A Criminal Magic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Criminal Magic by Lee KellyThanks to the passage of the 18th Amendment, magic is finally illegal. But making something illegal doesn’t make it disappear–it just makes it sexier and, for two unlikely sorcerers, that much more dangerous.

Joan Kendrick has seen firsthand how damaging magical shine can be. It is more potent than liquor, more addictive than narcotics, and in the wrong hands it can be deadly. When it looks like magic might be the only way to save her family’s home, Joan forges a risky bargain. If Joan can learn to harness her magic it could change everything. But only if she can stay alive long enough to enjoy it.

Magic has taken everything from Alex Danfrey forever changing the trajectory of his life, landing his father in prison, and even ruining Alex’s own good name. Alex never wanted to work as an undercover prohibition agent–certainly not one peddling magic for the head of the Shaw crime syndicate. But who is he to turn down the one chance he has to turn his life around?

Joan and Alex are on opposite sides in a battle that’s been threatening to erupt for years. When lines are drawn both of them will have to determine where the others’ loyalties–and their trust–truly lies in A Criminal Magic (2016) by Lee Kelly.

Find it on Bookshop.

Kelly’s unique vision of magic and magical distillation adds an interesting element to the world here, as do the complex illusions Joan learns to peddle as a speakeasy performer. Unfortunately so much time is spent explaining the internal logic of the magic systems that much of the plot’s forward momentum is lost in these technical details.

One of the main tenets of prohibition, in retrospect at least, is the fact that much of the movement was grounded in false logic. For example, removing a man’s access to liquor would not make him less likely to hit his wife (the movement was very interested in stopping domestic violence). Instead it makes it more likely for him to hit his wife while sober.

What happens, then, if the idea of prohibition is actually grounded in fact? Kelly spends a lot of time telling readers that magical shine is as dangerous as everyone fears–something shown repeatedly in the story as peripheral characters suffer through addiction and withdrawal. While this concept is interesting it is never fully explained or explored in the narrative never doing anything new or fully addressing the inherent tensions of the time period.

A Criminal Magic is a heady blend of historical fiction and fantasy whose main characters have obvious chemistry albeit in an often under-utilized setting.

Possible Pairings: Westside by W. M. Akers, The Diviners by Libba Bray, Storm Front by Jim Butcher, The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman, Priest of Bones by Peter MacLean, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

A Place For Us: A Review

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen MirzaSiblings Hadia, Huda, and Amar could not be more different. It’s always been like this. Their father saw it with the way Amar always saw life as a game where the world was against him. Their mother saw it in Amar’s sensitivity and the questions he asked about Islam as a child.

Now, the family is gathered for Hadia’s wedding–a love match in the face of years of traditionally arranged marriage. Steadfast and dependable Huda is there, always the reliable middle sister. But if Amar will show up, and what state he will be in if he does, remains to be seen.

As the wedding progresses the entire family reflects on the moments that brought them to this moment, together, as well as the moments that quietly and irreparably tore them apart in A Place For Us (2018) by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Find it on Bookshop.

This ambitious debut novel has shifting perspectives following Hadia, Amar, and Huda as well as their parents in close third person. The wedding serves as a starting point with the story moving both backward in flashbacks and forward after the wedding in a complex narrative.

A Place For Us skillfully balances its large, multi-generational cast and a plot spanning decades to deliver an engrossing family epic exploring themes of memory, choice, faith, and belonging.To talk about any one aspect of the story would diminish the reading experience but even a year after reading it, I feel like there’s still so much to find in this story and so much to learn from these characters.

A Place For Us is all about meeting people where they are, and where they need to be met. And sometimes not making it. Recommended for fans of family sagas and stories where there is more than meets the eye.

Possible Pairings: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Red at the Bone by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, Digging to America by Anne Tyler, Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

Harley in the Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn BowmanHarley never thought she’d have to run away to the circus. Not when her parents already run a successful one in Las Vegas. After years of dreaming of becoming an aerialist and performing on the static trapeze, Harley hopes her parents will finally see her how serious she is and let her begin training professionally after high school.

Instead they double down on their demand that Harley focus on college first and then consider the circus–even though Harley knows she is in her prime as a performer right now, something that may not be true after four years in school studying something she has no interest in learning.

After her latest fight with her parents goes too far, Harley feels like she only has one choice: join a rival traveling circus.

Life on the road isn’t what Harley expected. The performers at Maison du Mystère don’t trust her, the trapeze artist who is supposed to mentor Harley actively hates her, and worst of all Harley has to live with the guilt over what she did to her parents so that she could snatch this opportunity. Harley has never felt like she fit into her family–never enough of any one thing to truly share biracial parents’ and her grandparents’ histories–and now she’s afraid she may not be enough for the circus either.

As she struggles to carve out a place for herself at the Maison du Mystère and proof to herself and her parents that she has what it takes, Harley will have to decide if the sacrifices–and the choices–that she’s made to get to this point are worth it in Harley in the Sky (2020) by Akemi Dawn Bowman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Harley in the Sky tackles a lot but it’s all handled exceptionally well and works to create a well-rounded, character-driven story. While trying to earn a spot in the circus Harley  grapples with her identity as the child of two biracial parents and what that means for her own cultural identity (or her lack thereof when she feels she is not quite enough of any one thing to truly claim it). She also tries to explain the coping mechanisms she has created for herself to deal with depression and mania and the stigma her own parents carry toward discussing mental illness. (Harley remains undiagnosed in the novel because, as she tells other characters, the way she moves through the world is normal to her and not something she needs help handling right now.)

Harley is a smart, passionate narrator. She understands her world through her physicality–something Bowman captures beautifully–and she isn’t afraid to go after what she wants even if she sometimes goes too far chasing those dreams. But she is also constantly learning and growing and, perhaps most importantly, she is always trying to do better–something that can never be undervalued in a novel or in real life.

Harley in the Sky is an ode to the beauty and the work of circus life as seen through the eyes of someone who loves every aspect of it. Come for the circus setting, stay for the sweet romance and thoughtful conversations on friendship, intersectionality, and work. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Akemi Dawn Boman about this book!

Possible Pairings: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Circus by Olivia Levez, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, American Girls by Alison Umminger

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle: A Non-Fiction Review

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking The Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia NagoskiBurnout has become increasingly common in modern society–especially in the United States. Especially among millennials. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, especially among women.

Why is that? What can we do about it?

Emily Nagoski and her identical twin sister Amelia Nagoski tackle these questions in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (2019).

Find it on BookShop.

If you make a habit of reading up on self-care and anxiety, some of the information the Nagoskis share will be familiar. The book is also very gendered with a focus on what burnout and stress look like for women (cis and otherwise) although I would argue that the information on dealing with stress applies to anyone who reads it. (In this vein, the book has a very specific view on the way the patriarchy impacts stress.)

What works really well here is how the information is presented (and how it’s read if you choose to pick up the audio book which is read by the authors). The book is broken into three parts (What You Take With You, The Real Enemy, and Wax On, Wax Off) which examine what the stress cycle looks like, external stressors and how they often disproportionately impact women, and how to put the advice shared in the book into practice.

Each chapter has a TL;DR section breaking down key ideas. The book also pulls in pop culture references like The Hunger Games and Star Trek to unpack some of the science and practices covered. Although founded in research and experiences from actual women, the book also creates two composite women “Julie” and “Sophie” to demonstrate the experiences and practices being suggested as they move through their own stress cycles.

The great thing about Burnout is that is founded in positivity and the idea that we are all doing the best we can. If you are stressed and suffering from burnout, it isn’t a flaw or something to fix. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem–perhaps job dissatisfaction or difficulty asking for help.

A lot of the tone here is a little twee and precious–particularly on audio, but it doesn’t make the advice less sound. I can see why this wouldn’t work for everyone but it worked very well for me. A lot of the advice here is common sense but also framed in ways that helped me absorb and internalize things that I may have previously known to be true but not quite believe for my own life and experience.

Burnout: The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle is an excellent resource for anyone looking to bring more balance (and obviously less stress) to their lives. The chapter on rest, in particular, should be required reading for everyone. Definitely worth a look if you’ve found yourself overwhelmed of late and, honestly, who hasn’t?

If you want to unpack more about why women are particularly likely to suffer from burnout and explore how science often fails to research and address concerns specific to women also be sure to check out Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez.

Possible Pairings: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez, Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life by Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein, Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less – and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined by Scott Sonenshein

The Sullivan Sisters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn OrmsbeeSisters Eileen, Claire, and Murphy used to be close. A visionary, a planner, and a performer respectively the sisters could accomplish amazing things–like making their house feel like a home even with their father dead and their mother increasingly absent.

But that was years ago. Now the girls can barely stand to be around each other.

At eighteen Eileen has been carrying a potentially dangerous secret for years. She is working a dead end job. She’s managed to hide her drinking from her mother so far. Her sisters aren’t as easy to fool.

Seventeen-year-old Claire is an Exceller and she is ready to use everything at her disposal to Excel, succeed, get the hell out of her small Oregon town, and find her first girlfriend. With advice from her favorite self-help Youtuber, Claire has done everything right. But she still didn’t get into Yale–the only college she applied to.

Fourteen-year-old Murphy has always felt like a fifth wheel in her family. She never met her father so she can’t miss him. Her mom is never around. Eileen and Claire never have time for her. Luckily, Murphy has her magic tricks to keep her company. She used to also have Siegfried the family turtle. But then she forgot to feed him one too many times.

Days before Christmas Eileen receives a letter that could change everything. The sisters have inherited a house from an uncle they’ve never heard of. A house that could have answers for Eileen, money for Claire to get out of town, and a chance for Murphy to feel like she’s part of a family again in The Sullivan Sisters (2020) by Kathryn Ormsbee

Find it on Bookshop.

The Sullivan Sisters alternates between third person chapters from each sister. Unfortunately, the clinical tone of the narration also makes the sister’s blend together. A heavy reliance on quirks to define their personalities doesn’t help matters.

Your feelings about this book will depend heavily on your expectations going in. If you are looking for a heartfelt story of sisters reconnecting, this is the book for you. If, like me, you came expecting an atmospheric house mystery you will likely be disappointed.

Ormsbee tackles a lot in the book and the mystery aspect, such as it is, barely makes the list. What The Sullivan Sisters does well is present three flawed characters (four if you count their mother) who have gotten so used to drifting along that they need a major jolt (like a surprise inheritance) to get back on track.

Throughout the book Eileen is forced to confront her alcoholism (she is in AA by the end of the story). Claire has to admit that her self-help idol may not be as helpful as she thought but also it may not be as terrible as Claire thought to be queer in a small town–even without a plan. Murphy is a hard one. She is funny and often the most approachable of the sisters. But she also killed Siegfried the turtle through her own neglect–something that was hard to swallow even with an abundance of remorse on her part.

The Sullivan Sisters is a story about connection and secrets. Recommended for readers who enjoy reading about complicated sibling relationships, family secrets, and flawed characters.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

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

The Lady Rogue: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Lady Rogue by Jenn BennettTheodora wants nothing more than to join her father on his hunts around the world for priceless relics. Unfortunately, her father still sees Theo as a little girl instead of the capable researcher she has become at seventeen years of age.

While Theo sits at their hotel doing crosswords to pass the time, her father is out gallivanting his nineteen-year-old protégé Huck Gallagher–the boy Theo once thought she might love.

After a painful parting and a long separation, no one is more surprised than Theo when Huck shows up in Turkey with nothing but her father’s travel journal and instructions to get Theo to safety.

Theo has other ideas and soon the unlikely duo is combing through the travel journal as Theo tries to follow her father’s trail on his hunt for the legendary and supposedly magical bone ring of Vlad the Impaler. They hope that finding the ring will also lead them to Theo’s missing father. But Theo and Huck aren’t the only ones hunting the ring and Theo’s father may not be the only one in danger in The Lady Rogue (2019) by Jenn Bennett.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Lady Rogue is a standalone historical adventure set in 1937. With high speed chases, fast-pacing, and even some magic this story is an enjoyable homage to all of the things that make action movies like The Mummy (starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz) great.

Theo and Huck are a reluctant team at the start of this story which inspires much banter as well as regrets on both sides as the pair tries to make their way back to each other. Ciphers, puzzles, and excerpts from Richard Fox’s travel journal add to the story as Theo tries to follow Richard’s trail to the bone ring.

The Lady Rogue is a whip-smart adventure with hints of romance and the supernatural. As the book’s dedication suggests, The Lady Rogue is an ideal choice for meddlesome girls and anyone who’s ever been unable to walk away from a good puzzle.

Possible Pairings: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee, The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell, Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Mummy (1997)

The Invention of Sophie Carter: A Review

“None of us are the same, and we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Our comparisons are invariably false when we compare their strengths to our weaknesses.”

The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha HastingsEngland, 1851: Orphaned and grudgingly cared for by their reluctant guardian, identical twins Sophie and Mariah Carter don’t think they need anyone else when they have each other.

What the sisters need, desperately, is a chance at lives filled with more than the drudgery they’ve known for the last ten years. Sophie dreams of using her clockmaking skills to become a renowned inventor while, with the right instruction, Mariah’s artistic talents could make her a leading painter.

Sophie’s plan to get them both to London for the summer to see the Queen’s Great Exhibition (for Sophie) and London’s finest art (for Mariah) almost works. The problem? Their aunt will only accommodate one sister. To avoid separation the girls travel to London together agreeing to take turns being “Sophie.”

At first, the plan is simple enough since no one can tell the twins apart. But as Sophie forges an unlikely friendship with businessman Ethan and Mariah warms to their aunt’s prickly ward Charles both girls will have to contend with their own feelings and ambitions as well as the two young men who each think they’re falling in love with the real Sophie in The Invention of Sophie Carter (2020) by Samantha Hastings.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Invention of Sophie Carter is Hastings’ second novel. Chapters alternate between close third person following each sister during their adventures around London and in their aunt’s house.

Breezy narration, a pitch perfect historical setting, and just the right amount of romance make this story a delight. Themes of sisterhood and individuality elevate this romance adding dimension to both sisters as their horizons expand with the opportunities they are able to seize in London. Ethan and Charles are also excellent foils to both sisters.

The Invention of Sophie Carter is a delightful read and just what I needed right now. Readers are sure to be as smitten with the Carter sisters as their suitors are by the end of this utterly charming novel. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my interview with Samantha about the book here on the blog!

Possible Pairings: Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Antsey, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, Dangerous Alliance by Jennieke Cohen, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

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

The Voting Booth: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Voting Booth by Brandy ColbertMarva Sheridan has been preparing for this day for years. She has campaigned, phone banked, and helped register voters. Now she’s ready to vote in her first election because she knows it’s the best way to make a difference.

Duke Crenshaw is over the election even before he gets to his polling site. His family has always been politically minded thanks to his big brother, Julian. But it hasn’t been the same since Julian’s death. Now all Duke wants to do is get voting over with and focus on his band’s first ever paid gig that night.

Except when Duke gets to the polling place, he can’t vote.

Marva isn’t about to let anyone get turned away from the polling place–not even a stranger. So she volunteers to do everything she can to make sure Duke gets his vote in.

What starts as a mission to get one vote counted quickly turns into a whirlwind day filled with drives across the city, waiting in lines, hunting for one Instagram famous cat, grassroots organizing, and maybe even some romance in The Voting Booth (2020) by Brandy Colbert.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Voting Booth is Colbert’s best book yet and my personal favorite. Set over the course of one hectic election day, the novel follows Marva and Duke along with flashbacks expanding key details of their lives throughout the novel.

Colbert pulls no punches as her characters confront with voter suppression and racism. Both of them also try to deal with how best to “explain their Blackness” as Marva examines her relationship with her white boyfriend and Duke navigates being biracial while living with his white mother.

The story is tense and authentic but it’s also gentle and often extremely funny. Although Duke’s life especially has been touched by tragedy before the start of the novel, you know the characters are going to be okay. Marva and Duke carry the story but they have a lot of help from excellent secondary characters notably including Duke’s younger sister Ida and Marva’s parents.

The Voting Booth is a hopeful, zany, romantic comedy complete with an Internet famous cat but also an empowering story about politics and pushing back against injustice. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Today, Tonight, Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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

Magic for Liars: A Review

Magic For Liars by Sarah GaileyIvy has never been magic. She has gotten used to the bitter ordinariness–especially whenever she is compared to her identical twin sister Tabitha, a magic prodigy.

Ivy never wanted to be magic, really. But she still wonders if it wouldn’t have made some things easier. Tabitha is able to get rid or freckles that plague both of them, her eyes always sparkle a bit more, and everything seems to come much more easily for her. People never stick to Ivy and she wonders sometimes if she had been magic if that might have been different.

Ivy knows exactly who she is: the half-feral detective with the perpetual hangover, covered in ink and smudges, devoid of magic. She knows that isn’t an Ivy anyone would want.

When she is hired to investigate a grisly murder at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages where Tabitha teaches Theoretical Magic, Ivy thinks it could be her chance to make good as an investigator. It might be her chance to be a different Ivy and, if she does things right, it could change everything.

But being around so much magic and so many what-ifs is intoxicating. As questions arise and the suspect list grows, Ivy will have to keep her head clear if she wants to get to the truth in Magic for Liars (2019) by Sarah Gailey.

Find it on Bookshop.

Magic for Liars is a standalone fantasy noir mashup complete with a flawed detective as the protagonist.

Ivy has spent most of her life lonely and starved for attention. Being in her head is hard, but it’s supposed to be as her inner turmoil plays out against the larger backdrop of the murder investigation.

Magic for Liars is a mystery wrapped around a sometimes painful examination of the stories we tell ourselves in an effort to make the world see us the way we wish it would. A tightly paced, largely flawless mystery that delivers on every front. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Storm Front by Jim Butcher, The Secret Place by Tana French, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Once Broken Faith by Seanan McGuire, The Rook by Daniel O’Malley,, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Girl, Serpent, Thorn: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa BashardoustSoraya knows all about stories. She knows about princesses and monsters. Most of all, she knows which role she plays in her own story.

She is a princess, yes. But the princesses in stories don’t have to be hidden away as a secret. The princesses in stories are not cursed with a poisonous touch.

Soraya has always known she is dangerous both in truth because of the poison running in her veins but also as an idea. How can anyone trust her twin brother to rule as the shah of Atashar if they find out about Soraya and what she can do?

When her search for answers and a way to break the curse lead Soraya to a guard who claims he can see her for more than her poison and a prisoner in the dungeons who may have the answers Soraya needs, she will have to decide if she will be a princess or a monster in Girl, Serpent, Thorn (2020) by Melissa Bashardoust.

Find it on BookShop.

Bashardoust’s sophomore novel is steeped in Persian culture and folklore drawing inspiration from “The Shahnameh” as well as traditional European fairy tales and Zoroastrianism.

At the start of Girl, Serpent, Thorn Soraya’s world is claustrophobic. She has spent years in isolation and is starved for affection and human contact–things that she fears are impossible for her to ever receive because of her curse.

Soraya’s desperation to break her curse lead her to difficult choices that threaten both herself and her family’s legacy. Although these twists are heavily broadcast the emotional resonance is strong as Soraya deals with the consequences of her actions and strives to do better both for herself and those she cares about.

The book’s love triangle often feels suspect as all characters involved lie and manipulate to get what they want. This dynamic does little to diminish the chemistry between Soraya and Parvaneh and further underscores the hard won respect and trust that becomes a foundation of their relationship.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is an evocative, tantalizing tale. Recommended for anyone who has ever wondered what really separates a hero (or a princess) from a monster.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

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