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For their entire lives, Penny and Tate have orbited each other reluctantly. Since before Penny and Tate were born, their moms, Lottie and Anna, have been attached at the hip, and this permanent package deal means constant, unwanted proximity for the two daughters. See, Penny and Tate are not friends. They’re also not not friends. They just . . . can’t seem to stop almost kissing at extremely inopportune moments. 

But Tate lives with the ever-present threat that her mom’s illness, a genetic condition that impacts Anna’s lungs and liver, will spiral out of control, while Penny lives in the aftermath of a horrific rafting accident that took her father’s life. Penny’s mom, Lottie, has been distant and cold in the two years since the accident, and Penny tries to tiptoe around her while working through her own grief and guilt.

So when Lottie decides to become a living liver donor for Anna and combine their two households to save money while they recover, it’s a shock to the fragile ecosystem that Penny has so carefully constructed. There’s no way she and Tate can survive an entire summer in the same house without exploding, so they decide to call a truce. Its terms include no fighting, no snitching, equitable division of labor and no stressing out their moms. Unfortunately for Penny and Tate, some things between them just can’t stay buried forever, truce or not.

6 Times We Almost Kissed (and One Time We Did) may sound like the title of a sweet, comedy-of-errors rom-com, but Tess Sharpe’s novel is not so fluffy. Although inspired by the “five things” fan-fiction story concept, the book playfully subverts reader expectations by being about much more than six near kisses. Penny and Tate’s story is rich with the complexity of friendship and family and the messiness of grief. Their relationship leans heavily into a number of classic rom-com tropes, including “only one bed,” roommates and height differences. Both girls are well-drawn, grounded characters, and their internal struggles feel emotional and realistic.

One of the novel’s strongest subplots is the arc of Penny’s relationship with her mom. Sharpe never suggests that a relationship as fraught as theirs can be easily fixed with apologies or in a single conversation. Indeed, she acknowledges that such a relationship might not be possible to repair. Teen readers with difficult parental situations of their own will feel validated by the nuance Sharpe brings to this portrayal.

Sharpe untangles the knotted web of her novel with exacting balance and grace while never compromising the love story at its core. This swoony, Sapphic story is sure to please readers who like their romance with a side of emotional devastation.

This love story between two girls who can’t seem to stop almost kissing at inopportune moments is rich with friendship, family and the messiness of grief.
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Three teenagers fight back against sinister supernatural forces in their New England town in Rochelle Hassan’s debut YA novel, The Buried and the Bound, the first volume of a planned trilogy. 

The world’s witches are born with specific gifts, and Lebanese American hedgewitch Aziza El-Amin’s gift—and responsibility—is maintaining boundaries, particularly magical ones. Her hometown of Blackthorn, Massachusetts, contains numerous borders between the real world and the magical realm of Elphame, so Aziza regularly patrols the city, closing any gaps and ensuring visitors from Elphame don’t harm the humans of Blackthorn. 

While on patrol, Aziza arrives on the scene of a shocking magical attack, where she meets Leo, who has been searching for a way to break the curse placed on his family. Meanwhile, a lonely teen named Tristan grows desperate to escape his contract with a cruel, powerful hag, but he can’t seem to find a way out that doesn’t endanger his loved ones. The weakening boundary between Blackthorn and Elphame brings Aziza, Leo and Tristan together to solve these problems and more. Accustomed to her solitary patrols, Aziza is slow to trust but grudgingly admits that Leo and even eventually Tristan make her job as Blackthorn’s hedgewitch easier and less isolating.

In this story of friendship and family, classic folkloric creatures such as kelpies, hags and the Fair Folk collide with the mundanities of contemporary high school life, with a strong helping of romantic melodrama on the side. Dead parents, lost loves and desperate acts drive the plot and add a touch of gothic flair. The theme of generational trauma is skillfully woven throughout, as family secrets, shames and losses lurk in each protagonist’s past. Hassan imbues Aziza, Leo and Tristan with such rich personalities and backstories that the novel would feel crowded as a standalone tale. Knowing that each of their stories will unfold over a trilogy makes this first book’s unresolved narrative threads easier to accept.

As she brings a Lebanese immigrant family into the heart of a witches-in-New England tale, Hassan deftly highlights magic’s global presence. Although Aziza’s magical specialty is maintaining borders, her sprawling world of magic illustrates the rewards that await readers when fantasy reaches beyond white, Eurocentric inspirations and characters. Imaginative and urgently paced, The Buried and the Bound will be enjoyed by fans of Holly Black, S. Jae-Jones and Alix E. Harrow.

Classic folkloric creatures collide with the mundanities of contemporary high school life in this imaginative and urgently paced fantasy novel.

Two South Jersey boys find love in this beautifully wrought debut novel from New Jersey native James Acker.

Rising senior Sebastian “Bash the Flash” Villeda is a popular track star at Moorestown High School, which has allowed him to get away with being a jerk for years. Grieving the death of his mother, Bash won’t let anyone in—not his hardworking stepfather, his ex-girlfriend, Luce, or even Matty, his supposed best friend, whom Bash can’t stand hanging out with anymore. Bash is weary of his tough-guy facade, but he doesn’t know how to change it. He’d rather sprint away from his feelings than face them.

Enter Sandro Miceli, whose shot put is as good as Bash’s 200-meter dash. Cruelly nicknamed “the Italian Yeti” by his classmates because he’s tall and hirsute, Sandro also struggles with the deep-seated anger issues he’s developed due to the behavior of his oppressive, insensitive family. He is terrified that his homophobic father and brothers will find out that he’s gay, and he dreams of attending college out of state, where he’ll be able to love who he wants without his family knowing.

James Acker explains why he wrote the love story he never got in ‘The Long Run.’

When Bash and Sandro connect at an end-of-summer party, all of that begins to change. During the year that follows, what starts as a genuine friendship leads to romance and forces the boys to explore aspects of themselves they both hoped never to confront.

The Long Run is a raw, emotional love story anchored in two journeys of self-discovery. Sandro knows who he is: an angry, neglected softy who can’t stand up to his family, which he describes as “a screaming match in a crowded restaurant personified.” Meanwhile, Bash only knows who he doesn’t want to be: a high-profile athlete who gets roped into fistfights with kids from the rival track team.

The most honest bond the two boys have is with each other, and Acker handles every aspect of their relationship with great care. His frank depictions of their sexual interactions are particularly well done, with awkwardness and enthusiasm that feel romantic yet realistic. There’s plenty of humor, too, including excellent banter that’s resplendent with New Jersey vernacular and slang.

The Long Run is a stunning novel about two boys who discover happiness and hope in the unlikeliest of places: each other. 

Read a Behind the Book essay by ‘The Long Run’ author James Acker.

Resplendent with authentic and often hilarious New Jersey vernacular, The Long Run is a raw, emotional love story anchored in two journeys of self-discovery.
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Thanks to her mom’s successful career at a global consulting firm, 17-year-old Eliza Lin is used to starting over, but she’s tired of becoming “attached to people only to grow apart” when she inevitably moves again. So when she has to post a personal essay to a student-run blog at her new school in Beijing, she tries to fly under the radar with a piece about how she met her lovely but totally fictional boyfriend. 

To Eliza’s dismay, her essay goes viral overnight, landing her an internship offer from Craneswift, her favorite online publication—if she’ll keep writing about her relationship for them. Desperate to keep up the charade, Eliza forms a pact with her new neighbor and classmate Caz Song, who also happens to be a handsome up-and-coming actor. Together, they put on the performance of a lifetime. That is, until it starts to feel a little too real for Eliza.

In her second novel, author Ann Liang immerses readers in Eliza’s life, capturing facets of modern adolescence in a funny, clever and moving voice. Eliza wants to be a writer, and her narration is filled with thoughtful reflections on everyday teenage experiences. Though she tries to maintain emotional distance from her peers, she’s wonderfully open with the reader about her feelings of angst, confusion and even fear, making her a relatable character whose story resonates deeply. 

Eliza’s viral essay sets off big changes in her relationships and her worldview. Her fabricated romance with Caz is a highlight, but Liang also explores Eliza’s connections with her family, her long-distance best friend and her new boss at Craneswift. Many characters experience nuanced arcs of their own, such as Zoe, Eliza’s BFF, who seems to be pulling away from their friendship, and Emily, Eliza’s little sister, who might be less mature than she initially appears. Liang never neglects the important roles these relationships play in Eliza’s life in favor of romance.

Ultimately, This Time It’s Real satisfies because all of the parts of Eliza’s life—romance, vocation, friendship and more—are inextricable from her changing understandings of home, love and identity. Though romance is a key element in Eliza’s story, the novel’s true focus is on Eliza as she learns to embrace honesty and vulnerability and rises to the challenge of becoming a fuller, braver version of herself. 

Readers in search of a sweet romance with a meaningful coming-of-age story at its heart should look no further than This Time It’s Real.

Though romance is a key element in This Time It’s Real, the novel’s true focus is Eliza’s process of learning to embrace honesty and vulnerability and becoming a fuller, braver version of herself.
Behind the Book by

When Sandro and Bash connect at a party before the beginning of their senior year of high school, they’re surprised by an honest, genuine friendship that grows into something deeper. The Long Run is a frank, funny and beautifully written story about two South Jersey boys finding happiness and hope in the unlikeliest of places: each other. In this original essay, author James Acker reflects on the personal experiences that did—and didn’t—inspire his first book.

I’m 10 and I’m freezing. I’m sitting on top of the rotted wooden playhouse in the biggest tree in Gavin’s backyard. He’s already jumped and the rope’s been returned to me and he’s screaming: Jump! Jump! I jumped, you jump! That was the rule! And I know I’ll be fine because Gavin is fine but he’s always been luckier than me. Jump! Jump! You’ll regret it if you don’t! But I know I won’t jump because I know other ways down. I’ve got something to prove, but it’s not worth the broken ankle. Jump! Don’t you wanna say you did?

I’m 13 and I’m freezing. I’m wandering around an abandoned house on Main Street with boys I won’t be friends with much longer. The house is old and no one’s lived there for years and it was easy enough to break into. I know we shouldn’t be there, but something keeps me wandering. Jump! Jump! You’ll regret it if you don’t! RJ finds a kid’s growth chart inside the closet of what must’ve been a child’s bedroom. It’s in crayon and faded and she only grew to 4 and a half feet. I decide it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen and RJ puts his foot through it. The boys tear the house apart, and today, I am one of the boys. I want to destroy. Jump! Jump! I want the story. Don’t you wanna say you did?

I’m 16 and I’m freezing. I’m in my driveway at 3 in the morning, throwing out bedsheets because my wrestling diet has gotten away from me again. I remind myself that shame is part of growing up. I remind myself that all of this will be useful to me one day. I remind myself that new bedsheets will cost more than new laxatives, and I remind myself that Steph from bio said I was looking real sexy lately. Jump! And if I keep looking sexy and I keep making weight, maybe I’ll start making better memories. I’ll finally start enjoying myself. My high school experience. My childhood. Jump, James! If I leave with the right memories, I’ll have done my job. You’ll regret it if you don’t! If I leave with the right stories, this will all have been worth it. Don’t you wanna say you did?

It’s hard not to think that I’m only writing coming-of-age stories because I don’t like my own. My childhood felt like “Supermarket Sweep”: Fill your shopping cart with whatever you can find. Experience what you can while you can. You’ll sort through it all after time runs out. Jump. I’ve spent a lot of my 20s sorting out my shopping cart. My debut novel is dropping right before I turn 30, and I’ve begun to wonder if my stories are all that interesting. Did I receive store-brand trauma? Was there anything unique in all that crying? Should I have stopped my sweep and considered what I was grabbing before moving on to the next aisle?

“As an adult, I can look at my childhood with a warm, detached fondness. But if I could speak to myself at that age again, I would ask him to live in the moment. Not for the moment.”

The Long Run began as an attempt at capturing what my life felt like in high school. The desire to get this story out had been a long time coming, and I expected all the right anecdotes to present themselves in a polite single-file line. I’d spent a childhood collecting these memories. Where else were they supposed to go? The sweep was over. The buzzer had rung. Now was the time to prove that it had all been worth it. The stories meant something, so why was I staring at an empty page? Every idea for a chapter stayed a bullet point. None of my anecdotes would fill in their blanks. I had nothing.

So I wrote something else. I couldn’t write a memoir, so I wrote what could have happened. I used everything in my shopping cart, everyone I’d met and everything I did, and I wrote a different story. A familiar story. I filled my little New Jersey suburb with different boys in familiar houses. Different names with familiar struggles. I wrote about kids I wished I’d been friends with. Parties I wish I hadn’t skipped, meals I wish I’d eaten, conversations I wish I’d had. And if I couldn’t put myself on the page, I’d split that angry, crying boy into Sandro and Bash. Two parts of myself that never agreed. A lover and a fighter. An asshole and a crybaby. I wrote the love story I never got between two boys I always knew. If I couldn’t agree on my story, I could at least tell theirs.

As an adult, I can look at my childhood with a warm, detached fondness. But if I could speak to myself at that age again, I would ask him to live in the moment. Not for the moment. That kid did so much just for the story, just to say he’d done it, and today I’m left with shreds. Wonderful shreds, but incomplete stories. Sparks of a feeling, never the full picture. 

Writing The Long Run felt like filling in those blanks. Connecting the dots between those snapshots of childhood. A morning on a rooftop. A night in a driveway. Flashbulbs of memories, finally put down to paper. It felt like a lifetime of collection finally coming together. Even if some memories didn’t make the cut, those moments still mattered. They were still useful. Every story mattered. And I’ll spend the rest of my career as a writer trying to put them all together.

Read our starred review of James Acker’s ‘The Long Run.’

Author photo of James Acker courtesy of Bernadette Bridges.

The debut author set out to write a memoir, but when his high school experiences refused to coalesce into prose, he had to find a new way to tell his story.

In June 1994, the small town of Henley, Ohio, was devastated by a tornado, a flash flood and its first and only murder—still unsolved—all in the span of one week now known as “the long stretch of bad days.” Thirty-ish years later, aspiring journalist Lydia Chass learns that she is one history credit shy of meeting graduation requirements, due to an error by her guidance counselor, who has substance abuse issues. So Lydia’s principal makes her a deal: In exchange for keeping quiet about the counselor, Lydia will use her podcast to tell the story of that week in June and earn her missing credit. 

Lydia needs access to the unsavory parts of Henley, so she recruits Bristal Jamison to be her co-host. Bristal and her family have a reputation in Henley for criminality, but despite her bad-girl persona, Bristal is determined to become the first person in her family to graduate high school. When Lydia and Bristal’s inquiry reveals that a teenage girl also went missing during the long stretch of bad days, their investigation shakes loose a killer. 

A Long Stretch of Bad Days reads like a clever buddy-cop mystery, but the buddy cops are a pair of determined teen girls with something to prove. Lydia’s father is a defense attorney whose advocacy on behalf of violent criminals often draws Henley’s ire, and Lydia is sick of constantly projecting a nice, polite image to people who seem to actively hate her. Meanwhile, Bristal chafes at Henley’s assumptions about girls in her family (that they’re usually pregnant before graduation, and that they never marry their children’s fathers). Together, Lydia and Bristal form an excellent team, with Bristal bringing necessary comic relief to Lydia’s seriousness.

Author Mindy McGinnis often explores feminist themes in her fiction, and here she explores the societal expectations faced by young women in small-town America. As Lydia exposes Henley’s underbelly, she is constantly reminded not to ruffle any feathers and not to portray anyone too negatively. Henley’s hermetic hold means that most of its residents can trace their lineage back to the town’s founders. No one moves away; instead, generations upon generations live within Henley’s boundaries and hide its secrets, perpetuating a cycle of protecting one’s own at the expense of outsiders.

Despite the serious subjects at its core, A Long Stretch of Bad Days uses humor and poignant emotion to build a well-crafted murder mystery that is hard to put down and even harder to forget.

A Long Stretch of Bad Days reads like a clever buddy-cop mystery, but the buddy cops are a pair of determined teen girls with something to prove.
Review by

Clara dreams of becoming a Council-certified witch, but her magic is strange and unpredictable—so much so that a simple touch accidentally curses her father, making poisonous flowers grow inside his body. Desperate to save him, Clara turns to Xavier Morwyn, a talented Councilmember who was once her best friend. The two rekindle their connection as they work toward a cure, but as Clara learns about her old friend and her own magic, she also uncovers a dark secret plaguing the land. There could be more to Clara’s past—and to Xavier—than even Clara herself realizes. 

Flowerheart, the first YA fantasy novel from author Catherine Bakewell (We Are the Song), is a romantic mystery, its plot propelled by the questions Clara must answer: What is the unknown potion wreaking havoc across the country, and how is it connected to Clara’s estranged mother? Why, after avoiding her for years, is Xavier agreeing to help her now, and should she trust him?

Bakewell’s vision of magic is unique and effective. Instead of existing as a static source of energy, magic in Flowerheart is almost a sentient force, a character with its own will, motivations and personality. As the book opens, it plays a villainous role, actively working against Clara’s wishes and goals. Eventually, it becomes both an ally and a clear reflection of Clara’s psyche. The ability to perform magic stems from emotion and intention, enabling Bakewell to draw parallels between Clara’s struggles with anxiety and self-image and the difficulties she experiences with her magic.

Although it’s filled with danger and darkness, Flowerheart maintains an incredibly cozy atmosphere. Clara’s magic often manifests in flowers whose symbolic meanings reflect her true feelings, she and Xavier create potions using natural ingredients and imbued with good intentions, and many characters connect through the sharing of food. Peppered with moving moments of comfort, self-reflection and joy, Flowerheart is an intimate, charming read. 

This romantic fantasy about a girl who must master her unruly magic to save her father’s life is peppered with moments of comfort, self-reflection and joy.
Review by

Seventeen-year-old Jade Nguyen has never forgiven her father for leaving his family in the U.S. and returning to Vietnam. Until this summer, Jade had never visited her parents’ home country, and she isn’t looking forward to the trip. But Ba has made her a deal: If she’ll spend the summer with him in the French colonial villa he’s rehabbing, he’ll give her the money she desperately needs to pay for college in the fall. So she and her younger sister make their way to Da Lat and to Nha Hoa (“Flower House”), nestled in a forest of pines. Trapped in a place that isn’t home with little in the way of companionship, Jade grudgingly works on the future bed-and-breakfast’s website. 

But Nha Hoa soon reveals itself to be more than just a house: It is where Jade’s ancestors worked and toiled for French soldiers, a site of violence done in the name of duty. Jade wakes every night paralyzed and drenched in sweat as figures move on the edge of her vision. Ba works himself to the bone fixing pockmarked walls and rat-infested pipes, but the core of the house remains fetid with rot. Something is eating its way through Nha Hoa and into the minds of its inhabitants, and it refuses to remain in the shadows for much longer.

Trang Thanh Tran’s debut novel, She Is a Haunting, is a welcome addition to the quickly growing canon of culturally diverse, queer horror. Jade’s story is clearly influenced by Shirley Jackson’s iconic gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House, in which self-inflicted psychic damage is as tangible as any physical threat. Like Jackson, Tran mirrors Jade’s claustrophobic paranoia through setting and atmosphere. Just as Jackson’s protagonist suffers from her surreal and isolating surroundings at Hill House, so too is Jade afflicted by the oppressive humidity and unfamiliarity of Vietnam. 

Jade is haunted both by actual ghosts and the specters of colonialism, which take the form of not-so-subtly racist American expats and the crumbling French villas that dot the countryside around Nha Hoa. She is plagued by visions of ruined insects and decay, and she dreams of memories that are not her own, all while attempting to keep a lid on the resentment she feels toward Ba—and herself. 

Jade’s first-person narration is sometimes bogged down as she prevaricates about her feelings, which leaves some of the horror elements to fall a bit flat. Nevertheless, She Is a Haunting successfully combines the alluring aesthetic of gothic ghost stories with the complexity of contemporary immigration narratives. The result is an atmospheric horror novel that teens with a penchant for the grotesque will delight in unfolding, bit by rotting bit.

Trang Thanh Tran’s debut novel, She Is a Haunting, is a welcome addition to the quickly growing canon of culturally diverse, queer horror.
Review by

Twelve teenage pilots, each representing a different European country. Four adult chaperones. One route through seven major European cities. And one race organizer who hopes to demonstrate how youth sport and its accompanying pageantry hold the power to promote international cooperation and peace. But it’s late August 1937, and Europe teeters on the brink of war.

Seventeen-year-old Stella North is the only female competitor in the fictional Circuit of Nations Olympics of the Air (inspired by the real-life Women’s Air Derby of 1929). She’s flying for the United Kingdom despite having little connection to it; her family left their native Russia as refugees when Stella was very young. At the Salisbury airfield, where the first leg of the race will begin, Stella dodges prying questions from the press and seemingly omnipresent photographers as she tries to manage her nerves. But once she’s aloft and soaring over the English Channel, she witnesses something she wasn’t supposed to see, and when the contestants reassemble at their destination in Belgium, only 11 pilots can be found. The 12th has disappeared. 

Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity won a Printz Honor in 2013 for its twisty, suspenseful portrayal of young female pilots serving in Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II. Stateless is sure to satisfy fans of that novel and its related works (Rose Under Fire, The Pearl Thief, The Enigma Game), as Wein once again showcases her talent for writing feminist historical mysteries. Interpersonal dramas among the racing pilots smartly mirror the international conflicts that surround them, and the air race offers an ideal venue for Wein to incorporate the details of early aviation that have become one of her calling cards. 

The solution to the central mystery unfolds amid missing items, unlikely lookalikes, unexpected telegrams and suspected sabotage; careful readers may catch clues that Stella misses. Even the novel’s table of contents, structured around a well-known passage from John Donne, is part of the storytelling. Emerging friendships (and possibly more), along with questions of identity, add a human element to the pilots’ discussions of complex politics, such as the bombing of Guernica, Spain, and the imprisoning of political dissidents in a concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. Grim situational irony balances out any Hunger Games-esque vibe, as contemporary readers know where these historical events will lead, but the characters don’t.

Grab your goggles and fasten your flight harness: Stateless is a wild ride from takeoff to landing.

Elizabeth Wein showcases her talent for writing feminist historical mysteries in Stateless, a standalone novel sure to satisfy longtime fans.
Review by

Second-generation Syrian American Khadija Shaami lives to buck the expectations of others, especially her overbearing mother. She loves driving her huge, luxurious Mercedes-Benz G-wagon, has decked out her bedroom with Syrian flags and artwork and is the only Muslim girl who boxes at her gym. Leene Taher, a refugee from Syria, seems to embody all the stereotypes Khadija wants to defy. Leene is a respectful, diligent daughter who’s grieving the loss of her father and brother while trying her best to fit in and make friends in a new country. When Khadija’s mother invites Leene and her mother to live with them and all but insists that the girls become friends, both are positive that it will never happen.

Yet as time passes, Khadija and Leene realize that their differences might be useful to each other. Khadija can help Leene find her place in America, and Leene can help Khadija placate her mother and earn permission to travel abroad next summer. But as the two begin to reveal their secrets to each other, an opportunity arrives that could heal their families and cement their friendship—if they’re brave enough to pursue it.

The Next New Syrian Girl is a heartbreaking but hopeful story about two girls trying to do right by their families while finding their own independent paths. Syrian American debut author Ream Shukairy balances moments of joy—scenes at Khadija’s boxing gym, shared rides in the car that Leene dubs “the Tank” and a particularly funny reference to popular professional wrester John Cena—with weighty themes, including grief, depression, suicide, racism and war.  

The book’s brightest light is Shukairy’s depiction of how Khadija and Leene embrace their identities and come to value their unique passions and dreams. Their distinct voices flow well together within the novel’s dual-narrative structure, offering portrayals of two young women who refuse to let simplistic definitions rule their lives. This refusal is often literal, as Khadija frequently offers up dictionary-style vocabulary explanations before countering them with her own perspective, and Leene is equally fascinated by the concept of semantics, “the meaning of words based on context.” 

The Next New Syrian Girl could be more consistently paced—it’s front-loaded with repetitious details and races through its back half—but the large cast of supporting characters provides ample rewards. Standouts include Khadija’s emotionally complex mother and her kindhearted crush at the gym. Shukairy skillfully illuminates the many ways that Khadija’s and Leene’s lives are shaped by the presence and the absence of loved ones, and these dynamics lead to rich contrasts throughout. 

For readers who enjoy heart-wrenching, character-driven novels, The Next New Syrian Girl establishes Shukairy as a new author to watch. 

Ream Shukairy’s portrayal of two young women who refuse to let simplistic definitions rule their lives establishes her as a new author to watch.
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Madeline Hathaway grew up traveling the country with her family and working a circuit of Renaissance faires. While living in an RV and going to school online, Maddie spent her days surrounded by faux kings and wizards. She was happy with this unconventional upbringing until her mother died of cancer. 

Now, almost a year after her mother’s death, Maddie constantly searches for ways to grief-proof her life. She keeps a journal filled with “noticing pages,” where she tallies everything from therapy sessions to cups of tea. She believes that if she can observe and record everything, she’ll be able to keep all the mundane, precious details of the people she loves safe in her memory.

But when the circuit brings Maddie and her father back to Stormsworth, her mother’s favorite and final fair, it’s no longer the same as in Maddie’s perfectly protected memories. Stormsworth’s new owners have made big changes, turning the previously quaint fair into a high-budget attraction. 

What’s more, cheerful Arthur, the son of Stormsworth’s new owners, seems determined to break down all the careful castle walls Maddie has built around her heart. Arthur insists on calling Maddie “Gwen” and declares that it’s her destiny to play the role of the fair’s princess, then drags her into the part. But could this charming bard with a penchant for playing pop songs on his lute have ulterior motives? Maddie’s grumpy resistance to Arthur’s unbridled enthusiasm makes for an entertaining dynamic full of banter and slow-burn sweetness. 

‘The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway’ author Ashley Schumacher explains why she hopes her novel will be an oasis for readers “struggling to see the beauty and validity of their own bodies.”

Amid all the courtly whimsy, Maddie’s feelings of grief are grounded and tender, with her journals and other coping mechanisms providing insight into her quiet desperation for control over her life. Maddie’s love for her mother is gently but powerfully woven throughout her first-person narration, as every aspect of the newly transformed Stormsworth calls bittersweet memories to mind. 

Compounding these emotions are other relatable teenage worries, such as a lack of experience with her peers after a lifetime of home-schooling and feelings of self-consciousness and ambivalence toward how the world perceives her as a girl in a larger body. Author Ashley Schumacher treats all of Maddie’s emotions with the care they deserve, making each catharsis she experiences feel like a triumph.

The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway is a funny, sincere story of healing grief and blooming love in a place where the dragons might be papier-maché, but the magic is real.

Read a Behind the Book essay by ‘The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway’ author Ashley Schumacher.

Ashley Schumacher’s third novel is a funny, sincere story of healing grief and blooming love in a place where the dragons might be papier-mache, but the magic is no less real.

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