Two Can Keep a Secret: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Welcome to life in a small town. You’re only as good as the best thing your family’s done. Or the worst.”

cover art for Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManusWelcome to Echo Ridge, population 4,935. Echo Ridge looks like small town America at its finest. But looks can be deceiving.

Ellery knows about all about the secrets hidden in Echo Ridge because her family is at the heart of them. Her aunt went missing from the town when she was Ellery’s age–sixteen. Five years ago their family was in the news again when a homecoming queen was murdered, her body found at the local Murderland amusement park.

Malcolm wishes he could forget Echo Ridge’s darker side and the role his brother played in the murder five years ago as prime suspect. Declan was never arrested but a small town’s memory is long and he was never cleared either. Even when Malcolm’s mother remarries it isn’t enough to change what the town thinks of his family. Not really.

When Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are sent to live with their grandmother while their mother is in rehab it hardly feels like a fresh start. Instead, Echo Ridge seems to be choked by past tragedies it can’t forget. When another girl–another homecoming queen–goes missing both Ellery and Malcolm will have to explore Echo Ridge’s darkest secrets to uncover the truth and the killer in Two Can Keep a Secret (2019) by Karen M. McManus.

McManus’s latest standalone mystery is a tense exploration of a town with a dark past. The novel alternates between Ellery and Malcolm’s first person narration. This novel capitalizes on the strengths of McManus’s debut novel One of Us is Lying (multiple narrators, tense pacing, conversational and readable prose) without the problematic resolution.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a refreshingly realistic mystery where, although Ellery identifies as a true crime buff and would-be amateur sleuth, she still gets things wrong and still needs help from actual investigators to crack the case.

The contrast between Ellery with her connection to one of the town’s victims and Malcolm with his connection to one of the town’s suspects is striking. Their chemistry and nearly immediate rapport is countered by these preconceived identities that should place them on opposite sides. Instead their friendship is made of stronger stuff with rock solid loyalty and hints of romance that add much-needed levity to an otherwise dark story.

The story’s secondary cast including Ellery’s twin bother Ezra and Declan’s best friend Mia are also welcome additions who flesh out the cast in this short but evocative story.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a taut mystery filled with unexpected turns and surprises that will keep readers guessing right until the last line. Recommended for amateur detectives, mystery lovers, and true crime enthusiasts alike.

Possible Pairings: Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, This is Our Story by Ashley Elston, The Body in the Woods by April Henry, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Amateurs by Sarah Shepard

500 Words or Less: A Review

cover art for 500 Words or Less by Juleah del RosarioWhat happens when your attempt to be a better person might be making you worse?

Nic Chen isn’t going to spend her senior year known only as the girl who cheated on her boyfriend with his best friend. She had enough grief when her mom left under a cloud of scandal. This year isn’t going to be a repeat of that.

To revamp her reputation with her Ivy League obsessed classmates, Nic has a simple plan: she will write college admission essays. For a price.

But as Nic learns more about her classmates, she realizes she still has a lot to learn about herself and her moral compass in 500 Words or Less (2018) by Juleah del Rosario.

500 Words or Less is a shining verse novel with a strikingly original story. Through free verse poems Nic contends with painful memories from her past including when her mother left and her last year in high school that changed everything.

Nic is a flawed character well aware of her own shortcomings both in reality and in the eyes of her peers. She grapples with her identity, both as a biracial teen and an outsider at her school, as she tries to figure out how to embrace all of herself–even the ugly pieces.

500 Words or Less is a unique story whose format works well to emphasize elegant prose and complex characterization. An excellent debut that proves del Rosario is an author to watch. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Supervillain and Me: A Review

No one knows why some people develop super powers and others don’t. The only certainty is that supers fight crime provided much needed aid in a world riddled with violence and danger.

Abby Hamilton knows that supers are the only reason it’s even remotely save in Morriston. She just wishes that the town’s hottest superhero, Red Comet, wasn’t also her incredibly annoying older brother Connor.

