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*

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.

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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.

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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*

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*

Chosen Ones: A Review

Chosen Ones by Veronica RothTen years ago a prophecy predicted that one of five teenagers would become the Chosen One–the only person capable of defeating the Dark One and ending his reign of death and destruction.

Sloane was one of the five and together with Matt, Albie, Ines, and Esther they defeated the Dark One near Chicago.

Now everyone is supposed to move on and mourn and watch life return to normal.

Sloane can’t do that.

Haunted by memories and traumas from fighting the Dark One, Sloane feels adrift even with her friends to anchor her. When one of them turns up dead the day before the Ten Years Celebration of Peace, Sloane begins to realize she may not be the only one who hasn’t moved on in Chosen Ones (2020) by Veronica Roth.

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Chosen Ones is Roth’s adult debut and the start of a new duology.

While marketed as a story about young adults trying to move past their teenaged destinies, Chosen Ones is actually familiar dystopian fare for a slightly older audience. The scene is set for a story of acceptance and moving on only to shift rather abruptly to a new fight with a villain where the Earth’s fate is at stake.

Readers keen on high action and drama will appreciate this shift while others may be left wanting a book with a bit more focus on characters and a little less in the way of fantasy elements.

Chosen Ones is familiar fare aged up with sexier writing and edgier villainy. Recommended for readers looking to branch out beyond the familiar YA suspects in the genre, but not too far.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemison, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

Tigers, Not Daughters: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha MabryEveryone in Southtown knows the four Torres sisters. And everyone remembers the night they were caught trying to run away — especially the boys across the street, who flock to Hector’s house at night to watch Ana, the eldest at almost 18, undress in her bedroom window.

While she does, they dream of all the ways they could save her from their “old neighborhood, with its old San Antonio families and its traditions so strong and deep we could practically feel them tugging at our heels when we walked across our yards.”

If it wasn’t for their infatuation and accidental intervention in the sisters’ escape attempt, everything might have been different. Ana would never have fallen from her window; she “wouldn’t have died two months later and her sisters wouldn’t have been forced to suffer at the hands of her angry ghost.”

A year later, after “a brief but catastrophic mourning period,” the girls’ widowed father is barely keeping it together. Jessica is trying to focus on her boring job at the pharmacy, her boyfriend, and not much else. Iridian hasn’t left the house in weeks — all the better to read Ana’s old supernatural romances and write the best scenes of her own. And Rosa, the youngest, always “more attentive than most people,” tries to follow the signs — the connections — when a hyena goes missing from the zoo on the anniversary of Ana’s death in Tigers, Not Daughters (2020) by Samantha Mabry.

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Set primarily over the course of 10 days, this book follows the surviving sisters in close third-person as they move through the grief over Ana’s death and the increasingly obvious signals that she isn’t entirely gone.

Flashbacks narrated collectively by Hector’s friends relate all of the ways in which the boys bear witness to the disasters that befall the Torres sisters and, more importantly, highlight “the many times we could have said or done something and, instead, we said and did nothing.”

These multiple viewpoints allow the story to shift between the girls’ linear narrations and the boys’ flashbacks that chronicle all the ways the sisters have been objectified — and failed — by the men in their lives.

This shift is especially obvious as Jessica repeatedly tries to move out of her overbearing and abusive boyfriend’s shadow, “tired of boys pulling on her, attempting to invade the life she’d tried so hard to keep protected.”

Though each sister has her own journey to complete while making peace with Ana’s sudden death, all three learn the importance of saving themselves — and each other — instead of remaining, as Iridian thinks, at the mercy of men “trying to leave their bruises all over her and her sisters.”

Throughout Tigers, Not Daughters, author Samantha Mabry blends elements of magical realism, moments of connection and grief, and genuinely eerie scares to create a story exploring the “magic in small things,” as well as a timely ode to sisterhood and feminism.

Possible Pairings: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, When I Cast Your Shadow by Sarah Porter, Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth, The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters, Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan Wolf

Lucky Caller: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It doesn’t devalue what you had with them, the stuff you experienced, the time you spent with them. That’s still valid, even if it wasn’t built to last. It’s not any less significant.”

Lucky Caller by Emma MillsNina is fine coasting through high school. After all, it’s called the path of least resistance for a reason. Taking radio broadcasting as her elective is one more way to have an easy senior year.

Until it isn’t.

Nina’s radio team is not at all who she would have chosen. There’s Joydeep–who is happy to steer their radio show toward the easiest theme possible and steps up to host despite his obvious lack of comfort behind the mic–and Sasha–a girl who has never slacked on anything and doesn’t know what to make of this group of misfits. Then there’s Jamie, the childhood friend Nina has been actively trying to avoid since middle school.

Turns out, no one on the team knows what they’re doing with the radio show. Nina’s home life is on the verge of a big change as her mom gets ready to remarry. And Jamie, confusingly, might want to talk to her again. Then just when Sounds of the Nineties seems to be hitting its stride as a show, internet rumors and rogue fandoms threaten to ruin their fragile success.

When it starts to feel like nothing is made to last, Nina will have to decide if some things are actually worth working for in Lucky Caller (2020) by Emma Mills.

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Mills’ latest standalone contemporary is set in the same world as her previous novels and once again taps into themes of fandom and belonging to great effect.

Nina is a self-proclaimed passive participant in her own life. She doesn’t like to think too deeply about anything and she avoids conflict. Both of which led to her years-long avoidance of her best friend Jamie despite his living in the same apartment building.

While the plot of Lucky Caller centers Nina’s radio show and her family dynamics as she adjusts to the idea of her mom remarrying, Nina’s willful ignorance about her father’s short-comings as a long distance parent and her own potential for change add a secondary layer to this otherwise straightforward story. As Nina works through these self-delusions she, along with readers, begins to get a clearer picture of her own life compared to the performative persona Nina presents in public to make things easier.

Despite the lack of self-awareness, Nina is incredibly pragmatic and acknowledges that a lot of life is transient and changing. She knows relationships, like so many other things don’t always last, but she also learns that a set expiration date doesn’t make a friendship or any other relationship any less valuable.

Lucky Caller is a thoughtful, sentimental, laugh out loud funny story with one of my favorite plot twists of all time in the final act. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Four Days of You and Me by Miranda Kenneally, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Past Perfect by Leila Sales, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Listen to Your Heart by Kasie West, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

A Beginning At the End: A Review

A Beginning at the End by Mike ChenA global pandemic has changed the societal landscape and devastated the population. In the wake of the End of the World, while many people are waiting for life to return to normal, four people are trying to move forward as best they can.

Moira, a former pop star, used the initial outbreak as a chance to break away from her controlling father and start a new life. Six years later, Moira is living as normal a life as anyone can now. At least until her father begins a public campaign to try and find her.

While everyone else hides inside or behind surgical masks offering flimsy protection, Krista throws herself into the world planning events for people unwilling to risk the physical interactions themselves. But not many people are planning parties with the threat of a new outbreak looming and Krista is one cancelled event away from losing everything.

Rob survived. His wife didn’t. All Rob wants is to bring up his daughter, Sunny, as best he can. The only problem is new government regulations threaten to take Sunny away to place her in a more stable family environment.

In a world waiting to return to a normal that might never come Moira, Krista, Rob, and Sunny will need each other more than anything if they want to survive in A Beginning At the End (2020) by Mike Chen.

Find it on Bookshop.

Chen’s sophomore novel explores themes of connection and survival against a post-apocalyptic San Francisco setting with chapters alternating between Moira, Krista, and Rob’s perspectives.

Evocative descriptions and thorough world building make this story of a global pandemic eerily timely although a slow start fails to build the momentum needed for later plot points and twists.

A Beginning at the End is a character driven, post-apocalyptic novel that offers hope for the current situation we are in with the Covid-19 global pandemic. In short come for the post-apocalyptic landscape, stay for the feels.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton; The Salt Line by Sally Goddard-Jones; In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen; The Fireman by Joe Hill; The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin; Severance by Ling Ma; Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel; The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah