The Revolution of Birdie Randolph: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy ColbertBirdie has always been a good daughter. She works hard in school, she’s responsible. She listens to her parents even when it’s hard like when she had to give up soccer to focus on her classes and college prep.

But it’s hard to balance being a good daughter with dating Booker–the new boy in her life. Birdie’s parents would never approve of Booker with his bad reputation and his juvenile record. Rather than upset her parents Birdie does what seems like the best thing for everyone: she decides to keep Booker a secret for as long as possible.

Then there’s her estranged aunt Carlene who is back in Chicago, and Birdie’s life, after years of struggling with substance abuse. Birdie barely remembers her aunt but she’s eager to reconnect now–especially when Carlene seems willing to listen to Birdie in a way her mother hasn’t for years. As Birdie grows closer to Carlene and to Booker, the secrets mount. When Birdie finds out that she isn’t the only one who’s been keeping secrets  everything she thought she knew about her family will be thrown into question in The Revolution of Birdie Randolph (2019) by Brandy Colbert.

Colbert’s latest standalone is an introspective novel about family, secrets, and what it means to be true to yourself. Birdie is an open and honest narrator struggling with how to balance what she wants with what her parents expect of her. Her story unfolds across a vibrantly described Chicago that is immediately evocative.

Typical stressors of school and college prep are amplified as Birdie finds herself keeping more and more secrets as she tries to spend time with Booker. Their sweet and new romance is tempered by the knowledge that they’ll soon have to figure out how far their relationship can go–if it can go anywhere at all, in fact–while contending with disapproving parents on both sides. Birdie faces a similar push and pull with her aunt who soon becomes a confidant despite the strain it causes with her parents.

In a lot of ways, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is a story about decisions. The course of Birdie’s life up to this point has been shaped by decisions her parents, and even her aunt, have made. As Birdie begins to understand the ramifications of those choices, she has to decide for herself how to move forward. But luckily for her, and readers, she has a lot of support along the way.

The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is a smart, nuanced story about learning to be true to yourself–even when the truth about your past might not be what you expect. Come for the swoony romance, stay for the authentic intersectional identities, complex relationships, and memorable characters. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Past Perfect Life by Elizabeth Eulberg, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, How to Save a Life by Sarah Zarr

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Snow in Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Snow in Love by Melissa de la Crus, Aimee Friedman, Nic Stone, Kasie WestSnow in Love (2018) collects four holiday stories for the first time:

“Snow and Mistletoe” by Kasie West: Stranded at the airport without a car, Amalie finds unlikely help from a former classmate, Sawyer, who offers Amalie a ride when she needs it most. Can one detour filled road trip, numerous pit stops, a secret crush, and special gifts lead from a snowy mess to new beginnings? You’ll have to read more to find out but I’ll tell you that this story was a banter filled delight.

“Working in a Winter Wonderland” by Aimee Friedman: If Maxine can save up for the perfect party dress, she knows that everything else will fall into place–including finally catching the eye of her crush. There’s only one problem: The only job Maxine can find on short notice is working as an elf in a department store’s holiday department. This story was a lot of fun. Maxine is Jewish and completely overwhelmed by the way Christmas everything seems to take over once December rolls around. After years of being a wallflower, Maxine is ready to make some changes and I love that while she gets everything she wants, none of it is quite what she expects.

“The Magi’s Gifts” by Melissa de la Cruz: Kelsey and Brenden are still figuring out what it means to be in a relationship over the holidays. As both of them try to find the perfect holiday gift they realize that showing someone how much you love them sometimes means sacrificing what you love most. This retelling of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is one of the shortest stories in the collection. It’s an interesting spin on a familiar tale but some of the details never quite come together.

“Grounded” by Nic Stone: Leigh is more than ready to spend the holidays on a beach with her family. The problem? She’s stranded at the airport during a snowstorm. And so is her childhood friend Harper. Leigh fell hard for Harper when she was fourteen but not knowing if Harper would reciprocate (or if Harper even liked girls), Leigh tried to shut that down. Now as she leads Harper on a scavenger hunt through the airport before they reconnect, Leigh has to decide if now is the time to take a leap or play it safe. Nic Stone is one of the best contemporary voices around right now. This story is snappy, sweet, and a really smart examination of intersectionality (Leigh and Harper are both black and Leigh is also Jewish) and being true to yourself. And did I mention it was also a sweet romance?

Snow in Love is a effervescent collection of stories sure to leave you smiling–a perfect choice to get you in the holiday spirit at any time of year.

Possible Pairings: Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food & Love edited by Elsie Chapman; Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan; To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han; Let it Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle; My True Love Gave to Me edited by Stephanie Perkins

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

With the Fire on High: A (WIRoB) Review

Here’s a teaser from the start of my review of With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevedo (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

cover art for With the Fire on High by Elizabeth AcevedoEven with help from her grandmother, ‘Buela, at home, Emoni Santiago has a lot more than college plans on her mind at the start of senior year in Philadelphia. While her best friend, Angelia, is looking at the best graphic-arts programs and enjoying her relationship with her new girlfriend, Emoni is trying to decide if college (or a relationship) can have a place in her future alongside the hopes and dreams she wants to make a reality for Babygirl. And she wonders if it’s time to focus on doing rather than “spending four years pretending to do” in college.

When an opportunity to take an immersive culinary-arts class comes up at school, Emoni knows this is one thing she has to do even if she isn’t sure what to expect — or even if she can afford the class’ trip to Spain alongside the day-to-day costs of helping ‘Buela keep their house afloat.

“If you ask her to tell it, ‘Buela starts with the same story” of Emoni hopping up on a stool and seasoning her first meal at age 4. Emoni doesn’t know what to believe, but “ever since then ‘Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don’t know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I’m happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty.”

Unfortunately, her natural affinity for food and years of experimentation in the kitchen don’t go far when it comes to prepping Emoni for the rigors of the culinary class. Chef Ayden wants to prepare them for work in a restaurant, but Emoni chafes under the structure and restrictions that seem designed to impede her creativity.

Emoni already knows a lot about taking care of herself and the people she loves, but over the course of her senior year, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to learn even more about cooking, family, and opening her heart.

You can read my full review of With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevedo here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/index.php/bookreview/with-the-fire-on-high

Possible Pairings: A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

Carry On: A Review

cover art for Carry On by Rainbow RowellSimon Snow is not the chosen one anyone expected. He might not even be the chosen one we deserve. But he’s the only one we have.

Simon is supposed to be the most powerful wizard alive. But most of the time his wand doesn’t work properly, he can’t remember spells when he needs them, or he starts massive fires. All told, Simon would much rather spend his time eating sour cherry scones than trying to fight the Mysterious Humdrum–the magic eating monster that’s been tormenting Simon, and the rest of the magical world, since Simon arrived at Watford School of Magicks when he was eleven.

On top of that Simon’s girlfriend just dumped him and his roommate is missing. Baz being out of the picture might actually be a plus. Except Baz is from one of the most notoriously evil magic families out there. Also he’s a vampire so he could be causing all sorts of trouble while he’s away.

Simon doesn’t know what to expect from his last year at Watford but he certainly didn’t realized he’d be spending so much of it worried about Baz–or at least worried about Baz hurting people–in Carry On (2015) by Rainbow Rowell.

Carry On is partially inspired by Rowell’s earlier novel Fangirl–a book which included slash fiction written by one character about a Harry Potter-esque series. Rowell takes those elements and reworks them in this story. I will say up front that this book was a lot more fun and a lot smarter than I expected it to be given the story’s origins.

Carry On is witty, sexy, and just familiar enough to catch the in-jokes. It also offers a fascinating commentary on what it means to have a chosen path only to realize it might not be the path you want—aside from being completely wrong–as Simon struggles to figure out what his future will look like outside of Watford.

The novel alternates narration between Simon and Baz (who is tragically absent for the novel’s first act) which works well to showcase the dynamic between these characters while also amping up the tension as they shift somewhat reluctantly–and much to their own dismay–from sworn enemies to boyfriend and boyfriend. While the romance is fun, the subversion of the usual nemesis tropes are also well done as both Simon and Baz are forced to admit that the person they thought they hated above all others might also be the only one who might understand them.

I will say I still have trepidation about whether this romance between two boys is a story that a straight woman should be telling. But at the same time, Baz is a vampire and Simon is a wizard so there are a lot of reasons this book is positioned differently than if it were a truly contemporary story.

Carry On is a fun, campy boarding school fantasy with two precious idiots doing the best they can. Recommended for readers who have read Harry Potter a zillion times and are looking for something different but still familiar.

Possible Pairings: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Fence by C. S. Pacat, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Timekeeper by Tara Sim, Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu

Birthday: A Review

cover art for Birthday by Meredith RussoEric and Morgan would never have become friends if it weren’t for their shared birthday. Their families being trapped at the hospital together for three days during a freak blizzard in September also helped. Since then, since before they can even remember, Eric and Morgan have always celebrated their birthday together.

But it turns out being friends forever doesn’t guarantee that things will stay the same forever. It starts when they’re thirteen. Morgan isn’t happy and knows she needs help. But she doesn’t know how to articulate that she’s suffering and feels trapped. Especially if it means hurting her father–the only parent she has left–or losing Eric.

Eric doesn’t know how to balance the person he wants to be with the person his father expects. He knows that he could be popular and maybe happier if he focuses more on football. But how can he do that if it means leaving Morgan behind?

Over the course of five birthdays Eric and Morgan will drift together and grow apart. There will be breakups, make ups, secrets, and surprises. But through it all they’ll always have each other in Birthday (2019) by Meredith Russo.

Russo’s sophomore novel plays out across five birthdays, following Eric and Morgan in alternating chapters from the age of thirteen to eighteen as they come of age in small town Tennessee.

Birthday is a high concept story with a lot of heart. Russo capitalizes on a unique structure to showcase the growth and changes that both Eric and Morgan face as they try to decide who they want to become. While Morgan struggles to find the strength and vocabulary to articulate that she is transgender and live as her true self, Eric has to figure out how to break out of his father’s toxic orbit before he crashes.

Eric and Morgan are dealing with hard things and the bleakness of that, the isolation when it feels like no one can possibly care or understand, is sometimes hard to read. Despite this heaviness, Birthday shows how both characters find a way through. Their character arcs also emphasize how important it is to find support as both Eric and Morgan build support systems with family, friends, and in Morgan’s case an understanding therapist.

Birthday is an important, timely novel. Themes of acceptance, fate, and of course love add nuance and depth to this unique and hopeful romance. A must read.

Possible Pairings: Hope and Other Punchlines by Julie Buxbaum, The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake, Our Year in Love and Parties by Karen Hattrup, First and Then by Emma Mills, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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

Never-Contented Things: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Never-Contented Things by Sarah PorterKsenia is cold where foster brother Josh is warm; sharp where he is soft. She is almost eighteen and their foster parents are simultaneously planning for Ksenia’s transition to a group home while preparing to adopt sixteen-year-old Josh. Ksenia is a bit of an oddity in their painfully conventional town with her androgynous looks and thrift store style without any of Josh’s charisma to smooth things over.

While Ksenia is resigned to their separation, Josh is desperate to hang on to Ksenia at any cost–even if it means making an impossible bargain with otherworldy creatures they encounter at a party. Entrapped in another world with Josh, Ksenia is determined to protect him despite his betrayal. Josh sees it as a refuge where no one can question his romantic love and infatuation for his foster sister while Ksenia knows it is a prison with no possible escape.

Josh and especially Ksenia are people no one would look for except for their best friend, Lexi, a girl whose life couldn’t be more different and who, if she can find them, might have the key to breaking the spell in Never-Contented Things (2019) by Sarah Porter.

Porter blends horror and urban fantasy in her latest standalone novel of faerie.

Evocative, phantasmagorical prose carries across multiple viewpoints as Ksenia works to save herself and the people she loves in this book filled with messy characters doing the best they can.

Never-Contented Things features gorgeous sentence level writing and vibrant horror which elevate this character driven story about resilience, identity, and learning to save yourself. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

Girls of Paper and Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha NganEvery year eight girls are chosen to serve the king. His Paper Girls are the most beautiful, the most charming and demure. Once they are taken to the palace the Paper Girls live in luxury. But they are always slaves to the whims of the king and, especially, to his cruelty.

Once you become a Paper Girl, you can never go home again.

Lei never thought she would be chosen as a Paper Girl. Her family already paid the ultimate price when Lei’s mother was taken a decade ago. But rumors spread quickly about Lei–a human girl from the paper caste with golden eyes like the demons of the higher castes.

Taken against her will, trapped in a life she never imagined, Lei is determined to fight back. But even as she finds forbidden love and a plot that will change her world forever, Lei has to decide how far she’s willing to go for escape and for revenge in Girls of Paper and Fire (2018) by Natasha Ngan.

Girls of Paper and Fire is Ngan’s debut novel and the start of a new trilogy.

Lei’s first person narration is guileless but also razor sharp as she fights against her captivity as a Paper Girl at every turn. Her rage and frustration are palpable when she is kidnapped in the first pages of the novel and works from their to find a way not just to survive but to escape.

The brutality and horror of Lei’s new circumstances are contrasted with tender moments as she forms a dangerous and forbidden relationship with one of the other Paper Girls–a love that could lead to revolution and change throughout the country.

Ngan’s writing is lush and fast-paced. Readers are immediately drawn into Lei’s complex and often frightening world. Girls of Paper and Fire is a high action, feminist story that is as exciting as it is empowering.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Eve by Anna Carey, The Cerulean by Amy Ewing, Everless by Sara Holland, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg, Ash Princess by Laura K. Sebastian, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*