Ferryman: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Ferryman by Claire McFallWhen Scottish teenager Dylan boards a train from Glasgow to Aberdeen to meet her estranged father for the first time in years she is certain that the momentous trip will change everything. What she won’t realize until later is that instead of meeting her father she will never complete her journey–dying when her train crashes.

Except Dylan wakes up inside her train car, alone and in the dark after the crash, where “Her imagination filled in the blanks, packing the route through the carriage with upturned seats, luggage, broken glass from the windows, and squishy, slick things that were solidifying in her mind’s eye into limbs and torsos.” Outside of the wreckage there is no sign of  disaster recovery; all Dylan sees is a solitary, sandy-haired teenage boy watching her.

It’s clear that something is different about this cobalt eyed boy who does not “stand or even smile when he [sees] her looking at him” and “just continue[s] to stare.” The only two people in an isolated area, Dylan reluctantly agrees to follow Tristan across the unwelcoming landscape away from the wreckage. Along the way Dylan begins to realize that she is not trekking across the Scottish highlands with a startlingly attractive teenage boy–the kind who always “made her nervous” because “they seemed so cool and confident, and she always ended up getting tongue-tied and feeling like a total freak.”

Dylan is dead, traveling through the aptly named wasteland alongside Tristan, her personal ferryman.

As a ferryman Tristan “guide[s] souls across the wasteland and protect[s] them from the demons” keen to devour new and pure souls like Dylan’s. Along the way he also “break[s] the truth to them, then deliver[s] them to wherever they’re going.” Tristan has shepherded more souls than he can count across the wasteland, a task that has become increasingly transactional as his journeys blend together into goodbyes. “Each soul that waved goodbye at the end of the journey had taken a small piece of him with them, torn off a tiny piece of his heart. After a while, he had hardened.” As he reminds Dylan, everyone has to cross the wasteland which he describes as “Their own personal wilderness. It’s a place to discover the truth that you have died and come to terms with it.”

The wasteland is not a place to make friends or fall in love. But as they learn more about each other, and themselves, Dylan and Tristan realize they are not prepared to admit that reaching the end of their path will also mean their inevitable separation as Dylan goes where Tristan cannot follow in Ferryman (2021) by Claire McFall.

Find it on Bookshop.

First published in the UK in 2013 and nominated for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, McFall’s acclaimed debut novel Ferryman has made its way to the US with the rest of the trilogy, Trespassers and Outcasts, slated to follow. A movie adaptation is also in the works. All characters are cued as white in this series with world building loosely inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Charon.

With a heavy focus on the drudgery of walking through the wasteland, McFall is slow to unpack Dylan and Tristan’s mutual attraction although both characters find something they lack in the other.

In spite of himself Tristan appreciates Dylan’s unique perspective and unexpected kindnesses to him when “Most souls, when they discovered what had happened to them, were too absorbed in their own sorrow and self-pity to show much interest in this road between the real world and the end” much less in the ferryman guiding them through it. After countless years changing himself to appear to “look appealing” and trustworthy to each of his souls, Tristan is shocked to have the space to define himself as more than his role as a ferryman and whatever the souls in his charge choose to project onto him.

Dylan, meanwhile, is used to feeling the limits of her agency as a teenage girl who is constantly concerned with doing and saying the right thing. “She was the shy, serious student. Quiet, diligent, but not particularly clever. All of her successes had to be earned through hard work, which was easy when you had no friends.” But in Tristan Dylan finally finds the appreciation she had previously lacked with Tristan who sees Dylan as “a soul worth protecting. A soul worth caring about. A soul that he wanted to give a piece of himself to.”

Although Tristan initially acknowledges some of the unequal power dynamics at play between himself–an ageless, supernatural being–and Dylan–a seemingly ordinary girl despite the high caliber of her soul–this aspect of the plot is never fully explored. Tristan’s initial hesitation since “as her protector, he would be taking advantage of her vulnerability if he acted on his feelings” shifts quickly to a heartfelt confession and both struggling with their looming separation.

With their slog through the wasteland and unspoken longing taking up much of the plot, Ferryman is slow to build to its dramatic conclusion. The novel’s final act offers tantalizing glimpses of world building surrounding what comes beyond the wasteland and what it will mean for both Dylan and Tristan. Readers new to this series will be excited to see these aspects more fully explored in later installments.

Possible Pairings: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, You Are the Everything by Karen Rivers, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde

The Heartbreak Bakery: A (WIRoB) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

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

The Heartbreak Bakery by A. R. CapettaSeventeen-year-old baker Syd is an “agender cupcake” who still has a lot to figure out about love and the literal magic of baking.

Syd (no pronouns, please) has been with the same girlfriend since coming out as queer in middle school. Four years later it turns out the relationship Syd thought was perfect has more cracks than a badly set cheesecake, leading to a drawn-out breakup with W over one painful weekend. As Syd notes, “I think she’s great, and she thinks I like having a girlfriend too much to notice that sometimes she isn’t.”

Still smarting from the breakup and feeling blindsided, Syd does the obvious thing for a teen holding down a job as a baker while finishing high school: try to bake it out with an easy recipe for brownies which “require three things: a single bowl, a sturdy spoon, and a dedication to dark chocolate.”

Syd’s baking catharsis takes a turn when the post-breakup brownies turn out to be magical Breakup Brownies with all of Syd’s anger, frustration, and hurt baked in. Instead of letting Syd process all of those pent-up feelings, Syd has accidentally fed several bakery customers brownies that precipitate their own breakups–whether the breakups are warranted or not. Obviously, Syd feels awful and wants to erase the “special tang of guilt that comes with subtracting so much queer love from the world.”

Things get even worse when Syd witnesses bakery owners–and husbands–Vin and Alec eat the brownies and start fighting too. Every baker knows you have to clean up your own kitchen but now that the Breakup Brownies have drawn the Proud Muffin into their vortex, Syd is even more frantic to correct this magical mistake before it inadvertently causes the best queer bakery in Austin to shut down.

Proud Muffin’s cute bike delivery person, Harley (he or they–it’s always on the pronoun pin, check it first) is surprisingly receptive to Syd’s magical baking confession and, even better, ready to help mend broken hearts across the city. As Syd works through an impressive baking repertoire ranging from Very Sorry Cake to Shiny New Scones, Syd is able to bond with Harley and process the breakup with W while trying to fix all the relationship collateral damage. The only problem is that as Syd’s feelings grow for Harley, it’s unclear if their chemistry will lead to a recipe for romance or more heartbreak in The Heartbreak Bakery (2021) by A. R. Capetta.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Heartbreak Bakery is an ode to the city of Austin, queer communities everywhere, and baked goods in all of their wonderfully varied forms. Fictional locations like the Proud Muffin complement actual Austin locations like Barton Springs and 24 Diner. Syd and Harley are white with a supporting cast that is diverse and inclusive with characters from across BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities showcasing the intersectionality of many identities.

Even as a member of the Proud Muffin’s enthusiastic and supportive queer community, Syd struggles to articulate to friends and family what it feels like to be agender when “every single time [Syd] stared at the mirror and what [Syd] saw screamed back girl.” Now Syd is “pretty sure that no particular body would make sense to [Syd] all of the time” but also isn’t always sure how to explain that to anyone as easily as others share their pronouns.

Each chapter ends with a recipe, sometimes for actual baked goods readers can make themselves like the peach, strawberry, and basil Honest Pie and sometimes for abstract concepts like Today’s Gender or Baby’s First Polyam Brunch. All of the recipes are written in Syd’s distinct, wry narration with witty asides like “Realize you probably should have added the zest earlier, but you’ve been distracted by the presence of a cute baking partner. Realize that everything is going to turn out delicious either way.”

Part romantic comedy and part bildungsroman, The Heartbreak Bakery beautifully follows Syd through the madcap quest to undo the damage of the Breakup Brownies while also unpacking Syd’s fledgling relationship with Harley and Syd’s journey to fully vocalize their identity as agender (with help from freshly baked Agender Cupcakes, of course) and find their people–agender, magical baker, and otherwise.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim, Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey, Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian, Simply Irresistible (1999)

Last Chance Books: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Last Chance Books by Kelsey RodkeyMadeline Moore is counting the days until she can take over at her aunt’s beloved bookstore, Books & Moore. Her family has owned the store for generations; it’s always felt like a second home to Madeline. Her family stubbornly insists she has to go to college first. But Madeline knows after that she can come home and pick up right where she left off making her bookish dreams come true.

At least that was the plan until a chain bookstore opened across the street. With cheaper books and multiple locations, Prologue is a big threat to an indie like Books & Moore. Especially when Jasper Hamada starts scoping out the competition under the guise of flirting with Madeline. Flirting well. But still.

With her long-absent mother back in the picture and threatening to move home for good, Madeline’s personal life is a mess. She misses her brother who is spending more time at his dad’s to avoid the drama at home. She doesn’t understand why her aunt is always taking her mom’s side. Madeline needs one thing she can control and she’s pretty sure saving Books & Moore is it. She is definitely not going to let Assper Hamada distract her by being super cute and sort of . . . nice to her?

With help from her reluctant family, her BookTuber best friend Zelda, and the store’s community, Madeline hopes she can save the store and win an escalating prank war with Prologue. Turns out Jasper is as good at pranking as he is at flirting and more than prepared to give as good as he gets.

As sparks–and barbs–fly, Madeline will have to decide if connecting with Jasper Hotmada is worth risking her entire future. All’s fair in love and books (and prank wars) but that might not mean Madeline can have it all in Last Chance Books (2021) by Kelsey Rodkey.

Find it on Bookshop.

Last Chance Books is Rodkey’s debut novel. The story is narrated by Madeline who is white as is her mother and aunt. Her brother and his father are brown skinned. Jasper and his family are Japanese American.

Rodkey presents a well-developed cast and tackles a variety of side plots against the main focus of Madeline’s feud (and flirtation) with Jasper. Madeline has been raised by her aunt with a lot of help from her younger brother Benny’s father. Madeline and Benny’s mother, an aspiring actress and bit of a flake, has been absent for years leaving both Madeline and Benny to wonder about the ulterior motives–and permanence–of her return this time around. While Madeline has to deal with the possible upending of her clear plan for her future (taking over Books & Moore), Jasper faces a different challenge in getting his family to accept his dream of going into design–a passion he currently feeds through cosplay.

Moments of humor (and more than a few hijinks) add levity to the story and help flesh out the main characters as well as their authentically quirky retail settings. Madeline’s snappy narration and satisfying banter with Jasper make Last Chance Books a real treat. Recommended for readers with a soft spot for books about bookstores, enemies to lovers romances, and stories that will have them laughing out loud.

Possible Pairings: Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Heartbreak Bakery by A. R. Capetta, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, It’s Kind of a Cheesy Love Story by Lauren Morill, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian, The Shop Around the Corner, You’ve Got Mail

Little Thieves: A Review

The little thief steals gold, but the great one steals kingdoms; and only one goes to the gallows.
-Almanic proverb

Little Thieves by Margaret OwenFor Vanja Schmidt, nothing has ever been free–not even the love of her godmothers Death and Fortune. After years struggling to avoid trapping herself in service to either of the godmothers who refuse to claim her as their own, Vanja has almost earned enough to buy her freedom. By earn, she means stolen.

Vanja has left an impressive trail of damage in her wake ranging from stolen jewels to, most recently, a stolen life. Being Princess Gisele’s trusted maid should have kept Vanja safe. It didn’t. So Vanja finds her own way to safety by stealing Gisele’s enchanted pearls and using them to impersonate the princess. Gisele is left penniless and alone. But that is a small price to pay for Vanja to be safe and free–one she’d pay again twice over.

When Vanja is so close to freedom she can taste it, all of her lies threaten to bury her.

Vanja angers the wrong god and incurs a very dangerous curse on what should have been her last heist. Now Vanja will become exactly what she always wanted unless she can break the curse. It starts with a ruby on her cheek that could pay her entire way if only she could pry it loose. She can’t, of course. And neither can anyone else who covets it. That isn’t Vanja’s biggest problem.

If Vanja is unable to make amends for her past misdeeds in two weeks, the jewels will spread and kill her. Even if she survives that, Gisele’s fiance has pushed up their wedding. Meaning Vanja might find herself married to a brute of a prince who seems intent on making sure his bride never makes it past the honeymoon.

Worse, someone has finally caught onto Vanja’s schemes. And he might be the one person too smart for Vanja to outwit.

After years of cons and heists, Vanja is intimately familiar with the trinity of want. She knows how dangerous it is to be loved, or wanted, or used by the wrong people. She is less certain of how to find the right people to help her–let alone convince them to trust her–to steal back her life in Little Thieves (2021) by Margaret Owen.

Find it on Bookshop.

Little Thieves is an inventive retelling of the German fairytale “The Goose Girl.” It is also the first book in a duology. The story is narrated by Vanja with section headings grouped under different fairy tales Vanja shares with readers–each tale includes an illustration done by the author. Vanja is among several characters cued as white although the world Owen conjures strays from the stereotypical Germanic setting of many fairy tales to make space for characters who are BIPOC and from span the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Owen breathes new life into this familiar tale by reframing the story to follow the supposed villain. Flashbacks in the form of fairytales illuminate the deeds and misdeeds that led Vanja to steal Gisele’s pearls. They also offer hints of how Vanja can make her way back from it and break the curse.  Young sleuth Emeric Conrad is an apt foil to Vanja’s schemes and ably keeps pace with her throughout this clever tale.

After years of getting by on her wits and what she could steal with her own two hands, Vanja is slowly forced to admit that she might not be able to do everything alone. As she finds new allies–reluctant and otherwise–she slowly builds out a support system and confronts the role her own tendency for self-destruction played in her checkered past. Owen skillfully demonstrates Vanja’s growth throughout the novel as she moves from a girl willing to pry a ruby off her own face (if only she could) to one who might have to sacrifice everything to save the people she’s hesitantly begun to care about.

Little Thieves is a sleek page-turner that seamlessly blends classic fairytale elements with a high stakes con, sardonic humor, and flawed characters you can’t help but adore. Come for the imaginative world building and a truly distinct retelling, stay for the gasp-worthy twists, found family, and slow burn romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows

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

The Forest of Stolen Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Forest of Stolen Girls by June HurJoseon (Korea), 1426: The year of the crown princess selection when young women like Hwani should be dreaming of entering the palace as a princess. Hwani has never been interested in marriage or the selection process.

Instead, she is crossing the sea to travel to Jeju, a penal island of political convicts. Her childhood home.

Months ago, Hwani’s father made the same journey. He didn’t return.

Detective Min went to the island investigating the disappearance of thirteen girls–disappearances that might be tied to the forest incident–an event so traumatic that Hwani has blocked out all but the barest details.

Coming back to the island will bring Hwani face to face with her estranged younger sister, Maewol, for the first time in years. In their search for the truth, both sisters will have to confront buried memories from their past and the island’s dark secrets in their search for the truth in The Forest of Stolen Girls (2021) by June Hur.

Find it on Bookshop.

Hwani’s efforts to find her missing father and solve his last case contrast well with the smaller story of her own difficulties in deciding how to balance societal conventions with her own dreams and goals. Hwani’s tentative reconnection with her sister–who has been left alone on the island for years to train with the local shaman–adds further depth and tenderness to this thoughtful story.

An author’s note at the end demonstrates Hur’s thoughtful research for this novel while contextualizing the story here into the larger context of Korean history.

The Forest of Stolen Girls is a tense and atmospheric mystery that is both well-plotted and nuanced. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Splinters of Scarlet by Emily Bain Murphy, Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popovic, The Beast is An Animal by Peternelle Van Arsdale, The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

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

You’ll Be the Death of Me: A Review

You'll Be the Death of Me by Karen M. McManusIvy Sterling-Shepard, Cal O’Shea-Wallace, and Mateo Wojcik were inseparable in middle school after cementing their friendship on the Best Day Ever when they skipped out on a class field trip in Boston to have an adventure of their own. Now in their senior year of high school they barely speak; they all have bigger things to worry about.

Ivy has always been an overachiever. How else can she prove that she can keep up with her legit genius younger brother? How else can she recover from the fallout after his latest, brutal joke? Unfortunately, instead of pulling out a stunning victory at the student council election, Ivy loses. To the class clown. “Boney” Mahoney.

Mateo is too exhausted to worry about what’s going on with his former friends. His family’s business just failed. He’s working two jobs to help out plus school. His mother is rationing her meds for her rheumatoid arthritis because the co-pay is so high. And his cousin Autumn is . . . not making good choices as she tries to help the family struggle along as best she can.

Cal is in love. But he’s also lonely. He has been for a while, if he’s being honest. And being stood up again doesn’t help that at all.

When all three of them arrive at the school parking lot at the same time, late, it feels like a second chance. Maybe they can skip class and recapture whatever it is they lost along the way.

The trio’s attempt to recreate the magic of the Best Day Ever quickly becomes the Worst Day Ever when they follow another classmate to a mysterious meeting. And witness his murder.

Worse, Ivy is soon the prime suspect. Mateo has a dangerous connection to their dead classmate. And Cal is hiding something from everyone–something that could have deadly consequences.

All of them have their own motives for staying together and figuring out what happened. Now they have to figure out if they also have their own motives for murder in You’ll Be the Death of Me (2021) by Karen M. McManus.

Find it on Bookshop.

You’ll Be the Death of Me is a perfectly paced mystery set primarily over the course of one frantic day. Chapters alternate between the three main characters Ivy who is white, Cal who is white and has two dads, and Mateo who is Puerto Rican and Polish. Mateo’s cousin Autumn was orphaned as a child and lives with Mateo and his mother. Interludes from other characters add dimension to the story by providing different viewpoints this is otherwise closely focused story.

McManus packs a lot into this story as all three characters are hiding things from each other. These secrets are expertly teased out as the novel progresses and builds to its jaw dropping conclusion. None of the protagonists here are perfect–bad choices are made by all throughout the novel. Both their growth and the novel’s intense readability are testaments to McManus’ considerable talents as an author.

You’ll Be the Death of Me is an utterly engrossing page turner filled with unexpected twists, humor, and unexpectedly compelling friendships (and even some romance). Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, The Best Lies by Sarah Lyu, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund

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

The Ones We’re Meant to Find: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Ones We're Meant to Find by Joan HeIn a world that has been ravaged by climate change, eco-cities guarantee clean air, water, and shelter. They also require all residents to live sustainably. By living less.

Kasey Mizuhara has always thrived in the eco-city. She doesn’t mind the close quarters or spending a third of her life in stasis. She prefers it. Everything is so much easier when she can focus on science instead of people.

Kasey isn’t sure she can ever forgive her older sister Celia for hating the eco-city enough to leave it three months ago never to return.

Kasey knows that her sister is gone. Dead. Logically, leaving the safety of the eco-city only ends one way. She’s known that for a while. But Kasey is still desperate to retrace Celia’s steps to try and understand.

Cee has been alone on an abandoned island for three years. She has enough food to survive and a long-vacant house for shelter but not much else. She has no memory of how she got there or who she was before.

She knows she has a sister. Kay. She knows that Kay is waiting for Cee to find her.

Cee will do whatever it takes to get back to her sister. Even if it means cracking open all of the secrets from her past–including the ones Cee has been too afraid to confront.

In a world founded on logic and numbers, there isn’t a lot of room for love. Or choice. But Kasey and Cee will choose how to find each other. And how far they’ll go to get there in The Ones We’re Meant to Find (2021) by Joan He.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Ones We’re Meant to Find is a quiet, character driven story. Chapters alternate between Cee and Kasey’s narrations (Cee’s in first person, Kasey’s in third person). Both sisters grieve for what they have lost and, in their own ways, cope with that finality against the backdrop of imminent global catastrophe.

The less you know going into this story, the better. He expertly doles out all of the information readers need to unravel the story–and the secrets–alongside Kasey and Cee as the novel builds to its staggering and affecting conclusion.

The Ones We’re Meant to Find is an eerily plausible sci-fi thriller where sisterly love is leveraged against the greater good. Come for the intense emotions and taut pacing, stay for the intricate world building and ethical quandaries. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, More Than This by Patrick Ness, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, Extras by Scott Westerfeld, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

An Emotion of Great Delight: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh MafiShadi means full of joy in Persian but Shadi’s life is filled with personal sorrows. Her brother Mehdi is dead–killed in a car accident. Her father is probably dying in the hospital after his second heart attack; Shadi privately thinks he is getting exactly what he deserves while her mother and older sister Shayda do everything they can to take care of him.

Shadi used to find refuge with her best friend, Zahra. But Zahra has dropped her. The way everyone seems to now.

Shadi knows there are bigger problems in the world. It’s 2003. Neighbors look at her askance because of her hijab. The United States has officially declared war on Iraq. The Muslim community is reeling from news of undercover FBI agents infiltrating local mosques.

But Shadi’s brother is still dead. Her best friend still hates her. She still misses the life she had before.

When it seems like nothing can ever get better, Shadi wonders if she’s found the way her story ends. Until Zahra’s older brother, Ali, makes an overture to renew their friendship. And maybe start a tentative romance.

Trapped in a morass of grief and isolation, Shadi will have to reclaim her right to happiness and peace if she wants to move forward in An Emotion of Great Delight (2021) by Tahereh Mafi.

Find it on Bookshop.

Mafi’s latest novel reads like a time capsule cracked open, immediately drawing readers into Shadi’s life. This quiet story offers an introspective look at Shadi’s experiences as an Iranian American teen in 2003 where her personal dramas play out against the larger backdrop of world events impacting the Muslim community.

Flashbacks to life before Mehdi’s death cast Shadi’s present isolation in stark relief as she hits bottom and slowly begins to realize she has to let go of her anger and grief before it eats her alive.

An Emotion of Great Delight is a sparse story filled with lyrical prose, pathos, and ultimately optimism; a visceral read that cements Mafi’s place in the YA canon.

Possible Pairings: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Tamar Budhos, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Yolk by Mary HK Choi, All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, My Heart Underwater by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo, The Love and Lies of Rukshana Ali by Sabina Khan

The Splendor: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Splendor by Breeana ShieldsEveryone says The Splendor can give you things you don’t even know you want. The glamorous hotel is the stuff of dreams; offering decadent meals, lavish rooms, and everything a person could want.

People come back from the hotel changed. But Juliette doesn’t understand what that means until her sister, Clare, spends a week at The Splendor. Clare is different when she comes back. Distant and cruel where she had previously been attentive and kind. Juliette isn’t sure who she is without her sister’s love, with her sister little better than a stranger.

Desperate to understand what went wrong inside the hotel’s gilded walls, Juliette steals their savings to go to The Splendor herself. It’s easy to fall for everything The Splendor offers its guests even as Juliette searches for answers. Drawn to the young illusionist at the center of the hotel’s magic, Juliette begins to realize there’s more to the hotel and its staff than meets the eye.

Henri helps make The Splendor what it is, offering every guest a Signature Experience tailored to their every want. But all Juliette wants is for Clare to be who she was before she ever went to the hotel. As Henri learns more about Juliette he realizes that giving her what she wants will be even harder when he’s the one responsible for everything that’s gone wrong in The Splendor (2021) by Breeana Shields.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Splendor is a standalone fantasy novel. The story alternates close third person point of view between Juliette and Henri. The main characters are assumed white.

Shields throws readers right into the story with little introduction to the world or the magic that makes the hotel possible. While this creates immediate drama and action, it offers little in the way of clarification for the related magic system.

The cautious beginnings of romance between Juliette and Henri plays out sweetly alongside questions what is really needed to earn true loyalty or honesty–things Juliette and Henri will need in large supply before their story is over. Both protagonists are uncertain if they can trust the other with their hearts (or their secrets) adding tension to their chemistry and near immediate attraction.

The Splendor is a fast-paced and romantic adventure sure to sweep readers away.

Possible Pairings: Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Belle Époque by Elizabeth Ross, Hotel Ruby by Suzanne Young

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

All of Us Villains: A Review

All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn HermanEvery twenty years in the small city of Ilvernath the Blood Veil descends marking the start of a new tournament between Ilvernath’s seven founding families. During the course of the tournament, six champions will be killed leaving the lone victor to win control of the region’s high magick–a coveted resource worldwide–until the next tournament.

In previous generations, no one knew about the tournament except the seven families and the spell-and-cursemakers who supply the champions with their arsenals; no one knew that the families were trapped in a seemingly unbreakable curse.

This time things are different thanks to the anonymous publication of “A Tradition of Tragedy: The True Story of the Town that Sends Its Children to Die”–a book that shares all of Ilvernath’s dirty secrets about both the tournament and its participating families.

Now, with the tournament about to start again, the town is filled with paparazzi and spellchasers eager to witness the carnage. All of the champions will face more than they bargained for as the tournament begins to change around them leaving the fate of the champions–and high magick–in question in All of Us Villains (2021) by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman.

Find it on Bookshop.

All of Us Villains is the first book in a duology and Foody and Herman’s first writing collaboration. While the characters have diverse sexual identities, most characters (including all POV characters) are white.

The book alternates close third person point of view between self-declared villain Alistair Lowe, reluctant tournament favorite Isobel Macaslan, underdog Gavin Grieve whose family has never won the tournament, and Briony Thorburn whose self-declared chosen one status is threatened by government involvement in this year’s tournament.

An intricate magic system anchors this modern world where common magick exists alongside modern technology allowing people to buy spells for anything from flashlight alternatives to beauty boosts. The carefully developed magic system underscores how much readers don’t know about Ilvernath’s place in the larger world–something that may be explored further in book two.

All of Us Villains is a fast-paced, morally grey story of ambition and survival with a true cliffhanger ending that will leave fans eager for the sequel.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst, An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

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