Blackout: A Review

Blackout by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola YoonEveryone who’s ever lived in New York City has a blackout story. Maybe it involves the looting and chaos of the 1977 blackout. Maybe you were at your first part-time job orientation about to get your ID photo taken when the blackout in 2003 hit the entire northeast (that’s mine). Maybe you were without power for five days after Superstorm Sandy in 2011 (still me). Maybe you have a different story.

For a group of Black teens things get a lot clearer after the lights go out. Like, all the lights. Everywhere.

They all start in different places. Stranded in Manhattan, isolated from friends, worried about elderly relatives, thinking about what comes next.

But tonight is the last block party of the summer. Missing it is not an option. Whether walking, biking, or going rogue in a NYC tour bus (for real) everyone has somewhere to be tonight. And, along the way, everyone has something to learn about themselves and their heart in Blackout (2021) by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon.

Find it on Bookshop.

Blackout is a collaborative novel featuring six interconnected stories from some of the best voices in writing YA fiction right now. Clayton–the initiator of the project–pulled these authors together to create their own version of the ubiquitous Hallmark romantic comedies that often fail to feature Black characters (or any characters of color) finding love. The audiobook is pitch perfect with narrators Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Dion Graham, Imani Parks, Jordan Cobb, Shayna Small, A.J Beckles and Bahni Turpin bringing the characters to life.

The book starts with “The Long Walk” by Tiffany D. Jackson, a story told in five acts throughout the novel as exes Tammie and Kareem reluctantly travel together back to Brooklyn after the blackout (and finding out they were both offered a single internship) leaves them stranded at the Apollo theater in Harlem. Tammie’s narration is sharp and still smarting after the breakup but as the two make their way to a block party where Kareem will be DJing, both teens realize that maybe growing apart doesn’t mean they have to stay apart.

In “Mask Off” by Nic Stone JJ (Tammie’s brother, who is bisexual) is trapped in a subway car with his longtime crush Tremain. Helping Tremain manage his claustrophobia as they escape the crowded subway allows the two to talk–and connect–more than their years at school together and JJ’s suspicions about Tremain’s sexuality have allowed. This is one of the shorter stories but Stone uses every word to great effect drawing readers into JJ and Tremain’s dramatic subway exit.

Even when her heart is broken, Nella loves visiting her grandfather at his nursing home, Althea House in “Made to Fit” by Ashley Woodfolk. There’s nothing like hearing about her grandparents’ love story or hanging out with all the cool seniors–especially when Joss and her therapy dog come around. When a cherished photo goes missing, the girls work together to try and track it down leading to a search through the house that reveals as much about their mutual interest as it does about the missing photo. Come for the cute banter, stay for the matchmaking grandfather.

“All the Great Love Stories … and Dust” starts with Lana’s big plans to finally confess her feelings for her best friend Tristan. A plan that is delayed when the blackout strands the two teens in the main branch of the New York Public Library. While Tristan never quite feels like a worthy love interest for her, Lana’s internal dialog as she tries to figure out how to finally admit her feelings is compelling and authentic.

Kayla thought she had problems before her class trip to New York City in “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” by Angie Thomas but that’s nothing compared to how the trip has been going. Things have felt stale with her longtime boyfriend Rashad for a while but that doesn’t mean that Kayla is prepared for her entire class to discuss the intricacies of her love life when Micah starts trying to get her attention. Kayla is an anxious, fast talker and her narration here is exhausting as she spins out when–with the advent of the blackout–it feels like things between her, Rashad, and Micah are about to come to a head. Unlikely advice from the class’s tour bus driver (Tammie’s dad) remind Kayla that before she can choose either boy, she has to remember how to choose herself.

Blackout wraps with “Seymour and Grace” by Nicola Yoon. Grace’s ride share to the block party takes an unexpected turn when she connects with her driver Seymour. Her entire plan for the night was to get to the block party looking sharp as hell while she gives her ex Tristan the earful he so righteously deserves. But plans change all the time. Maybe this ride share is a sign that Grace should make some changes too. Yoon brings her usual excellent prose and clever characters to this story making it a powerful conclusion to this collection.

Blackout is a fun, multifaceted story centering Black joy and highlightling love in many forms. The interconnected nature of the stories leaves room for fun Easter eggs to tie the different pieces together while leaving space for each author to shine in this book filled with humor, pathos, and plenty of love. Blackout is a must read for fans of contemporary romance–short story or novel–and a perfect introduction to these talented authors.

Possible Pairings: Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson, Summer Days and Summer Nights edited by Stephanie Perkins, The Meet-Cute Project by Rhiannon Richardson, Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie Rigaud, Up All Night: 13 Stories Between Sunset and Sunrise edited by Laura Silverman, The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith, Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm*

The Ivory Key: A Review

The Ivory Key by Akshaya RamanAshoka has always been known for its magic–a prized resource mined from the quarry beneath the kingdom’s palace.

But the magic is running out.

Newly named maharani after her mother’s sudden death, Vira won’t let losing the kingdom’s magic be her legacy. Not when following a trail of ancient riddles and clues to find the mythical Ivory Key could unlock more magic quarries.

Ronak, Vira’s twin brother, has always been more interested in studying the past like their Papa than in preparing for his future. With royal expectations closing in around him, Ronak will do anything to get away. Even promising to secure the Ivory Key for a dangerous mercenary.

Kaleb has never felt like a half-brother to any of the royal siblings. But his Lyrian birth mother is enough evidence to imprison him for the previous maharani’s assassination. Helping Vira find the Ivory Key could clear Kaleb’s name. But that still might not be enough to reclaim his old life.

Riya has been happy in the two years since she left the palace behind. Now, drawn into the hunt for the key with her siblings, Riya will have to choose between her obligations to her family and her loyalties to the Ravens–the group of rebels that took her in when she had nothing and no one.

Four siblings, one magical artifact, centuries of secrets in The Ivory Key (2022) by Akshaya Raman.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Ivory Key is Raman’s first novel and the start of an India-inspired duology. The main characters are all brown skinned and Ashokan (a name commonly associated with ancient India) while the neighboring Lyrians are described as fairer skinned. The story alternates between close third person perspectives following the four siblings.

Raman takes her time building out the world of The Ivory Key dropping hints about each character’s backstory alongside details of the political landscape that threatens Ashoka’s future. A well-developed and unique magic system underscore the urgency of Vira’s search for the Ivory Key although that part of the plot is slow to start.

Balancing four points of view is challenging and something that makes the first half of The Ivory Key drag as characters are introduced and tensions build. Once the four royal siblings reluctantly begin working together to find the key, the story starts to pick up and feels more like the adventure promised in the synopsis.

Hints of romance add dimension to the story and drama to one of the book’s biggest reveals although most of the story is squarely focused on the fractious relationships between Vira, Ronak, Kaleb, and Riya. A rushed final act introduces new twists and obstacles for all of the siblings as their paths once again diverge leaving each primed for an exciting conclusion to this duology in the next installment.

The Ivory Key is a sweeping, politically charged adventure where action and the search for magic are balanced by court intrigue and maneuvering; a dramatic story that isn’t afraid to take its time to draw readers in.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faisal, Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim, Sisters of the Snake by Sarena Nanua and Sasha Nanua, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool

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

Killing Time: A Review

Killing Time by Brenna EhrlichWith so much small town charm, it’s easy to think that bad things don’t happen in Ferry, Connecticut.

Which is why everyone is so shaken when local teacher Mrs. Halsey is found dead. Murdered. Even the local crime reporters are shocked by the violence of the crime.

Natalie Temple always thought she’d have a chance to apologize tom Mrs. Halswy after their in the middle of senior year. Mrs. Halsey is the reason Natalie is going to her dream school to study journalism.

Instead, Natalie’s favorite teacher is dead and no one knows why or who to blame.

Mrs. Halsey taught Natalie and her best friend Katie all about the power of true crime as a genre–an interest Natalie’s strict and overprotective mother has never been willing to entertain. Now, Natalie knows the best way to honor Mrs. Halsey is to find her killer. The investigation could also help Natalie take her “blood drenched” podcast Killing Time to the next level–something she’s sure no one would appreciate more than Mrs. Halsey.

Investigating the murder will bring Natalie face-to-face with the seedier side of Ferry–and some uncomfortable truths about her own family history–as Natalie learns that secrets never stay buried forever in Killing Time (2022) by Brenna Ehrlich.

Find it on Bookshop.

Killing Time plays out in two timelines alternating between Natalie’s investigation into Mrs. Halsey’s death and flashbacks to her mother Helen’s first year at college. All main characters are presumed white.

Natalie’s first person narration is filled with smart references to narrative conventions in true crime stories and observations about the divisions between East and West Ferry–parts of town separated by train tracks as much as income brackets. Unfortunately, Natalie’s singular focus on her investigation leaves little space for Natalie to gain dimension beyond her fixation on solving Mrs. Halsey’s murder–most of the on page interactions with her best friend revolve around the podcast. Although Ehrlich explores more of Helen’s past in the flashback chapters, Natalie’s relationship with her mother remains very one note for most of the story without fully exploring any of the dynamics inherent to growing up with not just a single parent but one who had Natalie very young.

Where Killing Time excels is in highlighting the knife edge journalists and true crime afficionados walk while trying to balance morbid interest with compassion for the real people who are impacted by these crimes. As with many ethical questions, there are no right answers but Ehrlich explores both the good and the bad through Natalie and Helen’s timelines.

Readers looking for a new true-crime-fueled story in the vein of Courtney Summers or Holly Jackson will find a lot to enjoy in Killing Time.

Possible Pairings: They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, Sadie by Courtney Summers, The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

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

The Girl the Sea Gave Back: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Girl the Sea Gave Back by Adrienne YoungTova has never been comfortable among the Svell; the clan may have saved her from the sea but that does not mean they want her. She knows that the clan needs her as a Truthtongue, relying on her gift to cast rune stones and interpret the web of fate. She knows that being indispensbale is as close as she’ll ever get to being safe when the tattoos covering her skin forever mark her as other.

It’s been more than ten years since the Aska and the Riki ended their blood feud and joined together as the Nādhir. Halvard has been chosen to lead them in this era of peace. He knows little of war and less of treachery.

The runes have never lied to Tova. When they show her a startling future where there are no Svell, she knows her tenuous safety is over. After years of waiting, it’s time to act.

With the neighboring Svell trying to press their position, Halvard knows defending the Nādhir’s territory will have devastating consequences for both sides. He knows it’s a fight his clan has to win if they want to survive.

No one can change the will of the gods. But even Tova is uncertain what fate wants from her as the Svell and the Nādhir move inexorably closer to a final confrontation. Tova is used to untangling the knots of fate but as she and Halvard circle ever closer to each other, she isn’t sure if this time the web of fate will be a net to trap her or a rope to pull her from the depths in The Girl the Sea Gave Back (2019) by Adrienne Young.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Girl the Sea Gave Back is a sequel to Young’s debut novel Sky in the Deep and expands the Nordic/viking inspired dimensions of that world where all major characters are presumed white. The Girl the Sea Gave Back alternates between Tova and Halvard’s narrations alongside flashbacks throughout the novel. This book is set thirteen years after the events of Sky in the Deep and contains minor spoilers for that novel. I’d recommend reading these books in order to fully understand the political landscape inhabited by the characters although this book more than stands on its own merits.

Tova and Halvard are excellent main characters readers will immediately love, particularly shrewd Tova as she scrambles to stay ahead of fate’s twists and turns.

The Girl the Sea Gave Back is a complex story that capitalizes on the world and themes Young first introduced in her debut novel. The intricate dual POV structure and flashbacks add further dimension to this story as two characters with little personal understanding of the brutality of war prepare to fight for their home. Young expertly balances new material with just the right amount of callbacks to Sky in the Deep while offering a world that is both more compelling and more magical.

The Girl the Sea Gave Back is a satisfying adventure perfect for readers who enjoy stories with light fantasy elements, a slow build, and a puzzle-like narrative.

Possible Pairings: Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, Lore by Alexandra Bracken, Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon by Mary Fan, Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Warriors of the Wild by Tricia Levenseller, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Girl King by Mimi Yu

In the Study With the Wrench: A Review

*In the Study With the Wrench is the second book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue. Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers.*

In the Study With the Wrench by Diana PeterfreundOne blizzard and one murder later, Blackbrook Academy is a disaster. The campus is still in disarray with unrepaired storm damage. Students are withdrawing faster than you can say, “Did you hear about Headmaster Boddy’s murder?”

And, in the midst of the media firestorm, six students have earned an unwelcome reputation as the Murder Crew after discovering the body and helping to solve the murder.

Orchid relishes being back on campus even with the school’s tanking reputation because being there, being Orchid, means she’s safe from her past. Vaughn Green is thrilled that he and Orchid have a chance to spend more time together–but he also knows that means she’ll have more time to figure out what he’s hiding. In the wake of discovering some of Finn Plum’s secrets, Scarlett is reeling as one half of a former platonic power couple while Finn struggles to figure out how to win back her trust. Beth “Peacock” Picach is back on top of her tennis game thanks to a new life coach. Then there’s Sam “Mustard” Maestor who is still trying to make sense of his new (surprisingly dangerous) school … and his infatuation with the often deeply annoying Finn.

In a school that’s still filled with unaswered questions, maybe it’s no surprise when another dead body turns up and brings the Murder Crew to the center of another investigation in In the Study With the Wrench (2020) by Diana Peterfreund.

Find it on Bookshop.

In the Study With the Wrench is the second book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers.

Like its predecessor, this novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six main characters. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx, the rest of the cast is presumed white.

In the Study With the Wrench picks up shortly after the conclusion of book one as students return for a new term to find the school and its campus much changed. Peterfreund expands on plot twists revealed in the previous novel’s final chapter while delving deeper into Blackbrook Academy’s secrets in this second installment. Readers also learn more about Vaughn’s tense home life and his complicated connection to the school as well as seeing more of more of Orchid’s past.

While this information sets up a lot of interesting plot threads to be tied up in the conclusion of this fast-paced trilogy, Vaughn and Orchid are often the least interesting characters as readers quickly learn more about their respective situations than either character–or anyone else in the book–giving some later plot twists less impact. The classic game characters, reinterpreted by Peterfreund, continue to be the greatest strength of this series.

With an almost literal cliffhanger ending, more murder, and plenty of suspects, In the Study With the Wrench is another exciting installment in a mystery that is equal parts humor and suspense.

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

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi, 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*

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.

Find in on Bookshop.

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, Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich, 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

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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*

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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