Abby made peace with being normal a long time ago. She doesn’t mind. Especially when her real passion is musical theater, anyway. Still, it would sometimes be nice to take center stage in her own family instead of always being overshadowed by Connor’s heroic feats and her father’s job as mayor.

When Morriston’s newest super save Abby from a mugging, she has no idea that he’s Iron Phantom–a dangerous new supervillain. Except according to Iron Phantom himself, he isn’t actually evil. And he isn’t the biggest threat to the city by a long shot in The Supervillain and Me (2018) by Danielle Banas.

The Supervillain and Me is Banas’ debut novel. Although it is a series starter, the story also functions as a standalone.

The Supervillain and Me starts with an incredibly fun premise. Who doesn’t want to read about a world filled with superheroes and a misunderstood supervillain? Unfortunately, the premise is a bit misleading as Abby’s first person narration focuses more on traditional high school antics like auditioning for the school musical than the superhero shenanigans I had hoped for.

The world building is also flat offering little explanation for where Morriston is situated in the world or how supers function aside from local heroes Red Comet and Fish Boy. It’s no exaggeration to say that readers learn more about Abby’s school musical than they do about anything else in this world.

Abby is a smart-talking narrator complete with one note jokes and wise cracks that sometimes read as a bit too sharp. It’s hard to talk about the other characters in the book, or even more of the plot, without also sharing spoilers. The supporting cast includes a lot of fun characters. Unfortunately most of those characters are male. Every active super that readers encounter and, in fact, almost every character aside from Abby and her best friend Sarah, are male. Since superheroes are already often seen as the domain of boys and men, that was especially frustrating.

The Supervillain and Me is a fast-paced read filled with action, witty banter, and some light romance–ideal for readers looking for humor, excitement, and a superhero story told in broad strokes.

Possible Pairings: Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee, Renegades by Marissa Meyer, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

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

My So-Called Bollywood Life: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Winnie Mehta’s future is all planned out. At least it was according to her family’s pandit. According to his star chart readings Winnie would meet the love her life before her eighteenth birthday. His name would start with the letter R and he would give her a silver bracelet.

The signs couldn’t have been clearer that Winnie’s true love was Raj. He meets every qualification.

Until Winnie comes home from a summer at film camp and finds out that Raj decided their break was more of a breakup.

Obviously Winnie is never going to love anyone ever again and the stars are liars.

Winnie can’t even lose herself in film club work at school when Raj ends up stealing her spot as chair of the student film festival.

Suddenly nothing about Winnie’s future is mapped out and her life seems to be taking a dramatic turn from her promised Bollywood style happy ending.

Fellow film geek Dev might be the only one who might understand and be able to help Winnie get back on track. Dev is funny, charming, and helps Winnie try to see beyond her prophecy. But as Winnie starts to fall for Dev she wonders if choosing him means she has to give up on her happy ending in My So-Called Bollywood Life (2018) by Nisha Sharma.

Sharma’s debut YA novel is a zany contemporary romance sure to appeal to movie lovers. Each chapter starts with a snippet of a Bollywood movie review from Winnie’s blog. Back matter at the end of a book gives a rundown of all of the movies mentioned in the story and more.

Winnie is a smart, driven character but she is also prone to melodrama and quick decisions. (The novel opens with Winnie literally burying her past by digging a grave for all of the gifts she gave to her ex-boyfriend in the last three years.) This rash behavior leaves ample room for humor and misunderstandings befitting a book that is partially an ode to Bollywood films.

Winnie’s family speaks Punjabi and Hindi and the combination of cultures and customs imbues Winnie’s life and informs the story as much as her love of Bollywood films. Sweet romance, drama, and action make this novel pure escapist fun at its finest.

My So-Called Bollywood Life is a must read for movie lovers, Bollywood aficionados, and anyone looking for a great high school romance that has as many laughs as it does swoons.

Possible Pairings: I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy by Tiffany Schmidt, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Lucky in Love by Kasie West, Summer of Supernovas by Darcy Woods

Noteworthy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Noteworthy by Riley RedgateJordan Sun is a scholarship student at the prestigious Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Jordan is a junior now and she has never been cast in a school play. Something her mother is quick to remember whenever she wonders if Jordan would be more valuable to the family closer to home where she can work while going to school.

The problem isn’t Jordan’s skill or talent. The problem is that Jordan’s height and deeper voice don’t fit the narrow mold of most female roles.

Jordan can’t change either of those things. But in a moment of desperation she realizes that she can use them by auditioning for The Sharpshooters–one of the school’s a cappella groups. The only problem is she’ll have to audition as a boy because the Sharpshooters are an all-male group.

Being found out could be devastating leaving Jordan shunned for the rest of her time at Kensington-Blaine and known forever as the girl who infiltrated an a cappella group. Basically the least impressive spy of all time. But the rewards are worth the risk with all of the school’s a cappella groups competing for a chance to accompany Aural Fixation on the European leg of their tour as show openers.

All Jordan wants is to prove to her school and her parents (and maybe herself) that she can thrive in a leading role. She’ll stay with the Sharps long enough to win the competition, nail the tour, and move on. Keeping the guys at arm’s length for that long should be simple. But as her friendships with the Sharps (and competition with a rival group) grow, the lies start to mount and Jordan realizes that sometimes you have to get close to people. Even if it means you might get hurt in Noteworthy (2017) by Riley Redgate.

Jordan is a first generation American and a low income student at her historically white and affluent at Kensington-Blaine. She struggles with the dissonance between her life at boarding school and her family’s struggles to make ends meet through part-time and retail jobs. Adding to that pressure are mounting hospital bills from her father’s recent hospital stay when his pre-existing health issues (he is a paraplegic) make a light cough so much worse. Still stinging from her breakup, Jordan also starts to acknowledge her bisexuality for the first time.

Despite being in a predominantly white school, Jordan’s circle of friends and acquaintances is thoughtfully diverse with characters coming to terms with parental expectations, school pressures, and their sexuality among other things. In the Sharps, Jordan quickly bonds with dry witted Nihal who is Sikh and one of my absolute favorite characters.

I so appreciate the way that Jordan acknowledges both her limitations as a poor scholarship student and also her privilege in being able to cross dress essentially on a lark–a decision she struggles with long before her secret is revealed (because of course it is revealed). While the middle is bogged down in numerous issues of varying important to the story, Noteworthy still ends suddenly and leaves readers wanting to see more of the Sharps (and maybe some payback for their rivals the Minuets).

Noteworthy is a thoughtful commentary on gender, agency, and ambition. By inhabiting the role of Julian, Jordan starts to realize how many limitations have been placed on her life–both through outside expectations from family, friends, and teachers as well as by herself. It’s only by hiding in plain sight as a boy that Jordan really gets the chance to shine and embrace her own dreams. Recommended for readers looking for a light contemporary with some meat on its bones and, of course, a cappella fans everywhere.

Possible Pairings: Not Now, Not Ever by Lily Anderson, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner, All Summer Long by Hope Larson, The Victoria in My Head by Janelle Milanes, Famous in Love by Rebecca Serle

Speak: The Graphic Novel: A Chick Lit Wednesday (Graphic Novel) Review

cover art for Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Emily CarrollMelinda remembers when she looked forward to starting high school. It was a new chapter filled with promise. She’d have the  chance to become anyone she wanted.

That was before the end of summer. Before what happened at the party.

Now Melinda is alone. Her parents are too busy hating each other and their lives to pay any attention to why Melinda stopped speaking let alone anything else. At school everyone knows that Melinda is the one who called 911 and brought the cops to the biggest party of the summer.

Art class is Melinda’s one refuge. She doesn’t have to think about the best friends who abandoned her or the new girl who calls her a friend when it’s convenient. She doesn’t have to worry about trying to talk to David Petrakis. She doesn’t even have to think about what happened at the party. All she has to do is draw trees.

Melinda starts the school year as an observer–an outsider. She isn’t okay. But with her art, a reclaimed supply closet, and some time, Melinda might be able to reclaim her voice in Speak: The Graphic Novel (2018) by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Emily Carroll.

This book is the graphic novel adaptation of Anderson’s award winning novel of the same name. Although Speak was originally published in 1999 Melinda’s story remains just as timely and immediate in this new version.

In many ways, Speak: The Graphic Novel feels like the form this story should have always had. Anderson’s story is complemented by Carroll’s eerie black and white illustrations. The format allows the story to shift easily between Melinda’s reality and her imaginings. Carefully constructed page designs also help evoke a palpable sense of Melinda’s silence and her introspection for much of the novel.

Speak has been a must-read since its original publication. This graphic novel adaptation underscores the story’s significance and makes it approachable for a whole new segment of readers.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green, I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy, Monster: The Graphic Novel by Walter Dean Myers, Adapted by Guy Sims, Illustrated by David Anyabwile; The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell

Foolish Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Foolish Hearts by Emma MillsThe entire construct of a pink party works on the expectation that the guests wear pink. Iris Huang wearing lavender to Amber Brunati’s pink party suggests exactly what she thinks of Amber and the party. But that’s just the way Iris operates–a surliness that is usually balanced out by her sweeter girlfriend, Paige Bruckner. The two have been together for most of high school and always present a united front. Always.

At least they did before Claudia overhears Paige breaking up with Iris. And gets caught eavesdropping.

Being on Iris’s bad side is punishment enough but it gets worst when Claudia and Iris have to write a paper together. Which they fail. Claudia is certain that working with Iris on the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for extra credit promises even more torture.

But somewhere between bombing her audition and shopping for materials to help with costume production, something funny happens. Suddenly instead of sticking to what she knows and keeping her head down, Claudia’s world is starting to get bigger.

Soon Claudia realizes that appearances can be deceiving as she discovers a boy band obsession, the ineffable Gideon Pruitt, and perhaps most surprisingly of all an unexpected friendship with the last person she expects in Foolish Hearts (2017) by Emma Mills.

In her latest standalone contemporary Mills explores friendship, romance, and fandom. Claudia’s world is pretty small. She has her family and her best friend Zoe, her scholarship to a fancy prep school, and all of the culture shock that implies. Claudia also has Battle Quest the massively multiplayer online role playing game she plays with her older brother and sister, her brother-in-law, and Zoe. Together they explore the game and pursue quests to find and vanquish the elusive Lord of Wizard. Claudia knows it’s not the most interesting of lives, but she’s always liked it.

At the start of senior year everything is changing as Claudia considers a near future where she and Zoe will be separated. That paired with Iris’s threat to ruin Claudia if she blabs about overhearing the breakup is more than enough excitement and uncertainty. Usually it would also force Claudia into a tactical retreat to maintain her low profile. Working on the school play changes that as Claudia is thrust into the world of costume creation and becomes a de facto drama coach helping the cast make sense of their dense dialogue.

I almost never say this but everything about Foolish Hearts makes me so happy. This book is all of the things that I loved in This Adventure Ends (including a male lead every bit as compelling and quirky as Frank Sanger) with none of the frustrating parts. Mills’ cast is thoughtfully and effortlessly inclusive (just like real life) and features a cast of memorable, quirky characters readers will love.

Even months after finishing Foolish Hearts I am still completely overwhelmed by how much I love it and how happy this story and these characters made me. A must read for fans of contemporary (romance) novels and anyone who’s ever fallen headfirst into a fandom without looking back. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Kissing in America by Margo Rabb, Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy by Tiffany Schmidt, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare