QUEEN OF THE TILES by Hanna Alkaf

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It’s been a whole year since Najwa last competed at Scrabble, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The stakes are always high at these competitions–or at least they seem like they are, with the hyper-competitive word-nerds clawing their way toward the top of the Scrabble hierarchy. But at the very top of the pyramid was always Trina Low.

Until last year. Until she died.

Najwa returns, still battling her grief and the gaps in her memory from that day during the last competition when her best friend Trina died on the board in the championship game. She’s here to win, not for herself, but for Trina–to keep her title as Queen of the Tiles out of the hands of the circling vultures. But the competition has barely started when Trina’s Instagram account, which has been silent for a year, starts posting, claiming that Trina was murdered. As Najwa takes up the challenge to follow the clues, she begins to uncover the darkest secrets of her competitors, and the stakes of the game have never been higher.

Fast-paced with a compelling cast of suspicious characters and an unlikely heroine, QUEEN OF THE TILES is a triumphant win for YA thriller and mystery fans. The story unfolds like a detective drama, while the undercurrent of the Scrabble competition and the persistent Instagram posts crying murder keep upping the pulse. With its appealing premise, binge-able plot, and diverse representation, this book is a must for any YA mystery/thriller collection. Highly recommended!

THE NO-SHOW by Beth O’Leary

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Valentine’s Day is perhaps the worst possible day to be stood up. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane. They don’t know each other. In fact, they don’t have much in common at all. Siobhan is a life coach who is nursing a broken heart and was looking forward to a night of passion with the hot date she sees every time she happens to be in London. Miranda lives a dangerous life as a tree surgeon and was looking forward to a quiet lunch with her boyfriend. Quiet, charity shop volunteer Jane isn’t planning to date again ever, actually, but was really hoping her friend would show up to the engagement party as her fake date so her coworkers would stop trying to set her up. But Valentine’s Day comes and goes, leaving all three women cursing the name of the man who stood them up:

Joseph Carter.

It’s Miranda who first starts to suspect that there’s something going on with Carter. Whether it’s an unexplained receipt or his mother letting slip the name Siobhan–and the fact that he seems to evade some of her most innocent questions… Could the thoughtful man she’s been seeing all this time really be a cheater? Meanwhile, Siobhan and Jane are finding their resolves to never fall in love again weaken in the face of Joseph’s charms. But there is more going on than any of them can see, and before the next Valentine’s Day rolls around, secrets are going to show up in a big way.

This is a well-crafted, moving contemporary love story about three women and one man all struggling to be true to themselves and their feelings. A heads up: if you are turned off by stories about cheating, you should know first and foremost that there is more to this story than meets the eye (or shows up in the premise on the back cover) but also that the tension throughout the majority of the book surrounding the alleged cheating makes for a stressful read if that’s not your cup of tea. So if that’s you, skip this one and pick up any other of Beth O’Leary’s fabulous books. But I will say as someone who does not like books about cheating myself, the resolution of this story (the whole last third, really) was deeply satisfying, heartwarming, and beautiful. So I do recommend this book to fans of sweet contemporary romance and “women’s fiction” provided that stories about cheating are not a major trigger for you.

FINDING GRACE by Janis Thomas

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Grace knows Louise will come rescue her from the mental hospital. It’s the whole reason she came to New York and stood up on that bridge in her underwear–to get her estranged daughter’s attention. Because the voices in Grace’s head are adamant. Someone is in danger, and this time, it’s the daughter Louise hasn’t seen since she was a baby.

Melanie has been happy in her latest foster home. Happier than she was in any of the others, anyway. Her foster mom is a little weird, but her foster dad is great. And so far she’s been able to hide the messages that come to her through the voice that writes in her journal using her hand. But the latest message sends a chill up her spine and makes her wonder whether it’s finally time to let her foster parents–or at least someone in on her secret.

Because… someone is coming…

This novel sits at an unusual intersection between psychological thriller and contemporary fiction (or “women’s fiction”). The early chapters of the book focus on multigenerational family dysfunction between Louise, her estranged mother, her late grandmother, and the daughter she gave up, while the nebulous and possibly fictitious danger hinted at by the voices in several characters’ heads keeps this thriller from being truly thrilling until well into the second half. As a result, this novel is most likely to find its readers among fans of both contemporary stories of family dysfunction and psychological thrillers who will find the beginning as captivating as the final third.

YEAR ON FIRE by Julie Buxbaum

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Maybe Immie shouldn’t have told Paige that she was the one who kissed her boyfriend. Maybe she should have told the truth–that it was really her twin brother–but that night, with her brother sobbing on the bottom bunk and the remnants of one of their father’s rages echoing through the house, keeping the secret of Arch’s sexuality seemed important. And after sixteen years of living with their father, the twins were good at keeping secrets.

With their friendship already on shaky ground, the arrival of the new boy only makes things more complicated. Paige calls dibs and Immie can’t say anything–not after what Paige thinks she did with her ex–and not even when it starts to become clear that the attraction between Immie and the new boy is very much mutual. As mysterious fires begin breaking out in their school, new relationships spark and old ones combust as the friends struggle to keep their secrets–and to know when they should let those secrets go.

Told through four alternating points of view, YEAR ON FIRE explores the limits and the power of love among friends and family. The twins wrestle with their love of their father and coming-to-terms with the ways he is abusive and the effect it has had on their lives. The new kid finds himself on a new continent, struggling to relate to his father and forgive him (or not) for the adultery that destroyed his parents’ marriage. And the wealthy best friend with the seemingly perfect life has to confront the cracks in her family and her own image and identity. There is a lot going on in this story, but the storylines are thematically parallel and therefore easy to keep track of. I’d recommend this one to teens who love weighty contemporary fiction, especially stories with multiple protagonists.

BUSINESS NOT AS USUAL by Sharon C. Cooper

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Dreamy doesn’t plan to work for her micromanaging boss forever. Soon, she’ll have completed her college degree (a little later than planned, but life happens), and then she’ll be on her way to launching her own business. Once she wins the lottery, of course. And after all the years she’s been playing, that’s got to happen soon.

But meeting multimillionaire venture capitalist Karter Redford throws all her plans into disarray–especially that plan where she wasn’t going to date anyone for a while, and certainly not another rich elite like the ex that shredded her heart and her self-confidence. Even though they both have a policy of not mixing dating with business, Dreamy and Karter keep winding up in one another’s paths, and the attraction is mutual and impossible to ignore. Could it be that finding one another was something more than coincidence? As they each wrestle with their own doubts and insecurities, they might just have to accept that a love like theirs isn’t blind luck. It might just be fate.

This romance is adorable, funny, and plenty steamy. The hero and heroine are well developed and easy to love. Because they are so easy to love, their romance itself comes fairly easily with only a handful of external obstacles, none of which come from lies or mistreatment by either of the partners. This is a novel for the romance reader who is not looking for angst and suspense but instead for a lighthearted plot that is gentle on the emotions and full of smiles.

TO MARRY AND TO MEDDLE by Martha Waters

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Julian’s proposition is perfectly logical. By gaining a respectable wife, he will be able to shake off some of the scandal that surrounds his operating a theater business. And by marrying, Emily will no longer be a pawn of her father, who plans to insist on her engagement to the loathsome man who holds his gambling debts. The marriage will be convenient to both of them.

But once she is wed, Emily finds that she is no longer content to be the perfect, respectable lady, caring for the household and the whims of the man who controls her life. She wants to be helpful to her husband in more ways than by entertaining the ladies of the ton. She wants to take an active role in her husband’s work. Julian is horrified–the entire point of the marriage was to pull his theater out of scandal, not embroil it in more! But the only thing more inconvenient to their marriage of convenience would be if Julian and Emily actually fell in love…

Waters is quickly becoming one of my favorite Regency Romance authors! She hits the tropes spot on for a fun, devourable read. Heroine and plot are both more subdued in this novel compared with the previous two of the series, but Violet and Diana and their much-aggrieved gentlemen make substantive appearances in the novel’s most hilarious scenes. (Diana and Jeremy’s wedding is quite spectacular.) I recommend this title to fans of the genre, especially the “Marriage of Convenience” trope.

DOES MY BODY OFFEND YOU? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt

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Malena didn’t want to go to school braless. Her abuela may think that large breasts is a blessing, but sometimes they are inconvenient and embarrassing. But the first degree burns on her back–the third disaster in a trifecta of tragedies, including the destruction of her home in Puerto Rico and the move to Florida–meant that wearing a bra was impossible. Unfortunately, the school administration didn’t see it that way, and they give Malena detention and force her to tape panty liners over her nipples.

Ruby hasn’t lived in Florida long but she already has a reputation as a feminist–the kind of girl who doesn’t mind announcing to her entire class that she needs a tampon. And why shouldn’t she? She has a body; she menstruates. She shouldn’t have to be ashamed of either of those facts. But when she sees another new girl in the bathroom being forced to wrap her breasts in surgical tape, Ruby knows it’s time to put her voice to better use–and she’s going to convince Malena to join her in this protest whether she wants to or not. As they take on the sexist, body-shaming administration, the girls quickly learn that activism has its price. The only thing costlier is inaction.

Unapologetically feminist with accessible voices and an inspiring storyline, DOES MY BODY OFFEND YOU? is a great pick for any fan of YA Contemporary fiction. The authors do not shy away from the realistic consequences of activism, especially for teenagers who are already bound by the rules and expectations of multiple authorities in school and their families. But the protagonists take courage in the knowledge that they are fighting for something important and morally just. Teen readers will be inspired by their story.

A DUKE, THE SPY, AN ARTIST, AND A LIE by Vanessa Riley

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Felton knows immediately that the landscape of Port Royal his friend found in Covent Garden was painted by his estranged wife–and now he has some idea of where to search for her. He doesn’t blame Cecilia for leaving him, not after he accused her of infidelity with his father. But since realizing that he was actually in love with the beautiful woman he married to save his own life when a spy mission turned deadly, he has been desperate to find her.

But Cecilia has been back on the island of her birth searching for her own family–her true family. Marriage to Felton was nothing like the adventure he promised. With him gone for months at a time on missions and most of his family discriminating against her for the color of her skin, her artistically-minded father-in-law was her only defender and source of happiness. Her husbands accusations were merely final blow to a marriage that was already dying. But when she finds her free-born sister, who was sold into enslavement by Felton’s cousin, just in time for her to die in her arms, Cecilia realizes she may have to return to her estranged husband. Because a former spy might be the only person who can help her achieve her greatest desire: revenge.

All Regency romances stretch the historical truth, embellishing the “Marriage Mart” into a ton where Dukes are plentiful and “love matches” abound. Riley allows Black characters to into that world–not only through the romanticized history of marriage in the peerage but also in the historical realities for people of color in Regency England: the tens of thousands of free Black people as well as the free and enslaved people Black people in colonized Jamaica. Riley’s romances are more history-laden than most historical romances, and her writing style is more literary, so be prepared for a slower but richer read. I highly recommend all three of Riley’s Rogues and Remarkable Women books to fans of Regency Romance novels and to fans of the Netflix series “Bridgerton.”

THE LOVE HYPOTHESIS by Ali Hazelwood

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Olive wishes she had actually paused to look at the random guy in the hallway before smashing him against the wall and kissing him. Her intentions were good. Her best friend was walking by, and if she saw her hanging around the lab at night when she was supposedly on a date, she’d know Olive had lied about dating someone. Which means she wouldn’t be willing to date Olive’s ex. Which would be unfortunate because they were clearly meant for each other. But as unfortunate as that situation might have been, it couldn’t hold a candle to the complete and utter disaster of kissing Dr. Adam Carlsen, Known Ass.

Young biologist superstar Dr. Carlsen may be an expert in making Ph.D. candidates cry and occasionally drop out of the Stanford Biology department, but he is for some reason really nice about the kiss. And actually, really nice in general. Not only does he not file a sexual harassment lawsuit, but he actually agrees to keep fake-dating Olive for her friend’s benefit. But neither of them foresees the gossip storm that will overtake them–a Ph.D. student betraying her cohort by voluntarily dating the most hated faculty advisor at Stanford. And even worse than Olive betraying her friends, her heart may be about to betray her.

This book is so, so worth the hype! I read it in a day–and then I read it again! It is swoony and emotional with thoroughly developed characters you can’t help but fall in love with (hero/heroine and secondary), and the science lab world-building is intricate and thoroughly-integrated with the plot. Although it is a workplace romance, it is NOT supervisor-employee (different labs, different projects, different specialties), and the power disparity is immediately and thoroughly addressed. It hits all the right notes for its tropes without feeling like a cookie-cutter romance. This is one of my new favorites and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

FROM A WHISPER TO A RALLYING CRY: THE KILLING OF VINCENT CHIN AND THE TRIAL THAT GALVANIZED THE ASIAN AMERICAN MOVEMENT by Paula Yoo

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In 1982, Vincent Chin and several friends went to an adult night club for his bachelor party. Hours later, two men chased Vincent down and beat him to death with a baseball bat. Over the course of five years and three trials, Vincent’s death garnered national attention. While friends and family hoped for some form of justice for his death, people around the country began to ask a question that became a political movement: would Vincent Chin be alive today if he had been white?

Through painstaking research and engrossing storytelling, Paula Yoo recreates this tragedy from the 1980s in a way that is accessible and tangible for modern audiences. She includes the wealth of facts and nuances that made the trials so complex and difficult for juries to decide, but she focuses on the humans involved in the story–from Vincent and his friends to the men who killed him to the lawyers on both sides of the case to the witnesses and activists involved in the trial. She ensures that each person’s voice is accurately and fairly represented, including the men who killed Vincent. Although the two jury in the second Civil Rights lawsuit did not feel that the prosecution proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the killing was motivated by race, the story of two white men pleading out of a murder charge for chasing down and killing a Person of Color is all-too-familiar, even three decades later, and anti-Asian hate has risen alarmingly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yoo’s recounting of the political movement that Vincent’s death inspired is a rousing call for awareness and action for readers today, highlighting the need for awareness of anti-Asian discrimination and also for reforms to the justice system that allowed men who were charged with murder to escape any jail time.