Field Notes on Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Look, this is what I do. I tell stories. And stories are magic. Trust me on this.”

cover art for Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. SmithHugo is used to being a minor celebrity in England–that’s what happens when you’re a sextuplet. He’s used to being grouped with his siblings at home, at school, and even in posts on their mom’s parenting blog. He’s used to having a girlfriend and he’s dreading what happens when he starts college with all of his siblings next year.

But then his girlfriend dumps him and suddenly a lot of the givens in Hugo’s life are up in the air. Like the trip he and his now ex-girlfriend were going to take across the United States after graduation. Hugo still wants to go, is actually looking forward to the chance to travel alone if he’s being honest, but there’s one problem: the tickets are all booked under the name of his ex, Margaret Campbell. Nontransferable. No exceptions.

Margaret “Mae” Campbell has just been rejected from her dream film program. Her dads assure her that her application film was perfect. And Mae can always apply again as a transfer student. But with her life in small town New York already feeling so tiny, she’s ready to shake things up. Enter Hugo’s post online looking for a Margaret Campbell to take his spare ticket in exchange for making this trip happen.

Traveling together is meant to be a simple business arrangement. But how can Hugo help but be drawn in when Mae starts recording footage for a film about love? And how can Mae not want to help Hugo figure out how to follow his own dreams when she finds out how much he wants to learn who he is away from his brothers and sisters?

Sometimes you only get one chance to get what you want. As they near the end of their trip, Hugo and Mae have to decide how much they’re willing to put on the line for their dreams–and each other in Field Notes on Love (2019) by Jennifer E. Smith.

Set over the course of their whirlwind trip, Field Notes on Love alternates closer third person chapters following Hugo and Mae. Smith populates this story with a distinct and memorable cast of characters including Hugo’s large, boisterous family as well as Mae’s dads and her grandmother.

Hugo and Mae are excellent foils as they push each other to chase their dreams even if it means going outside of their comfort zones. Mae’s practical, savvy personality is a perfect contrast to Hugo who is more of a dreamer and still figuring out what he wants from life. Although both characters have very different visions for their future, Smith presents each course thoughtfully and honestly.

Field Notes on Love captures the strange intimacy of being forced into a small space with a person you don’t know and uses that starting point to build a fully realized love story that is effervescent and sweet. Field Notes on Love is the perfect story for anyone who’s ever wanted to take a vacation from their life, ever dreamed of making a big change, and anyone who has ever wanted that intangible something more. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Dramatically Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Two Can Keep a Secret: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Welcome to life in a small town. You’re only as good as the best thing your family’s done. Or the worst.”

cover art for Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManusWelcome to Echo Ridge, population 4,935. Echo Ridge looks like small town America at its finest. But looks can be deceiving.

Ellery knows about all about the secrets hidden in Echo Ridge because her family is at the heart of them. Her aunt went missing from the town when she was Ellery’s age–sixteen. Five years ago their family was in the news again when a homecoming queen was murdered, her body found at the local Murderland amusement park.

Malcolm wishes he could forget Echo Ridge’s darker side and the role his brother played in the murder five years ago as prime suspect. Declan was never arrested but a small town’s memory is long and he was never cleared either. Even when Malcolm’s mother remarries it isn’t enough to change what the town thinks of his family. Not really.

When Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are sent to live with their grandmother while their mother is in rehab it hardly feels like a fresh start. Instead, Echo Ridge seems to be choked by past tragedies it can’t forget. When another girl–another homecoming queen–goes missing both Ellery and Malcolm will have to explore Echo Ridge’s darkest secrets to uncover the truth and the killer in Two Can Keep a Secret (2019) by Karen M. McManus.

McManus’s latest standalone mystery is a tense exploration of a town with a dark past. The novel alternates between Ellery and Malcolm’s first person narration. This novel capitalizes on the strengths of McManus’s debut novel One of Us is Lying (multiple narrators, tense pacing, conversational and readable prose) without the problematic resolution.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a refreshingly realistic mystery where, although Ellery identifies as a true crime buff and would-be amateur sleuth, she still gets things wrong and still needs help from actual investigators to crack the case.

The contrast between Ellery with her connection to one of the town’s victims and Malcolm with his connection to one of the town’s suspects is striking. Their chemistry and nearly immediate rapport is countered by these preconceived identities that should place them on opposite sides. Instead their friendship is made of stronger stuff with rock solid loyalty and hints of romance that add much-needed levity to an otherwise dark story.

The story’s secondary cast including Ellery’s twin bother Ezra and Declan’s best friend Mia are also welcome additions who flesh out the cast in this short but evocative story.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a taut mystery filled with unexpected turns and surprises that will keep readers guessing right until the last line. Recommended for amateur detectives, mystery lovers, and true crime enthusiasts alike.

Possible Pairings: Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, This is Our Story by Ashley Elston, The Body in the Woods by April Henry, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Amateurs by Sarah Shepard, Sadie by Courtney Summers

Ash Princess: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Ash Princess by Laura SebastianTen years ago invaders killed Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen of Astrea, enslaved her people, and stole her name.

Over many long years, Theo has learned how to play the game. Don’t anger the Kaiser and stay alive. She plays along with his manipulations, silently accepts his punishments, and hides behind the persona of Thora–the meek girl the Kaiser thinks she has become.

But when Theo is forced to do the unthinkable she reaches a breaking point.

Survival is no longer enough. After years of hiding, it’s time for Theo to fight and reclaim everything that has been stolen in Ash Princess (2018) by Laura Sebastian.

Ash Princess is Sebastian’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy.

Sebastian’s richly described world, complex elemental magic, and fraught politics add new twists to this familiar story. Unfortunately one element that remains the same is that the enslaved Astreans are “tawny skinned” and dark haired while the invading Kalovoxians are pale and blonde–a common trope that is played out and could do with more unpacking in this and other similar titles.

Theo is a survivor who has learned how to hide in plain sight. Because of her small world and her captivity her first person narration often feels claustrophobic as she struggles to plot her way out of the Kaiser’s clutches.

Ash Princess’s promising in contrived plot is marred by an erratic timeline that brings Theo’s interactions with the Kaiser’s son Prinz Søren from calculated seduction as part of an assassination attempt to actual love in the blink of an eye. Theo’s shift from trying to keep herself alive while waiting for a rescue that never comes shifts equally fast to Theo placing herself in the center of a rebellion plot as a spy.

Theo’s perilous situation and the high stakes of the story are not enough to distract from a second half that drags while characters dither over who to trust, who to love, and (perhaps most relevantly) who to kill. While Theo is an interesting and strong heroine, she is not always sympathetic with unclear motivations for her numerous poor decisions throughout the book.

Ash Princess is an entertaining, plot-driven fantasy. Recommended for readers who like their fantasy angsty and their characters morally ambiguous at best.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Everless by Sara Holland, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene

One of Us is Lying: A Review

Here’s what we know:

Bronwyn always follows the rules. She’s heading to Yale next year and she would never risk that or disappointing her immigrant father.

Cooper is an all-star baseball player. His pitching abilities are sure to lead the Bayview team to victory and pave Cooper’s way to the majors–just like his father wants. But Cooper wants other things that he’s afraid to talk about out loud.

Addy is homecoming princess and not much else. She isn’t ambitious or independent but she isn’t sure why she has to be when she already has the perfect life with her boyfriend.

Nate really belongs in detention. He’s always doing something wrong and has been for years. What do you expect from a guy who’s already on probation for drug dealing.

Simon is the outcast of Bayview but he’s also one of the most powerful students there thanks to the gossip app he created that dishes all of Bayview High’s worst secrets.

All of them were caught using cell phones during school hours. All of them claim they were framed. On Monday afternoon the five of them walk into detention at Bayview High. Only four of them walk out alive. Every one else has a motive for killing Simon. But no one has any proof. Yet. As the investigation heats up Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper all have to decide how far they’ll go to keep their secrets in One of Us is Lying (2017) by Karen M. McManus.

One of Us is Lying is McManus’ debut novel. This standalone thriller was partially inspired by the 1980s movie The Breakfast Club. The novel is written in alternating first person chapters between Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper as they try to make sense of what happened to Simon.

Despite the numerous narrators each character manages to sound distinct and stand out in their own sections. Anyone who is familiar with teen movies or YA novels will recognize some of the plot points (such as staight-laced Bronwyn pursuing a relationship with the resident bad boy) but they manage to feel fresh and interesting within this story. McManus keeps a tight rein on the plot as the story’s twists which are revealed at a satisfying pace throughout the novel. Unlikely friendships, surprising romances, and quite a few surprises make One of Us is Lying a winning mystery for even the most jaded fans of the genre.

While I was a big fan of most of this novel, there are two things I need to talk about. Avert your eyes if you want to avoid spoilers.

——START SPOILERS——

Every character in the book has a big secret. We eventually learn that Cooper’s secret isn’t steroid use as everyone suspects. Instead, Cooper is gay. And he is outed during the course of the investigation. Cooper being outed by reporters during the investigation is rightly treated as egregious behavior but it also felt tiresome and a little sad to still have it be a plot device. Maybe it’s realistic but I wish we were beyond that point already.

Then there’s the big reveal about Simon’s killer. It turns out that Simon was depressed from constantly trying and failing to be one of the popular kids. Refusing to discuss other courses of action Simon kills himself and use his suicide to frame a classmate for his death.

While the suicide-as-murder-frame-up is a familiar trope in mystery novels, it’s a troubling one in a young adult novel. It’s problematic to still have mental illness be treated as a plot device and especially to not have it be addressed in any way beyond being part of Simon’s brilliant plan.f

——END SPOILERS——

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

What to Say Next: A Review

Kit doesn’t know why she decides to avoid her best friends Annie and Violet at lunch. Or maybe she does. Ever since her father died in a car accident, it feels like no one knows how to talk to Kit or what to say to make it better. No one seems comfortable with Kit’s grief and sadness–not even her own mother.

David is floored when Kit sits at his lunch table–the first time anyone has in the 622 days he has attended Mapleview High School. David doesn’t necessarily mind sitting alone. It’s nice to have some quiet in the middle of a too-noisy day and sometimes it’s too hard to figure out what to say to people without being able to check his notebook to see if they are someone he–and his older sister Mini–thinks David can trust.

Nothing about Kit and David’s friendship makes sense on the outside but Kit appreciates David’s bluntness and his honesty. David, meanwhile, finally feels like he’s found someone who might be okay with David being himself. As they grow closer, Kit asks for David’s help understanding the inevitability (or not) of her father’s death which leads to a truth that might end their friendship forever in What to Say Next (2017) by Julie Buxbaum.

This standalone contemporary novel alternates first person perspective between David and Kit.

David is smart and self-aware despite his lack of emotional intelligence. He knows his limitations and strengths. He also knows how people are likely to perceive him because of his position on the autism spectrum and the coping mechanisms he has employed to continue to function in a sometimes overly stimulating school environment. Kit is still adjusting to life without her father–the parent who was always the one to nurture in the past–while also negotiating life in her small town as a girl who is biracial (Kit’s mother is Indian).

Seeing a neurologically diverse male lead alongside a heroine who is described as curvy and having brown skin is fantastic and makes this an obvious book to highlight and promote. That said, Buxbaum tackles a lot in this novel with varying levels of success.

David and Kit have distinct voices but the way other characters engage with David is often frustrating and demonstrates a fundamental lack of both empathy and understanding a person on the autism spectrum may engage with the world. The fact that David’s behavior is used as a plot point for one of the main conflicts between himself and Kit makes this treatment even more frustrating.

What to Say Next is an entertaining novel with unique characters, an engaging plot, and a cute romance. Readers looking for a quick but substantive diversion will enjoy this story that blends themes of connection with grief and family. Recommended for readers seeking a romance that will broaden their horizons.

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills, Birthday by Meredith Russo, Lucky in Love by Kasie West

Genuine Fraud: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You stay away long enough, there doesn’t seem like much to go back for.”

Jule is strong.She is athletic. She is resilient.

Imogen is charming. She is wealthy. She is enchanting.

Together Jule and Imogen could be the perfect pair. Or maybe that was never the plan. Whatever Imogen might think, Jule knows that they need each other.

But Jule has everything under control because she is smart. Jule is the one who will save the day, not some great white hetero action hero. Jule knows that she is the center of her story and she’ll do anything to stay there in Genuine Fraud (2017) by E. Lockhart.

This inventive standalone thriller starts at the end. Jule is in Mexico. She’s on the run. And nothing turned out the way she had planned. From there the story unspools toward the beginning and the unlikely twist of fate that set Jule on this path and her collision course with Imogen.

Even knowing how it all ends, this homage to classic thrillers and Victorian novels packs in more than its share of twists and shocking reveals. Like Jule herself Genuine Fraud is shrewd, calculating, and electric.

Possible Pairings: Like Never and Always by Ann Aguirre, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Bad Girls with Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2017*

Places No One Knows: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I start, because if I don’t, then everything just stays the same.”

“I thought he made me a different person altogether, but maybe I was always holding those pieces inside me, waiting for a chance to use them.”

Waverly Camdenmar doesn’t sleep. She runs instead going as fast and as far as her legs will allow until she can’t think and the only option is collapse. Then the sun comes up, she pastes on her best face, and pretends everything is normal. It’s easy to hide behind her academic achievements and the popularity her best friend Maribeth so covets.

Marshall Holt is too apathetic to pretend anything is normal in his life or even remotely okay. Neither has been true about his family or his life for quite some time. He doesn’t care because he’s busy trying to lose himself in the oblivion of drinking too much, smoking too much, and making too many bad decisions. It’s been working great so far except for the whole maybe not graduating thing.

Waverly and Marshall are used to watching each other from afar–a little wary and a little hungry–but never anything more. Not until Waverly’s attempt at deep relaxation dreams her into Marshall’s bedroom and everything changes.

Now when the sun comes up Waverly’s carefully ordered world is stifling instead of safe. After years of trying not to feel anything, Marshall is feeling far too much. Waverly and Marshall thought they knew exactly who they were and who they could be. Now neither of them is sure what that means in Places No One Knows (2016) by Brenna Yovanoff.

Yovanoff’s latest standalone novel is a razor sharp blend of contemporary and magic realism alternating between Waverly and Marshall’s first person narration. This character driven novel focuses on the ways their two personalities clash and intersect throughout their strange encounters.

Waverly is analytical and pragmatic. She knows that she is the smartest person in the room and she doesn’t care if that makes her threatening. Her sometime friends describe Waverly as a sociopath or a robot and she feels like she should care about that but it also seems to require too much effort.

Marshall, by contrast, is hyper-sensitive and philosophical and impractical. He doesn’t want to care about the way his family is falling apart or the way everything else in his life is crumbling. But he does care. A lot. And it’s wrecking him.

At its core Places No One Knows is a story about how two people engage with each other and also the greater world. Yovanoff’s writing is flawless with deliberate structure and scathing commentary both as a whole and on a sentence-by-sentence level. This story subverts gender roles and societal norms all in the guise of a slightly unconventional love story.

Places No One Knows is an excellent novel filled with fascinating characters. Although Waverly and Marshall’s relationship is a centerpiece of the story both characters also have their own stories to tell and their own journeys to make, which sometimes mirror each other and sometimes diverge, as they struggle to make the active choice to save themselves.

Possible Pairings: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, American Street by Ibi Zoboi