Once Upon a Broken Heart: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie GarberEvangeline Fox was raised to believe in wishes and fairy tales and things that seem impossible. So, when the boy she loves proposes to her step-sister instead, Evangeline is certain that a curse can be the only explanation.

There’s always a way to break a curse, but that doesn’t help when no one else believes that there is a curse.

Desperate to stop the wedding and running out of time, Evangeline turns to the Fates. Given her heartache, she’s certain that Jacks, the Prince of Hearts, will be sympathetic to her cause. After all, the Fates aren’t evil. The real danger is that the Fates have never known the difference between evil and good, making their help as dangerous as their ire. But Evangeline knows exactly what she wants and she is certain Jacks won’t be able to twist her straightforward wish.

Bargaining with a Fate is simple: Always promise less than you can give, for Fates always take more. Do not make bargains with more than one Fate. And, above all, never fall in love with a Fate. Easy enough until Jacks asks for three kisses in exchange for stopping the wedding. Evangeline knows she’s made a mistake almost as soon as the agreement is struck, but it will be weeks before she fully understands the ramifications of her reckless deal.

It’s always dangerous to attract the attention of a Fate. As Evangeline learns more about Jacks, she realizes that their bargain has higher stakes than three stolen kisses.

Evangeline has always known that every story has the potential for infinite endings. But when she finds herself in the Magnificent North surrounded by tantalizing truths about her past and secrets surrounding her present with Jacks, Evangeline will have to find a way to survive long enough to reach the end of her story if she wants to see which ending will be hers in Once Upon a Broken Heart (2021) by Stephanie Garber.

Find it on Bookshop.

Once Upon a Broken Heart is the start of a new series set in the same world as Garber’s Caraval trilogy. Once Upon a Broken Heart can be read on its own but does include minor spoilers for the Caraval trilogy. Evangeline’s story is written in close third person and begins in Valenda (the setting for much of the Caraval series) before moving to the Magnificent North. Evangeline and Jacks are white but there’s diversity among other characters.

Garber once again delivers a lush fantasy filled with magical details and glittering settings as Evangeline discovers the Magnificent North and explores it through a lens of wonder. This fantasy adventure seamlessly includes elements of mystery and suspense as Evangeline reluctantly works with Jacks to learn more about the circumstances that have brought her north. Even with his self-proclaimed (and, in the Caraval series, demonstrated) status as an anti-hero–if not a villain–Jacks is surprisingly compelling here despite past misdeeds.

Evangeline’s story starts with a bad decision and continues in that vein as our rose-gold-haired heroine’s naivete is put to the test again and again as she collides with Jacks and his mysterious plans for her and the Magnificent North–a territory every bit as magical as Valenda with even more mystery as its history and even its fairytales are carefully guarded and never make their way south intact. Despite a series of bad choices, Evangeline remains an endearing protagonist that readers can’t help but root for as she struggles to find her way free of past mistakes.

Once Upon a Broken Heart is a sparkling story filled with adventure, broken hearts, and magic as one girl learns she’s capable of more than she could have imagined. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, The Selection by Kiera Cass, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Havenfall by Sara Holland, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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

It Sounded Better In My Head: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina KenwoodNatalie isn’t sure if she should be madder that her parents waited until Christmas to announce their divorce–months after they reached the decision–or that neither of them seem to be that upset about it. Where’s the fighting?

Even venting about the whole thing to her best friends, Zach and Lucy, is awkward now that they’ve become a couple. Natalie should have seen it coming. Objectively, the signs were all there. But she also always thought she and Zach would be the ones to end up together. If Natalie had just managed to be brave and say the right thing for once in her life.

That never happens to Natalie. She used to be able to blame things like that on her cystic acne and her relatedly low self-confidence. Now that her skin is clear, her life hasn’t suddenly become the one she’s always imagined. She’s still single, still a third wheel, and still very awkward most of the time.

Natalie is used to being uncomfortable in her own skin–and in most other places as well, if she’s being honest. So she’s as confused as anyone when Zach’s hot older brother Alex starts paying attention to her, and talking to her, and maybe kissing her. After years of doing everything she can to disappear, Natalie has to decide if she’s ready for someone to finally see all of her in It Sounded Better in My Head (2020) by Nina Kenwood.

Find it on Bookshop.

It Sounded Better in My Head is Kenwood’s debut novel. It was a finalist for the 2021 Morris Award. All characters are presumed white.

A conversational narrative voice makes it clear that Natalie still bears scars from her acne–both literal and figurative–after being defined for so long by the thing that shattered her self-esteem. Natalie’s first-person narration also amplifies her confusion and stress navigating attention from Alex after years of knowing him only as her best friend’s cool older brother.

Natalie’s self-deprecating humor and wry observations make her anxiety bearable combining levity and pathos in one story. Set in Melbourne this character-driven plot plays out during the end of Natalie’s senior year in high school as she (and friends Zach and Lucy) try to decide what comes next. The trio’s focus on college admissions contrasts well with Alex’s efforts to become an apprentice chef.

It Sounded Better in My Head is a truly funny novel with a truly clever narrator. Ideal for readers looking for a contemporary novel that is both sweet and genuine. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Past Perfect by Leila Sales, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

Tokyo Ever After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tokyo Ever After by Emiko JeanIzumi Tanaka is used to not quite fitting into her small, mostly white, town in northern California. She goes by Izzy because it’s “easier,” she’s grateful to be best friends with the only other non-white girls at school. And she’s always been close to her single mother.

At least she thought she was.

After Izumi finds out the truth about her father’s identity, she isn’t sure what to think of her mother or her own life anymore.

Turns out Izumi’s never-in-the-picture father is the Crown Prince of Japan. In other words: Izumi is suddenly a princess!

In a whirlwind of preparation and dodging paparazzi, Izumi travels to Japan to meet her father and learn more about this side of her family. But it turns out being a princess isn’t as easy as putting on a new tiara. Izumi is woefully unprepared for the rigid royal protocols, Japanese culture shock, and the media attention. Worse, she might be “too American” for Japan after years of being “too Japanese” in her hometown.

Add to the mix even more press, a cute bodyguard who might hate Izumi (or not?!), and plenty of scheming cousins and Izumi is in for a trip she–and the rest of Japan–won’t soon forget in Tokyo Ever After (2021) by Emiko Jean.

Find it on Bookshop.

Tokyo Ever After is tailor made for anyone who loves a royal romantic comedy (or royal gossip) complete with near misses, embarrassing shenanigans, and opposites attracting.

Izumi is an irreverent and authentic protagonist. She makes a few mistakes along the way (notably: not reading up on protocol on her flight) but she’s also quick to acknowledge her flaws and admit her mistakes. Jean brings Japan to life for readers as Izumi explores and learns more about her royal heritage.

Tokyo Ever After is a breezy, exuberant story with a winning heroine (and brooding male lead) you can’t help but cheer on. A must read for fans of romantic comedies–and tiaras, of course.

Possible Pairings: Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot, Prince Charming by Rachel Hawkins, Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon, This Time Will be Different by Misa Sugiura

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

Tales From the Hinterland: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa AlbertTales From the Hinterland (2021) by Melissa Albert presents Althea Proserpine’s  notorious collection of dark and twisted short stories that form the backbone of the world building in both The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. For the first time the stories that protagonists Alice and Ellery encounter in Albert’s previous novels are presented in their entirety.

Readers familiar with Albert’s oeuvre will recognize many of the tales and characters here notably including Alice, Ilsa, and Hansa. Albert aptly channels classic fairy tale sensibilities into eerie and brutal tales that would have the Brothers Grimm reaching for an extra candle at night. Centering female characters in each story Albert explores the facets of girl-and-womanhood in a world dominated and usually shaped by men.

Standouts in the collection include “The House Under the Stairwell,” where sisterhood wins the day as Isobel seeks help from the Wicked Wife before she is trapped in a deadly betrothal; “The Clockwork Bride,” a richly told story where a girl hungry for enchantment carelessly promises her first daughter to a sinister toymaker who, when he tries to claim his prize, instead finds a girl who wishes only to belong to herself; and “Death and the Woodwife,” where a princess uses her wits and her mother’s unusual gifts to outwit Death and his heir.

With stories fueled by feminist rage, the frustration of being underestimated, and the insatiable longing to experience more Tales From the Hinterland is a collection that is both timely and universal.

You can also check out my interview with Melissa to hear more about this book and the companion novels.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

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

The Insomniacs: A Review

The Insomniacs by Marit WeisenbergMost of Ingrid Roth’s life is a mess. Her mother is barely home, always taking extra shifts at the hospital. Their house is rundown and falling apart. Ingrid hasn’t spoken to any of her friends in the neighborhood cul de sac in years. And, of course, Ingrid’s father is long gone. But Ingrid has always had diving under control.

Competitive diving is supposed to be a safe space–her ticket to a college scholarship, the way she’ll one day get her father’s attention. Diving is the one thing Ingrid always does right.

Until she doesn’t.

Ingrid doesn’t remember the accident. She knows she must have frozen up, lost control. She knows her head hit the board and she’s supposed to be resting to recover from the head trauma.

The only problem is Ingrid hasn’t been able to sleep in days.

Haunted by her lack of memory of the accident, as scared to return to the diving board as she is to fall behind in training, Ingrid spends her nights watching the neighborhood and Van–her neighbor, her former best friend, the boy she’s had a crush on forever.

Then Ingrid finds Van watching her.

Van and Ingrid start spending their sleepless nights together as they both try to find a way to rest. Will the promise of answers be the thing that brings Ingrid and Van back together? Or will it drive them apart once and for all? in The Insomniacs (2020) by Marit Weisenberg.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Insomniacs is a heady blend of the vague menace reminiscent of the Hitchcock classic Rear Window and the summery nostalgia and romance in The Summer I Turned Pretty. Ingrid’s narration is choppy and tense as she tries to put together the pieces to explain her accident.

While both Ingrid and Van are focused on fixing their insomnia, the lack of sleep soon becomes a stand in for other problems. After years of letting her athleticism and physicality shape her daily life, Ingrid is paralyzed in the face of so much introspection as she has to confront her feelings about diving and, worse, the memories she can’t quite summon of the moments leading up to the accident. Van, meanwhile, struggles to understand what secrets his girlfriend and best friends seem to have been keeping from him and what they have to do with the abandoned house on the cul de sac.

The Insomniacs is an atmospheric story filled with secrets and suspense. Ingrid and Van drive the story but their neighborhood is as much of a character in this tense story where both characters have to confront some hard truths–including acknowledging when they need to ask for help. Ideal for readers who like their protagonists to have a lot of chemistry and their suspense to have tension thick enough to cut with a knife. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee, Tonight The Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, We Are the Wildcats by Siobhan Vivian, Rear Window (1954)

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

Girl, Serpent, Thorn: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa BashardoustSoraya knows all about stories. She knows about princesses and monsters. Most of all, she knows which role she plays in her own story.

She is a princess, yes. But the princesses in stories don’t have to be hidden away as a secret. The princesses in stories are not cursed with a poisonous touch.

Soraya has always known she is dangerous both in truth because of the poison running in her veins but also as an idea. How can anyone trust her twin brother to rule as the shah of Atashar if they find out about Soraya and what she can do?

When her search for answers and a way to break the curse lead Soraya to a guard who claims he can see her for more than her poison and a prisoner in the dungeons who may have the answers Soraya needs, she will have to decide if she will be a princess or a monster in Girl, Serpent, Thorn (2020) by Melissa Bashardoust.

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Bashardoust’s sophomore novel is steeped in Persian culture and folklore drawing inspiration from “The Shahnameh” as well as traditional European fairy tales and Zoroastrianism.

At the start of Girl, Serpent, Thorn Soraya’s world is claustrophobic. She has spent years in isolation and is starved for affection and human contact–things that she fears are impossible for her to ever receive because of her curse.

Soraya’s desperation to break her curse lead her to difficult choices that threaten both herself and her family’s legacy. Although these twists are heavily broadcast the emotional resonance is strong as Soraya deals with the consequences of her actions and strives to do better both for herself and those she cares about.

The book’s love triangle often feels suspect as all characters involved lie and manipulate to get what they want. This dynamic does little to diminish the chemistry between Soraya and Parvaneh and further underscores the hard won respect and trust that becomes a foundation of their relationship.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is an evocative, tantalizing tale. Recommended for anyone who has ever wondered what really separates a hero (or a princess) from a monster.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Ever Cursed by Corey Ann Haydu, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

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

If We Were Villains: A Review

If We Were Villains by M. L. RioSeptember 1997: Oliver Marks is finishing his fourth and final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois. After surviving the yearly cuts to his acting program as students fail to meet expectations, it feels like the world is laid at his feet. Everything is ahead of him. This year, it seems, anything can happen.

It will take months for Oliver to realize how right he is.

Ten years later Oliver is finishing the final days of his decade-long prison sentence when the man who arrested him arrives with a surprising ask. Detective Colborne is retiring, leaving his life with the police behind. But he wants answers first. He wants to know what happened at Dellecher all those years ago and, this time, he wants to know the truth.

Returning to the scene of the crime–of so many smaller crimes, if he’s being honest–Oliver sets the scene for Colborne as he remembers that final year with the players in this tale: Richard the tyrant, Alex the villain, James the hero, Wren the ingenue, Meredith the temptress, and Filippa–the one everyone always forgets, always to their disadvantage. And then there’s Oliver, never quite sure where he fits on stage or off.

After three years of settling into roles they seem to know by heart, everything changes during their final year. One of the seven is dead. More than one of them is guilty. One will take the blame. And, ten years later, Oliver will finally tell the truth in If We Were Villains (2017) by M. L. Rio.

Find it on Bookshop.

Rio’s debut novel is part atmospheric thriller, part suspenseful mystery all steeped in Shakespeare and the dangerous energy that can make relationships both exhilarating and toxic.

Structured as a play, the story unfolds over five acts as Oliver narrates key scenes with prologues before each act where he further sets the scene for Colborne. This character driven story is dynamite building slowly to an explosive and often surprising conclusion enhanced by Rio’s excellent foreshadowing and parallels to Shakespearean tragedies.

While If We Were Villains keeps a tight focus on Oliver and his fellow theater students, not all characters are created equal. Oliver and James in particular are so nuanced and so authentically flawed that the other characters often seem flat in comparison as they play to type (this may in part be due to Oliver’s own lens as narrator but still felt like something that could be explored more). Meredith and Wren are especially are disappointingly lacking in depth returning, again and again, to the same concerns and the same shortcomings while Filippa remains, in many ways, a mystery herself.

Set in 1997 and 2007, If We Were Villains is surprisingly hesitant to consider sexuality beyond binaries. While some characters are, understandably, hesitant to let themselves be labeled the novel as a whole refuses to even consider the possibility of both bisexuality and pansexuality as queer identities. This is not damaging to the story but it is erasure worth considering when deciding whether or not to consider this title.

If We Were Villains is a tense, thoughtfully executed story of love, obsession, and missed chances. Perfect for readers fascinated by all-consuming relationships, drama in the classic sense, and of course Shakespeare in every sense. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Macbeth by William Shakespeare, King Lear by William Shakespeare, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Anna K.: A Love Story: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Sometimes people can’t help but make poor choices and hurt the ones they love, I guess.”

Anna K.: A Love Story by Jenny LeeAnna K. is an It Girl–maybe even the It Girl–in both Manhattan and Greenwich’s upper echelons. She is popular and always in demand despite preferring the company of horses and her show-winning Newfoundland dogs to people. She has impeccable style, effortless beauty, and the perfect boyfriend.

She also can’t stop thinking about Alexia Vronsky–the sexy AF playboy she meets during a chance encounter at Grand Central. Anna and Alexia seem to be proof that opposites attract. But is lust at first sight enough to form a lasting relationship? More importantly, is it enough for Anna to throw away the reputation she’s spent years building? in Anna K.: A Love Story (2020) by Jenny Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Anna K.: A Love Story is a sexy, modern retelling of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The story centers half-Korean-American, half-white Anna and her totally scandalous attraction to Alexia alongside simultaneous plots following Anna’s brother Steven and his longtime girlfriend Lolly as well as Steven’s tutor and childhood friend, Dustin, who is smart, not rich, and hopelessly infatuated with Lolly’s younger sister Kimmie. If that list of characters seems overwhelming, don’t worry. There’s a handy list of characters at the beginning of the book to help you keep track.

Lee infuses her spin on Tolstoy’s classic with obvious affection for the source material as illustrated in her author’s note at the end of the book. Instead of a straight retelling Lee uses the original framework of Anna Karenina to reinterpret a familiar story and add a unique spin especially with the agency Anna has to shape her own path here.

Lolly–a surprisingly self-aware social climber who knows she is “money pretty” and works hard for every scrap of praise she receives–and Kimmie–another effortless beauty like Anna who struggles as she realizes being pretty and rich isn’t always enough to make things easy–provide interesting counterpoints and contrasts to Anna’s story.

This book does a lot of things well–especially with Anna, Lolly, and Kimmie’s characters. But I also want to talk about something that wasn’t handled well: There is some racially insensitive language in the story coming from both characters and the third person narrator without any interrogation (or teachable moment) in the text. These issues appear on page197 in the hardcover where one characters describes herself as a stepsister “which is even lower on the totem pole than a half sibling” and on page 227 where Anna’s friends surround her at a party “like a wagon circle in the early frontier days.” In both instances the book leans into Native American stereotypes and cultural appropriation. I have spoken with the editor about this and can confirm that these issues will be addressed and corrected in future printings of the book.

Anna K.: A Love Story is a splashy, often sensational story that plays out against lavish and luxurious settings in New York City and beyond. The characters, much like the plot itself, are sometimes messy and oddly endearing as they muddle through first love, breakups, and a fair bit of sex and casual drug use.

Possible Pairings: Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin; Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi; City Love by Susane Colasanti; Together We Caught Fire by Eva V. Gibson; Picture Us In the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert; The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen; Gossip Girl by Cecily Von Ziegesar

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

The Night Country: A Review

*The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers*

“We were predators set loose in a world not made to withstand us. Until the summer we became prey.”

The Night Country by Melissa AlbertIt’s been two years since Alice Proserpine fought her way out of the Hinterland and the fairytale she inhabited there with help from Ellery Finch–the boy who chose to explore other worlds instead of returning with Alice to New York City.

Being an ex-story isn’t easy even in a city like New York where strangeness already lurks on every corner. At first it seems like Alice might really be able to reinvent herself with a new, human life. But something is happening to the Hinterland survivors who made it out–something that’s leaving them dead.

While Alice tries to track down the culprit, Ellery has to try to find his own way out of the Hinterland before there’s nothing left.

Everyone knows how a fairy tale is supposed to end but as Alice and Ellery search for answers and a way home, they soon realize that their tales are far from over and may not end happily in The Night Country (2020) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers. Alice’s pragmatic first person narration contrasts well with third person chapters following Ellery as he tries to find his way home and, possibly, back to Alice.

While Alice spent most of The Hazel Wood trying to understand who she was, The Night Country focuses on Alice’s struggle to decide who she wants to be now that she is free to shape her own story.

The Night Country is a suspenseful story of loss, hope, and searching. This fairytale noir adventure blends romance and mystery with plenty of action as Alice struggles to stop a conspiracy with ramifications she can barely imagine. A must read for fans of portal fantasies, mysteries, and readers who prefer their magic with bloody sharp edges.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the November 2019 issue of School Library Journal*

Birthday: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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