Mini-Reviews: Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 1 + A Pho Love Story

Can you believe that I’ve already met my reading goal for the year? I didn’t read a ton this month, but overall this year has been kind of amazing. I’ve had so many five-star reads that I know I am going to struggle later in the year picking my very favorites. I’m so excited to bring you two five-star reviews for this mini-reviews post. Both of these brought me so much joy and I hope if they aren’t on your TBR, you add them.

Title: Witch Hat Atelier, #1 Author: Kamome Shirahama Series: Witch Hat Atelier, #1 Pages: 208 Publisher: Kodansha Comics Release Date: April 2nd 2019

"In a world where everyone takes wonders like magic spells and dragons for granted, Coco is a girl with a simple dream: She wants to be a witch. But everybody knows magicians are born, not made, and Coco was not born with a gift for magic. Resigned to her un-magical life, Coco is about to give up on her dream to become a witch…until the day she meets Qifrey, a mysterious, traveling magician. After secretly seeing Qifrey perform magic in a way she’s never seen before, Coco soon learns what everybody “knows” might not be the truth, and discovers that her magical dream may not be as far away as it may seem..."

Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 1 by Kamome Shirahama radiates joy and charm. From the very first page, you are transported to a world of magic that is both mysterious and mesmerizing. Young Coco has always been fascinated by magic and once dreamed of becoming a Witch until she learned that witches can only be born. Coco’s enthusiasm is infectious and it is so easy to fall in love with her character. She is kind and curious, but also resilient and creative. The world of magic is like an unopened box that Coco cannot resist opening, but the knowledge she gains has consequences. One of my favorite aspects of this manga is the art. Every illustration is so lively with scenes practically leaping off its pages. Its beautiful and dynamic illustrations captured movement in both an elegant and powerful way, sweeping reading off their feet and into a world like no other. Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 1 is a must for anyone looking for a manga with a heroine whose trouble-making you won’t mind following.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Title: A Pho Love Story Author: Loan Le Series: N/A Pages: 402 Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers Release Date: February 9th 2021

TW: racism, grief, anxiety

"If Bao Nguyen had to describe himself, he’d say he was a rock. Steady and strong, but not particularly interesting. His grades are average, his social status unremarkable. He works at his parents’ pho restaurant, and even there, he is his parents’ fifth favorite employee. Not ideal. If Linh Mai had to describe herself, she’d say she was a firecracker. Stable when unlit, but full of potential for joy and fire. She loves art and dreams pursuing a career in it. The only problem? Her parents rely on her in ways they’re not willing to admit, including working practically full-time at her family’s pho restaurant. For years, the Mais and the Nguyens have been at odds, having owned competing, neighboring pho restaurants. Bao and Linh, who’ve avoided each other for most of their lives, both suspect that the feud stems from feelings much deeper than friendly competition. But then a chance encounter brings Linh and Bao in the same vicinity despite their best efforts and sparks fly, leading them both to wonder what took so long for them to connect. But then, of course, they immediately remember. Can Linh and Bao find love in the midst of feuding families and complicated histories? When Dimple Met Rishi meets Ugly Delicious in this funny, smart romantic comedy, in which two Vietnamese-American teens fall in love and must navigate their newfound relationship amid their families’ age-old feud about their competing, neighboring restaurants."

Loan Le delivers an expertly paced YA contemporary with A Pho Love Story, about the children of rival Vietnamese restaurants falling in love. Bao Nguyen and Linh Mai have kept careful distance from one another over the years. They may not know why their families hate each other but they know to stay away from the other. Until one night when one of them is in desperate need and the other offers to lend a hand. Boa and Linh quickly discover how much they enjoy each other’s company. But when their tentative new friendship might turn into something romantic, they both must decide if it’s worth the risk. The more time they spend together, the more both of them want to figure out the truth behind the rift between their families, but the truth could drive them apart for good. Linh has been an artist for as long as she can remember, but painting isn’t what her parents have imagined for her when it comes to her future. Bao is feeling a bit directionless. Unlike Linh’s parents, Bao’s just wants him to find one thing he can be passionate about. Bao has never really found an avenue to express himself. When an opportunity to work more on his school newspaper comes along, Bao finds a knack for writing. I loved both Bao and Lihn’s journeys as they discovered more about themselves, their voices, and what they want out of life. A Pho Love Story is an example of how well dual POVs can work in a romance. Not only did it add insight into each character’s life, it didn’t leave readers wondering what the other character was thinking during their interactions. But it also allowed both leads to breathe and feel like real, independent characters. Loan Le’s A Pho Love Story is at its core a celebration of Vietnamese culture and bridging gaps between families and generations. And the cute love story is just the cherry on top.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev

Title: Recipe for Persuasion
Author: Sonali Dev
Series: The Rajes, #2
Pages: 464
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Release Date: May 26th 2020

TW: suicide, death of parents, PTSD, panic attacks, alcoholism, abuse, marital rape resulting in pregnancy (a character learns this is how they were conceived)

      “From the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors comes another , clever, deeply layered, and heartwarming romantic comedy that follows in the Jane Austen tradition—this time, with a twist on Persuasion.
      Chef Ashna Raje desperately needs a new strategy. How else can she save her beloved restaurant and prove to her estranged, overachieving mother that she isn’t a complete screw up? When she’s asked to join the cast of Cooking with the Stars, the latest hit reality show teaming chefs with celebrities, it seems like just the leap of faith she needs to put her restaurant back on the map. She’s a chef, what’s the worst that could happen?
      Rico Silva, that’s what.
      Being paired with a celebrity who was her first love, the man who ghosted her at the worst possible time in her life, only proves what Ashna has always believed: leaps of faith are a recipe for disaster.
      FIFA winning soccer star Rico Silva isn’t too happy to be paired up with Ashna either. Losing Ashna years ago almost destroyed him. The only silver lining to this bizarre situation is that he can finally prove to Ashna that he’s definitely over her.
      But when their catastrophic first meeting goes viral, social media becomes obsessed with their chemistry. The competition on the show is fierce…and so is the simmering desire between Ashna and Rico. Every minute they spend together rekindles feelings that pull them toward their disastrous past. Will letting go again be another recipe for heartbreak—or a recipe for persuasion…?
      In Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev once again takes readers on an unforgettable adventure in this fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy.”

Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev’s second novel in The Rajes series, inspired by Austen’s Persuasion, finds a balance between heavy topics and a touching second-chance romance. Ashna Rajes’s entire life revolves around her late father’s restaurant, Curried Dreams. With its future in the balance, Ashna agrees to take part in a new show, “Cooking with the Stars”, which pairs chefs with celebrities. What she doesn’t anticipate is being paired with Rico Silva, international soccer star and the first boy Ashna ever loved. Their meeting sets off a series of events that forces Ashna to confront her relationship with each of her parents, the choices she’s made, and the things she’s given up in order to satisfy the ghosts of her past.

Ashna carries a lot of guilt stemming from her parents’ unhappy marriage and her father’s suicide. She’s built walls around herself to protect herself from the hurt, but this also keeps her from truly experiencing happiness. Ashna has spent years bottling her emotions and though she freely shows the people she loves kindheartedness, she keeps the darker parts of herself hidden. She has sacrificed her present and her future in order to make amends, but can never really do so when the one she is trying to make it up to has already passed. The one and only time she truly let herself be selfish was with Rico. They learned to be vulnerable with one another and found solace in each other, but after Ashna’s father discovered their relationship, everything fell apart.

All of Rico’s soccer dreams have come true, but an injury has forced him into an early retirement. A friend’s impending nuptials has him reflecting on how he’s been approaching romantic relationships. He’s been unable to fully commit and this realization brings him back to Ashna. He seeks closure, but finds this new Ashna to be far different than the one he left behind. The more time he spends with her, the more the memories and feelings from the past begin to resurface. And suddenly, he finds himself desperate for Ashna to let him in again. Ashna and Rico’s reunion is tension-filled. They are both angry at how things ended and every interaction is weighed down with unsaid things. Dev writes angst so well, the amount of tortured longing is just enough to make the reader beg to see these two make their way back to each other, but not too much where it begins to get too frustrating.

Recipe for Persuasion deals with a lot of trauma (see trigger warnings). These characters have not had easy lives and so much of who they’ve become is the result of tragedy and abuse. Navigating all kinds of different relationships can be extremely difficult when so many past experiences have changed the way they emotionally engage with others. One pleasant surprise though is that the novel’s true love story is actually centered around Ashna and her mother, Shobi. These two have long been alienated from one another. Shobi’s choice to leave her daughter and pursue her passion might have been the only way for her to survive her marriage, but it left Ashna with a controlling parent who never could meet her needs. There is a lot of resentment, regret, and secrets between Ashna and her mother. They have to learn to overcome these things and allow the other to truly see them before their relationship can be mended. I feel like I should address that this isn’t a light-hearted romance by any stretch of the imagination. The book deals with a lot of trauma and while I do think it handles these well, I wish I had known how heavy it was going to be going in.

Sonali Dev’s delivers one of the most emotionally complex books I’ve ever read with Recipe for Persuasion, the second novel in The Rajes series. If you enjoy second-chance romance and complicated mother-daughter relationships, Recipe for Persuasion is a must.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Mini-Reviews: Our Way Back to Always + Join the Club, Maggie Diaz

I had another review schedule to go up with Our Way Back to Always, but could not resist pairing Nina Moreno’s middle grade debut, Join the Club, Maggie Diaz, with her sophomore book. I am officially running out of reviews, so I should probably start writing reviews again. I’ve been very lackadaisical with reviewing lately and it’s about to catch up with me >_<

Title: Our Way Back to Always Author: Nina Moreno Series: N/A Pages: 368 Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Release Date: October 19th 2021

TW: death of a parent, cancer, grief

"Luisa (Lou) Patterson grew up across the street from Sam Alvarez in the small, quirky town of Port Coral. They used to be inseparable--spending every holiday together, shooting silly YouTube videos, and rescuing stray cats. But then middle school happened, including the most disastrous (and embarrassing) serenade ever, and Lou and Sam haven't talked in the four years since. Sam is now the golden boy with plenty of friends, while Lou is an introverted romantic who's happy playing video games and writing fan fiction. But it's also the summer before their senior year, and life is knocking on Lou's door. With her older sister having given up a scholarship to Princeton to have a baby and work at the local botanica, all of their mother's expectations are now riding on Lou's shoulders. She's retaking her SAT's, signed up for way too many AP classes, and her sights set on colleges with fancy names like Duke and Vanderbilt. But when she finds the bucket list she and Sam wrote together as kids, before Sam's father was diagnosed with cancer, she's shocked to see that she hasn't accomplished any of the goals she'd set for herself. Go to a party? Nope. Pull the greatest prank of all time? Still no. Learn how to be a really good kisser? Definitely not. Torn between the future that her mother, sister, and younger self planned for her, Lou sets out to finish the list, and in a stroke of destiny or fate, Sam decides to tag along. Still trying to stay afloat amid the grief of losing his father, Sam himself is staring down a future that feels all too close, and is coming far too fast. But with the bucket list to guide them, Sam and Lou might just be able to find a way through the future, and also a way back to each other."

Nina Moreno delivers another heartwarming YA contemporary with her sophomore novel, Our Way Back to Always. Lou and Sam are entering their senior year with all the uncertainty of adulthood at their doorstep. When Lou uncovers a bucket list she and Sam made when they were kids, she is determined to finally check things off. Then Sam decides he wants in too, even though the two haven’t spoken in years. With the bucket list as their guide, Sam and Lou embark on an unforgettable year where they discover both new and old things about themselves and each other. Lou and Sam are struggling with decisions that will impact their future. Lou knows her grades and test scores leave a lot to be desired, but she is determined to get into a prestigious school. After his father’s passing, Sam can’t imagine leaving his family for college, but in order to stay, he has to let go of so many of his own dreams. He wants to be strong but his grief sometimes weighs him so far down. I really appreciated Moreno creating space for both of these characters to explore new paths for themselves. For Sam, in particular, this is important because his world has been irrevocably changed and moving forward, he has to find a way to form new dreams for himself. Lou is pushed beyond her comfort zone. It’s hard for her to trust people and let them in. I really enjoyed her new friendship with Rocky as Lou doesn’t find it easy to make new friends. As important as it was to see her open up to Sam again, I’m glad that she also found someone else to bring into her fold. Port Coral, the small sea side town shines once again in this companion novel to Don’t Date, Rosa Santos (loved the cameo as well!). From the sights and sounds to the people, this place is so full of love. Fans of Don’t Date Rosa Santos will rejoice with this one and those just being introduced to Port Coral with fall in love. Our Way Back to Always is sure to be adored by fans of small town romance and childhood friends to lovers.

★ ★ ★ ★

Title: Join the Club, Maggie Diaz Author: Nina Moreno, illustrated by Courtney Lovett Series: N/A Pages: 240 Publisher: Scholastic Press Release Date: May 17th 2022

Disclaimer: This review is based on the ARC of this book, provided by the author, which does not influence my review.

"A humorous and heartfelt middle-grade debut by Nina Moreno with illustrations by Courtney Lovett, perfect for fans of One Day at a Time and Invisible Emmie. Everyone in Maggie Diaz's life seems to be finding their true passion. The one thing that defines them as a person. Her best friends Zoey and Julian are too busy to spend time after school thanks to band and comics club. Mom is finishing her last semester in college. And of course, perfect older sister Caro has her sports and tutoring club. So Maggie cooks up a plan to try all the clubs she can! But trying to fit in with type-A future leaders, gardening wizzes, and the fearless kids in woodshop is intimidating, exhausting, and seriously confusing. And when Maggie ends up disappointing her friends, she realizes that juggling school, friends, and all of her after-school activities isn't what she expected. Finding herself might just require some surprising help and possibly a little magic from the bruja next door."

Nina Moreno debuts with a fresh middle grade voice with Join the Club, Maggie Diaz. Courtney Lovett also provides fun and lively illustrations that bring this story to life. Maggie Diaz knows she isn’t the most reliable, her grades aren’t always the best, and she could be considered flighty. But seventh grade is going to be different. Maggie is determined to succeed and show she can take on more responsibility. In hopes of obtaining her first phone and more freedom, Maggie sets off on a journey to prove that she is mature and not a little kid any more. Maggie is an easy character to like. She’s incredibly determined and earnest. Although her plans do not always work out the way she imagined in her head, you can’t help but admire her ambition and gumption. I really enjoyed reading about Maggie and her family. Her abuela recently moved into her room, creating a new and sometimes chaotic new dynamic in the household. Maggie’s been spending less time with her best friends, Julian and Zoey, as both have their own interests and clubs they’ve joined. Feeling left out, Maggie decides to her first club, Future Leaders. Of course, Maggie quickly find outs how hard it is to juggle family life, school, and extracurriculars. Join the club, Maggie Diaz is a cute, coming-of-age middle grade novel perfect for tweens just beginning to discover who they are.

★ ★ ★ ★

Mini-Reviews: Where The Rhythm Takes You + Now That I’ve Found You

How far behind am I posting reviews? Both of these are reviews of books I read way back in February! One of these was my first five-star read of the year and while I’ve had a few since then, this one renewed my need for more Jane Austen retellings by BIPOC (if you have any recs, I will gladly accept them in the comments).

Title: Where the Rhythm Takes You Author: Sarah Dass Series: N/A Pages: 352 Publisher: Balzer + Bray Release Date: May 11th 2021

TW: death of a parent, cancer diagnosis, grief

"Seventeen-year-old Reyna has spent most of her life at her family’s gorgeous seaside resort in Tobago, the Plumeria. But what once seemed like paradise is starting to feel more like purgatory. It’s been two years since Reyna’s mother passed away, two years since Aiden – her childhood best friend, first kiss, first love, first everything – left the island to pursue his music dreams. Reyna’s friends are all planning their futures and heading abroad. Even Daddy seems to want to move on, leaving her to try to keep the Plumeria running. And that's when Aiden comes roaring back into her life – as a VIP guest at the resort. Aiden is now one-third of DJ Bacchanal – the latest, hottest music group on the scene. While Reyna has stayed exactly where he left her, Aiden has returned to Tobago with his Grammy-nominated band and two gorgeous LA socialites. And he may (or may not be) dating one of them… Inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion, Where the Rhythm Takes You is a romantic, mesmerizing novel of first love and second chances."

Sarah Dass debuts with an engaging YA romance about second-chances and learning to let yourself be happy. Where the Rhythm Takes You is a Persuasion-inspired novel that takes place in Tobago. On the cusp of adulthood, Reyna is grappling with her past and the uncertainty of her future. Her best friend is bound for London while Reyna stays behind, trying to keep her mother’s hotel afloat. Her father seems content to hand over the reins of the hotel to someone else, but Reyna can’t quite let go of the last thing she has of her mother’s. When Reyna’s first love returns unexpectedly, his presence throws her carefully curated world into disarray. She is forced to come to terms with her own life decisions and how she has let grief steer her away from her dreams. Easily in my top five Jane Austen retellings, Where the Rhythm Takes You is perfect for fans of second-chance romance. Reyna tries to keep old feelings at bay, but the more time she spends around Aiden, her old flame, the harder it becomes to deny those feelings. But she is also angry and hurt and it isn’t always easy to untangle all these emotions. Mutual pining and tension make this a compulsory read. I also really loved exploring Reyna’s relationship with her mother who passed away two years prior. A lot of the responsibility Reyna places on her own shoulders is tied to this relationship in particular. Reyna hasn’t allowed herself to dream beyond the hotel for so long and she isn’t sure she can when its fate feels so tightly wound to her mother’s memory, even if some of those memories are painful. Love, grief, and second chances each have their turn in this one and will keep romance fans engaged throughout.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Title: Now That I've Found You Author: Kristina Forest Series: N/A Pages: 336 Publisher: Roaring Brook Press Release Date: August 25th 2020

"Now That I've Found You is a YA novel about searching for answers, love, and your eccentric grandma in all the wrong places. Following in the footsteps of her überfamous grandma, eighteen-year-old Evie Jones is poised to be Hollywood’s next big star. That is until a close friend’s betrayal leads to her being blacklisted . . . Fortunately, Evie knows just the thing to save her floundering career: a public appearance with America’s most beloved actress—her grandma Gigi, aka the Evelyn Conaway. The only problem? Gigi is a recluse who’s been out of the limelight for almost twenty years. Days before Evie plans to present her grandma with an honorary award in front of Hollywood’s elite, Gigi does the unthinkable: she disappears. With time running out and her comeback on the line, Evie reluctantly enlists the help of the last person to see Gigi before she vanished: Milo Williams, a cute musician Evie isn’t sure she can trust. As Evie and Milo conduct a wild manhunt across New York City, romance and adventure abound while Evie makes some surprising discoveries about her grandma—and herself."

Kristina Forest delivers a winning sophomore novel with Now That I’ve Found You, a YA contemporary with a focus on a grandmother-granddaughter relationship. Evie Conoway has big dreams for herself. She wants to follow in the footsteps of her grandmother, Gigi, a legendary Hollywood starlet. After a video leaks of Evie mocking a famous director, her career is completely derailed. Unsure of her next step, Evie reaches out to one of her only constants, her grandmother, who she is hoping can help revitalize her career. But before Evie can find the courage to ask for her assistance, Gigi disappears. Now, with the help of Milo, a young musician who has befriended her grandmother, Evie embarks on a search to find her and save the tattered remains of her career. Now That I’ve Found You is a journey of self-discovery. Evie is forced to examine her own motivations and to reevaluate who she has become in recent years. The more she learns about her grandmother, the more she begins to realize that the loneliness she’s been feeling is reflected in her grandmother as well. This novel also deals with a friendship breakup and how a betrayal of a friend makes it harder to open up and trust again. Evie’s relationship with Milo is unexpected and sweet, even with its ups and downs. I really enjoyed getting to know Milo’s band and how it gave Evie a taste of what having a supportive friend group is like, something she has never had. Now That I’ve Found You really stands out amongst YA contemporaries as a novel that focuses largely on the main character’s relationship with her grandmother. Kristina Forest’s second novel is a must read for those looking for a coming of age YA that centers familial relationships.

★ ★ ★ ★