What I Like About You: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

What I Like About You by Marisa KanterHalle Levitt has been online friends with Nash for years. She was there at the beginning of his now-viral webcomic. He was one of the the first fans of One True Pastry–a YA book blog where Halle is known for her reviews and custom cupcakes baked and decorated to match her favorite book covers.

Even though they’ve never met in real life, they talk about almost everything. There’s one thing Nash doesn’t know: Halle’s real name.

Online Halle goes by Kels–a name to match her cool influencer persona where she’s funny, collected, and she never says or does the wrong thing. At first Halle used Kels to distinguish her own publishing in-roads as an aspiring publicist from her connection to her publishing royalty grandmother. Now it feels safer to be Kels because Kels always has it together while Halle knows she decidedly does not.

Being two people is confusing enough but when Halle and her brother move in with their grandfather the lines between Halle’s real life and her online life begin to blur once she realizes Nash is one of her new classmates.

Nash is even better in real life. But it’s still so much easier to keep her online identity a secret. The only problem is that as Halle and Nash grow closer she realizes that Nash’s affections are divided because even if he’s getting closer to Halle he’s still nursing a major crush … on Kels in What I Like About You (2020) by Marisa Kanter.

Find it on Bookshop.

What I Like About You is Kanter’s debut novel. Halle and her family are Jewish. Nash is Jewish and half Korean.

Halle’s narration is interspersed with ephemera between chapters including excerpts from social media posts, text threads between Halle and Nash or Halle and other friends, and emails. The tension between Halle’s double life is lent more urgency by the looming deadline of BookCon where Halle might appear as a panelist thus revealing her real identity not only to all of her fans and followers but also to Nash and the other online friends she has unaware of her double life.

Kanter’s prose is filled with snappy dialog and thoughtful explorations of family dynamics as Halle and her brother adjust to living with their grandfather and all three of them grieve the death of Halle’s grandmother the year before. The story is focused not just on the teen characters but the world of teen content creators–an influential niche in social media but one that isn’t always reflected authentically (or at all) in pop culture.

Although certain elements of the book might date the story–particularly the finale set at the no-longer-extant BookCon and social media that’s always changing–What I Like About You is a universal story; come for the mistaken identity love triangle, stay for the bookish shenanigans and feel-good humor.

Possible Pairings: Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi, Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Alex Approximately by Jenn Bennett, The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert, Happy Messy Scary Love by Leah Konen, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey, By the Book by Amanda Sellet, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, The Fill-In Boyfriend by Kasie West, Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon

A Forgery of Roses: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. OlsonPainters are disappearing throughout Lalverton with many devout citizens say this is just treatment for those who choose to paint–a creative outlet seen as holy and solely as the domain of the Great Artist. Conservatives including the governor fear the growing popularity in portraiture; the presence of Prodigy magic in Lalverton makes the taboo artform seem like even more of a threat.

With her mother–another Prodigy and talented artist–among the missing, Myra Whitlock knows she has to hide her own magical gift if she wants to keep herself and her younger sister, Lucy, safe. Scriptures are very clear that Prodigies are “a defilement of the power of our god, the Great Artist.” With magic that “gives a painter the ability to alter human and animal bodies with their paintings,” Prodigies have long been seen as “even more of an abomination than normal portrait work.” Their powerful ability also means that Prodigies “have been persecuted by the pious and captured by the greedy since the dawn of time.”

Lacking in proper training and control, Myra’s magic is even more dangerous. She can manipulate a person’s sevren threads to alter their appearance and heal injuries, but she can’t dictate when or how her magic will work instead having to paint through it while her magic buzzes “like a swarm of bees inside [her] head.” With finances dwindling in the wake of her parents’ disappearances, Myra desperately needs work to earn enough for rent, food, and for the nurse Lucy needs to help manage the symptoms of her chronic illness.

When Myra’s magic is discovered by the worst person possible, she forges an uneasy bargain with the governor’s wife. If Myra can use her Prodigy gift to resurrect the governor’s dead son, she could earn enough for a proper home, tuition to attend the conservatory, and even a real doctor to treat Lucy. If Myra fails, the governor’s wife will expose Myra as a Prodigy and her life could well be forfeit.

Spirited to Rose Manor in the dead of night, Myra has four days to complete her work before the body decays beyond help. Among the “ancient wealth and finery,” Myra sets to her grim work. But it soon becomes clear the governor’s son did not suffer an accidental fall as Myra has been told. Something more sinister is at work–something that could be even more dangerous to Myra than her exposure as a Prodigy. With reluctant help from August–the governor’s older, less favored son–Myra begins investigating the suspect death and trying to understand why her magic isn’t working. With time running out, Myra will uncover unsavory truths about the stately mansion and its residents in A Forgery of Roses (2022) by Jessica S. Olson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Olson blends mystery and suspense with a gothic sensibility in this standalone fantasy where all characters are assumed white. Myra narrates with an artist’s eye focused on color as seen when she describes making ladyrose gel–a medium from the author’s imagination that allows oil paints to dry fast enough for artists to complete full paintings in a matter of hours–from burnt flower petals: “As soon as it hits the water, the rose blood fans out, a spiderweb of shimmering scarlet veins crawling through the pot until the whole thing clouds like it’s full of sparkling garnet dust.” Myra’s keen eye for detail also works well within the narrative to increase tension and broadcast danger with one character described as having eyes that “glimmer like pond-slick moons” and “pearl earrings glow milky white like bones on either side of her face, twitching with every word she utters.”

To resurrect the governor’s son, Myra also has to understand the circumstances of his death and his emotional state at the time of death. As Myra explains, sevren are the “connective fibers that bind the soul to the physical form, they’re born from each person or animal’s emotional perception of their bodies. The more emotionally significant a physical feature is to that person or animal, the tighter and denser the bonds become.” Because of this, Myra takes a clinical eye to the body she is trying to restore with grisly precision as she notes “the crushed and mangled ear, the blood congealing on the hair, the fragments of skull and brain tissue” and the “scraped skin and the way the blood has pooled on the bottom of the body” while trying to paint the body as it is before layering in her changes.

Feeling a sense of urgency as time begins to run out and her paintings continue to fail, Myra works (and flirts) with August to investigate his brother’s death. While searching for clues together, August opens up about his daily struggle with severe anxiety which is well-represented in the text. As August explains, “This anxiety will always be a part of me. It’s not going anywhere, and I’m going to have to live with it for the rest of my life. But I am not broken because of it.”

Myra’s desperation to complete her work before she is exposed as a Prodigy only increases when Lucy’s illness takes a turn for the worse. Although unnamed in the text, symptoms include food sensitivity and intestinal distress which Lucy manages with scientific precision in notebooks where “food logs, graphs, and lists of symptoms are mapped out carefully on each page.” Readers will also recognize Spoon theory, described in the text as juice in a glass where “Every action of daily life—getting out of bed, bathing, dressing, doing research—siphoned juice away. Once the glass was empty, no matter how much she had left she needed to do or how much she’d hoped to get done, her body needed to rest. To refill the glass.”

A Forgery of Roses combines art, fantasy, and a truly surprising mystery with authentic and respectful representation for both anxiety and chronic illness which are seen as points of strength rather than flaws in this story where as Myra notes about Lucy “As far as I’m concerned, I may be the one with magic, but she’s the truly powerful one. Because she’s fought where I have never had to.” Myra and August’s romance and a final act filled with the surprise twists that are a hallmark of gothic literature at its best further enhance this story where a picture is worth much more than a thousand words.

Emma Carbone is a librarian and reviewer. She has been blogging about books since 2007.

Possible Pairings: The Beautiful by Renee Ahdieh, The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha Hastings, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Gallant by V. E. Schwab, The Splendor by Breeana Shields, Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor, All that Glitters by Gita Trelease

The Last Legacy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Last Legacy by Adrienne YoungThe Roths are well-known in Bastian as thieves and cheats. There are rumors they’ve done worse. But no one is stupid enough to say that to a Roth’s face.

Bryn knows her uncle Henrik has plans for her. She knows she has a place with the fiercely loyal family if she can only be ruthless enough to claim it.

But after years spent trying to cram herself into the narrow role the Roths have carved out for her, Bryn also knows that sometimes opportunity is just another word for a stacked deck and being accepted by her family will come with a steeper cost than Bryn ever imagined.

When business trumps everything, there’s always a bargain to be made but in a family where there are rules and consequences, making your own fate could be a costly mistake in The Last Legacy (2021) by Adrienne Young.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Last Legacy is set in the same world as Young’s Fable series. It is set after the events of Fable and Namesake and can be read on its own. Main characters are assumed white. The audiobook features an excellent narration by Suzy Jackson.

Bryn brings a singular focus to her narration as she struggles to understand the complex dynamics of the Roth family and her role among them. Bryn is well aware of her strengths and what she brings to the table as the Roths try to scrub their less-than-glowing reputation in Bastian and earn a coveted spot as merchants. It’s only as she learns more about the Roths–and the lengths Henrik is willing to take to secure lasting stability for them–that Bryn begins to understand her own naivete about her family and, more importantly, the cost of trying to forge her own path among them.

With schemes and violence at every turn, Bryn finds an unlikely ally in Ezra–the family’s prodigiously talented silversmith. Young does an excellent job building their fractious relationship from grudging respect into a slow burn romance that will have lasting consequences for the entire Roth family. As Bryn’s options for working with her family and within Bastian’s cutthroat guild system dwindle the narrative becomes claustrophobic, conveying Bryn’s desperation as the story escalates and builds to its dramatic finish.

While lacking the nautical flavor of the Fable books, this book is a satisfying expansion of that world. The Last Legacy is a complex, fast-paced adventure with a slow burn romance and a heroine charting her own course.

Possible Pairings: Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier, Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer, The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

Namesake: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“There are some things that can’t be carved from a person, no matter how far from home they’ve sailed.”

Namesake by Adrienne YoungAfter years of plotting and scheming, Fable has finally made her way off Jeval, the island of thieves where her father abandoned her. After casting her lot with West and his crew on the Marigold, things should finally be easier. Fable should be free.

But nothing is easy in the Narrows. And nothing is ever free.

Now instead of starting a new life, Fable is caught up in an infamous criminal’s scheme and forced to confront her family’s legacy in the richer waters across the Unnamed Sea in the city of Bastian. As Fable learns more about the scheming and conniving throughout the city, she also comes closer to her mother’s legacy and the secrets she left behind.

Things work differently in Bastian but debts still have to be paid; loyalties still matter. And Fable will be the first to warn anyone that it will be a long time before any slick city merchant can best someone formed in the dangerous waters of the Narrows in Namesake (2021) by Adrienne Young.

Find it on Bookshop.

Namesake is the conclusion to Young’s Fable duology which begins with Fable. There are also companion novels set in the same world that can be read on their own. Fable and West are cued as white while the crew of the Marigold includes characters who are darker skinned and LGBT.

Namesake picks up shortly after the explosive conclusion of Fable with Fable kidnapped by Zola and forced to act as a pawn in his plan to gain a foothold in Bastian and leverage over Fable’s father, Saint. Fable spends a good portion of the novel isolated and separated from the people she cares about as she learns more about her mother’s past in Bastian. Young deftly keeps other characters–notably West and Saint–present in the story as they remain on Fable’s mind and her loyalty to both (and her lingering anger at Saint) inform her choices during her captivity.

This installment expands the world of the Unnamed Sea and Bastian. As Fable explores the limits and strengths of her loyalties, she also unpacks pride and a fierce protectiveness for her home and her family no matter how brutal or monstrous they both might be. Through Fable and those close to her Young interrogates how far a person is willing to go to protect who and what they hold close.

Namesake is satisfying conclusion to a dynamic series with everything readers loved about Fable turned up a notch. Fans of the series will appreciate the way plots tie together and the return of familiar characters from book one including one of my personal favorites, Koy. The evolution of Fable’s complicated relationship with her father adds heart and surprising tenderness to this sometimes grim tale.

Namesake is a story about found family and fierce love; about embracing who you are and coming home. An excellent conclusion to a dynamic and exciting duology. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier, Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer, The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

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*

XOXO: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

XOXO by Axie OhSixteen-year-old Jenny Go’s entire life revolves her plan to get into a prestigious music conservatory. Jenny knows she is technically talented enough. But after her music teacher says her cello playing lacks spark, Jenny is worried that might not be enough.

Still smarting from the criticism, Jenny decides to try stepping out of her comfort zone when she meets a cute guy at her uncle’s karaoke bar in LA. Everything about this boy screams bad decision. But that doesn’t stop Jenny from having a great time with him. He even says he’ll keep in touch when he has to go back to South Korea.

But then he doesn’t.

Jenny’s plan to forget about the boy and focus on her music goes sideways when she finds out her grandmother needs surgery. Jenny and her mom are going to South Korea to support her with Jenny spending the semester studying at Seoul Arts Academy.

No one is more surprised than Jenny when she runs into Jaewoo at the school. And finds out he’s a member of one of the biggest K-pop bands ever.

XOXO is a big deal. Being friends with Jaewoo and the other members immediately puts Jenny under an unwanted spotlight. Pursuing a relationship with Jaewoo would be even worse when his label strictly forbids dating. Nothing about Jaewoo is part of Jenny’s plan. But sometimes you can’t plan for matters of the heart in XOXO (2021) by Axie Oh.

Find it on Bookshop.

XOXO is narrated by Jenny with a fast pace and lots of humor. All characters are Korean or Korean American. Readers interested in audiobooks will also enjoy the audio production narrated by Greta Jung.

Meet cutes and clandestine hangouts abound as Jenny and Jaewoo find common ground despite their very different musical niches and try to decide if they can have a romantic future. Vivid descriptions of Seoul and Korean cuisine (both in LA and Seoul) will make readers feel like they’re right next to readers throughout the novel. Avid K-pop fans won’t find a lot of new takes on the world of pop groups and idols but Oh offers an accessible introduction for newbie fans and those unfamiliar with the musical genre.

XOXO is a exuberant ode to all things K-pop and music with cinematic romance complete with one big grand gesture. Recommended for romance fans and K-pop stans alike.

Possible Pairings: Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan, For the Record by Charlotte Huang, I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee, K-Pop Confidential by Stephan Lee, The Upside of Falling by Alex Light, Smash It! by Francina Simone, Night Music by Jenn Marie Thorne

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle LimNatalie Tan left home when her mother refused to support her dreams to become a chef.

Seven years later, Natalie returns to San Francisco’s Chinatown when her mother dies.

Her return is far from triumphant. The wounds from her failure to finish culinary school and her recently ended engagement are still fresh. The reconciliation Natalie always hoped for with her mother will never come. Even the neighborhood itself isn’t as vibrant as it once was; all of the shops are struggling.

When she finds out she has inherited her grandmother’s famous restaurant, Natalie’s fate is tied to the neighborhood–and her neighbors–whether she likes it or not.

Evelyn Yu predicts good fortune for Natalie and the restaurant in the tea leaves. But only if Natalie cooks three of her grandmother’s recipes to help her neighbors. While Natalie is keen to realize her dream of opening a restaurant, she isn’t sure her neighbors deserve her help after her childhood navigating her mother’s depression and agoraphobia alone.

As Natalie works through her grandmother’s cookbook she begins to realize that memories, like the best recipes, can take time to process. And perhaps the neighborhood didn’t abandon her as completely as Natalie once thought. With help from new recipes, a new friend, and new love, Natalie will learn that sometimes the simplest ingredients can lead to the best results in Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune (2019) by Roselle Lim.

Find it on Bookshop.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is Lim’s debut novel.

Lim blends elements of fabulism (Natalie cries crystal tears and hears peoples’ “songs”) into an engaging contemporary romance where Natalie finds a second chance at both professional success and love. All characters are Chinese/Chinese-American.

Recipes throughout the novel allow readers to imagine themselves at Natalie’s meals although the magical results may vary. Natalie enjoys a light (as in no steam) romance as she tries to reconcile her complicated history with her Chinatown home with what could be a bright future running her own restaurant.

Lyrical prose and delicious food descriptions add dimension to this story grounded in a strong sense of family and community. Lim also offers readers a thoughtful meditation on loss and family as Natalie grieves both her mother’s death and the relationship they never had while she learns more about her grandmother through the cookbook she inherits.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is a richly flavored story filled with good food, good friends, and lots of fun. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Heartbreak Bakery by A. R. Capetta, Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien, A Thread of Sky by Diana Fei, Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, Lost and Found Sisters by Jill Shalvis, The Recipe Box by Vivian Shipman

Cazadora: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Cazadora by Romina GarberManu thought that being a Septima means she finally belonged somewhere. She thought she could stop hiding the star-shaped pupils of her eyes. She thought she could stop hiding as an undocumented immigrant.

Instead, Manu is in more danger than ever. As a female werewolf, a lobizona, Manu’s existence puts the strict gender binaries undperpinning Septimus society into question. With a human mother and a Septima father, Manu shouldn’t even exist.

With so much riding on Manu’s identity, magical law enforcement known as the Cazadores want to control her. While the Coven, an underground resistance group, hope to use Manu as a rallying point.

Manu never wanted to be a symbol for anyone. All she wants is the chance to embrace every part of her identity. Surrounded by friends and hunted by the authorities, Manu will have to determine how much she’s willing to risk for the chance to be exactly herself in Cazadora (2021) by Romina Garber.

Find it on Bookshop.

Cazadora is the second book in Garber’s Wolves of No World series. The story picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first book, Lobizona, which readers will want to have fresh in their memories.

All characters are Latinx or Argentine with a range of skintones. This book also delves more into the LGBTQ+ community as readers are introduced to the Coven and other resistance members who push back against the strict laws that force Septimus into gender binaries.

Cazadora blows the Septimus world open as Garber moves beyond her Argentine folklore inspiration to explore a magical world not dissimilar from our own filled with political unrest, inadequate authority figures, and justice that does more in name than in fact. This fast-paced story delves deep into Septimus folklore and legalities as Manu struggles to make a place for herself in a world that continues to find her inconvenient if not downright dangerous.

With sweeping drama, action, and fierce loyalty between Manu and her friends, Cazadora is an apt conclusion to a powerful and timely duology. Readers can only hope Garber will return to Manu’s world and the other Septimus stories waiting to be told.

Possible Pairings: Labryinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laeken Zea Kemp, Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag, Infinity Son by Adam Silvera, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Rachel Gilliland Vasquez

Lobizona: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Lobizona by Romina GarberManuela “Manu” Azul has always been told that her father is part of an infamous criminal family in Argentina. She has always been told her strange eyes with their star-shaped pupils, could be fixed with a special surgery. She has always been told that hiding is the only way to stay safe.

None of these things are true.

Manu’s small world as an undocumented immigrant is blown apart when her mother is detained by ICE. After years of dodging raids and hiding with her mother in Miami, Manu doesn’t know what would be worse: leaving her mother in ICE detention or being caught herself.

Plagued by debilitating menstrual pains unless she takes medication provided by her mother and terrified that she’ll be separated from her mother forever, Manu knows she has to do something. But she isn’t sure how one girl can stand strong with so many obstacles in her way.

Manu’s quest to find her mother leads to surprising truths about her father, her strange eyes, and Manu’s powerful connection to a world she thought only existed in Argentine folklore in Lobizona (2020) by Romina Garber.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lobizona is the first book in Garber’s Wolves of No World series. She has also published the Zodiac series under the name Romina Russell. All characters are Latinx or Argentine with a range of skintones and other identities that are further explored throughout the series.

Garber expertly blends Argentine folklore surrounding witches, werewolves, and the powerful magic of so-called “Septimus” the seventh children of seventh children into a nuanced and enchanting urban fantasy. Complex magic and highly evocative settings draw readers immediately into a story where magical powers are no guarantee of belonging and secrets have power.

As Manu struggles to find a world willing to make space for her, Lobizona offers a scathing commentary on our own world where children are left in cages and the government can callously decide who does and does not belong or qualify as “legal”. Manu thoughtfully interrogates these concepts as she learns more about the world of the Septimos and her own tenuous place in it.

Lobizona is the action-packed start to a sophisticated, high concept series for genre and literary fans alike. Come for the timely look at current events, stay for the inventive folklore inspired fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Labryinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laeken Zea Kemp, Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag, Infinity Son by Adam Silvera, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Rachel Gilliland Vasquez

Ferryman: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

Ferryman by Claire McFallWhen Scottish teenager Dylan boards a train from Glasgow to Aberdeen to meet her estranged father for the first time in years she is certain that the momentous trip will change everything. What she won’t realize until later is that instead of meeting her father she will never complete her journey–dying when her train crashes.

Except Dylan wakes up inside her train car, alone and in the dark after the crash, where “Her imagination filled in the blanks, packing the route through the carriage with upturned seats, luggage, broken glass from the windows, and squishy, slick things that were solidifying in her mind’s eye into limbs and torsos.” Outside of the wreckage there is no sign of  disaster recovery; all Dylan sees is a solitary, sandy-haired teenage boy watching her.

It’s clear that something is different about this cobalt eyed boy who does not “stand or even smile when he [sees] her looking at him” and “just continue[s] to stare.” The only two people in an isolated area, Dylan reluctantly agrees to follow Tristan across the unwelcoming landscape away from the wreckage. Along the way Dylan begins to realize that she is not trekking across the Scottish highlands with a startlingly attractive teenage boy–the kind who always “made her nervous” because “they seemed so cool and confident, and she always ended up getting tongue-tied and feeling like a total freak.”

Dylan is dead, traveling through the aptly named wasteland alongside Tristan, her personal ferryman.

As a ferryman Tristan “guide[s] souls across the wasteland and protect[s] them from the demons” keen to devour new and pure souls like Dylan’s. Along the way he also “break[s] the truth to them, then deliver[s] them to wherever they’re going.” Tristan has shepherded more souls than he can count across the wasteland, a task that has become increasingly transactional as his journeys blend together into goodbyes. “Each soul that waved goodbye at the end of the journey had taken a small piece of him with them, torn off a tiny piece of his heart. After a while, he had hardened.” As he reminds Dylan, everyone has to cross the wasteland which he describes as “Their own personal wilderness. It’s a place to discover the truth that you have died and come to terms with it.”

The wasteland is not a place to make friends or fall in love. But as they learn more about each other, and themselves, Dylan and Tristan realize they are not prepared to admit that reaching the end of their path will also mean their inevitable separation as Dylan goes where Tristan cannot follow in Ferryman (2021) by Claire McFall.

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First published in the UK in 2013 and nominated for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, McFall’s acclaimed debut novel Ferryman has made its way to the US with the rest of the trilogy, Trespassers and Outcasts, slated to follow. A movie adaptation is also in the works. All characters are cued as white in this series with world building loosely inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Charon.

With a heavy focus on the drudgery of walking through the wasteland, McFall is slow to unpack Dylan and Tristan’s mutual attraction although both characters find something they lack in the other.

In spite of himself Tristan appreciates Dylan’s unique perspective and unexpected kindnesses to him when “Most souls, when they discovered what had happened to them, were too absorbed in their own sorrow and self-pity to show much interest in this road between the real world and the end” much less in the ferryman guiding them through it. After countless years changing himself to appear to “look appealing” and trustworthy to each of his souls, Tristan is shocked to have the space to define himself as more than his role as a ferryman and whatever the souls in his charge choose to project onto him.

Dylan, meanwhile, is used to feeling the limits of her agency as a teenage girl who is constantly concerned with doing and saying the right thing. “She was the shy, serious student. Quiet, diligent, but not particularly clever. All of her successes had to be earned through hard work, which was easy when you had no friends.” But in Tristan Dylan finally finds the appreciation she had previously lacked with Tristan who sees Dylan as “a soul worth protecting. A soul worth caring about. A soul that he wanted to give a piece of himself to.”

Although Tristan initially acknowledges some of the unequal power dynamics at play between himself–an ageless, supernatural being–and Dylan–a seemingly ordinary girl despite the high caliber of her soul–this aspect of the plot is never fully explored. Tristan’s initial hesitation since “as her protector, he would be taking advantage of her vulnerability if he acted on his feelings” shifts quickly to a heartfelt confession and both struggling with their looming separation.

With their slog through the wasteland and unspoken longing taking up much of the plot, Ferryman is slow to build to its dramatic conclusion. The novel’s final act offers tantalizing glimpses of world building surrounding what comes beyond the wasteland and what it will mean for both Dylan and Tristan. Readers new to this series will be excited to see these aspects more fully explored in later installments.

Possible Pairings: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, You Are the Everything by Karen Rivers, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde