Seoulmates: A Review

Seoulmates by Susan LeeHannah Cho’s dreams of perfect summer before senior year go up in smoke when her boyfriend dumps her. Nate, like most of their friend group, is obsessed with K-pop and K-dramas. While Hannah is Korean American, she has no use for Korean pop culture. After years of leaning into the American parts of her identity to better fit in, Hannah doesn’t know how to handle this shift. Especially when it leaves her suddenly single.

As a rising K-drama star, Jacob Kim struggles with questions of whether he’s committed enough–and Korean enough–to succeed. After years of training, he isn’t sure how much longer he can deal with the pressure to make himself constantly available to his publicity team, his costars, and the press. When a press junket leads to Jacob needing some down time, he’s excited. Until he finds out his mom plans to have them stay with the Chos.

Jacob and Hannah used to be inseparable as kids. But that was before everything soured between them. The two strike an uneasy bargain–and an even more tenuous truce–when Hannah enlists Jacob’s help to win back her boyfriend and Jacob, in turn, asks Hannah to help him complete his summer bucket list of all the things he’s missed in San Diego over the years.

As Hannah and Jacob get to know each other again they’ll have to decide if new memories are enough to make up for old hurts and whether they’re headed for a happy ending or some K-drama level tears in Seoulmates (2022) by Susan Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Seoulmates is Lee’s debut novel. The novel alternates close third person perspective between Hannah and Jacob with some fun vignettes from their mothers’ points of view along the way. All principle characters are Korean or Korean American.

Hannah’s relationship with K-dramas and K-pop is partially inspired by the author’s own journey to embrace her heritage and cultural identity. As such, Seoulmates is lovingly filled with as many zany adventures and heart-string tugs as K-drama fans would expect. While Hannah starts the novel bitter and angry at Jacob, her hurt is clearly defined on the page never leaving readers in doubt of the long history between these characters and the difficult conversations they have in order to get back to each other.

Their hate to love relationship plays out against the backdrop of a summer filled with big questions. Hannah has to figure out what it means to be Korean American when, at last, being Korean finally seems to make her cool enough without trying to change herself. Jacob, meanwhile, has to figure out if continuing as an actor is worth the lack of privacy and the pressure–a stressful question to consider when he’s also been supporting his family since his father’s death years ago.

Lee balances these different plot threads well leaving room for the characters to realistically learn and grow as they reconnect while also delivering gasp-worthy twists in the rocky road of Hannah and Jacob’s relationship.

Seoulmates is a fun and breezy summer romance where finding love is tempered well with finding yourself.

Possible Pairings: The Charmed List by Julia Abe, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Susan Lee here on the blog.

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

The Ballad of Never After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Ballad of Never After by Stephanie GarberSince coming to the Magnificent North, Evangeline Fox has married a prince and become part of a prophecy to open the infamous Valory Arch and the dangers–or wonders–it holds. All thanks to Jacks, the Prince of Hearts, and his machinations to manipulate said prophecy in his favor ensuring that Jacks and Jacks alone will receive the supposed boon the arch holds.

Evangeline has learned her lesson, repeatedly, about what happens when she trusts Jacks. But with no resources and few allies, Evangeline realizes that working with Jacks might be the fastest way to get her own story back on track. As the two search for the magic stones to open the arch, Evangeline can feel herself becoming part of the stories that are told throughout the North–history still being formed. But everyone knows stories in the North are cursed, the true endings–happy or tragic–impossible to know.

Finding the stones brings Evangeline closer to her hopefully happy ending while hinting at Jacks’ mysterious history in the North before he became a magical and ruthless Fate. But nothing with Jacks is ever as it seems and Evangeline knows she’ll have to keep her wits about her to stay one step ahead of Jacks. Even if her heart has other plans.

Happy endings can be caught, but they’re not easy to hold; they need to be constantly chased or they will get away. The closer Evangeline gets to opening the Valory Arch, the farther away her own happy ending seems in The Ballad of Never After (2022) by Stephanie Garber.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Ballad of Never After is the second book in Garber’s series which begins with Once Upon a Broken Heart. Set in the same world as Garber’s Caraval trilogy, this series can be read on its own but does include minor spoilers for the Caraval trilogy. Evangeline and Jacks are white, there is diversity among other characters.

While Evangeline’s unfailing optimism remains intact in this second installment, she is much more aware of her limitations–and vulnerabilities–while navigating tricky bargains with those keen to use her for their own ends. Whether that optimism will be her greatest strength or her greatest weakness remains to be seen for much of the story.

After coming to the Magnificent North filled with wonder and a desire to connect to her own past, Evangeline spends more time exploring her new surroundings and trying to understand her place in them. Garber seamlessly expands the world as readers and Evangeline are introduced to more of the Magnificent North and its history including tantalizing hints about the truth behind Evangeline’s favorite northern fairytale The Ballad of the Archer and the Fox as well as the strange history of the North’s lost royal family, the Valors. In a story that plays with the concept of lost history (thanks to the Magnificent North’s story curse) and a new history being formed, the urgency is obvious even with a more character-driven plot.

Frothy descriptions, chaotic adventure, and surprisingly poignant moments of introspection come together to make The Ballad of Never After a delightful story about both literal magic and the magic of belief–in oneself and otherwise.

The Ballad of Never After is a dramatic story where nothing is as it seems and sometimes even an ending can be a new beginning. An excellent addition to a highly recommended series.

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*

Dreams Lie Beneath: A Review

Dreams Lie Beneath by Rebecca RossAt every new moon, the realm of Azenor is overrun by tangible nightmares that stalk the streets wreaking havoc in their wake.

In this world where your worst dreams can, and do, come to life magicians are uniquely positioned to protect innocent dreamers from these monsters of their own making.

Clementine Madigan has grown up watching her father work as a warden and, more recently, assisting him to catalog and destroy the dream creatures that hunt each new moon. Clem’s hopes of inheriting her father’s title are dashed when two upstart magicians–brothers Lennox and Phelan Vesper–challenge him for his title. And win.

Enraged by the loss of everything she’s ever known, Clem is determined to get her revenge–even if it comes at a great personal cost.

But the harder Clem works to expose the Vespers’ misdeeds, the closer she grows to Phelan and the dangerous secrets that bind their families to each other and to the curse that has plagued Azenor for centuries in Dreams Lie Beneath (2021) by Rebecca Ross.

Find it on Bookshop.

Dreams Lie Beneath is a standalone fantasy narrated by Clem. Main characters are white with some diversity among the supporting cast.

Dreams Lie Beneath starts strong with a promising magic system and a heroine who if not entirely sympathetic is singular in pursuit of her goals. Unfortunately these pieces fail to gel into a cohesive story before a plot twist midway shifts the entire story into new territory. This plot change essentially renders everything that came before moot as both the stakes and the rewards for Clem and other main characters abruptly change. Clem’s behavior changes almost as abruptly as the plot with jumps to conclusions and shifting loyalties that have little support within the framework of the novel.

Paper thin motivations and fantasy elements that don’t move far beyond aesthetic value start as promising pieces but, again, never result in a fully realized and well-developed story.

Dreams Lie Beneath is a fun and fast-paced story with a lot of style. Readers looking for more complexity to characters and world building would be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Caraval by Stephanie Garber Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Belladonna: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Do not change the parts of yourself that you like to make others comfortable. Do not try to mold yourself to fit the standards someone else has set for us.”

Belladonna by Adalyn GraceSigna Farrow has spent her entire life moving from house to house as each of her numerous guardians meets an untimely end. With caretakers increasingly more interested in her wealth than her happiness, Signa’s loneliness is palpable. She craves the day she will come into her inheritance and can set up her own household filled with laughter and company–never solitude and especially not Death. The one constant in Signa’s life aside from her precarious living arrangements has been the ability to see and, regrettably, interact with Death himself–a shadowy figure of a man who is as mystified by their connection as Signa.

At the age of nineteen, there is only one year left until Signa enters society. One she needs to use well if she hopes to banish the dismal reputation her numerous deceased guardians have built for her. After years of begging–and even demanding–that Death leave her alone, Signa is more suspicious than grateful when he promises to improve her current situation. Nonetheless, she is cautiously excited to find she has some living relatives in the Hawthorne family.

Thorn Grove is a stately manor with far more luxury than Signa is used to, but it is also a house in crisis with patriarch Elijah Hawthorne lost in grief and intent on running the family business–and reputation–into the ground while eldest son Percy watches helplessly. With mourning not yet over for Elijah’s beloved wife, it seems his daughter Blythe is suffering from the same mysterious illness. With no obvious cure and her condition worsening, Death warns that it won’t be much longer before he has to claim the ailing girl as one of his own.

Experiencing stability and family for the first time is a heady mixture for Signa, reminding her of how much Thorn Grove still has to lose. Signa knows that society would frown upon a young woman experimenting with folk remedies and digging into the Hawthorne’s secrets. But she also knows that she will do anything to keep Blythe and Thorn Grove safe–even if it means risking her reputation by working with Death to search for answers in Belladonna (2022) by Adalyn Grace.

Find it on Bookshop.

Belladonna is the first book in a projected duology that will continue with Foxglove. Signa and most main characters are cued as white with more varied skin tones among the supporting cast including one of Signa’s childhood friends, Charlotte, who is described as having brown skin.

Belladonna is a gothic mystery with just the right amount of magic in the form of death personified and Signa’s own strange powers that allow her not just to speak with Death but take on some of his abilities including a resistance to poison. Sumptuous descriptions of Signa’s new surroundings set the mood as Signa familiarizes herself with Thorn Grove and its occupants while highlighting the privation of her previous homes.

Armed with nothing but an old etiquette book and her wits, Signa thinks she is prepared for what society will expect of her as a young woman. But the longer she spends at Thorn Grove and the more she embraces her own powers, the clearer it is that the societal standards Signa has clung to are skewed against her and may not be worth striving for after all. Signa’s inheritance adds another layer to this conversation as she begins to understand her privilege and realizes other women are not so fortunate when it comes to future marriages and life choices.

Haunted by spirits all her life, Signa’s innate need to investigate the happenings at Thorn Grove only increases as she is haunted by–and begins to communicate with–the ghosts of the stately manor. This novel is filled with a well-rounded cast of both the living and dead who add dimension to this rich story as the complexities of relationships among the Hawthorne family and its staff begin to unfold. At the center of this is Signa’s complicated dynamic with Death who starts the story as her greatest frustration only to become a foil, a confidante, and perhaps much more. The tension between these two characters moves the story along as much as the mystery with its own twists and surprises.

Belladonna is a thoughtful story where Signa spends as much time investigating her own wants and needs as a young woman entering society as she does trying to uncover Thorn Grove’s secrets. Belladonna capitalizes on a well-developed magic system and atmospheric prose to deliver both a satisfying mystery and romance.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Ferryman by Claire McFall, A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson, Gallant by V. E. Schwab

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

The Perfect Escape: A Review

The Perfect Escape by Suzanne ParkNate Jae-Woo Kim is a young entrepreneur with his eye on the prize. By which he means money. With college ahead, a much younger sister, and parents already stretched thin Nate’s main goal is to make lots of money so his family can stop struggling.

Which is why it’s so tempting when one of his entitled classmares offers Nate an obscene amount of money to help him cheat and manipulate the grading curve. The money on offer would be life changing. But so would the legal ramifications if Nate participates in this level of fraud.

Sometimes Kate Anderson feels like all she has is money. After her mother’s death Kate certainly doesn’t have her father’s attention. Or his support.

Which is why Kate’s new job at a zombie-themed escape room has to remain secret. Playing a zombie is exactly what Kate needs to stretch her makeup skills and keep a hand in when it comes to acting until she earns enough money to move out and try her luck in New York’s theater scene.

Surprisingly, a zombie-themed survivalist competition could help both Nate and Kate get exactly what they need. Together. Teaming up to win the zombie run would mean a big cash prize–even if it’s split. What neither of them counted on is the fact that secrets–and growing feelings–could be just as dangerous as zombies in The Perfect Escape (2020) by Suzanne Park.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Perfect Escape alternates first person narration between Nate–who is Korean American–and Kate–who is white. The audiobook narrators–Raymond J. Lee and Kate Rudd–do an excellent job of bringing these characters to life.

Park’s background as a stand-up comedian is on full display in this laugh-out-loud funny story where all’s fair between love and zombies. Although Nate and Kate start with a lot of secrets between them their obvious chemistry comes across in banter filled dialog and their adventure filled trek through the zombie run.

Nate is a no-nonsense character very focused on his future (by which he still means money) and I knew he was my favorite as soon as he detailed his deep admiration of Scrooge McDuck (described by Nate: “Scrooge McDuck was rich, focused, and no-nonsense.”). Kate’s troubled home life and her own aspirations further flesh out this dynamic duo. Fast-paced action and a race that will test both wits and loyalty serve as the perfect backdrop for Nate and Kate’s blossoming relationship as both characters wonder if sticking together might be more important than sticking to their plans.

The Perfect Escape is a quirky, often hilarious story where getting what you want might mean incapacitating a few zombies along the way.

Possible Pairings: This Will Be Funny Someday by Katie Henry, There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon, The Knockout by Sajni Patel, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, Geek Girl by Holly Smale, Love Decoded by Jennifer Yen, Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon

Finding Audrey: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Finding Audrey by Sophie KinsellaAudrey hasn’t left the house in mouths. How can she when she can’t even take off her dark glasses in the house? After everything that happened during her last brief moments in an actual high school, it’s all too much. Audrey doesn’t want to think about what the other girls did or the breakdown that came after. It’s hard enough to think about the anxiety she’s stuck with as a result.

Audrey knows it hasn’t been a picnic for her parents or her siblings either. She’s just not sure how to get from where she is–in her house, mostly alone, in dark glasses–to actually going out again.

Enter Linus, her brother’s friend and Audrey’s unlikely support as she tries to venture out into the world, or at least to Starbucks in Finding Audrey (2015) by Sophie Kinsella.

Find it on Bookshop.

Finding Audrey is Kinsella’s first YA novel. The audiobook is primarily narrated by Gemma Whelan but features full cast moments when Audrey is filming scenes of a documentary about her family as part of her therapy (which appear as film transcripts in print copies). All characters are assumed white.

This is a small story about big issues as Audrey tries to deal with the aftermath of intense bullying that led to a mental breakdown and ensuing mental health problems that primarily manifest as extreme anxiety. Nothing about this is sugarcoated and Audrey’s recovery (and pitfalls when she tries to stop her medication) feels earned through processing her trauma and work with her therapist.

Laugh out loud moments with her absurd parents and long suffering siblings add levity to what could have become an overly heavy and maudlin plot. The slice-of-lice nature of this story offers a brief glimpse into Audrey’s life as she learns how to cope with her anxiety and other challenging things like flirting with cute Linus.

Finding Audrey is an authentic story of recovery with genuinely funny moments throughout.

Possible Pairings: Off the Record by Camryn Garrett, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

A Disaster in Three Acts: A Review

A Disaster in Three Acts by Kelsey RodkeyEighteen-year-old Saine Sinclair prides herself on her ability to shape a narrative on film. Her eye for storytelling is why she knows her friendship with Holden Michaels has been over for some time now. As if him publicly rejecting her during a middle school game of spin-the-bottle wasn’t enough, Holden has also dated and broken up with Saine’s current best friend Corinne. In other words, both loyalty and pride dictate that Saine never speak to Holden again.

Which is what makes it so awkward when Saine needs Holden’s help to complete her documentary for a prestigious filmmaking program at Temple University after her original subject drops out. Her preliminary application has already been submitted and approved which means that Saine has to stick to her original topic–following a contestant through a series of live action gaming competitions to win a prototype virtual reality headset–which is where Holden comes in.

Following her ex-best-friend around to film everything he does while thinking she’s telling a familiar tale about a white boy getting what he wants is hard. Doing that while worrying if her current best friend is jealous is even harder.

Saine’s fixation on the success of her film makes it easy to put her growing feelings for Holden and crumbling relationships on hold while she tries to figure out how to shape real life to make sure her documentary wins a spot at Temple by inventing financial problems as motivation and even resorting to sabotage. As her lies and manipulations grow, Saine faces a reality check when she realizes that sometimes narrative growth hurts–especially when it comes to facing the consequences her actions in A Disaster in Three Acts (2022) by Kelsey Rodkey.

Find it on Bookshop.

Saine and Holden, like most main characters, are white with some secondary characters cued as BIPOC based on names/skin tones including Saine’s other best friend Kelsey and Holden’s best friend Taj. The cast also includes characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum and a cute side plot romance between two girls in Saine’s friend group. Saine is self-described as fat and she and her mother are lower income both of which play into the plot.

While A Disaster in Three Acts has a well-rounded and nuanced cast of supporting characters, Saine remains deeply flawed throughout the story. Her fixation on the documentary seems to be excused by her grief over her grandmother’s sudden death and the confusing process of moving on alongside her divorced mother as they process the loss and try to move on. Unfortunately that’s a poor excuse for Saine’s choices to make up numerous plots for her documentary (notably manipulating footage and interviews to imply that Holden’s family is struggling financially and that he wants to win the competition to sell the prize), interview subjects without their consent while pretending her camera is turned off, and even outright sabotage when Holden needs her help during a competition.

As the story progresses Saine does have to contend with the consequences of her manipulative, self-centered behavior and her multiple lies to all of her friends. Unfortunately her contrition–even at the end of the book–seems to stem more from being caught behaving badly than from her actual bad behavior.

Saine spends a lot of the documentary lamenting that if Holden wins the competition his success in her documentary will not feel “earned” because he’s just another white boy succeeding. The irony of this is that, by the end of the novel, Saine’s own redemption arc feels similarly unearned and–compared to her egregious behavior–unjustified.

A Disaster in Three Acts is a fast paced story that is often humorous albeit with a main character whose singular focus often works against her character development.

Possible Pairings: A Show For Two by Tashie Bhuiyan, Jasmine Zumideh Needs a Win by Susan Azim Boyer, Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura

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

Sherwood: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Who are you to say that being a lady, in itself, is not its own kind of war?”

Sherwood by Meagan SpoonerWhen Robin of Locksley dies fighting in the Crusades for his king, it leaves Marian’s entire future uncertain. For years, Marian knew she would marry Robin and stand beside him when he became Lord of Locksley. They would make a life together, the way they had always planned, and they would protect Locksley town and its residents from the Sheriff of Nottingham. Together.

Now Marian is painfully aware of her uncertain future. Guy of Gisborne serves as the sheriff’s right hand. He hopes to cement his place as a gentleman first by laying claim to Locksley land and then by claiming Marian herself.

With her options dwindling and time running short, Marian is driven to a desperate decision to don Robin’s green cloak and act as a protector when he no longer can. What began as one impulsive act quickly gains a life of its own as news of Robin’s return spreads and brings hope to people with in desperate need of it.

Marian never meant to hide behind a hood, she never meant to become Robin. With Guy getting closer to her secret, with the sheriff enraged, Marian knows she has to stop. But with so many people counting on her–on Robin Hood–she isn’t sure how she can in Sherwood (2019) by Meagan Spooner.

Find it on Bookshop.

Spooner continues her series of standalone retellings of classic tales with Sherwood. All characters are assumed white.

Sherwood reinterprets familiar source material with new twists and imbues the story with strong feminist themes. Marian has always been aware of her vulnerabilities and limitations as a woman in medieval society where the paths available to her include marriage or life in a convent and much in between. These restraints gain new urgency when Marian’s planned future is stripped away with Robin’s unexpected death–leaving her to grieve her lost future as much as her childhood best friend.

This impressive take on Robin Hood features familiar characters and plot points retold with clever changes that make Sherwood into something new. Marian’s precarious role as a noblewoman is portrayed well as societal pressures call for her to stop mourning Robin and choose a new suitor. At the same time, as she works with Sherwood’s most notable outlaws, Marian’s privilege is checked by her new (and sometimes reluctant) allies who keep her grounded in the realities of living in poverty or on the run from the law.

Without revealing too much about the plot, I will say Spooner’s treatment of Guy of Gisborne is one of my favorite character reinterpretations of all time. This story reimagines Guy as a more nuanced character than the usual dour enforcer and positions him to serve as a foil and counterpoint to Marian throughout.

Sherwood stays true to the source material and the spirit of the characters while also being entirely unique and adding new layers to a familiar tale. Sherwood is a richly layered and deeply feminist story filled with adventure and surprises; perfect for fans familiar with Robin Hood and new readers alike.

Possible Pairings: No Good Deed by Kara Connolly, The Forest Queen by Betsey Cornwell, Hood by Jenny Moke Elder, Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, Bravely by Maggie Stiefvater, The Bone Spindle by Leslie Vedder, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

In the Wild Light: A Review

“Because for every way the world tries to kill us, it gives us a way to survive. You just gotta find it.”

“Every hurt, every sorrow, every scar has brought you here. Poetry lets us turn pain into fire by which to warm ourselves. Go build a fire.”

In the Wild Light by Jeff ZentnerNothing in Cash’s life has been easy in Sawyer–his small Appalchian town. His mother died because of her opioid addiction when Cash was a child. Now, as a teen, Cash is watching his Papaw deteriorate from emphysema while he and his Mamaw are powerless to help. Cash knows he’s lucky to have his grandparents at all, to be on the river he loves, to have his summer work mowing lawns, to have these small pieces of safety and stability.

Sometimes it feels like the one bright spot is his best friend, Delaney. But Cash has always known Delaney will eventually leave–that’s what happens when your best friend is a genius. When Delaney discovers a life-changing bacteria-eating mold in a cave, Cash knows she’s headed for better things. Without him. And even sooner than he expected when she receives a full scholarship to Middleford Academy, an elite boarding school in Connecticut.

Except Delaney has plans of her own. None of which include leaving Cash behind. When Delaney tells Cash a scholarship is his for the taking he will have to choose between an unimaginable opportunity with the best friend he’s ever had and his love for his grandparents and the only place he’s ever called home.

As Cash grapples with everything he has to let go, he’ll remember everything worth holding onto and learn new ways to dream bigger in In the Wild Light (2021) by Jeff Zentner.

Find it on Bookshop.

Zentner’s latest novel can be read as a standalone but is set in the same world as all of his other novels. The story here is most closely connected to Goodbye Days with direct references to those characters. Cash and Delaney are white, secondary characters include Cash’s new friend Alex who is Korean-American (and also on scholarship) and Delaney’s Brazilian roommate Vi who is wealthy leading to thoughtful commentary on income diversity throughout the novel. Cash’s poetry-teacher-turned-mentor is queer and she and her wife also play key roles in the plot.

Cash’s first person narration is eloquently introspective as he describes the river and nature he dearly loves but less self-aware when it comes to identifying his own wants and, as his world expands at Middleford Academy, understanding what he needs to continue growing.

Cash is keenly aware of his past traumas and how they have shaped him and his loved ones in a small town where poverty is high and many have fallen victim to the opioid epidemic as he describes them, “Here we are, survivors of quiet wars.” At the same time, Cash and especially his Papaw and Mamaw are free with their affection, their praise, and their unconditional love. In a world where toxic masculinity is still so dangerous it is refreshing and powerful to see a teenaged boy given space to cry and grieve and feel while also seeing the same things in his grandfather.

While Delaney is eager to start fresh, Cash is hesitant to embrace this new chapter and let himself imagine a world beyond his quiet life with his grandparents. Even as he makes new friends, joins crew, and discovers an unexpected passion for poetry, he’s still waiting for the ground to fall out from under him the way it always does–a fear that will resonate with readers who have struggled with unpredictability and chaos in their own lives. On first glance, I don’t have much in common with Cash, so it was a surprise when I identified so deeply with his story, his grief, and his dread of the next calamity. When Cash says “I have nothing in my life that isn’t falling apart,” I felt it in my bones.

In the Wild Light is a quiet, meditative story about nature, poetry, love, and all of the things that can save us. In the Wild Light is a resonant story about healing; the perfect book to see you through a rough season.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

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, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, 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