Book Reviews

Don’t Hate the Player: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Don't Hate the Player by Alexis NeddEmilia Romero is the star of her high school field hockey team, a straight A student, and a world class secret keeper. It’s the only way she’s found to keep her double life as a player on a competitive esports team in Guardians League Online (GLO) on the down low. Emilia isn’t ashamed of her gaming–she knows she’s great at it. But she also knows that the gaming community is very white and very male and not a great place for a Puerto Rican teen girl to be honest about who she is.

When her team qualifies for a local eSports tournament, Emilia knows she can’t miss this opportunity. Keeping her gaming life separate from her real life, gets a lot more complicated when Emilia recognizes one of the competitors.

Jake has had a crush on Emilia since they met as kids at an arcade birthday party. His underdog team qualifying for the tournament is exciting enough. Seeing Emilia and being thrown back into her orbit? That’s a whole other level.

Competing in the tournament should be as simple as letting the best player win. But when the stakes rise Emilia and Jake both realize they have a lot to gain–and potentially lose–depending on the tournament’s outcome. Growing closer as gamers is great but it will take more than the perfect hidden combo to make sure they can stay close in real life too in Don’t Hate the Player (2021) by Alexis Nedd.

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Don’t Hate the Player is Nedd’s debut novel. Most of the story is narrated by Emilia with some chapters in third person following Jake.

Nedd knows her stuff and delivers a story entrenched in online gaming that remains approachable to non-gamer readers. The high stakes of the tournament contrast well with the tension as, with Jake’s help, Emilia tries to keep her identity a secret to avoid harassment from the gaming community. Jake has been a gamer all of his life and is aware of the harassment faced by non-male/non-white players from the experiences of his own GLO teammates who include BIPOC players who are queer and trans.

Emilia’s efforts to balance her parents’ expectations with her own desires adds a lot of dimension to the story. Both Jake and Emilia’s friends offer a strong support system as the competition at the tournament amps up and add a lot of humor to the story.

Don’t Hate the Player is a funny, romantic story that shines a light on the joys (and hazards) of the gaming community while proving that sometimes a little competition can bring people together. Recommended for gamers, romantics, and readers looking for books with a healthy dose of humor.

Possible Pairings: Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Analee in Real Life by Janelle Milanes, Don’t Read the Comments by Eric Smith, Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

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

Book Reviews

The Cousins: A Review

The Cousins by Karen M. McManusThe Story family always lived by one simple rule: family first, always.

That was before the family matriarch mysteriously disinherited and banished all of her children from the family estate on Gull Cove Island with nothing but a letter saying, “You know what you did.” Now cousins Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah barely know each other. They’ve never met their infamous grandmother.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t familiar with the Story family reputation: glamorous, mysterious, and just a little bit tragic. It doesn’t mean they aren’t just a little bit curious when their grandmother reaches out inviting the cousins to work at a local resort for the summer and reconnect. They soon realize the letters they received are a far cry from the real grandmother they find when they arrive on the island.

Everyone in the Story family has secrets but there’s something seductive about family secrets and the way they can become a part of you until exposing them feels just like losing part of yourself. After a lifetime of secrets surrounding their family history, Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah will have to uncover the truth to help their entire family move on in The Cousins (2020) by Karen M. McManus.

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The Cousins is a standalone mystery. Chapters alternate between Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah’s first person narrations. Third person chapters interspersed throughout the story from Milly’s mother, Allison, in 1996 show the events leading up to the disinheritance. With the exception of Milly who is half-Japanese, the Story family is white. A few secondary characters are BIPOC and play small but key roles in the story.

McManus packs a lot into this slim, fast-paced novel as the cousins begin to collaborate to start putting together the pieces of their family’s troubled past. Aubrey, a guileless narrator eager to connect with her estranged family, is a fun contrast to calculating Jonah and shrewd Milly who have more complicated reasons for coming to the island.

The Cousins balances its multiple timelines and plot threads shifting viewpoints so the right character is able to present the right information to readers for maximum impact. Tightly controlled narratives and excellent plot management leave just enough breadcrumbs for readers to try to make sense of the Story family’s secrets along with the protagonists.

The Cousins is an utterly engrossing mystery filled with suspense, complex family dynamics, and three narrators that are as multifaceted as the mystery they’re trying to solve.

Possible Pairings: The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao, Knives Out

Book Reviews

A Season of Sinister Dreams: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy BanghartStill grieving the death of his son and heir during the Sickness years earlier, the elderly king of Tyne forces all magic workers to the capital where they can prolong his life and protect the castle while the rest of the kingdom suffers.

Annalise has spent years in the castle secretly using her unwieldy magic to weave a web of influence around the king, his grandson (and her cousin) Prince Kendrik, and the king’s advisors. Annalise hopes to exact revenge against the king for her mother’s death–a plan that is close to fruition when Annalise accidentally uses her magic on Kendrik leaving him hidden and monstrously transformed while Annalise becomes the new heir.

Meanwhile, Evra’s quiet country life is ruined when her magic manifests years later than expected making her the first girl ever to become a Clearsee. As magical prophets Clearsees (usually men) use their magic to interpret visions meant to guide and protect the kingdom. While Annalise prepares for her coronation, Evra reluctantly arrives at the capital where she sees cryptic visions hinting at danger. But is the danger a threat to Tyne’s rulers or is it the rulers themselves? in A Season of Sinister Dreams (2021) by Tracy Banghart.

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This plot-driven standalone fantasy alternates chapters between Annalise and Evra’s first person narrations. All characters are presumed white.

With Annalise used to hiding the scope of her powers and Evra newly invested with magic, both narrations are claustrophobic leaving readers and characters floundering. Themes of agency as both heroines try to defy expectations are undermined by extremely limited world building and backstories that never fully explain character motivations or actions–particularly Annalise’s.

Fans of Banghart’s Grace and Fury will appreciate this book’s strong female leads, fast-paced action, and the focus on Evra and Tam’s friendship despite other shortcomings.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

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

Book Reviews

In the Hall With the Knife: A Review

In the Hall With the Knife by Diana PeterfreundBlackbrook Academy, an elite boarding school hidden away in the woods of Maine, is no stranger to dangerous storms. With the latest one coming just before break, most students manage to make it home well before the the storm sets in. Which is why, when the headmaster turns up dead in the conservatory of one of the dorms, suspicion quickly shifts to the small group left behind:

Beth “Peacock” Picach isn’t interested in anything at Blackbrook unless it’s about tennis. Which is why Peacock is incensed when Headmaster Boddy wants to discuss her standing on the Blackbrook team just before the storm hits.

Orchid McKee came to Blackbrook to hide. Until information from the headmaster suggests that a dangerous piece of Orchid’s past life might have followed her to Blackbrook after all.

Vaughn Green is a townie and a scholarship student at Blackbrook. Vaughn balances a nearly impossible courseload and his less-than-ideal home life with working part-time as a janitor at the school giving him a front seat to Blackbrook’s iniquities. And its secrets.

Sam “Mustard” Maestor thought starting at a new school would give him a clean slate. What he didn’t count on was how different Blackbrook would be from his former school, an austere military academy. Starting in the middle of a historically bad storm and a murder investigation also doesn’t help.

Phineas “Finn” Plum is sitting on something big. Life-changing big. But one draconian school policy doesn’t mean he’s about to share it with anyone–especially not the headmaster.

Scarlet Mistry is used to being on top of the school’s gossip and the top liberal arts student thanks to her platonic power couple alliance with Finn. But even with all of her tricks, Scarlet doesn’t know what to make of a murder happening under her nose. Or the fact that her best friend is keeping secrets.

With one murder, zero trust, and a million motives, anyone could be the culprit in In the Hall With the Knife (2019) by Diana Peterfreund.

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In the Hall With the Knife is the first book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). The novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six students. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx.

In her author’s note, Peterfreund mentions her love for the board game and the now classic movie it inspired. (Read more about the history of the 1985 film in Adam B. Vary’s Buzzfeed Article “The Crazy Story Of How “Clue” Went From Forgotten Flop To Cult Triumph.”) Peterfreund’s love for her source material is clear in this fitting reinterpretation of the classic game from the intrigue-filled backstory to the punny character names including janitor Rusty Nayler.

While quick to get to the inciting incident (Boddy’s murder, of course), the narrative can feel unwieldy while getting to know all of the characters–even with Peacock’s workout journal entries being obvious standouts. With plentiful motives and even more secrets, solving Boddy’s murder is just one of many mysteries surrounding Blackbrook promising more suspense–and murder–to come from this trilogy.

Unreliable narrators, red herrings, and clever dialogue from a really fun core cast make In the Hall With the Knife a winning mystery whether you’re a fan of the genre or the board game that inspired it.

Possible Pairings: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett, Heist Society by Ally Carter, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Killing November by Adriana Mather, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

Book Reviews

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, When We Collided by Emery Lord, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

Book Reviews

Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town: A Review

Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie Sue HitchcockIn a small town, you are forever defined by the worst thing that ever happened to you. Maybe your mother died and you’re so angry you see red every time you miss her. Maybe your best friend went missing, her body found two years later. Maybe you almost lost your little sister when a stranger approached her in the woods. Maybe your mother and father refused to listen when you tried to tell them what happened to you at church every Sunday in the confessional.

And maybe what happens to define you in your small town has an echo. A ripple when your best friend reinvents herself as the girl every boy wants. An attempt at justice that leaves you lighter and sparks a fire in your wake. A missed connection as you cross paths with a volunteer firefighter in the evacuation center.

Maybe this is all there is. All anyone in your small town will ever know about you. But maybe you’ll still die famous because doesn’t everyone die famous in a small town?

Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town (2021) by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock is a collection of loosely inter-connected short stories.

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Starting in Alaska the stories follow teen characters across the Pacific Northwest and Alaska as their lives cross paths in the aftermath of a devastating abduction, a sexual abuse scandal at a small town church, and a forest fire that changes everything.

Shifting viewpoints and locations slowly come into focus as readers find the core of the book where each story is a spoke around one (or all) of these events.

Standouts in the collection include “Alaska was Wasted on Us” and “The Stranger in the Woods” which serve as interesting mirrors with the two possible outcomes in the face of a near tragedy (Fiona realizing how wrong she is about Finn and Jenny realizing how close her family came to losing sister Jade forever).

Fans of Hitchcock’s previous Morris Award nominated short story collection will enjoy the similar structure found in Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town. Recommended for short story fans and readers of suspense.

Possible Pairings: Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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

Book Reviews

Next Year in Havana: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonMarisol Ferrera has grown up on stories of Cuba’s beauty, hearing her grandmother Elisa’s fond memories of growing up there again and again.

Elisa and her sisters were sugar queens, daughters of Emilio Perez one of Cuba’s infamous sugar barons. After years of walking the fine line between working with President Batista without ever angering his regime, the tides have turned. With Fidel Castro in power the only option the family has is to leave. At the airport in 1959 they think it will only be a short trip, a season abroad until Fidel is ousted.

In Miami in 2017 the family finally receives the news they have waited for. Fidel is dead. The Cuban exiles are free to return home. Elisa didn’t live long enough to see that day. Instead, it’s Marisol who will travel to Cuba for her grandmother.

Marisol is there to scatter Elisa’s ashes but she soon learns that Havana is not the city her family left behind decades ago. Poverty stands in harsh contrast to the island’s beauty. Political dissent is just as dangerous as it was before. And even Marisol’s grandmother still has secrets to reveal in the city of her birth.

As she discovers Cuba for herself Marisol will unearth old family secrets and define her own relationship with this country that has been the backdrop of all of her family’s hopes for decades in Next Year in Havana (2018) by Chanel Cleeton.

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Next Year in Havana alternates between Marisol’s story in 2017 as she travels to Havana for the first time and Elisa’s story of the month’s leading up to her family’s departure for Miami in 1958. This novel is a standalone but readers interested in learning more about the Perez family can also check out When We Left Cuba which is a companion novel about Elisa’s sister Beatriz.

Cleeton expertly balances two timelines as the stories intertwine with Marisol’s discoveries in Cuba. Seeing Cuba for the first time and learning more about her grandmother’s past, Marisol begins to understand that the Cuba she has always imagined pales in comparison to both the good and the bad of Cuba’s modern reality.

Elisa, meanwhile, learns that nothing about revolution is black and white–especially her own families role in it while her father tries to stay on Batista’s good side and Elisa herself begins an affair with a revolutionary.

While some reveals are far from surprising, the dual story line works well and is used to good effect to develop both protagonists. While some of the secondary characters lack definition Beatriz jumps off the page (in both storylines!) making her lead role in the companion book all the more exciting.

Next Year in Havana is as evocative as it is well-researched to bring Havana–both past and present–to life while hints of romance and mystery add urgency to this character-driven story. Ideal for readers looking to travel through the pages of a book and fans of sweeping family sagas. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova, Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan, Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Book Reviews

Race the Sands: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Life isn’t just about who you were—it’s about who you choose to be.”

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst“Call it what it is: monster racing. Forget that and you die.”

Tamra tells every one of her students that. She cautions them, every time, to stay focused on the race, the moment, and never forget that they are riding on the back of a monster. Not every rider remembers those lessons in the heat of the races.

The Becaran races are a chance for wealth and glory for the riders. The racers, the kehoks, get something else: a chance to be reborn as something less monstrous–a chance to try to redeem their damaged souls.

Tamra used to be a winner, a champion. Now she is a damaged trainer unsure how to overcome a bad reputation and mentor another champion. She only knows winning this season is her last chance to keep her daughter.

Raia is an untested rider. She has never raced, never even seen a kehok up close. Now she has to convince a trainer to take her on if she wants a chance to use the races to win her freedom and escape her domineering parents and fiance.

Together with a strange new kehok, Tamra and Raia have the potential to change the races and all of Becar forever. But only if they stay focused and remember: Only the race. Only the moment. Only the finish line in Race the Sands (2020) by Sarah Beth Durst.

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Durst’s latest standalone fantasy introduces readers to the beautiful and often brutal world of Becar–a desert country where every action can stain or elevate your soul with immediate consequences for your next incarnation. This raises, for all of the characters, thoughtful questions of how to live a moral life while also doing what needs to be done throughout the novel.

In a kingdom in flux waiting for the new emperor to be crowned, Tamra and Raia face their own mounting stakes as both women are forced to take chances on themselves and each other to try and win.

The story unfolds with a close third person narration following Tamra, Raia, and other key players in the story to create a strong ensemble cast notably including Tamra’s daughter, Yorbel–an augur with his own interest in kehoks, and Tamra’s patron Lady Evara who is the obvious successor to my favorite inscrutable fashion plate Effie Trinket.

Race the Sands is a fantasy that explores many things but at its core this is a story of mindfulness and focus as both Tamra and Raia answer what they truly want to accomplish and how far they are willing to go for those goals. The story also considers what makes a family–found or otherwise–as well as what happens when the people trusted to maintain order in society betray that trust.

Race the Sands is a fast-paced story filled with intrigue, action, and, of course, competition. A twisty, perfectly paced adventure ideal for readers who want their high fantasy with a healthy dose of mystery.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Sarah!

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Hunted By the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena, The Hunter Games by Suzanne Collins, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Book Reviews

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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

Book Reviews

The Sullivan Sisters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn OrmsbeeSisters Eileen, Claire, and Murphy used to be close. A visionary, a planner, and a performer respectively the sisters could accomplish amazing things–like making their house feel like a home even with their father dead and their mother increasingly absent.

But that was years ago. Now the girls can barely stand to be around each other.

At eighteen Eileen has been carrying a potentially dangerous secret for years. She is working a dead end job. She’s managed to hide her drinking from her mother so far. Her sisters aren’t as easy to fool.

Seventeen-year-old Claire is an Exceller and she is ready to use everything at her disposal to Excel, succeed, get the hell out of her small Oregon town, and find her first girlfriend. With advice from her favorite self-help Youtuber, Claire has done everything right. But she still didn’t get into Yale–the only college she applied to.

Fourteen-year-old Murphy has always felt like a fifth wheel in her family. She never met her father so she can’t miss him. Her mom is never around. Eileen and Claire never have time for her. Luckily, Murphy has her magic tricks to keep her company. She used to also have Siegfried the family turtle. But then she forgot to feed him one too many times.

Days before Christmas Eileen receives a letter that could change everything. The sisters have inherited a house from an uncle they’ve never heard of. A house that could have answers for Eileen, money for Claire to get out of town, and a chance for Murphy to feel like she’s part of a family again in The Sullivan Sisters (2020) by Kathryn Ormsbee

Find it on Bookshop.

The Sullivan Sisters alternates between third person chapters from each sister. Unfortunately, the clinical tone of the narration also makes the sister’s blend together. A heavy reliance on quirks to define their personalities doesn’t help matters.

Your feelings about this book will depend heavily on your expectations going in. If you are looking for a heartfelt story of sisters reconnecting, this is the book for you. If, like me, you came expecting an atmospheric house mystery you will likely be disappointed.

Ormsbee tackles a lot in the book and the mystery aspect, such as it is, barely makes the list. What The Sullivan Sisters does well is present three flawed characters (four if you count their mother) who have gotten so used to drifting along that they need a major jolt (like a surprise inheritance) to get back on track.

Throughout the book Eileen is forced to confront her alcoholism (she is in AA by the end of the story). Claire has to admit that her self-help idol may not be as helpful as she thought but also it may not be as terrible as Claire thought to be queer in a small town–even without a plan. Murphy is a hard one. She is funny and often the most approachable of the sisters. But she also killed Siegfried the turtle through her own neglect–something that was hard to swallow even with an abundance of remorse on her part.

The Sullivan Sisters is a story about connection and secrets. Recommended for readers who enjoy reading about complicated sibling relationships, family secrets, and flawed characters.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

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