Magic for Liars: A Review

Magic For Liars by Sarah GaileyIvy has never been magic. She has gotten used to the bitter ordinariness–especially whenever she is compared to her identical twin sister Tabitha, a magic prodigy.

Ivy never wanted to be magic, really. But she still wonders if it wouldn’t have made some things easier. Tabitha is able to get rid or freckles that plague both of them, her eyes always sparkle a bit more, and everything seems to come much more easily for her. People never stick to Ivy and she wonders sometimes if she had been magic if that might have been different.

Ivy knows exactly who she is: the half-feral detective with the perpetual hangover, covered in ink and smudges, devoid of magic. She knows that isn’t an Ivy anyone would want.

When she is hired to investigate a grisly murder at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages where Tabitha teaches Theoretical Magic, Ivy thinks it could be her chance to make good as an investigator. It might be her chance to be a different Ivy and, if she does things right, it could change everything.

But being around so much magic and so many what-ifs is intoxicating. As questions arise and the suspect list grows, Ivy will have to keep her head clear if she wants to get to the truth in Magic for Liars (2019) by Sarah Gailey.

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Magic for Liars is a standalone fantasy noir mashup complete with a flawed detective as the protagonist.

Ivy has spent most of her life lonely and starved for attention. Being in her head is hard, but it’s supposed to be as her inner turmoil plays out against the larger backdrop of the murder investigation.

Magic for Liars is a mystery wrapped around a sometimes painful examination of the stories we tell ourselves in an effort to make the world see us the way we wish it would. A tightly paced, largely flawless mystery that delivers on every front. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Storm Front by Jim Butcher, The Secret Place by Tana French, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Once Broken Faith by Seanan McGuire, The Rook by Daniel O’Malley,, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Girl, Serpent, Thorn: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa BashardoustSoraya knows all about stories. She knows about princesses and monsters. Most of all, she knows which role she plays in her own story.

She is a princess, yes. But the princesses in stories don’t have to be hidden away as a secret. The princesses in stories are not cursed with a poisonous touch.

Soraya has always known she is dangerous both in truth because of the poison running in her veins but also as an idea. How can anyone trust her twin brother to rule as the shah of Atashar if they find out about Soraya and what she can do?

When her search for answers and a way to break the curse lead Soraya to a guard who claims he can see her for more than her poison and a prisoner in the dungeons who may have the answers Soraya needs, she will have to decide if she will be a princess or a monster in Girl, Serpent, Thorn (2020) by Melissa Bashardoust.

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Bashardoust’s sophomore novel is steeped in Persian culture and folklore drawing inspiration from “The Shahnameh” as well as traditional European fairy tales and Zoroastrianism.

At the start of Girl, Serpent, Thorn Soraya’s world is claustrophobic. She has spent years in isolation and is starved for affection and human contact–things that she fears are impossible for her to ever receive because of her curse.

Soraya’s desperation to break her curse lead her to difficult choices that threaten both herself and her family’s legacy. Although these twists are heavily broadcast the emotional resonance is strong as Soraya deals with the consequences of her actions and strives to do better both for herself and those she cares about.

The book’s love triangle often feels suspect as all characters involved lie and manipulate to get what they want. This dynamic does little to diminish the chemistry between Soraya and Parvaneh and further underscores the hard won respect and trust that becomes a foundation of their relationship.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is an evocative, tantalizing tale. Recommended for anyone who has ever wondered what really separates a hero (or a princess) from a monster.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

If We Were Villains: A Review

If We Were Villains by M. L. RioSeptember 1997: Oliver Marks is finishing his fourth and final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois. After surviving the yearly cuts to his acting program as students fail to meet expectations, it feels like the world is laid at his feet. Everything is ahead of him. This year, it seems, anything can happen.

It will take months for Oliver to realize how right he is.

Ten years later Oliver is finishing the final days of his decade-long prison sentence when the man who arrested him arrives with a surprising ask. Detective Colborne is retiring, leaving his life with the police behind. But he wants answers first. He wants to know what happened at Dellecher all those years ago and, this time, he wants to know the truth.

Returning to the scene of the crime–of so many smaller crimes, if he’s being honest–Oliver sets the scene for Colborne as he remembers that final year with the players in this tale: Richard the tyrant, Alex the villain, James the hero, Wren the ingenue, Meredith the temptress, and Filippa–the one everyone always forgets, always to their disadvantage. And then there’s Oliver, never quite sure where he fits on stage or off.

After three years of settling into roles they seem to know by heart, everything changes during their final year. One of the seven is dead. More than one of them is guilty. One will take the blame. And, ten years later, Oliver will finally tell the truth in If We Were Villains (2017) by M. L. Rio.

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Rio’s debut novel is part atmospheric thriller, part suspenseful mystery all steeped in Shakespeare and the dangerous energy that can make relationships both exhilarating and toxic.

Structured as a play, the story unfolds over five acts as Oliver narrates key scenes with prologues before each act where he further sets the scene for Colborne. This character driven story is dynamite building slowly to an explosive and often surprising conclusion enhanced by Rio’s excellent foreshadowing and parallels to Shakespearean tragedies.

While If We Were Villains keeps a tight focus on Oliver and his fellow theater students, not all characters are created equal. Oliver and James in particular are so nuanced and so authentically flawed that the other characters often seem flat in comparison as they play to type (this may in part be due to Oliver’s own lens as narrator but still felt like something that could be explored more). Meredith and Wren are especially are disappointingly lacking in depth returning, again and again, to the same concerns and the same shortcomings while Filippa remains, in many ways, a mystery herself.

Set in 1997 and 2007, If We Were Villains is surprisingly hesitant to consider sexuality beyond binaries. While some characters are, understandably, hesitant to let themselves be labeled the novel as a whole refuses to even consider the possibility of both bisexuality and pansexuality as queer identities. This is not damaging to the story but it is erasure worth considering when deciding whether or not to consider this title.

If We Were Villains is a tense, thoughtfully executed story of love, obsession, and missed chances. Perfect for readers fascinated by all-consuming relationships, drama in the classic sense, and of course Shakespeare in every sense. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Macbeth by William Shakespeare, King Lear by William Shakespeare, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Hunted by the Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Every heart holds a warrior. Some are born, some are made, while some choose to never take up arms. What you are and who you will become will be entirely up to you.”

Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz BhatenaBorn with a star-shaped birthmark on her arm, Gul could be the subject of a prophecy that predicts the downfall of King Lohar of Ambar. That’s enough for Gul to be hunted along with every other girl with such a birthmark. Never mind that Gul can barely control the immense magic she supposedly to possesses.

After years of hiding, King Lohar’s soldiers finally find Gul and her parents. Gul escapes, her parents do not.

Grieving and desperate for a way to get revenge against the king and the soldier who pulled the trigger, Gul throws in with the Sisters of the Golden Lotus–women who offer her shelter, protection and, most importantly, training in warrior magic.

Cavas has never had magic. If he had, he could afford his ailing father’s medicine without selling secrets. More importantly, his father might not be sick in the first place. But those are wishes Cavas knows better than to entertain. Joining the military might be a way out–a way to survive. But that path isn’t without its own dangers.

Thrown together in the heart of Ambar, Gul and Cavas are immediately drawn to each other even as they find themselves in a world filled with dangerous secrets that could change everything for both the kingdom and themselves in Hunted by the Sky (2020) by Tanaz Bhathena.

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Hunted by the Sky is the nail-biting start to Bhathena’s Wrath of Ambar series and her first foray into fantasy in a world inspired by medieval India. The story alternates between first person chapters narrated by Gul and Cavas.

Bhathena presents a richly detailed world filled with magic, mystery, and dangerous inequalities with non-magical humans living in poverty while at the mercy of the magical upper class’s whims. Because of that, much of this world is steeped in violence or the threat of it in the form of casual brutality as well as sexual violence leveraged as a threat to both male and female characters.

Gul and Cavas are angry protagonists, frustrated by their circumstances and looking for an escape. Neither of them expect to find each other in the midst of these much larger concerns let alone to have their paths align in surprising moments of connection.

Hunted by the Sky is an intense, fast-paced story filled with surprising twists, a unique magic system, and truly memorable characters. Recommended for readers looking for their next non-western set fantasy obsession.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Tanaz about Hunted by the Sky too!

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

My Calamity Jane: A Review

My Calamity Jane by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, Brodi AshtonThe story starts in Cincinnati in 1876 with “Wild Bill’s Wild West,” a traveling western show run by Bill Hickok. The show is always a big attraction featuring the legendary lawman, Frank Butler the Pistol Prince, and none other than Calamity Jane–heroine of the plains.

But the show has a secret: Bill along with his adoptive children Frank and Jane uses the show as a cover to hunt garou (you might know them as werewolves).

Jane is thrilled to have a family after so long on her own. Frank loves the show almost as much as his poodle, George. Neither of them is sure what will happen to the show (or them) when they find the subject of their hunt and Bill is able to retire.

Things go wrong very quickly after Annie Oakley (or rather, Annie Mosey–she isn’t the Little Sureshot yet!) tries to join the show. Annie earns her way into the show, soundly beating Frank in a shooting competition. But does shooting prowess mean Annie can be trusted with the hunt’s real purpose–especially when she seems to hate garou more than anything?

When a hunt leaves Jane with something that looks a lot like a garou bite, she has one desperate change to find a cure in Deadwood–a town that holds secrets and dangers for Jane and everyone she cares about in My Calamity Jane (2020) by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, and Brodi Ashton.

Find it on Bookshop.

In case you couldn’t tell, My Calamity Jane is a western mashup re-imagining the real lives of narrators Calamity Jane, Frank Butler, Annie Oakley, as well as Bill Hickok and many other legends of the American west. Although many events have changed, the story stays true to the spirit of these real life historical figures while offering more optimistic ends for many. This is particularly true for Jane whose lonely life is reimagined here with a sweet queer romance and whose penchant for chaos and self-destruction is reframed as an asset..

While Jane centers this story, Annie and Frank’s romance from their first shooting competition to their growing respect and eventual partnership on stage anchors much of the plot. It’s also almost entirely true (minus the werewolves).

The American West, as seen by white settlers and romanticized for white audiences in popular cultural, is inherently problematic. The authors acknowledge this in their omniscient narration and in conversations Annie has with Many Horses and Walks Looking, Lakota sisters whose help and practical advice are crucial to efforts to save Jane before it’s too late.

The story explores themes of allyship and tolerance through Annie’s interactions with garou (taking the place of the abusive family who kept Annie hostage as a child whom, even in her memoirs, Annie only ever referred to as “the wolves”) rather than using the only Native characters for a teachable moment. The acknowledgements include a list of further reading including several Native perspectives.

My Calamity Jane is a delightfully inventive reinterpretation of the old west; a tall tale filled with found family, fancy shooting, humor, and adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza; Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming; Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the June 2020 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Forest of Souls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Forest of Souls by Lori M. LeeSirscha Ashwyn has nothing and to most of her fellow cadets in the Queen’s Company she is less than nothing. None of that matters to Sirscha. She knows that she can prove them all wrong once she secures her spot as apprentice to the Queen’s Shadow–the spymaster who bows only to the queen herself.

Years of training and waiting fall apart in a flash when Sirscha’s best friend Saengo is killed during a shaman attack and Sirscha’s own shamanic powers are revealed–when she brings Saengo back to life.

Being a shaman in Thiy is a dangerous thing–something that could leave Sirscha in prison for the rest of her life. But the Spider King has other plans, believing Sirscha could be the key to strengthening the tenuous peace between Thiy’s fractious countries.

With alliances shifting and war on the horizon, Sirscha will have to embrace her new identity if she wants to secure a future for herself, Saengo, and everything she loves in Forest of Souls (2020) by Lori M. Lee.

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Forest of Souls is the first book in Lee’s Shamanborn series. It is written in Sirscha’s often sardonic first person narration.

Lee presents readers with a richly detailed and thoroughly imagined world inspired by both medieval fantasy and Chinese culture. Given the depth of the world building (the book includes a several glossaries) the story can feel short in comparison but promises even more exploration of the world of Thiy and its magic in later installments.

Sirscha is a strong, fierce heroine who struggles with self-doubt after years of being told she’d never be enough. Her journey to come into her own and embrace her power–both as a shaman and as a young warrior–is empowering; it’s impossible to not root for for Sirscha and Saengo.

Forest of Souls is a high action story filled with magic, secrets, and unbreakable friendships. Recommended for readers who want their fantasy with more inclusion, more kickass girls, and more dragons.

Possible Pairings: Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, The Reader by Traci Chee, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Fireborne by Rosaria Munda, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Take Me With You: A Review

Take Me With You by Tara AltebrandoBefore the school messaging app summons them all to an empty classroom after school, they barely know each other.

Eden is struggling with anxiety while she grieves her father. Her mother tries to be there, be present, but Eden still feels alone with all of these fears and even scarier feelings.

Marwan has two priorities: excelling enough in soccer to get a college scholarship and getting out of Queens. His immigrant parents don’t understand either and would prefer Marwan channel his energy into working at the family’s Persian restaurant that he will one day inherit.

Eli loves all things tech and gaming. But it’s hard to focus on either while his grandfather is dying a slow death in a nursing home and Eli feels like even more of an afterthought in his own family.

Ilanka has always prided herself on keeping other people at a distance–the better to plan an exit strategy from her claustrophobic family, the rhythmic gymnastics she isn’t sure she cares about, and ignore the fact that her “best” friend isn’t much of a friend at all.

None of them know why they’re summoned to the classroom. They don’t even notice the device at first.

Until it lights up and starts telling them the rules: Don’t tell anyone about the device. Never leave the device unattended. No one leaves.

Later, there will be other rules, a few mistakes, and a lot of questions but first they’re told to take the device with them. Brought together by a mysterious device Eden, Marwan, Eli, and Ilanka will have to work together to uncover answers or suffer the consequences in Take Me With You (2020) by Tara Altebrando.

Find it on Bookshop.

Altebrando’s latest standalone thriller is a dynamo alternating between multiple points of view with tension you can cut with a knife.

This character-driven thriller has an intense plot situated perfectly between suspense and speculative fiction. At the same time, while answering questions about the device motivates all four characters, the story’s ultimate focus is on the unlikely connection formed between themin the most unlikely of circumstances.

Take Me With You is a tense, thoughtful thriller with a perfectly executed denouement; the eerily possible thriller you’ve been waiting for. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, Infinite in Between by Carolyn Mackler, One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus, All Our Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

A Treason of Thorns: A Chick Lit Wednesday

A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. WeymouthAfter seven years in exile during her father’s house arrest, Violet finally has a chance to return home to Burleigh House–one England’s six great houses responsible for the welfare of the country and its people. Violet has always loved Burleigh better than anyone–a fondness that remains even knowing that Burleigh’s mighty house magic is what ultimately killed her father.

Returning to Burleigh is not the fond reunion Violet has dreamt of. The house is decrepit and wary after years without a proper caretaker. Her childhood friend, Wyn, spent the last seven years trapped inside with Violet’s father and he too is changed as a result.

Trying to heal a grieving house and her own heart will lead Violet down the same path her father walked before her: committing high treason trying to find Burleigh’s deed and unbind the house from the king.

As Violet and her friends get closer to finding the deed she will have to decide if she is  prepared to follow in her father’s footsteps as caretaker of the great house even if it means losing Wyn forever or if she might find a way to keep both her home and her heart intact in A Treason of Thorns (2019) by Laura E. Weymouth.

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Weymouth’s latest standalone fantasy offers a compelling alternate history in circa 1800s England although with a strong focus on Violet and Burleigh itself, many of the novel’s excellent secondary characters lack space to fully shine.

A Treason of Thorns has a few surprises and a satisfying romance, but much of the novel’s potential feels unfilled with a plot that meanders and resolutions that fail to fully capitalize on the underpinnings of the world’s magic system.

A Treason of Thorns is a fast-paced and truly original fantasy with a premise perfect for fans of the world of Downton Abbey (and living houses). Recommended for readers seeking a fast-paced historical fantasy with a world they won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, llusions of Fate by Kiersten White

When We Vanished: A Review

When We Vanished by Alanna PetersonAndi Lin and her mother are doing everything they can to keep anyone from finding out that her father’s new job is actually participating in a clinical trial at the food corporation Nutrexo.

After Andi hears executives whispering about a dangerous research study at a company party, she worries it might be the same study her dad is involved with–especially since she hasn’t heard from him in over a week. When Andi asks her neighbor Cyrus Mirzapour to help, they wind up in over their heads when a nonviolent protest ends with a bombing and both of them being held captive alongside Cyrus’s older brother, Naveed and younger sister, Roya.

Trapped and desperate to discover the truth and save themselves, Andi and Cyrus find themselves at the center of a conspiracy with consequences that are hard to imagine–and closer to home than either of them realize in When We Vanished (2020) by Alanna Peterson.

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When We Vanished is Peterson’s debut novel and the start of her Call of the Crow quartet. The book is published by Peterson’s newly created publishing company Rootcity Press which, as their website states, “operates on a not-for-profit model, and donates a portion of all proceeds to grassroots-based organizations focused on racial justice and food equity”

As such, this eco-thriller works to raise awareness about the dangers of fast/processed foods and genetically modified foods some of which can be seen on the book’s companion site Nutrexo Truth.

Unfortunately in sharing these timely messages Peterson’s novel highlights graphic scenes of animal cruelty with “EcoCows” kept in unsanitary and inhumane conditions at Nutrexo and scenes of torture when Naveed is sprayed with a noxious pesticide as part of the villain’s continued experiments leaving him with lasting nerve damage.

While these scenes viscerally showcase the dangers of modifying foods, particularly the increased spread of antibiotic resistant infections, the violence that will stay with readers far longer than the message.

When We Vanished is an unflinching eco-thriller best suited to readers comfortable with gore and grit.

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

Serious Moonlight: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You have the chance to make different choices.”

Serious Moonlight by Jenn BennettBirdie Lindberg’s previously small life is in flux after her strict grandmother’s death. In a bid to gain some independence after finishing homeschooling and earning her high school equivalency, not to mention getting some work experience before college, Birdie convinces her grandfather to let her job hunt on the mainland.

Working the graveyard shift at a historic Seattle hotel won’t be interesting, but it should be easy. Plus, there’s the added bonus of giving Birdie plenty of opportunities to hone her observation skills as an aspiring detective.

At least until Birdie realizes that she’ll be working with Daniel Aoki–amateur magician, graveyard shift van driver, and the other half of an awkward one-afternoon fling that Birdie thought she could safely pretend never happened.

Ignoring Daniel to preserve what’s left of her dignity proves impossible when he asks for her help investigating a reclusive writer holding secret meetings at the hotel. Faced with Daniel’s smoking hotness, his genuine need, and her own curiosity, Birdie knows she has to help.

As Birdie and Daniel work on this real-life mystery together, she soon realizes that the bigger mystery might be what to do about her own feelings for Daniel in Serious Moonlight (2019) by Jenn Bennett.

Find it on Bookshop.

Bennett’s latest standalone novel is filled with all of my favorite things including tons of references to classic detective stories. Birdie is a capable, smart heroine still learning how to come into her own with support from her grandfather and her nonconformist artist aunt, Mona. Daniel is charismatic, funny, and everything Birdie (and readers) could want in a male lead.

The hotel mystery and Birdie’s approach to life as she works to pursue her dream of becoming a private investigator add a lot of intrigue and fun to this contemporary romance.

On a personal level, it also felt like this book was written just for me. I identified so much with Birdie throughout the story as she struggles to come out of her shell and give herself the space and permission she needs to grow and thrive. This book is also the first time I have ever seen a story truly capture the weird blend of abject panic and genuine desire inherent to actually wanting to interact with someone.

Serious Moonlight is fantastic, filled with just enough tension to make the mystery aspect interesting while keeping the main focus on Birdie and her relationships. Birdie and Daniel are delightful lead characters complimented by an eccentric and entertaining cast of supporting characters. A new favorite for me, and maybe for you too. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore; Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert; The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo; Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson; Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus; Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke; The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe; Past Perfect by Leila Sales; Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith; This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura