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.

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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*

Bounce Back: A Graphic Novel Review

Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!Moving to a new country means a lot of changes for Lilico Takada. In Japan Lilico was popular and the captain of her school basketball team. In Brooklyn, Lilico has to start from scratch with her best friends on the other side of the world and a whole new school culture to figure out–all while working on improving her English. When Lilico’s hopes of finding new friends on the basketball team ends with a painful rejection, Lilico finds unlikely help from her cat, Nico, who turns out to be way more than a regular housecat.

With magical Nico dispensing advice and two new friends excited about Japanese culture (and talking cats), Lilico finally start to find her footing. As Lilico navigates a year full of changes for her entire family, she’ll take any help she can to figure out where she fits in Bounce Back (2021) by Misako Rocks!

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Bounce Back is a standalone graphic novel filled with sports, friendship, and some magic. The book reads in the Western (left-to-right) style with artwork in Misako’s typical manga-infused style. The pages include quick asides, footnotes, and even back matter with a guide to draw Nico, create some of the characters’ signature fashions, and learn Japanese. Nico’s transformation from beloved pet cat to talking guardian spirit also makes this a great stepping stone from magical girl stories to more contemporary fare.

Lilico comes from a close-knit family and Bounce Back does a great job of showing the upheaval for both Lilico and her parents as they adjust to the move–especially Lilico’s mom who has to work even harder to make her own friends and learn English since she doesn’t work outside of the home. With a strong focus on basketball this graphic novel blends sports with Japanese culture and even fashion as Lilico and her new classmates find intersecting interests.

Full color illustrations are easy to follow and bring Lilico and her semi-magical world vibrantly to life. Bounce Back is a fun manga-style graphic novel perfect for anyone whose ever had to deal with being the new kid.

Possible Pairings: Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas, New Kid by Jerry Craft, Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza, Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai, Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte, Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle LimNatalie Tan left home when her mother refused to support her dreams to become a chef.

Seven years later, Natalie returns to San Francisco’s Chinatown when her mother dies.

Her return is far from triumphant. The wounds from her failure to finish culinary school and her recently ended engagement are still fresh. The reconciliation Natalie always hoped for with her mother will never come. Even the neighborhood itself isn’t as vibrant as it once was; all of the shops are struggling.

When she finds out she has inherited her grandmother’s famous restaurant, Natalie’s fate is tied to the neighborhood–and her neighbors–whether she likes it or not.

Evelyn Yu predicts good fortune for Natalie and the restaurant in the tea leaves. But only if Natalie cooks three of her grandmother’s recipes to help her neighbors. While Natalie is keen to realize her dream of opening a restaurant, she isn’t sure her neighbors deserve her help after her childhood navigating her mother’s depression and agoraphobia alone.

As Natalie works through her grandmother’s cookbook she begins to realize that memories, like the best recipes, can take time to process. And perhaps the neighborhood didn’t abandon her as completely as Natalie once thought. With help from new recipes, a new friend, and new love, Natalie will learn that sometimes the simplest ingredients can lead to the best results in Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune (2019) by Roselle Lim.

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Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is Lim’s debut novel.

Lim blends elements of fabulism (Natalie cries crystal tears and hears peoples’ “songs”) into an engaging contemporary romance where Natalie finds a second chance at both professional success and love. All characters are Chinese/Chinese-American.

Recipes throughout the novel allow readers to imagine themselves at Natalie’s meals although the magical results may vary. Natalie enjoys a light (as in no steam) romance as she tries to reconcile her complicated history with her Chinatown home with what could be a bright future running her own restaurant.

Lyrical prose and delicious food descriptions add dimension to this story grounded in a strong sense of family and community. Lim also offers readers a thoughtful meditation on loss and family as Natalie grieves both her mother’s death and the relationship they never had while she learns more about her grandmother through the cookbook she inherits.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is a richly flavored story filled with good food, good friends, and lots of fun. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Heartbreak Bakery by A. R. Capetta, Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien, A Thread of Sky by Diana Fei, Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, Lost and Found Sisters by Jill Shalvis, The Recipe Box by Vivian Shipman

Cazadora: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Cazadora by Romina GarberManu thought that being a Septima means she finally belonged somewhere. She thought she could stop hiding the star-shaped pupils of her eyes. She thought she could stop hiding as an undocumented immigrant.

Instead, Manu is in more danger than ever. As a female werewolf, a lobizona, Manu’s existence puts the strict gender binaries undperpinning Septimus society into question. With a human mother and a Septima father, Manu shouldn’t even exist.

With so much riding on Manu’s identity, magical law enforcement known as the Cazadores want to control her. While the Coven, an underground resistance group, hope to use Manu as a rallying point.

Manu never wanted to be a symbol for anyone. All she wants is the chance to embrace every part of her identity. Surrounded by friends and hunted by the authorities, Manu will have to determine how much she’s willing to risk for the chance to be exactly herself in Cazadora (2021) by Romina Garber.

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Cazadora is the second book in Garber’s Wolves of No World series. The story picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first book, Lobizona, which readers will want to have fresh in their memories.

All characters are Latinx or Argentine with a range of skintones. This book also delves more into the LGBTQ+ community as readers are introduced to the Coven and other resistance members who push back against the strict laws that force Septimus into gender binaries.

Cazadora blows the Septimus world open as Garber moves beyond her Argentine folklore inspiration to explore a magical world not dissimilar from our own filled with political unrest, inadequate authority figures, and justice that does more in name than in fact. This fast-paced story delves deep into Septimus folklore and legalities as Manu struggles to make a place for herself in a world that continues to find her inconvenient if not downright dangerous.

With sweeping drama, action, and fierce loyalty between Manu and her friends, Cazadora is an apt conclusion to a powerful and timely duology. Readers can only hope Garber will return to Manu’s world and the other Septimus stories waiting to be told.

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

Be sure to check out my interview with Romina Garber on the blog.

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 Argentina. 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.

Plagued by debilitating menstrual pains unless she takes 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.

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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

Be sure to check out my interview with Romina Garber on the blog.

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.

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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

Simone Breaks All the Rules: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover for Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie RigaudThanks to her strict immigrant parents, Simone Thibodeaux’s life is 100% boy free. After three years with a curfew and doing everything that’s asked of her from her parents and her all-girl’s school, Simone is more than ready for a change.

College is supposed to be a fresh start but with her parents threatening to make her commute to Rutgers like her older sister, Simone knows it’s time for drastic action.

Enter new friends Amita and Kira and the trio’s senior playlist. All three girls are used to life on lockdown and they are sick of missing out. With one year left to cram in all the classic high school experiences they’ve missed the girls are ready to go dancing, skip class, and pick their own prom dates.

Simone thinks she has the perfect boy picked out. But what happens when the date her parents arranged for her years ago turns out to be better than she could have hoped? After a year of breaking rules, Simone will discover that sometimes you can’t plan for love (or heartbreak) in Simone Breaks All the Rules (2021) by Debbie Rigaud.

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Rigaud’s latest contemporary romance is an ode to high school nostalgia and small acts of rebellion. Simone’s narration is filled with funny quips and fun facts about teen activists she has researched for her senior project whom she draws from for inspiration throughout the story.

While readers might be quicker to recognize the OTP here than Simone herself, the journey to that discovery is well worth the wait. Simone and her new friends have instant chemistry and while they all pursue their own dates for prom, the real love story here is the lasting friendship they forge. Ben–Simone’s arranged prom date–is her perfect foil and their dialogue as they get to know each other adds a fun dimension to this story.

Simone Breaks All the Rules is a laugh-out-loud story about friendship, prom, and learning that sometimes you don’t have to look as far as you think to find yourself. Recommended for fans of stories with bucket lists, high school nostalgia, and witty banter.

Possible Pairings: Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant; Blackout by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon; 10 Truths and a Dare by Ashley Elston, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, By the Book by Amanda Sellet, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma

You can also read my exclusive interview with Debbie Rigaud here on the blog.

Luck of the Titanic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.

Valora Luck almost misses her chance to be one of those passengers when her entry is blocked thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricts the admission of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Valora is used to obstacles, though, and isn’t about to let a silly policy stop her from getting on board and seeing her twin brother Jamie for the first time in years.

Jamie is traveling on the Titanic as a seaman on his way to Cuba with the rest of his crew but Val has bigger plans for both of them. Reunited for the first time since their father’s death, this is the perfect opportunity for the twins to revive their acrobatics act–an act that Val knows will be good enough to attract the attention of the Albert Ankeny Stewart. One look at their performance and Mr. Stewart will have to recruit them for the Ringling Circus. Then Val and Jamie can finally get back to being family again instead of near strangers.

Val’s plan is perfect. Until disaster strikes and, as the Titanic begins its last night as an ocean liner, Val and her brother will have to worry about surviving the present before they can plan for the future in Luck of the Titanic (2021) by Stacey Lee.

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Luck of the Titanic is narrated by Val as she struggles to board the luxury liner and secure passage into America for herself and her brother. The story is inspired by the real Chinese passengers on the TitanicYou can read more about Lee’s real-life inspiration to write this story in an essay she wrote for Oprah Daily.

Lee once again delivers a masterful work of historical fiction. Luck of the Titanic is carefully researched with front matter that includes a cast of characters and diagrams of the famous ship. The balances portraying the very real racism and intolerance Val and her fellow Chinese passengers would have encountered on the ship (or in attempting to travel to the United States) while also highlighting small joys as Val reconnects with her brother, befriends his crewmates, and as all of them discover the magic of this larger-than-life ship before it strikes an iceberg and begins to sink.

Val is an accomplished acrobat which adds a fun dimension to the story. Because of the novel’s setting, this aspect of Val’s life can never be the main point of the story but it still adds so much to her character as readers see her talent and joy in her work–and the contrast in how Jamie feel’s about the same performance skills.

Readers familiar with the history of the Titanic will recognize many key points including the iconic state rooms and grand stairway while the story also shows more of third class (steerage) where Jamie and his crew are located. The novel does include an attempted sexual assault which moves the plot forward (necessitating the separation of Val and some of her friends as the iceberg hits) but also feels excessive in a story that already has plenty of tension and strife for the characters.

Lee also includes nods to common theories about contributing factors to the disaster including the lack of binoculars for crew working in the crow’s nest, the pressure on Captain Smith to drive at speed, and of course the lifeboats (of which there were too few) being launched without reaching full capacity. Other details (the lack of proper warnings from the Marconi operators, the confusion as Titanic tried to signal for help from nearby ships) are left off-page in favor of a focus on the characters. While Lee shows more behind-the-scenes areas of the ship, this novel is largely populated by fictional characters whenever possible leaving notable survivors like Molly Brown and crew member Violet Jessop out of the narrative entirely.

Luck of the Titanic is both gripping and melancholy as the novel builds to its inevitable conclusion. This story of survival and family is completely engrossing while also asking readers to consider whose stories are deemed worth telling in history–and how we can work to widen that scope. Recommended for fans of adventure and historical fiction novels.

Possible Pairings: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea KempPenelope “Pen” Prado dreams of opening her own pastelería next to her father’s restaurant (and local institution in Austin, Texas): Nacho’s Tacos. While Pen has managed to get her experimental desserts on the menu, her traditional parents are unwilling to let Pen go any further instead wanting her to focus on nursing school. Watching her brother flounder managing the restaurant, Pen finally admits she’s been skipping classes and finds herself fired.

Pen’s last day is Xander Amaro’s first and his opportunity to finally change his luck and make a place for himself with his aging abuelo. Meeting when both of them are spinning out, shouldn’t lead anywhere. Except it does drawing Pen and Xander together in the heady reality of first love, finding their own paths, and working together to save the restaurant that comes to mean everything to both of them in Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet (2021) by Laekan Zea Kemp.

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Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet is Kemp’s debut novel. The story alternates between Pen and Xander’s first person narration.

Kemp brings the setting of Austin, Texas and its Chicanx vibrantly to life while offering a carefully detailed behind-the-scenes look at the fast-paced, high octane world of a restaurant kitchen.

Staccato writing and snappy dialog immediately draw readers into Pen and Xander’s stories as the two crash into each others’ orbit. Pen’s vicious anxiety attacks and Xander’s own stressors worrying about his grandfather and his own immigrant status can make for a claustrophobic–and nerve-inducing–narration.

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet is a thoughtful, fast-paced story perfect for readers looking for a romance with an unlikely connection and delicious food descriptions.

Possible Pairings: Permanent Record by Mary HK Choi, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan, Lobizona by Romina Garber, When We Collided by Emery Lord, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

A Place For Us: A Review

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen MirzaSiblings Hadia, Huda, and Amar could not be more different. It’s always been like this. Their father saw it with the way Amar always saw life as a game where the world was against him. Their mother saw it in Amar’s sensitivity and the questions he asked about Islam as a child.

Now, the family is gathered for Hadia’s wedding–a love match in the face of years of traditionally arranged marriage. Steadfast and dependable Huda is there, always the reliable middle sister. But if Amar will show up, and what state he will be in if he does, remains to be seen.

As the wedding progresses the entire family reflects on the moments that brought them to this moment, together, as well as the moments that quietly and irreparably tore them apart in A Place For Us (2018) by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

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This ambitious debut novel has shifting perspectives following Hadia, Amar, and Huda as well as their parents in close third person. The wedding serves as a starting point with the story moving both backward in flashbacks and forward after the wedding in a complex narrative.

A Place For Us skillfully balances its large, multi-generational cast and a plot spanning decades to deliver an engrossing family epic exploring themes of memory, choice, faith, and belonging.To talk about any one aspect of the story would diminish the reading experience but even a year after reading it, I feel like there’s still so much to find in this story and so much to learn from these characters.

A Place For Us is all about meeting people where they are, and where they need to be met. And sometimes not making it. Recommended for fans of family sagas and stories where there is more than meets the eye.

Possible Pairings: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Red at the Bone by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, Digging to America by Anne Tyler, Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin