Ophelia After All: A Review

Ophelia Rojas knows who she is: a girl who’s all about Cuban food, supporting her best friends, and her roses–both the ones she grows in her garden and the ones that embellish almost every piece of clothing she owns.

Ophelia has a reputation for one other thing: her numerous crushes on way too many boys. Ophelia gets a little tired of all the teasing sometimes but she is who she is.

Except when Talia Sanchez shows up at school, Ophelia realizes she might not know who she is quite as well as she thought. With high school ending, friendships changing, and a new crush that is totally off script, it feels like everything is up in the air. Now Ophelia has to decide if she can stay true to this new version of herself while holding onto the things and people she cares about in Ophelia After All (2022) by Raquel Marie.

Find it on Bookshop.

Ophelia After All is a standalone contemporary and Marie’s debut novel. Ophelia’s is biracial-Cuban on her mother’s side and white on her father’s leading to some thoughtful observations on racial stereotypes, microaggressions, and colorism. There’s a lot of diversity among the supporting cast including characters across the LGBT spectrum.

Ophelia’s narration is funny and thoughtful as she navigates her senior year of high school and the growing understanding that she might be bisexual–or something else she hasn’t learned the name of yet. With support from new friends like Wesley, Ophelia realizes that sexuality, like most things about a person’s identity, can be fluid and changeable. By the end of the story, Ophelia (and readers) also see that the queer community is open to all even if you’re still figuring things out.

With a crush that doesn’t go to plan and the bittersweet understanding that not all friendships are meant to last, Ophelia After All is a hopeful story about about endings and new beginnings.

Possible Pairings: The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel by Moe Bonneau, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju, All the Invisible Things by Orlagh Collins, The One True Me and You by Remi K. England, The Year I Stopped Trying by Kate Heaney, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve

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*

The First Thing About You: A WIRoB Review

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

The First Thing About You by Chaz Hayden

Moving from California to New Jersey is a great chance for 15-year-old Harris Jacobus to reinvent himself. After growing up surrounded by inaccessible beaches and being defined by his wheelchair, he’s ready for some more traditional high-school experiences. Having spinal muscular atrophy means he’ll never be able to do some things the way other people do, but it doesn’t mean he can’t use this move to try to become more popular, go to parties, and maybe find a girlfriend.

Honestly, he’d settle for finding any real friends.

Unfortunately, using a wheelchair in a school that’s supposedly accessible is still hard. And working with the school on an individualized plan for his disability is met with resistance; a lot of people need to understand that “inclusivity was not making someone feel uncomfortable for the enrichment of others.”

Instead of finding a cool crowd, Harris finds himself sitting at the loser table with Zander, a freshman who turns to “Mean Girls” for wisdom since the film “provides all the answers to our adolescent questions. How do I determine the cliques? What will it take to become popular? When do I wear pink? You see, it’s not just a movie, but a guide for the weak and afraid. Not to mention a great resource for devastating comebacks.”

Then there’s Nory, the cute girl who refreshingly treats Harris like any other guy who blocks her locker or flirts badly. (In his defense, have you ever tried to flirt while your mom — saying she’s your executive assistant — accompanies you to school?)

Harris has a foolproof strategy for gauging whether he’ll get along with someone: Ask their favorite color. “I thought about colors a lot, actually,” he explains. “Especially when I was about to meet anyone new. It was always the first question I asked them. A person’s favorite color says a lot about who they are.”

A blue himself, Harris knows that greens and purples are too close on the color wheel to make good friends, while yellows like Zander can encourage a more outgoing nature. But Nory won’t tell Harris her favorite color, leaving him unsure if it’s worth pursuing her.

After struggling to find a nurse young enough to blend in around school (and that insurance will cover), Harris’ family hires Miranda, a nursing student as eager for the work experience as she is to help Harris on his mission of reinvention. She seems perfect. Her favorite colors are orange and red, and she even graduated from Harris’ new school.

With Miranda’s help, Harris figures out how to flirt with Nory, starts sitting with the popular kids, and even gets invited to his first party. But as she pushes him to try newer, riskier things, it becomes clear that having complementary favorite colors might not be enough for a lasting relationship in The First Thing About You (2022) by Chaz Hayden.

Find it on Bookshop.

Hayden channels his own experiences growing up with spinal muscular atrophy into this contemporary debut. Harris’s wry, matter-of-fact narration clearly outlines how Harris navigates the world with his disability including daily nebulizer treatments to clear his lungs, using a laptop to complete all of his classwork, and how he eats: “My disability makes it difficult for me to life my arms and feed myself. Even small things like a piece of cereal or a plastic spoon pose a challenge. I used to have the muscles to eat independently, but over time I’ve lost them.”

This narrative lens hints at how the rest of the Jacobus family adjusts to the move, with Harris’ father balancing a big promotion with a long commute, and his mother taking on more work than ever before as Harris’ de facto nurse both at home and (later in the story) at school. Meanwhile, Harris’ older brother, Ollie, is trying to fit in at his own new school, where his lacrosse teammates resent his rising-star status and his willingness to speak out against their ableist comments.

As Harris learns more about Miranda and her history — which includes the death of a close friend and an abusive relationship — he begins to realize that growing closer to her might mean losing his friendships with Nory and Zander. It’s a loss he must weigh against Miranda’s ability to pull him out of his shell and toward the kinds of encounters he thinks he wants.

While Hayden teases out the complicated dynamic between these two characters, the questionable nature of Miranda’s behavior as an adult working with a teen — she not only encourages Harris to take risks but fosters an inappropriate bond between them, such as when she climbs into his bed after he gets sick — is never fully addressed.

Despite this plot hole, The First Thing About You presents a well-rounded story about first love, friendship, and high school with disability representation that will serve as a much needed window (or mirror) for all readers.

Seton Girls: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Seton Girls by Charlene ThomasSeton Academic High is an elite prep school with an affluent and mostly white student body. With numerous teams, extracurriculars, and a student paper with thousands of subscribers, Seton is best known for its Varsity (always capitalized) football team. And with good reason. The team has been on a winning streak for twelve years–undefeated in every game leading up to the state playoffs.

Sixteen-year-old Aly Jacobs has always felt special being a part of Seton which was never a given for her the way it is for some of Seton’s legacy students. Aly and her boyfriend J already stand out as some of the only Black students–especially ones being bussed into Seton from a poorer neighborhood. Aly has always felt the pinch, keenly aware that she lacks the disposable cash to keep up with her classmates; knowing that she and J will never live closer enough to Seton to be true insiders on all of the inside jokes and routines because “it’s hard when you live an hour away, and you don’t have a car, and you don’t have twenty dollars in spare change for a pastry, and you can’t be at the coffee shop or the moves or the Galeria for pictures like these.” But every long commute, every missed hangout will be worth it because a Seton education is the first step to opportunity.

Aly deals with imposter syndrome as a junior editing the school paper while J is already getting attention as the next Varsity quarterback. Will J be able to keep the team’s undefeated streak alive? Will he take Varsity to new levels as the first Black quarterback in the school’s history? No one knows yet. Either way Parker Adams–the younger brother of the now legendary Cooper Adams who started Seton’s streak all those years ago–plans to make his own mark first.

Parker’s dream of eclipsing his brother takes a darker turn when the schoolyear starts with rumors that Parker hooked up with Britt MacDougal–his longtime girlfriend Michelle Rodriguez’s best friend–over the summer. As the school’s most popular clique fractures everything students thought they knew about Seton begins to erode. Aly learns more about Seton’s history as she befriends social outcast Britt. As their bonds deepen Aly questions the importance of Seton’s traditions and history and if her own legacy will be helping to perpetuate Seton’s privilege or speaking out against its insidious past in Seton Girls (2022) by Charlene Thomas.

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Thomas’ debut novel lays out “What it is.” in chapters of the same name with Aly’s first person narration beginning in August 2019 at the start of Aly’s junior year at Seton alongside flashbacks of “What it was.” where a third person narrator teases out key events that led to the advent and progression of Seton’s infamous winning streak. A prologue from The Seton Story–the paper Aly edits–immediately puts readers on alert as everything that has previously made Seton so great is stripped away with the ominous observation, “If you thought that that made us the lucky ones … You were wrong.” While there is some diversity among the principal cast including Black students Aly, J, and Britt as well as other characters cued as BIPOC based on their surnames, it is clear that Seton is predominantly white and wealthy. This income disparity in particular weighs heavily on Aly who is eager to blend in with the assumed privilege at Seton not wanting anyone to “feel like we’re different.”

Short, fast-paced chapters and prose laden with foreshadow like Parker’s description of Britt as a bomb–“And maybe you meet her and survive it and it’s a miracle that you’ll talk about forever with anyone who’ll listen. Maybe that’s what happens, and it feels like magic. Or maybe the bomb goes off and she destroys you.”–add intensity to this story as both Aly and readers begin to unpack what exactly has made Seton’s varsity team so unbeatable.

True to its title, Seton Girls, keeps the focus squarely on the school’s female student body even as it unpacks the misogyny and sexism that has long been the source of many of Seton’s storied traditions. Aly’s narration is filled with naked longing to be part of Britt’s magical group of girlsfriends, “Britt’s term, so it never, ever gets confused with the less important role of being a girlfriend,” alongside Britt, Michelle and their other friends Bianca Patel and Kelly Donahue. Aly is not alone in her fascination with “the four of them together like this weightless, perfect, intoxicating aura everywhere they go” attracting both objectifying male gazes and envious female ones adding homoerotic subtext to many of Aly’s interactions with Britt and her friends since “those girls are distracting in the most addictive way.”

Subtle characterization illustrates the income disparity between Aly and her classmates in small details like Aly’s obsession with Glad Plugins which “For a while we had to use them, when they were paving the road near our house and it made everything inside smell like tar. That’s over now, but I’m still obsessed.” These sharp observations are often undercut early in the story with Aly’s gushing sentimentality for all things Seton where “Kyle can be drunk ranting on my left and Gina-Melissa can be reciting perfection on my right, and it’s not weird, or ironic, or some wild juxtaposition. It just is. We all just belong here. And it just works.” The impact of the novel’s opening with Aly’s article in The Seton Story about Parker promising to share the truth about Seton is similarly diluted as Aly spends most of the novel debating how best to support Britt before finally delivering on the story we see on page one.

Details surrounding the varsity football team’s success are often mired in specific details of football gameplay including the playoff model change observed by Cooper Adams years ago where the team doesn’t “make it to States anymore just because we have a better regular season record than everyone else. We just need to be good enough to make it to the playoffs.” which might be pull readers out of the otherwise suspenseful backstory. The ultimate payoff for the plot, especially Britt’s character arc, comes in a final act shift that casts the entire story in a different light while highlighting the power of both agency and female solidarity.

Seton Girls is a timely novel adding to the conversation surrounding the #MeToo movement alongside questions of both privilege–especially white male privilege–and consent. As Britt aptly tells Aly “If the door is open but you know you can’t get up and walk out of it that is force. That’s, like, the greatest kind of power that exists. That is corporation-level power. And it’s that kind of power–not the muscles or the dumb boy-tanks they wear–that guys like Parker will tell you isn’t real. And swear they’re not that type. But it’s the realest thing in the world.”

Possible Pairings: One Great Lie by Deb Caletti, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories edited by Janet Gurtler, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman by Kristen R. Lee, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma

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.

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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*

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.

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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*

The Words We Keep: A Review

The Words We Keep by Erin StewartThree months after the Night on the Bathroom Floor, high school junior Lily Larkin feels like her life is falling apart. Because it is.

On the Night on the Bathroom Floor Lily found her older sister Alice hurting herself. Alice hasn’t been home since. And Lily has been struggling to fill all of the Alice-shaped gaps she left behind.

If Lily can do enough at home, get good enough grades at school, make it to State in track, get into UC Berkeley, and keep doing everything right it will all be okay. Her family needs a win and all Lily has to do is keep winning.

Except Lily feels like she’s starting to lose it. She’s uninspired, overwhelmed, and struggling to hide all of it from her family and her friends.

When she’s partnered with a new student who knows all about the Night on the Bathroom Floor, Lily is worried Micah Mendez will reveal all of her family’s secrets. Instead, he might be the one person who can help Lily find her way back to herself in The Words We Keep (2022) by Erin Stewart.

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Lily and her family (and most secondary characters) are presumed white. Micah is Mexican American.

The Words We Keep is Stewart’s second novel and I wish I could recommend but I can’t. Read on for a discussion of some of the issues I had with this book including spoilers:

Continue reading The Words We Keep: A Review

You’ll Be the Death of Me: A Review

You'll Be the Death of Me by Karen M. McManusIvy Sterling-Shepard, Cal O’Shea-Wallace, and Mateo Wojcik were inseparable in middle school after cementing their friendship on the Best Day Ever when they skipped out on a class field trip in Boston to have an adventure of their own. Now in their senior year of high school they barely speak; they all have bigger things to worry about.

Ivy has always been an overachiever. How else can she prove that she can keep up with her legit genius younger brother? How else can she recover from the fallout after his latest, brutal joke? Unfortunately, instead of pulling out a stunning victory at the student council election, Ivy loses. To the class clown. “Boney” Mahoney.

Mateo is too exhausted to worry about what’s going on with his former friends. His family’s business just failed. He’s working two jobs to help out plus school. His mother is rationing her meds for her rheumatoid arthritis because the co-pay is so high. And his cousin Autumn is . . . not making good choices as she tries to help the family struggle along as best she can.

Cal is in love. But he’s also lonely. He has been for a while, if he’s being honest. And being stood up again doesn’t help that at all.

When all three of them arrive at the school parking lot at the same time, late, it feels like a second chance. Maybe they can skip class and recapture whatever it is they lost along the way.

The trio’s attempt to recreate the magic of the Best Day Ever quickly becomes the Worst Day Ever when they follow another classmate to a mysterious meeting. And witness his murder.

Worse, Ivy is soon the prime suspect. Mateo has a dangerous connection to their dead classmate. And Cal is hiding something from everyone–something that could have deadly consequences.

All of them have their own motives for staying together and figuring out what happened. Now they have to figure out if they also have their own motives for murder in You’ll Be the Death of Me (2021) by Karen M. McManus.

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You’ll Be the Death of Me is a perfectly paced mystery set primarily over the course of one frantic day. Chapters alternate between the three main characters Ivy who is white, Cal who is white and has two dads, and Mateo who is Puerto Rican and Polish. Mateo’s cousin Autumn was orphaned as a child and lives with Mateo and his mother. Interludes from other characters add dimension to the story by providing different viewpoints this is otherwise closely focused story.

McManus packs a lot into this story as all three characters are hiding things from each other. These secrets are expertly teased out as the novel progresses and builds to its jaw dropping conclusion. None of the protagonists here are perfect–bad choices are made by all throughout the novel. Both their growth and the novel’s intense readability are testaments to McManus’ considerable talents as an author.

You’ll Be the Death of Me is an utterly engrossing page turner filled with unexpected twists, humor, and unexpectedly compelling friendships (and even some romance). Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, The Best Lies by Sarah Lyu, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund

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

They Wish They Were Us: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Why did the boys have the power? Why did they make the rules while we dealt with the consequences?”

Everything on Gold Coast, Long Island has a shine; a glimmer from expensive, well-made things and the people who can acquire those things so effortlessly.

Watching her parent’s struggle to keep up with their affluent neighbors and to pay her brother’s hefty tuition at Gold Coast Prep, Jill Newman has always known she doesn’t belong among the Gold Coast elite. The pressure she feels to maintain her scholarship and make good on all of her parents’ hard work is constant.

Being a Player is supposed to make it all easier. After a hellish year of hazing from the older members of the Gold Coast Prep secret society, Jill is in. With the Players’ impressive alumni network and not-so-secret app Jill has access to the answers to every test she might encounter at school and contacts to open any doors she wants for college and beyond. Once you get a seat with the Players, you’ll do anything to keep it.

Jill’s best friend Shaila Arnold never made it that far. Three years ago she was killed by her boyfriend, Graham, during the final night of initiation–the night Jill can barely think about. Graham confessed. The case has been closed for years. It’s over and Jill and her other friends have moved on.

Until Graham’s sister tells Jill that his confession was coerced. But if Graham didn’t kill Shaila, who did? As Jill delves deeper into the events leading up to Shaila’s death she’ll unearth old secrets about the Players on her way to the truth. But when you set yourself against a group that can get everything they want, they also have everything to lose in They Wish They Were Us (2020) by Jessica Goodman.

Find it on Bookshop.

They Wish They Were Us is Goodman’s debut novel. A TV adaptation called ‘The Players Table” is in development at HBO Max.

Jill is Jewish and most characters are presumed white aside from Jill’s other best friend Nikki whose family are Hong Kong emigres. Jill’s first person narration is tense as she reluctantly digs into Shaila’s murder while also reluctantly unpacking unpleasant memories from her own initiation into the players.

This plot-drive story tackles a lot while Jill deals with the pressures of her elite school and her complicated feelings about the Players and their hazing. Privilege, wealth, and self-presentation are also big topics as Jill begins to realize she isn’t the only one struggling to keep up appearances at Gold Coast Prep. Toxic masculinity and feminism also play big roles in the story although Goodman’s treatment of both can feel heavy-handed in its service to moving the story along.

Obvious red herrings, salacious twists, and the backdrop of luxe Gold Coast locales make They Wish They Were Us a frothy page turner.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, Admission by Julie Buxbaum, Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, These Vengeful Hearts by Katherine Laurin, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

All Our Hidden Gifts: A (WIRoB) Review

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

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue Unlike her successful and much older siblings, Maeve Chambers has never been known as an exemplary student. While Maeve and her former best friend Lily O’Callaghan both made it out of the slow reading class where they met, school is still a struggle for Maeve. A lot of things are a struggle for her when “sometimes frustration and rage surge through [Maeve], sparking out in ways [she] can’t predict or control.”

Adrift at her Catholic school, St. Bernadette’s, where she struggles to keep up with classwork and make new friends after her estrangement from Lily, Maeve is familiar with detention. “The story of how [Maeve] ended up with the Chokey Card Tarot Consultancy can be told in four detentions, three notes sent home, two bad report cards, and one Tuesday afternoon that ended with [her] locked in a cupboard.” After locating a mysterious deck of tarot cards while cleaning out said cupboard, Maeve discovers an unexpected knack for interpreting the cards for herself and classmates earning a certain notoriety (and some pocket money) as her reputation grows. Every card is easy to learn and understand except for one: The Housekeeper–a card that has no known meaning in any tarot guide Maeve can find.

What starts as a mysterious extra card soon invokes disastrous results when Maeve is goaded into offering a reading to Lily in front of their entire class. The Housekeeper’s appearance leads to harsh words between the former friends before Lily’s sudden disappearance.

Without a clear explanation for what happened to Lily, Maeve knows she’s an obvious person of interest in the case. As she tries to understand what happened to Lily and if it connects to the sudden increased popularity of a local fundamentalist group called the Children of Brigid, Maeve realizes that she, and the Housekeeper card, may have played a bigger role in Lily’s disappearance than she realized.

With help from Lily’s older brother Rory (Roe to those closest to him) and new friend Fiona, Maeve will have to uncover the truth behind the Housekeeper and her own affinity for magic if she wants to bring Lily home. Maeve describes Fiona as having an Irish first name, an English last name (Buttersfield), brown skin from her Filipina mother and limited “patience for other people’s bullshit” as many people try to fit her into various boxes. Most of the rest of the cast is presumed white.

All Our Hidden Gifts is Caroline O’Donoghue’s YA debut and the projected start of a series. Find it on Bookshop.

Black and white illustrations by Stefanie Caponi of different tarot cards–including the infamous Housekeeper–are included throughout the novel. Readers will learn tarot basics along with Maeve as she begins to interpret cards while readers familiar with tarot will recognize key symbology and common card meanings. Readers especially well-versed in tarot might also recognize the cover artwork by Lisa M. Sterle, the artist behind the Modern Witch Tarot deck and guide journal.

O’Donoghue folds many different elements into this often sprawling narrative that tries to unravel the dual mysteries of Lily’s disappearance and the Housekeeper card while also tackling increased intolerance throughout the Irish city of Kilbeg as escalated by the Children of Brigid and their eerily savvy American leader, Aaron. Mysticism and folklore add another layer to this already packed story as one character asserts “every culture you can think of has some version of the White Lady” whether or not she is called the Housekeeper.

Against this larger backdrop, Maeve tries to understand her–and the Housekeeper’s–role in Kilbeg’s unrest while navigating her new friendship with Fiona. Maeve’s fledgling romance with Roe–who sees his pronouns and gender identity as negotiable as he works on expressing his truest self with his chosen name and genderqueer fashion—adds some sweetness to an otherwise grim story trying to find Lily.

Flashbacks to the events leading up to Maeve and Lily’s falling out contrast with the tense present as the story builds to a dramatic conclusion that readers can only hope will be followed with a second book.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell, A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling