannot follow in Ferryman (2021) by Claire McFall.

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First published in the UK in 2013 and nominated for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, McFall’s acclaimed debut novel Ferryman has made its way to the US with the rest of the trilogy, Trespassers and Outcasts, slated to follow. A movie adaptation is also in the works. All characters are cued as white in this series with world building loosely inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Charon.

With a heavy focus on the drudgery of walking through the wasteland, McFall is slow to unpack Dylan and Tristan’s mutual attraction although both characters find something they lack in the other.

In spite of himself Tristan appreciates Dylan’s unique perspective and unexpected kindnesses to him when “Most souls, when they discovered what had happened to them, were too absorbed in their own sorrow and self-pity to show much interest in this road between the real world and the end” much less in the ferryman guiding them through it. After countless years changing himself to appear to “look appealing” and trustworthy to each of his souls, Tristan is shocked to have the space to define himself as more than his role as a ferryman and whatever the souls in his charge choose to project onto him.

Dylan, meanwhile, is used to feeling the limits of her agency as a teenage girl who is constantly concerned with doing and saying the right thing. “She was the shy, serious student. Quiet, diligent, but not particularly clever. All of her successes had to be earned through hard work, which was easy when you had no friends.” But in Tristan Dylan finally finds the appreciation she had previously lacked with Tristan who sees Dylan as “a soul worth protecting. A soul worth caring about. A soul that he wanted to give a piece of himself to.”

Although Tristan initially acknowledges some of the unequal power dynamics at play between himself–an ageless, supernatural being–and Dylan–a seemingly ordinary girl despite the high caliber of her soul–this aspect of the plot is never fully explored. Tristan’s initial hesitation since “as her protector, he would be taking advantage of her vulnerability if he acted on his feelings” shifts quickly to a heartfelt confession and both struggling with their looming separation.

With their slog through the wasteland and unspoken longing taking up much of the plot, Ferryman is slow to build to its dramatic conclusion. The novel’s final act offers tantalizing glimpses of world building surrounding what comes beyond the wasteland and what it will mean for both Dylan and Tristan. Readers new to this series will be excited to see these aspects more fully explored in later installments.

Possible Pairings: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, You Are the Everything by Karen Rivers, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde

An Emotion of Great Delight: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh MafiShadi means full of joy in Persian but Shadi’s life is filled with personal sorrows. Her brother Mehdi is dead–killed in a car accident. Her father is probably dying in the hospital after his second heart attack; Shadi privately thinks he is getting exactly what he deserves while her mother and older sister Shayda do everything they can to take care of him.

Shadi used to find refuge with her best friend, Zahra. But Zahra has dropped her. The way everyone seems to now.

Shadi knows there are bigger problems in the world. It’s 2003. Neighbors look at her askance because of her hijab. The United States has officially declared war on Iraq. The Muslim community is reeling from news of undercover FBI agents infiltrating local mosques.

But Shadi’s brother is still dead. Her best friend still hates her. She still misses the life she had before.

When it seems like nothing can ever get better, Shadi wonders if she’s found the way her story ends. Until Zahra’s older brother, Ali, makes an overture to renew their friendship. And maybe start a tentative romance.

Trapped in a morass of grief and isolation, Shadi will have to reclaim her right to happiness and peace if she wants to move forward in An Emotion of Great Delight (2021) by Tahereh Mafi.

Find it on Bookshop.

Mafi’s latest novel reads like a time capsule cracked open, immediately drawing readers into Shadi’s life. This quiet story offers an introspective look at Shadi’s experiences as an Iranian American teen in 2003 where her personal dramas play out against the larger backdrop of world events impacting the Muslim community.

Flashbacks to life before Mehdi’s death cast Shadi’s present isolation in stark relief as she hits bottom and slowly begins to realize she has to let go of her anger and grief before it eats her alive.

An Emotion of Great Delight is a sparse story filled with lyrical prose, pathos, and ultimately optimism; a visceral read that cements Mafi’s place in the YA canon.

Possible Pairings: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Tamar Budhos, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Yolk by Mary HK Choi, All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, My Heart Underwater by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo, The Love and Lies of Rukshana Ali by Sabina Khan

The Splendor: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Splendor by Breeana ShieldsEveryone says The Splendor can give you things you don’t even know you want. The glamorous hotel is the stuff of dreams; offering decadent meals, lavish rooms, and everything a person could want.

People come back from the hotel changed. But Juliette doesn’t understand what that means until her sister, Clare, spends a week at The Splendor. Clare is different when she comes back. Distant and cruel where she had previously been attentive and kind. Juliette isn’t sure who she is without her sister’s love, with her sister little better than a stranger.

Desperate to understand what went wrong inside the hotel’s gilded walls, Juliette steals their savings to go to The Splendor herself. It’s easy to fall for everything The Splendor offers its guests even as Juliette searches for answers. Drawn to the young illusionist at the center of the hotel’s magic, Juliette begins to realize there’s more to the hotel and its staff than meets the eye.

Henri helps make The Splendor what it is, offering every guest a Signature Experience tailored to their every want. But all Juliette wants is for Clare to be who she was before she ever went to the hotel. As Henri learns more about Juliette he realizes that giving her what she wants will be even harder when he’s the one responsible for everything that’s gone wrong in The Splendor (2021) by Breeana Shields.

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The Splendor is a standalone fantasy novel. The story alternates close third person point of view between Juliette and Henri. The main characters are assumed white.

Shields throws readers right into the story with little introduction to the world or the magic that makes the hotel possible. While this creates immediate drama and action, it offers little in the way of clarification for the related magic system.

The cautious beginnings of romance between Juliette and Henri plays out sweetly alongside questions what is really needed to earn true loyalty or honesty–things Juliette and Henri will need in large supply before their story is over. Both protagonists are uncertain if they can trust the other with their hearts (or their secrets) adding tension to their chemistry and near immediate attraction.

The Splendor is a fast-paced and romantic adventure sure to sweep readers away.

Possible Pairings: Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Belle Époque by Elizabeth Ross, Hotel Ruby by Suzanne Young

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

Light From Uncommon Stars: A Review

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka AokiShizuka Satomi has spent years building up her reputation as the Queen of Hell. It’s a name fitting for someone with her reputation of building up violin prodigies–more fitting than most people realize.

Shizuka made a deal with the devil forty-nine years ago. Now, if she wants to keep her own soul–and her own prodigious success–she has to deliver seven souls. With six delivered and one soul left, Shizuka should feel secure. But she doesn’t. She wants her last soul to belong to someone special. Someone she’s been struggling to find for years already.

Katrina Nguyen is a transgender runaway with no one to turn to. She has her hormones, her laptop, and her violin and she knows no matter how bad things get she can survive if she has those things. When Shizuka offers to help life Katrina lift her up, it seems too good to be true. As Katrina comes closer to Shizuka’s secrets she realizes how true her initial doubts really are.

From a donut shop on a highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Lan Tran is slowly drawn into this Faustian drama. A retired starship captain with four children to support and protect, Lan has her own priorities. She wants to keep a low profile at Starrgate Donuts for herself and her family. Which is why her blossoming crush on Shizuka is so inconvenient–especially when Lan realizes it might be mutual.

As Shizuka, Katrina, and Lan are drawn into each others’ lives, the three women begin to realize that in order to overcome their separate challenges they might just need each other in Light From Uncommon Stars (2021) by Ryka Aoki.

Find it on Bookshop.

Light From Uncommon Stars is a blend of sci-fi and fantasy elements in a contemporary California setting. The close third person narration shifts between Shizuka, Katrina, Lan, and other pivotal characters.

Aoki expertly blends these seemingly disparate elements into a seamless story filled with heart and hope even as Katrina, particularly, deals with rejection, hate, and sexual assault. Katrina also spends part of the novel as a sex worker while she tries to survive on the streets–an element that is handled thoughtfully but is still, understandably, heavy.

This evocative novel is imbued with a strong love of music and filled with delicious food descriptions. Light From Uncommon Stars is a sprawling story of redemption and connection. Recommended for readers looking for a novel that defies both expectations and genre classifications.

Possible Pairings: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu, Gideon the Ninth by Tamysn Muir, Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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

Charming As a Verb: A Review

All kids are charming as an adjective. Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger has always been charming as a verb.

It’s a skill that has served him well as he smiles and Smiles his way through his various hustles on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Henri is a straight A student on scholarship at the elite FATE academy where he manages to keep up with his affluent friends and stay on top of academics. He is also, secretly, the owner (and sole dog walker) at Uptown Updogs.

As the child of Haitian immigrants, Henri is used to facing a lot of pressure. His father works as the superintendant of their building, his mother is close to becoming a firefighter after leaving her career as a paralegal. Henri himself is, hopefully, on his way to Columbia University–the dream he and his father have been chasing for as long as Henri can remember.

Everything seems to be falling into place until two obstacles land in Henri’s path. First, his alumni interview at Columbia does not go well making him question his eventual acceptance which had previously seemed inevitable after all of his hard work. Then Corinne Troy, his classmate and neighbor, threatens to blow Henri’s dog walking hustle apart. In exchange for keeping his secret, Corinne demands that Henri help her loosen up before own Ivy League dreams are ruined by a recommendation pointing out her “intensity.”

Henri reluctantly agrees only to realize that Corinne might actually be kind of fun. And cute. As he and Corinne grow closer, Henri grows more frantic to ensure his acceptance at Columbia. After working so hard, for so long, Henri is pretty sure he’ll do anything it takes to get in. What he didn’t count on is the people he might hurt along the way in Charming As a Verb (2020) by Ben Philippe.

Find it on Bookshop.

Charming As a Verb is, for lack of a better word, a charming story. Henri is just the right blend of calculating, sympathetic, and totally oblivious as he navigates the challenges of senior year and the college application process–not to mention his confusing feelings for Corinne, the one girl he can’t seem to charm with an easy Smile. Henri makes a lot of bad choices along the way (reader, I screamed at him while reading) but those decisions make his growth by the end of the story all the more satisfying.

While Henri is the linchpin holding this novel together, the supporting cast and evocative New York settings really make the story shine. Henri’s best friend Ming, a Chinese student adopted by Jewish parents, offers a contrast to Henri’s scrimping and saving while also providing rock solid support for Henri throughout his questionable decisions. It’s rare to find male friendship depicted so purely and it’s great to see. The fellow members of the debate team (and the debate competitions themselves) also add a lot of humor to the story while showcasing more of life at FATE Academy.

Henri’s complicated relationship with his family–especially his father whose Columbia dreams have shaped so much of Henri’s life thus far–is handled beautifully in this story as all of the Haltiwangers find their ways back to each other by the end of the story in a final act filled with hard conversations and a lot of love.

Charming As a Verb delivers on all fronts, cementing Ben Philippe as a go-to author for characters who are as sardonic as they are endearing. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Admission by Julie Buxbaum, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forrest, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, Again Again by E. Lockhart, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

It Sounded Better In My Head: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina KenwoodNatalie isn’t sure if she should be madder that her parents waited until Christmas to announce their divorce–months after they reached the decision–or that neither of them seem to be that upset about it. Where’s the fighting?

Even venting about the whole thing to her best friends, Zach and Lucy, is awkward now that they’ve become a couple. Natalie should have seen it coming. Objectively, the signs were all there. But she also always thought she and Zach would be the ones to end up together. If Natalie had just managed to be brave and say the right thing for once in her life.

That never happens to Natalie. She used to be able to blame things like that on her cystic acne and her relatedly low self-confidence. Now that her skin is clear, her life hasn’t suddenly become the one she’s always imagined. She’s still single, still a third wheel, and still very awkward most of the time.

Natalie is used to being uncomfortable in her own skin–and in most other places as well, if she’s being honest. So she’s as confused as anyone when Zach’s hot older brother Alex starts paying attention to her, and talking to her, and maybe kissing her. After years of doing everything she can to disappear, Natalie has to decide if she’s ready for someone to finally see all of her in It Sounded Better in My Head (2020) by Nina Kenwood.

Find it on Bookshop.

It Sounded Better in My Head is Kenwood’s debut novel. It was a finalist for the 2021 Morris Award. All characters are presumed white.

A conversational narrative voice makes it clear that Natalie still bears scars from her acne–both literal and figurative–after being defined for so long by the thing that shattered her self-esteem. Natalie’s first-person narration also amplifies her confusion and stress navigating attention from Alex after years of knowing him only as her best friend’s cool older brother.

Natalie’s self-deprecating humor and wry observations make her anxiety bearable combining levity and pathos in one story. Set in Melbourne this character-driven plot plays out during the end of Natalie’s senior year in high school as she (and friends Zach and Lucy) try to decide what comes next. The trio’s focus on college admissions contrasts well with Alex’s efforts to become an apprentice chef.

It Sounded Better in My Head is a truly funny novel with a truly clever narrator. Ideal for readers looking for a contemporary novel that is both sweet and genuine. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Past Perfect by Leila Sales, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

Allergic: A Graphic Novel Review

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated Michelle Mee Nutter
Maggie has been feeling like the odd one out at home for a while. Her parents are busy getting ready for the new baby. Her younger brothers are twins and always speaking their own language. Literally. Maggie hasn’t had anything just for her for a while.

Which is why getting a puppy for her tenth birthday is the best gift ever.

But there’s one problem: Maggie breaks out in hives the minute she tries to choose her new dog.

Turns out Maggie is allergie to anything with fur. With her pet options severely limited Maggie will have to get creative if she wants to find the perfect pet in Allergic (2021) by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated Michelle Mee Nutter.

Find it on Bookshop.

Allergic is a really fun, full color graphic novel. Maggie’s father is depicted as white while her mother is darker skinned.

This story packs a lot into a slim volume. It’s sure to appeal to fans of contemporary graphic novels. Maggie struggles to come to terms with her allergies–and the numerous shot treatments she needs for them–while letting go of her idea of the perfect pet.

At the same time, Maggie makes new friends with a boy at school who has food allergies helping her put her own situation in perspective as something that just happens sometimes. She also befriends new neighbor Claire who is a grad ahead at school and tries to support Maggie on her pet search. While the girls have some growing pains with jealousy and related arguments, their friendship is back on solid ground by the end of the story.

Allergic is a relatable, funny story perfect for readers who enjoy slice-of-life comics and animals–with or without fur.

Possible Pairings: Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker, Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Amber & Clay: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia IredaleThe god Hermes draws readers into “the tale of a girl as precious as amber, / the tale of a boy as common as clay” as he introduces Melisto, a pampered girl in Athens, and Rhaskos, a Thracian slave in Amber & Clay (2021) by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale. Find it on Bookshop.

Although close in age, the two “weren’t alike, but they fit together, / like lock and key.” In normal circumstances, they would never meet, but what is ever normal when the gods are watching?

Their stories begin when both are young children. In segments of verse, Rhaskos remembers his early years as a slave up to the night his mother tattoos him in the Thracian tradition, only to be sold before she can explain the markings to him. Renamed Thratta, Rhaskos’ mother joins Melisto’s household, where she is meant to tend the little girl and ease some of the child’s wildness.

While Rhaskos misses his mother and treasures small moments of beauty observing the horses in his master’s stables in Thessaly, Melisto has her own struggles in Athens. Her mother resents Melisto’s disobedience and willfulness. She also fears that she will “crack her skull / or black her eye, or shake her / so hard” that she will break her daughter’s neck.

Rhaskos’ lyrical, carefully structured blank verse provides contrast with Melisto’s prose passages as the story weaves in voices from Hermes and Hephaistos to Athena and Artemis, among other members of the Greek pantheon. A comprehensive author’s note explains the creative choices Laura Amy Schlitz made in drawing from Greek history and embracing the strophe-antistrophe technique common in Greek plays — as seen in the “Turn and Counterturn” poems, where two characters share their different perspectives on parts of the plot. The book also includes a helpful cast of characters at the beginning.

Archaeological images (illustrated by Julia Iredale) and exhibit-style captions add further dimension to this sprawling narrative. Artifacts that prove key to the story include an “unusually fine” amber gold necklace “found on the Athenian Akropolis, near the ruins of the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia”; Rhaskos’ first pottery casting; and others.

Everything changes for both children when Melisto is called on to serve as a Little Bear at the Sanctuary of Artemis in Brauron. As Hermes explains: “My point is: little is known. / What was meant to be a mystery / is still a mystery. / Except we’re going to lift the veil a little, / and peek. We’ll see Brauron / through Melisto’s eyes— / Melisto’s going to Brauron, / to serve as a Little Bear.”

At the sanctuary, Melisto enjoys unprecedented freedom, allowing her to explore nature, indulge her wildness, and finally thrive as she begins tending a bear cub reserved for a future sacrifice to honor Artemis. Back in Thessaly, Rhaskos’ world becomes even smaller under his abusive new master, Menon, inspiring Hephaistos, the god of fire, metalworking, and masonry, to form a plan to intervene on Rhaskos’ behalf to “send my boy to Athens / and wrest him away from Menon.”

While Melisto decides to honor what she knows is right at Brauron despite Artemis’ supposed wishes, and Rhaskos dreams of a life where he is free and able to make art, events are set in motion that will put the pair on a life-changing, utterly unexpected collision course.

Schlitz’s ambitious standalone middle-grade story is meticulously researched and brings ancient Greece to life as Hermes instructs readers on the country’s proper name (“Don’t call it Greece”), and Rhaskos is shown Athenian attractions like the Trojan Horse and the Akropolis, where “the stones of the temples were bathed in gold” for the first time.

What begins as a story about a spoiled girl and a common boy becomes, in the author’s capable hands, a much larger commentary on art, friendship, and identity as we watch Melisto and Rhaskos transform, becoming “the girl as electric as amber, the boy, indestructible as clay.”

Possible Pairings: The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, Stone River Crossing by Tim Tingle

Don’t Date Rosa Santos: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Demand more of your possibilities.”

Don't Date Rosa Santos by Nina MorenoEveryone knows that the Santos women don’t go near the water. Not anymore. Rosa Santos knows that better than anyone. After her grandfather died to make sure Rosa’s pregnant grandmother made it to Florida, and after her own father died at sea when her mother was eighteen and pregnant, Rosa knows that the Santos women and boys on boats don’t mix.

Despite her grandmother’s bad memories, Rosa is desperate to visit Cuba herself. Something she thought she had finally figured out with a dual enrollment program at her local community college and a study abroad program at a four year university.

Just when Rosa can start to imagine herself walking along the maricon in Havana, the study abroad program is cancelled leaving all of Rosa’s plans up in the air. Which is how Rosa, the girl who has never set foot near Port Coral’s beach finds herself organizing the annual spring festival to try and save the local marina.

Rosa’s reluctant helper is Alex Aquino whose family owns the marina. Back in town for the first time since graduation, Alex is not the gawky boy Rosa remembers. This Alex has tattoos, a beard, and a smile that just might be lethal. He also has baking skills and, worst of all, his own boat.

As Rosa and Alex grow closer, Rosa has to decide if a family curse is a good enough reason to give up on all of the things she wants most in Don’t Date Rosa Santos (2019) by Nina Moreno.

Find it on Bookshop.

Don’t Date Rosa Santos is Moreno’s debut novel. Through Rosa’s narration readers are introduced to the charming town of Port Coral, Florida and its quirky residents.

While the main plot focuses on Rosa’s efforts to save the Port Coral marina, this is a story about grief and family history. Rosa has grown up with her grandmother, Mimi, learning Mimi’s tricks when it comes to brujeria and making a home for herself in Port Coral. Meanwhile, Rosa’s mother is a wandering artist who hasn’t felt at home in Port Coral since her teens when Rosa’s father died. All three generations of women have been touched by tragedy–a linking thread that drives the family further apart instead of drawing them together.

These ruminations on grief are tempered with the madcap preparations for the festival and Rosa’s tentative romance with Alex–one of the best male leads you’ll find in a YA rom com–and Rosa’s efforts to try and understand her own family’s history both in Port Coral and in Cuba.

Don’t Date Rosa Santos is a perfect blend of the setting from Gilmore Girls, the magic in Practical Magic, and just a hint of the strong family ties in Charmed. The perfect choice for readers looking for a sweet romance with humor and intrigue in equal measure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, By the Book by Amanda Sellet, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar