The Way You Make Me Feel: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene GooClara Shin is good at two things: getting into trouble and making people laugh. With her two friends, Patrick and Felix, Clara has coasted through her first two years of high school leaving a trail of chaos and epic pranks. Along the way she has also managed to infuriate her nemesis Rose Carter quite a few times. But that’s just a bonus. It’s not like Clara’s an actual bully or anything.

When her latest joke goes too far ending in a fight and a fire, even Clara’s usually laid-back father Adrian knows that things have gone too far. Clara’s plans for a laid-back summer and a vacation with her Instagram-famous influencer mom are cancelled. Instead Clara gets to look forward to working on her dad’s food truck, the KoBra, to pay back the school for fire damage. Worse, she’ll be working with Rose.

Clara isn’t sure how to deal with having actual responsibilities let alone working with uptight, perfectionist Rose whose ambitions and extracurriculars make the Obama daughters look like slackers. But there is Hamlet Wong–the boy who is as earnest and open as a Labrador, really cute, and totally not Clara’s type even if he does think she’s hilarious.

As Clara starts to learn more about the food truck, Rose, and her own family she starts to care about what happens with the KoBra and, more importantly, what other people think of her. After years of treating life as one big joke, Clara might be ready to let herself be more than a punchline in The Way You Make Me Feel (2018) by Maurene Goo.

The Way You Make Me Feel is a delightfully funny contemporary filled with food, family, and evocatively described Los Angeles locations.

Clara’s parents are Korean by way of Brazil–a cultural identity that comes through in their personalities as much as in the food that Adrian prepares on the KoBra–they’re also young and not married, things that don’t come through a lot in contemporary YA. While I’m never a fan of stories where the main character pines after an absentee parent the way Clara does with her mother. However Goo handles the inevitable dose of reality well and in a way that makes sense for her character.

Clara’s first person narration is acerbic, sarcastic, and often laugh out loud funny. She is used to not being well-liked and she doesn’t care as long as it doesn’t impact the persona she has created for herself. One of the only people to call Clara on her attitude and her bad behavior is Rose, an overachiever trying to balance dance classes, school, and her punishment on the food truck. Rose is also struggling with anxiety–the one chink in the otherwise perfect image she presents to the world.

While there’s some romance with Clara and the always adorable Hamlet, the main event in this novel is friendship as Clara and Rose start to understand and, much to their own dismay, appreciate each other the more they’re thrown together.

The Way You Make Me Feel is a funny, smart, and utterly entertaining story that reminds you it’s never too late to make a few changes. A novel that’s guaranteed to make you laugh and leave you smiling. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, It Started With Goodbye by Christina June, The Secret Ingredient by Stewart Lewis, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Little and Lion: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Little & Lion by Brandy ColbertSuzette and her brother Lionel have been “Little” and “Lion” for years. Technically they’re step-siblings and their family gets a lot of strange looks sometimes since they’re all Jewish but Suzette and her mom are black while Lionel and his father are white. They’ve never let that change how close they are.

That was before Lionel was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Suzette was sent across the country to an East coast boarding school while he got treatment.

Now it’s summer and Suzette is home in Los Angeles where she expects everything to be familiar and easy. Instead, Suzette soon realizes that it’s going to be harder to go back to being Little and Lion than she thought.

Being home is almost enough to help Suzette forget about the mess she left back at school and how much she hurt her roommate, Iris. Her longtime friend and neighbor Emil is a welcome distraction–and maybe even a new crush. Then there’s Rafaela–a new girl who is like no one Suzette has ever met. Suzette’s attraction is immediate, intense, and utterly impossible once it becomes obvious that Lion might be falling for her.

When Lionel’s disorder starts a downward spiral Suzette will have to confront mistakes she made over the past year and decide if earning Lionel’s trust again is worth risking his mental health in Little & Lion (2017) by Brandy Colbert.

Little & Lion is an incredibly smart standalone contemporary. Suzette is an honest narrator who is still trying to define herself in a world that is already quick to put labels on her. She is conscious that her identity as a black Jewish woman is conspicuous and often uncomfortable–especially at her homogeneous boarding school where it felt like she had to hide pieces of herself before her classmates would accept her.

After her months long romantic and sexual relationship ends at the end of term when she and her roommate are outed to the entire school, Suzette doesn’t know how to deal with the attention. She shuts down and shuts Iris out–a constant reminder that she wasn’t brave enough to stand up for what she wanted. When seeing Emil–her half-Korean, half-black neighbor and childhood friend–ignites an attraction that she had never noticed before, Suzette is left to wonder if she might be bisexual–an identity that at first feels too overwhelming to fully consider while still adjusting to being back home and deciding if she wants to go back to boarding school in the fall.

The story of Suzette’s summer alternates with flashback chapters from her childhood when Suzette’s mom and Lionel’s father first started dating and living together. These flashbacks also detail Lionel’s initial diagnosis and treatment before Suzette was sent away.

While Little & Lion is often a heavy story with Suzette and Lionel disappointed in each other and unsure how to reclaim their easy bond as family, Colbert’s prose is also incredibly gentle and thoughtful. There are no easy answers about defining one’s sexuality or one’s mental health–things that Suzette and Lionel learn the hard way throughout the novel.

The larger story of Lionel’s coping with his new medication and Suzette trying to fit into a family that moved on without her plays out against a hazy backdrop of romantic entanglements with Suzette caught between her very real relationship with Emil and her distracting attraction to Rafaela–a pull that is even more complicated when Lionel starts to date Rafaela who seems to bring out the worst in him.

Little & Lion is as enlightening as it is engaging. A thoughtful plot and vibrant primary characters more than make up for an overly large cast of secondary characters. Evocative settings, sexy romance, and a wonderful family ground this story and make it a must read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake, The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle, When We Collided by Emery Lord, Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, Odd One Out by Nic Stone

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: A Review

“I’ve never thought of myself as a force to be reckoned with. Maybe I should start thinking of myself that way; maybe I deserve to.”

cover art for The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidEveryone remembers Evelyn Hugo. The old Hollywood actress is surrounded by an aura of glamour and mystery. After retiring from the public eye decades ago, Evelyn is finally ready to tell her story.

Bizarrely, Evelyn only wants to tell her story to Monique Grant–a magazine reporter still starting her career and largely unknown. No one is as surprised as Monique at the offer. But as Monique warms up to assignment she also realizes that no one is as prepared to maximize this opportunity either.

From the confines of her luxurious Upper East Side apartment Evelyn tells the story of her career from her fateful move to California in the 1950s to her abrupt retirement in the 1980s. Along the way she also reveals all the gory details about the seven husbands she married and left behind along the way.

As she learns about Evelyn’s unapologetic ambition and her stunning career, Monique quickly realizes that there has always been more to Evelyn than meets the eye. But even as Monique starts to admire the shrewd actress she realizes that Evelyn Hugo is still holding back some secrets and some surprising revelations about Monique’s own part in them in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017) by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

This standalone novel is a blend of historical and contemporary fiction. The majority of the story relates Evelyn’s story as she tells it to Monique in seven parts–one for each husband, of course. In between sessions with Evelyn Monique also deals with upheaval in her own life as she comes to terms with her imminent divorce and tries to figure out next steps in her career.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is written in the first person as Monique receives the assignment and meets Evelyn and also with Evelyn narrating her own parts as she dictates them to Monique. Evelyn and Monique are both very nuanced characters whose stories are handled thoughtfully in this novel. That said I’m still not sure how I feel about a white author writing in the first person voice of a latina actress who was made over and passed as white for the sake of her career (something that actually happened to real life film star Rita Hayworth) or a biracial journalist like Monique.

I can’t say much more about the plot without giving something away. There are a few surprises and Jenkins Reid’s pacing is flawless as she moves from one surprise to the next. Both Evelyn and Hugo’s stories are less about romance (or marriage) and more about strong women acknowledging their own ambitions and embracing them.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is an engaging novel filled with old Hollywood glamour, wry commentary, and two heroine with a lot to teach their readers. Recommended.

Tell Me Three Things: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Over email and text, though, I am given those few additional beats I need to be the better, edited version of myself.”

Tell Me Three Things by Julie BuxbaumJessie doesn’t want to live in California. She doesn’t want a new stepmother when her mother’s death two years earlier is still painfully fresh. She can definitely do without her snobby new stepbrother. She hates leaving her best friend behind in Chicago and wishes her dad would try to understand why she’s so upset.

Her new super fancy prep school in Los Angeles is filled with pretentious students, confusion, and very few potential friends. When she receives an email from someone, Somebody/Nobody to be more specific, offering to help her make sense of her perplexing new life Jessie isn’t sure what to think. Is his offer a genuine chance to get some help? Could it be an elaborate prank?

The potential of a new friend and some much-needed information win out. The more Jessie and SN email and text, the more she wants to meet him in person. But as she gets closer to discovering SN’s identity, Jessie also wonders if some mysteries should remain unsolved in Tell Me Three Things (2016) by Julie Buxbaum.

Jessie feels like a stranger in a very strange land when she is thrust into a higher income bracket at her predominantly white private school. This relative privilege is addressed and handled well over the course of the novel while Jessie tries to reconcile her middle class sensibilities with the new luxuries she is starting to enjoy. Jessie’s online friendship with SN and her real life struggles to befriend her classmates serve as another contrast in this story where perception can change everything.

This novel also ruminates on the nature of grief and moving on as Jessie struggles to hold onto memories of her mother while watching her father start a shiny new life. The awkward and often frustrating dynamics of becoming a (reluctantly) blended family add depth to this already absorbing story.

Tell Me Three Things is filled with humor and wit as a sweet romance unfolds. Jessie’s narration features a singular voice with a unique perspective on her surroundings and her new classmates. She is self-aware enough to acknowledge her shortcomings in struggling to reconcile herself to her new step-family and home while also harboring a healthy dose of naiveté about other aspects of her life.

Buxbaum breathes new life into a familiar premise in Tell Me Three Things. Readers may be quicker to guess SN’s identity than Jessie but that journey, like the rest of Jessie’s story, is all the more satisfying for the serendipity and potential near-misses along the way. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre, The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go by Kristin Bartley Lenz, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Kissing in America by Margo Rabb, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, P. S. I Like You by Kasie West, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

The Decent Proposal: A Rapid Fire Review

The Decent Proposal by Kemper Donovan (2016)

The Decent Proposal by Kemper DonovanTwo strangers are approached and told that a mysterious benefactor will give them each five hundred thousand dollars at the end of the year. All they have to do is talk to each other weekly for a minimum of two hours one-on-one.

Although Elizabeth is suspicious of the offer and has little need for the money as an eight year associate at her law firm, she agrees with Richard that they have nothing to lose. Richard, for his part, certainly has everything to gain with his career floundering and his savings depleted.

What starts as an agreement to get easy money quickly becomes something more as Richard and Elizabeth get to know each other. Richard and Elizabeth had different reasons for agreeing to meet but can friendship (and maybe even something more) really be forced with the promise of a monetary incentive?

Donovan’s debut novel starts with a unique premise sure to draw readers in. The title and plot are immediately intriguing. Unfortunately, the novel’s execution is underwhelming by comparison.

The Decent Proposal is set in Los Angeles–the novel works especially hard to stress the latter with copious asides and details about life in LA and its neighborhoods that add little to the plot. The characters, though diverse, are often one-dimensional with good looks that alternate between effortless and understated depending on the character.

The choice to frame Elizabeth as an uptight and somewhat repressed woman who needs a man as an impetus to show her how to loosen up and embrace spontaneity was also deeply frustrating. There is a bit of mystery surrounding how and why Elizabeth and Richard are chosen for the proposal but that isn’t enough to make up for the slight characterization throughout.

The Decent Proposal is a self-aware story with a diverse cast of characters and a fun premise. A fun story about connection ideal for readers who are more concerned with a good plot than with fully developed characters.

Landline: A Review

Landline by Rainbow RowellGeorgie McCool knows her marriage is floundering. She knows her husband Neal is unhappy. But they’ve been floundering for a while. And hasn’t Neal always been at least a little unhappy?

She still loves Neal. And Neal still loves her. But that isn’t the point. When Neal takes their daughters to Omaha for Christmas, Georgie wonders if that was ever the point.

Floundering without her husband and daughters, Georgie tries to throw herself into work as a TV writer in Los Angeles. After all, that’s why she stayed behind in the first place. But she doesn’t want to go home to an empty house. She can’t focus when so much of her life is somewhere else.

Then Georgie uses the landline at her mother’s house to try and call Neal. Finally, he answers. But it isn’t Georgie’s Neal. Not really. Instead she’s talking to Neal in the past–at the one other moment their relationship fell apart, almost before it started. With a chance to correct past mistakes, Georgie wonders if the right answer this time is holding Neal tight (the way she always does) or finally letting him go in Landline (2014) by Rainbow Rowell.

Rainbow Rowell is an incredibly talented writer who covers a range of subjects in her novels. Landline uses the lens of a marriage on the brink to tell the story of Georgie and Neal. Flashbacks follow their relationship from the day they met through significant moments including their wedding, the birth of their daughters and other stickier points including an almost breakup and Neal’s proposal (both of which become pivotal to the plot).

While a magic phone (or a mental-breakdown-hallucination depending on your outlook) plays a key role in the story, there isn’t enough foundation to call this novel a fantasy. While Georgie contemplates issues with time travel and the implications therein, nothing is ever really explained. Georgie and Neal’s entire relationship is imbued with a certain sense of inevitability that allows issues of causality, and whether or not time travel is at play, to be glossed over.

This is a novel for an adult audience with characters in their thirties. Die-hard Rowell fans will still find a lot to love here, but teen readers (or readers like myself who are not married with kids even) may find it a stretch to get into the same head space as Georgie. That said, things pick up immensely in the second half of the novel. Even with the slow start, I finished this book in a couple of days.

Landline is often quite sweet and romantic. There are several moments with very grand gestures. The main problem with the final grand gesture is that it suggests Georgie has to choose between her marriage and her work. The entire structure of the story (from Georgie’s breakdown and lack of focus when Neal takes the girls to Omaha to the final big moment) suggests that is impossible to balance both. While that is fine and allowed, I would have liked more balance to show that while it is hard there is room for both work and love.

The other problem is that all of those grand gestures lead to exactly zero closure. We never learn what will happen with Georgie’s show–the one she stayed in LA to work on in the first place. We never see if the unresolved issues with Seth and Neal hating each other will shake out. And even though the novel ends on an up note, very few of the fundamental problems with Neal and Georgie’s relationship are actually fixed. They are both present and they both still care, but we (and perhaps they) still don’t know if that will be enough.

Rowell’s writing is as vibrant and literary as ever in Landline. (Readers familiar with Rowell’s work will recognize common themes popping up and even some familiar characters.) The dialogue and observations here are snappy and move the novel along at a fierce pace from one intricately-plotted vignette to the next. While Rowell’s voice is always inevitably behind Georgie’s narration in Landline, it is a good voice with many things to say.