Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #Metoo Movement: A Non-Fiction Review

Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #Metoo Movement by Toufah Jallow with Kim PittawayIn 2015 nineteen-year-old Toufah Jallow dreamt of winning a prestigious scholarship from a presidential competition (similar to a pageant) that drew competitors throughout The Gambia. Growing up in her father’s polygamous household with her mother, his second wife, Toufah knew that the scholarship–and the promise of attending any university of her choice anywhere in the world–could be life changing.

When Toufah wins with her focus on touring a play about how to eradicate poverty in the country, she expects it to be the beginning of everything she dreamt of.

Instead Toufah is drugged and raped by Yahya Jammeh–the so-called president and dictator of The Gambia behind the competition.

Terrified that speaking out will put her family in danger, Toufah knows she can’t stay in her home or even her country. She needs to escape before she can share her story.

After a harrowing escape to Senegal, Toufah connects with international humanitarian organizations that help her get to Canada. After years of acclimating to a new culture and climate while processing her trauma, Jammeh is deposed and eighteen months in July 2019 Toufah becomes the first woman in The Gambia to publicly accuse Jammeh of rape.

Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #Metoo Movement (2021) by Toufah Jallow with Kim Pittaway is the story of Toufah’s testimony and how it sparked marches, protests, and with #IAmToufah led Toufah down a path of advocacy for sexual violence survivors around the world.

Find it on Bookshop.

If you have any inclination toward audiobooks I highly recommend checking out the audiobook of this memoir which Toufah reads herself.

Although Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #Metoo Movement includes hard material, it is all handled with care and intention. Toufah’s time in Canada particularly adds much needed levity to this timely story. Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #Metoo Movement is a timely story that situates the #MeToo movement in an international context and demonstrates the lasting impact of standing up and speaking out.

Possible Pairings: Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement by Tarana Burke, Everything I Never Dreamed: My Life Surviving and Standing Up to Domestic Violence by Ruth M. Glenn, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories edited by Janet Gurtler, She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Ignited a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey, Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Seton Girls: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Seton Girls by Charlene ThomasSeton Academic High is an elite prep school with an affluent and mostly white student body. With numerous teams, extracurriculars, and a student paper with thousands of subscribers, Seton is best known for its Varsity (always capitalized) football team. And with good reason. The team has been on a winning streak for twelve years–undefeated in every game leading up to the state playoffs.

Sixteen-year-old Aly Jacobs has always felt special being a part of Seton which was never a given for her the way it is for some of Seton’s legacy students. Aly and her boyfriend J already stand out as some of the only Black students–especially ones being bussed into Seton from a poorer neighborhood. Aly has always felt the pinch, keenly aware that she lacks the disposable cash to keep up with her classmates; knowing that she and J will never live closer enough to Seton to be true insiders on all of the inside jokes and routines because “it’s hard when you live an hour away, and you don’t have a car, and you don’t have twenty dollars in spare change for a pastry, and you can’t be at the coffee shop or the moves or the Galeria for pictures like these.” But every long commute, every missed hangout will be worth it because a Seton education is the first step to opportunity.

Aly deals with imposter syndrome as a junior editing the school paper while J is already getting attention as the next Varsity quarterback. Will J be able to keep the team’s undefeated streak alive? Will he take Varsity to new levels as the first Black quarterback in the school’s history? No one knows yet. Either way Parker Adams–the younger brother of the now legendary Cooper Adams who started Seton’s streak all those years ago–plans to make his own mark first.

Parker’s dream of eclipsing his brother takes a darker turn when the schoolyear starts with rumors that Parker hooked up with Britt MacDougal–his longtime girlfriend Michelle Rodriguez’s best friend–over the summer. As the school’s most popular clique fractures everything students thought they knew about Seton begins to erode. Aly learns more about Seton’s history as she befriends social outcast Britt. As their bonds deepen Aly questions the importance of Seton’s traditions and history and if her own legacy will be helping to perpetuate Seton’s privilege or speaking out against its insidious past in Seton Girls (2022) by Charlene Thomas.

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Thomas’ debut novel lays out “What it is.” in chapters of the same name with Aly’s first person narration beginning in August 2019 at the start of Aly’s junior year at Seton alongside flashbacks of “What it was.” where a third person narrator teases out key events that led to the advent and progression of Seton’s infamous winning streak. A prologue from The Seton Story–the paper Aly edits–immediately puts readers on alert as everything that has previously made Seton so great is stripped away with the ominous observation, “If you thought that that made us the lucky ones … You were wrong.” While there is some diversity among the principal cast including Black students Aly, J, and Britt as well as other characters cued as BIPOC based on their surnames, it is clear that Seton is predominantly white and wealthy. This income disparity in particular weighs heavily on Aly who is eager to blend in with the assumed privilege at Seton not wanting anyone to “feel like we’re different.”

Short, fast-paced chapters and prose laden with foreshadow like Parker’s description of Britt as a bomb–“And maybe you meet her and survive it and it’s a miracle that you’ll talk about forever with anyone who’ll listen. Maybe that’s what happens, and it feels like magic. Or maybe the bomb goes off and she destroys you.”–add intensity to this story as both Aly and readers begin to unpack what exactly has made Seton’s varsity team so unbeatable.

True to its title, Seton Girls, keeps the focus squarely on the school’s female student body even as it unpacks the misogyny and sexism that has long been the source of many of Seton’s storied traditions. Aly’s narration is filled with naked longing to be part of Britt’s magical group of girlsfriends, “Britt’s term, so it never, ever gets confused with the less important role of being a girlfriend,” alongside Britt, Michelle and their other friends Bianca Patel and Kelly Donahue. Aly is not alone in her fascination with “the four of them together like this weightless, perfect, intoxicating aura everywhere they go” attracting both objectifying male gazes and envious female ones adding homoerotic subtext to many of Aly’s interactions with Britt and her friends since “those girls are distracting in the most addictive way.”

Subtle characterization illustrates the income disparity between Aly and her classmates in small details like Aly’s obsession with Glad Plugins which “For a while we had to use them, when they were paving the road near our house and it made everything inside smell like tar. That’s over now, but I’m still obsessed.” These sharp observations are often undercut early in the story with Aly’s gushing sentimentality for all things Seton where “Kyle can be drunk ranting on my left and Gina-Melissa can be reciting perfection on my right, and it’s not weird, or ironic, or some wild juxtaposition. It just is. We all just belong here. And it just works.” The impact of the novel’s opening with Aly’s article in The Seton Story about Parker promising to share the truth about Seton is similarly diluted as Aly spends most of the novel debating how best to support Britt before finally delivering on the story we see on page one.

Details surrounding the varsity football team’s success are often mired in specific details of football gameplay including the playoff model change observed by Cooper Adams years ago where the team doesn’t “make it to States anymore just because we have a better regular season record than everyone else. We just need to be good enough to make it to the playoffs.” which might be pull readers out of the otherwise suspenseful backstory. The ultimate payoff for the plot, especially Britt’s character arc, comes in a final act shift that casts the entire story in a different light while highlighting the power of both agency and female solidarity.

Seton Girls is a timely novel adding to the conversation surrounding the #MeToo movement alongside questions of both privilege–especially white male privilege–and consent. As Britt aptly tells Aly “If the door is open but you know you can’t get up and walk out of it that is force. That’s, like, the greatest kind of power that exists. That is corporation-level power. And it’s that kind of power–not the muscles or the dumb boy-tanks they wear–that guys like Parker will tell you isn’t real. And swear they’re not that type. But it’s the realest thing in the world.”

Possible Pairings: One Great Lie by Deb Caletti, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories edited by Janet Gurtler, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman by Kristen R. Lee, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma

The Bone Orchard: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I won’t be ashamed of remaking myself. And I won’t turn my back on myself.

The Bone Orchard by Sara A. MuellerCharm is a survivor. After the fall of Inshil, Charm is brought to Borenguard. She is confined to a life running Orchard House, a brothel and gambling den, and tending the adjacent bone trees–the last trace of her necromantic skills. Again and again she has used the trees to regrow her bone ghosts, her children really, Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride, and Pain.

Each ghost has her own role to play, her own part, to keep Orchard House together. Charm oversees it all, madam and mistress both, as everyone from Borenguard’s elite to the Fire Drinkers–the empire’s psychically gifted police force–frequents Orchard House and buys time with the ghosts.

Except on Tuesdays. When the house is closed for all but the Emperor who comes for Charm herself.

Until one Tuesday when everything changes. Instead of coming to the house, Charm is summoned to the palace where the Emperor lay dying with one last charge for his mistress.  The Emperor knows one of his cruel sons is responsible for his murder. If Charm can determine which one, and thereby also choose which son is best fit to rule, Charm will finally be free.

But serving the emperor with this one last task will put everything–and each of the ghosts–Charm has built at risk. With her own fate and the fate of her bone ghosts uncertain, Charm will have to decide if she can serve the Emperor’s last wishes while also finally serving her own interests in The Bone Orchard (2022) by Sara A. Mueller

Find it on Bookshop.

Please be aware of the content warnings for this book which includes instances of domestic abuse, rape, incest, torture, pedophilia, and other acts of violence.

Mueller’s standalone fantasy is a nuanced and richly plotted story set in a world populated by people with varied skin tones and sexual orientations including one central character who is cued as nonbinary/genderqueer. The bone ghosts are described as “colorless” and lacking in pigmentation. Shifting viewpoints move between Charm and several of the bone ghosts as the story slowly spins out and gains momentum.

The setting of Orchard House acts as a key character itself giving space to unpack the unequal power dynamics at play between many of the characters because of gender and glass–and between Charm and each of the bone ghosts who carry their own burdens and traumas. The house also highlights the ways in which history is written (or rewritten) by the victors as more of its provenance is revealed.

Be warned, this story is often gruesome and unsavory as Mueller throws open the closed doors of the brothel and also explores exactly why each of the Emperor’s sons are so deeply damaged and awful. Nonetheless, The Bone Orchard is a satisfying mystery and meditative political fantasy that begs to be savored. As the many layers of both Charm and Borenguard’s pasts are peeled back the novel builds to a complex denouement where Charm–and others–transcend the restrictions placed upon them as they learn to embrace and respect what they have done in order to survive.

Through shifting lenses and an intricate plot including mystery, political machinations, and more The Bone Orchard explores what it means to inhabit the world alternately as a captive, a potential victim, and as a survivor; grim but ultimately empowering.

Possible Pairings: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, All the Murmuring Bones by Angela Slatter, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

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

Firekeeper’s Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Firekeepers Daughter by Angeline BoulleyDaunis Fontaine has always felt like an outsider. Sometimes she’s “too Indian” for her mother’s white relatives. As an unenrolled tribal member thanks to the scandal surrounding her parents’ relationship and her own birth, Daunis never feels like she’s fully part of life on the Ojibwe reservation no matter how much time she spends with that side of her family.

With her pre-med college plans on hold after her grandmother’s debilitating stroke, Daunis feels more adrift than ever. Enter Jamie the newest member of her half-brother Levi’s hockey team. Jamie and Daunis click but that doesn’t change all of the little things about his background that don’t quite make sense.

In the wake of a tragedy that hits too close to home, Daunis learns the truth about Jamie and finds herself at the center of a far-flung criminal investigation as a confidential informant. Delving deeper into the investigation, Daunis will have to confront uncomfortable truths about her own family’s past and the reservation community to discover the truth. After years of admiring her elders, Daunis will have have to embrace being a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) herself to see things through in Firekeeper’s Daughter (2021) by Angeline Boulley.

Find it on Bookshop.

Firekeeper’s Daughter is Boulley’s debut novel.

Boulley describes this story as the indigenous Nancy Drew she always wanted to read and that really is the best description. With plot threads exploring opioid addiction (and dealing), grief, and sexual assault, Firekeeper’s Daughter is a heavy read.

Subplots involving hockey, Daunis’s complicated feelings about her family, and more can make the story seem sprawling at times although Boulley admirably ties every single thread together by the end.

Daunis’s high stakes investigation and her intense relationship with Jamie plays out against the fully realized backdrop of life in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and on the Ojibwe reservation. Daunis’s focus on her own culture and heritage are crucial to the plot bringing Daunis closer to the real culprit complete with a focus on traditional (herbal) medicine and the importance of community elders.

Firekeeper’s Daughter is a taut, perfectly plotted mystery with a protagonist readers won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Every Stolen Breath by Kimberly Gabriel, Fake ID by Lamar Giles, The Bodies We Wear by Jeyn Roberts, Sadie by Courtney Summers, Veronica Mars

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

Pointe: A Review

Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Theo is better now. She’s eating, mostly. She’s dating guys her age. Even if they aren’t always technically available. Most importantly, Theo is at the top of her game and poised to have her years of work pay off to become an elite ballet dancer.

Then Donovan comes back. Theo still remembers the day he disappeared when they were both thirteen. She remembers what it felt like to lose Donovan and her first boyfriend–her first everything, really–all at the same time.

Theo can’t look away from coverage of Donovan’s abduction and his return. It’s the only way she can piece together what might have happened to him since Donovan won’t see her and won’t talk to anyone. Until Donovan’s abductor is arrested. And Theo recognizes him as her ex-boyfriend. He gave her a fake name, he said he was younger, but he is unmistakably the same person who kidnapped her best friend.

But the truth won’t help anyone, right? It won’t heal Donovan. It won’t erase the painful breakup. All it will do is shame Theo’s family and risk her future as a dancer because of a scandal.

Except the more Theo remembers about her past, the more she realizes some secrets can’t be kept forever in Pointe (2014) by Brandy Colbert.

Find it on Bookshop.

Pointe is a tense work of suspense. In addition to unpacking the aftermath of Donovan’s abduction, Theo is dealing with disordered eating. Theo and Donovan are both Black in a predominantly white Chicago suburb.

Colbert tackles a lot here and she does all of it well as Theo works through some difficult realizations in the wake of Donovan’s return. Theo is aware of the extra challenges she faces as a Black dancer and the pressure everyone in her class is under as they prepare for conservatory auditions.

Added to that are Theo’s complicated feelings about her ex-boyfriend/Donovan’s abductor. Yes, he lied about his age. But does that change that he loved Theo? Did he even kidnap Donovan or did they go away together willingly behind Theo’s back? While the answers will be obvious to readers, Theo takes longer to figure out that “dating” someone doesn’t mean they can’t abuse you.

Pointe pulls no punches. This is a messy story about a terrible turn of events and, at the end, an impossible decision. Theo is a flawed narrator but also a very authentic one as she works though a variety of bad decisions and hard choices to realize what she has to do to make things right–for herself and her best friend.

Possible Pairings: Winter Girls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Emmy and Oliver by Robin Benway, Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Until We Break by Matthew Dawkins, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, Far From You by Tess Sharpe, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

Ever Cursed: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ever Cursed by Corey Ann HayduEveryone loves a lost girl, no one more so than the kingdom of Ever. The kingdom still mourns the Princess Who Was Lost decades ago, still demands justice for her.

Ever is slower to save the princess who still have a chance of being rescued.

Five years ago, a young witch named Reagan cursed all of Ever’s princesses with the Spell of Without. Jane has not been able to eat anything since that day. Her sister’s curses all began on their thirteenth birthdays. Nora can’t love, Alice cannot sleep, Grace can’t remember and soon, on her birthday, Eden will be without hope.

Ever is as it always was with the royals on their side of the mote and their subjects at a safe distance, their queen trapped in a glass box, and their princesses suffering. When Reagan forces the girls out of the castle for their one chance to break the Spell of Without, Jane begins to wonder if the way things are is really the way things have to be–for either the princesses or their subjects.

A princess without a curse on her is an ordinary girl. And no one cares about an ordinary girl. A witch without her spells is just a girl alone in the woods. And no one wants to be a girl alone in the woods. But as Jane and Reagan come closer to unraveling the spell before it becomes True, both girls will realize there is much more to Ever, its secrets, and themselves than either of them realized in Ever Cursed (2020) by Corey Ann Haydu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Ever Cursed is a standalone fantasy. Despite the relatively short length, there’s a lot to unpack with this one particularly in the context of the political climate (post 2016 US election) that may have helped to inspire it. Alternating chapters focus on Jane and Reagan’s first person narrations. It’s not a spoiler to say that something is rotten in Ever and Haydu, throughout the story, confronts the deep-seated misogyny and rape culture in the kingdom including discussions of sexual assault and a scene of attempted assault.

Jane’s narration is, appropriately, very focused on her mortality. The Spell of Without has carved her down to nothing and, should the spell become True, will have fatal consequences for herself and for Alice who is physically incapable of sleep. Readers with a history of disordered eating should pick this one up with caution and read the content warning Haydu includes at the beginning of the book before proceeding.

Ever Cursed is an interesting examination of what it means to be an ally and to be complicit. Both Jane and Reagan have to unpack the privilege they’ve had in being able to look away from the day-to-day problems in Ever while focusing on their own (more personally pressing) problems of being royals and witches. Jane in particular unpacks what it means to benefit from years of her family being in power and abusing that power even when she herself is not complicit.

These conversations about privilege are important ones to have while dismantling white supremacy and male privilege however combining them with a fantasy setting where the consequences are very real instead of allegorical doesn’t always lead to ideal handling of the material. Because of how the Spell of Without works, the idea of complicit privilege distills to children being punished in a very literal way for their father’s transgressions. That another young girl (Reagan) is the one meting out this punishment in order to see the king suffer in retaliation for her own mother’s pain adds even more complexity to this conversation and exposes the deeply internalized misogyny at Ever’s center.

As a feminist allegory disguised as a fairy tale, Ever Cursed is very successful. As a feminist fairy tale it is less so. The world building is thinly sketched and sometimes haphazard with fantastic imagery (witches wearing cumbersome skirts for ever spell they cast so that they always carry the consequences) that doesn’t hold up to any internal logic.

Ever Cursed has the bones of a truly sensational story that ultimately would have benefited from a bit more length to give proper space to both the world building and its characters; a fascinating if sometimes underdeveloped picture. Recommended for readers with an equal interest in feminism (or feminist theory) and fairy tales.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

Grown: A Review

“Because if I keep denying the memory, it’ll make it untrue.”

Grown by Tiffany D. JacksonEnchanted Jones thought she had everything figured out. She isn’t what anyone would call happy at her new school, but she makes it work. She has swim team and she has her best friend Gabriella. With Gab’s help Enchanted auditions for BET’s version of American Idol. It doesn’t go well.

But it does bring her face to face with legendary R&B artist Korey Fields who is even hotter in person and could be Enchanted’s own ticket to stardom. It starts with secret texts and flirting. Then there are singing lessons and an invitation to go on tour.

It ends with Enchanted beaten bloody and Korey Fields dead.

Enchanted wishes she could forget the events leading up to Korey’s death. But she can’t do that any more than she can remember what happened that night.

Did Enchanted plunge the knife into Korey’s chest? Was she the only one who wanted him dead? With more questions than answers Enchanted will have to piece together the pieces before Korey’s livid fans–or the police–do it for her with Enchanted as the culprit in Grown (2020) by Tiffany D. Jackson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Jackson’s latest standalone is a tense mystery as Enchanted navigates her sudden infamy while still trying to process the abuse she suffered at Korey’s hands. (Please note the content warnings in this book for: mentions of sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction to opioids.) The case in the book is heavily influenced by the sexual abuse allegations leveraged against R. Kelly over the past two decades as covered in the documentary Surviving R. Kelly.

Grown is a crushing read. It’s easy to see the red flags in retrospect with the shifting timeline that starts with Enchanted discovering Korey’s dead body. It’s much harder for Enchanted to see them as she is drawn in to Korey’s orbit and desperate to be seen as a young woman instead of the little girl her family still sees.

Grown offers a scathing commentary on how quickly the media is willing to blame young Black girls like Enchanted saying they are grown and know what they are doing while excusing predatory behavior from influential Black men like Korey. While this story is by no means an easy read, Jackson’s writing is on point as this taut and suspenseful story builds to one surprising twist after another.

I do also want to talk about how mental illness is explored in the book. This is a spoiler so click read more to my thoughts or back away to avoid them:

Continue reading Grown: A Review

Foul is Fair: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Foul is Fair by Hannah CapinElle’s glittering life is torn to shreds when she and her friends crash a St. Andrew’s Prep party and the golden boys there choose Elle as their latest target.

Her best friends Mads, Jenny, and Summer get Elle out of there. They help her bandage the cuts, throw out the ruined dress, and most importantly change her appearance.

Because after that night, after what they did to her, Elle is gone.

She’s Jade now and she is going to make every single boy who hurt her pay.

Her parents are going to turn a blind eye. Her coven of best friends are going to help. And a boy named Mack is going to take the blame for all of it in Foul is Fair (2020) by Hannah Capin.

Find it on Bookshop.

Capin’s modern retelling of Macbeth is a gory revenge fantasy set against a world of luxury and decadence and LA’s upper echelon. (Readers can find a content warning at the front of the book as well as on the author’s website.)

Jade’s first person narration is sleek, sharp, and almost lyrical enough to call iambic pentameter to mind. While the story does little to develop any character beyond their designated role in this revenge fantasy, Jade’s coven of friends is diverse including bisexual Summer, Jenny who is Korean, and Mads–a trans girl and Jade’s oldest and best friend.

The accelerated timeline and copious murder both require a willing suspension of disbelief as Jade sets her revenge quest in motion–all over the course of one week.

Foul is Fair is as bloody as it is campy. Recommended for readers who prefer their revenge fantasies with justifiably angry girls and a healthy dose of gore.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, Anna K.: A Love Story by Jenny Lee, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Kingdom by Jessica Rothenberg, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

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

A Girl Like That: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Girl Like That by Tanaz BhatenaAt sixteen, Zarin Wadia’s reputation already precedes her. She is an orphan, the daughter of a gangster, the product of a scandalous marriage. She is a smoker, she is reckless, she has left a trail of boyfriends in her wake despite the constant need to dodge the Religious Police. She is the subject of endless rumors at her school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Everyone knows that no one would want to get involved with a girl like that.

Which is why it’s so shocking when Zarin dies in a car crash with eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia–her childhood friend and, by all counts, a boy with a good head on his shoulders.

Everyone thought they knew Zarin but as her story and the circumstances of the crash come together, it’s very clear that Zarin was always more than the rumors would have you believe in A Girl Like That (2018) by Tanaz Bhathena.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Girl Like That is Bhathena’s debut novel. The story unfolds from multiple viewpoints with Zarin and Porus observing the aftermath of the car crash and flashbacks from both Zarin and Porus as well as other characters in Zarin’s life. Through these multiple first person viewpoints the novel explores both the events leading up to the crash and its fallout.

Zarin is a strongly feminist heroine who pushes against the limits placed on her by both her family and her surroundings in the conservative city of Jeddah. Through Zarin and her classmate Mishal’s narratives, Bhathena expertly explores themes of feminism and agency as both girls find their worlds unfairly narrowed because of little more than their gender.

A Girl Like That is a poignant and bittersweet story and perception versus reality, rumors, and truth. A quiet meditation on all of the ways society as well as friends and family can fail young people trying to make their way through a world that is often far from gentle. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll, Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, Life By Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, The First Part Last by Angela Johnson, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed, The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe, The List by Siobhan Vivian, Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Tell Me No Lies: A (WIRoB) Review

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

cover art for Tell Me No Lies by Adele GriffinIt’s October 1988, and Lizzy Swift is finally in 12th grade at her all-girls high school. She was promised glamor and excitement, certain that, at Argyll, “there was no bigger prize” than being a senior.

But now, all she feels is tricked.

So far, the year has been just like every other; she hasn’t taken part in any of the big moments that she always thought would make up her senior year. Instead, Lizzy is busy filling her transcript with items to add to her Princeton application.

She studies to stay on the honor roll, works on drawings for her AP art portfolio, and tries to convince her best friends and fellow nerds, Gage and Mimi, to step outside of their comfort zones with her. But athlete Gage is happy just marking time until college, while Mimi’s free time is spent chatting with her boyfriend.

Lizzy used to think all she wanted was to blend in, to make it easier to pretend no one knows about her epilepsy. It’s been years since she had a grand mal seizure during chorus class, after all.

Since then, Lizzy has managed to largely ignore her condition, never talking about her medication, the doctor, or the risk of seizures that makes her parents overprotective. But she’s constantly on guard, always waiting for her next seizure. And being dubbed “spaz” by popular Wendy Palmer hasn’t helped her social standing.

Lizzy is as shocked as anyone when new girl Claire Reynolds chooses to lavish attention on her, first with shared eyeliner and later with secret trips into the city. Claire is effortlessly cool in a way Lizzy desperately wants to emulate.

Of course, Claire has her own secrets about why she came to Argyll during her senior year, but Lizzy is so thrilled with the friendship that she’s willing to overlook Claire’s secrecy in Tell Me No Lies (2018) by Adele Griffin.

Find it on Bookshop.

(While Lizzy’s epilepsy plays a large role in her character arc, readers may lament that there is no author’s note included to detail the research and resources Griffin may have used to try to authentically portray the condition.)

She also keeps picking up the tab for Claire, despite the fact that Claire and her divorced mother now live with their extremely wealthy aunt and her 16 cats. These, Claire explains, “had the run of the house and could do anything they wanted, plundering like pirates, knocking over vases, scratching curtains and portraits, sleeping anywhere.”

Despite her misgivings about Claire, Lizzy treasures their friendship, as it allows her to present a new version of herself for the first time in years. Her newfound confidence even leads Lizzy to date a longtime crush, Matt Ashley.

But even with their obvious chemistry and affection, which Griffin sweetly shows on the page, every time Lizzy and Matt try to connect physically, it feels like something is off — especially during an awkward hand job that seems to push them further apart instead of bringing the couple closer together.

Is it because Lizzy skipped third grade and is the youngest in her class? Or is something else making Matt hold back every time they’re alone together?

While Lizzy’s focus for most of the novel is her relationship with Claire and Matt, she — and readers — come to appreciate the constant and familiar presence of her best friends, who support her even as they struggle to understand her changing tastes and attitude.

Attention from Mimi’s older brother, Theo, a college student and model described as a “Korean James Bond,” is a confusing addition to Lizzy’s rather overfilled senior year, as their once-easy friendship shifts to a more intense flirtation.

This YA novel about the excitement of new relationships and experiences plays out against the backdrop of fear and paranoia surrounding the AIDS crisis and the shifting norms and politics of the times.

Offhand references to Keith Haring, Joy Division, and other key figures of the period further help set a scene which may feel very remote for today’s teen readers. Plot threads, including sexual abuse by a teacher, closeted gay teens, and the constant fear of HIV, are timely given the setting, if somewhat unnecessary additions to this already jam-packed novel.

Still, 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