Unclaimed Baggage: A (Blog Tour) Review

“Sometimes you had to give something up to get what you really wanted in the first place.”

cover art for Unclaimed Baggage by Jen DollNell, Grant, and Doris have nothing in common.

Nell is a Chicago transplant unsure what to do with herself in small town Alabama–especially when her amazing boyfriend is still back home.

Grant used to be the the star quarterback. His family and coach are keen to help him keep that persona by covering up his recent DUI. But he’s starting to think he might just be a has been.

Then there’s Doris. She knows she’s an outsider. How can she be anything else as an outspoken liberal feminist in her conservative small town? She doesn’t mind because at least she has free reign of Unclaimed Baggage where she works sorting through and selling lost luggage.

As the three become reluctant coworkers for the summer Nell, Grant, and Doris will have to work together if they want to manage all of their own excess baggage in Unclaimed Baggage (2018) by Jen Doll.

Unclaimed Baggage is Doll’s debut novel. The story alternates between Nell, Grant, and Doris’ first person narrations with smaller vignettes throughout detailing the many journeys that brought key pieces of lost luggage to the store.

Over the course of one summer these three unlikely characters become friends as their lives entwine in unlikely ways. Doris is still grieving her aunt’s sudden death last year, Nell is shaken up by the culture shock of her move, and Grant is trying (and often failing) to come to terms with his drinking problem.

Each character has a distinct narrative voice while the surprisingly compelling luggage vignettes have a more omniscient tone. Doll brings small town Alabama to life with its charms (notably seen at a balloon festival) and its small-mindedness as Doris struggles with the stigma she hasn’t been able to shake since a boy in her church group groped her and she refused to stay quiet (or return to church) and, later in the novel, another character is targeted in a racially motivated attack.

Unlikely friends, hints of romance, and a mystery surrounding an empty suitcase flesh out this character driven plot. Unclaimed Baggage is a charming slice-of-life novel about one formative summer and the small moments that can lead to big changes. Recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Jen about Unclaimed Baggage too!

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen, Moxie by Jen Mathieu, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Tell Me No Lies: A Review

This month I started reviewing for Washington Independent Review of Books so you may see more promo posts like this moving forward.

Tell Me No Lies (2018) by Adele Griffin.

Originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books. You can find my full review here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/tell-me-no-lies

I will leave you with a quote from my review and some read-a-likes:

Tell Me No Lies is an atmospheric ode to the joys of self-discovery and true friendships. It’s an ideal choice for anyone interested in the 1980s or looking for a compulsively readable piece of historical fiction.

Possible Pairings: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

The Upside of Unrequited: A Review

cover art for The Upside of Unrequited by Becky AlbertalliMolly has had a lot of crushes—twenty-six in fact—but they’ve never led anywhere. She’s never gone on a date or been kissed. Molly doesn’t necessarily mind that. But sometimes it’s hard to feel so awkward and chubby while her twin sister Cassie never has trouble connecting with the girls she likes.

This summer all of that might change when Molly connects with a cute boy named Will on the train. But it turns out turning a crush into something more isn’t easy. It’s even harder with helping to plan her moms’ wedding and her summer job. Then there’s Reid, Molly’s cute but nerdy coworker who is making her question all of the things she thought she knew about the type of guy she’d fall for in The Upside of Unrequited (2017) by Becky Albertalli.

The Upside of Unrequited is a cute standalone contemporary romance that puts a fat girl center stage while also offering a story that is about a lot more than Molly’s weight. Molly is a sweet and relatable main character. While her crushes can lead to flights of fancy she also stays grounded while focusing on planning her moms’ wedding now that they can finally get married. Molly and Cassie’s changing relationship as Cassie falls in love for the first time adds another dimension to the story.

Unfortunately, this one fell totally flat for me. I disliked Molly’s narrative voice a lot. She was a bit too twee for my tastes. I also knew I was going to have a hard time with this story when it opened in a public bathroom. It all just felt like Molly and the story were trying a bit too hard to be appealing.

The Upside of Unrequited is an obvious choice for fans of Albertalli’s other novels. A likely winner for readers looking for a more inclusive contemporary romance as long as they can buy into the voice.

Possible Pairings: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Once and For All by Sarah Dessen, The Romantics by Leah Konen, Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones

Starry Eyes: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Starry Eyes by Jenn BennettZorie and Lennon used to be best friends. But that was before the homecoming dance last year and well before their families started feuding around the time that Lennon’s moms opened a sex toy shop right next to the massage shop that Zorie’s parents run.

Seeing Lennon and remembering how close they used to be still stings, but they’ve gotten good at avoiding each other. At least, Zorie thought they had until her mom adds a surprise adventure to Zorie’s carefully scheduled summer. (Even though she knows that being spontaneous gives Zorie hives. Literally.)

What starts as a luxe week-long glamping trip to cheer up a friend (and maybe hook up with her longtime crush) turns into a nightmare when Zories realizes that Lennon is rounding out the group. Then things go really wrong and Zorie and Lennon are stranded in the wilderness. Alone.

Needing each other to survive without any distractions might be just what Zorie and Lennon need to reconnect as they try to get back to civilization. But even after working through old hurts and secrets, they’ll have to see if their renewed friendship is ready for the real world in Starry Eyes (2018) by Jenn Bennett.

Bennett’s latest standalone contemporary romance is an absolute delight and has made me an instant fan. I also love the way this book is designed. The book is broken into three parts, each accompanied by a sketch by Bennett (who has a fine arts degree) of Zorie and Lennon’s camping gear. Lennon is an amateur mapmaker and Bennett also created maps to accompany the story which really help bring their down and the trails they travel to life.

Starry Eyes has a refreshingly varied cast and also highlights two of the many alternatives to a “traditional” nuclear family. Lennon lives with his moms but is also close with his Egyptian-American father–something that becomes more important as the plot progresses. Meanwhile Zorie’s mother died when she was eight and since then Joy, her Korean-American stepmother, has been more of a parent than her father leading to divided loyalties as Zorie uncovers a secret that could  tear her parents’ marriage apart.

Zorie is a type A nerd who plans and micromanages her own life to fend off her anxiety while also pursuing her passion for astronomy. She’s a fun and honest narrator who takes being pushed way out of her comfort zone (mostly) in stride. Laid back Lennon is the perfect foil to Zorie. His interests lie in horror, snakes, maps, and (luckily for Zorie) hiking and camping–two things that just might get them back home in one piece. While the hurt on both sides is obvious as they try to piece together what went wrong, their chemistry crackles throughout the novel.

Starry Eyes is a rich and entertaining romance. Come for the witty banter and tension, stay for the evocative descriptions, clever plotting, and nuanced characters. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

Little and Lion: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Little & Lion by Brandy ColbertSuzette and her brother Lionel have been “Little” and “Lion” for years. Technically they’re step-siblings and their family gets a lot of strange looks sometimes since they’re all Jewish but Suzette and her mom are black while Lionel and his father are white. They’ve never let that change how close they are.

That was before Lionel was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Suzette was sent across the country to an East coast boarding school while he got treatment.

Now it’s summer and Suzette is home in Los Angeles where she expects everything to be familiar and easy. Instead, Suzette soon realizes that it’s going to be harder to go back to being Little and Lion than she thought.

Being home is almost enough to help Suzette forget about the mess she left back at school and how much she hurt her roommate, Iris. Her longtime friend and neighbor Emil is a welcome distraction–and maybe even a new crush. Then there’s Rafaela–a new girl who is like no one Suzette has ever met. Suzette’s attraction is immediate, intense, and utterly impossible once it becomes obvious that Lion might be falling for her.

When Lionel’s disorder starts a downward spiral Suzette will have to confront mistakes she made over the past year and decide if earning Lionel’s trust again is worth risking his mental health in Little & Lion (2017) by Brandy Colbert.

Little & Lion is an incredibly smart standalone contemporary. Suzette is an honest narrator who is still trying to define herself in a world that is already quick to put labels on her. She is conscious that her identity as a black Jewish woman is conspicuous and often uncomfortable–especially at her homogeneous boarding school where it felt like she had to hide pieces of herself before her classmates would accept her.

After her months long romantic and sexual relationship ends at the end of term when she and her roommate are outed to the entire school, Suzette doesn’t know how to deal with the attention. She shuts down and shuts Iris out–a constant reminder that she wasn’t brave enough to stand up for what she wanted. When seeing Emil–her half-Korean, half-black neighbor and childhood friend–ignites an attraction that she had never noticed before, Suzette is left to wonder if she might be bisexual–an identity that at first feels too overwhelming to fully consider while still adjusting to being back home and deciding if she wants to go back to boarding school in the fall.

The story of Suzette’s summer alternates with flashback chapters from her childhood when Suzette’s mom and Lionel’s father first started dating and living together. These flashbacks also detail Lionel’s initial diagnosis and treatment before Suzette was sent away.

While Little & Lion is often a heavy story with Suzette and Lionel disappointed in each other and unsure how to reclaim their easy bond as family, Colbert’s prose is also incredibly gentle and thoughtful. There are no easy answers about defining one’s sexuality or one’s mental health–things that Suzette and Lionel learn the hard way throughout the novel.

The larger story of Lionel’s coping with his new medication and Suzette trying to fit into a family that moved on without her plays out against a hazy backdrop of romantic entanglements with Suzette caught between her very real relationship with Emil and her distracting attraction to Rafaela–a pull that is even more complicated when Lionel starts to date Rafaela who seems to bring out the worst in him.

Little & Lion is as enlightening as it is engaging. A thoughtful plot and vibrant primary characters more than make up for an overly large cast of secondary characters. Evocative settings, sexy romance, and a wonderful family ground this story and make it a must read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake, The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle, When We Collided by Emery Lord, Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, Odd One Out by Nic Stone

Emergency Contact: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Loving someone was traumatizing. You never knew what would happen to them out there in the world. Everything precious was also vulnerable.”

cover art for Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. ChoiPenny Lee is a college freshman at the University of Texas in Austin. She’s eager to get away from the drama that always seems to surround her mom who is, sadly, super hot and super clueless about the attention she attracts from sketchy guys. High school was fine but Penny knows that college is going to be her real chance to shine as she starts taking English classes and pursues her longtime dream to become a published author.

Sam Becker dropped out of college when he couldn’t afford it. He’s twenty-one and manages a coffee shop where he is in charge of all the baking and has a room upstairs. He’s taking an online course to get back on track with his goal of becoming a documentary filmmaker and dreading the arrival of his “niece” Jude who is about to start her freshman year of college. Sam’s still trying to piece his life together post-breakup but he’s getting there. At least until his Instagram famous ex (aka Liar) drops a bombshell.

When Sam has a panic attack in the middle of the street it’s Penny–Jude’s new roommate–who finds him and talks him down. She’s the one who wants him to text her when he gets home and, maybe most importantly, she’s the one that suggests they could be each other’s emergency contact.

As they start texting all the time, Penny and Sam realize they might have more in common than they thought. Their friendship helps both of them step outside of their comfort zones. But neither of them is sure if they’ll ever be ready to take the biggest leap by bringing their virtual relationship offline and into the real world in Emergency Contact (2018) by Mary H. K. Choi.

Emergency Contact is Choi’s debut novel. It has received two starred reviews as well as a glowing write up in the New York Times. The story alternates between chapters written in close third person following Penny and Sam along with the expected sections of text messages and emails.

As the title suggests, the entirety of the book revolves around support systems. How do you build a support system from scratch? What happens when the people you thought you could rely on let you down? And perhaps even more troubling: What happens when the person you never thought you could count on becomes a lifeline?

Penny and Sam are authentic, flawed protagonists. I’ve started calling them lovable train wrecks when I talk about this book. They don’t have all the answers. They may not have any of the answers (a realization that is almost as enlightening for Penny in terms of her relationship with her mother as, you know, actual enlightenment). But they both persevere, strive, and ultimately learn how to go after what they want–things they only accomplish thanks to confidence gained through their friendship.

I say friendship because while a lot of this story plays out against the backdrop of whether or not Penny and Sam will get together, the real meat of this novel are the friendships that both Penny and Sam build (with each other and with other people) as they try to survive this crazy thing called life. You can cut the romantic tension in this story with a knife, but first Choi carefully builds up Penny and Sam’s friendship. Both of them have to grow a lot and learn to care about themselves before they can start to care about someone else—character arcs which Choi expertly portrays throughout the novel.

Before meeting Sam, Penny is used to having a running internal dialog of all the things she wants to say–especially to people who try to belittle her or think their microaggressions and other racist remarks about Penny’s Korean heritage aren’t a big deal. Thanks to the freedom of being away from home for the first time and also having someone who genuinely supports her, Penny is finally able to speak up. She can tell her roommate Jude’s best friend that her racist remarks aren’t okay. She can admit what her French tutor did–what she never even told her Mom. And she can also learn how to move past those things instead of stewing in self-doubt and regret.

Sam, meanwhile, has been stagnating for quite some time. His life is a disaster and he’s used to it–especially when his ex-girlfriend announces that she is pregnant triggering Sam’s first panic attack. With Penny’s support and the knowledge that she cares, Sam realizes the first step in making better life choices isn’t waiting for things to change. Instead, it’s time for Sam to accept that his parents are incapable of being there for him—and haven’t been for some time. It’s time to take action to change things by pursuing his passions and standing up to his ex-girlfriend instead of letting her steamroll him yet again.

Emergency Contact is authentic and sardonic as it follows these two unlikely friends who fear connection almost as much as they crave it. This tension is the driving force for both the characters and the plot. Choi expertly uses close third person perspective and language to amplify that tension and to explore its limits as Penny and Sam try to figure out how to relate to each other even while, internally, they feel hopelessly inadequate by comparison.

(During one of their first “in real life” encounters Penny bemoans her casual outfit and generally messy appearance while being completely fascinated–and attracted–by Sam’s glasses. Sam, meanwhile, is completely self-conscious about his glasses and trying to avoid openly ogling Penny. A push and pull that repeats throughout the novel and perfectly captures the dynamic between these two characters.)

Emergency Contact is a sparkling debut about taking chances and dreaming big. A timely story with a singular voice sure to win over even the most cynical among us, Emergency Contact is an exemplar of what a great contemporary novel can look like.

Possible Pairings: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Star-Touched Stories: A Review

cover art for Star-Touched Stories by Roshani ChokshiStar-Touched Stories (2018) by Roshani Chokshi brings readers back to the world of the author’s first two novels  The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes. This collection of three 100+ page novellas (one a previous preorder incentive for A Crown of Wishes and the other two previously unpublished) all contain spoilers for the novels in the series. Be sure you have read both if you want to avoid any ruined twists or surprises.

“Death and Night” follows the Dharma Raja throughout his unlikely courtship of Night incarnate. The story alternates between Death and Night’s first person narration as they uneasily begin courting and contemplate how much they are willing to risk for a partnership and whether or not that includes their hearts. This novel stops short of the events of The Star-Touched Queen but many of the key players from that novel are present here along with an abundance of witty banter.

“Poison and Gold” is set shortly after the end of A Crown of Wishes. Aasha, a vishakanya whose very touch is deadly, earned her own wish in the Tournament of Wishes–the chance to choose to live as a human. But making a place for herself in the human world is harder than Aasha expected. As Gauri and Vikram prepare to unite their kingdoms, Aasha will have to embrace both her humanity and her vishakanya side while training under the fierce but fascinating Spy Mistress in an attempt to make a place for herself beside her friends in this new world.

Set after both novels in the series “Rose and Sword” recalls a well-known story in the Empire of Bharat-Jain where, long ago, a bride was poised to become a widow before her wedding henna had even dried. She will have to travel through Death and back to reclaim her husband’s last breath. But can she make it in time and, more importantly, will she want to? This was my favorite novella of the collection and a bittersweet farewell to a favorite series.

Chokshi is in top form with the lush world building and vivid language fans of this series have come to love. Each novella focuses on an ambitious heroine as she confronts not just her fears but also her desires. A must read for fans of the series and a charming introduction to both the author and her works.

*A more condensed version of this review was published the June 2018 issue of School Library Journal*