Kayla Bell reviews Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

the cover of Once Ghosted, Twice Shy

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Have you ever wished for a sapphic romance that isn’t all about angst and homophobia and actually focuses on the development and drama of the characters? Look no further, because Alyssa Cole’s excellent novella Once Ghosted, Twice Shy has you covered. This entry into the Reluctant Royals universe follows Prince Thabiso’s assistant, Likotsi, as she navigates a romantic relationship with another woman, Fabiola. It’s a second chance romance full of tropes, but the genuine connection between Likotsi and Fab makes it truly unique. 

A lot of people might avoid this book because it takes place as part of the Reluctant Royals series, so they might not want to read this without having read the first book. I can safely say that this is nothing to worry about. I haven’t gotten to A Princess in Theory yet (it’s on my list) and I could totally keep up with the story. Reading the first book will obviously give you a little bit of background into Likotse’s life and make the story richer, but you definitely can read this as a standalone and keep up. 

The best part about this novella, in my opinion, is the characters. Likotsi’s type-A, methodical mindset plays well against Fabiola’s more go-with-the-flow type personality. The banter between the two women was lively, natural, and fun to read. Personally, I love the second chance romance trope, so I thought the ups and downs of the relationship were very fun to read. As with most romance novels, I found the love at first sight, conflict, and lack of communication at some points in the novel to be pretty irritating, but that part resolved quickly and the two ladies returned to their healthy, loving relationship. I also thought that Fabiola’s plotline was very authentic and relatable. I won’t spoil it, but it rang very true for me as someone who has been through something similar. Overall, it is so fantastic to see a book come out about a loving relationship between two queer, Black women, rich characters, that isn’t about trauma or angst. 

Another thing that was really fantastic about this novel was the setting. I’m born and raised in New York City, so I can be pretty particular about books that portray New York in an extremely romanticized and unrealistic way, or that paint New York as some sort of Disneyland for other people to come to and pursue their dreams without examining the lives and struggles of those of us actually from there. Luckily, Once Ghosted, Twice Shy does none of that. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of very fun, romantic moments at iconic places in the city in this book. But Cole’s New York felt incredibly authentic and alive. Far from using New York as a generic stand-in for any major urban area, as many romances do, in this book it was like this story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. Plus, Fab and Likotsi end up at the Seaglass Carousel in Battery Park, which is one of my favorite places in the city. 

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy surprised me with how rich of a story it told in just ten chapters and an epilogue. I immediately became invested in Likotsi and Fabiola’s love story, and felt that warm, fuzzy feeling where most other romances make me roll my eyes. In the future, I will definitely be picking up more of Alyssa Cole’s romances and commend her for writing a book highlighting the experiences of two characters who wouldn’t often get the spotlight. 

Cath reviews Perfect Rhythm by Jae

the cover of perfect rhythm

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Leontyne “Leo” Blake, stage name Jenna, has it all. She’s a world-famous pop star just wrapping up a world tour. Everybody knows her songs, her name (well, sort of). She’s even out as a lesbian and still enjoying her popularity.

Then, just as she walks off stage at a concert, her mom calls and asks her to come home. Her dad has had a stroke. Leo immediately finds herself flying back to the small Missouri town of Fair Oaks that she tried so desperately to leave behind.

Holly Drummond has lived in Fair Oaks for basically her entire life, barring when she was in college. She loves the small-town feel, and she’s glad she was able to return to Fair Oaks as a nurse to support the people she’d grown up around. In fact, she’s now a home health nurse for Gil Blake–Leo’s father. She’s also out as a lesbian in some circles around town, but that isn’t the whole story. Holly is asexual, and while she is definitely romantically attracted to women, there’s no sexual component for her.

When Leo comes home, she and Holly get off on the wrong foot–Leo’s been gone for a long time and never wanted to return, and Holly finds her irritating and self-centered. But they end up spending a lot of time in each other’s back pockets, because Fair Oaks is small to begin with and now Holly is staying at Leo’s family’s house a few nights a week to help Gil and Sharon (Leo’s mom). Leo finds Holly physically attractive, despite their friction, but assumes Holly must be straight when Holly doesn’t seem to return the interest.

The story unfolds at a decent pace at first, not feeling too rushed but also not lagging. Leo and Holly spend a lot of time irritated at one another until they start to realize that they’ve based their views about each other on assumptions that aren’t true. Once they’re able to clear the air a little, they realize they enjoy spending time together, and eventually start to realize they’re developing romantic feelings for one another. But it’s complicated, because Leo is supposed to return to New York, and Holly doesn’t know how to tell her that she’s asexual.

As an ace person myself, I was really excited to read a romance novel with an ace protagonist. I liked Holly’s character a lot, and Leo started to grow on me pretty quickly as she struggled with how to integrate herself back into her hometown and try to repair her relationship with her parents. The romance was very cute and sweet, and I really appreciated that there was a depiction of strained familial relationships that showed you can love somebody dearly and still do things that hurt them, and that it’s possible to try and mend those relationships but it can be difficult.

However, the pacing really started to feel off to me about halfway through the novel. The romance seems to progress both rather quickly and rather slowly, and there are time jumps that had me confused about how much time had passed. Overall, it seems like most of the book takes place over a span of less than two months, which is really very fast for how slow-burn the romance felt at first. I think this is what brought me down to a three-star rating for this book, because when I would start new chapters I would frequently feel like I had missed a portion of the story and go back and check that something hadn’t gone wrong with my kindle.

Still, I really loved the scenes with Holly’s online friends, and the inclusion of a queerplatonic relationship that was every bit as important as romantic relationships around it. The fact that both Leo and Holly were comfortable in their identities was also really refreshing, and it was highlighted by their interactions with a mutual friend of theirs who is not comfortable with her queerness.

A part of the book I’m really uncertain about is that it does include a sex scene. This is entirely consensual, and both Leo and Holly are very communicative about what they want and are in control of what happens to their bodies. The entire scene is presented as a sensual rather than sexual experience for Holly, and I am definitely glad to see the distinction presented, and that some of what Holly experiences as sensual reads as sexual to others and she is adamant that it isn’t for her. But as an ace person, sex scenes with ace characters can be really fraught. This scene might be really validating to some ace people, but it felt somewhat alienating to me.

Overall, I did like the story, and would recommend it for people wanting to read a romance with an asexual wlw character. But the pacing especially, plus the alienation I felt from the sex scene, leave me with a 3-star rating.

Content warnings: stroke, death

Meagan Kimberly reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, illustrated by Sara Lautman

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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The book starts with The Story of Mary MacLane, a real-life figure in writing. It’s this book that the girls of Brookhants School for Girls center their Plain Bad Heroines Society around. But when three girls die and the book is found at both death scenes, it soon becomes a feared object. Even the women who run the school, Libbie Brookhants and Alexandra Trills, partners, have different experiences with the curse. Jumping to the modern-day, the contemporary heroines, author Merritt Emmons and actors Harper Harper and Audrey Hall, are working to bring the story of Brookhants to life.

Each generation of stories tied to Brookhants finds girls exploring their sexuality and following their desires. But it’s also a place where tragedy befalls so many of the heroines who only wanted to live freely. The horror of Brookhants embodies the curse that is the patriarchy against queer women.

Through the contemporary storyline, Danforth explores the exploitative nature of horror. The characters set out to tell the story of Brookhants and the tragic deaths, but their director, Bo, turns it into a found-footage documentary about the making of the movie. To do so, he engages in unethical behaviors and gaslighting.

Overall, the novel is never terrifying so much as it is atmospheric and creepy. It’s the epitome of Gothic horror, creating an environment that messes with the characters’ sense of reality. It makes the reader question whether or not they’re actually experiencing hauntings or if it’s all simply in their heads.

SPOILERS BEGIN

After so much build-up though with the curse of Brookhants, the yellow jackets and Orangerie events, the ending is anticlimactic. When establishing his plan to create a documentary, Bo enlisted Audrey to be his “inside woman,” telling her she’d be the only one who knew this plan. But it turned out they all knew what was happening and no one was really out of the loop. So it begged the question: Did any hauntings actually happen?

SPOILER ENDS

Among the characters, there aren’t any particularly great protagonists to root for, which is the point. The women aren’t plain bad heroines, but they’re not pillars of virtue and goodness either. They’re human, messy, capable of making good and bad decisions, and simply interesting. It’s hard not to become engrossed in their lives, even if they can be frustrating.

Danforth expertly created unlikable characters, especially with Bo and all the Hollywood types. They definitely give meaning to the phrase La La Land. Everyone in the three heroines’ circles has an agenda and openly uses and manipulates them, all for the sake of art. It’s this kind of toxic behavior that makes it easy to sympathize with Audrey, Harper and Merritt, even when they’re at their worst.

The writing is deft as Danforth switches back and forth between the timelines. The voice for each character is distinct, including the unnamed narrator. It’s even distinguished between the different timelines, the voice adapting to each era from historical to contemporary. 

Kayla Bell reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Kayla Bell Reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan cover

In the bookish community, there is a divide between people who are character readers versus plot readers. Character readers need to read detailed, nuanced characters, while plot readers focus on an interesting, intricate plot. For the longest time, I thought I was a character reader. I’ve read plenty of books where the plot takes a backseat to a character’s journey of self-discovery and really enjoyed them. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan made me really rethink this aspect of my reading life, and I now know that I actually do need even just a little bit of a plot in order for a book to keep my attention.

Exciting Times is the story of Ava, an Irish twentysomething who moves to Hong Kong to teach English. While she’s there, she becomes entangled with a rich, aloof, English banker named Julian and, later, a vibrant, interesting lawyer from Hong Kong named Edith. The book deals with her differing relationships with both of them, and Ava trying to figure her life out. Aside from that, there is not much of a plot. It’s definitely a character-driven book.

Even that description I just gave reveals why this book fell a little flat for me. To me, it seemed that Ava was so clearly happier with Edith, who actually cared about her and called her out on her self-sabotage. This fact made it hard to understand the choices she was making to continually go back to Julian, who was so cold to her but offered her financial security. I wish that there had been more of an external conflict that would force Ava to really confront her dilemma and choose one or the other. Without it, in my opinion, the book basically became Ava’s internal monologue, which made it drag in the middle. This story structure also made the ending feel kind of rushed. I had a hard time understanding why Ava made the choices she made.

With that, there was also plenty to like about this novel. I can’t speak to the Asian representation in this book, but to me, Edith was a very interesting and compelling character, albeit less so seeing her through Ava’s eyes. I wish we had gotten more time with her and learned more about who she is outside of her relationship with Ava. I also really enjoyed how the book played with language. Ava’s English lessons were weaved through the writing in a really unique way. The voice of the book felt very raw and honest, and that’s what kept me reading even through the parts I found a little tedious. The setting of Hong Kong was also utilized very well, in my opinion, and made the book’s imagery feel vivid and interesting.

I saw a lot of comparisons between Naoise Dolan’s and Sally Rooney’s writing when reading reviews of this book and I can understand that. For me personally, Rooney’s books worked in a way that this one didn’t quite achieve. That being said, I enjoyed Exciting Times although it wasn’t quite my cup of tea and the ending frustrated me. I am always glad to see more queer representation from Irish authors and characters, though, and would encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself.

Carolina reviews We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman’s debut, We Play Ourselves, satirizes the contemporary art scene through the eyes of Cass, an embittered former drama wunderkind turned hapless millennial, as she uncovers the secrets behind an up-and-coming feminist documentary. However, behind that beautiful cover and biting wit, We Play Ourselves fails to balance criticism and nuance, and falls prey to the very structures that it pokes fun at.

After being #cancelled in the fray of a viral scandal and Off-Broadway flop, 30-something playwright Cass retreats to the sleepy suburbs of LA to stay with her friend and his on-the-rocks boyfriend. After a listless lull at the house, Cass is approached by a prominent filmmaker, Caroline, whose new project, a subversive, feminist Fight Club starring a feral pack of teenage girls, draws Cass in. After meeting the cast and starting the project, Cass begins to recognize that Caroline’s draw towards these girls crosses the line between muse and manipulator, and must reckon with her place at the heart of an exploitative art piece.

Silverman is an incredibly talented author, whose word choice is always sharp and necessary, and whose sentences string together in poignant prose. She brilliantly constructs the mindset of someone trying to rebuild themselves once they’re stripped to their most vulnerable state. Cass is an unlikable narrator: she’s catty, unempathetic and pretentious. However, your eyes are glued to her every move, and hungry for her backstory. I also found Silverman’s comparison of the limitations of artistic mediums incredibly interesting: theatre is a completely different animal than film, as this juxtaposition is made clear by the alternative perspectives in New York and Los Angeles.

We Play Ourselves takes major media buzzwords, and cultural revolutions, such as the MeToo Movement, conversations of media inclusion and representation and cancel culture, and breaks them down to their core through her sardonic wit. However, this satire can be read as tokenizing or dismissive to real life issues. For example, Cass’s nemesis, Tara-Jean Slater, is a self-proclaimed “turned asexual” after being assaulted by her uncle as a child, who then channels her trauma in a best-selling play and up-coming Netflix show, starring Cate Blanchett and Morgan Freeman as different iterations of her uncle. It’s quite obvious that Silverman is poking fun of the use of big celebrity names to sell products, but it instead comes across as acephobic and ignorant of the real trauma and mental health issues faced by CSA survivors, as Cass is “jealous” of Tara’s “selling point” as a CSA survivor.

This facetiousness is present throught the novel: Silverman pokes fun at tokenism by criticizing Caroline’s “diverse” film with only two non-white leads, but is guilty of the same crime, as no other non-white characters are present in the narrative. Caroline also fetishizes queer women, as she forces BB, the lesbian teenage girl, to fake a coming out to Cass, the only queer person on the film set, in order to garner attention from LGBT movie audiences. However, BB and Cass’s relationship is awkward and forced, contrived by BB’s crush on Cass, and the uncomfortable age gap between the two characters. The film storyline is extremely fraught with these problematic elements, and does little to reckon with them: I much preferred the New York theatre scenes to the Los Angeles film scenes, and would have preferred a narrative without the film aspect. We Play Ourselves is a narrative journey through the lens of a disillusioned young adult in the pretentious art scene, but does little to critique the issues at its core.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy

Warnings: homophobia, substance abuse, cheating, violence, racism, sexual assault, child abuse, disordered eating

Marieke reviews It’s Not Like It’s A Secret by Misa Sugiura

It’s Not Like It’s A Secret by Misa Sugiura

I must say this was a bit of a frustrating read. I went in with the intention to try and break my reading slump (because, you know, I had a review to write, so something had to give), which is why I picked a contemporary YA story – it’s something I haven’t read in a while. Unfortunately, this book didn’t make me much more enthusiastic about picking up another within the genre soon…

Sana is a Japanese American second-generation high school student, and her parents are springing a big life change on her: they are moving from somewhere in rural America (I’m bad at geography for the States, or anywhere really) to California. She goes from being one of three other Asian students in her high school, to a high school where a third of all students is Asian, with another third being made up of Latin American students. It’s a whole new ball game!

Obviously, with this big a shift in demographics, racism is one of the major themes explored throughout the story, and unfortunately Sana does not come off well. On the one hand she is very much aware of microaggressions and overt racist statements when they’re directed at her (quite regularly by her own mother). On the other hand, she somehow doesn’t compute that people of other ethnicities might have similar experiences, even if the specific aggressions and racism directed at Black and Latin people looks completely different from what Asian people tend to receive. She dissects the ways racism touches her so much that it comes off as almost unbelievable for her to not bring up the motivation or energy to even listen to others when they try to explain what their situation looks like – let alone trying to figure out those patterns by herself.

This is an important point, because Sana’s main love interest, Jamie, is of Mexican heritage. There is a scene where some pretty overt and frankly scary racism is directed at Jamie and her friends, while Sana receives relatively moderate racism (if there is such a thing). Afterwards they all discuss what just happened, but Sana doesn’t even attempt to suss out the differences in experience, even though they come with entirely different baggage and (potential) consequences. She ends up parroting some anti-Mexican phrases from her mother, and just generally really digs herself a rather deep hole.

The worst part is that she still holds on to these beliefs once she has some time to herself. She does make an effort to think critically, but somehow doesn’t compare the two different forms of treatment they received to see how similar patterns can lead to such differing outcomes. She’s so strongly entrenched in her own beliefs that she needs others to repeatedly point out where she’s wrong when shit properly hits the fan before even considering she might not be in the right.

Her friends aren’t always helpful in this regard, as they make for a bit of an echo chamber on some of the issues Sana is being called up on, and some of them find it hard to accept her exclusive romantic interest in women. The high school they attend seems relatively progressive, in light of the demographic split plus sporting a Gay Straight student alliance. Of course, everyone can be okay with anything until they’re directly faced with it themselves, and not all of Sana’s friends handle her coming out equally well.

This behaviour has a big impact on her relationship with Jamie: Sana’s friends believe Jamie is not good enough for Sana for a number of bad reasons, and one of them is that maybe Sana just hasn’t been with the right guy yet. It doesn’t help that Sana is insecure in herself and so finds it hard to trust Jamie to not cheat with someone else, something especially high on her mind because she suspects her own father is cheating on her mother. All of this combines for the perfect storm that forms the story’s climax, where Sana makes a lot of bad decisions, and not all of them are resolved in a satisfactory, sufficient, or believable manner.

The novel tackles a lot of really heavy subjects, and they’re all being interrogated from different angles, so intersectionality is clearly important for the author in these considerations. Sometimes that whole combination is just too much, and I feel the story could have benefited from streamlining some of these discussions, or possibly being told from an entirely different character perspectives: Sana’s mother and Jamie’s friend Christina were two of my favourites, both well written and complicated – sometimes more so than the actual main character – even while they are not perfect.

Content warnings: mild homophobia, racism, emotional manipulation, generally bad life choices (so lots of second hand embarrassment)

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for niche genres like fairy tale retellings and weird murder mysteries, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com

Landice reviews Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur

Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Written in the Stars is probably hands down the most adorable contemporary romance I’ve ever read. To be fair, I don’t read a ton of books in this genre, but I’ve at least read enough to know that this one is something special!

I just spent twenty minutes trying to write an analogy comparing Written in the Stars to peppermint hot chocolate that wasn’t super cheesy, to no avail, so I’ve decided to channel my inner Elle and just.. go with it: Reading Written in the Stars was like sitting down with my first peppermint hot chocolate of the season. The story was warm, inviting, and familiar enough to be comforting, but it also felt new and unique enough that nothing about it felt stale or contrite.

One thing I really appreciated about this book was that it didn’t get mired down in extended mutual pining the way romance novels often do. Not that there’s anything wrong with slow burn romances, but sometimes I want to be able to relish in the actual togetherness of the characters instead of spending the majority of the novel wanting to push the two leads’ faces together like Barbie dolls, screaming “just kiss already!” The author did an excellent job of finding the sweet spot between insta-love and slow burn, and the result is a compulsively readable novel with an adorable opposites attract romance that felt totally realistic and incredibly satisfying. It’s also worth noting that while there was enough tension to sustain the plot, the angst never felt superfluous or like it was thrown in just for the hell of it.

My only complaint about Written in the Stars was that I wasn’t ready for it to end when it did! I really loved Elle and Darcy together, and while I understand that it’s not always realistic to include an epilogue when you’re planning a sequel that will likely pick up around the time the first book lets off, it doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it (I kid… mostly).

One more thing I want to state for the record, in case I’m not alone in this concern: I went into this read worried that my lack of astrological knowledge might be an issue, but my concern was completely unfounded! In fact, I think Elle’s narrative explanation of Darcy’s sun, moon, and rising signs helped me understand what the “big three” placements really mean better than any of the articles I’d read online.

In closing, Written in the Stars is a cute, quirky sapphic romance that is (for me at least) the book equivalent of a cup of hot chocolate and a warm hug. If this sounds like something there’s even a slim chance you might enjoy, then please give it a go. It was honestly wonderful, and now I’m definitely rambling, but I cannot recommend it enough!

ARC Note: Thank you to Avon and Netgalley for a digital ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and terrible, cheesy analogies are my own.

Landice is an autistic lesbian graphic design student who lives on a tiny farm outside of a tiny town in rural Texas. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy & speculative fiction, and her favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, thawing the ice queen, & age gap romances. Landice drinks way too much caffeine, buys more books than she’ll ever be able to read, and dreams of starting her own queer book cover design studio one day.

You can find her as manicfemme on Bookstagram &Goodreads, and as manic_femme on Twitter. Her personal book blog is Manic Femme Reviews.

Mo Springer reviews Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Lucky is a lesbian, but in her conservative Sri Lankan family, that’s not an option. She married her gay friend Kris and they go to gay bars, have lovers, and still have the approval and conditional love of their family. When her grandmother falls and Lucky has to move back home to help take care of her, the lies become harder and more pressing. Then, Lucky’s childhood sweetheart Nisha is getting married, and Lucky wants to save her. She’s trapped in the obligations of a family that has many of its own problems–her father divorced her mother for her best friend, her sister entered an arranged marriage she didn’t want but seems happy, and her other sister ran away. Lucky wants to escape this life of duty without happiness, but how can she leave her family behind?

This was a hard story, I won’t lie. There is a lot of honesty and truth in this book, and the author doesn’t pull any punches. Lucky is miserable, and her obvious depression bleeds through the page. Having said that, it’s important to note that this is not a bad story–this is an amazing story that surrounds sad events.

Every single character is so unique and well-rounded that by the end of the book, I felt like I knew these people personally. Lucky’s mother clings to these traditions and cultural rules so desperately as a way to keep control of her life that has been destroyed by these same rules (her husband who left her is accepted in their society, but not she, the divorced woman). Her grandmother has always been very dear, and has lived an amazing life, but now puts Lucky into a panic with talk of grandchildren. Nisha wants her family to love and accept her, but she also wants to have her own life and happiness. Kris is desperate to be different from what he is, to keep up this lie as much as possible, to never let go, no matter the cost to Lucky.

A lot of these characters come across as unlikeable for good reason. Lucky’s mother is unquestioningly homophobic. At times it seems that Nisha is using Lucky more than caring about how her decisions have an affect on her. Kris, similarly, seems to be using Lucky.

Kris in particular I had a hard time giving as much empathy to as I was with the other characters. As much as I hated Lucky’s mother’s decisions, I can understand them. I felt all of her Lucky’s pain every time Nisha did something to hurt her, but I can also sympathize with where Nisha is coming from. But with Kris, at times it really felt like he just saw Lucky as a means to an end, the end being his acceptance in their community and his family. Lucky wants to lie to keep her family happy, but Kris seems to want more than that. He wants to be normal and have the social status he would have if he was straight.

Social status and community acceptance are themes for all the characters. The author does a great job of explaining the Sri Lankan culture and traditions, creating an immersive experience that also helps to inform the reader of the characters’ motivations. As much as I didn’t like what a lot of them did, I understood them and stayed engaged with their story arcs.

The writing itself is also amazingly beautiful. The exact and specific imagery that flows through the narrative pulled me so effectively the real world felt like a blur. I think I must have highlight lines on every page, it was so stunning.

This is a great book, and I do highly recommend it. It’s not a light and fluffy read, so don’t go into it expecting that, but it is fulfilling.

Mo Springer reviews You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Liz Lighty has a lot to deal with. Her mother is dead, dad left long ago, and her brother has sickle cell. She doesn’t have wealth like the other rich kids she goes to school with and her town, and the school’s history is primarily white. When she doesn’t get the scholarship into the school of dreams, meaning she might not be able to go at all, she decides to shock everyone by running for Prom Queen to get a chance at winning the scholarship prize.

Prom is a big deal in this town, and the story really makes it clear how important it is to everyone, as well as how important it is that someone like Lighty is running. I can still picture the hall of past Prom King and Queens, all white kids in framed photos looming over the students. With that, there are characters who are very against her running, some because they are competing with her, but another because they are racist. The book doesn’t shy away from the realities of modern-day prejudice and discrimination.

The characters really shined. I love Lighty’s friends, but I especially loved her friendship with Jordan. He starts out as kind of your stock character jock who used to be friends with the nerd but then abandoned them for the cool crowd. I won’t give anything away, but Jordan’s character has the biggest surprises.

Then, of course, we have to talk about that romance. Mack is a really fun character who could have easily become a manic-pixie-dream-girl, but honestly she reminded me of some of the girls I knew as a kid (and of course had crushes on). The author does a good job of making it clear Mack is more than just the bubbly, talkative, creative girl she presents as, but has a complex story and life.

Lighty and Mack’s relationship is both cute and interesting. They are of course teenagers and going to make the mistakes and bad decisions that teenagers will make. The two of them have a lot of ups and downs that were fitting of their characters and made you want to root for them more and more with each chapter.

I did have a bit of a hard time being sold on the stakes of having to get into an elite college. I went to community college for the first two years of getting my BA, so whenever a teen story is all about how the main character has to get into the super expensive, elite college, I end up wanting to jump into the story and shake them and say, “It’ll be okay! You’ll be just fine without it!”

The stakes surrounding the prom itself and the school’s hierarchy are much more believable. I really got the sense of how unrepresented Lighty felt and the book shows how much she has to fight against, with racism and then also homophobia. On top of that, to mention she is also dealing with her brother’s sickle cell and feels like she must take care of him. Her decisions might not always have been likable, but they were believable and added to the complexity of her character.

Overall, this was a really fun and interesting read. I highly recommend you pick it up!

Emily Joy reviews We Used To Be Friends by Amy Spalding

We Used To Be Friends by Amy Spalding

We Used To Be Friends by Amy Spalding tackles a topic that I don’t see often in fiction — friend breakups. I’ve experienced a few friend breakups, and this book hits all the right notes.

Kat and James have been best friends since kindergarten, and had what seemed like an unbreakable friendship until senior year of high school, when they slowly begin drifting apart and choosing different goals as they start thinking ahead to college. While James keeps secrets from her best friend, Kat is falling in love with another girl for the first time, and figuring out a new identity for herself.

I first heard this book when Malinda Lo gave it a shout-out on Instagram. Although I don’t often read YA contemporary, I was intrigued by this one, and particularly by the unique formatting. Told in two first person perspectives, James’ chapters start from the end of her senior year and go backwards, while Kat’s chapters start at the beginning and go forward. In the middle of the book, their timelines cross paths and the chapters are chronological for a while, but then part ways again. I had never heard of a book formatted that way, and I thought it sounded neat!

Unfortunately for me, jumping forward and backward was not as fascinating as I thought it would be, and only made me feel confused rather than intrigued. While at times it was bittersweet to have the contrast of different phases of their friendship, often the characters’ reactions to events in the story felt disjointed. When Kat reacted to things James did at the beginning of the book, I had trouble remembering what exactly had happened. When James reacted to things Kat did at the end of the book, I was confused without any points of reference. While the story itself and characters were very good, my reader experience with this book is mostly just confusion.

The formatting did impress me on one count. It didn’t give away all of the surprises, which was cleverly done. At first as I was reading, I was disappointed because I thought I knew exactly what would happen, but just enough information was given, and likewise withheld, to maintain a few surprises.

But let’s talk about what I loved. Friend breakups! They’re so difficult, everyone goes through them, but people so rarely talk about them with the gravitas they deserve. In We Used To Be Friends, the reasons for James’ and Kat’s friend breakup are varied, and I loved that, because I think they make the book relatable to a wider audience.

One of the reasons for the breakup is Kat’s new relationship with another girl. As she discovers her bisexuality and starts a new relationship, James is left feeling left out. She is not homophobic, and is supportive of Kat, but still feels left out and alone during a time when she needs her best friend. Quinn (Kat’s girlfriend) is a wonderful character. Honestly, she was my favorite in the book. Although Quinn’s character does come between the friendship of our main characters, she was never made to take the blame for it, and I was grateful for that.

Something I loved is how Kat stands up for her new identity, and makes it very clear at different points in the text that she’s bi, and what that means for her.

“I never said I was a lesbian. There are all sorts of ways to be into girls, you know.”

“I identify as bi. I like girls and boys and people who identify as both or neither, you know? But also right now I like Quinn and that’s all that matters.”

The content in this book is wonderful. And I highly recommend it. The bisexual representation is beautifully done, and I really appreciated how explicit it was. If I had read this book chronologically, and skipped around the book to read chapters in order, I think I would have thoroughly enjoyed it. But really, the only thing I didn’t like was my confusion with the formatting. So consider reading the chapters chronologically, or read it cover to cover, but whichever you choose, I think this is a fantastic book about a heartbreaking and very real topic.