Teen Witches Cover Up a Murder: When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey

When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey cover

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Alexis and her five friends share a secret—they all have magic powers. On prom night, Alexis’s magic goes wrong and a boy ends up dead. Now, the six teens have to keep this a secret as they try to make things right. Bonds are tested in ways they never thought could happen.

The friend group dynamic helps keep Sarah Gailey’s When We Were Magic rooted in reality. Alexis as a main character can be frustrating, even considering this is a young adult novel, so teenagers are bound not to make the smartest decisions. However, it’s all balanced by the relationships between the friends within the group. Every girl has a unique relationship with one another, making for fascinating tension, push and pull.

It’s also nice to see such a diverse cast of characters representing identities such as adoptee, mixed race, Muslim, lesbian, nonbinary and more. Even with an ensemble cast of six characters, Gailey does a deft job of developing each enough to ensure no one falls by the wayside. Each girl has a distinctive personality, and they’re all strong personalities, which is part of what makes their friendship dynamic so fun.

Their magic powers also highlight the dynamic of the friends and each one’s personality. Each girl seems to have a specialty, like Alexis has a connection with animals—dogs and canines, mostly. Iris seems to have taken on the role of a pseudo-leader, as she appears to be the most powerful, or at least the one with the most control of her magic. She’s the one who studies it closely, trying to unravel the mysteries of their powers.

That’s an interesting point in the world-building for this book. It’s never clear the origins of their magic and why they have it. You just jump straight into the middle of the narrative where they all already know they have magic and they found each other.

TRIGGER WARNING: BLOOD AND GORE

For those who do not stomach the macabre well, this part of the book may make you feel squeamish. When Alexis accidentally kills Josh, it’s a pretty nasty sight. The subsequent magic that happens as each friend tends to his different body parts also causes the stomach to turn. It’s rather amazing how well these teenagers handle such a traumatic experience as they try to “put him back together,” so to speak.

END OF TRIGGER WARNING

Although Alexis and her friends appear to treat Josh’s death with nonchalance as they attempt to fix things, it’s clear there are consequences to this magic. There’s added pressure when another student outside their coven discovers their secret and threatens to turn them in to the police for having something to do with the disappearance of Josh.

Of course, all the while, regular teen drama unfolds and causes more tension. In fact, it becomes clear that this mundane drama was the catalyst for the magical catastrophe. Alexis is clearly in love with her best friend Roya; everyone is sick of them dancing around each other. But it also brings about more nuance to Alexis and her sexuality.

Even though Alexis is adopted by two fathers who are clearly in a queer marriage, she still hasn’t come out to them or her friends. She hasn’t even come out to herself because she isn’t sure if bisexual is the right word for what she is. She knows she’s queer but is still questioning what that means to her. When she finally does come out, it’s more of an, “I thought everyone already knew,” situation.

I won’t spoil how it ends, but I will say it was not what I expected. I don’t think I was disappointed by the ending, but I don’t feel that it was satisfactory after all the stakes and investment the reader puts into it. I still really enjoyed it, though, especially the audiobook version narrated by Amanda Dolan. This perhaps added another layer of depth than reading it in a physical copy would have. I still think it was worth the read, even if the ending left me wanting.

Trigger warnings: body horror, blood and gore

Healing in Queer Community: Old Enough by Haley Jakobson 

a photo of Old Enough on a shelf

Thank you to PENGUIN GROUP Dutton and Netgalley for this E-ARC in exchange for an honest review. (Published June 20, 2023)

I’ve followed Haley Jakobson’s social media for a while, so I was thrilled to hear news of her debut novel. And let me say, it did not disappoint! 

Old Enough follows our main character Savannah (Sav, for short) in two timelines: The present timeline focuses on Savannah in college during her semester in a Women and Gender Studies course. In another, we flashback to high school Savannah’s point of view. Throughout the novel, we learn the circumstances surrounding a traumatic event she experienced during high school and her subsequent social and emotional fallout. Chapter by chapter, readers witness Savannah’s healing journey as she confronts the past, cultivates new friendships, and exercises her autonomy. 

There are several key takeaways from this novel: 

Jakobson impressively deconstructs cultural norms surrounding “forever friendships” and the sunk-cost mindset of holding on for history’s sake. Additionally, we are introduced to a distinct cast of characters that become Sav’s safe place to land amidst the tumult of growing pains. There are knockout conversations on justice versus healing, plus beautiful depictions of a joyful queer community as Sav explores her bisexuality. 

This is a mature, new-adult coming of age story that covers a lot of ground, and it does so with vulnerability and precision. Old Enough is Savannah’s story, but it’s a story that will resonate with so many. (I highly recommend listening to Haley Jakobson’s episode on the “Sad Girls Who Read” podcast after finishing the book!)

FINAL NOTE: I would encourage readers to check content warnings, because there were several heavy topics addressed throughout the novel including (but not limited to): sexual assault, transphobia, and alcohol use.

Culinary Combat School: Cooking With Monsters by Jordan Alsaqa & Vivian Truong

the cover of Cooking with Monsters Vol 1

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Recently, I read and loved Basil and Oregano by Melissa Capriglione, a sapphic YA graphic novel set at a magiculinary school. I am delighted to say that Cooking with Monsters—one of my most-anticipated books of the year—is also a sapphic YA graphic novel set at a fantasy cooking school. In this case, though, cooking is only one half of the challenge. Just as important is the students’ ability to fight monsters, which they will then prepare as gourmet meals.

This was such a delight to read, and I can’t wait for volume two. This book establishes a diverse cast of characters and their relationships with each other, as well as the basics of how training happens at Gourmand School of Culinary Combat.

The main character is Hana. When she was a kid, her and her best friend Bobby were rescued from a monster by a warrior chef, and ever since, it’s been her dream to become a warrior chef herself. Now Hana and Bobby are both starting their first year. The cast is rounded out by Hana and Bobby’s roommates as well as Hana’s love interest and academic rival, Olivia.

While Hana is immediately smitten with Olivia, after a promising introduction, they quickly get off on the wrong foot. Hana is disappointed that her hero isn’t the one to mentor her, while Olivia is resentful that Hana doesn’t appreciate the mentor she does have: Chef Graham. Unbeknownst to Hana, Chef Graham is Olivia’s grandfather, and he swore he’d never take on another student. Olivia is hurt that he’d decide to train Hana over her. This initial misstep spirals into more rivalry and miscommunication between them. Meanwhile, Bobby is becoming closer with Olivia and he and Hana are drifting apart.

While I felt like the beginning of this volume was a little bumpy, I was soon pulled into this world and the well-rounded characters. First of all, there are the monsters, which are all part animal and part food (think Mooseshrooms, which grow mushroom from their antlers). Some are violent and are defeated through combat. Others are cared for, with their fruits responsibly harvested. They’re such a fun visual element.

I mentioned already the diversity of the cast, but that really is woven into the story. Hana and Bobby are coded Japanese and Vietnamese, and they face racism and anti-immigrant sentiments from some people in their community—including a second year student who used to harass them. Olivia is Black. One side character is nonbinary, and another is a trans man with top surgery scars. I often lose track of a long list of characters, but each of them is distinct in both design and personality.

It’s this group of characters that, alongside the monsters, is the main strength of the graphic novel. I can definitely see how this can support a whole series, because I’m intrigued by even the characters we’ve only seen briefly. We’ve also gotten a look into Hana’s own weaknesses she has to overcome in her training, and I look forward to seeing what subsequent years are like at the academy!

This definitely lived up to my (high) expectations, and as I just keep saying in this review, I can’t wait for volume two to come out!

A Hilarious and Sweet High School Love Triangle: Belle of the Ball by Mari Costa

the cover of Belle of the Ball

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In the graphic novel Belle of the Ball, Brazilian author and illustrator Mari Costa treats us to a charming, sweet, and funny story of a high school love triangle between a nerdy wallflower, a charming jock, and an overly driven cheerleader.

When Belle Hawkins (who goes by her last name), school mascot and super shy wallflower, finally works up the courage to ask her crush, the super beautiful, super smart, and super popular cheerleader Regina Moreno, to the school dance, things don’t go particularly well. For starters, she forgets to take off the big cat head she’s wearing as part of her costume. Even worse, Regina has a girlfriend, the star athlete Chloe Kitigawa, who just so happens to show up right at that moment and threaten Hawkins to never talk to her girlfriend again. While both Hawkins and Chloe hope that that is the last time they see each other, fate has other plans. Later that day, Regina finds out that Chloe is failing English, which does not fit in with her 10 year plan for their lives. Regina decides to get Chloe a tutor. She sees Hawkins’s profile on a tutoring service website and comes up with a devious plan: play nice and ask Hawkins to tutor Chloe for free. 

Initially, Regina’s plans work well. Hawkins jumps at the chance to tutor Chloe to impress Regina. Chloe, despite being stubborn and a bit of a jerk to Hawkins, decides to play along. That all changes, though, when Chloe remembers who Hawkins is. Long before Hawkins decided to start hiding who she was (and going by Hawkins instead of her first name), she and Chloe were close friends, with Hawkins perpetually dressed as a princess and leading Chloe on adventures. As their tutoring sessions continue and they spend more and more time together, old feelings between the two resurface and a romance begins to bloom. However, with Regina still in the picture, things are complicated and they can’t admit their true feelings.

I really liked Mari Costa’s writing. For starters, I love the main characters and the journeys Mari takes them on in the book. While they all start as stereotypical high school archetypes, there is so much more depth to them over time. Hawkins starts as your typical shy nerdy wallflower. She sits the other nerdy kids in school, but never has the courage to join in. She’d rather wear her mascot head than be seen. However, as the story progresses, she begins to have the courage to open up and let people see who she truly is, thanks in no small part to Chloe. Chloe appears at first to be your stereotypical jock, but by the end you see that she has her own nerdy side and is actually very sweet and charming. I loved the interactions between Hawkins and Chloe as their relationship develops. The antagonism between them (mostly coming from Chloe) goes from mean-spirited to playful and sweet. They go from being two people stuck with one another because someone else made them do it to two people who genuinely care for one another and want to be around each other as much as possible.

And then there’s Regina. Initially, I didn’t care for Regina. She comes off as very selfish and full of herself at the beginning of the book. Her conversations are often all about her and how smart, beautiful, and talented she is. When talking about their relationship with Chloe, Regina routinely frames it around her own goals and her own needs, putting Chloe’s second. With Hawkins, most of their dynamic revolves around receiving praise from Hawkins or asking Hawkins to do things for her. However, as the story progresses, she slowly begins to realize her flaws and make small changes for the better. While I still didn’t become her biggest fan by the end of the book and I still see room for her to grow, I did come around on her at least a little. 

Mari’s art in this book is also outstanding. I really appreciated the unique color palette of the book, with Mari choosing to keep everything in black, white, and shades of red and pink. The pacing of her panels is also fluid. Not once did I get confused as my eyes moved from panel to panel. Mari uses her art to full comedic effect, with multiple awkward momsents illustrated hilariously. A special mention needs to be said for how she used Hawkins’ mascot head, this giant cat head, in several scenes. For me, though, the best thing about the art in this book was how Mari illustrated facial expressions, from over the top manga-style illustrations to emphasize character emotions to more subtle illustrations to show the character’s inner thoughts. It all really worked for me and made the character’s emotions and thoughts crystal clear. I really think that this helped the most with Chloe, the quietest of the three protagonists. There are pages in which she says maybe two lines of dialogue, but her eye movements and facial expressions say so much more. 

I only have two minor complaints about this book. First, I would have liked to see more of Regina’s arc. I feel like a lot of it gets left to the last chapter and is fairly short. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work or that it’s sudden: you do see how she goes from selfish and stuck-up to a better friend to Chloe and Hawkins, and it does make sense. I just wish I saw more of it. Second, I wish there had been more about what happened to Hawkins that made her hide herself away so much. It’s hinted that something happened that made her go from Belle, dressed like a princess as much as possible, to Hawkins, hidden away in more androgynous clothes. Still, we get nothing more than “high school happened”, which, granted, is believable. 

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this graphic novel. If you’re looking for a sweet, funny, and light-hearted high school romance, I highly recommend it.       

Jamie Rose is a trans woman living in Florida (so you can imagine how that’s going right now). She has a PhD in Applied Linguistics and teaches courses in language learning and teaching. A lover of stories, she enjoys reading both comic books/graphic novels and the ones without pictures. Her favorite genres are contemporary romance, science fiction and fantasy, superheroes, and comedy. When she’s not reading or working, she’s usually playing table-top games or video games, binging YouTube videos, or spending time with her wife and daughter. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, Bluesky, and Threads at @jamiegeeksout. 

Larkie reviews Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Nothing But Blackened Teeth cover

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Trigger warning for suicidal ideation 

A compact novella with a haunted house story, strained friendships, and a hungry ghost, I had high expectations for Nothing But Blackened Teeth. Were they met? Kind of, but overall the book fell a little flat for me.

First off, there are five leads: the main character Cat, rich white guy Philip, engaged couple Talia and Faiz, and snarky comedian Lin. They’ve rented out a haunted Heian period mansion (which, of course, is said to be haunted) for Talia and Faiz’s wedding. Most of the book focused more on their friendship dynamics and how quickly they fall apart, like…literally from the get go they’re already at each other’s throats. This trip sounds like it would have been a nightmare even without a ghost trying to keep one of them as her eternal companion. 

The creep factor started in early as well, as Cat indulges some morbid fantasies around the legends of the house, and in the beginning I really enjoyed it. Cat has a tendency to go on rambling tangents that have a bit of a darker turn, due in part to her previous struggles with her mental health, and it really adds to the setting. 

However, after the first visual appearance of the ghost, I found a lot of the scares to be a bit of a let down. The characters seem more focused on fighting each other and discussing how the narratives of horror movies usually spin out than they do on the ghost, who is perfectly happy to watch them destroy themselves rather than contribute much of anything on her own. It feels like Khaw is trying to spin the narrative on who horror movies usually treat as fodder—the queer characters, the comic relief—versus who is allowed to be the hero. But it bogs down the whole story and detracts from some of the excellent imagery and visceral horror that is there. Maybe I would have liked some of the later horror sections more if they were really allowed to shine, but the horror elements feel like they’re secondary to the somewhat forced melodrama of the characters.

Danika reviews Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Codi is in a rut. She has two best friends, Maritza and JaKory, and they’ve been doing the same things since they became friends in the 6th grade. Now she’s 17, and she’s sick of sitting in the basement and watching movies. All three of them are determined to make a change this summer, and maybe get their first kisses (Codi is a lesbian, Martiza is bi, and JaKory is gay). The only problem is that Maritza and JaKory seem to still see the shy, homebody Codi that she was as a kid, and don’t seem to believe that she can be anyone different. When Maritza calls Codi, drunk, and begs her to pick her up from a party, Codi reluctantly agrees. She doesn’t expect to run into one of the “cool kids” kissing another guy in the shadows outside. Ricky asks Codi to not tell anyone about the kiss, and she is drawn into his friend group–including Lydia, who she immediately crushes on. Now Codi is having a whole different summer, with partying, drinking, and skinny-dipping–and not telling her best friends anything about it.

I had a bit of a conflicted relationship with this book. I love that it’s a queer YA book about friendship, including having a bunch of different queer friends. I don’t think we see enough stories where queer people are friends and not just love interests. Codi’s attitude is completely understandable: she feels trapped by her best friends’ expectations of her, so she breaks out of them and doesn’t let them in. At the same time, though, Maritza and JaKory both encourage her to break out of her rut and she refuses, but then she gets angry at them for thinking that she’s in a rut.

She also judges herself for not partying, being a “real” teenager. Maybe me being a 30 year old teacher hurt my enjoyment of this book, but I was frustrated by the idea that the only right way to be a teenager is to act out a teen movie. Maybe I’m defensive because I’ve never been a drinking or partying type. This isn’t a flaw in the writing: it is acknowledged later in the book that there is no one right way to be a teenager, and that you shouldn’t feel like you have to act out some image of being a teenager.

Mostly, I just found it painful to watch Codi make these long, drawn-out mistakes. Her motivation is understandable, and it’s believable, but watching her sabotage some of her most important and long-lasting relationships wasn’t fun, especially when they could be solved with a few conversations. Codi and her friends are all complex and flawed characters, which means that they do hurt each other and make mistakes. I just didn’t find it personally enjoyable to go through chapter after chapter of Codi lying (or lying by omission) to her best friends.

My favourite part was the romance. Codi and Lydia become closer as friends, and then we see that dance around each other of not knowing if the other is interested or even if they’re straight. It felt real to me, seeing the slow, nervous progression of their relationship, including misunderstandings. Codi’s flustered reactions are all-too-relatable. They also have sweet, meaningful conversations–just the kind of exchanges I’d expect from the beginnings of a flirtation between two teenage girls. Their romance was definitely what I enjoyed the most.

The ending felt a little neat to me, especially considering how messy and drawn-out the tensions were between so many characters. There’s a bit of a time jump to explain this, but even still, I would have liked to see this honest conversation earlier so that we had more time to deal with the fallout. I understand why lots of people enjoy this one: it’s a great friendship book, it has a sweet romance, and it looks at the expectations and social pressures of being a teenager. Unfortunately, that plot element of Codi continually choosing to mislead her best friends soured the reading experience for me.