All These Bodies: A Review

All These Bodies by Kendare BlakeA series of strange murders is leaving a grisly trail across the Midwest in the summer of 1958.

The bodies are found in their cars, their homes, their beds. All of them are drained of blood. But the scenes are clean. No blood anywhere.

On September 19 the Carlson family is slaughtered in their secluded farmhouse in Black Deer Falls, Minnesota and the police might finally have a lead when Marie Catherine Hale is found at the scene.

Covered in blood, mistaken for a survivor, it soon becomes clear that Marie is something else when police realize the blood is not hers.

Michael Jensen has been following coverage of the murders all summer, eager to test his mettle as an aspiring journalist and pave the way out of his small town. When his father, the local sheriff, arrests Marie, Michael knows it’s an opportunity he likely won’t see again.

Talking to Marie, assisting the police, having firsthand access to the case files gives Michael a close-up view of the investigation and the girl at its center. Marie doesn’t look like a killer, but she’s confessing to Michael over a series of interviews. She says there’s more to the killings than anyone can imagine but as her story unfolds Michael is the one who will have to decide if the truth is the same as what people will believe in All These Bodies (2021) by Kendare Blake.

Find it on Bookshop.

All These Bodies was a 2021 Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Best Young Adult Novel. The story is narrated by Michael and all characters are assumed white.

Blake expertly unspools Michael’s naked ambition to become a journalist with his increasingly thorny ethical dilemma when it comes to using Marie’s story for his own gain. The narrative focuses on Marie and whether being complicit is the same as being an accomplice while slowly teasing out what may have happened to the Carlsons and all the other victims.

Centering Marie while having the story related by Michael explores questions of the male gaze and agency as the story builds to its dramatic finish. Marie’s journey in the media from victim to villain is nuanced and contrasts well with Michael’s own conflicting feelings on whether Marie can be the violent criminal authorities seem to think she is while also being his friend.

Michael’s pragmatic narration only increases the tension as Marie shares her confession to her role in the murders and hints at something even more sinister at play while leaving space for readers to interpret events for themselves.

All These Bodies is an atmospheric story at the intersection of true crime and horror; one that will stay with you in all of the best ways.

Possible Pairings: No Saints in Kansas by Amy Brashear, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Breaker by Kat Ellis, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, Broken Things by Lauren Oliver, Sadie by Courtney Summers, The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas, The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

Want to know more? Check out my interview with Kendare.

You Truly Assumed: A Review

You Truly Assumed by Laila SabreenIn the wake of a terrorist attack three Black Muslim teens find unlikely comfort online.

Sabriya is close enough to the attack in DC that her father picks her up from the dance studio; close enough that Bri, her younger sister, and their father all hold their breaths until Bri’s mother walks through the door. With the news cycle stuck on the attacks, on the terrorist with a name that sounds just Muslim enough for people looking for an excuse, Bri doesn’t know what to do with all of her big feelings about the attack and the aftermath and the way her perfectly planned summer of conservatory auditions is impossible now. Usually she’d write it all down in a notebook but this time she goes to a blog instead. Which changes everything.

Every Muslim in the US feels the ramifications of the attacks, worries about the Islamaphobia it will help justify. But it all feels far away for Zakat in the idyllic Muslim community she has always known in her town in Georgia. Until a childhood enemy is hired at the bookstore alongside Zakat and her best friend. While Aafreen is quick to trust and offer second chances, Zakat can’t help but wonder if this new addition to their social circle has anything to do with the vandalism at their mosque and other hateful incidents. Contributing her artwork to a new blog called You Truly Assumed should be a refuge and a distraction. But it becomes anything but as hateful commenters find the site.

Farah’s summer pushes her way out of her comfort zone. Instead of spending it with her mother, Farah is sent across the country to get to her father and meet her step-mother and half-siblings for the first time. The trip is a chance to explore college options on the east coast and test the waters of a long distance relationship. Farah doesn’t expect to also find community as a co-runner of You Truly Assumed much less as someone helping to plan a vigil after another attack.

As the blog gains momentum and attention Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah will all have to deal with the fallout as they try to make a place for themselves and other Black Muslim teens in You Truly Assumed (2022) by Laila Sabreen.

Find it on Bookshop.

You Truly Assumed is Sabreen’s debut novel. Chapters alternate between Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah’s first person narrations. While the three start as strangers in different areas their growing connection brings both the characters and their divergent stories together. These protagonists also help break down the idea of the Muslim or Black experience as a monolith. Zakat, a hijabi, is an aspiring artist attending a Muslim school who is very active in her local mosque. Farah and her mother are Muslim but Farah is spending the summer with her Black father and his family who are Christian while she considers STEM college options on the east coast.  Sabriya comes from a inter-faith household and is weighing the pros and cons of attending college or a conservatory ballet program after high school before the blog takes off.

While the advent and maintenance of the blog is what initially starts the story, each girl has their own arc as the novel progresses with navigating new family dynamics, micro-aggressions, friendships, and romantic relationships. Sabreen balances these multiple plots and protagonists well giving each girl adequate page time to stand out. Questions of how each girl negotiates being Black or Muslim enough in spheres that try to treat the two as mutually exclusive also lead to empowering moments as each heroine comes into her own. Unfortunately the writing doesn’t always do as much work to distinguish between the narrators with the voices sometimes blending together. (I listened to the audiobook and even having three different voice actors as narrators didn’t help.)

You Truly Assumed offers an authentic perspective on what it means to navigate online spaces showcasing both the highs–as Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah form a real friendship thanks to running the blog together–and the lows–when a conservative, alt right site lists the blog for a targeted harassment campaign. The girls’ families are also refreshingly present and, as situations escalate, involved in the resolution including some hard conversations about what happens next. Although Farah is in a relationship for the entirety of the novel, the story remains firmly focused on friendship and community rather than romance.

You Truly Assumed is an empowering story about finding your voice and your community. A must read in these disconnected times.

Possible Pairings: Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali, Girls Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, Love Times Infinity by Lane Clarke, Does My Body Offend You? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Seton Girls by Charlene Thomas

Only a Monster: A Review

Only a Monster by Vanessa LenSixteen-year-old Joan Chang-Hunt has a lot to look forward to this summer. She is once again staying with her mother’s eclectic family in London but this year is even better. Not only does she have a dream job at the historic Holland House–she gets to work alongside fellow nerd and crush Nick.

Going on a date with Nick is truly a dream come true. Or at least it should be. Unfortunately, the day of the date does not go as planned.

Instead of the start of a perfect summer, Joan finds herself in a nightmare as she learns more about her family–and their secrets.

Joan comes from a long line of monsters. Actual monsters with horrifying powers. Powers Joan might have herself.

Monsters are the least of Joan’s problems when she realizes that Nick is a hero–a monster hunter from the stuff of legend whose only goal is destroying monsters like Joan. And her family.

Desperate to protect her loved ones, Joan is willing to do anything even if it means working with a snobby stranger who happens to be the equivalent of monster royalty. Aaron Oliver is insufferable but he also knows how to navigate a world of actual monsters and heroes and maybe, just maybe, how to help Joan survive it too.

Joan is a monster. Nick is a hero. Everyone knows how that story ends. But Joan also knows that if she wants to keep her family safe it’s time for a rewrite in Only a Monster (2022) by Vanessa Len.

Find it on Bookshop.

Only a Monster is Len’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy. Joan is biracial (her mother is white and her father Chinese Malaysian) with other main characters assumed white although there is diversity among the monster families and secondary characters.

Distinct world building including a sprawling network of monster families and magical powers ranging from perfect memory to time travel create a rich landscape for Joan’s adventures as she struggles against enemies and even time itself to try to save her family. Ethical questions of what separates so-called heroes and villains inform Joan’s character arc. These moral questions also lend nuance to male leads Aaron and Nick as as their own backgrounds and development factor into the plot.

Readers will appreciate Len’s eye for detail as she brings both present and 1993 London to life while also expanding Joan’s knowledge of the monster world. In a community where everything from clothes to mannerisms carry loaded meaning Joan is doubly aware of her status as a biracial teen and–more dangerously in her current circumstances–as a half-human, half-monster girl in a world that usually sticks to strict binaries.

Only a Monster is a fascinating urban fantasy where nothing is as it seems. Well-drawn characters, action, and numerous surprises make Only a Monster an unforgettable read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: In Every Generation by Kendare Blake, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, This Savage Song by V. E. Schwab, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Seoulmates: A Review

Seoulmates by Susan LeeHannah Cho’s dreams of perfect summer before senior year go up in smoke when her boyfriend dumps her. Nate, like most of their friend group, is obsessed with K-pop and K-dramas. While Hannah is Korean American, she has no use for Korean pop culture. After years of leaning into the American parts of her identity to better fit in, Hannah doesn’t know how to handle this shift. Especially when it leaves her suddenly single.

As a rising K-drama star, Jacob Kim struggles with questions of whether he’s committed enough–and Korean enough–to succeed. After years of training, he isn’t sure how much longer he can deal with the pressure to make himself constantly available to his publicity team, his costars, and the press. When a press junket leads to Jacob needing some down time, he’s excited. Until he finds out his mom plans to have them stay with the Chos.

Jacob and Hannah used to be inseparable as kids. But that was before everything soured between them. The two strike an uneasy bargain–and an even more tenuous truce–when Hannah enlists Jacob’s help to win back her boyfriend and Jacob, in turn, asks Hannah to help him complete his summer bucket list of all the things he’s missed in San Diego over the years.

As Hannah and Jacob get to know each other again they’ll have to decide if new memories are enough to make up for old hurts and whether they’re headed for a happy ending or some K-drama level tears in Seoulmates (2022) by Susan Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Seoulmates is Lee’s debut novel. The novel alternates close third person perspective between Hannah and Jacob with some fun vignettes from their mothers’ points of view along the way. All principle characters are Korean or Korean American.

Hannah’s relationship with K-dramas and K-pop is partially inspired by the author’s own journey to embrace her heritage and cultural identity. As such, Seoulmates is lovingly filled with as many zany adventures and heart-string tugs as K-drama fans would expect. While Hannah starts the novel bitter and angry at Jacob, her hurt is clearly defined on the page never leaving readers in doubt of the long history between these characters and the difficult conversations they have in order to get back to each other.

Their hate to love relationship plays out against the backdrop of a summer filled with big questions. Hannah has to figure out what it means to be Korean American when, at last, being Korean finally seems to make her cool enough without trying to change herself. Jacob, meanwhile, has to figure out if continuing as an actor is worth the lack of privacy and the pressure–a stressful question to consider when he’s also been supporting his family since his father’s death years ago.

Lee balances these different plot threads well leaving room for the characters to realistically learn and grow as they reconnect while also delivering gasp-worthy twists in the rocky road of Hannah and Jacob’s relationship.

Seoulmates is a fun and breezy summer romance where finding love is tempered well with finding yourself.

Possible Pairings: The Charmed List by Julia Abe, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Susan Lee here on the blog.

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

The Ballad of Never After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Ballad of Never After by Stephanie GarberSince coming to the Magnificent North, Evangeline Fox has married a prince and become part of a prophecy to open the infamous Valory Arch and the dangers–or wonders–it holds. All thanks to Jacks, the Prince of Hearts, and his machinations to manipulate said prophecy in his favor ensuring that Jacks and Jacks alone will receive the supposed boon the arch holds.

Evangeline has learned her lesson, repeatedly, about what happens when she trusts Jacks. But with no resources and few allies, Evangeline realizes that working with Jacks might be the fastest way to get her own story back on track. As the two search for the magic stones to open the arch, Evangeline can feel herself becoming part of the stories that are told throughout the North–history still being formed. But everyone knows stories in the North are cursed, the true endings–happy or tragic–impossible to know.

Finding the stones brings Evangeline closer to her hopefully happy ending while hinting at Jacks’ mysterious history in the North before he became a magical and ruthless Fate. But nothing with Jacks is ever as it seems and Evangeline knows she’ll have to keep her wits about her to stay one step ahead of Jacks. Even if her heart has other plans.

Happy endings can be caught, but they’re not easy to hold; they need to be constantly chased or they will get away. The closer Evangeline gets to opening the Valory Arch, the farther away her own happy ending seems in The Ballad of Never After (2022) by Stephanie Garber.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Ballad of Never After is the second book in Garber’s series which begins with Once Upon a Broken Heart. Set in the same world as Garber’s Caraval trilogy, this series can be read on its own but does include minor spoilers for the Caraval trilogy. Evangeline and Jacks are white, there is diversity among other characters.

While Evangeline’s unfailing optimism remains intact in this second installment, she is much more aware of her limitations–and vulnerabilities–while navigating tricky bargains with those keen to use her for their own ends. Whether that optimism will be her greatest strength or her greatest weakness remains to be seen for much of the story.

After coming to the Magnificent North filled with wonder and a desire to connect to her own past, Evangeline spends more time exploring her new surroundings and trying to understand her place in them. Garber seamlessly expands the world as readers and Evangeline are introduced to more of the Magnificent North and its history including tantalizing hints about the truth behind Evangeline’s favorite northern fairytale The Ballad of the Archer and the Fox as well as the strange history of the North’s lost royal family, the Valors. In a story that plays with the concept of lost history (thanks to the Magnificent North’s story curse) and a new history being formed, the urgency is obvious even with a more character-driven plot.

Frothy descriptions, chaotic adventure, and surprisingly poignant moments of introspection come together to make The Ballad of Never After a delightful story about both literal magic and the magic of belief–in oneself and otherwise.

The Ballad of Never After is a dramatic story where nothing is as it seems and sometimes even an ending can be a new beginning. An excellent addition to a highly recommended series.

Possible Pairings: Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, The Selection by Kiera Cass, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Havenfall by Sara Holland, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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

Back to Magic School (Harry Potter Alternatives) Book List

 

I’ve talked before about why we need to stop supporting JK Rowling and let Harry Potter go. If you are looking for some magical schools that are more inclusive than Hogwarts, these books are great places to start.

You can shop the full list at Bookshop.

Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe
If she wants to keep being a witch, Eva will have to use her small magic to do good around a seaside town to complete her training by her thirteenth birthday.

Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston
When thirteen-year-old Amari is invited to join the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs she knows it’s her best chance to find her missing older brother–and learn more about the magic she never knew she had!
Read my review

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron
Twelve-year-old Maya has to tap into powers she never realized she had to find her missing father and continue his work of protecting the veil between our world and the Dark.

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood
Chantel would much rather practices magic than manners at her finishing school. Which is just as well when she and her friends need to step up to protect the kingdom after its magical shield disappears.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
Elliott is an unlikely candidate to be transported to a magical world but he has to make do–and attend school–when the unlikely lands him in a fantastical land.

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
Best friends Sophie and Agatha always knew they’d go to the School for Good and Evil. But no one is more surprised than them when Agatha is sent to train to be a princess while Sophie ends up on the villain track.

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi
Twelve-year-old Aru’s latest attempt to fit in at her private school goes terrible wrong when she frees an ancient demon from a lamp.

The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton
As the first Conjuror to attend the Arcanum Training Institute, eleven-year-old Ella Durand has to work with other misfit students to clear her family name and find her favorite teacher when the Ace of Anarchy escapes prison and starts causing trouble.

A Tale of Magic … by Chris Colfer
A secret section of the library leads Bristal Evergreen into a world of magic and fairies.

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews hopes that a residential program at UNC Chapel Hill for gifted high schoolers will help distract her from grieving her mother’s sudden death but she gets more than she bargained for when she witnesses a magical attack on campus.

Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse
When Effie moves to Brooklyn she discovers that her mysterious aunt is a witch. And Effie might be too!

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
At the age of eleven Tarisai is sent to compete for a spot on the Crown Prince’s Council of 11 which will give Tarisai the family she has always craved. But it will also bring her one step closer to completing her mother’s magical request: killing the Crown Prince after Tarisai has earned his trust.
Read my review

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury
Following in her mother’s footsteps, twelve-year-old Amelia arrives at the Mystwick School hoping to become a Maestro who uses music to create magic.

Pennyroyal Academy by MA Larson
Princesses and knights travel from far and wide to attend Pennyroyal Academy and train to battle witches and dragons.

Mischief Season by John Bemelmans Marciano and Sophie Blackall
Five cousins in Beneveto–an ancient town famous for witches–will have to work together to stop nightly mischief caused by witches called the Janara.

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tola Okogwu
When twelve-year-old Onyeka finds out that is a Solari–a secret group of Nigerian mutants–she is sent to the Academy of the Sun to learn how to use her psychokinetic powers.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
When American-born albino Sunny Nwazue moves back to Nigeria with her family she learns she has magical powers that are only starting to manifest–and she isn’t the only one.

The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag
When Aster meets Charlie–a new girl in town who refuses to let anyone else define her–Aster knows he has to keep following his dreams to become a witch even though witches in his family are always girls.
Read my review

Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms by Jamar J. Perry
When his favorite childhood book transports Cameron and his friends to the magical kingdom of Chidani, he will have to figure out if he’s ready to be a hero.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
Demigod Percy Jackson has to figure out what it means to be the son of his human mother and the god of the sea, Poseidon, while navigating new powers and summer camp.

The Other Merlin by Robyn Schneider
In order to learn magic in Prince Arthur’s court Emry, daughter of the famous Merlin, will have to disguise herself as her twin brother.

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner
Moth Hush has never felt like she fits in among the other kids in Founder’s Bluff. On her thirteenth birthday she finds out that might not be entirely her fault since she comes from a long line of witches.
Read my review

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend
Cursed child Morrigan Crow is destined to die on her eleventh birthday until Jupiter North whists her away to a secret realm called Nevermoor and gives her the chance to compete for a place in the prestigious Wundrous Society.
Read my review

Sugar Town Queens: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Sugar town queens never back down from a fight.”

Sugar Town Queens by Malla NunnAmandla Zenzile Harden is familiar with her mother’s strange visions and her difficult days. But even she is taken aback when, on the morning of her fifteenth birthday, her mother Annalisa tells Amandla that she has to wear a blue sheet as a dress to bring her father home. It’s been only Amandla and her mother for as long as Amandla can remember. She has never met her father. Wearing an ugly sheet isn’t going to change that.

Life in Sugar Town isn’t what anyone would call easy. Everyone has their struggles and their problems in the township near Durban, South Africa. Although their shack is shabby by some standards, it’s home and it’s always tidy thanks to Annalisa’s meticulous cleaning. But even in the township, Amandla and her mother stand out not just for Annalisa’s strange behavior and uneven memory but because Annalisa is white and Amandla is brown.

After years of trying to piece together the scraps of her mother’s fractured memories into something resembling a family history, Amandla is ready for answers. When she finds more cash than she’s ever seen in her mother’s purse along with an address, Amandla decides it’s a sign to find answers.

With help from her best friend Lil Bit and newer friend Goodness, Amandla follows the clues to the truth about herself, her mother, and old family secrets that will change Amandla’s understanding of family forever in Sugar Town Queens (2021) by Malla Nunn.

Find it on Bookshop.

Sugar Town Queens is Nunn’s first novel for young adults. Amandla is biracial (her mother is white and her father is described as Zulu in the narrative–one of the few things Amandla knows about him), Amandla’s friends and other township residents are Black.

Amandla’s first person narration is direct and to the point in the way of young people who have to grow up quickly because of hard circumstances. Amandla is well aware of the poverty she and her mom live with but, over the course of the novel, she also finds moments of lightness with Lil Bit and Goodness and even starts a romance with Goodness’s earnest brother. Although the romance is entirely age appropriate and sweet, I admit that I would be very happy to never hear another character describe someone’s lips as “juicy” ever again.

While friendship (and first love) are key parts of the story, the main focus here is family as Amandla literally stumbles upon her maternal grandmother after following the clues she has found. Learning more about her grandparents, Amandla realizes that a family reunion will not mend everything that has broken in her mother nor will it erase her grandfather’s racist opinions of his poor, biracial granddaughter. With new family and new relationships, however, Amandla does begin to understand that forgiveness can have its place as much as justice when more of Annalisa’s past is revealed.

With her grandmother’s declining health and Annalisa’s limited mental stability, the urgency is real to find answers before it’s too late making Sugar Town Queens a page turner as the novel builds to a striking finish. The contrast between the affluent Harden family and Amandla’s own upbringing in Sugar Town further highlights the inequalities that still exist in South Africa long after the end of Apartheid thanks to Nunn’s carefully detailed descriptions of both Sugar Town and Durban.

Sugar Town Queens is a fast-paced story about family, grief, and the power to be found in asking for–and accepting–help where themes of family and female friendship emphasize the importance of community and support systems.

Possible Pairings: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Truth About White Lies by Olivia A. Cole, All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney, Tiffany Sly Lives Here by Dana L. Davis, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, The Means That Make Us Strangers by Christine Kindberg, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Dreams Lie Beneath: A Review

Dreams Lie Beneath by Rebecca RossAt every new moon, the realm of Azenor is overrun by tangible nightmares that stalk the streets wreaking havoc in their wake.

In this world where your worst dreams can, and do, come to life magicians are uniquely positioned to protect innocent dreamers from these monsters of their own making.

Clementine Madigan has grown up watching her father work as a warden and, more recently, assisting him to catalog and destroy the dream creatures that hunt each new moon. Clem’s hopes of inheriting her father’s title are dashed when two upstart magicians–brothers Lennox and Phelan Vesper–challenge him for his title. And win.

Enraged by the loss of everything she’s ever known, Clem is determined to get her revenge–even if it comes at a great personal cost.

But the harder Clem works to expose the Vespers’ misdeeds, the closer she grows to Phelan and the dangerous secrets that bind their families to each other and to the curse that has plagued Azenor for centuries in Dreams Lie Beneath (2021) by Rebecca Ross.

Find it on Bookshop.

Dreams Lie Beneath is a standalone fantasy narrated by Clem. Main characters are white with some diversity among the supporting cast.

Dreams Lie Beneath starts strong with a promising magic system and a heroine who if not entirely sympathetic is singular in pursuit of her goals. Unfortunately these pieces fail to gel into a cohesive story before a plot twist midway shifts the entire story into new territory. This plot change essentially renders everything that came before moot as both the stakes and the rewards for Clem and other main characters abruptly change. Clem’s behavior changes almost as abruptly as the plot with jumps to conclusions and shifting loyalties that have little support within the framework of the novel.

Paper thin motivations and fantasy elements that don’t move far beyond aesthetic value start as promising pieces but, again, never result in a fully realized and well-developed story.

Dreams Lie Beneath is a fun and fast-paced story with a lot of style. Readers looking for more complexity to characters and world building would be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Caraval by Stephanie Garber Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Belladonna: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Do not change the parts of yourself that you like to make others comfortable. Do not try to mold yourself to fit the standards someone else has set for us.”

Belladonna by Adalyn GraceSigna Farrow has spent her entire life moving from house to house as each of her numerous guardians meets an untimely end. With caretakers increasingly more interested in her wealth than her happiness, Signa’s loneliness is palpable. She craves the day she will come into her inheritance and can set up her own household filled with laughter and company–never solitude and especially not Death. The one constant in Signa’s life aside from her precarious living arrangements has been the ability to see and, regrettably, interact with Death himself–a shadowy figure of a man who is as mystified by their connection as Signa.

At the age of nineteen, there is only one year left until Signa enters society. One she needs to use well if she hopes to banish the dismal reputation her numerous deceased guardians have built for her. After years of begging–and even demanding–that Death leave her alone, Signa is more suspicious than grateful when he promises to improve her current situation. Nonetheless, she is cautiously excited to find she has some living relatives in the Hawthorne family.

Thorn Grove is a stately manor with far more luxury than Signa is used to, but it is also a house in crisis with patriarch Elijah Hawthorne lost in grief and intent on running the family business–and reputation–into the ground while eldest son Percy watches helplessly. With mourning not yet over for Elijah’s beloved wife, it seems his daughter Blythe is suffering from the same mysterious illness. With no obvious cure and her condition worsening, Death warns that it won’t be much longer before he has to claim the ailing girl as one of his own.

Experiencing stability and family for the first time is a heady mixture for Signa, reminding her of how much Thorn Grove still has to lose. Signa knows that society would frown upon a young woman experimenting with folk remedies and digging into the Hawthorne’s secrets. But she also knows that she will do anything to keep Blythe and Thorn Grove safe–even if it means risking her reputation by working with Death to search for answers in Belladonna (2022) by Adalyn Grace.

Find it on Bookshop.

Belladonna is the first book in a projected duology that will continue with Foxglove. Signa and most main characters are cued as white with more varied skin tones among the supporting cast including one of Signa’s childhood friends, Charlotte, who is described as having brown skin.

Belladonna is a gothic mystery with just the right amount of magic in the form of death personified and Signa’s own strange powers that allow her not just to speak with Death but take on some of his abilities including a resistance to poison. Sumptuous descriptions of Signa’s new surroundings set the mood as Signa familiarizes herself with Thorn Grove and its occupants while highlighting the privation of her previous homes.

Armed with nothing but an old etiquette book and her wits, Signa thinks she is prepared for what society will expect of her as a young woman. But the longer she spends at Thorn Grove and the more she embraces her own powers, the clearer it is that the societal standards Signa has clung to are skewed against her and may not be worth striving for after all. Signa’s inheritance adds another layer to this conversation as she begins to understand her privilege and realizes other women are not so fortunate when it comes to future marriages and life choices.

Haunted by spirits all her life, Signa’s innate need to investigate the happenings at Thorn Grove only increases as she is haunted by–and begins to communicate with–the ghosts of the stately manor. This novel is filled with a well-rounded cast of both the living and dead who add dimension to this rich story as the complexities of relationships among the Hawthorne family and its staff begin to unfold. At the center of this is Signa’s complicated dynamic with Death who starts the story as her greatest frustration only to become a foil, a confidante, and perhaps much more. The tension between these two characters moves the story along as much as the mystery with its own twists and surprises.

Belladonna is a thoughtful story where Signa spends as much time investigating her own wants and needs as a young woman entering society as she does trying to uncover Thorn Grove’s secrets. Belladonna capitalizes on a well-developed magic system and atmospheric prose to deliver both a satisfying mystery and romance.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Ferryman by Claire McFall, A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson, Gallant by V. E. Schwab

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

The Immortalists: A Review

The Immortalists by Chloe BenjaminNew York City, 1969: The Gold siblings are looking at another monotonous summer together on New York City’s Lower East Side. But even as they anticipate the days blend together, they know that things are about to change. This is the last summer they’ll all be together like this before summer jobs and school and so many other things get in the way.

It seems like the perfect time to do something drastic like visit the mystical psychic Daniel has heard about in whispers all around the neighborhood, leading them to the cluttered apartment on Hester Street. They say the woman can tell you exactly when you’ll die. But none of them understand what that means when they still have so much life left. At least, they think they do.

As time passes, they’ll all be shaped by that hot summer day and the dates the fortuneteller told them. Simon–the youngest, the golden boy–will never stop running; throwing himself into anything and everything as he tries to find love and, if he’s lucky, his truest self as he runs away to San Francisco in the 1980s.

In the 1990s Klara lands in Las Vegas. After years of trying to make a go of her show as an illusionist, her act might finally be taking off. But after years performing as a mentalist, Klara is no longer sure where reality ends and the magic begins–a blurred line that could lead to her greatest performance ever. Or have disastrous consequences.

Daniel, the eldest, has spent his life as a doctor. It isn’t always glamorous but he’s happy, isn’t he? When one unexpected Thanksgiving shows Daniel everything he could have had–and everything he never will–he becomes obsessed with understanding the truth of the mystical woman all those years ago.

Varya never had much use for people–or for the prediction she received on Hester Street–but as she finds herself more and more entrenched in her work on longevity research, even practical Varya begins to wonder if things would have–could have–been different if they’d all made different choices on that long ago summer day in The Immortalists (2018) by Chloe Benjamin.

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The Gold family is white and Jewish with varying levels of faith with more diversity among the secondary cast. The story is broken into four parts–one following each sibling–over the course of twenty some odd years.

Benjamin’s sweeping generational family saga tackles big questions of fate vs agency without offering many answers one way or another. Crossing the country and spanning decades, The Immortalists captures the zeitgeist of the times starting with the frenzied energy of San Francisco in the 1980s and the ensuing panic and grief of the growing AIDS crisis. Simon’s section starts when Simon is only sixteen leading to a lot of instances of reading about Simon’s underage sexual encounters with much older men. While not unrealistic for the time it still felt uncomfortable to read about in relation to a character who is still essentially a child.

The omniscient third person narrator also clings closely to the female gaze–particularly with Simon but also even in the opening page with Varya–focusing needlessly on objectification particularly with instances when Simon wants the “challenge” of another “hard” body like his own. There could be arguments that this adds nuance to literary fiction but, for me, it only served to constantly draw me out of the story.

Ultimately The Immortalists raises some interesting questions by putting a family through an increasingly unpleasant series of events across a generation. Readers interested in philosophical questions about life choices will find a lot to appreciate here while readers hoping to lean more into the fantastical elements will be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, An Extraordinary Destiny by S. N. Paleja, One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle