Tales From the Hinterland: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa AlbertTales From the Hinterland (2021) by Melissa Albert presents Althea Proserpine’s  notorious collection of dark and twisted short stories that form the backbone of the world building in both The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. For the first time the stories that protagonists Alice and Ellery encounter in Albert’s previous novels are presented in their entirety.

Readers familiar with Albert’s oeuvre will recognize many of the tales and characters here notably including Alice, Ilsa, and Hansa. Albert aptly channels classic fairy tale sensibilities into eerie and brutal tales that would have the Brothers Grimm reaching for an extra candle at night. Centering female characters in each story Albert explores the facets of girl-and-womanhood in a world dominated and usually shaped by men.

Standouts in the collection include “The House Under the Stairwell,” where sisterhood wins the day as Isobel seeks help from the Wicked Wife before she is trapped in a deadly betrothal; “The Clockwork Bride,” a richly told story where a girl hungry for enchantment carelessly promises her first daughter to a sinister toymaker who, when he tries to claim his prize, instead finds a girl who wishes only to belong to herself; and “Death and the Woodwife,” where a princess uses her wits and her mother’s unusual gifts to outwit Death and his heir.

With stories fueled by feminist rage, the frustration of being underestimated, and the insatiable longing to experience more Tales From the Hinterland is a collection that is both timely and universal.

You can also check out my interview with Melissa to hear more about this book and the companion novels.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

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

Lore: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It’s not always the truth that survives, but the stories we wish to believe. The legends lie. They smooth over imperfections to tell a good tale, or to instruct us how we should behave, or to assign glory to victors and shame those who falter.”

Lore by Alexandra BrackenEvery seven years Zeus punishes nine Greek gods by forcing them into the Agon. Warrior families have hunted the gods in every Agon for generations hoping to absorb their powers and receive blessings in the intervening years.

Lore always knew she was destined for greatness and glory in the Agon, meant to restore her family house’s honor. That was before Lore’s own disastrous mistake brought about the death of her entire family.

Now, seven years later, Lore thinks she’s finally made it out and started a new life. But the return of her childhood friend Castor and the goddess Athena appearing at Lore’s door prove she never escaped the brutality of the Agon. Not really.

After years of hiding and trying to forget, Lore will have to come out of the shadows and embrace her complicated past if she wants to live long enough to have a future in Lore (2020) by Alexandra Bracken.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lore is a standalone fantasy novel. Although the world building is heavily intertwined with Greeky mythology, the story itself includes enough information to make it approachable to those unfamiliar with the inspiration material. The book also includes a character list broken down by the family houses and lines. Lore and Castor are white although several members of the Agon families (including dark skinned Van and Iro) are from other racial backgrounds.

Lore is a fierce and often reluctant narrator. Most of her past is colored by trauma and regret over events that slowly unfold in flashbacks for readers as the novel builds to its explosive final act. Despite her desire to isolate herself and avoid further losses, Lore is surrounded by a strong group of friends and allies who add drama and levity to this potentially grim story. Lore’s best friend Miles Yoon–an outsider to the world of the Agon–is an especially fun addition to the cast and a steadfast friend to Lore.

Set over the course the week-long Agon this fast-paced story plays out against the backdrop of New York City as Lore and her allies search for a way to end the Agon forever. Lore’s efforts to find a place for herself as a young woman, both away from the Agon and within it, in a world all too quick to dismiss her is both timely and empowering.

Lore seamlessly blends elements from Greek mythology with a modern fantasy setting for a perfectly paced story of survival and fighting for what we deserve.

Possible Pairings: Antigoddess by Kendare Blake, Starling by Lesley Livingston, The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan, Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

Strange Exit: A Review

“No one earned their salvation. Only the rich and lucky survived.”

Strange Exit by Parker PeevyhouseIn the advance of a nuclear holocaust, a group of teenagers won a lottery to escape Earth aboard a spaceship designed to keep them safe until it was time to return. In stasis all of the passengers enter a complex virtual reality simulation to prepare them for that return.

After sleeping for decades, many of them are still unwilling to wake up–unwilling to admit that even the sim’s barren wastelands might be worse than what they’ll face on Earth after being gone so long.

But the ship was never meant to house them forever. Food is running out. Equipment is breaking down. Still the ship won’t return to Earth. Not until everyone is out of the sim.

No one is supposed to go back in; it’s too easy to get trapped, to want to stay forever. But someone has to wake the sleepers so Lake risks it. She secretly searches the sim’s post-apocalyptic pockets for survivors ready to wake up while desperately wishing her sister was on board the ship too instead of just part of the sim.

When she rescues Taren, Lake finds an unexpected ally ready to help her search the sim. But as the situation on the ship becomes even more dire, Lake realizes Taren is willing to take dangerous chances waking the sleepers and to sacrifice whoever he has to if it means reactivating the ship. Lake isn’t ready to lose anyone else on the ship, not after they’ve all lost so much. Now Lake will to work against Taren to find the heart of the sim and shut it down herself before it’s too late in Strange Exit (2020) by Parker Peevyhouse.

Find it on Bookshop.

The story alternates close third person narration primarily from Lake’s point of view with chapters from other key characters including Taren. While the story starts strong with an engrossing opening, it is slow to build to any of the twists readers familiar with the genre may expect. Similarly, the characters who receive the most attention are often at cross purposes with the plot’s forward momentum.

Strange Exit is an eerie science fiction story set against the stark backgrounds of a failing spaceship and the ominous post-apocalyptic sim. Peevyhouse’s world building is top notch as she brings both landscapes painfully to life bringing new dimension to what is otherwise familiar sci-fi territory.

Possible Pairings: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, Dare Mighty Things by Heather Kaczynski, Warcross by Marie Lu, The Final Six by Alexandra Monir, Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, The Matrix

Recommended For You: A Review

Recommended For You by Laura SilvermanShoshanna Greenberg is a fixer. When her moms start fighting enough that they both miss the annual family Latkepalooza on the last night of Hanukkah, Shoshanna wants to fix it before her family implodes.

With the tensions at home and her constant worries about money to fix her much loved car, it feels like her one refuge is Once Upon, the local bookstore where Shoshanna works. That changes with the arrival of new hire Jake Kaplan–an extremely cute boy who is extremely immune to Shoshanna’s charms and, what’s worse, doesn’t read.

Coworker tensions aside, Shoshanna is thrilled when her boss announces a chance for staff to earn a holiday bonus for selling the most books. The bonus is exactly what she needs to fix her car if nothing else.

The only thing standing in Shoshanna’s way is Jake and his out of the box selling strategies.

As the holiday season amps up, Shoshanna realizes that Jake might be more than a pretty-non-reading face even if he might also be her biggest competition for the holiday bonus in Recommended For You (2020) by Laura Silverman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Silverman puts in the work dismantling the white default in this inclusive story where every character’s skintone is described on the page. The inclusivity and positivity with which Shoshanna views her friends and coworkers (except maybe for Jake when they first meet!) comes through in every description and feels effortless. Once Upon’s owner Myra is woman of color and motorized wheelchair user, Shoshanna’s best friends are Black and Latinx, and Shoshanna’s “work husband” is Black and has a girlfriend with low vision.

Shoshanna is what I would call a strong personality. Her narration and her choices may not work for everyone but her heart is definitely in the right place and, as the story progresses, Shoshanna learns and grows a lot–something I always love to see in a book.

Although Recommended For You keeps things light, this story also offers frank conversations about what marriage problems can look like (something looming over Shoshanna and her moms and something that may not have an easy fix despite Shoshanna’s best efforts) and also thoughtfully explores income diversity. Shoshanna’s friend Cheyenne works at the mall for the experience while Shoshanna is there because it’s the only way she can afford gas money and other car expenses. Meanwhile Shoshanna’s other best friend Geraldine is saving up for a camera to start a beauty vlog while acknowledging she may never be able to compete in the patently expensive world of beauty influencers.

Recommended For You is as funny and exuberant as its heroine. While the winter setting makes this book an ideal choice this holiday season, Shoshanna’s winning personality, the retail shenanigans, and Shoshanna’s not-quite-instant chemistry with Jake make Recommended For You a perfect read any time of the year.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira; Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett; Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley; Snow in Love by Melissa de la Cruz, Nic Stone, Aimee Friedman, Kasie West; 10 Blind Dates by Ashley Elston; Tweet Cute by Emma Lord; My True Love Gave to Me edited by Stephanie Perkins; Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Into the Heartless Wood: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth MeyerEveryone knows the forest is a dangerous place. How can it be anything else when it is filled with tree sirens whose only purpose is to draw people into the forest and to their deaths?

The witch in the forest has fed souls to her trees until they are no longer trees but not human either. Instead, the witch calls these sirens her daughters but Seren knows that isn’t really true–not when the tree-sirens have to do her bidding no matter what.

Owen Merrick has grown up next to the woods and he knows how dangerous they are. He knows how lucky he is when Seren saves his life when she could have killed him. Drawn to each other, Owen and Seren begin meeting in secret. But their growing feelings for each other are threatened when the stars warn of a dangerous curse drawing Seren and Owen into a years long struggle between the witch and the king determined to stop her in Into the Heartless Wood (2021) by Joanna Ruth Meyer.

Find it on Bookshop.

While some elements of the world take a back seat to the romance here, Into the Heartless Wood is an evocative story where the setting feels like a character. The novel alternates between prose chapters from Owen’s point of view and more verse-like passages from Seren. Meyer brings together this unlikely pair in a well-realized world filled with magic and menace that is sure to draw readers in.

Into the Heartless Wood is a deliciously atmospheric, dangerous fantasy. Perfect for readers who like their fantasy with a bit of star-crossed love and mystery.

Possible Pairings: To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

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

Elysium Girls: A Review

Elysium Girls by Kate PentecostSal Wilkinson has had visions of rain coming to the walled city of Elysium for years. Sal knows her vision is true, knows it’s just taking a little longer. But no one else in town believes that and most people don’t have much use for her.

No one is more surprised than Sal when she is named Successor to Mother Morevna, the powerful witch who banded Elysium together the day the city was wrench out of our world in 1935 and become the game board for the latest game between the sister gods Life and Death.

After nearly ten long years building up the city, the day of judgement if months away. If the city succeeds, Life will restore them to the world. If the city is deemed a failure, Death will claim every person within its walls as a sacrifice.

Sal thinks becoming Successor is her chance to prove her worth to the city once and for all. Instead, her first attempt to lead the city ends in disaster. Exiled alongside a mysterious outsider, Sal will have to join forces with Olivia Rosales, another Elysium exile and a young witch herself, if any of them hope to save Elysium by beating Life and Death at their own game in Elysium Girls (2020) by Kate Pentecost.

Find it on Bookshop.

Elysium Girls is Pentecost’s debut novel. The novel alternates between Sal’s first person narration and third person narrations following other characters including Asa and Olivia.

Pentecost’s story is grounded with a strong sense of place. Descriptive prose bring the Dust Bowl ravaged city and its steampunk-inspired blend of steel and magic to life. Despite the promising start, a large cast and sprawling premise still make this story unwieldy.

Despite a countdown to Judgement Day at the start of every chapter, this book is largely lacking in a sense of urgency where any stakes for at least the first thirty percent of the novel are entirely absent.

Readers drawn to Elysium Girls based on the synopsis should prepare themselves for a long haul as Pentecost takes her time building up the story. A potential win for readers seeking an immersive fantasy with steampunk elements and only minimal romance between secondary characters.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, Lovely War by Julie Berry, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool

Of Curses and Kisses: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya MenonJaya Rao has one mission when she arrives at St. Rosetta’s Academy with her younger sister, Isha, to rehab Isha’s reputation after a media scandal. As Indian royalty there are, of course, appearances to uphold. But Jaya is used to that and it won’t stop her from finding Grey Emerson and breaking his heart.

Grey Emerson is well aware of the animosity between his family and the Raos. It’s the sort of thing that makes sense after years of feuding, a stolen ruby, and a devastating curse. After years of keeping to himself and waiting for the inevitable, Grey knows he’s almost out of time. He never expected the curse to let him live past his eighteenth birthday. He just doesn’t understand why Jaya Rao decided to come and gloat about it.

Drawn together against their better judgement, both Jaya and Grey realize they other is not what they expect. Worse, neither of them may have the full story from their families. When it feels like everything is conspiring to keep them apart, Jaya and Grey will have to work even harder to stay together and find their own happy ending in Of Curses and Kisses (2020) by Sandhya Menon.

Find it on Bookshop.

Of Curses and Kisses is the first book in Menon’s St. Rosetta’s Academy trilogy–a series of modern fairy tale retellings set at an elite international boarding school. If you like listening to books, treat yourself to the audiobook to hear all the accents.

Jaya and Grey’s story takes a new spin on the classic story of Beauty and the Beast. I won’t spoil the ending here, but readers familiar with the source material can certainly imagine. Despite treading familiar ground, Menon brings her own spin to this classic story as Jaya and Grey make their own way in the world.

Despite the overall light tone, some of this book can be quite heavy–particularly when it comes to Grey’s relationship with his father. Grey has suffered through years of verbal and psychological abuse from his father blaming Grey for his mother’s death in childbirth and repeatedly reminding Grey that the Emerson curse will kill him. Reading this, even through Grey’s built up cynicism and detachment is painful although I’m happy to report a big part of the plot is the start of Grey’s healing process.

Jaya and Grey are excellent protagonists acting as perfect counterpoints to each other. They’re joined in this story with a stellar supporting cast including characters readers can expect to see more of in later series installments. While romance remains center stage, the friendships between characters and the sisterhood that binds Jaya and Isha together are equally important and written beautifully.

Of Curses and Kisses is a cozy, romantic story that adds originality and flair to a familiar fairy tale. A must read for contemporary romance fans.

Possible Pairings: Romancing the Throne by Nadine Jolie Courtney, When the Stars Go Blue by Caridad Ferrer, Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Bookish Boyfriends by Tiffany Schmidt, Jackpot by Nic Stone

Talking to Strangers: A Non-Fiction Review

How did Fidel Castro and his spies fool the CIA for years? Why did Prime Minister Chamberlain think Hitler was trustworthy? How did no one realize what Bernie Madoff was doing with all of his investments? What transpired to make it possible for Larry Nassar to abuse countless patients at his gymnastics-centered medical practice–often with parents of his victims in the same room?

Author Malcolm Gladwell explores these questions and more in his latest book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know (2019).

Find it on Bookshop.

Before we discuss anything else, you need to know this is not an easy book–especially not during the ongoing pandemic which adds its own kind of stress to everything. Additionally, the audiobook is narrated by Gladwell and features recordings of the people being quoted whenever possible. This choice has the double-edged result of making an excellent production while also making the events discussed that much more immediate and visceral for readers/listeners.

Talking to Strangers covers a few things most of which boil down to chapters about people in the worst situations or chapters about the worst people.

Gladwell uses what happened to Sandra Bland as entry point and framing device into his topic. Some of this is reductive as it sets aside the systemic racism at the root of police brutality and the unfair targeting of BIPOC citizens by police. Similarly Gladwell’s theory that sexual assault can ever come down to misunderstandings due to overdrinking and their resulting blackouts is hard to hear and very much the statement only a man could or would ever make.

Other chapters explore Castro’s spy network within the US, Hitler’s ability to mislead Chamberlain in advance of WWII, as well as other familiar news items. Most of which is hard to hear. The book ends with discussions of so-called “advance interrogation techniques” (torture) and the circumstances that may have helped lead to Sylvia Plath’s suicide.

Despite the difficult content, Talking to Strangers includes some useful insights people can bring to their interactions with others including the need for awareness of situational context, peoples’ tendency to believe the best in people, and the reality that people may broadcast one emotion with body language and mannerisms while presenting very different ones with their speech.

Talking to Strangers is informative if challenging to read with a solid introduction to a few key aspects of interpersonal communication as well as a deep exploration of current events that readers may or may not recognize from previous news viewing. I hesitate to say I’d recommend this book because I had such a hard time with it myself, but if the premise sounds interesting then you should definitely check it out.

Killing November: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Killing November by Adriana MatherNovember Adley agrees to leave her quaint small town to stay safe while her father takes care of a family emergency. When November wakes up in a remote building without electricity, completely off the grid, she realizes her father may not have given her the full story.

The Academy covers everything from poisons to the art of the deception, students should never reveal details of their past, and the school adheres to an eye-for-aye punishment.

November is pretty sure she can survive anything for a few weeks while her dad wants her to lay low. But even November isn’t sure what to expect when students start dying and everyone seems to think it has something to do with her in Killing November (2019) by Adriana Mather.

Find it on Bookshop.

Killing November is the high octane start to Mather’s November duology which concludes with Hunting November.

Killing November is a fun, cinematic read. Mather leans heavily on movie conventions notably including flashbacks, but these elements never integrate fully into the story. Honestly, November is often quite annoying as a protagonist. Her constant shock and horror at the Academy’s brutality is understandable at first but begins to grate as it continues for almost the entirety of the novel.

Despite numerous details, the world building for the Academy and the students who attend it are never fully explained instead serving as a backdrop for all of the novel’s action. Where this story really shines is with the secondary characters notably including Layla and Ash who add dimension to a story that otherwise runs the risk of falling flat.

Killing November is a fresh if underdeveloped take on the classic boarding school mystery. Recommended for fans of that sub-genre and spies reminiscent of James Bond and his ilk.

Possible Pairings: I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

Lightbringer: A Review

Lightbringer by Claire LegrandAfter years spent trying to deny her powers and her dark urges to push them to their limits, Queen Rielle is done pretending. Rejected by the man she loves, feared by the country she swore to protect, Rielle instead turns to Corien–the dark fallen angel who has always promised her glory and destruction in the same breath.

A thousand years in the future Eliana is still trying to understand how her plan to stop Rielle before she breaks the world went so very wrong. Separated from her brother, betrayed by the man she thought she could love, Eliana arrives at the Empire’s capital broken. But that doesn’t stop Corien from trying to break her more and unearth the secrets of how he can use Eliana to reunite with Rielle in the past.

The world has always been quick to tell Rielle and Eliana what kind of woman they should be. With the fate of the world balancing on a knife’s edge, both Rielle and Eliana will have to take their fates–and the fate of all of Avitas–into their own hands in Lightbringer (2020) by Claire Legrand.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lightbringer is the final book in Legrand’s Empirium trilogy which begins with Furyborn and Kingsbane. Legrand has said before that this is the series of her heart, the reason she began writing, and a massive undertaking. Seeing the end of it, particularly this ending, is bittersweet to say the least.

Lightbringer picks up shortly after the conclusion of Kingsbane although most of the plot relies on world building and plot previously established in the first book in the trilogy.

Epigraphs, shifting points of view, and the story’s two timelines play out on an epic scale as this novel builds to conclusion that feels both explosive and inevitable.

Like the other books in this series, Lightbringer is a long one (nearly 600 pages as a hardcover). Unfortunately in this volume many of the editorial choices shift focus away from characterization and plot in favor of repeated scenes of torture. Corien employs mental and physical violence against Eliana to understand how she could travel to the past. Meanwhile Rielle’s storyline is steeped in blood and gore as Rielle learns more about Corien’s experiments to build monsters to fight his war and vessels for incorporeal angels.

While this book has all of the pieces for a powerful conclusion, they never quite gel as well as they need to relative to the build up. Corien’s motivations are never entirely clear, Ludivine’s purpose in the story remains murky. Worse than all that, a lot of character viewpoints are relegated to epigraphs in favor of cutting down the book length. This choice highlights how badly Ilmaire needed to be a main character in this trilogy while I am still wondering why I had to read though countless chapters from Navi, Tal, or Jessamyn–all of whom feel largely tangential to the entire series.

Both the torture and violence throughout Lightbringer became repetitive enough that as a reader I began to feel inured to it. Instead of furthering the story, the torture took page time away from allowing the overarching narrative to unfold leaving much of that to happen in the final 150 pages of the book.

Lightbringer is a natural if not always satisfying conclusion to a truly distinct series. This installment redeemed a lot of the flaws in Kingsbane or at least made them understandable, particularly in regards to Rielle’s motivations. While the conclusion here feels inevitable, it remains bittersweet and leaves many of the characters and the entire world of Avitas forever changed. It’s clear that there are more stories to be told in Avitas and I hope Legrand will eventually be able to share them with readers.

Lightbringer ends strong remaining inclusive, sexy, and very smart making it a good read-a-like and antidote for Game of Thrones or other problematic fantasies written by white men for white men.

Possible Pairings: Frostblood by Elly Blake, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Girl King by Mimi Yu