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  • Paperback Snob

Five reasons why we love Starlet Rivals by Puneet Bhandal

'The last thing I needed right now was all-out war with the most "in" girl at school...'

Boarding school, betrayal and Bollywood glamour – this book has it all. The first in Puneet Bhandal's brand new series is a riveting, rapturous read that's every bit as captivating as a show-stopping Bollywood dance. When talented 12-year-old Bela wins a scholarship at the prestigious Bollywood Academy, her world changes overnight. Bela has always dreamed of being a star but now the path to fame seems paved with obstacles. Will Bela's background be a barrier to her success and is her biggest rival trying to sabotage her? This is such an enjoyable book even if, like me, you're not hugely familiar with the world of Bollywood. While I don't know a large amount about Bollywood films or dancing, I love the aesthetics and the passion of what I have seen. One of my favourite films is a Bollywood-style retelling of Pride and Prejudice called Bride and Prejudice. I remember being really excited when Ek Tha Tiger was filmed in Dublin as I lived there at the time. And during the first lockdown of 2020, one of the things that kept me sane was a Doonya dance workout with Priya Pandya and Kagal Desai! So, just the mention of Bollywood had me intrigued and I wasn't disappointed. There are lots more reasons to love Starlet Rivals, but here are our top five...

Some of Jen Katun's gorgeous artwork

1. The ending It might seem strange to mention the ending before anything else but the ending is what I loved most about this book. I'm not going to give anything away but it is pure genius and so uplifting. It shows girls supporting one another instead of bringing each other down and demonstrates how we can fly higher when we raise each other up (even if technically we are 'enemies'!). I was reading this while sharing a room with two sleeping children and it was so hard not to whoop and cheer as I reached the finale; it's extremely comical as well as surprising. The ending is also incredibly cinematic – as is the whole book – and I would love to see it screened either as a movie or a Netflix series.

2. It's set in a boarding school From Malory Towers to Hogwarts, boarding school settings are always so appealing. And Bollywood Academy features the chance to find fame, amazing and unique classes, inspiring teachers, interesting students from all over the world and the best friends you could ask for, as well as inventive and charismatic villains.

Author Puneet Bhandal

3. It takes readers behind the scenes in Bollywood From makeup and costume to choreography, elaborate sets and even bigger egos, we get to see it all. Puneet Bhandal's masterful writing conveys all the excitement of being present at a film production so much that we feel we could be there ourselves. Instead of chapters, we have 'takes' which is an excellent touch that adds to the atmosphere, and I love how the book concludes with the line, 'It's a wrap.' It's brilliant how many of the exotic locations are real places. And the exhilarating backdrop combines with expert pacing to make Bela's meteoric rise all the more compelling.

4. It's an underdog story

Bela is an outsider trying to break into an elite and close-knit world that's filled with nepotism and privilege. She hasn't been raised on a film set like many of her classmates and isn't from an affluent background either. All of this makes Bela more relatable and gives the reader reasons to root for her. The odds against Bela make her whirlwind transformation even more satisfying and each of her successes extra triumphant.

5. Bela is an amazing character From her accomplished dancing to her witty retorts, how assertive and determined she is without ever being pushy or narcissistic, how flawed and human she is as well as how kind-hearted, Bela is just terrific. Readers will want to be like her and want a friend like her too. Despite the often overwhelming experiences, Bela never loses sight of who she is or what's important. Even when at an all-time low, Bela doesn't waste time feeling sorry for herself. She understands that, 'with opportunities come hardships,' and that despite some setbacks, she is 'growing and learning.' She's not afraid to take risks and manages to say all the things you wished you could be quick enough to say in response to nasty comments. She is exceptionally kind and loyal, and even when she gets the chance for revenge, she takes the higher ground. I loved Bela so much and felt remarkably invested in everything that happened to her. Bela's own friends, Sophie, Tara and Priyanka, are also wonderful and I found the villainous Monica irresistible too. I really cannot wait to find out what happens to Bela next and to read more about everyone and everything in Bela's universe. The beautiful cover design and the interior artwork by Jen Katun also deserve a mention - aren't they gorgeous? They really help immerse the reader in Bela's world too.

Starlet Rivals was published by Lantana in July 2022 and is available everywhere books are sold - see this book on the publisher's website Follow Bollywood Academy on Instagram About the author: Puneet Bhandal is a former Bollywood film journalist and current owner of an Indian occasionwear boutique where her dresses are modelled by real-life stars including Miss England 2021. Starlet Rivals is her debut novel. Learn more about Puneet on her author website: About the publisher: Lantana are committed to inspiring a love of reading in all children (read their mission statement). Lantana champion diversity, inclusion and under-represented voices, celebrating every kind of child and family. They run an amazing 'A book for a book' programme; for each book purchased from their website, another is donated to charity! Lantana also promote social-emotional learning and strive to maintain sustainable practices in their production and supply chains to minimise their carbon footprint. Thanks so much to the lovely people in Lantana for kindly sharing this book with me. All opinions expressed are my own.

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