ACT COOL by Tobly Smith – double review!

A trans teen walks the fine line between doing whatever it takes for his acting dream and staying true to himself in this moving, thought-provoking YA novel from the acclaimed author of Stay Gold.

Aspiring actor August Greene just landed a coveted spot at the prestigious School of Performing Arts in New York. There’s only one problem: His conservative parents won’t accept that he’s transgender. And to stay with his aunt in the city, August must promise them he won’t transition.

August is convinced he can play the part his parents want while acting cool and confident in the company of his talented new friends.

But who is August when the lights go down? And where will he turn when the roles start hitting a little too close to home?


Title : Act Cool
Author : Tobly Smith
Format : ARC/Hardback
Page Count : 352
Genre : LGBTQIAP+ contemporary YA romance
Publisher : Quill Tree Books/Harper 360YA
Release Date : September 7, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis / Micky
Rating : ★ ★.5  / ★ ★ .5


Hollis’ 2.5 star review

I said this in another queer YA contemporary review recently that it’s important for queer and trans characters to have messy love lives, or messy stories, or just be messy, because so many of those stories already exist for straight and cis-gendered content.

However, queer or not, messy doesn’t always make it easy to love.

August is a trans boy who has recently run away from tinytown, Pennsylvania to not only avoid conversion therapy as a result of his religious parents rejecting his identity but also to attend a prestigious acting school in New York courtesy of his aunt’s connections. Suffice it to say August is going through it. He has baggage. He’s recently transitioned, come out, and he’s dealing with a new city, new school, and finally being his authentic self. Sorta. But because of all that, because he’s new to almost every aspect of his life, he’s also changing personas the way most people change shirts. This makes August a difficult character to get a read on. 

Now, listen, I get it, I’m old now but I was hip and young once. I understand the concept of having a different angle with different groups; hell, most of us still have elements of that to our personality : it’s called work and home life. However.. this isn’t just August at Home vs August at School. This is too many Augusts; funny guy, serious guy, acting guy, flirting guy, humble guy.. again, how am I supposed to know who I’m reading about if he’s just a mask?

Eventually this does phase out when he addresses it, or rather when he gets called out of it multiple times and then addresses it, and again, so much of it is understandable. But it’s also hard.

August gets caught up in the buzz and high of being well liked and successful, focusing on followers and curating his social media presence, lying about not reading the articles and posts about him, because he happens to land a starring role in his school’s play and then another opportunity shortly thereafter. Naturally.. things go to his head and he becomes outright unlikeable. 

Which phases into the next thing I disliked. All the lies. Again, tied into his shifting in and out of being who he thought he had to be in the moment.
Probably it’s just that, as much as I could empathize for August’s struggle and what he had endured, and what he was going through in general, I never liked him. Infact, the only characters I loved (yes, I did love some!) were August’s aunt and his trans fairy-godmother, Juliet. A+, five stars, for both of them. Everyone else.. meh? They were just too much drama for me, not going to lie, and that probably tied into why I wasn’t down for any of the various romances. Besides the fact that none of them were particularly well developed.

I have also found with previous stories that focus this much on theatre or acting just don’t interest me. And there was a lot of that in this one. Not helped, too, by August assuming his way was the right way to do things despite the advice of his teachers or discussion with peers — you know, at the prestigious school he probably didn’t deserve to be at and clearly didn’t respect enough — which also does get addressed, in a rather heartbreaking way, but it was one more thing that added to the arrogance and frustration around his character.

Much of the narrative in Act Cool is about getting transpeople other narratives that aren’t necessarily defined by their being transgender, telling different and happier stories, in addition to representation in general. And then there’s also the emphasis on found family and finding those who will accept you no matter what.There’s a lot of great in here. I just had to sift through a lot of less great to appreciate it.

That said, if you’re looking for a diverse YA contemporary, with drama and romance that does get a wee bit messy and soap opera-y, but with some heavier themes to keep it from being too frothy, you could definitely do worse than picking this one up. But if you hate theatre or Broadway.. maybe avoid.

** I received an unsolicited ARC from the publisher (thank you!) and this in no way influenced my review. **


Micky’s 4.5 star review

Headlines:
Drama on and off the stage
Tough but still uplifting
Shitty parents

Call me enchanted by Tobly McSmith’s writing and stories, because this is the second book of his that has drawn me in, made me love all the things and left me thinking. Act Cool was the kind of story that had tough themes (and I expected it this time) but it is also a hugely uplifting and empowering read. It transports you into the world of August and for me, I became his cheer team.

August was a character that jumped off the page with his raw feeling, his ability to trust, his naivety as a trans character and his desire to be accepted. August was the unfortunate owner of some top-form shitty parents. I hated them, as I should, but these kind of ignorant folks exist, they’re not an illusion and they are harmful. Hooray for Aunt Lil to offset some of that.

August’s journey through a performing arts school, fresh opportunities and finding his feet with being a man was just 100% absorbing. The crew around August were a dramatic bunch and he spent time sussing out who was friend, foe or both. I really warmed to the side characters and even Mr Daniels. The performing arts backdrop, Broadway and how those themes intersected with August facing his gender dysphoria was emotional; I was gripped.

There were a number of quotes I tabbed, probably all a bit spoilery to share but amongst the witty banter, the fun of school life were deep thoughts, the odd profound inner monologue and interaction with others.

I simply loved this book, it made my Saturday and I avidly await Tobly McSmith’s next book.

Please do check out some trans reviewers for this book.

Thank you to Pride Book Tours and Harper 360YA for the review copy.

THE SWEETEST REMEDY by Jane Igharo

When a woman travels to Nigeria to attend the funeral of the father she never knew, she meets her extravagant family for the first time, a new and inspiring love interest, and discovers parts of herself she didn’t know were missing, from Jane Igharo, the acclaimed author of Ties That Tether.

Hannah Bailey has never known her father, the Nigerian entrepreneur who had a brief relationship with her white mother. Because of this, Hannah has always felt uncertain about part of her identity. When her father dies, she’s invited to Nigeria for the funeral. Though she wants to hate the man who abandoned her, she’s curious about who he was and where he was from. Searching for answers, Hannah boards a plane to Lagos, Nigeria.

In Banana Island, one of Nigeria’s most affluent areas, Hannah meets the Jolades, her late father’s prestigious family–some who accept her and some who think she doesn’t belong. The days leading up to the funeral are chaotic, but Hannah is soon shaped by secrets that unfold, a culture she never thought she would understand or appreciate, and a man who steals her heart and helps her to see herself in a new light.


Title : The Sweetest Remedy
Author : Jane Igharo
Format : physical
Page Count : 314
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : Berkley
Release Date : September 18, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★


Hollis’ 2 star review

Despite my rather low rating, I’m grateful to the publisher for sending this my way as I don’t think I would’ve picked it up on my own. In fact, I don’t think I had even stumbled across it before, despite that absolutely eye-catching and stunning cover (seriously, so pretty).

Low rating notwithstanding, I do think this story will mean a lot to people who connect with the story about discovering one’s identity — how it can be shaped by culture and family but how, ultimately, it’s up to the individual to decide who they will be — and (or!) those longing not only for a romance set in Nigeria but also featuring Nigerian culture.

Where I think this failed, for me, was that there wasn’t a whole lot of depth. We got teased with some, glimpses of it, when discussion around Hannah’s search for a community, for her people, for how she fit within a culture she was never exposed to, came up. But so much of the focus of the story was on a romance I never bought into, that had little to no chemistry, as well as the drama surrounding Hannah’s introduction to a group of siblings, and some extended family, that were unaware of her existence until their father had died. These interactions, too, lacked depth. They were either antagonistic or immediately friendly.

While at first I thought the addition of POVs for the siblings, and the love interest, would be helpful to round out these characters, and this family, ultimately it didn’t add much at all. And I’m left wondering why we even had them to begin with.

All of this, however, I think could’ve been helped by different writing. I found Igharo’s voice to be very.. formal, almost stilted or distant, and so there wasn’t any emotional resonance to this situation that should’ve been incredibly emotional. Hannah, especially, felt like a filler character in the sense that she just felt.. bland? Other than when she stormed out of emotional reveals or betrayals, she just blankly seemed to go with the flow and have no real personality. Which, in hindsight, is also kind of true for the rest. The only thing that made them standout were they all had very distinct archetypes.. which doesn’t necessarily mean they had personality. Hm. That’s a bummer of a realization.

Having said that, the one exception, the one piece that really worked for me, was Hannah’s relationship with her mother. Somehow, despite my struggle with Hannah as a character, I felt that bond, and I appreciated the strength in writing them that way considering Hannah’s search for the other half of herself was something her white mother couldn’t relate to. But she supported Hannah nonetheless. I thought that was lovely.

While this read wasn’t a win for me, I do want to try the author again, as I’m not quite ready to write her off as a bad fit — here’s hoping, despite my struggle with her writing, I have better luck with a different premise.

** I received an unsolicited finished copy from the publisher (thank you!) and this in no way influenced my review. **

THE HOLIDAY SWAP by Maggie Knox

A feel-good, holiday-themed romantic comedy about identical twins who switch lives in the days leading up to Christmas–perfect for fans of Christina Lauren’s In a Holidaze and Josie Silver’s One Day in December.

All they want for Christmas is a different life.

When chef Charlie Goodwin gets hit on the head on the L.A. set of her reality baking show, she loses a lot more than consciousness; she also loses her ability to taste and smell–both critical to her success as show judge. Meanwhile, Charlie’s identical twin, Cass, is frantically trying to hold her own life together back in their quaint mountain hometown while running the family’s bustling bakery and dealing with her ex, who won’t get the memo that they’re over. 

With only days until Christmas, a desperate Charlie asks Cass to do something they haven’t done since they were kids: switch places. Looking for her own escape from reality, Cass agrees. But temporarily trading lives proves more complicated than they imagined, especially when rugged firefighter Jake Greenman and gorgeous physician’s assistant Miguel Rodriguez are thrown into the mix. Will the twins’ identity swap be a recipe for disaster, or does it have all the right ingredients for getting their lives back on track?


Title : The Holiday Swap
Author : Maggie Knox
Format : physical
Page Count : 351
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : Viking
Release Date : October 5, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★  


Hollis’ 2 star review

Definitely don’t take my rating to heart if this sounds like your thing. This just isn’t my cup of tea.

Right off the bat, I want to say, if you’re a fan of the seasonal Netflix and or Hallmark channel holiday movies? You’ll probably love this. Enjoy those Vanessa Hudgens twin/look-alike/whatever swap concept films? This is for you. Added bonus if you also love The Great British Bake Off. And yet another bonus is this also manages to sprinkle in a small-town setting and vibe. The Holiday Swap is doing pretty much everything, and anything, it possibly can. Sadly, though, this did not make my Grinchy heart grows any sizes bigger.

If you can suspend some disbelief that grown humans (even identical ones!) would think it likely they can switch lives for the course of the week when disaster strikes (I’m not even going to touch on the recklessness of not taking a concussion seriously.. I’m not.. nope), and have no issue adjusting despite the very different lives they lead, you can probably get on with this more than I could (thankfully they do later address the folly in thinking this would be possible, but..). Added tension and hijinks ensue when they immediately stumble in their ability to adjust to their new surroundings and are unable to get ahold of each other.. and I mean, other than dealing with frustrating co-hosts of a reality tv show and an ex who can’t get the hint, that’s as high stakes as it gets. This isn’t looking to stress you out by any means, it really is here for a good wholesome holiday time.

Beyond not getting on with most of the aforementioned tropes and premise, though, I’ll admit there was not enough to differentiate the twins in personality or narrative voice. One is supposed to be more traditionally small town and perhaps a little bit of a pushover/people pleaser (though we only see that particular aspect when she’s dealing with her ex which, ugh, I disliked that whole plot point) and the other is glamourous and successful and take-charge.. except, again, with maybe two exceptions we don’t see this really come to the fore. They were both into baking, they were both workaholics, making them well.. sorry for the pun, but, identical; circumstances notwithstanding.

Naturally, each sister has a romance that is initially complicated by the existing way the love interests were known to the other sister, but, surprising no one, it all works out happily ever after in the end.

The Holiday Swap has the excitement, and conflict, of the GBBO-like competition, a potential baked-goods chain looking to elbow in on the small town bakery’s turf, in addition to head injuries and some ruined baking, and, of course, the sisters have to come clean just in time for Christmas. Will a miracle prevail and they will be forgiven for their trickery? Will they each get what they set out to achieve with their swap.. and maybe learn something about themselves along the way? I’m sure you know the answer to those questions but, either way, I won’t ruin the surprise.

This has so much that I know so many people will love. And I hope you do. But if, like me, this isn’t quite your jam? I don’t think this will be memorable or enough of a stand-out to change your mind about the premise. It did make me hungry, though.

** I received an unsolicited finished copy from the publisher (thank you!) and this in no way influenced my review. **

SAILOR PROOF by Annabeth Albert

The sexy Navy chief and his best friend’s adorkable little brother… 

It’s petty, but Naval Chief Derrick Fox wishes he could exact a little revenge on his ex by showing off a rebound fling. His submarine is due to return to its Bremerton, Washington, home base soon and Derrick knows all too well there won’t be anyone waiting with a big, showy welcome.

Enter one ill-advised plan…

Arthur Euler is the guy you go to in a pinch—he’s excellent at out-of-the-box solutions. It’s what the genius music-slash-computer nerd is known for. So when he finds out Derrick needs a favor, he’s happy to help. He can muster the sort of welcome a Naval Chief deserves, no problem at all.

Except it is a problem. A very big problem.

When Arthur’s homecoming welcome is a little too convincing, when a video of their gangplank smooch goes enormously viral, they’re caught between a dock and a hard place. Neither of them ever expected a temporary fake relationship to look—or feel—so real. And Arthur certainly never considered he’d be fighting for a very much not-fake forever with a military man. 


Title : Sailor Proof
Author : Annabeth Albert
Series : Shore Leave (book one)
Format : eARC
Page Count : 320
Genre : LGBTQIAP+ romance
Publisher : Carina Press
Release Date : September 28, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★


Hollis’ 2 star review

It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve read or requested anything by Albert but in truth it hasn’t been that long — she’s just put out so many books I’ve lost any and all sense of time. But the ones I have picked up have been few and far between and the results have been more fine or just okay than anything that really got me excited. I had sorta suspected I had outgrown the author. Or at least the books she was putting out after a certain point. But with this new series, and a return to her military-theme, I thought to give it a go.

But I was right.

There is nothing wrong or bad about this story. Nothing annoyed me, nothing was unforgivable, but I just wasn’t interested or moved. I was ambivalent or bored. This didn’t really do anything new, which is fine, but neither was I entertained by the content.

So I’m calling it. I think Albert and I are done. We had a great ride, though, I not only enjoyed but flat out loved so many of the author’s books and series. I’ve just clearly moved on.

But if you’re interested to give this a go, here are some fun tropes to expect: best friend’s younger brother. Fake dating. And “oh no there’s only one bed”. This’ll definitely hit the right notes for many readers. So take this review with the usual grain o’salt.

** I received an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

WHO’S THAT GIRL by Mhairi McFarlane

What’s the one thing you DON’T do at a wedding?

When Edie is caught in a compromising position at her colleagues’ wedding, all the blame falls on her – turns out that personal popularity in the office is not that different from your schooldays. Shamed online and ostracised by everyone she knows, her boss suggests an extended sabbatical – ghostwriting an autobiography for hot new acting talent, Elliot Owen. Easy, right?

Wrong. Banished back to her home town of Nottingham, Edie is not only dealing with a man who probably hasn’t heard the word ‘no’ in a decade, but also suffering an excruciating regression to her teenage years as she moves back in with her widowed father and judgey, layabout sister.

When the world is asking who you are, it’s hard not to question yourself. Who’s that girl? Edie is ready to find out.


Title : Who’s That Girl
Author : Mhairi McFarlane
Format : eBook (overdrive)
Page Count : 544
Genre : women’s fiction / contemporary romance
Publisher : HarperCollins
Release Date : November 19, 2015

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


Hollis’ 5 star review

Even though I can probably admit to myself that this isn’t my usual five-star feeling, I can’t help but award it top marks anyway. Because McFarlane, as she so often does, does so many things right with this book, with her characters, with the situations, life lessons, and emotions she explores; and add to it that this might be the more romance-forward of her books..? It was so great. Though, having said that, it might be one of the less outright funny ones, too. Definitely clever, lots of banter and some great one-liners, but this author often makes me laugh as hard as she makes me cry and this had a softer hand with both of those things.

She didn’t want to be That Girl. The girl with the sad story attached. She wanted to define herself, not be defined by an event over which she had no control [..]. That’s what people with comfortable lives who were only playing the victim didn’t understand, how they gave themselves away – if you’d actually been one, you were desperate to shed the label. You craved the normality that had been taken from you.

As usual, McFarlane sets up a circumstance in such an everyday person way, with a character who is not perfect and has to work through what has gone wrong. In this case, having a friendship with an affianced coworker that crossed some emotional boundaries; which then leads to a complication when, on said coworker’s wedding day, he kisses her. And she’s caught reacting too slowly and is then, well, caught by the bride. The blame game then goes full force and because of being emotionally compromised by the man, and the friendship, she is caught between some real guilt and some real betrayal when he is forgiven and she isn’t and, of course, has to recalibrate while she hopes things blow over.

You built him up to be something he wasn’t. We women are prone to it, I think. No matter how grown up and independent we think we are, I swear we have a brain illness from childhood where we think a man on a white horse is going to turn up at some point and fix everything. And when he doesn’t turn up, and he can’t fix anything even when he does, we think we did something wrong.”

I think, hands down, one of my favourite things about every single McFarlane is the friend group. And this one is no exception. And through those friends, and even some strangers, Edie faces some very different conversations and perspectives not only on the messy situation but also how the treatment that lead her to it is something she allows to happen to her over and over. The real talk was real. But seriously, the friend group? A+. Made even better when pitted up against those she thought were her friends but turn out not to be.

What happens now, do we all go on dating sites and start Veet-ing our privates? If there’s one thing to be said for long-term relationships, it’s the freedom to have un-groomed genitals. Pubic fashions can come and go and you care not a jot.
Hairy’s back in anyway. Hairy’s the new bald.”
I’m not Veet-ing my balls for any woman. And I’m pretty sure demand for my bare ballsack is nil. When did people start liking this macabre stuff?

Sidenote, while it is always very satisfying and romantic when a love interest stands up for their person, it’s even more satisfying when the main character does it for themselves. And Edie’s moment? Beautiful. It would’ve been better had she not had to, of course, but still.

Look. That isn’t real life. That person they’re talking about isn’t you. There’s another version of you, multiple versions of you, walking around out there. You have to let it go, or you’ll go mad. Trust me on this. Keep these words in your head : those who know me better, know better.

What necessitated that beautiful moment was the relentless bullying and smear campaign against her. McFarlane tackles online bullying and how social media makes it easy to be vile others because people are turned into targets, symbols, or abstract archetypes, not.. well, human beings. And it was hard to read. Because we’ve all seen it happen to others or been impacted by it ourselves. This does, however, work as an interesting contrast as there is a character dealing with fame and the media on a larger scale and how, even when mostly positive, being talked about, with everyone assuming things about you or spinning a narrative, is difficult.

Find the man who appreciates you at your best, not the one who confirms your worst suspicions about yourself.”

As for the romance, it was so easy to root for it because the reader, unlike Edie, is far from oblivious to the love interest’s intentions. And we had lots of page time to really know him, too, even without his POV. There was something that worried me about how it would pan out but.. I can’t say more for spoilers. I can see why the ending is a bit polarizing but honestly I think that’s part of why this gets a five. It made me so happy because I thought for sure we’d end with something else.

The way I see it, you get people who are important to you, for as long as you get them. You never know how long it will be. You have to accept it and make use of the time you have.”

I mentioned the humour was a little toned down and so were the emotions. But this does also deal with grief, two kinds, and you will very likely get choked up a few times. I know I did. There’s even a sticky family dynamic that got to me, too.

Who’s That Girl is funny without being a comedy, is emotional without being devastating, sweet without any sugary cringe, and full of those good warm fuzzies when a character comes out stronger and knowing themselves better, especially when surrounded by a great support group.

Definitely recommend.


WHITE SMOKE by Tiffany D. Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out in this chilling YA psychological thriller and modern take on the classic haunted house story from New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson!

Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper.

The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone.

But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?

As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks.


Title : White Smoke
Author : Tiffany D. Jackson
Format : eARC
Page Count : 384
Genre : YA psychological thriller
Publisher : Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date : September 14, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 3 review

Throughout this read, I was definitely in the ‘like’ camp more than the ‘love’ and had it been the opposite I would’ve been far more disappointed by the ending than I was. But it was still a huge, abrupt, bummer.

This story is half horror and half psychological anxiety fuelled discomfort. It also has a less than fun new blended family dynamic which was grating in a whole different way, too. I enjoyed this was it was a horror, I was equally horrified by the circumstances that had plagued this town, the violent gentrification that had occurred (and was still occurring) at the expense of others; but at the same time this particular plot sort’ve went off the rails in an unbelievable way (not the criminalizations, that, unfortunately is very believable, but the shady corporate conspiracy and the specifics of what they had set up..? yeah, no) — which, considering I was reading about ghosts and hauntings and potential possession, says a lot.

As a haunted house story, this was great. For someone with an anxiety, reading about Mari’s phobias, it was just as unsettling. Everything else, and the ending.. I don’t know. Equally in the ‘I don’t know’ pile of things is the reluctance for Mari to jump to the very obvious conclusions about what was happening around her. Why she was so slow to pick up on this, to resist it when others were more convinced, I have no clue.

This one gets a cautious recommend out of me, I think. I absolutely don’t want to dissuade you from picking it up but at the same time it isn’t going to encourage anyone to read it.. just incase it’s even less a hit for you than it was for me.

** I received an ARC from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

THE GIRLS I’VE BEEN by Tess Sharpe

A slick, twisty YA page-turner about the daughter of a con artist who is taken hostage in a bank heist.

Nora O’Malley’s been a lot of girls. As the daughter of a con-artist who targets criminal men, she grew up as her mother’s protégé. But when mom fell for the mark instead of conning him, Nora pulled the ultimate con: escape.

For five years Nora’s been playing at normal. But she needs to dust off the skills she ditched because she has three problems:

#1: Her ex walked in on her with her girlfriend. Even though they’re all friends, Wes didn’t know about her and Iris.

#2: The morning after Wes finds them kissing, they all have to meet to deposit the fundraiser money they raised at the bank. It’s a nightmare that goes from awkward to deadly, because:

#3: Right after they enter bank, two guys start robbing it.

The bank robbers may be trouble, but Nora’s something else entirely. They have no idea who they’re really holding hostage…


Title : The Girls I’ve Been
Author : Tess Sharpe
Format : eBook (overdrive)
Page Count : 336
Genre : YA contemporary thriller
Publisher : G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Release Date : January 26, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★ .5


Hollis’ 4.5 star review

This was.. wow.

I don’t know what I expected when I picked this up (#NoBlurbers) but this was an off the cuff recommendation from a friend of mine (hi Sam!) and I saw my library had it so thought, hey, why not. And wow.

[..] she kissed me like I was prickly, like I was already understood, like I was worth it.

I really don’t even know where to begin. Within these pages you’ll find con artists, queer humans, trauma, clever girls, one of the absolute best representations of found family I’ve ever read, sharp edges, devoted sisters, dangerous situations, and the absolute will to survive.

I hate the whole “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” saying. It’s bullshit. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you is worse. Sometimes what kills you is preferable. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you messes you up so bad it’s always a fight to make it through what you’re left with.

Some books inspire paragraphs upon paragraphs of words and sometimes you’re just just staring at a blinking cursor. This is obviously the latter.

Netflix has apparently snatched this up to be adapted, with Millie Bobby Brown to star, and that is incredibly exciting. If they capture even half the magic of Sharpe’s words, pacing, and general vibe, it’ll be amazing. More amazing? It might get more people wanting to read the source material. Which you absolutely should. And, yes, I will be chewing through the author’s backlist between now and then.

Highly recommend.

BLACKOUT by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon

Six critically acclaimed, bestselling, and award-winning authors bring the glowing warmth and electricity of Black teen love to this interlinked novel of charming, hilarious, and heartwarming stories that shine a bright light through the dark.

A summer heatwave blankets New York City in darkness. But as the city is thrown into confusion, a different kind of electricity sparks…

A first meeting. 

Long-time friends. 

Bitter exes. 

And maybe the beginning of something new.

When the lights go out, people reveal hidden truths. Love blossoms, friendship transforms, and new possibilities take flight.

Beloved authors—Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon—celebrate the beauty of six couples and the unforgettable magic that can be found on a sweltering starry night in the city.


Title : Blackout
Author : Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon
Format : eBook (overdrive)
Page Count : 256
Genre : contemporary / diverse reads
Publisher : Quill Tree Books
Release Date : June 22, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : unrated


Hollis’ unrated review

I’m leaving this unrated and instead rating the stories separately with mini reviews.

Tiffany D Jackson’s story, The Long Walk, is the main driving force of these interconnected stories of Black kids during a city-wide blackout, with four parts that break up the anthology. This story focuses on a couple who have since broken up and both happen to arrive an internship there’s only one spot for. Before it can be resolved, the blackout hits. With nothing else to do, they agree to walk home together and, along the way, hash out their issues. This definitely got a bit overwrought at times, I’m mostly thinking of Act Three, and maybe I’m just used to Jackson’s more mature stories but this felt very.. young, on the childish end of YA, despite the fact that the characters were eighteen. And it’s such a bummer as I’ve loved so many stories from this author. But this one just didn’t do it. Two stars.

Mask Off by Nic Stone : a coming out/coming of age short between two boys who weren’t ever quite friends but were in each other’s orbit throughout the years. Until a queer masquerade party brings them together.. in a way. But it isn’t until they are stuck on the train together when the blackout hits that the masks (not literally!) come off. Honestly, this one was just.. fine. Nothing really remarkable. Two stars.

Made to Fit by Ashley Woodfolk : this short was set in an senior’s living facility, where two girls, one the granddaughter of a resident and the other, who visits the seniors with her therapy dog, meet. When a photo goes missing, the two girls search the home and, as they spend time together, sparks fly. This was a little too insta for me but it tied in with the theme of all the epic love stories being told around them. It was also a tiny bit repetitive RE the granddaughter’s sorta ex but it was cute. Three stars.

All the Great Love Stories.. and Dust by Dhonielle Clayton : hmm, sorta mixed feelings about this one. I love the idea of these two best friends with their history of bets combing through a library to find the greatest book of all time. She’s working up the courage to tell him how she feels and we get pieces of their history together; he’s got a revolving door of girlfriends, she never bothers. Does he feel for her what she feels for him? Again, love the concept, but some of this, despite being a novella, dragged out a bit. The pacing was a little off. But, still, it was cute. Three stars.

No Sleep Till Brooklyn by Angie Thomas : this short features a girl on a tour bus, on a school trip from Mississippi, struggling with feelings for her crush.. when she already has a boyfriend. I’m not going to say much more about this and risk spoiling it, because it didn’t end the way I expected, but the tie-in is that the driver is another character’s father and he may have accidentally gone off-route to drive them towards the block party happening in Brooklyn, where all the other characters we’ve met so far are also planning to attend. Four stars. And, in hindsight, though I loved Yoon’s writing best, this was my favourite story.

Seymour & Grace by Nicola Yoon : easily the best written of the bunch! And I enjoyed the story, too, even if it felt extra short. A girl is trying to find her way to the block party all the characters have made it to where she plans to confront her ex who dumped her because she’d “changed”. She ends up in a Ryde with someone listening to a philosophy podcast and they strike up a conversation; but it’s a rocky meeting. Things go wrong on the way to their destination but, eventually, they get there. And then.. well. Spoilers. I would’ve loved an extra chapter of this, instead of the extended Jackson story, and I’m sad it was so short. It’s a softer story but felt very Yoon-like. Which is a good thing. Four stars.

But while the little throw away tie-ins in Yoon’s story to bring everyone into the story, into the party, was nice, it still boggles my mind we didn’t get a concluding chapter that made it feel, after all this build up, that we were actually at this party?.That’s still confusing. It just kind of ends. Even though the Jackson wasn’t my favourite story, it held the anthology together, working as the glue. So couldn’t we have had a proper ending?

Overall, this wasn’t bad, but I expected to love a lot more from this bind-up than I did. So that’s a bit of a bummer. But I’ve not read anything by Woodfolk or Clayton before, though I’ve definitely had the latter on my radar, and I will definitely be picking up their solo offerings in the future.

THE CHARM OFFENSIVE by Alison Cochrun

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever Afterexpects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.

In this witty and heartwarming romantic comedy—reminiscent of Red, White & Royal Blue and One to Watch—an awkward tech wunderkind on a reality dating show goes off-script when sparks fly with his producer.


Title : The Charm Offensive
Author : Alison Cochrun
Format : eARC
Page Count : 368
Genre : LGBTQIAP+ romance
Publisher : Atria Books
Release Date : September 7, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★


Hollis’ 4 review

I snagged this from NG at almost the eleventh hour after seeing some rave reviews and I’m really glad I did. Also, this is a debut? Seriously? Wow.

I wasn’t at all interested in a premise surrounding a Bachelor-like reality tv show but the aforementioned reviews promised something grand, and queer, and delightful, and so I took that risk. And it paid off. This isn’t a story where that plot fades into the background, though, this is literally the premise, so if it’s really not your thing, I don’t think you’d be able to enjoy this.

But if you enjoy conversations around mental health, discovering one’s true self, support for a late-stage (though it really isn’t ever too late) coming out, this’ll be right up your alley.

Charlie, one of our MCs, is cast in the role of Prince Charming in a bid to correct the damage done to his reputation when he’s ousted as co-owner of his tech company. Dev, who has worked for Ever After for six years, who still believes in happily ever afters despite the end of his six year relationship, is the one tapped to coach him through the show and the dates when it is quickly obvious Charlie has almost no social skills or ability to cope with what he’s signed up for. Soon enough, their awkward acquaintance becomes friendship and then becomes more.

Charlie was so so easy to love. Watching him bloom into someone more confident, more aware of his true self, as well as someone who was seen, and own both without reserve was just gorgeous. Dev’s character definitely took a turn I didn’t expect, which was kind of the point, though I did sometimes feel he was a little inconsistent; nothing to do with his mental health, just little blips I didn’t quite get.

Once again, it bears mentioning, I’m shocked this was a debut. This was so good. You definitely shouldn’t go into this expecting full on fluff — in addition to discussion of mental health and therapy there was some homophobia and an all-around unpleasant “villain” — and while there was one part that had me howling, it was a little more serious than it was lighthearted or comedy based (outside of the outrageous premise of the show, that is).

I can’t speak for any of the rep (please check out other reviews where you can) but I definitely felt a lot of the care the author put into handling her characters and everything that made them who they were. I would definitely recommend.

** I received an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

THE SHAADI SET-UP by Lillie Vale

In this witty and heartfelt rom-com debut for fans of Jasmine Guillory, Emily Henry, and Tessa Bailey, an Indian-American woman signs herself and her boyfriend up for a matchmaking site to prove they’re a perfect match, only to be paired with her ex instead.

High school sweethearts Rita Chitniss and Milan Rao were the golden couple, until the day he broke her heart. Now, six years later, Rita has turned her passion for furniture restoration into a career and has an almost-perfect boyfriend, Neil. The last thing she needs is for Milan to re-enter her life, but that’s exactly what happens when her mother, an unfailing believer in second chances, sets them up. Milan is just as charming, cocky, and confident as he was back in school. Only this time, he actually needs her business expertise, not her heart, to flip a hard-to-sell house for his realty agency. 

While Rita begrudgingly agrees to help, she’s not taking any risks. To prove she’s definitely over him, she signs herself and Neil up on MyShaadi.com, a Desi matchmaking site famous for its success stories and trustworthy enough to convince everyone that she and Neil are the new and improved couple. Instead, she’s shocked when MyShaadi’s perfect match for her isn’t Neil…it’s Milan. Ignoring the website and her mother is one thing, but ignoring Milan proves much more difficult, especially when she promises to help him renovate the beach house of her dreams. And as the two of them dive deeper into work—and their pasts—Rita begins to wonder if maybe her match wasn’t so wrong after all…. 


Title : The Shaadi Set-Up
Author : Lillie Vale
Format : eARC
Page Count : 368
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date : September 7, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ 


Hollis’ 2 star review

I was so excited for The Shaadi Set-Up when I first heard about it and, though it started interesting, though not very strong, I still managed to have pretty high hopes.

Hopes that were rather quickly, and dramatically, dashed.

I don’t really know how this crashed so quickly for me but nothing really fit? We are meant to believe our MC is interested enough in her boyfriend to come up with this convoluted scheme to pair up on a Desi marriage site, in order to get their parents to — independently, not as a couple — stop hassling them to marry but we’re repeatedly shown she barely tolerates the guy she’s with. So, what gives? Why bother? Why do we spend 50% of the book cycling through this process, long after we are confronted with the long-ago love who broke her heart and she’s obviously going to end up with?

That drama aside, I just found the MC — and the idiot boyfriend — pretty insufferable, annoying, and just not likeable; which made sense for the boyfriend but less so for the MC. The best friend seemed delightfully quirky but has so little page time, and later just acts too weird when she does pop up, that it doesn’t work as a fun distraction from the rest.

Of course, when we finally get all the on-page time between the MC and her ex, we drag out any kind of closure for ages, and then when things are explained it’s just.. really? Is that it? Which, is at least sorta addressed on-page, but overall it’s just not quite satisfying.

This is also right around the time that the ARC, which has the fairly common formatting weirdness, started getting really weird. Scenes seemed to jump around, feel oddly placed, details didn’t line up, and as we started to come to the big resolution moment, nothing seemed to jive properly. Whether that’s a combination of rushing the scene and just a rough draft, I don’t know. But it was very jarring.

I found in general some dialogue to be strange, too; exchanges where instead of exposition all the explanation was done in dialogue even though the conversation didn’t call for it. In a similar vein, this started out with some very adult stuff on page, which surprised me because it was like.. chapter two, maybe? I could be wrong, and then it disappears completely except for random tingles, a bunch of fade to black, and then random references to sexual acts that were performed. This felt strange and inconsistent and like the author themselves didn’t know how spicy to make this.

This could’ve been so fun but no fun was had. For those who might want to pick it up, this’ll what you’ll find : a second-chance romance (admittedly, not my favourite), but make it Desi, some forced proximity and slowburn, and enough house renovating and flipping and designing and thrifting to make you nostalgic for saturday afternoon binges of Trading Spaces and Love It or List It (or maybe these shows still exist, I don’t know, I don’t have cable); but honestly this inevitably just felt like a bunch of tropes thrown together without actually considering how all the pieces fit or how the characters fit into those pieces to make the story, the history, the angst, and the reunion, actually work.

I believe this is the author’s debut, or adult debut at least, so I imagine a lot of my issues could just be growing pains, but I didn’t come out of this with enough enjoyment to try the author again, sadly.

** I received an ARC from Edelweiss+ and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **