In the Ballroom With the Candlestick

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick by Diana PeterfreundJust when everyone thought things couldn’t get worse at the formerly prestigious Blackbrook Academy, an accident strikes bringing another tragedy to the school’s door and into the lives of the infamous Murder Crew.

Orchid has survived her toxic former career and a deadly encounter with her stalker. But she isn’t sure how to survive losing Vaughn when they were just getting started.

Beth is still recovering from her injuries in the car crash that killed Vaughn. Tennis is a wash. But maybe that will give her a chance to focus on something else.

After losing her status as part of Blackbrook’s best platonic power couple, Scarlett’s confidence in choosing the right people is shaken. She can support Orchid and help her launch Vaughn to posthumous super-stardom. But it’s just not the same as plotting and dominating with Finn.

Finn is desperate to get back in Scarlett’s good graces for help protecting his invention as much as for their friendship. But he isn’t sure what to do if winning Scarlett’s friendship means risking whatever it is he has with Mustard.

Mustard doesn’t know what to do about his growing feelings for Finn or the deteriorating state of his new school. Things get even worse when Mustard’s roommate turns up dead and Mustard is the prime suspect.

With Blackbrook crumbling around them, the Murder Crew will have to rally together one more time to save one of their own, finally unearth the last of Blackbrook’s secrets, and throw a prom that no one is going to forget in In the Ballroom With the Candlestick (2021) by Diana Peterfreund.

Find it on Bookshop.

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick is the final book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers. Like its predecessor, this novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six main characters. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx, the rest of the cast is presumed white.

This final installment picks ups soon after the dramatic conclusion of book two with the entire Murder Crew still picking up the pieces as they sort through the school’s remaining secrets–most notably Vaughn’s past and his history with the school.

Readers who have been with the series from the beginning will appreciate the growth of all of the characters as they work together to solve one final round of mysteries at everyone’s least favorite boarding school. Finn and Mustard in particular have a lot of development as they try to navigate their fledgling relationship. Unfortunately, the primary focus of this series remains squarely on Orchid and Vaughn despite them arguably being some of the least interesting characters among the Murder Crew.

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick stay true to the board game (and the now classic 1985 film!) that inspired this series delivering murder, mayhem, and multiple endings that guarantee that this finale will have something for everyone.

Possible Pairings: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett, Heist Society by Ally Carter, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Killing November by Adriana Mather, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

In the Wild Light: A Review

“Because for every way the world tries to kill us, it gives us a way to survive. You just gotta find it.”

“Every hurt, every sorrow, every scar has brought you here. Poetry lets us turn pain into fire by which to warm ourselves. Go build a fire.”

In the Wild Light by Jeff ZentnerNothing in Cash’s life has been easy in Sawyer–his small Appalchian town. His mother died because of her opioid addiction when Cash was a child. Now, as a teen, Cash is watching his Papaw deteriorate from emphysema while he and his Mamaw are powerless to help. Cash knows he’s lucky to have his grandparents at all, to be on the river he loves, to have his summer work mowing lawns, to have these small pieces of safety and stability.

Sometimes it feels like the one bright spot is his best friend, Delaney. But Cash has always known Delaney will eventually leave–that’s what happens when your best friend is a genius. When Delaney discovers a life-changing bacteria-eating mold in a cave, Cash knows she’s headed for better things. Without him. And even sooner than he expected when she receives a full scholarship to Middleford Academy, an elite boarding school in Connecticut.

Except Delaney has plans of her own. None of which include leaving Cash behind. When Delaney tells Cash a scholarship is his for the taking he will have to choose between an unimaginable opportunity with the best friend he’s ever had and his love for his grandparents and the only place he’s ever called home.

As Cash grapples with everything he has to let go, he’ll remember everything worth holding onto and learn new ways to dream bigger in In the Wild Light (2021) by Jeff Zentner.

Find it on Bookshop.

Zentner’s latest novel can be read as a standalone but is set in the same world as all of his other novels. The story here is most closely connected to Goodbye Days with direct references to those characters. Cash and Delaney are white, secondary characters include Cash’s new friend Alex who is Korean-American (and also on scholarship) and Delaney’s Brazilian roommate Vi who is wealthy leading to thoughtful commentary on income diversity throughout the novel. Cash’s poetry-teacher-turned-mentor is queer and she and her wife also play key roles in the plot.

Cash’s first person narration is eloquently introspective as he describes the river and nature he dearly loves but less self-aware when it comes to identifying his own wants and, as his world expands at Middleford Academy, understanding what he needs to continue growing.

Cash is keenly aware of his past traumas and how they have shaped him and his loved ones in a small town where poverty is high and many have fallen victim to the opioid epidemic as he describes them, “Here we are, survivors of quiet wars.” At the same time, Cash and especially his Papaw and Mamaw are free with their affection, their praise, and their unconditional love. In a world where toxic masculinity is still so dangerous it is refreshing and powerful to see a teenaged boy given space to cry and grieve and feel while also seeing the same things in his grandfather.

While Delaney is eager to start fresh, Cash is hesitant to embrace this new chapter and let himself imagine a world beyond his quiet life with his grandparents. Even as he makes new friends, joins crew, and discovers an unexpected passion for poetry, he’s still waiting for the ground to fall out from under him the way it always does–a fear that will resonate with readers who have struggled with unpredictability and chaos in their own lives. On first glance, I don’t have much in common with Cash, so it was a surprise when I identified so deeply with his story, his grief, and his dread of the next calamity. When Cash says “I have nothing in my life that isn’t falling apart,” I felt it in my bones.

In the Wild Light is a quiet, meditative story about nature, poetry, love, and all of the things that can save us. In the Wild Light is a resonant story about healing; the perfect book to see you through a rough season.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, This Golden State by Marit Weisenberg

Amari and the Night Brothers: A Review

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. AlstonAmari Peters knows she can never measure up to her older brother Quinton. But with Quinton missing and the police no longer even pretending to look for him, Amari is all their single mother has left. So Amari tries her best even if Quinton left big shoes to fill with an outstanding academic career and a mysterious job that left no way to trace him after the disappearance.

When the latest round of bullying by the rich, white girls at her fancy private school ends with Amari’s suspension, Amari knows she’s in big trouble. She also knows being home alone is a great opportunity to continue her search for Quinton. Instead of finding a clue to where Quinton is, Amari finds an invitation that’s been waiting for her.

Turns out Quinton’s job was a bigger deal than anyone realized and, now that she’s thirteen, Amari has a chance to follow in her brother’s footsteps by joining the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. Amari is certain that learning the truth about Quinton’s life will help her find him, but being in the Bureau also feels right. Even when Amari’s ceremony to receive her trainee shield goes very wrong. Turns out Amari is a promising trainee–even more promising than her brother, for once. Unfortunately, Amari’s supernatural level talent is also illegal because she’s a magician.

Amari has one chance to make it as a trainee and one chance to try and find her brother–she’ll have to make the most of both as she survives her rigorous trainee schedule, more mean girls, and tries to make new friends all while trying to understand her magic–and find out what really happened to her brother in Amari and the Night Brothers (2021) by B.B. Alston.

Find it on Bookshop.

Amari and the Night Brothers is Alston’s debut novel and the start of a series. Amari and her family are Black. Secondary characters are varied including Amari’s new roommate Elsie who is a dragon (and my favorite). The audiobook is a fun and fast listen as narrated by Imani Parks but you will catch more of Alston’s punny name choices in print.

Amari is a fantastic protagonist. She is street smart and savvy after growing up poor and living in the projects but she is also still open to wonder as she explores more of the supernatural world. Most importantly, she is still hopeful and has unflagging faith that she will find Quinton again and reunite her family. Alston’s writing is top notch as he weaves the supernatural world into a modern urban setting with a similar sensibility to the Men in Black films.

Strong world building, authentic characters, and a really fun magic system make Amari and the Night Brothers a great adventure for readers of all ages; a more enjoyable and more inclusive alternative to Harry Potter.

Possible Pairings: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, Shadow Weaver by MarcyKate Connolly, Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

A Lesson in Vengeance: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Regret always comes too late.

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria LeeAfter a year away, Felicity Morrow hopes to keep a low profile at Dalloway School while she completes her senior year. Then she’ll never have to think about the prestigious boarding school or what transpired there ever again.

Being back at Godwin House feels wrong for so many reasons but especially because her girlfriend Alex is dead and won’t ever return.

Still grieving, still haunted, Felicity doesn’t know what to expect from her new housemates, especially the enigmatic Ellis Haley. Everyone knows Ellis. Everyone has read her prodigious debut novel while eagerly awaiting her sophomore effort. As much as Felicity is drawn to Ellis–as much as everyone is drawn to Ellis–Felicity balks at the cult of personality the writer has erected around herself.

Ellis is drawn to Dalloway, and particularly to Godwin House, because of its bloody history. Like Felicity herself, she’s fascinated by the story of the Dalloway Five–the five students who all died under mysterious circumstances with accusations of witchcraft hanging over them.

Everyone knows magic isn’t real. After what happened last year, Felicity needs magic to not be real. But as Ellis draws her back to the school’s dangerous not-so-hidden, arcane history Felicity will have to decide if she has the strength to face the darkness festering at Dalloway and in herself in A Lesson in Vengeance (2021) by Victoria Lee.

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A Lesson in Vengeance is a standalone novel. Felicity and Ellis are white with secondary characters adding more diversity and brief conversations of the history of segregation and exclusion inherent to elite boarding schools like Dalloway.

This novel is an ode to all things dark academia with vivid descriptions of Dalloway’s ivy-covered glory, brittle winters, and its gory past. Lee also carefully subverts the genre using both Felicity and Ellis’ queer identities to inform the story. Pitch perfect pacing and careful plot management further help this story pack a punch.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a clever, suspenseful story filled filled. Come for the satisfying mystery and evocative setting, stay for the moral ambiguity and plot twists.

Possible Pairings: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, When All the Girls Are Sleeping by Emily Arsenault, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Night Migrations” by Louise Glück, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Malleus Maleficarum, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, “The Shroud” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Dear Life by Alice Munro, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, What is Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig, Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

In the Study With the Wrench: A Review

*In the Study With the Wrench is the second book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue. Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers.*

In the Study With the Wrench by Diana PeterfreundOne blizzard and one murder later, Blackbrook Academy is a disaster. The campus is still in disarray with unrepaired storm damage. Students are withdrawing faster than you can say, “Did you hear about Headmaster Boddy’s murder?”

And, in the midst of the media firestorm, six students have earned an unwelcome reputation as the Murder Crew after discovering the body and helping to solve the murder.

Orchid relishes being back on campus even with the school’s tanking reputation because being there, being Orchid, means she’s safe from her past. Vaughn Green is thrilled that he and Orchid have a chance to spend more time together–but he also knows that means she’ll have more time to figure out what he’s hiding. In the wake of discovering some of Finn Plum’s secrets, Scarlett is reeling as one half of a former platonic power couple while Finn struggles to figure out how to win back her trust. Beth “Peacock” Picach is back on top of her tennis game thanks to a new life coach. Then there’s Sam “Mustard” Maestor who is still trying to make sense of his new (surprisingly dangerous) school … and his infatuation with the often deeply annoying Finn.

In a school that’s still filled with unanswered questions, maybe it’s no surprise when another dead body turns up and brings the Murder Crew to the center of another investigation in In the Study With the Wrench (2020) by Diana Peterfreund.

Find it on Bookshop.

In the Study With the Wrench is the second book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers.

Like its predecessor, this novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six main characters. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx, the rest of the cast is presumed white.

In the Study With the Wrench picks up shortly after the conclusion of book one as students return for a new term to find the school and its campus much changed. Peterfreund expands on plot twists revealed in the previous novel’s final chapter while delving deeper into Blackbrook Academy’s secrets in this second installment. Readers also learn more about Vaughn’s tense home life and his complicated connection to the school as well as seeing more of more of Orchid’s past.

While this information sets up a lot of interesting plot threads to be tied up in the conclusion of this fast-paced trilogy, Vaughn and Orchid are often the least interesting characters as readers quickly learn more about their respective situations than either character–or anyone else in the book–giving some later plot twists less impact. The classic game characters, reinterpreted by Peterfreund, continue to be the greatest strength of this series.

With an almost literal cliffhanger ending, more murder, and plenty of suspects, In the Study With the Wrench is another exciting installment in a mystery that is equal parts humor and suspense.

Possible Pairings: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett, Heist Society by Ally Carter, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Killing November by Adriana Mather, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

In the Hall With the Knife: A Review

In the Hall With the Knife by Diana PeterfreundBlackbrook Academy, an elite boarding school hidden away in the woods of Maine, is no stranger to dangerous storms. With the latest one coming just before break, most students manage to make it home well before the the storm sets in. Which is why, when the headmaster turns up dead in the conservatory of one of the dorms, suspicion quickly shifts to the small group left behind:

Beth “Peacock” Picach isn’t interested in anything at Blackbrook unless it’s about tennis. Which is why Peacock is incensed when Headmaster Boddy wants to discuss her standing on the Blackbrook team just before the storm hits.

Orchid McKee came to Blackbrook to hide. Until information from the headmaster suggests that a dangerous piece of Orchid’s past life might have followed her to Blackbrook after all.

Vaughn Green is a townie and a scholarship student at Blackbrook. Vaughn balances a nearly impossible courseload and his less-than-ideal home life with working part-time as a janitor at the school giving him a front seat to Blackbrook’s iniquities. And its secrets.

Sam “Mustard” Maestor thought starting at a new school would give him a clean slate. What he didn’t count on was how different Blackbrook would be from his former school, an austere military academy. Starting in the middle of a historically bad storm and a murder investigation also doesn’t help.

Phineas “Finn” Plum is sitting on something big. Life-changing big. But one draconian school policy doesn’t mean he’s about to share it with anyone–especially not the headmaster.

Scarlet Mistry is used to being on top of the school’s gossip and the top liberal arts student thanks to her platonic power couple alliance with Finn. But even with all of her tricks, Scarlet doesn’t know what to make of a murder happening under her nose. Or the fact that her best friend is keeping secrets.

With one murder, zero trust, and a million motives, anyone could be the culprit in In the Hall With the Knife (2019) by Diana Peterfreund.

Find it on Bookshop.

In the Hall With the Knife is the first book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). The novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six students. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx.

In her author’s note, Peterfreund mentions her love for the board game and the now classic movie it inspired. (Read more about the history of the 1985 film in Adam B. Vary’s Buzzfeed Article “The Crazy Story Of How “Clue” Went From Forgotten Flop To Cult Triumph.”) Peterfreund’s love for her source material is clear in this fitting reinterpretation of the classic game from the intrigue-filled backstory to the punny character names including janitor Rusty Nayler.

While quick to get to the inciting incident (Boddy’s murder, of course), the narrative can feel unwieldy while getting to know all of the characters–even with Peacock’s workout journal entries being obvious standouts. With plentiful motives and even more secrets, solving Boddy’s murder is just one of many mysteries surrounding Blackbrook promising more suspense–and murder–to come from this trilogy.

Unreliable narrators, red herrings, and clever dialogue from a really fun core cast make In the Hall With the Knife a winning mystery whether you’re a fan of the genre or the board game that inspired it.

Possible Pairings: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett, Heist Society by Ally Carter, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Killing November by Adriana Mather, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

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, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, Bookish Boyfriends by Tiffany Schmidt, Jackpot by Nic Stone

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, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow: A Review

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica TownsendMorrigan Crow survived her trials and earned admission to the Wundrous Society. Finally, she can have a place in Nevermoor and, more importantly, the family and friends she’s always wanted.

Unfortunately, completing her trials was the easy part. Despite gaining admittance to the Society, the elders are all suspicious of Morrigan’s ability to manipulate Wunder–the magical energy that powers everything in Nevermoor. While Morrigan’s talent is rare, it is also forever and irrevocably linked to the notorious Ezra Squall, a villain known as The Wundersmith and remembered for his numerous crimes against and continued exile from Nevermoor.

Instead of being trained in the arcane arts, the Society only wants to show Morrigan that all Wundersmiths of the past were evil, dangerous, and often incompetent. Worse, Morrigan’s unit is being blackmailed, forced to meet exceedingly risky demands or risk the unit’s secret being revealed to the entire Society.

When prominent citizens across Nevermoor start disappearing, Morrigan’s beloved new home takes on a dangerous edge. Now that Morrigan has found a place in Nevermoor, she’ll need all of her wits and her friends to keep it in Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow (2018) by Jessica Townsend.

Find it on Bookshop.

Wundersmith is the second book in Townsend’s Nevermoor series. The book picks up shortly after the conclusion of Nevermoor as Morrigan prepares to start her first term at the Wundrous Society. Check out the print edition for inset illustrations at the start of each chapter and listen to the audio version (read by Gemma Whelan) for a fully immersive read.

Townsend wildly expands the world of Nevermoor as Morrigan and readers learn more about her new home and delve into the mysterious history of Wundersmiths through the ages. Morrigan’s world is described in vibrant detail with a perfect blend of humor and adventure.

Wundersmith explores themes of friendship and belonging to excellent effect as Morrigan continues to carve out a place for herself in Nevermoor in spite of those too eager to see her fail. Readers will appreciate the balance Townsend strikes between a self-contained story and tantalizing hints of what’s in store for Morrigan’s next adventure.

With higher stakes, more action, and greater dangers, Wundersmith builds off book one to deliver an even stronger and even more exciting installment. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon, Foxheart by Claire Legrand, Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross, The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski

The Deceivers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Careful is a luxury you have when your baseline isn’t chaos.”

The Deceivers by Kristen SimmonsBrynn Hilder is willing to do whatever it takes to get out of her hardscrabble neighborhood in Chicago. Unfortunately, a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to paying for college.

When her mom’s sleazy boyfriend finds out about Brynn’s low level cons and the money she’s already saved up, he steals all of it and gives Brynn an ultimatum: start running cons for him or start selling his drugs.

Enter Vale Hall, an elite boarding school that seems to be the answer to all of Brynn’s problems. The school promises a free ride to any college of her choice . . . for a price. Instead of earning good grades and building up her extracurriculars, Brynn and the other Vale students are expected to use their conning abilities to help the school with special projects.

Brynn knows she’s up to the task. But as she learns more about her first mark and the lines she’ll have to cross to entrap him, Brynn has to decide how far she’s willing to go to get what she wants in The Deceivers (2019) by Kristen Simmons.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Deceivers is the start of Simmons’ Vale Hall trilogy–a con filled story partially inspired by the story of Odin and his Valkyrie.

Brynn is a practical, calculating narrator. She has spent years hardening her heart and telling herself she can do whatever it takes to chase a better life without fully understanding the risks or the costs. After being the poorest person in the room for so long, her time at Vale Hall forces Brynn to confront the fact that she isn’t the only one facing hard choices and limited opportunities.

Used to depending on herself and no one else, Brynn slowly and reluctantly builds up a support system at Vale Hall as she gets to know the other students, especially her potential love interest Henry and his group of friends–part of a supporting cast of characters who are as varied as they are authentic.

The Deceivers is the perfect blend of action and suspense as Brynn delves deeper into Vale Hall’s underworld and the stakes continue to climb for her and the another students. Smart cons, snappy dialog, and pitch perfect pacing set this novel apart. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Killing November by Adriana Mather, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carry Ryan, The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner