“My Mechanical Romance” by Alexene Farol Follmuth (Review)

Follmuth, Alexene Farol. My Mechanical Romance. New York: Holiday House, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0823450107 | $18.99 USD | 266 pages | YA Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

Opposites attract in this battle-robot-building YA romance from the NYT best-selling author of The Atlas Six.

Bel would rather die than think about the future. College apps? You’re funny. Extracurriculars? Not a chance. But when she accidentally reveals a talent for engineering at school, she’s basically forced into joining the robotics club. Even worse? All the boys ignore Bel—and Neelam, the only other girl on the team, doesn’t seem to like her either.

Enter Mateo Luna, captain of the club, who recognizes Bel as a potential asset—until they start butting heads. Bel doesn’t care about Nationals, while Teo cares too much. But as the nights of after-school work grow longer and longer, Bel and Teo realize they’ve made more than just a combat-ready robot for the championship: they’ve made each other and the team better. Because girls do belong in STEM.

In her YA debut, Alexene Farol Follmuth, author of The Atlas Six (under the penname Olivie Blake), explores both the challenges girls of color face in STEM and the vulnerability of first love with unfailing wit and honesty. With an adorable, opposites-attract romance at its center and lines that beg to be read aloud, My Mechanical Romance is swoonworthy perfection.

A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

Review 

3 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Review based on final copy. All opinions are my own. 

I requested My Mechanical Romance based on the cover and premise alone, not realizing that Alexene Farol Follmuth was also Olivie Blake at the time. I really didn’t get the hype for The Atlas Six, and had DNFed it, but hoped this was a case where I simply preferred her writing in one genre over the other. Unfortunately, while I appreciate what she was trying to do here, I didn’t gel with it. 

I do like the general intent. While I don’t feel drawn to any STEM fields myself, I am aware of the sexism within those industries…and how it can be worse when you’re a woman of color due to being doubly marginalized. Bel personally faces accusations of being the “token woman of color” and being added to the robotics team solely for “diversity points,” something that is very common to hear in this day and age, instead of pausing to consider the merit people like her add, due to their talent and diverse background. 

Bel is also generally relatable in her own right, because of how she expresses what it’s like to be a child of divorce. I appreciate how she attempts to handle it in the most mature way possible, with the acknowledgment that this change in family dynamics has had a major impact on her. 

Teo is ok, but definitely suffered from the book being a bit too short to delve into his story equally. The romance is cute, but this is yet another book that dramatically oversells the rivalry aspect, when it’s incredibly tame. 

And I don’t know if it’s the way that the author writes about academics and technical things that just puts me off or what, but that seems to be the common denominator here and with TAS. The latter book went hard in terms of the “magical academics” to the point where I didn’t care about the many characters introduced. And here, while the smaller main cast made it easier to connect with them, the depiction of robotics dragged the book down for me. 

So, while this book didn’t entirely work for me, it’s probably a reflection of my issues with the author’s style and choices more than anything else. This is a great book unpacking the issues of young women of color in STEM fields, and I can see why it resonates for that reason. 

Author Bio

Alexene Farol Follmuth is a first-generation American, a romance enthusiast, Ana a lover and writer of stories. Alexene has penned a number of adult SFF projects under the name Olivie Blake, including the webtoon Clara and the Devil and the BookTok-viral The Atlas Six. My Mechanical Romance is her YA debut. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, new baby, and rescue pit bull. Find her at https://www.alexenefarolfollmuth.com.

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“The Charmed List” by Julie Abe (Review)

Abe, Julie. The Charmed List. New York: Wednesday Books, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250830098 | $18.99 USD | 304 pages | YA Contemporary/Fantasy Romance 

Blurb

“The best friends to enemies-to-lovers story I needed in my life! The Charmed List utterly enchants with its delightful characters and heartfelt themes of family, friendship, and first love. I adored this fun-filled and swoony road trip romance with a magical twist!” Axie Oh, author of XOXO and The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Sometimes you need a little magic to fall in love
.

Ellie Kobata has spent most of high school on the sidelines, keeping her art Instagram private and shying away from the world. She can’t even tell her only friend, Lia, who she really is: Ellie is part of a secret magical community, and no one outside of it can know it exists. The only person Ellie could fully relate to was Jack Yasuda – her childhood friend who mysteriously started to snub her a few years ago.

But before senior year, Ellie is ready to take some risks and have a life-changing summer, starting with her Anti-Wallflower List – thirteen items she’s going to check off one by one. With this list, she hopes to finally come out of her shell; even though she can’t share her full self with the world. But when number four on Ellie’s list goes horribly wrong—revenge on Jack Yasuda—she’s certain her summer is cursed. Instead of spending her summer with Lia, Ellie finds herself stuck in a car with Jack driving to a magical convention. But as Ellie and Jack travel down the coast of California, number thirteen on her list—fall in love—may be happening without her realizing it.

In The Charmed List, Julie Abe sweeps readers away to a secret magical world, complete with cupcakes and tea with added sparks of joy, and an enchanted cottage where you can dance under the stars.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own.

The Charmed List promises a lot of magical fun, and it definitely delivers. I got instant nostalgia for Wizards of Waverly Place in the way the magic is incorporated here, including the way the fear of the discovery of the existence of magic is baked into the story, including a reveal to Ellie’s best friend (which doesn’t go as well as it did in Wizards, unfortunately). 

Ellie is a relatable protagonist, and I love how she has a pretty clear plan for how she hopes to shed her “wallflower” reputation. The “bucket list” setup makes for a cool structure to set the book around, and I love that the story sees her coming out of her shell and accomplishing her goals in ways she did not expect. 

I felt a bit more mixed on the romance. I did eventually come to like it, but the dynamics between her and Jack at the start feel very petty. I guess that’s more excusable in YA, given younger people don’t always make the best decisions, but I still kind of wanted more substance to their falling-out. That said, once they have to hang out again, the story makes good use of forced proximity to bring them back together. And once that happens and they’re on their road trip, I did like seeing them reconnecting. 

I really liked this, and look forward to reading more from Julie Abe in the near future. If you enjoy romcoms with a hint of magic, I think you’ll enjoy this one. 

Author Bio

Julie Abe writes magical adventures for readers of all ages, including the EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH middle grade fantasy series; the middle grade fantasy ALLIANA, GIRL OF DRAGONS; and the young adult novel THE CHARMED LIST. Keep up with Julie’s latest books and adventures on instagram.com/julieabebooks or sign up for her newsletter at julieabebooks.com/newsletter.

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“Summer at the Cape” by RaeAnne Thayne (Review)

Thayne, RaeAnne. Summer at the Cape. Toronto, Ontario: HQN, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1335936356 | $26.99 USD | 336 pages | Women’s Fiction

Blurb

From the beloved bestselling author of Season of Wonder and The Cliff House  comes a poignant and uplifting novel about forgiveness, family and all the complications—and joy  that come with it 

As the older sibling to identical twins Violet and Lily, Cami Porter was always the odd sister out. The divide grew even wider when their parents split up—while the twins stayed in Cape Sanctuary with their free-spirited mother, Rosemary, fourteen-year-old Cami moved to LA with her attorney father. Nearly twenty years later, when Cami gets the terrible news that Lily has drowned saving a child’s life, her mother begs her to return home to help untangle the complicated estate issues her sister left behind.

Navigating their own strained relationship, Cami readjusts to the family and community she hasn’t known for decades, including the neighbor who stands in the way of her late sister’s dream, while Violet grieves the loss of her twin and struggles to figure out who she is now, without her other half, as the little girl Lily saved pulls her back into the orbit of the man she once loved.

With poignancy and heart, RaeAnne Thayne once again delivers her charming signature blend of warmth, wit and wisdom.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Review based on final copy.  All opinions are my own. 

While I haven’t made the time to dig too deeply into RaeAnme Thayne’s backlist, I already love how she captures the small-town cozy vibes. And with Summer at the Cape, she does so again perfectly, with the addition of the summer weather. 

While this book does lean more toward the women’s/general fiction side of the spectrum, Thayne’s background in romance allows her to write a compelling romantic arc, as well the more prominent, complex  relationships among family. Nothing feels underdone, neglected, or superfluous. 

I really liked both Cami and Violet, and the articulation of how they experienced their family dynamics then. The passing of Violet’s twin, Lily, has deeply changed said dynamics, particularly for Violet, as she was always closest to Lily, and struggling to figure out what her path is without her other half in her life. Meanwhile, there’s Cami, who never experienced the same closeness, and also lived separately from the twins and their mother for years after their mother divorced their father. Her story is otherwise fairly familiar: the city-girl who falls in love with the small town. However, it’s the personal, familial touches that make her story stand out. 

Both Cami and Violet have romances that complement their personal arcs, and they are both well executed. Cami’s love interest, Jon, is an additional point of view, offering another perspective outside that of the two sisters. His story is very similar to Cami’s, in that he has also returned to tend to family business. Their respective love and care for their families serves to help bring them together, even as there are some things that initially cause tension. And Violet’s second chance romance in the wake of her grief is so beautiful, and I rooted for her to take the chance on love.

This book hits all the right notes, being sweet and heartfelt. If you enjoy a contemporary with a primary focus on family relationships and drama, with a generous helping of romance, I recommend giving this one a try. 

Author Bio

New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal and #1 Publishers Weekly bestselling author RaeAnne Thayne has written more than 70 books since selling her first book in 1995. She has received a career achievement award from Romantic Times for series romantic adventure, as well as a Pioneer of Romance award. She finds inspiration from the beautiful mountains of northern Utah, where she lives with her family.

Her books have been described as “poignant and sweet,” with “beautiful, honest storytelling (that) goes straight to the heart.”

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“Nura and the Immortal Palace” by M.T. Khan (ARC Review)

Khan, M.T. Nura and the Immortal Palace. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0759557956 | $16.99 USD | 272 pages | MG Fantasy 

Blurb

Aru Shah and the End of Time meets Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away in this mesmerizing portal fantasy that takes readers into the little-known world of Jinn.

Nura longs for the simple pleasure of many things—to wear a beautiful red dupatta or to bite into a sweet gulab. But with her mom hard at work in a run-down sweatshop and three younger siblings to feed, Nura must spend her days earning money by mica mining. But it’s not just the extra rupees in her pocket Nura is after. Local rumor says there’s buried treasure in the mine, and Nura knows that finding it could change the course of her family’s life forever.

Her plan backfires when the mines collapse and four kids, including her best friend, Faisal, are claimed dead. Nura refuses to believe it and shovels her way through the dirt hoping to find him. Instead, she finds herself at the entrance to a strange world of purple skies and pink seas—a portal to the opulent realm of jinn, inhabited by the trickster creatures from her mother’s cautionary tales. Yet they aren’t nearly as treacherous as her mother made them out to be, because Nura is invited to a luxury jinn hotel, where she’s given everything she could ever imagine and more.

But there’s a dark truth lurking beneath all that glitter and gold, and when Nura crosses the owner’s son and is banished to the working quarters, she realizes she isn’t the only human who’s ended up in the hotel’s clutches. Faisal and the other missing children are there, too, and if Nura can’t find a way to help them all escape, they’ll be bound to work for the hotel forever.Set in a rural industrial town in Pakistan and full of hope, heart, and humor, Nura and the Immortal Palace is inspired by M.T. Khan’s own Pakistani Muslim heritage.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own.

I didn’t really know what to expect going into Nura and the Immortal Palace, but I was drawn in by the cover and blurb. Upon reading it, I was enraptured by the story that unfolded, but also deeply moved. Through the juxtaposition of reality and fantasy, there’s a poignant message about child labor. 

I love how steeped in Pakistani-Muslim culture the book is, and how it does so without talking down to the reader. The primary audience is kids and their families who grew up with these stories, but it’s equally enticing for those who don’t have the same background. 

Nura is an incredibly relatable protagonist. She sees her mother working hard in an exploitative situation to support her and the rest of the family, and she also has to do her bit to contribute as the oldest. She strikes a great balance of being a good sister, wanting to look after all her siblings, yet also having her own desires that get the better of her as she’s tempted. But even as she dreams about more, it’s always with her family in mind. 

This is a really beautiful book that touches on difficult real-world issues delicately for a younger audience. If you enjoy multicultural middle grade adventures, I recommend picking this one up. 

Author Bio

M.T. Khan is a speculative fiction author with a penchant for all things myth, science, and philosophy. She focuses on stories that combine all three, dreaming of evocative worlds and dark possibilities.

When she’s not writing, M.T. Khan has her nose deep in physics textbooks or glued to her CAD computer as she majors in Mechanical Engineering. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she currently resides in Toronto, Canada, with a hyperactive cat and an ever-increasing selection of tea.

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“Firestarter” (Timekeeper #3) by Tara Sim (Review)

Sim, Tara. Firestarter. New York: Sky Pony, 2019.

ISBN-13: 978-1510758797Amazon | $12.99 USD | 528 pages | YA Steampunk/Fantasy

Blurb

The crew of the Prometheus is intent on taking down the world’s clock towers so that time can run freely. Now captives, Colton, Daphne, and the others have a stark choice: join the Prometheus’s cause, or fight back in any small way they can and face the consequences. But Zavier, leader of the terrorists, has a bigger plan—to bring back the lost god of time.

As new threats emerge, loyalties must shift. No matter where the Prometheus goes—Prague, Austria, India—nowhere is safe, and every second ticks closer toward the eleventh hour. Walking the line between villainy and heroism, each will have to choose what’s most important: saving those you love at the expense of the many, or making impossible sacrifices for the sake of a better world.

Review 

4 stars 

Firestarter is the final book in the Timekeeper trilogy, and I am mostly satisfied with how things have progressed and come to a close. I do have some quibbles, but they’re pretty minor. 

Danny remains a sympathetic and likable lead. He has his moments where he struggles with his own traumas, and the jealousy that has lingered since book one remains an issue for him. However, he’s ultimately a good person who continues to face a lot of adversity, and that makes him hard to ever dislike. 

Colton continues to get more development, as his past is explored even more. I loved exploring what he went through in the past and seeing how he’s been processing his own trauma beneath this veneer of being the happy-go-lucky clock-spirit. 

The supporting cast has been growing quite a bit over the last two books, and as much as I liked the perspectives it opened the story up to, it did sometimes feel a tad crowded. Aside from Daphne, who I really like, I don’t know if I was that invested in some of the supporting cast, though I do appreciate what each brought to the story on a technical level. 

The plot this time around is compelling, and it doesn’t feel like it’s an over-500 page book. There’s already pretty decent stakes going into the book and it ramps up intensely as it goes on. 

I enjoyed this trilogy quite a bit, and would recommend it to fans of YA fantasy or alternate history. 

Author Bio

Tara Sim is a YA and adult fantasy author found in the wilds of the Bay Area, California. When she’s not writing about magic, murder, and mayhem, she drinks tea and wrangles cats.

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“What Souls Are Made Of: A Wuthering Heights Remix” by Tasha Suri (ARC Review)

Suri, Tasha. What Souls Are Made Of: A Wuthering Heights Remix. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250773500 | $18.99 USD | 304 pages | YA Historical Romance 

Blurb

What Souls Are Made Of, British Fantasy Award-winning author Tasha Suri’s masterful new take on Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and fourth book in the Remixed Classics, will leave readers breathless.

Sometimes, lost things find their way home…

Yorkshire, North of England, 1786. As the abandoned son of a lascar—a sailor from India—Heathcliff has spent most of his young life maligned as an “outsider.” Now he’s been flung into an alien life in the Yorkshire moors, where he clings to his birth father’s language even though it makes the children of the house call him an animal, and the maids claim he speaks gibberish.

Catherine is the younger child of the estate’s owner, a daughter with light skin and brown curls and a mother that nobody talks about. Her father is grooming her for a place in proper society, and that’s all that matters. Catherine knows she must mold herself into someone pretty and good and marriageable, even though it might destroy her spirit.

As they occasionally flee into the moors to escape judgment and share the half-remembered language of their unknown kin, Catherine and Heathcliff come to find solace in each other. Deep down in their souls, they can feel they are the same.

But when Catherine’s father dies and the household’s treatment of Heathcliff only grows more cruel, their relationship becomes strained and threatens to unravel. For how can they ever be together, when loving each other—and indeed, loving themselves—is as good as throwing themselves into poverty and death?

Review 

5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

I have had mixed feelings about Wuthering Heights over the years: on the one hand, it does a wonderful job exploring the impact of childhood trauma on the major characters, and how it carries on through generations. But at the same time, the central love story is built around characters whose mutual obsession leads to the tragedies that befall them. And they’re just not that sympathetic, especially when filtered through the eyes of others. But in What Souls Are Made Of, Tasha Suri manages to capture the nuances of these two incredibly flawed characters, giving them both a chance to speak their own truths and find a way back to each other. 

While the original text was more vague about Heathcliff’s origins (and many adaptations have whitewashed him), I love the exploration of his past as a child of a lascar. There’s still a sense of mystery there, but his ethnic identity is more defined. It also helps to substantiate his connection to Cathy, who is biracial. Suri tackles the sensitive issue of straddling two cultures with care from their two perspectives. 

And her identity also plays a role in Cathy’s indecision, as we find her on the precipice of her decision of whether she will accept Edgar Linton’s proposal. To accept and marry him will mean entering “civilized” society, but it will also mean conforming to their norms and suppressing her “wilder” nature…not to mention abandoning Heathcliff. And despite him not having any current connection to his birth father, Heathcliff retains his connection to his Indian roots in spite of being raised within British society (and being subjected to abuse from his foster brother Hindley), and the fear of Cathy’s rejection of him and their shared heritage leads him to flee. 

I really liked how Suri reworked that initial inciting incident of Heathcliff overhearing a partial comment from Cathy which appeared to disparage him, and believably changed the events that followed. The sense of indecision on her part, the search for his own worth on his part, and their mutual longing for each other…it’s all so well-rendered. 

This is the best book of the Remixed Classics series so far, although I am very likely biased on this front. Whether you’re a fan of the original or not, this is a fabulous reimagining that both does it justice and remedies some of the major story issues. 

CWs: physical and emotional abuse, child endangerment, forced family separation, racism, famine and hunger, slavery, parental death/bereavement, alcoholism, mental illness

Author Bio

Tasha Suri is an award-winning author, occasional librarian, and cat owner. Her South Asian-influenced epic fantasy novels include The Books of Ambha duology (Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash) and The Jasmine Throne. When she isn’t writing, Tasha likes to cry over TV shows, buy too many notebooks, and indulge her geeky passion for South Asian history. She lives with her family in a mildly haunted house in London. What Souls Are Made Of: A Wuthering Heights Remix is her YA debut.

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“Dog Friendly” by Victoria Schade (ARC Review)

Schade, Victoria. Dog Friendly. New York: Berkley, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0593437391 | $16.00 USD | 352 pages | Women’s Fiction 

Blurb

“Perfect to read on the beach.” –The Boston Globe

A burned-out veterinarian takes a much-needed beach vacation, where a charming surfer makes waves in her love life, and a unique foster pup renews her passion for her work.


Exhausted veterinarian Morgan Pearce is feeling overworked and under-thanked, so when two favorite clients ask her to watch their special needs senior dog in their Nantucket home, she jumps at the chance for a summer break. She hopes her time on the island will be a reset from the stress of her everyday life, but her chill vacation vibe takes a hit when she gets roped into fostering a challenging, anxious dog and helping plan the local rescue group’s glittery annual fundraiser.

Her trip starts to feel more like a vacation when Morgan begins falling for Nathan Keating, an irresistible entrepreneur who thinks every problem can be solved on a surfboard. Just as the summer is shaping up to be the magical refresh she needs, thanks to a fling that feels like the beginning of something real and Hudson, the foster dog who reminds her how much she loves her job, a visit from her estranged brother and the discovery of who Nathan really is changes everything. Morgan finds herself at a crossroads, trying to determine if mistakes from the past must define the future, or if she should forgive, forget, and grab hold of a chance to finally rescue herself.

Review 

3 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Dog Friendly is a sweet, heartwarming read, in some ways like hugging a dog in itself. Victoria Schade has a background as a dog trainer, and her love for dogs shines through the pages of this book. 

As such, the best part of the book is that of the heroine, Morgan, with dogs…on multiple fronts. The general premise and theme sees her struggling with burnout while working as a veterinarian, and I appreciated how this was rendered. Seeing her journey as she takes time for herself, taking a vacation and even starting therapy, is life-affirming. 

She also simultaneously is dog-sitting for a friend, taking on their aging dog that has some anxiety issues. I really enjoyed seeing the two of them bonding and helping each other on their path to healing. 

But unfortunately, this is one of those books that is more “women’s fiction” than romance, and normally I wouldn’t be too bummed, if it didn’t keep happening (and it was properly categorized on NetGalley at least). Nathan lacked real substance for me, and I would have been completely happy if he never showed up and this had been a book solely about Morgan and her journey with the dogs. 

This book was fine, but the publisher’s marketing and categorization works against it (and while all publishers are playing a role in the blending of romance with women’s fiction/chick lit, Berkley is perhaps the worst offender). With the proper expectations, you might enjoy it more than I did. 

Author Bio

Victoria Schade is a dog trainer and speaker who serves as a dog resource for the media and has worked both in front of and behind the camera on Animal Planet, and as a trainer and wrangler on the channel’s popular Puppy Bowl specials. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, her dogs Millie and Olive, and the occasional foster pup.

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“Chainbreaker” (Timekeeper #2) by Tara Sim (Review)

Sim, Tara. Chainbreaker. New York: Sky Pony Press, 2018. 

ISBN-13: 978-1520738737 | $10.99 USD | 478 pages | YA Steampunk/Fantasy 

Blurb

You won’t be able to put this one down. —Huffington Post. “An elaborate tale of magic, gods, and the beautiful, unfortunate humans caught in an ancient titanic struggle. You’ll cheer. You’ll cry.” –Traci Chee, New York Times bestselling author

Clock mechanic Danny Hart knows he’s being watched. But by whom, or what, remains a mystery. To make matters worse, clock towers have begun falling in India, though time hasn’t Stopped yet. He’d hoped after reuniting with his father and exploring his relationship with Colton, he’d have some time to settle into his new life. Instead, he’s asked to investigate the attacks. 

After inspecting some of the fallen Indian towers, he realizes the British occupation may be sparking more than just attacks. And as Danny and Colton unravel more secrets about their past, they find themselves on a dark and dangerous path–one from which they may never return.

Review 

4 stars

Chainbreaker is the second book in the Timekeeper series, and it’s kind of an odd sequel. I liked it, but it feels very different from the first, despite following the same cast of characters. The dynamics are different, and I can see why some readers have been turned off by it. 

The central relationship of the last book was that of Danny and Colton, and now, we see them going on separate, yet linked adventures. The emotional core of the first book isn’t in this one, and I did feel this book suffered for it a bit. However, there’s still some well-written bits of longing that somewhat filled the void for me. 

At the same time, I did enjoy the character work done here, especially within the context of the issues depicted and ground covered. Getting more depth to Colton through exploration of his past is one of the  strong points. And while I was initially hesitant about Daphne taking page time from both Danny and Colton, I really liked getting to know her a bit more. 

I also like getting a sense of how this version of the world reckons with colonialism in India. Tara Sim explores both the atrocities committed and the efforts on the part of rebels to bring about freedom and justice. 

While this installment has been divisive, I could understand the reasoning behind the change in direction, and remain optimistic for the third. 

Author Bio

Tara Sim is a YA and adult fantasy author found in the wilds of the Bay Area, California. When she’s not writing about magic, murder, and mayhem, she drinks tea and wrangles cats.

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“Blood and Moonlight” by Erin Beaty (ARC Review)

Beaty, Erin. Blood and Moonlight. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux Books For Young Readers, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250755810 | $18.99 USD | 352 pages | YA Fantasy Thriller 

Blurb

In Erin Beaty’s fantasy mystery-thriller, Blood and Moonlight, an orphan with a secret, magical sight gets caught between a mysterious genius and the serial killer he’s hunting.

Rising above the city of Collis is the holy Sanctum. And watching over its spires is Catrin, an orphan girl with unique skills—for she alone can spot the building’s flaws in construction before they turn deadly.

But when Catrin witnesses a murderer escaping the scene of his crime, she’s pulled into a dangerous chain of events where the only certainty is that the killer will strike again. Assigned to investigate is the mysterious and brilliant Simon, whose insights into the mind of a predator are frighteningly accurate.

As the grisly crimes continue, Catrin finds herself caught between killer and detective while hiding her own secret—a supernatural sight granted by the moon, destined to make her an outcast, and the only thing that might save her and those she loves from becoming the next victims…

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Blood and Moonlight simultaneously evokes two of my major fictional genre loves: gritty mystery/thrillers and fantasy worlds with historical aesthetics, so I ate this up. The world evokes medieval French vibes, and I love getting a sense of the Sanctum and its environs as the intense events occur within them. 

The mystery is central to the plot, and it evokes vibes of Jack the Ripper and other notorious historical killers. It’s not afraid to describe crime scenes and violence, and while it’s not done distastefully, it’s still not for the faint of heart. 

I appreciate that there’s an effort to also make both a textual statement about mental health issues (particularly schizophrenia) and the legacy of misunderstanding it through supporting cast members. And based on her author’s note, Beaty clearly cares about the subject deeply, and to do so in a crime novel also challenges dated stereotypes. 

Catrin is a sympathetic, yet flawed lead. I love when protagonists can acknowledge their prejudices and grow from them. And Simon makes for a great counterpart for her, as while he is arrogant, some of his experiences help in Catrin’s growth. And he’s also just the sweetest, most dedicated person at heart, with a single-minded focus on finding the killer. 

I really enjoyed this book, and am eager to try more from Erin Beaty in the future (I’ve heard pretty good things about the Traitor’s Circle series!). If you enjoy fantasy with historical aesthetic settings and intense mystery/thriller plots, I recommend this one. 

Author Bio

Erin Beaty was born and raised in Indianapolis and studied aerospace engineering at the US Naval Academy. After tours as a weapons officer on a destroyer and a leadership instructor, she quit the Navy to raise five kids, and once they were all in school, her brain didn’t know what to do with that much free time so she started writing books. She also teaches fiction classes sort the Armed Services Arts Partnership as well as the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia. She and her husband make a home wherever the Navy sends them, which has ranged from Kansas to Korea.

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“The Unmatchmakers” by Jackie Lau (Review) of

Lau, Jackie. The Unmatchmakers. Toronto, Ontario: Rakuten Kobo, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1774538463 | $4.99 USD | 183 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

From the author of DONUT FALL IN LOVE comes a perfect summer love story set in the forested paradise of Canadian cottage country that asks the question: can love beat the odds when the odds are two mothers dead-set against it?

————————————————————-

You’d think my mother would be trying to set me up with architect Neil Choy, the unmarried son of her best friend. But you’d be wrong.

My single mother has always been fiercely independent. Since I was a small child, she’s always told me not to believe in fairy tales and that I don’t need a man. So she’s failed to mention that Neil is a total hottie in glasses. When I see him for the first time in a decade, on a multi-family cottage vacation, I’m in for quite a shock. (In fact, I nearly fall in the lake, but let’s keep that a secret.)

He sure can grill a mean steak and mix a killer cocktail, plus he’s pretty impressive in a kayak. Yes, he’s a little stern and grumpy, but that just makes him more fun to tease—and makes it more satisfying when he quirks his lips in my direction.

Even though my mind is spinning romantic fantasies, I’m not entirely sure how he feels. And I’m afraid that if anything happens between us, it’ll screw up the friendship between our staunchly anti-relationship mothers. Especially since they’ve been acting increasingly weird since we arrived—I will never forgive them for the S’mores Incident. In fact, I think they’re trying to sabotage my love life, and I’m starting to worry that I won’t make it through this bizarre summer vacation…

————————————————————-

Perfect for fans of Helen Hoang’s THE BRIDE TEST and THE DONUT TRAP by Julie Tieu, THE UNMATCHMAKERS is a forced-proximity, friends-to-lovers romantic comedy that explores finding the balance of meeting expectations and being true to yourself, and how even the best of intentions can sometimes backfire.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC  from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Unmatchmakers is a fun reverse tale on the meddling, matchmaking Asian mother trope, in that the mothers of the lead, Leora, and her love interest, Neil, are determined to keep them apart. It’s an intriguing dynamic, especially given the mothers are longtime friends. 

I was a bit confused as to the direction this was going at first, as while the blurb indicated Leora would be the primary perspective, I wasn’t sure how the mothers’ meddling would come through. However, it became more apparent as I kept reading, and I liked witnessing the mothers’ antics from Leora’s perspective, as well as feeling like the reveal of the mothers’ own romantic woes was well-earned. 

And that juxtaposes quite nicely with the growing relationship between Leora and Neil. Their romance is largely built on a recognition of how much they’ve each respectively changed since they were kids, and while the focus is largely on physical attraction, there’s a lot of potential there once they get past all the family drama. 

This is a charming read, and while not my favorite of Jackie Lau’s, demonstrates her continued success in the multicultural  romcom sphere. If you’re looking for a fun, fast read with focus on family as well as romantic love, I recommend picking this one up. 

Author Bio

Jackie Lau decided she wanted to be a writer when she was in grade two, sometime between writing “The Heart That Got Lost” and “The Land of Shapes.” She later studied engineering and worked as a geophysicist before turning to writing romance novels.

Jackie lives in Toronto with her husband, and despite living in Canada her whole life, she hates winter. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking, hiking, eating too much gelato, and reading on the balcony when it’s raining.

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“Godslayers” (Gearbreakers #2) by Zoe Hana Mikuta (ARC Review)

Mikuta, Zoe Hana. Godslayers. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250269522 | $18.99 USD | 416 pages | YA Sci-Fi Romance 

Blurb

Godslayers—Zoe Hana Mikuta’s high-octane sequel to Gearbreakers—is perfect for fans of Pacific Rim, Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Saga, and Marie Lu’s Legend series.

The only way to kill a god is from the inside…

The Gearbreakers struck a devastating blow against Godolia on Heavensday, but the cost of victory has been steep. Months later, the few rebels who’ve managed to escape the tyrannical empire’s bloody retribution have fled to the mountains, hunted by the last Zenith—Godolia’s only surviving leader.

Eris has been held prisoner since the attack on the capital city, which almost killed her. And she begins to wish it had when she discovers Sona—the girl she loves, the girl she would tear down cities for—also survived, only to be captured and corrupted by the Zenith. The cybernetic brainwashing that Sona has forcibly undergone now has her believing herself a loyal soldier for Godolia, and Eris’ mortal enemy.

With the rebellion shattered and Godolia moving forward with an insidious plan to begin inducting Badlands children into a new Windup Pilot program, the odds have never been more stacked against the Gearbreakers. Their last hope for victory will depend on whether Eris and Sona can somehow find their way back to each other from opposite sides of a war…

In the series

#1 Gearbreakers

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley  and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Godslayers is a wonderful follow-up to last year’s Gearbreakers. From the general concept to the characters and their relationships, I generally really enjoyed how things developed here. And while it is a sci-fi series, I love his character- and relationship-centric it is, whether it be the found-family dynamics among the group or the main romance between Eris and Sona. 

Eris and Sonia’s relationship remains super sweet, although it is challenged by them being torn about by the circumstances of the last book. Eris is imprisoned, but would still do anything for Sona. And Sona has been subjected to brainwashing, leading her to believe herself to be loyal to Gosolia, which serves as a major obstacle for their romance to overcome, and while things end on an optimistic note for them, it’s not without some big twists and turns as they face down their enemies. 

The world isn’t much more fleshed out in this one, so if that was an issue for you, be aware that it doesn’t improve. I still don’t mind, as there’s enough to provide context to what the major characters are dealing with. 

With that in mind, if you enjoyed the first one, it’s absolutely worth your time picking up the second. But if you didn’t care for that one, it’s more than likely you’ll be equally dissatisfied. I personally enjoyed it, and would recommend this duology for fans of romance-heavy sci-fi. 

Author Bio

Zoe Hana Mikuta currently attends the University of Washington in Seattle, studying English with a creative writing focus. She grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where she developed a deep love of Muay Thai kickboxing and nurtured a slow and steady infatuation with fictional worlds. When she is not writing, Zoe can be found embroidering runes onto her jean pockets, studying tarot or herbology, or curled with a cup of caramel coffee and a good, bloody but heartwarming book. She is the author of the Gearbreakears duology.

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“An Unlikely Alliance” (K-9 Companions #7) by Toni Shiloh (Review)

Shiloh, Toni. An Unlikely Alliance. Toronto, Ontario: Harlequin, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1335685080 | $6.25 USD | 219 pages | Contemporary Romance/Christian Fiction

Blurb

To save her animal shelter, she’ll have to work with her biggest foe…

With her emotional support dog at her side, Jalissa Tucker will do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of the local animal rescue — even ally herself with her nemesis, firefighter Jeremy Rider. As working together dredges up old hurts, putting the past aside could be the key to their future joy…

Mills & Boon Love Inspired — Heartfelt stories that show that faith, forgiveness and hope have the power to lift spirits and change lives.

Review 

3 stars 

I received an early copy from the author as part of their review team and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

An Unlikely Alliance is the first of Toni Shiloh’s Harlequin LoveInspired books I’ve read, and while it’s perfectly fine, I think I just wasn’t really in the mood for it. There are some good points, however, which are worthy of praise. 

Jalissa is a sympathetic lead, and I really love her relationship with her emotional support dog, who helps her cope with her anxiety. Her dedication to the local animal shelter also really spoke to me, as a dog lover myself. And for all my quibbles about the romance, I do get the idea of it, with both of them having roles giving back to their community and bonding over that. 

But I found the romance very lacking from the get-go, as it’s one of those “we hate each other for no reason” sort of stories. I didn’t feel like she and Rider had much but their pre-judgments of each other to justify the animosity, and it culminated in a weak transition to love. 

While I generally found this book pretty tepid, I can see why it worked for other people. If you enjoy category-length romance with an emphasis on shared Christian faith and community, you might like this one.

Author Bio

Toni Shiloh is a wife, mom and multi publisher Christian contemporary romance author. She writes to bring God glory and to learn more about His goodness. A member of the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and of the Virginia Chapter, Toni loved connecting with readers via social media. You can learn more about her at https://tonishiloh.com.

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“Timekeeper” by Tara Sim (Review)

Sim, Tara. Timekeeper. New York: Sky Pony Press, 2016.

ISBN-13: 978-1510706187 | $17.99 USD | 414 pages | YA Steampunk/Fantasy 

Blurb 

I was in an accident. I got out. I’m safe now. 

An alternate Victorian world controlled by clock towers, where a damaged clock can fracture time—and a destroyed one can stop it completely.

A prodigy mechanic who can repair not only clockwork but time itself, determined to rescue his father from a Stopped town.

A series of mysterious bombings that could jeopardize all of England.

A boy who would give anything to relive his past, and one who would give anything to live at all.

A romance that will shake the very foundations of time.

Review 

4 stars 

After recently reading Tara Sim’s adult debut, I decided I wanted to further explore her backlist. And despite my mixed experiences with steampunk in the past, my interest was piqued by the premise of Timekeeper (and I also needed a book to fill the Steampunk square for The Ripped Bodice’s Summer Bingo). And while I can’t say this is a book that blew me away or changed my mind completely about the genre, I like Sim’s premise for the most part and feel she executes it well.

I don’t have a ton of interest in time or clocks, and that is pretty central to the world building here. However, while there are technical aspects, it tows that line between tech and fantastical so it doesn’t overly bog down the story for those who aren’t as invested in that aspect, but it’s intricate enough that it makes sense in context. And I love how it also feeds into the fantasy aspect, as there’s a clock-spirit as a major character. 

I also really appreciate that Sim doesn’t use her psuedohistorical setting as a crutch or excuse to avoid being inclusive. She’s not only playing with the technology of the time, but she tries to acknowledge the inequalities of the real historical period, while making her own incarnation a more progressive place, whether it be for women or queer people. 

Danny is an intriguing lead, being a mechanic working with clocks, thus driving the plot forward. He also deals with trauma, which is rendered beautifully, and I love the nuance of that. 

Colton the clock-spirit is super-fun and sweet, and a perfect complement to Danny. I love how his personality is depicted, with some naïveté and curiosity to things after having spent most of his life dwelling in a tower, as well as a bit of a primal side. I really liked the romance between them, and how they navigate real issues throughout, from jealousy to distance. There’s a real sense that this fresh love could go the distance, even though I know future books will feature more problems for them to work through, whether they be external or internal. 

I enjoyed this book a lot, and am eager to pick up the next two soon. If you like steampunk-fantasy, especially with heavy emphasis on romance and inclusivity, I think you’ll enjoy this one. 

Author Bio

Tara Sim is a YA and adult fantasy author found in the wilds of the Bay Area, California. When she’s not writing about magic, murder, and mayhem, she drinks tea and wrangles cats.

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“The Other Side of Leaving” by Jacqueline Ramsden (ARC Review)

Ramsden, Jacqueline. The Other Side of Leaving. [Place of publication not identified]: Jacqueline Ramsden, 2022.

ASIN: B0B3271DNL | $3.99 USD | 298 pages | Contemporary Romance

Blurb

What happens when you meet the one person you can’t live without–right as she’s leaving?


Tilly Fenchurch never saw any reason to leave Vermont. Living in the town where she grew up, working at her moms’ family business, and never traveling far, she tells herself she’s happy–at least until she’s pulled, quite literally, into Frankie’s world.

Frankie Holt is excited. She’s just applied for her dream job in LA and she can’t wait to leave small-town Vermont behind. That is, until she grabs a random stranger in a celebratory hug and meets someone unforgettable.

A plan to reunite their estranged friends brings them closer together, and before long, it’s hard to imagine life without each other. With Tilly convinced she’s straight, Frankie attempts to fight her growing crush, while Tilly is left questioning everything she ever thought she knew about herself, her sexuality, and her life.

Will Frankie and Tilly figure out their feelings in time, or will three thousand miles tear them apart?

The Other Side of Leaving is an 80k toaster-oven, friends-to-lovers slow burn. Content warnings for anxiety and depression, on-page sex, and some angst.

Review

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the author via BookSprout and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Jacqueline Ramsden is slowly becoming a new favorite of mine from the indie queer romance writing scene, and The Other Side of Leaving is a perfect example as to why. It’s sweet and heartwarming, with a bit of angst (but not an overwhelming amount), and I really feel emotionally invested in the characters. And the fact that this one is a friends-to-lovers story absolutely helped matters. 

I love the interplay between Tilly and Frankie. They’re opposites in what they perceive as their life goals and desires, which is one element of the conflict. Tilly also goes on a journey of figuring out her sexuality which really spoke to me, as someone who’s only come to some catharsis about it as an adult…and still isn’t 100% sure. Not to mention reckoning with anxiety…Tilly really is my soul sister. Meanwhile, Frankie is usually very carefree and open, but I really appreciate how her growing feelings for Tilly complicated that. I love how these two played off and influenced each other, and while it took a while for them to figure themselves and each other out, it ultimately came together beautifully. 

This is a wonderful read, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a sweet, heartfelt sapphic contemporary romance.

Author Bio 

Jacqueline (she/they) is a genderqueer, demisexual writer. She spent most of her childhood with her head in a book and is a massive romantic, so it made sense to start writing queer happily ever afters.

They enjoy books, tea, and swooning over their girlfriend. If you would like to see that in action, you can follow them on Twitter.

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“Ballad & Dagger” (Outlaw Saints #1) by Daniel José Older (Review)

Older, Daniel José. Ballad & Dagger. Los Angeles: Hyperion, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1368070829 | $18.99 USD | 372 pages | YA Fantasy 

Blurb

Rick Riordan presents Daniel José Older’s music-and-magic-filled YA urban fantasy about two teens who discover each other and their powers during a political battle within a diaspora community.

Almost sixteen years ago, Mateo Matisse’s island homeland disappeared into the sea. Weary and hopeless, the survivors of San Madrigal’s sinking escaped to New York.

While the rest of his tight-knit Brooklyn diaspora community dreams of someday finding a way back home, Mateo–now a high school junior and piano prodigy living with his two aunts (one who’s alive, the other not so much)–is focused on one thing: getting the attention of locally-grown musical legend Gerval. Mateo finally gets his chance on the night of the Grand Fete, an annual party celebrating the blended culture of pirates, Cuban Santeros, and Sephardic Jews that created San Madrigal all those centuries ago.

But the evil that sank their island has finally caught up with them, and on the night of the celebration, Mateo’s life is forever changed when he witnesses a brutal murder by a person he thought he knew.

Suddenly Mateo is thrust into an ancient battle that spans years and oceans. Deadly secrets are unraveled and Mateo awakens a power within himself–a power that not only links him to the killer but could also hold the key to unlocking the dark mystery behind his lost homeland.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Review based on final copy. All opinions are my own. 

Rick Riordan Presents expands into YA with its first release, Ballad & Dagger by Daniel José Older, and does so wonderfully. I love Rick Riordan’s commitment to boosting the careers of authors from other cultural backgrounds, and while Older is perhaps a bit more “established” than other RRP authors, he has primarily made his name recently within the realm of Star Wars tie-in material. With that in mind, it’s great  he’s being given a chance to shine and show these new readers what he can do with a story set within his own Cuban-Jewish cultural context. 

Despite very much being set in our modern world, the lore of San Madrigal is richly depicted. There’s a real sense of community among those who escaped, and a rich expression of their heritage. It puts a magical spin on the lives of families hailing from the Caribbean, who came to the US as refugees, reckoning with the legacy and impact of colonialism and associated atrocities that happened there. I love how the legacy of San Madrigal highlights a blending of cultures, from pirates to Santeros and Sefaradim. 

With that in mind, there’s some intriguing family dynamics at play. It’s a pretty typical “YA adventure story” hero story, with some twists. Mateo’s parents are away traveling, so he lives with his Tía Lucia and ghost aunt Miriam. I loved how this explores a relatively happy family dynamic that isn’t the typical “bio-parent-and-child” type. 

Mateo as a character in his own right is also really well-developed. He’s reckoning with a few different issues, from his newly discovered powers and the massive conflict that he finds himself facing as a result of this to his growing feelings for his friend Chela. She’s also discovered her own powers and is trying to figure out how to control them, which makes for a wonderful bonding point for them. 

The book is a bit slow at times, especially in the first half. I do think it helped to ingratiate the reader within the community, as that is the highlight of the book overall. And ultimately, it makes the point where the action picks up matter much more. 

This is the first of a duology, and I’m excited as to where it goes from here. If you enjoy fantasy set in the modern world, but with a rich cultural focus to the lore, I recommend this one. 

Author Bio

Daniel José Older, a lead story architect for Star Wars: The High Republic, is the New York Times best-selling author of the upcoming Young Adult fantasy novel Ballad & Dagger (book 1 of the Outlaw Saints series), the sci-fi adventure Flood City, the monthly comic series The High Republic Adventures. His other books include the historical fantasy series Dactyl Hill Squad, The Book of Lost Saints, the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, Star Wars: Last Shot, and the Young Adult series the Shadowshaper Cypher, including Shadowshaper, which was named one of the best fantasy books of all time by TIME magazine and one of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Person Should Read. He won the International Latino Book Award and has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize, The World Fantasy Award, the Andre Norton Award, the Locus, and the Mythopoeic Award. He co-wrote the upcoming graphic novel Death’s Day. You can find more info and read about his decade long career as an NYC paramedic at http://danieljoseolder.net.

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“The Nurse’s Secret” by Amanda Skenandore (ARC Review)

Skenandore, Amanda. The Nurse’s Secret. New York: Kensington, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1496726537 | $16.95 USD | 304 pages | Historical Fiction 

Blurb

From acclaimed author and registered nurse Amanda Skenandore, The Alienist meets The Light of Luna Park in a fascinating historical novel based on the little-known story of America’s first nursing school, as a young female grifter in 1880s New York evades the police by conning her way into Bellevue Hospital’s training school for nurses…

“A spellbinding story, a vividly drawn setting, and characters that leap off the pages. This is historical fiction at its finest!” – Sara Ackerman, USA Today bestselling author of The Codebreaker’s Secret


Based on Florence Nightingale’s nursing principles, Bellevue is the first school of its kind in the country. Where once nurses were assumed to be ignorant and unskilled, Bellevue prizes discipline, intellect, and moral character, and only young women of good breeding need apply. At first, Una balks at her prim classmates and the doctors’ endless commands. Yet life on the streets has prepared her for the horrors of injury and disease found on the wards, and she slowly gains friendship and self-respect.

Just as she finds her footing, Una’s suspicions about a patient’s death put her at risk of exposure, and will force her to choose between her instinct for self-preservation, and exposing her identity in order to save others.

Amanda Skenandore brings her medical expertise to a page-turning story that explores the evolution of modern nursing—including the grisly realities of nineteenth-century medicine—as seen through the eyes of an intriguing and dynamic heroine.

Review 

3 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Nurse’s Secret is a historical mystery with an intriguing premise. However, it combines two elements, that of having the fish-out-of-water nurse navigating Bellevue, while finding murders occurring in her midst that are reminiscent of her origins on the streets. Theoretically, this combination could work, but I found the execution here very lacking. 

My main investment was in unraveling the mystery. And to have it occur in the midst of the already-intense atmosphere of Bellevue, it’s easy to be sucked into that element of the story and see the killer brought to justice. And there’s a lot about being a nurse in the latter half of the 19th century that is well-captured, both in the context of the mystery and contributing to the atmosphere.

But I found myself feeling very mixed about Una. In theory, she’s interesting, because she’s a grifter who conned her way into the nursing institution as a cover, and I like that her background makes her suitable for handling the gritty nature of the work and the dark events that unfold. But I just never really connected with her, and I kwish there had been a way to emphasize the fear of exposure that wasn’t the threat of a literal murderer, as that overshadowed her character depth. 

 While this book didn’t fully work for me, there are strong points from an objective perspective. And I can see it working better for someone else who also enjoys historical mystery/suspense with multiple points of suspense. 

Author Bio

Amanda Skenandore is the award-winning author of three historical novels, The Second Life of Mirielle West, The Undertaker’s Assistant, and Between Earth & Sky. She’s also a registered nurse and certified infection preventionist. When she’s not writing or chasing germs, Amanda spends her time curled up on the couch with a book and cup of tea or tending to her many houseplants. She lives in Las Vegas with her husband Steven and their pet turtle Lenore.

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“Beauty and the Besharam” by Lillie Vale (Review)

Vale, Lillie. Beauty and the Besharam. New York: Viking, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0593350874 | $17.99 USD | 390 pages | YA Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

Seventeen-year-old, high-achieving Kavya Joshi has always been told she’s a little too ambitious, a little too mouthy, and overall just a little too much. In one word: besharam.

So, when her nemesis, Ian Jun, witnesses Kavya’s very public breakup with her loser boyfriend on the last day of junior year, she decides to lay low and spend the summer doing what she loves best–working part time playing princess roles for childrens’ birthday parties. But her plan is shot when she’s cast as Ariel instead of her beloved Belle, and learns that Ian will be her Prince Eric for the summer. [Cue the combative banter.]

Exhausted by Kavya and Ian’s years-long feud, their friends hatch a plan to end their rivalry by convincing them to participate in a series of challenges throughout the summer. Kavya is only too eager to finally be declared the winner. But as the competition heats up, so too does the romantic tension, until it escalates from a simmer to a full-on burn.

Review 

4 stars 

Beauty and the Besharam is a fun homage to Beauty and the Beast, with a heroine who is a messy embodiment of both Beauty and Beast. Kavya is bookish and intelligent, and aspires to be Belle in her part time job as a Princess character dressing up for kids…to no avail. However, she’s also often considered to be “too much” by many around her, although unlike the Beast, it’s not so much that she needs to be tamed, but that there’s still room for her to grow, with her quirks intact. With the “besharam” term meaning “shameless” in Hindi, I appreciate the commentary of what is often expected of Indian women vs. who Kavya is, and really allowing her to embrace that. 

Ian is a really sweet guy, and while Kavya’s initial perspective of him is as an annoyance, he quickly becomes incredibly endearing. They’re so adorable together, and I love how he’s just incredibly loyal, defending her against others who are against her. 

I did feel at times that this book was a bit long. The second half in particular could have been condensed and/or given a narrower focus. There were some elements that were mentioned, but not explored extensively, like Ian and Kayva’s childhood friendship, which I wish had been given more attention, but weren’t. 

I really liked this book, and given I had mixed feelings about Lillie Vale’s adult debut, I’m glad that was likely  a fluke. If you enjoy YA contemporary romances, I recommend picking this one up. 

Author Bio

Lillie Vale is the author of books for both teens and adults, including The Decoy Girlfriend, Beauty and the Besharam, The Shaadi Set-Up and Small Town Hearts, an American Library Association’s 2020 Rainbow Books List selection. She writes about secrets and yearning, complicated and ambitious girls who know what they want, the places we call home and people we find our way back to, and the magic we make. Born in Mumbai, she grew up in Mississippi, Texas, and North Dakota, and now lives in an Indiana college town. Find her on Twitter @LillieLabyrinth and Instagram @labyrinthspine, or visit her website lillielabyrinth.com.

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“The Wife Before” by Shanora Williams (ARC Review)

Williams, Shanora. The Wife Before. New York: Dafina, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1496731111 | $16.95 USD | 320 pages | Thriller 

Blurb

A new bride’s fairytale marriage soon becomes a prison of secrets in this insidiously sexy, twist-filled psycho-drama reminiscent of the classic gothic tale Rebecca – from Shanora Williams, the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of THE PERFECT RUIN. Perfect for fans of Liv Constantine, Tarryn Fisher, and Caroline Kepnes.

BookBub’s Best Mysteries & Thrillers of 2022

Samira Wilder has never had it easy, and when her latest lousy job goes south, things only promise to get harder. Until she unexpectedly meets a man who will change her life forever. Renowned pro golfer Roland Graham is wealthy, handsome, and caring, and Samira is dazzled. Best of all, he seems to understand her better than anyone ever has. And though their relationship moves a bit fast, when Roland proposes, Samira accepts. She even agrees to relocate to his secluded Colorado mansion. After all, there’s nothing to keep her in Miami, and the mansion clearly makes him happy. Soon, they are married amid a media firestorm, and Samira can’t wait to make a fresh start—as the second Mrs. Graham . . .

Samira settles into the mansion, blissfully happy—until she discovers long-hidden journals belonging to Roland’s late wife, Melanie, who died in a tragic accident. With each dusty page, Samira comes to realize that perhaps it was no accident at all—that perhaps her perfect husband is not as perfect as she thought. Even as her trust in Roland begins to dwindle and a shadow falls over her marriage and she begins to fear for her own life, Samira is determined to uncover the truth of Melanie’s troubled last days. But even good wives should know that the truth is not always what it seems . . .

“A shocking, sensual thriller.” —Tarryn Fisher, New York Times bestselling author on The Perfect Ruin

Review 

5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Wife Before is a masterwork of the psychological thriller genre, paying homage to Rebecca while giving the familiar setup a fresh and deeply messed up twist. I didn’t know entirely what to expect going into this one, and I found myself stunned as the story unfolded. 

The “wife before,” Melanie, is very much the star of the novel. Whether dipping into her past prior to her mysterious death through her journals or following Samira, Roland’s new wife, as she is haunted by the questions about her and whether Roland played a role in her death, Melanie looms as a massive presence. As the story unfolds, she is revealed to be an unreliable narrator who embellished the events of her life to paint a very different portrait of herself. What’s compelling is how her character arc explores how complicated people are, and how the world isn’t just split into victims and perpetrators, heroes and villains, and sometimes, someone can be both. This is a theme that also comes into play with multiple other characters, as there are many who’ve done wrong in the book in some way or another. 

Samira makes for a sympathetic protagonist to view the story through. She’s been struggling financially, putting her in the right situation to be swept up into a fairy tale with a wealthy man. And while it would have been easy to question her initial desire to have faith in Roland, it was an early indicator of the direction to come. I appreciate her balance of wanting to believe in him, while also being cautious and suspicious. She can be suggestible, especially since she’s taken in by Melanie’s narrative without having known her, but I can also understand how she would believe in it, at least initially, based on the information she had…not to mention Roland’s questionable behavior at times. 

Roland is a more compelling iteration of Maxim de Winter, with more charisma and being easier to like, while also being suspicious enough initially. The context he offers for the toxicity of his marriage to Melanie and how it was reflective of what he’d experienced with his parents’ own toxic relationship made me feel for him, and I rooted for him and Samira to work through the convoluted web they landed in. 

The mystery is layered and complex, and I salivated for every twist and turn. While I knew from the start that it wasn’t going to be cut-and-dry, I didn’t expect some of the revelations that came out about some of these fucked-up characters. 

This book is amazing, and I’d recommend it to fans of psychological thrillers. 

Author Bio

Shanora Williams is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over thirty romance and diverse suspense novels.
She currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and is the mother of three amazing boys, has a fiercely devoted and supportive husband, and is a sister to eleven.
When she isn’t writing, she’s spending time with her family, binge reading, or running marathons on TV streaming services while scarfing down something sweet and salty. Visit her at https://www.shanorawilliams.com or interact with her on Instagram @reallyshanora.

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“Once Upon a K-Prom” by Kat Cho (Review)

Cho, Kat. Once Upon a K-Prom. Los Angeles: Hyperion, 2022.

ISBN-13: 1368064644 | $18.99 USD | 329 pages | YA Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

What would you do if the world’s biggest K-pop star asked you to prom? Perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Sandhya Menon, this hilarious and heartfelt novel brings the glamour and drama of the K-pop world straight to high school. 

Elena Soo has always felt overshadowed. Whether by her more successful older sisters, her more popular twin brother, or her more outgoing best friend, everyone except Elena seems to know exactly who they are and what they want. But she is certain about one thing – she has no interest in going to prom. While the rest of the school is giddy over corsages and dresses, Elena would rather spend her time working to save the local community center, the one place that’s always made her feel like she belonged. 

So when international K-pop superstar Robbie Choi shows up at her house to ask her to prom, Elena is more confused than ever. Because the one person who always accepted Elena as she is? Her childhood best friend, Robbie Choi. And the one thing she maybe, possibly, secretly wants more than anything? For the two of them to keep the promise they made each other as kids: to go to prom together. But that was seven years ago, and with this new K-pop persona, pink hair, and stylish clothes, Robbie is nothing like the sweet, goofy boy she remembers. The boy she shared all her secrets with. The boy she used to love.

Besides, prom with a guy who comes with hordes of screaming fans, online haters, and relentless paparazzi is the last thing Elena wants – even if she can’t stop thinking about Robbie’s smile…right?

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Review based on final copy. All opinions are my own.

Once Upon a K-Prom is such a fun book. While I’m more of a fringe fan of K-Pop, I’ve been loving all these books showing the genre love lately, and this one is no different. There’s a cute romance, but it also looks at the complexities of the industry from a neutral perspective, due to a girl seeing how it has impacted her friend, with occasional insights into his head. 

It’s also interesting to read this in light of news of BTS’ hiatus, given WDB is meant to be a stand-in for them, with many of the other acts mentioned being real to capture the atmosphere. But it’s a fascinating critique of the pressures these entertainment companies put their artists under, from the rigorous training to the scheduling to dating. The rule about when they’re allowed to date is also brought up as a minor subplot, illustrating how these companies commodify them. 

I really liked Elena as a lead. She has a complex life independent of her friendship/possible romance with Robbie. She’s dealing with a lack of sense of who she is and always being compared to her more successful siblings, especially her twin brother, Ethan. I love her journey of coming to realize she is valued and having more confidence in herself. 

This parallels really well with Robbie, as he worries about his ideas being rejected by the company. It’s through him we get more insight into his relationships both with the company and his bandmates, and I love how there’s a juxtaposition of the support (tinged with playfulness) among the boys to counteract the corporate toxicity.

I really liked how they rediscovered their bond along the way, with Elena getting over her hurt at the way she felt about him leaving and seemingly changing, and reckoning with what it would mean to be together now. 

This is a cute book, and the comparisons to Axie Oh, whose XOXO I also really enjoyed, are completely justified. If you enjoyed that book of any of the other recent crop of similar K-Pop inspired titles, or enjoy K-Pop music, I think you’ll enjoy this one. 

Author Bio

Kat Cho is the New York Times and international bestselling author of the Gumiho duology and Once Upon a K-Prom. She loves to incorporate her Korean heritage in her writing, especially if it involves describing food. She likes anything that encourages nerding out, including reading, K-dramas, K-pop and anime.

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“Up All Night With a Good Duke” (The Byronic Book Club #1) by Amy Rose Bennett (ARC Review)

Bennett, Amy Rose. Up All Night With a Good Duke. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1728248295 | $8.99 USD | 384 pages | Victorian Romance 

Blurb

I can think of the perfect way to keep you occupied and your mind diverted,” she murmured. “Come to my room. If you’re not too tired…”

Lust flashed in his gaze and then he caught her face between his hands and kissed her. “For you, my beautiful Artemis, I’d stay up all night.”

Artemis Jones-“respectable” finishing-school teacher by day and Gothic romance writer by night-has never lost sight of her real dream: to open her own academic ladies’ college. When Artemis is unexpectedly called upon by a dear friend, a fellow Byronic Book Club member, to navigate her first London Season, she comes at once. Who knows, perhaps she can court the interest of a wealthy patron for her school. As long as she can avoid her high-handed aunt’s schemes to marry her off.

Dominic Winters, the widowed Duke of Dartmoor, needs a wife-someone who will provide him with an heir and help him to manage his spitfire adolescent daughter. The problem is, Society has dubbed him “The Dastardly Duke.” Rumors are rife that he murdered his mad wife so his choices for a suitable bride are limited. But then he meets the ravishing and passionate Artemis Jones who might just be everything he needs.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

At long last, after several duds and misses, I finally found a historical romance that reminds me of what I love about the genre. Up All Night with a Good Duke is the first in the Byronic Book Club series, and I was instantly intrigued by the premise, especially the bookish heroine. 

Artemis is a sympathetic heroine, and I love the contradictions to her character, being a romantic at heart with a somewhat jaded nature, due to her parents’ loveless union and the fact that she was compromised as a young debutante by a scoundrel who refused to do the right thing…who is now back again and sniffing around her younger sister. And while she writes of great passion in her romances, she also has dreams of something more, establishing a ladies’ college to provide women with more educational opportunities than they are currently offered. 

Dominic appeals to Byronic archetypes with his tragic past, having lost his wife in tragic circumstances. Most everyone in Polite Society assumes he killed her, which adds to his mystique, but at heart he’s a man struggling with his grief and trying his best to raise his daughter as a single father. 

I love the connection that forms between the two. Likely due to all she’s experienced, as well as her own interest in Gothic literature, Artemis isn’t intimidated by Dominic’s reputation, and pretty much always tries to see the best in him, which is reinforced the more she learns about him. And he sees a kindred spirit in her, someone who helps him to come to a greater understanding of what both he and his daughter need. And while she is unsure of what she wants romantically on a long-term basis, I love that Dominic is patient with her while she figures out what she wants, while being open-hearted, in spite of the losses he’s faced. 

I also love the amount of suspense included, giving it similar vibes to the stories Artemis writes. The villain has connections to both Artemis and Dominic’s pasts, and that comes into play over the course of the book as he comes to wreak havoc in both their lives. The last third or so of the book was so tense, what with the almost nonstop action and tension. 

I really enjoyed this book, and I’m optimistic for what’s to come in future installments. If you enjoy historical romance, especially if you like bookish heroines and references to books, I recommend checking this one out. 

Author Bio

Amy Rose Bennett is an Australian author who has a passion for penning emotion-packed historical romances. Of course, her strong-willed heroines and rakish heroes always find their happily ever after. A former speech pathologist, Amy is happily married to her very own romantic hero and has two lovely, very accomplished adult daughters. When she’s not creating stories, Amy loves to cook up a storm in the kitchen, lose herself in a good book or a witty rom-com, and, when she can afford it, travel to all the places she writes about.

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“The Black Girls Left Standing” by Juliana Goodman (ARC Review)

Goodman, Juliana. The Black Girls Left Standing. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250792815 | $18.99 USD | 336 pages | YA Contemporary/Thriller 

Blurb

In Juliana Goodman’s powerful young adult debut The Black Girls Left Standing, Beau Willet will stop at nothing to clear her sister’s name. 

Sixteen-year-old Beau Willet has dreams of being an artist and one day leaving the Chicago projects she’s grown up in. But after her older sister, Katia, is killed by an off-duty police officer, Beau knows she has to clear her sister’s name by finding the only witness to the murder; Katia’s no-good boyfriend, Jordan, who has gone missing. If she doesn’t find him and tell the world what really happened, Katia’s death will be ignored, like the deaths of so many other Black women who are wrongfully killed.

With the help of her friend, Sonnet, Beau sets up a Twitter account to gather anonymous tips. But the more that Beau finds out about her sister’s death, the more danger she finds herself in. And with a new relationship developing with her childhood friend, Champion, and the struggle to keep her family together, Beau is soon in way over her head. How much is she willing to risk to clear her sister’s name and make sure she’s not forgotten?

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Black Girls Left Standing caught my attention with its provocative title and eye-catching cover. Both perfectly encapsulate the vibes of what are to be found within the pages: one part hard-hitting contemporary interrogating anti-Black racist violence (in the vein of previous titles, like The Hate U Give), one part intriguing mystery. 

The structure of the book perfectly sums up the journey Beau goes on, reckoning with her grief in the wake of Katia’s death and looking back to the times they shared together, while also being motivated to find answers and get justice for Katia and other Black women who have also been wrongfully killed. The past informs the present, and while sometimes flashbacks can slow a story down, the pacing remained brisk and kept  me continually invested. 

Beau is a sympathetic lead, and an unfortunate example of how Black teens often have to grow up faster, especially when tragedy touches them and those with authority who did wrong aren’t held accountable for their transgressions against them. 

 This is a strong debut, and I’m excited for what’s to come. If you enjoy hard-hitting YA contemporaries with a mystery thread, you might enjoy this one. 

Author Bio

Juliana Goodman was born and raised in Blue Island, Illinois. She received her B.A. in English Literature from Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois in 2014 and her MFA in Fiction Writing in 2017 from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Juliana has received several awards and scholarships for her writing and was a 2014 Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award Finalist. She’s had work published in Sigma Tau Delta’s Rectangle, Blackberry: a Magazine and Fiyah Literary Magazine. Juliana is currently a second year literary arts fellow with the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. In her free time, she enjoys watching horror films, reading the latest young adult novels and hanging out with her pit bull, Artie Partie and her cat, Pickle.

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“Four Weeks of Scandal” (Hazards of Dukes #5) by Megan Frampton (ARC Review)

Frampton, Megan. Four Weeks of Scandal. New York: Avon Books, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0063023123 | $8.99 USD | 368 pages | Victorian Romance 

Blurb

If you love the sparkle of Tessa Dare and the wit of Sarah MacLean, then you won’t want to miss this newest historical romance by Megan Frampton, who returns with a delicious story about a will in dispute, a four-week bargain, and a pretend engagement with romantic consequences.

It only takes one moment to cause a scandal…and four weeks to live it down!

Week one: Lovely, lively Octavia Holton arrives in the village, determined to claim her inheritance—the home she grew up in with her late father. Surely he meant for his daughter to have the property, and owning it means she could fix it up, sell it, and use the money to pay off her debts. But when she arrives, she discovers the house is also claimed—by one Gabriel Fallon.

Week two: Gabriel claims his father won the property in a bet, but he can’t bring himself to toss Octavia out on her very delightful derrière, so he makes her a four-week bargain: Together they’ll pretend to be engaged, all the while seeking out any will, letter, or document that proves who gets the ownership.

Weeks three and four: But that means togetherness…a lot of togetherness, and long days—and evenings—in each other’s company. The pair seems destined to “duke it out,” staking their claims…but it’s all too soon that they realize their rivalry might lead to something much more intimate. And suddenly four weeks seems like a long time. And yet not enough.

In the series

#1 Never Kiss a Duke

#2 Tall, Duke, and Dangerous

#3 A Wicked Bargain For the Duke

#4 Gentleman Seeks Bride

Review 

3 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Four Weeks of Scandal is the fifth book in Megan Frampton’s Hazards of Dukes series. It can stand alone, and is primarily connected to the first book, due to the relationship between the sisters. 

After adoring the previous book, this one was such a letdown. And the connection (however brief)  to the first book further reinforced that, as the first was also one of the stronger entries for the series. I liked the idea of it, but there were a lot of tropes going on here, but not enough stakes at the heart of it. 

Octavia and Gabriel are fine characters. Octavia is headstrong and rash, but I like that she’s confident in herself and asserting what she wants. Gabriel is fun, because he’s a Greek mythology scholar, so I loved seeing that reflected in the narrative and his interactions with Octavia. 

But while I didn’t hate them as a couple, I didn’t feel any reason to root for them, or question why their parting would be such a great tragedy. There were such low stakes to their relationship…if they found proof of her ownership, they could just go on their way. If not? No difference. I felt no personal connection to them and what finding the documentation would mean for their relationship. And the number of times it got repeated that she was leaving at the end of the month…I wanted her to just go already, so something would actually happen. 

While this one didn’t work for me, it’s partially my fault as I was still on the high of the prior book. And there are many positive reviews, so it’s possible that, like some of the other entries in the series, it’s just not for me. If you’ve enjoyed Megan Frampton’s prior books, you might like this one. And if you enjoy tropey historical romance with more focus on the internal conflict, it might work better for you. 

Author Bio

Megan Frampton writes historical romance under her own name and romantic women’s fiction as Megan Caldwell. She likes the color black, gin, dark-haired British men, and huge earrings, not in that order. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and kid.

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“American Royalty” by Tracey Livesay (Review)

Livesay, Tracey. American Royalty. New York: Avon, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0063084506 | $15.99 USD | 384 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

In this dangerously sexy rom-com that evokes the real-life romance between Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan Markle, a prince who wants to live out of the spotlight falls for a daring American rapper who turns his life, and the palace, upside down.

Sexy, driven rapper Danielle “Duchess” Nelson is on the verge of signing a deal that’ll make her one of the richest women in hip hop. More importantly, it’ll grant her control over her life, something she’s craved for years. But an incident with a rising pop star has gone viral, unfairly putting her deal in jeopardy. Concerned about her image, she’s instructed to work on generating some positive publicity… or else.

A brilliant professor and reclusive royal, Prince Jameson prefers life out of the spotlight, only leaving his ivory tower to attend weddings or funerals. But with the Queen’s children involved in one scandal after another, and Parliament questioning the viability of the monarchy, the Queen is desperate. In a quest for good press, she puts Jameson in charge of a tribute concert in her late husband’s honor. Out of his depth, and resentful of being called to service, he takes the advice of a student. After all, what’s more appropriate for a royal concert than a performer named “Duchess”?

Too late, Jameson discovers the American rapper is popular, sexy, raunchy and not what the Queen wanted, although he’s having an entirely different reaction. Dani knows this is the good exposure she needs to cement her deal and it doesn’t hurt that the royal running things is fine as hell. Thrown together, they give in to the explosive attraction flaring between them. But as the glare of the limelight intensifies and outside forces try to interfere, will the Prince and Duchess be a fairy tale romance for the ages or a disaster of palatial proportions?

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Avon has been killing it with their illustrated covers lately. Say what you want about the trend as a whole, but between this cover, Olivia Dade’s, and Alexis Daria’s, they’ve shown there are certain styles that still scream “Romance!” 

So, basically, I was sold on American Royalty before even knowing what it was about. But as a reformed Royal watcher-turned-Harry/Meghan supporter, I just ate this premise up. I did have some reservations, because some habits in that regard do indeed die hard (and I still have lingering resentment over how the British Royals were caricatured while barely being fictionalized in RWRB), but Tracey Livesay managed to make it work for me. 

Royal Family drama is as central to the fictional narrative as it is in the real one, but aside from a few broad parallels, they’re clearly fictional. I appreciate the way the alt-history of the fictional Queen and current royals is briefly dropped into the beginning, describing where the timeline diverged from our own as well as the myriad scandals the family have gotten entangled in. None are particularly sympathetic (except Jameson’s mother Calanthe who really comes through at the end), but there’s a sense of their relationship with the press, as well as the complex feelings each feels about being a royal. 

Jameson is pretty interesting. I like how he has forged his own path, stepping out on his own as a professor of philosophy. Despite this being a contemporary, he very much evokes a historical romance hero archetype of an heir (albeit only to a royal dukedom, as he’s farther down in the royal succession itself) who is determined to avoid his licentious father’s mistakes. I also did like the touch of irony that while his parents’ marriage doesn’t resemble Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s in other respects, there’s a sense of poetic justice with his father having died tragically in an accident while off with his mistress. 

Dani is wonderful, and I love her passion and drive for her career. She’s incredibly easy to like, with enough attitude to shake up Jameson’s life…and the conventional Palace protocols. 

The romance grew on me over time. Jameson definitely comes off as a bit of a jerk at first, which seemed off-putting to me, and he also was very much led by his lust, which didn’t exactly help. But she’s obviously no shrinking violet, and I like that she challenges him to get out of his comfort zone even more than he did before. And the way they bonded over losing their parents was also really touching. 

The one minus is that I really wish there had been a little more development to who everyone in the family was and how they fit in beyond the superficial, especially their ages. At one point there’s a reference that vaguely suggests how long the Queen has been on the throne, but there’s no indication of how old her children are. Jameson is her grandson, and his father was a younger son, but the others, especially Julian, the Prince of Wales, are written as if they’re roughly the same age. And with the end setting up a scandalous affair  between Julian and American pop star Samantha Banks, Dani’s rival, I’d like that to be more clear. 

This book is a lot of fun, and super sexy. If you love royal romance and a Harry and Meghan-like love story, I recommend keeping an eye out for this one! 

Author Bio

A former criminal defense attorney, Tracey Livesay finds crafting believable happily ever afters slightly more challenging than protecting our constitutional rights, but she’s never regretted following her heart instead of her law degree. She’s been featured in Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post, and CBS This Morning. Tracey lives in Virginia with her husband—who she met on the very first day of law school—and their three children.

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“In Deeper Waters” by F.T. Lukens (Review)

Lukens, F.T. In Deeper Waters. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1534480513 | $9.99 USD | 336 pages | YA Fantasy Romance 

Blurb

A young prince must rely on a mysterious stranger to save him when he is kidnapped during his coming-of-age tour in this swoony adventure that is The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue meets Pirates of the Caribbean.

Prince Tal has long awaited his coming-of-age tour. After spending most of his life cloistered behind palace walls as he learns to keep his forbidden magic secret, he can finally see his family’s kingdom for the first time. His first taste of adventure comes just two days into the journey, when their crew discovers a mysterious prisoner on a burning derelict vessel. 

Tasked with watching over the prisoner, Tal is surprised to feel an intense connection with the roguish Athlen. So when Athlen leaps overboard and disappears, Tal feels responsible and heartbroken, knowing Athlen could not have survived in the open ocean. 

That is, until Tal runs into Athlen days later on dry land, very much alive, and as charming–and secretive–as ever. But before they can pursue anything further, Tal is kidnapped by pirates and held ransom in a plot to reveal his rumored powers and instigate a war. Tal must escape if he hopes to save his family and the kingdom. And Athlen might just be his only hope…

Review 

4 stars 

After having enjoyed F.T. Lukens’ recent release, I was happy to hear that wasn’t the first they’d released in that style. And while I think In Deeper Waters is the one I enjoyed a little less of the two, that doesn’t mean this one was any less fun. 

Despite not being related in any way that I could discern, the two are stylistically linked in being high fantasy with low world building, but fairy tale massive vibes and fun. I compared the other book to The Princess Bride, but the comparison is even more apt here, as pirates play a big role in the shenanigans. 

Tal and Athlen are both such fun characters to follow, and I really liked seeing what they got up to. They do have an instant connection, but it’s well executed. I also love how, in spite of some of the obstacles stemming from their origins, they can be authentic with each other in a way they often can’t with others. Tal especially has often had to be on his guard outside his family, due to his powers being shunned, and it’s wonderful to see someone accept him because of them, and be his companion as he’s out in the world on his own for the first time and coming into his own. 

This is super fun, and I hope F.T. Lukens continues to write these, because they are such a joy to read. If you love fairy tales and Princess Bride-esque fantasy, I think you’ll enjoy this too. 

Author Bio

F.T. Lukens is a New York Times bestselling author of YA speculative fiction including the novels So This Is Ever After, In Deeper Waters, and the forthcoming Spell Bound as well as other science-fiction and fantasy works. Their contemporary fantasy novel The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic was a 2017 Cybils Award finalist in YA Speculative Fiction, the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Gold Winner for YA fiction and won the Bisexual Book Award for Speculative Fiction. F.T. resides in North Carolina with their spouse, three kids, three dogs, and three cats.

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“Set On You” (The Influencer Series #1) by Amy Lea (Review)

Lea, Amy. Set On You. New York: Jove, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0593336571 | $16.00 USD | 369 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

A gym nemesis pushes a fitness influencer to the max in Amy Lea’s steamy debut romantic comedy.

Curvy fitness influencer Crystal Chen built her career shattering gym stereotypes and mostly ignoring the trolls. After her recent breakup, she has little stamina left for men, instead finding solace in the gym – her place of power and positivity.

 Enter firefighter Scott Ritchie, the smug new gym patron who routinely steals her favorite squat rack. Sparks fly as these ultra-competitive foes battle for gym domination. But after a series of escalating jabs, the last thing they expect is to run into each other at their grandparents’ engagement party.

In the lead up to their grandparents’ wedding, Crystal discovers there’s a soft heart under Scott’s muscled exterior. Bonding over family, fitness, and cheesy pick-up lines, she just might have found her swolemate. But when a photo of them goes viral, savage internet trolls put their budding relationship to the ultimate test of strength.

Review 

5 stars 

Set on You is such a beautiful and heartwarming read that spoke to me in a lot of ways. While my journey with my body doesn’t completely resemble Crystal’s, I’ve also struggled as a plus-size woman navigating the contradictory messages that come with the “body positivity” movement. The struggle toward self-acceptance, while also being allowed to be vulnerable, is so relatable, and it’s a struggle to find a happy medium between filtering out the negativity from others and also allowing ourselves permission to have self-doubt.

I also admire Crystal for her bravery of being a woman with curves and flaws in the fitness industry, exposing herself even more to scrutiny (because people love to tell plus-size/fat people to exercise, but then try to knock down those who do? *shrugs*) While she sometimes feels she has to take on more than she should, in the name of the almighty “body positivity,” I loved seeing her come to a catharsis about what loving herself (and allowing others to love and support her through stuff like this) means. 

The romance is so fun, and full of banter and chemistry from their first interaction. When Scott pushes Crystal’s buttons, she’s quick to push back. And while there’s initially animosity (particularly on her end), things soon come to an accord with them apologizing for their misreadings of each other. And while Crystal has trust issues from her last relationship, Scott is incredibly understanding and does everything he can to support her in whatever capacity he can. 

The family  subplots are super heartwarming. I love Crystal’s Grandma Flo and Scott’s Grandpa Martin and the love that formed between them in their twilight years after decades of friendship. While this does lead to Crystal momentarily questioning Flo’s fidelity to her late husband, nothing comes of it and it appears to mainly be two longtime friends finding love and comfort in each other after their respective spouses have passed on. 

A more surprising one was Crystal’s relationship with her father. For most of the book, he’s a background character, and his disapproval of Crystal’s unconventional career path is his main attribute. However, when Crystal is at her most vulnerable, she and her dad have a lovely moment where he relates what she’s been going through to his experiences as an Asian American man dating a white woman, Crystal’s mother. 

The next book is also set up wonderfully through introductions of the secondary characters. Crystal’s Bookstagrammer sister Tara practically stole every scene she was in. And the second Scott’s fuckboy-with-daddy-issues best friend made his sole appearance on-page, I knew he was being set up to be a future hero…and we’ll see if I end up being endeared to him, since this is one of the hero types I’m not the biggest fan of.

I loved this book, and I love how it simultaneously made me laugh and made me feel seen. If you’re looking for a contemporary romance that’s both a warm hug and LOL-worthy riot, I recommend trying this one. 

CWs: fatphobia, cyberbullying, references to racism, fitness/diet culture, cancer (secondary characters)

Author Bio

Amy Lea is a Canadian bureaucrat by day and a contemporary romance author by night (and weekends). She writes laugh-out-loud romantic comedies featuring strong heroines, witty banter, mid-2000s pop culture references, and happily ever afters. 

When Amy is not writing, she can be found fangirling over other romance books on Instagram (@AmyLeaBooks), eating potato chips with reckless abandon, and snuggling with her husband and goldendoodle.

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“Juniper & Thorn” by Ava Reid” (ARC Review)

Reid, Ava. Juniper & Thorn. New York: Harper Voyager, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0062973160 | $27.99 USD | 368 pages | Gothic Fantasy/Horror 

Blurb

From highly acclaimed, bestselling author Ava Reid comes a gothic horror retelling of The Juniper Tree, set in another time and place within the world of The Wolf and the Woodsman, where a young witch seeks to discover her identity and escape the domination of her abusive wizard father, perfect for fans of Shirley Jackson and Catherynne M. Valente.

A gruesome curse. A city in upheaval. A monster with unquenchable appetites. 

Marlinchen and her two sisters live with their wizard father in a city shifting from magic to industry. As Oblya’s last true witches, she and her sisters are little more than a tourist trap as they treat their clients with archaic remedies and beguile them with nostalgic charm. Marlinchen spends her days divining secrets in exchange for rubles and trying to placate her tyrannical, xenophobic father, who keeps his daughters sequestered from the outside world. But at night, Marlinchen and her sisters sneak out to enjoy the city’s amenities and revel in its thrills, particularly the recently established ballet theater, where Marlinchen meets a dancer who quickly captures her heart.

As Marlinchen’s late-night trysts grow more fervent and frequent, so does the threat of her father’s rage and magic. And while Oblya flourishes with culture and bustles with enterprise, a monster lurks in its midst, borne of intolerance and resentment and suffused with old-world power. Caught between history and progress and blood and desire, Marlinchen must draw upon her own magic to keep her city safe and find her place within it

Review 

5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Having loved Ava Reid’s debut last year, I was fully ready to commit to anything she would write next. And the fact that Juniper & Thorn was marketed as Gothic horror didn’t scare me off one bit. And the promise of a retelling of The Juniper Tree, one of the lesser-known, super-fucked up Grimm Brothers stories that debunks the whole “fairy tales are for children” thing all on its own? Yes, please! And upon reading, I also found some allusions to Donkeyskin, another super-fucked up tale, the most popular version being by Perrault. That said, this book isn’t playing around. I strongly suggest readers take care of their own mental health and consult the content warnings…while also repeating Ava Reid’s statement in her promotional GR post that they should not use these warnings to cast judgment and stigmatize those who’ve dealt with these traumas and how they reckon with them, Reid included. 

With that out of the way…this book really lived up to my expectations. It’s set in the same world as The Wolf & The Woodsman, so while they’re atmospherically and tonally different, there’s a common thread in the Russian-inspired culture depicted. The two can stand on their own, but it‘s cool to have read both and get the little cultural references. 

As for that atmosphere and tone…wow, it’s amazing. While it really hits you hard, it’s simultaneously impossible to put down. Reid has an addictive quality to her writing, and even when describing the most gruesome, heinous things, I found it hard to look away. 

Marlinchen is a deeply compelling heroine, and it’s hard not to root for her as she navigates her situation with her horribly abusive father. Her trauma is poignantly drawn, as is her lingering sense of defiance as she endures and works to undermine him.

The romance she forms with Sevas provides a wonderful sweetness to contrast the intense depravity, one I welcomed dearly. He’s such a kind and compassionate love interest, allowing Marlinchen not just an escape, but a path to healing. 

This book is absolutely stunning, and while I acknowledge it may not be for everyone, for reasons previously stated, I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone looking for a dark fantasy or Gothic horror novel with fairy tale aesthetics. 

CWs: Gore and body horror; child sexual abuse and incest; cannibalism; antisemitism, xenophobia, and scientific racism; physical and psychological abuse by family members; gaslighting; self-harm and suicidal ideation; bulimia, graphic depictions of vomiting; animal death 

Author Bio

Ava Reid was born in Manhattan and raised right across the Hudson River in Hoboken, but currently lives in Palo Alto. She has a degree in political science from Barnard College, focusing on religion and ethnonationalism.

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“A Mirror Mended” (Fractured Fables #2) by Alix E. Harrow (ARC Review)

Harrow, Alix E. A Mirror Mended. New York: Tordotcom, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250766649 | $18.99 USD | 144 pages | Fantasy 

Blurb

A Mirror Mended is the next installment in USA Todaybestselling author Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series.

Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty is over rescuing snoring princesses. Once you’ve rescued a dozen damsels and burned fifty spindles, once you’ve gotten drunk with twenty good fairies and made out with one too many members of the royal family, you start to wish some of these girls would just get a grip and try solving their own narrative issues.

Just when Zinnia’s beginning to think she can’t handle one more princess, she glances into a mirror and sees another face looking back at her: the shockingly gorgeous face of evil, asking for her help. Because there’s more than one person trapped in a story they didn’t choose. Snow White’s Evil Queen has found out how her story ends and she’s desperate for a better ending. She wants Zinnia to help her before it’s too late for everyone. 

Will Zinnia accept the Queen’s poisonous request, and save them both from the hot iron shoes that wait for them, or will she try another path?

In the series

#1 A Spindle Splintered

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

With A Spindle Splintered being such a cool, original spin on fairy tale lore, I was excited, if a bit nervous about the sequel, A Mirror Mended. I could easily see it go either way, either succeeding or failing to capture what worked so well the first time. 

And fortunately, it’s more the former. I love how this story picks up a while after the last one left off, with Zinnia now having experience as a “fairy tale fixer,” and having experienced multiple incarnations of Sleeping Beauty, and having grown tired of experiencing essentially the same narrative over and over. It perfectly sets up the potential for a new challenge, helping Snow White’s Evil Queen. 

Just as with the first, the narrative unpacks the gender roles and stereotypes baked into these classic fairy tales. The Queen has always been positioned as the antithesis of everything the young princess stands for, given she’s older (at least past the first blush of youth), and society favors youth and beauty above all else. 

I did find the romance a bit lackluster, as I didn’t fully find Zinnia’s bond with Eva nearly as compelling as the bonds formed in the first book. However, the way the themes were explored in other respects more than makes up for that.

I really enjoyed this one, even if I still prefer the first one. If you enjoyed the first, I recommend checking out this one. 

Author Bio

A former academic and adjunct, Alix E. Harrow is now a full-time writer living in Virginia with her husband and their semi-feral toddlers. In 2019, she won a Hugo Award for her short fiction and published her first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter.

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“This Vicious Grace” (The Last Finestra #1) by Emily Thiede (ARC Review)

Thiede, Emily. This Vicious Grace. New York: Wednesday Books, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250794055 | $18.99 USD | 448 pages | YA Fantasy Romance 

Blurb

A Summer 2022 Kids’ Indie Next Pick

“Riveting, passionate, and full of high stakes danger.” —Tamora Pierce, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Emily Thiede’s exciting fantasy debut, This Vicious Grace, will keep readers turning the pages until the devastating conclusion and leave them primed for more!

Three weddings. Three funerals. Alessa’s gift from the gods is supposed to magnify a partner’s magic, not kill every suitor she touches.

Now, with only weeks left until a hungry swarm of demons devours everything on her island home, Alessa is running out of time to find a partner and stop the invasion. When a powerful priest convinces the faithful that killing Alessa is the island’s only hope, her own soldiers try to assassinate her.

Desperate to survive, Alessa hires Dante, a cynical outcast marked as a killer, to become her personal bodyguard. But as rebellion explodes outside the gates, Dante’s dark secrets may be the biggest betrayal. He holds the key to her survival and her heart, but is he the one person who can help her master her gift or destroy her once and for all?

“Remixing all the best parts of a dark fantasy and a romantic comedy, This Vicious Grace is a wonderfully fun time from start to finish, with lush, complex worldbuilding, intensely relatable characters, and relationships that are easy to root for.” —Hannah Whitten, New York Times bestselling author of For The Wolf

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

This Vicious Grace is a fun romantic fantasy debut. I was immediately drawn to the Italian influences, from the worldbuilding to the language. The mythology and magic, and how it informs the protagonist Alyssa and her relationships with the others around her, are well-conveyed, and complex without bogging the narrative down. The central role of religion is so interesting, and I’m loving when fantasies like this one unpack that. 

I really liked Alessa and was intrigued by her backstory and how that shaped her present circumstances. She’s been married three times before, and her touch has proved deadly in all those cases. And with Divorando—Doomsday—approaching, she is expected to do find another partner, a Fonte, and she’s also in danger due to the dark reputation her powers have given her.  I love how, with these circumstances, she started off somewhat unsure of herself. Throughout the book, she becomes more confident in herself and her ability to find a way out of this. 

Dante is kind of your standard grumpy, cynical, world-wary love interest, and while that’s not really my thing, I liked how it was executed here. And his interplay with Alessa is charming and endearing, with a focus on their mutual support of one another.

I really liked this, and am excited for what’s to come in the next book. If you enjoy fantasy  with a heavy romance focus, as well as imaginative world building and magic with an emphasis on religion, I think you’ll enjoy this one. 

Author Bio

Emily Thiede is the author of THE LAST FINESTRA (Wednesday Books/MacMillan, summer 2022.) She grew up dreaming of becoming a dragon rider and now writes fantastical tales about magic, mayhem, and characters who flirt with their enemies while the world crumbles.

Born in New Jersey, Emily moved across state lines in high school like a true YA heroine, and now calls Virginia home. When she isn’t writing, you can find her fostering kittens, mentoring, and hosting writer social events.

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“Part of Your World” by Abby Jimenez (Review)

Jimenez, Abby. Part of Your World. New York: Forever, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1538704370 | $15.99 USD | 388 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

After a wild bet, gourmet grilled-cheese sandwich, and cuddle with a baby goat, Alexis Montgomery has had her world turned upside down. The cause: Daniel Grant, a ridiculously hot carpenter who’s ten years younger than her and as casual as they come—the complete opposite of sophisticated city-girl Alexis. And yet their chemistry is undeniable.

While her ultra-wealthy parents want her to carry on the family legacy of world-renowned surgeons, Alexis doesn’t need glory or fame. She’s fine with being a “mere” ER doctor. And every minute she spends with Daniel and the tight-knit town where he lives, she’s discovering just what’s really important. Yet letting their relationship become anything more than a short-term fling would mean turning her back on her family and giving up the opportunity to help thousands of people.

Bringing Daniel into her world is impossible, and yet she can’t just give up the joy she’s found with him either. With so many differences between them, how can Alexis possibly choose between her world and his?

Review 

5 stars 

X Part of Your World is undoubtedly my favorite of Abby Jimenez’s books so far, no contest. This book is so beautiful, and I feel that she’s finally hit her stride as a writer. I’ve long struggled with how she grapples with difficult topics…not that she does them a disservice (in most cases, anyway), but her handling often feels contradictory to the marketing on the publishing side to an intense degree, not to mention detrimental to the people she‘s trying to represent at times. But this one just worked, capturing humor, joy, magic and love in the romance, while also depicting the tough realities of a real-world situation.

Alexis is incredibly sympathetic, and her situation is unfortunately easy to recognize, even if the opulent trappings of her life are not. She feels immense pressure from her parents (especially her father) to live up to the family legacy in medicine, but she doesn’t see eye-to-eye with them, lacking ambition and drive, which only further fuels the hostile treatment she receives. She’s also, for all intents and purposes, now their only child, as they disowned her brother for choosing to marry someone they viewed as “unsuitable.” And if that’s not enough, she’s just got out of a long-term emotionally abusive relationship with a man her dad views as a surrogate son, and he’s been trying to worm his way back into her life through any means necessary, and in spite of how battered her self-esteem is, she manages to hold out on him…for the most part. I love how Jimenez managed to really dig into the mindset of someone who’s going through abuse, both from parents and a partner, and explore how difficult it can be to break away because of the psychological hold the abusive people have on you, even without lifting a hand toward you or threatening your life. 

Daniel is such a sweetheart, and just what she needs, both in terms of helping her put herself back together and helping her put things into perspective. I didn’t like that she didn’t tell him the entire truth about her life, which ended up coming back to bite her when things came to light about their relationship in front of her family, but I understand her wanting to protect him and allow him to maintain his livelihood and agency. And the fact that, in spite of all their differences, she also sees that he has his own legacy to live up to (although he’s much more secure with his place within it) provides a compelling conflict for them to work through.

This book hits all the right notes, capturing all the feels for me. With a hard-won HEA, this is a wonderful book that I’d recommend to fans of contemporary romance that tackles real-world issues. 

CWs: verbal/emotional abuse, physical abuse (side characters)

Author Bio

Abby Jimenez is a Food Network champion and a New York Times bestselling contemporary romance novelist living in Minnesota. Abby founded Nadia Cakes out of her home kitchen in 2007. The bakery has since expanded to multiple locations in two states, won numerous Food Network competitions, and amassed an international cult following. She loves a good book, coffee, doglets, and not leaving the house. 

You can learn more at:

https://www.authorabbyjimenez.com

Twitter: @AuthorAbbyJim

Facebook: AuthorAbbyJimenez

Instagram/Tik Tok: @AuthorAbbyJimenez

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“Fake It Till You Bake It” by Jamie Wesley (ARC Review)

Wesley, Jamie. Fake It Till You Bake It. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250801852 | $16.99 USD | 336 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

A reality star and a cupcake-baking football player pretend to be a couple in order to save his bakery in this sweet and sexy romance from Jamie Wesley, Fake It Till You Bake It.

Jada Townsend-Matthews is the most reviled woman in America after turning down a proposal on a reality dating show. When she comes home to lick her wounds, Jada finds herself working at San Diego’s newest cupcake bakery, Sugar Blitz, alongside the uptight owner and professional football player Donovan Dell.

When a reporter mistakenly believes Jada and Donovan are an item, they realize they can use the misunderstanding to their advantage to help the struggling bakery and rehabilitate Jada’s image. Faking a relationship should be simple, but sometimes love is the most unexpected ingredient. 

Fake it Till You Bake It is a sweet confection of a novel, the perfect story to curl up with and enjoy with a cupcake on the side.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Jamie Wesley is a new-to-me author, and one I’m definitely excited to try more from. Fake It Till You Bake It is such a fun, sweet confection of a romance, the literary equivalent of the sweets in the book: sugary (with a dash of heat) and full of heart.

The opening chapters instantly hooked me on Jada and Donovan, and their dynamic. They don’t exactly have love at first sight, and while I did feel like Jada’s self-confessed brutal honesty in the moment  was more brutal than anything else, Donovan gave back as good as he got. I enjoyed seeing things unfold, with them being thrown together due to her grandmother also being the owner of his football team, and good ol’ meddling (but loving) Grams gets Jada a job at Donovan’s bakery. 

The premise for them beginning to fake date was interesting, as it was motivated by generating positive buzz for Jada in the aftermath of a disastrous stint on a reality dating show, not to mention providing good press for the bakery. I really liked how they moved pretty seamlessly from faking to making things real. There are some *small* issues I had with some aspects of the relationship, but generally I really liked them together. 

Jada is the more complex of the two. She’s still finding her feet and she struggles with insecurities, thanks to her parents having such high standards. Both of them are doctors, but she has dyslexia, and she deals with ableism and rejection from them as a result. I feel like this did make her a bit *too* insecure, as even after proving she could handle something pretty major on her own, her insecurities still get the better of her, because of how she ended up in her current state of success. I could understand the rationale, but I also felt the leap in logic she takes in connecting professional and personal was a bit much, even considering how linked the two had been up to this point. 

Donovan is super sweet when he unwinds a bit (his uptight nature is frequently remarked upon in the book!), and I liked how supportive he was of Jada, including in confrontations with her impossible-to-please parents and vengeful reality show producers and jilted co-stars. He isn’t perfect, as in one of Jada’s biggest crises, he panics and doesn’t adequately offer his support, even though he had been there for other, external battles. But he has a good heart, and that made me still believe in them despite how out-of-nowhere that moment was. 

While this is a self-contained, stand-alone love romance, there’s plenty of teases for what’s to come with future installments following Donovan’s fellow football players/bakery co-owners. And the epilogue ends on a rather suspenseful note, hinting at what’s to come for the next book, so my hype is high. 

In spite of some of my minor issues, I really liked this, and would recommend it to lovers of contemporary Black romance and/or romances about bakeries. 

Author Bio

Jamie Wesley has been reading romance novels since she was about twelve years old, when her mother left a romance novel that a friend had given her on the nightstand. Jamie read it instead, and the rest is history. When she’s not reading or writing romance, Jamie can be found watching TV, rooting for her favorite sports teams, and/or planning her next trip to Disney World.

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“The Grief of Stones” (The Cemeteries of Amalo #2) by Katherine Addison (ARC Review)

Addison, Katherine. The Grief of Stones. New York: Tor, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250813893 | $25.99 USD | 256 pages | Fantasy 

Blurb

In The Grief of Stones, Katherine Addison returns to the world of The Goblin Emperor with a direct sequel to The Witness For The Dead…

Celehar’s life as the Witness for the Dead of Amalo grows less isolated as his circle of friends grows larger. He has been given an apprentice to teach, and he has stumbled over a scandal of the city—the foundling girls. Orphans with no family to claim them and no funds to buy an apprenticeship. Foundling boys go to the Prelacies; foundling girls are sold into service, or worse. At once touching and shattering, Celehar’s witnessing for one of these girls will lead him into the depths of his own losses. The love of his friends will lead him out again.

In the series

#1 The Witness for the Dead

Review

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. 

I had mixed feelings about this book’s predecessor, but I was eager to try again, as I love the world this series is set in. And while I wasn’t  wowed by The Grief of Stones, the strengths from the prior book continued in the same vein. 

I had mixed feelings about Celehar after the prior book, but I think having read two books now with him as lead has warmed him to me. He has a gentle way about him that I really like, and there’s these lovely little moments in the midst of all the darkness, like feeding stray cats! I love a hero who is generally noble, in spite of the grim events he’s exposed to. 

The mystery is also pretty compelling, and it hits close to home in spite of the fantastical setting. Celehar finds himself working to protect and defend foundling orphans from exploitation. I appreciated how the subject was ultimately handled with care, and how in spite of the dark subject matter, the book provides a balm of comfort for anyone who may have been impacted in any way by the issue. 

This is a wonderful second Celehar adventure and a great addition to the overall Goblin Emperor world. If you enjoyed  the prior book (or even if you just felt middling about it), you might be interested in this one. 

Author Bio

Katherine Addison’s short fiction has been selected by The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her novel The Goblin Emperor won a Locus Award. As Sarah Monette, she is the author of the Doctrine of the Labyrinth series and coauthor, with Elizabeth Bear, of the Iskryne series, she lives near Madison, Washington.

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“I Kissed Shara Wheeler” by Casey McQuiston (Review)

McQuiston, Casey. I Kissed Shara Wheeler. New York: Wednesday Books, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250244451 | $19.99 USD | 355 pages | YA Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

From the New York Times bestselling author of One Last Stop and Red, White & Royal Blue comes a debut YA romantic comedy about chasing down what you want, only to find what you need…

Chloe Green is so close to winning. After her moms moved her from SoCal to Alabama for high school, she’s spent the past four years dodging gossipy classmates and a puritanical administration at Willowgrove Christian Academy. The thing that’s kept her going: winning valedictorian. Her only rival: prom queen Shara Wheeler, the principal’s perfect progeny.

But a month before graduation, Shara kisses Chloe and vanishes.

On a furious hunt for answers, Chloe discovers she’s not the only one Shara kissed. There’s also Smith, Shara’s longtime quarterback sweetheart, and Rory, Shara’s bad boy neighbor with a crush. The three have nothing in common except Shara and the annoyingly cryptic notes she left behind, but together they must untangle Shara’s trail of clues and find her. It’ll be worth it, if Chloe can drag Shara back before graduation to beat her fair-and-square.

Thrown into an unlikely alliance, chasing a ghost through parties, break-ins, puzzles, and secrets revealed on monogrammed stationery, Chloe starts to suspect there might be more to this small town than she thought. And maybe—probably not, but maybe—more to Shara, too.

Fierce, funny, and frank, Casey McQuiston’s I Kissed Shara Wheeler is about breaking the rules, getting messy, and finding love in unexpected places.

Review 

4 stars 

I was excited for I Kissed Shara Wheeler without really knowing much about it. I mean, the title sells itself, and after that one anti-sapphic TikTok about Casey McQuiston’s last book, I’m glad McQuiston hasn’t felt discouraged from continuing in that direction. But it also happens to hit all my appeal factors, being about messy queer teens navigating their identities within an uber-conservative Christian environment. 

With that in mind, I easily found myself falling in love with the characters and their complex dynamics. Chloe and her rivalry-turned-maybe-more with Shara centers the novel, and I loved how the tension between them was palpable, even while a large part of the book is about the scavenger hunt Shara challenges Chloe and the other major characters she’s kissed to. 

As such, it could easily feel like two separate, yet interconnected stories: one about the hunt, one about the eventual reunion. But McQuiston pulls it together, with the journey Shara’s romantic interests go on together seeing them all grow on their own paths of self-discovery, while also anticipating the further romantic development between Chloe and Shara. 

The pacing is a bit mixed, although I feel it directly mirrors the passage of time. At the start of the book, it begins with a countdown to Graduation Day, along with a note of how long it’s been since Shara left. This style of  chapter headers continues until the end, culminating with Graduation, and over a month has passed. 

This book is so fun, while also being a warm tribute to queer teens, about coming of age and exploring one’s identity. I enthusiastically recommend this one, especially for fans of messy sapphic contemporary romance. 

Author Bio

Casey McQuiston is the author of New York Times bestselling romantic comedies Red, White & Royal Blue and One Last Stop. As a Louisianan living in New York City, Casey enjoys telling long, loud stories and deep-frying things in a kitchen that’s honestly too small for all that. Often in that tiny kitchen is an always-hungry poodle called Pepper. I Kissed Shara Wheeler is Casey’s first young adult novel.

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“Something Wilder” by Christina Lauren (Review)

Lauren, Christina. Something Wilder. New York: Gallery Books, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1982173401 | $26.99 USD | 366 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

Growing up the daughter of notorious treasure hunter and absentee father Duke Wilder left Lily without much patience for the profession…or much money in the bank. But Lily is nothing if not resourceful, and now uses Duke’s coveted hand-drawn maps to guide tourists on fake treasure hunts through the red rock canyons of Utah. It pays the bills but doesn’t leave enough to fulfill her dream of buying back the beloved ranch her father sold years ago, and definitely not enough to deal with the sight of the man she once loved walking back into her life with a motley crew of friends ready to hit the trails. Frankly, Lily would like to take him out into the wilderness—and leave him there.

Leo Grady knew mirages were a thing in the desert, but they’d barely left civilization when the silhouette of his greatest regret comes into focus in the flickering light of the campfire. Ready to leave the past behind him, Leo wants nothing more than to reconnect with his first and only love. Unfortunately, Lily Wilder is all business, drawing a clear line in the sand: it’s never going to happen.

But when the trip goes horribly and hilariously wrong, the group wonders if maybe the legend of the hidden treasure wasn’t a gimmick after all. There’s a chance to right the wrongs—of Duke’s past and their own—but only if Leo and Lily can confront their history and work together. Alone under the stars in the isolated and dangerous mazes of the Canyonlands, Leo and Lily must decide whether they’ll risk their lives and hearts on the adventure of a lifetime.

Review 

4 stars 

After a bunch of duds to varying degrees, Christina Lauren are back to some semblance of form with Something Wilder. While it’s not their best work, it’s a fun adventure that stands out amid their bibliography, and makes for the perfect summer escape. 

Channeling treasure-hunt movies in both the action and romcom genres (the book’s release not long after the campy The Lost City hit streaming worked out perfectly), there’s an edge to the narrative that CLo have not explored before, with the suspense of the hunt and all its twists and turns. The puzzle solving element is a lot of fun too. 

The characters are pretty cool…especially Lily. She’s been reckoning with her father’s legacy as an “Indiana Jones” type adventurer, and how that basically ruined their lives monetarily. Her dream of buying back the family ranch is admirable, even if the “treasure hunting” tours don’t yield much success for her in that regard. And when the adventure picks up, she eventually proves she is her father’s daughter, even if she hasn’t fully embraced it. 

Leo slightly less interested me, but I love how he’s the one who still carried a torch for Lily years later. While Lily isn’t interested at first, and he respects that, I really liked when they came around to really confronting what stood between them. 

I will note that I do feel this is the most glaring example of the trend of CLo moving away from romance-centric plotlines. Romance is still prominent here, but this book in particular has a lot of focus on the adventure and those were the parts I enjoyed the most. In this case, it’s not a bad thing, especially as this is their strongest release in quite some time. But given it is a point of contention for some, it’s worth remarking on. 

Given the “fun” vibes of this book, I can see this one working with fans, even those who may have held off out of caution due to CLo’s last few lackluster efforts. And this is the perfect read if you’re looking for a lighthearted adventure to sweep you away this summer. 

Author Bio

Christina Lauren is the pen name of writing partners/best friends Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, the New York Times bestselling authors of twenty-eight books, including the Beautiful and Wild Seasons series, The Unhoneymooners, Twice in a Blue Moon, The Honey-Don’t List, In a Holidaze, and The Soulmate Equation. Find them at https://christinalaurenbooks.com or @ChristinaLauren on Instagram and Twitter.

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“The Lost Summers of Newport” by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White (Review)

Williams, Beatriz, et. al. The Lost Summers of Newport. New York: William Morrow, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0063040748 | $28.99 USD | 400 pages | Historical Fiction 

Blurb

From the New York Times bestselling team of Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White—a novel of money and secrets set among the famous summer mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, spanning over a century from the Gilded Age to the present day. 

“Three stories elegantly intertwine in this clever and stylish tale of murder and family lies…This crackerjack novel offers three mysteries for the price of one.”–Publishers Weekly (starred review” 

2019: Andie Figuero has just landed her dream job as a producer of Mansion Makeover, a popular reality show about restoring America’s most lavish historic houses. Andie has high hopes for her latest project: the once glorious but gently crumbling Sprague Hall in Newport, Rhode Island, summer resort of America’s gilded class—famous for the lavish “summer cottages” of Vanderbilts and Belmonts. But Andie runs into trouble: the reclusive heiress who still lives in the mansion, Lucia “Lucky” Sprague, will only allow the show to go forward on two conditions: One, nobody speaks to her. Two, nobody touches the mansion’s ruined boathouse.

1899: Ellen Daniels has been hired to give singing lessons to Miss Maybelle Sprague, a naive young Colorado mining heiress whose stepbrother John has poured their new money into buying a place among Newport’s elite. John is determined to see Maybelle married off to a fortune-hunting Italian prince, and Ellen is supposed to polish up the girl for her launch into society. But the deceptively demure Ellen has her own checkered past, and she’s hiding in plain sight at Sprague Hall.

1958: Lucia “Lucky” Sprague has always felt like an outsider at Sprague Hall. When she and her grandmother—the American-born Princess di Conti—fled Mussolini’s Italy, it seemed natural to go back to the imposing Newport house Nana owned but hadn’t seen since her marriage in 1899. Over the years, Lucky’s lost her Italian accent and found a place for herself among the yachting set by marrying Stuyvesant Sprague, the alcoholic scion of her Sprague stepfamily. But one fateful night in the mansion’s old boathouse will uncover a devastating truth…and change everything she thought she knew about her past.

As the cameras roll on Mansion Makeover, the house begins to yield up the dark secrets the Spragues thought would stay hidden forever….

Review 

4.5 stars 

The “Unibrain” that is the author team of Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White strike again! The Lost Summers of Newport is their fourth collaboration, and perhaps my favorite of theirs to date…but given the number of times they’ve written a messy family saga (both individually and collectively) it’s a testament to their creativity that their work in the genre remains fresh. 

The story follows three women in three different timelines (once again, each one is written by a different author, but they have yet to spill on who wrote which, and I couldn’t guess, despite my familiarity with all three). Their books are always so intricately woven, yet with such distinct voices for the different POV characters, that it feels seamless. 

There’s a lot of characters in this one, and they’re all interconnected in some way, whether it be familial or through some other connection (romantic, friendship, etc.) That can be daunting, but once I was able to parse out who people were and how they were connected, I found the rhythm of the book fairly easy to follow. 

The two historical timelines were my favorites, and I don’t have any complaints with them. The relationship Ellen forms with Maybelle is sweet, and I love that they form a friendship in spite of the fact that Ellen is employed by Maybelle’s family. Ellen’s resulting conflicted feelings as she sees Maybelle making some potentially bad choices while attempting to follow her heart, and falling in love with Maybelle’s intended in the process sets up high stakes for her that made what followed particularly bittersweet. 

And the way the fates for both of them were subtly foreshadowed as it played out alongside Lucky’s chapters was exemplary. I went through reading about both of them for most of the book thinking one thing, only to have the rug pulled out from under me. And the fact that Lucky, in a way, is living out Maybelle and Ellen’s  story in reverse, going from Italy back to Newport and marrying back into the Sprague family, but finding happiness with someone else when her husband was cruel to her…there’s a sense of dramatic irony there. 

While I did find myself the least invested in Andie’s narrative, I also can see the point of her perspective. She’s a neutral third party in the modern day who will unexpectedly excavate the secrets from both of the pertinent generations past, with a now elderly Lucky even posing as an obstacle hiding said secrets (in a similar role her Nonna did in the ‘50s timeline). 

It’s a really clever, well-thought out narrative, and I’ve come to expect nothing less from Team W. I 100% recommend to anyone who loves historical fiction, especially of the multigenerational saga/multi-timeline variety. 

Author Bios

Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White are the coauthors of the beloved New York Times bestselling novels The Forgotten Room, The Glass Ocean, and All the Ways We Said Goodbye

Beatriz Williams is the New York Times, USA Today, and internationally bestselling author of Out Woman in Moscow, The Summer Wives, Her Last Flight, The Golden Hour, The Secret Life of Violet Grant, A Hundred Summers, and several other works of historical fiction, including three novels in collaboration with fellow bestselling authors Karen White and Lauren Willig. A graduate of Stanford University with an MBA in Finance from Columbia University, Beatriz worked as a communications and corporate strategy consultant in New York and London before she turned her attention to writing novels that combine her passion for history with an obsessive devotion to voice and characterization. Beatriz’s books have won numerous awards, have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and appear regularly in bestseller lists around the world.

Born in Seattle, Washington, Beatriz now lives near the Connecticut shore with her husband and four children, where she divides her time between writing and laundry.

Beatriz Williams’ Website

Lauren Willig is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than twenty works of historical fiction, including Band of Sisters, The Summer Country, The English Wife, the RITA Award-winning Pink Carnation series, and four novels co-written with Beatriz Williams and Karen White. Her books have been translated into over twenty languages, picked for Book of the Month Club, awarded the RITA, Booksellers Best, and Golden Leaf awards, and chosen for the American Library Association’s annual list of the best genre fiction. An alumna of Yale University, she has a graduate degree in history from Harvard and a JD from Harvard Law School. She lives in New York City with her husband, two young children, and vast quantities of coffee.

Lauren Willig’s Website

Karen White is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 30 books, including the Tradd Street series, The Last Night in London, Dreams of Falling, The Night the Lights Went Out, Flight Patterns, The Sound of Glass, and A Long Time Gone. She is the coauthor of All the Ways We Said Goodbye, The Glass Ocean, and The Forgotten Room with New York Times bestselling authors Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig. She grew up in London but now lives with her husband near Atlanta, Georgia.

Karen White’s Website

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“On Rotation” by Shirlene Obuobi (ARC Review)

Obuobi, Shirlene. On Rotation. New York: Avon Books, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-978-0063209145 | $27.99 USD | 352 pages | Contemporary 

Blurb

ONE OF TEEN VOGUE’S “25 BOOKS BY BLACK AUTHORS THEY CAN’T WAIT TO READ THIS YEAR”

ONE OF BETCHES’ “22 BOOKS YOU NEED TO READ THIS YEAR”

“As a fan of Grey’s Anatomy (and Chicago Med!), I couldn’t put down On Rotation, and you won’t be able to, either. Shirlene Obuobi makes you feel as if you’re actually right there with the lovable Angie, and I personally couldn’t get enough.” —Meg Cabot, New York Times bestselling author 

For fans of Grey’s Anatomy and Seven Days in June, this dazzling debut novel by Shirlene Obuobi explores that time in your life when you must decide what you want, how to get it, & who you are, all while navigating love, friendship, and the realization that the path you’re traveling is going to be a bumpy ride.

Ghanaian-American Angela Appiah has checked off all the boxes for the “Perfect Immigrant Daughter.”Enroll in an elite medical schoolSnag a suitable lawyer/doctor/engineer boyfriendSurround self with a gaggle of successful and/or loyal friends

But then it quickly all falls apart: her boyfriend dumps her, she bombs the most important exam of her medical career, and her best friend pulls away. And her parents, whose approval seems to hinge on how closely she follows the path they chose, are a lot less proud of their daughter. It’s a quarter life crisis of epic proportions.

Angie, who has always faced her problems by working “twice as hard to get half as far,” is at a loss. Suddenly, she begins to question everything: her career choice, her friendships, even why she’s attracted to men who don’t love her as much as she loves them.

And just when things couldn’t get more complicated, enter Ricky Gutierrez— brilliant, thoughtful, sexy, and most importantly, seems to see Angie for who she is instead of what she can represent.

Unfortunately, he’s also got “wasteman” practically tattooed across his forehead, and Angie’s done chasing mirages of men. Or so she thinks. For someone who’s always been in control, Angie realizes that there’s one thing she can’t plan on: matters of her heart

Review 

3 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

On Rotation drew my attention thanks to the cover and the blurb…romance/women’s fic meets medical drama sounded exactly what I was looking for. And the book would release during the summer break between seasons of The Good Doctor, and I anticipated feeling withdrawal by that point. 

The book itself feels like a bit of a mixed bag, the result of it not being too sure of its own identity. I was fairly sure based on the blurb that the romance would be more secondary, so I wasn’t disappointed in that regard. And it’s generally pretty solid and cute. However, I also felt a lot of the issues the book wanted to focus on, from the stuff with medical school and the family stuff, nothing really was fleshed out and given the justice I felt it deserved. 

And that’s a shame, as I love the detail put into conveying the medical jargon in an approachable way, and describing the issues that might come up as a third year medical student. And the family relationships within a Ghanaian-American family are so intriguing. Add the romantic subplot, and it feels very crowded. 

I also had mixed feelings about the narrative choices. Angie has an engaging voice, and I love her little comments about everything from the intricacies of medicine to pop culture. But I felt like the style through which some of this humor is conveyed through footnotes was distracting to the flow of the story. 

While this book feels very mixed for me, I appreciate what it’s trying to do in exploring the challenges of being a Black woman in the medical field and navigating life as a child of immigrants on both a professional and personal level. If this book interests you at all, it’s worth giving a try. 

Author Bio

Shirlene Obuobi is a Ghanaian-American physician, cartoonist, and author who grew up in Chicago, Illinois, Hot Springs, Arkansas and The Woodlands, Texas. When she’s not in the hospital (and let’s be honest, even when she’s in it), she can be found drawing comics, writing on her phone, and obsessing over her three cats. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is completing her cardiology fellowship.

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“Survive the Dome” by Kosoko Jackson (Review)

Jackson, Kosoko. Survive the Dome. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Fire, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1728239088 | $18.99 USD | 326 pages | YA Science Fiction 

Blurb

The Hate U Give meets Internment in this pulse-pounding thriller about an impenetrable dome around Baltimore that is keeping the residents in and information from going out during a city-wide protest.

Jamal Lawson just wanted to be a part of something. As an aspiring journalist, he packs up his camera and heads to Baltimore to document a rally protesting police brutality after another Black man is murdered.

But before it even really begins, the city implements a new safety protocol…the Dome. The Dome surrounds the city, forcing those within to subscribe to a total militarized shutdown. No one can get in, and no one can get out.

Alone in a strange place, Jamal doesn’t know where to turn…until he meets hacker Marco, who knows more than he lets on, and Catherine, an AWOL basic-training-graduate, whose parents helped build the initial plans for the Dome.

As unrest inside of Baltimore grows throughout the days-long lockdown, Marco, Catherine, and Jamal take the fight directly to the chief of police. But the city is corrupt from the inside out, and it’s going to take everything they have to survive.

Review 

4 stars 

Survive the Dome is a fiction book, but the reality in America isn’t far off.” (Jackson, 326)

Kosoko Jackson states this in the final paragraph of the acknowledgments of the book. And given the way the many popular (white) dystopian stories have gotten critiqued for their decision to focus on the question of “what if the oppression that is already happening to Black people happened to white people?”, it’s cathartic to see Jackson unpack and explore those genre common tropes in relation to an extreme version of the reality Black people are currently experiencing, with a lens particularly on police violence and the political systems that enable them. And with an introductory list highlighting the history of police violence against Black people, dating back to the 1940s and segregation and continuing to today, highlights the extent of the issue and how little has been done to solve the problem, while honoring the lives of those lost so senselessly. 

Jamal is an engaging protagonist. He’s flawed, and I appreciate that he does have his moments of being too overconfident or indecisive. He doesn’t exist just to be a martyr for this extreme regime, but is willing to fight for his and his friends’ survival and what they believe in. 

Among the connections he forms while in the Dome is one with hacker Marco. It’s a sweet romance developing amid the chaos, amplified by the intense stakes they’re under. There’s some great self-reflection on this on Jamal’s part, with the realization of how their circumstances impacted the escalation of their relationship, which I really enjoyed. 

There’s a hefty amount of intrigue and tension in this one, and while there were some uneven moments, I was more or less engaged throughout. I did have some questions about the ending, as it is a bit open, but I can see how it could go either way in terms of either exemplifying the unresolved nature of the issue or signaling the possibility there might be more to come. 

This book is a poignant interrogation of police racism and violence against Black people. Would recommend to pretty much everyone. 

CW: racism, police brutality

Author Bio

Kosoko Jackson was born and raised in the DC Metro Area and has worked in digital advocacy for the past five years. Currently, he attends Southern New Hampshire’s Mountainview MFA Program in fiction writing. When not writing about queer Black boys, he can be found crying over new indie pop albums, watching far too many movies, or playing his Switch. He is also the author of Yesterday is History.

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Twitter: @kosokojackson

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“Lucie Yi is Not a Romantic” by Lauren Ho (ARC Review)

Ho, Lauren. Lucie Yi Is Not a Romantic. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0593422267 | $17.00 USD | 416 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

An ambitious career woman signs up for a co-parenting website only to find a match she never expected, in this unflinchingly funny and honest novel from the author of Last Tang Standing.

Management consultant Lucie Yi is done waiting for Mr. Right. After a harrowing breakup foiled her plans for children—and drove her to a meltdown in a Tribeca baby store—she’s ready to take matters into her own hands. She signs up for an elective co-parenting website to find a suitable partner with whom to procreate—as platonic as family planning can be.

Collin Read checks all of Lucie’s boxes; he shares a similar cultural background, he’s honest, and most important, he’s ready to become a father. When they match, it doesn’t take long for Lucie to take a leap of faith for her future. So what if her conservative family might not approve? When Lucie becomes pregnant, the pair return to Singapore and, sure enough, her parents refuse to look on the bright side. Even more complicated, Lucie’s ex-fiancé reappears, sparking unresolved feelings and compounding work pressures and the baffling ways her body is changing. Suddenly her straightforward arrangement is falling apart before her very eyes, and Lucie will have to decide how to juggle the demands of the people she loves while pursuing the life she really wants.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

As leery as I am of pregnancy and fertility related storylines and (especially) plot twists, I love finding a book that looks to reinvent the wheel a bit, especially when they market the book as such. Lucie Yi Is Not a Romantic does this from its initial premise of seeing a driven career woman take a businesslike approach to conceiving a child through an elective co-parenting website. 

Lucie is easy to root for, and while I don’t want children myself, I can totally understand where she’s coming from, given what she’s been through and how those events have made her who she is today. I also love how proactive she is in going after this unconventional road to parenthood, even if her traditional parents don’t approve, subtly highlighting the cultural divide in Asian diaspora families, with specific focus on the difference between Singapore and the US.

I also really liked how, while the chemistry is there with Collin early on, it’s not instant fireworks, and they do have to work on getting to know each other to at least make co-parenting work. The inclusion of the awkward, non-explicit sex scene highlighting one of their attempts at conception aids in this. 

However, their relationship develops to the point where it’s so solid, I don’t understand how Lucie can still have doubts. I mean, yes, her ex comes back into the picture, and they have a long, complicated history. But he really hurt her, and just because he’s “gone to therapy and worked on himself,” doesn’t mean she should take him back. She does come to this realization eventually, but it sucked to see her hurt Collin in the process, when he’d been nothing but supportive. 

In spite of the title, Lucie Yi most definitely is a romantic, and this book is sweet and heartfelt, discussing difficult topics with a light touch. Would recommend, if it sounds of interest to you. 

Author Bio

Lauren Ho is a reformed legal counsel who now prefers to write for pleasure, hailing from Malaysia, she is currently based in Singapore, where she’s ostensibly working on her next novel while attempting to parent. She is also the author of Last Tang Standing.

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“The Fastest Way to Fall” by Denise Williams (Review)

Williams, Denise. The Fastest Way to Fall. New York: Jove, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-0593101926 | $16.00 USD | 368 pages | Contemporary Romance

Blurb

Britta didn’t plan on falling for her personal trainer, and Wes didn’t plan on Britta. Plans change and it’s unclear if love, career, or both will meet them at the finish line.

Britta Colby works for a lifestyle website, and when tasked to write about her experience with a hot new body-positive fitness app that includes personal coaching, she knows it’s a major opportunity to prove she should write for the site full-time.

As CEO of the FitMe app, Wes Lawson finally has the financial security he grew up without, but despite his success, his floundering love life and complicated family situation leaves him feeling isolated and unfulfilled. He decides to get back to what he loves—coaching. Britta’s his first new client and they click immediately.

As weeks pass, she’s surprised at how much she enjoys experimenting with her exercise routine. He’s surprised at how much he looks forward to talking to her every day. They convince themselves their attraction is harmless, but when they start working out in person, Wes and Britta find it increasingly challenging to deny their chemistry and maintain a professional distance.

Wes isn’t supposed to be training clients, much less meeting with them, and Britta’s credibility will be sunk if the lifestyle site finds out she’s practically dating the fitness coach she’s reviewing. Walking away from each other is the smartest thing to do, but running side by side feels like the start of something big.

Review 

4 stars 

The Fastest Way to Fall is most definitely the stronger of Denise Williams’ two full length books out now, and given I was inspired to give her work a chance based on a rave review on Twitter for this book specifically from a Black fat reader? I’m not surprised this book worked so well for me. 

I really appreciate how this book works to navigate the world of fitness through the lens of a fat person through Britta’s eyes. And the fact that she has reservations going into the assignment, but immediately lays out what her expectations are for the app? I like that. She has things she’s willing to try, but she’s not going to be shamed into trying to become something she’s not or beating herself up over what she looks like. It’s about strength and confidence, not losing weight to conform to “conventional” beauty standards. 

And Wes is such a cinnamon roll. I love how he approaches being a coach, encouraging with ideas without being pushy about asserting them. He also is dealing with a lot of personal issues of his own, and while I felt they weren’t given enough page time, they do help to flesh out his character. 

And given the banter between them, it’s easy to see how they connected. They have such a sweet, charming relationship for most of the book. I did feel a bit mixed about them not being 100% transparent with each other about their positions, particularly Britta’s choice to keep her article about FitMi a secret. However, while it was handled a bit late, I felt the issue was resolved and it did not hamper my belief in the possibility of their happy ending. 

I enjoyed this one a lot, and am excited to continue reading more from Denise Williams in the future. If you enjoy contemporary romance, I recommend picking this one up, especially if you’re looking for positive fat rep. 

Author Bio

Denise Williams wrote her first book in the second grade. I Hate You, and its sequel, I Still Hate You, featured a tough, funny heroine, a quirky hero, witty banter, and a dragon. Minus the dragons, these are still the books she likes to write. After penning those early works, she finished second grade and eventually earned a PhD in education, going on to work in higher education. After growing up as a military brat around the world and across the country, Denise now lives in Iowa with her husband, son, and two ornery shih tzus who think they own the house.

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Twitter/Instagram: @NicWillWrites

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“The Final Strife” (The Ending Fire Trilogy #1) by Saara El-Arifi (ARC Review)

El-Arifi, Saara. The Final Strife. New York: Del Rey, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0593356944 | $28.99 USD | 608 pages | Fantasy 

Blurb

In the first book of a visionary fantasy trilogy with its roots in the mythology of Africa and Arabia that “sings of rebellion, love, and the courage it takes to stand up to tyranny” (Samantha Shannon, author of The Priory of the Orange Tree), three women band together against a cruel empire that divides people by blood.

The Final Strife is the real deal: epic fantasy turned on its head in the most compelling way imaginable.”—Kalynn Bayron, bestselling author of Cinderella Is Dead and This Poison Heart

ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF 2022—Book Riot

Red is the blood of the elite, of magic, of control.
Blue is the blood of the poor, of workers, of the resistance.
Clear is the blood of the slaves, of the crushed, of the invisible.

Sylah dreams of days growing up in the resistance, being told she would spark a revolution that would free the empire from the red-blooded ruling classes’ tyranny. That spark was extinguished the day she watched her family murdered before her eyes.

Anoor has been told she’s nothing, no one, a disappointment, by the only person who matters: her mother, the most powerful ruler in the empire. But when Sylah and Anoor meet, a fire burns between them that could consume the kingdom—and their hearts. 

Hassa moves through the world unseen by upper classes, so she knows what it means to be invisible. But invisibility has its uses: It can hide the most dangerous of secrets, secrets that can reignite a revolution. And when she joins forces with Sylah and Anoor, together these grains of sand will become a storm. 

As the empire begins a set of trials of combat and skill designed to find its new leaders, the stage is set for blood to flow, power to shift, and cities to burn.

Review 

5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Final Strife is exactly the sort of fantasy that appeals to me: it has a well-realized world and magic system, it reimagines some common tropes in an interesting way, and…it’s sapphic (the wealth of sapphic epic fantasy we’re getting these days is awesome). So, it’s no surprise that it absolutely delivered. 

One of the things that stood out to me first was the blood magic aspect, from the moment it was outlined in the blurb. The first thing I remember thinking was, “blue is not the blood of the elite?! That’s different.” It feels very similar to something we’re familiar with, but also contradicts the Western standards. 

The characters are also compelling. Sylah is pitched by the author as “a drug addicted chosen one who TOTALLY misses her calling,” and I love that. It’s great to not be following a heroine who isn’t perfect, has vices, and is deeply impacted by the past traumas that have put her on the path toward Chosen One-ness. However, she is incredibly easy to connect with and love in spite of this. It’s a similar story for Anoor, who also has been diminished by those around her. And then there’s Hassa, who is among the lowest class, but is able to turn that to her advantage. I love how each of them come from different classes, but given what they’ve experienced, can come together for a common cause. 

This book is rather long, and it does take time to get into. However, I had no issue in becoming invested in the narrative. I would also encourage people to exercise care when considering whether this book is for them, as while El-Arifi is compassionate in her depictions of all sensitive issues, they are there and she doesn’t shy away from depicting their realities. 

This is a fabulous debut, and I am excited for any future projects from her. If you like diverse fantasy, provided you are mentally prepared for the content, I recommend giving this a try. 

CWs: classism, addiction, drug abuse, violence, child abuse, child death, parental death, fatphobia

Author Bio

With a DNA profile that lights up like a satellite photograph of earth, Saara El-Arifi’s heritage is intrinsically linked to the themes she explores in her writing.

She was raised in the Middle East until her formative years, when her family swapped the Abu Dhabi desert for the English Peak District hills. This change of climate had a significant impact on her growth—not physically, she’s nearly 6ft—and she learned what it was to be Black in a white world.

Saara knew she was a storyteller from the moment she told her first lie. Though her stories have developed beyond the ramblings of a child, she still appreciates the thrill of a well-told tale.

THE FINAL STRIFE is Saara El-Arifi’s debut novel, the first part of a trilogy inspired by Ghanaian folklore and Arabian myths.

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“Lakelore” by Anna-Marie McLemore (Review)

McLemore, Anna-Marie. Lakelore. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250624147 | $18.99 USD | 289 pages | YA Fantasy/Magical Realism 

Blurb

In this young adult novel by award-winning author Anna-Marie McLemore, two non-binary teens are pulled into a magical world under a lake – but can they keep their worlds above water intact?

Everyone who lives near the lake knows the stories about the world underneath it, an ethereal landscape rumored to be half-air, half-water. But Bastián Silvano and Lore Garcia are the only ones who’ve been there. Bastián grew up both above the lake and in the otherworldly space beneath it. Lore’s only seen the world under the lake once, but that one encounter changed their life and their fate.

Then the lines between air and water begin to blur. The world under the lake drifts above the surface. If Bastián and Lore don’t want it bringing their secrets to the surface with it, they have to stop it, and to do that, they have to work together. There’s just one problem: Bastián and Lore haven’t spoken in seven years, and working together means trusting each other with the very things they’re trying to hide.

Review

4 stars 

I’ve only read short stories from Anna-Marie McLemore, so I was eager to read a novel of theirs. And while magical realism can often be hit-or-miss for me, Lakelore was a pleasant surprise. There’s a magical, lyrical quality to McLemore’s writing that swept me up immediately. And the concept of a magical world under a lake that impacts the protagonists’ lives is captivating and well-realized. 

I love how both leads, Bastián and Lore, are Latinx, non-binary, and neurodivergent (Bastián has ADHD, Lore has dyslexia). Intersectionality isn’t lacking in fiction, but it’s far more common to have a focus on one singular marginalized identity, and I loved how the narrative discussed the impact of all of them and how these identities inform each other. And as McLemore shares all these identities, it’s wonderful to read about this specific intersection of identities from their unique perspective. The challenges Bastián and Lore face are compassionately rendered on their own, and understanding it comes from such a personal place makes it mean so much more. 

I really liked how this also informed the friendship between the two. They bond over their shared experiences and challenges (tempered by some differences), and it’s easy to become invested and attached to them. 

This is a pretty short book, and many of the chapters are short, but it still manages to pack a punch. While varying chapter lengths could result in an odd flow, McLemore makes it work. 

This is such a beautiful book, and unlike anything I’ve read before. Whether you enjoy magical realism or not, I think it’s worth giving this book a shot. 

Author Bio

Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and taught by their family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. They are the author of The Weight of Feathers, a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris Debut Award; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours, which was long listed for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the Otherwise Award (formerly the James Tiptree Jr. Award); Wild Beauty; Blanca & Roja; Dark and Deepest Red; and The Mirror Season, which was also longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.

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“Scotsman in the Stacks” by Alana Oxford (ARC Review)

Oxford, Alana. Scotsman in the Stacks. Ypsilanti, MI: 8N Publishing, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0999252369 | $14.99 USD | 306 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

Paige wants two things: to land a full time librarian job and find the man of her dreams. On the cusp of thirty, she finds herself suddenly single and working part-time in a Michigan library. A handsome patron with a delicious accent appears at the reference desk, inadvertently sparking an idea that might help her land the promotion she so desperately needs. But that’s not the only thing he sparks.

James is in town from Glasgow, Scotland, on a summer artist residency. Luckily, the trip got him away from the pressure he feels to take over his uncle’s river tour business. He only wanted to clear his head and make his art in peace, but he wasn’t counting on finding an attractive librarian to fill his days.

With only eight weeks before James goes home to Scotland, Paige knows she should protect her heart. After all, she already wasted years with her commitmentphobe ex. But the more she gets to know James, the less she can stick to her plan to just be friends. Is she just wasting her time again, or can they bridge the ocean between them to find a happily ever after of their own?

“Scotsman in the Stacks is a delightfully sweet, cozy romance for book lovers.” – Kiley Dunbar, author of The Borrow a Bookshop Holiday…and other uplifting and charming romances.

“Fresh and charming – a heart-warming must read romance.” – Sandy Barker, author of A Sunrise Over Bali…and other gorgeous travel romances.

Review 

3 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

I’m a sucker for romances involving libraries or librarians, so Scotsman in the Stacks caught my eye…even though I’m one of those rare people who isn’t particularly drawn to Scotsmen. And generally I got what I expected: a sweet, fun romance that kept me entertained. 

Paige as a character is pretty relatable. I can empathize with feeling at a crossroads in life at thirty, both professionally and personally. And while there was less librarian stuff than I’d have liked, but it’s still cool to see someone in the field representing the issues with library work, even in a small way. And while I related to her personal issues a bit less (a line about her “biological clock ticking” rubbed me the wrong way for some reason, even if, for women who want kids, it’s perfectly valid), I could also understand the feeling of having invested a lot of time into a relationship and developing certain expectations, and then your partner still isn’t sure, trying to put you off. 

The romance with James is quite cute, and they have some nice moments together. And the conflict is a legitimate one, at least in theory: is what started pretty casually going to go the distance, once he has to leave? 

But I didn’t feel invested in them as a couple. And that’s partly because I felt James’ perspective was missing here, so his main thing was being Scottish and having commitments in Scotland. What really makes him a good fit for Paige, aside from those cute moments? I can’t tell you, he’s as undefinable as when he first stepped on the page. If he had the opportunity to show more depth, I might have cared a bit more. 

This book is fine, and while I wasn’t super wowed, it’s still a sweet read and I can see the appeal, especially for those who are more into Scottish heroes, and also want a light, low angst read. 

Author Bio

Alana Oxford is a Michigan author of romcoms, sweet romance, and humorous women’s fiction. She wants her stories to bring sunshine and smiles to her readers. She enjoys improv comedy, moody music, everything book related, and has an ongoing love affair with the United Kingdom.

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“Sofi and the Bone Song” by Adrienne Tooley (Review)

Tooley, Adrienne. Sofi and the Bone Song. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1534484368 | $18.99 USD | 399 pages | YA Fantasy Romance 

Blurb

Music runs in Sofi’s blood.

Her father is a Musik, one of only five musicians in the country licensed to compose and perform original songs. In the kingdom of Aell, where winter is endless and magic is accessible to all, there are strict anti-magic laws ensuring music remains the last untouched art.

Sofi has spent her entire life training to inherit her father’s title. But on the day of the auditions, she is presented with unexpected competition in the form of Lara, a girl who has never before played the lute. Yet somehow, to Sofi’s horror, Lara puts on a performance that thoroughly enchants the judges.

Almost like magic.

The same day Lara wins the title of Musik, Sofi’s father dies, and a grieving Sofi sets out to prove Lara is using illegal magic in her performances. But the more time she spends with Lara, the more Sofi begins to doubt everything she knows about her family, her music, and the girl she thought was her enemy.

As Sofi works to reclaim her rightful place as a Musik, she is forced to face the dark secrets of her past and the magic she was trained to avoid—all while trying not to fall for the girl who stole her future.

Review 

4 stars

I really enjoyed Adrienne Tooley’s  debut, so I was excited for her follow-up. And Sofi and the Bone Song delivers. With Tooley’s background as a musician, it’s cool to see how she applies that to building a magic system and world with restrictions on music and the practice of it, including specific licenses being given out by the government to be “official” practitioners of specific instruments. 

And the way this shapes the characters and the conflict between them immediately captivated me. Sofi is in a difficult situation, having just lost her father, and having been raised with the expectation that she’d succeed him in his Musik position. However, she finds herself trounced in the auditions by Lara, and she suspects that Lara used magic to obtain the role, even though it’s illegal. It’s the perfect setup for a sweet enemies-to-lovers romance. The romance itself isn’t center stage, happening amidst a larger adventure, but it’s sweet and subtle, and I absolutely rooted for them. 

The adventure the two go on together, in addition to allowing them to get to know each other, provides context for them as characters. Sofi especially sees a lot of growth as more about her relationship with her father comes to light. Lara also gains more depth, with revelations about her true power. 

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to anyone who likes romantic sapphic YA fantasy. 

Author Bio

Adrienne Tooley is the author of Sweet & Bitter Magic and Sofi and the Bone Song. She grew up in Southern California, majored in musical theater in Pittsburgh, and now lives in Brooklyn with her wife, six guitars, and a banjo. In addition to writing novels, she is a singer/songwriter who has currently released three indie-folk EPs.

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“Beyond the Moonlit Sea” by Julianne MacLean (ARC Review)

MacLean, Julianne. Beyond the Moonlit Sea. Seattle: Lake Union Publishing, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1542036702 | $14.95 USD | 345 pages | Contemporary/Thriller 

Blurb

From the bestselling author of These Tangled Vines comes a gripping novel about one woman’s search for answers when her husband vanishes in the night.
Olivia Hamilton is married to the love of her life, Dean, a charismatic pilot who flies private jets for the rich and famous. But when he vanishes over the Bermuda Triangle, Olivia’s idyllic existence unravels. After years of waiting, Olivia must eventually let go of the fragile hope that her beloved husband might still be alive.
Melanie Brown is a particle physicist who spends late nights studying the Bermuda Triangle. But her research interests falter when her mother dies in a tragic accident. Struggling to reboot her life and career, Melanie begins a forbidden love affair with her therapist.
When a shocking discovery shows Olivia’s and Melanie’s paths are intertwined, it casts Dean’s disappearance in a new light. The two women’s strange connection threatens to unlock secrets that will change everything Olivia thought she knew about her marriage, her husband, and most importantly, herself.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Julianne MacLean has been on my radar for a while, at least partially due to her background in romance (I very likely saw her work  on a bookstore or library shelf at one point next to Sarah MacLean’s), but I never got around to picking up one of her books until now. And while Beyond the Moonlit Sea is more women fiction-meets-thriller, it sucked me in. 

This story follows some deeply complicated people, and the mysteries surrounding them, over a long period of time. While Olivia, as an “outsider” to her husband’s secrets, is the main POV character as she first falls for Dean and then grapples with his supposed death, we also dip into the perspectives of her husband Dean and his patient-turned-lover Melanie in the past, prior to his marriage to Olivia. This culminated in questions around the circumstances of his disappearance, which unfolded throughout. 

Structurally, it’s an interesting choice to put some of the cards on the table for the reader earlier on than they’re known to Olivia. As a result, the reader’s illusion of him is shattered before hers is. But I also think it works, as it aids in building the anticipation and suspense. And there are still questions around what happened to Dean in the aftermath of his disappearance. I did feel like the many time jumps in Olivia’s timeline did more to distract from that than anything else, but like that it allowed for an intriguing way of tracking him down. 

I really felt for Olivia throughout and one aspect of the “in-between” section I did like was that she managed put her life back together and ended up finding happiness with someone stable and caring, who also raised her and Dean’s child as his own as part of the family they went on to build together. Even though she had not gotten full closure with Dean at that point, I’m glad she found happiness. 

I enjoyed this one a lot, and I’m open to trying more from Julianne MacLean in the future. If you enjoy contemporary/women’s fiction and/or mystery/thriller, I recommend picking this one up. 

Author Bio

Julianne MacLean is a USA Today bestselling author of more than thirty novels, including the popular Color of Heaven series. Readers have described her books as “breathtaking,” “soulful,” and “uplifting.” MacLean is a four-time Romance Writers of America RITA finalist and has won numerous awards, including the Booksellers’ Best Award and a Reviewers’ Choice Award from Romantic Times. Her novels have sold millions of copies worldwide and have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

MacLean has a degree in English literature from King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a business degree from Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. She loves to travel and has lived in New Zealand, Canada, and England. She currently resides on the east coast of Canada in a lakeside home with her husband and daughter. Readers can visit her website at http://www.juliannemaclean.com for more information about her books and writing life and to subscribe to her mailing list for all the latest news.

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“Being Mary Bennet” by J.C. Peterson (Review)

Peterson, J.C. Being Mary Bennet. New York: HarperTeen, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0062060135 | $17.99 USD | 370 pages | YA Contemporary 

Blurb

Acerbic and delightful, this YA rom-com about a girl who resolves to become the main character of her own story is perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Becky Albertalli.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every bookworm secretly wishes to be Lizzie Bennet.

A less acknowledged truth is that Mary Bennet might be a better fit.

For seventeen-year-old Marnie Barnes, who’s convinced she is the long-suffering protagonist of her life, this revelation comes at the end of a series of self-induced disasters that force her to confront a devastating truth: Marnie has more in common with Mary Bennet—the utterly forgettable middle sister—than the effervescent Lizzie.

Determined to reinvent herself, she enlists the help of her bubbly roommate and opens herself up to the world—leading lady style. And between new friends, a very cute boy, and a rescue pup named Sir Pat, Marnie realizes that being the main character doesn’t mean rewriting your life entirely. It’s about finding the right cast of characters, the love interest of your dreams, and, most important, embracing your story, flaws and all.

With a hilariously sharp voice, a sweet and fulfilling romance that features a meet-cute in an animal shelter, and a big family that revels in causing big problems, this charming comedy of errors will have readers cheering for Marnie during every step of her obstacle-ridden journey toward embracing who she truly is.

Review 

4 stars 

I really love the premise of Being Mary Bennet. While I find a lot to aspire to in Elizabeth, I’m not a particularly vivacious personality, and I know I can be “difficult.” I’m almost definitely the “Mary” of my family. And I love that this book explores that and the process of someone going from wanting to break out and be different, to resolving to just be the best they can be. 

Marnie isn’t always a likable lead, but she’s relatable. She’s exactly the sort of character I’d have liked to read about in high school, and she’s no less cathartic to encounter now. I totally empathize with her, and admire her as she embarks on her journey to become more confident, trying out different things until she finds where she “fits.” 

I also like that her crush that didn’t know she existed turned out to be too good to be true. It not only resonated with me and the former self who also cared more about what people thought, but I like the role it plays in her development. 

There’s also a lot of fun little events throughout that just made me smile because of how fun they were. The shelter dog project and Bark Books? Precious as all-get-out. The family stuff is a subtle, chaotic homage to the Bennet family dynamics. The moments between Marnie and her true friends are also wonderfully heartwarming. 

This is such a sweet book, and a wonderful loose homage to P&P and those of us longing to be the heroines of our own stories. 

Author Bio

J.C. Peterson lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband, two small sons, and one enormous tabby. She earned her degree from Michigan State University and worked as an award-winning journalist and editor of and an alt-newsweekly before becoming a freelance writer and mom. When not dreaming up funny contemporary stories or herding children she loves to eat and shop local, explore the Colorado mountains, and plan new adventures. Being Mary Bennet is her debut novel, and you can visit her online at https://www.jcpetersonwrites.com.

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“Game of Strength and Storm” by Rachel Menard (ARC Review)

Menard, Rachel. Game of Strength and Storm. Mendota, MN: North Star Editions, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1635830767 | $14.99 USD | 400 pages | YA Fantasy

Blurb 

Victory is the only option. 

Once a year, the Olympian Empresses grant the wishes of ten people selected by a lottery—for a price. Seventeen-year-old Gen, a former circus performer, wants the freedom of her father, who was sentenced to life in prison for murders she knows he didn’t commit. Castor plans to carry the island Arcadia into the future in place of her brother, Pollux, but only after the Empresses force a change in her island’s archaic laws that requires a male heir. 

To get what they want, Gen and Castor must race to complete the better half of ten nearly impossible labors. They have to catch the fastest ship in the sea, slay the immortal Hydra, defeat a gangster called the Boar, and capture the flesh-eating Mares, among other deadly tasks. 

Gen has her magic, her ability to speak to animals, her inhuman strength—and the help of Pollux, who’s been secretly pining for her for years. But Castor has her own gifts: the power of the storms, along with endless coin. Only one can win. The other walks away with nothing—if she walks away at all.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Game of Strength and Storm caught my eye due to the cover, and my interest only grew thanks to the premise. Hercules is one of the Greek myths I’m slightly more familiar with, and I loved the concept of gender bending the story and taking it in a new direction, with it being a high-stakes, high-reward competition. 

I liked the way the labors were reimagined, paying homage to the original ones while making them feel fresh. The world itself also has a Greek feel to it, while also being distinct from it. 

The characters and their individual strengths and vulnerabilities are easy to become invested in. Gen in particular was easy to root for, because of her love for her father and willingness to do what she can to secure his freedom. But Castor is also compelling in her ambition to rule Arcadia, especially in the wake of shifting political structures away from those that favor men. She’s not always going to be the most likable, but I appreciate someone who really goes after what she wants. And Pollux fits in perfectly between them, as a sibling to Castor and secret being in love with Gen. It’s also fascinating to examine his sweet nature, and how it’s just as much a product of the environment he grew up in as Castor’s is, and how siblings raised in similar circumstances don’t always end up the same way, especially taking into account the gender dynamics. 

I believe this is just the first book of a series, so there’s likely more to come, both in terms of character and plot. I’m curious about what will happen next. If you enjoy Greek mythology inspired fiction, I recommend keeping an eye out for this one. 

Author Bio

Rachel Menard was born in New Jersey, raised in Arizona, and then relocated to Rhode Island. Throughout her life she has been a barista, college radio DJ, singer in an alt-country band, marketer, designer, and finally, a writer. Her short fiction has been featured on Cast of Wonders and her editorial work has been seen in Writer’s Digest. Game of Strength and Storm is her debut novel.

 Twitter: @Missusm

Instagram: @menardrachel

TikTok: @Rachel_Writes_Books

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“Debating Darcy” by Sayantani Dasgupta (Review)

Dasgupta, Sayantani. Debating Darcy. New York: Scholastic Press, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1338797695 | $18.99 USD | 303 pages | YA Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

This Pride & Prejudice retelling brings New York Times bestselling Sayantani DasGupta’s trademark wit and insight to her bright and funny YA debut!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Leela Bose plays to win.

A life-long speech competitor, Leela loves nothing more than crushing the competition, all while wearing a smile. But when she meets the incorrigible Firoze Darcy, a debater from an elitist private school, Leela can’t stand him. Unfortunately, he’ll be competing in the state league, so their paths are set to collide.

But why attempt to tolerate Firoze when Leela can one-up him? The situation is more complicated than Leela anticipated, though, and her participation in the tournament reveals that she might have tragically misjudged the debaters — including Firoze Darcy — and more than just her own winning streak is at stake…her heart is, too.

Debating Darcy is bestselling author Sayantani DasGupta’s reinterpretation of beloved classic Pride and Prejudice — imaginative, hilarious, thought-provoking, and truly reflective of the complex, diverse world of American high school culture.

Review 

4 stars 

I’m always up for another Austen retelling or homage, especially those retelling them within the context of marginalized communities. And while P&P from a South Asian lens has been done before, Sayantani Dasgupta brings something special to the table with Debating Darcy. 

Given how heavily the original novel is about discourse and debate and divergent opinions (or are they?), Dasgupta’s choice to center her narrative around high school debate teams and the class/status culture among students in public vs. private schools is a wonderful way of replicating that in a way young readers today would understand. Both Leela and Darcy are incredibly opinionated, but come to a mutual understanding upon getting to know each other better and overcome their preconceived notions. Just as with Elizabeth Bennet, Leela’s opinion of Darcy grows as their acquaintance continues and she sees a different side to him, and Darcy improves through his exposure to a world outside the elite one he typically occupies. 

I also like how the book tackles various issues, like sexism and sexual harassment, classism, and racism and representation, both through incidents and debates among characters. One debate that particularly stands out is one about representation in media through characters previously established or portrayed as white, with Hamilton as an example. Leela is in favor of it, being happy to see people like her represented, while Darcy’s view is more critical, feeling stories like that are revisionist and BIPOC should have more opportunities to tell their own stories. Given that this is a diverse retelling of a white (at least by default) classic, I couldn’t help but see some irony there. But it also feels realistic to their worldviews, as Darcy is in a position due to his status in society to demand better, while Leela is not. 

While cultural elements definitely took a back seat to classism, they’re still present and color the characters and their dynamics, particularly where Darcy is concerned. He’s half desi, and it becomes increasingly clear that his aunt, Professor de Bourgh, has some traditional expectations for him (one of the major character relationship aspects that is carried over almost entirely intact from the original). 

Misogyny is a major issue throughout the book, in a way that pays homage to the themes of the book, while acknowledging the ways society has changed (or not) in the centuries since the classic novel was published. Sexual misconduct is still an issue where the victims bear the brunt of the consequences, and the way that’s confronted in regards to Jishnu (this book’s incarnation of Wickham) and his respective actions with both Gigi and Lidia are shocking to read. Ultimately, both women receive support from those around them and platforms with which to speak their truths, something which their Austen counterparts could only have dreamed of. 

Dasgupta does a good job of reflecting the major plot beats, as well as the major characters, in her retelling. First meeting where he insults her? Check. Some interactions that see their “relationship” and animosity develop? Check. The letter, in this case an email? Check. And so on. 

I really liked this one, and it’s a fun, engaging take on a classic for a modern audience. If you enjoy diverse Austen retellings, I recommend giving this one a try. 

Author Bio

Sayantani DasGupta is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed, Bengali folktale and string theory-inspired Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond books, the first of which—The Serpent’s Secret—was a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, a Booklist Best Middle Grade Novel of the 21st Century, and an EB White Read Aloud Honor Book. She is also the author of She Persisted: Virginia Apgar, a part of Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted series from Penguin/Philomel, and Force of Fire, an anticolonial and Bengali folktale inspired fantasy set in the Kingdom Beyond multiverse from Scholastic. Her YA debut, Debating Darcy, a multicultural speech and debate feminist reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, comes out in 2022, also from Scholastic. Sayantani is a pediatrician by training, but now teaches at Columbia University. When she’s not writing or reading, Sayantani spends time watching cooking shows with her trilingual children and protecting her black Labrador retriever Khushi from the many things that scare him, including plastic bags. She is a team member of We Need Diverse Books, and can be found online at sayantanidasgupta.com and on Twitter at @sayantani16.

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“Valiant Ladies” by Melissa Grey (ARC Review)

Grey, Melissa. Valiant Ladies. New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1250622204 | $18.99 USD | 352 pages | YA Historical Romance 

Blurb

Two teen vigilantes set off on an action-packed investigation to expose corruption and deliver justice in Valiant Ladies, Melissa Grey’s YA historical fiction novel inspired by real seventeenth century Latinx teenagers known as the Valiant Ladies of Potosí.

 By day Eustaquia “Kiki” de Sonza and Ana Lezama de Urinza are proper young seventeenth century ladies. But when night falls, they trade in their silks and lace for swords and muskets, venturing out into the vibrant, bustling, crime-ridden streets of Potosí, in the Spanish Empire’s Viceroyalty of Peru. They pass their time fighting, gambling, and falling desperately in love with one another.

 Then, on the night Kiki’s engagement to the Viceroy’s son is announced, her older brother—heir to her family’s fortune—is murdered. The girls immediately embark on a whirlwind investigation that takes them from the lowliest brothels of Potosí to the highest echelons of the Spanish aristocracy.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

I love when I find previously unknown figures or events from history through historical fiction, and Valiant Ladies is a fun fictionalized portrait of the Valiant Ladies of Potosí, sapphic teen vigilantes fighting to bring down the patriarchy  in seventeenth-century Peru. It’s so fun and action-packed, and freaking queer

I love the dichotomy of the two leads, Kiki and Ana, leading “normal” lives of the time as “proper” ladies by day, with all that entails, while taking to the streets and raising hell in the name of justice by night. Both are fun, distinct characters; Kiki is the more traditionally brought up, pampered lady and the story involves expectations for her that she faces, but she has a spark of rebellion. Ana has a more rough-and-tumble background, having grown up on the streets, and seen more of the injustices firsthand. 

I loved seeing these two working together in the fight for justice, while also coming to a realization about their feelings. And the pining! Amid the high-stakes politics of the story, it’s so well executed! 

The plot did feel a little odd pacing wise, and it impacted my investment to an extent. However, I ultimately was satisfied with how it came together. 

I enjoyed this book a lot, and I’d love to read more from Melissa Grey in the future, especially if they’re similar to this one. If you enjoy sapphic historical fiction with a strong romantic arc, you’ll like this one. 

Author Bio

Melissa Grey was born and raised in New York City. She wrote her first short story at the age of twelve and hasn’t stopped writing since. She is the author of The Girl at Midnight trilogy l, Valiant Ladies, and Rated. When she’s not penning novels, she’s designing video game narratives. She currently lives and works in Iceland.

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“So This Ever After” by F.T. Lukens (Review)

Lukens, F.T. So This Is Ever After. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1534496866 | $19.99 USD | 341 pages | YA Fantasy Romance 

Blurb

Carry On meets Arthurian legend in this funny, subversive young adult fantasy about what happens after the chosen one wins the kingdom and has to get married to keep it…and to stay alive.

Arek hadn’t thought much about what would happen after he completed the prophecy that said he was destined to save the Kingdom of Ere from its evil ruler. So now that he’s finally managed to (somewhat clumsily) behead the evil king (turns out magical swords yanked from bogs don’t come pre-sharpened), he and his rag-tag group of quest companions are at a bit of a loss for what to do next.

As a temporary safeguard, Arek’s best friend and mage, Matt, convinces him to assume the throne until the true heir can be rescued from her tower. Except that she’s dead. Now Arek is stuck as king, a role that comes with a magical catch: choose a spouse by your eighteenth birthday, or wither away into nothing.

 With his eighteenth birthday only three months away, and only Matt in on the secret, Arek embarks on a desperate bid to find a spouse to save his life—starting with his quest companions. But his attempts at wooing his friends go painfully and hilariously wrong…until he discovers that love might have been in front of him all along.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Review based on final copy. All opinions are my own. 

So This Is Ever After caught my attention due to the bright, cute cover and that it was a different type of fantasy story, following the hero and his friends after he’d saved the day and was the new ruler. That has the potential to go either way, as all the big swashbuckling adventures are behind them, but I ended up really liking it. 

There’s little in the sense of grounded world building. Sometimes this might bother me, but the fairytale and the “this is what happens after ever after” vibe allowed me to roll with the punches, even if I wanted a bit more in the sense of imagery. Fellow author Ashley Poston makes a comparison to TJ Klune (presumably House in the Cerulean Sea), and it has a slightly similar cozy vibe. It also felt like a queer response to The Princess Bride, and thinking about it in that context helped a lot. 

I also really liked that by exploring what happens “after,” it discusses the implications of what the often-young characters of beloved fantasy series have to go through to save the world, especially in regards to the resulting trauma that would happen if this occurred in real life. These issues are touched on compassionately, and ultimately it’s light and about navigating life and finding joy in the wake of all that. 

The plot also has a ton of shenanigans, as Arek and his friends tackle the new challenge of ruling the kingdom they saved. The main problem of the story is Arek’s attempt to find a spouse, to prevent an unfortunate death on his eighteenth birthday. However, his courting attempts all go comically wrong. 

I really liked the bond between Arek and Matt. They do take a while to get together, but it also feels right for them as they navigate their feelings in the situation they’re in. 

This book is a lot of fun, pure sweet candy and fluff. If you want the equivalent of a romcom in a fantasy setting, I recommend this one. 

Author Bio

F.T. Lukens is a New York Times bestselling author of YA speculative fiction including So This Is Ever After, In Deeper Waters, and the forthcoming Spell Bound, as well as other science-fiction and fantasy works. Their contemporary fantasy novel The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic was a 2017 Cybils Award finalist in YA Speculative Fiction and the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Gold Award Winner for YA Fiction, won the Bisexual a book Award for Speculative Fiction, and was also named to ALA’s 2019 Rainbow Book List. F.T. lives in North Carolina with their husband, three kids, three dogs, and three cats.

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“The Friendship Pact” (Sunrise Cove #2) by Jill Shalvis (ARC Review)

Shalvis, Jill. The Friendship Pact. New York: William Morrow, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-0063095465 | $16.99 USD | 384 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

New York Times bestselling author Jill Shalvis returns to Sunrise Cove with a powerful, moving story about a young woman on a quest to find the truth about her father who learns the meaning of true love along the way.

Alone in the world, Tae Holmes and her mother April pretty much raised each other, but as Tae starts asking questions about the father she’s never met, April, for the first time in her life, goes silent. To make matters worse, Tae is dangerously close to broke and just manages to avoid financial meltdown when she lands a shiny new contract with an adventure company for athletes with disabilities and wounded warriors.

Her first big fundraiser event falls flat, but what starts out as a terrible, horrible, no-good night turns into something else entirely when Tae finds herself face-to-face with Riggs Copeland. She hasn’t seen the former Marine since their brief fling in high school, and while still intensely drawn to him, she likes her past burned and buried, thank you very much. Hence their friendship pact.

But when April oddly refuses to help Tae track down her father, it’s Riggs who unexpectedly comes to her aid. On a hunt to unlock the past, the two of them find themselves on a wild ride and learn a shocking truth, while also reluctantly bonding in a way neither had seen coming. Now Tae must decide whether she’s going to choose love … or walk away from her own happiness.

In the series

#1 The Family You Make

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Friendship Pact is the second in Jill Shalvis’ Sunrise Cove series. It can be read as a standalone, and has little connection to the first book beyond the sharer setting. 

This one continues the blend of strong women’s fiction themes with equally strong romantic ones in the first book. And the fact that this one explores a second chance between a family unit created by accident during wild youth is touching. 

The relationship between Tae and April is beautiful, if a bit bittersweet given the state of current affairs in the U.S. right now. Tae and April have an interesting dynamic where Tae sometimes feels like she has had  to be a parent as much as April did. April becoming pregnant when she was still a kid herself explains how she’s not always the most mature. Yet, I love how, in spite of the struggles, they do love and care for one another. And this one heartfelt conversation about how April did have options, and ultimately she chose to have Tae is beautiful and a standout moment. 

I liked seeing them both form (and reform) relationships with Riggs, April’s high school fling and Tae’s father. He has his own complicated past with trauma that is also well explored. I can’t say I was super won over by them as a couple, but given how complex each of these characters is and all the toxicity they deal with individually, I appreciate the way Shalvis attempted to navigate it all, and feel she succeeded in doing so to provide all of them happiness. 

This is a heartwarming read about family, forgiveness, and second chances. If you enjoy Jill Shalvis’ writing, especially in recent years, or enjoy books that explore complex romantic and familial bonds, I recommend picking this up. 

Author Bio

New York Times bestselling author Jill Shalvis lives in a small town in the Sierras full of quirky characters. Any resemblance to the quirky characters in her books is…mostly coincidental. Look for Jill’s bestselling, award-winning books wherever books are sold, and Co sir her website for a complete book list and daily blog detailing her city-girl-living-in-the-mountains adventures.

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“Bravely” by Maggie Stiefvater (Review)

Stiefvater, Maggie. Bravely. Los Angeles: Disney Press, 2022.

ISBN-13: 978-1368071345 | $19.99 USD | 367 pages | YA Historical Fantasy 

Blurb

Merida goes on an all-new, life-changing adventure in this original YA novel set several years after the close of Brave!

What if you had one year to save everything you loved?

ONE PRINCESS. Merida of DunBroch needs a change. She loves her family—jovial King Fergus, proper Queen Elinor, the mischievous triplets— and her peaceful kingdom. But she’s frustrated by its sluggishness; each day, the same. Merida longs for adventure, purpose, challenge – maybe even, someday, love.

TWO GODS. But the fiery Princess never expects her disquiet to manifest by way of Feradach, an uncanny supernatural being tasked with rooting out rot and stagnation, who appears in DunBroch on Christmas Eve with the intent to demolish the realm – and everyone within. Only the intervention of the Cailleach, an ancient entity of creation, gives Merida a shred of hope: convince her family to change within the year – or suffer the eternal consequences.

THREE VOYAGES. Under the watchful eyes of the gods, Merida leads a series of epic journeys to kingdoms near and far in an attempt to inspire revolution within her family. But in her efforts to save those she loves from ruin, has Merida lost sight of the Clan member grown most stagnant of all – herself?

FOUR SEASONS TO SAVE DUNBROCH – OR SEE IT DESTROYED, FOREVER.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Review based on the final copy. All opinions are my own. 

While Brave is one of the Disney/Pixar films I’m less familiar with and have watched fewer times than others (I am intrigued to do a rewatch!), Merida nonetheless stands out as a fierce heroine among her Disney Princess peers, without being too “not like other girls.” So, I was intrigued at what Maggie Stiefvater would do with this spin-off/sequel novel, Bravely. And while I had little concept for what it would be about, I ended up really liking the results.

The focus on Merida’s relationships with her family is something that has always stood out in the film, but her relationship with her mother was the dominant one. So it’s only natural for other media to step in to do more work in this world. Merida and Elinor’s bond gets more layers, but I liked seeing more of the other members of her family, as each of them are part of the quest she must undertake. I particularly liked the fleshing-out of her triplet younger brothers and giving them individual issues to navigate, as they felt like such a one-dimensional unit in the film, primarily for the sake of comic relief. 

And while I’ve never read Maggie Stiefvater before (she’s one of those authors whose books  I fleetingly considered, but never heard much from friends and trusted reviewers to motivate me to pick them up), but her writing is great. She conveys the sense of Scottish culture, folklore, and magic that was so unique about Brave, but on a deeper, textual level. From the world building for the various kingdoms Merida travels to, to the conveying of the magic and the gods, it’s a beautifully rendered story that gives you similar vibes to those I vaguely remember from the film. 

Pacing wise, it does feel a bit uneven. The inciting incident happens fairly quickly, and Merida’s varied adventures provide excitement for the most part. It does slow down at certain points, but it ultimately feels worth it. 

This book is a treat for anyone who is even a casual fan of Disney/Pixar and Brave. It’s a worthy sequel from a writer who is in tune with the canon narrative and the reasons for   fans’ connection with it. 

Author Bio

Maggie Stiefvater is the #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Raven Cycle, the Shiver trilogy, and other novels for young and adult readers. She is also an artist, an auto enthusiast, and a bagpiper. She lives on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley with her husband, two children, and an assortment of fainting goats.

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