The Bear and the Nightingale: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.”

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine ArdenAt the edge of the wilderness in northern Rus’, winter might as well last forever. Huddled near the stove, stealing warmth from the embers of the fire, Vasya and her siblings listen to their nurse Dunya’s tales. The old woman weaves stories of dutiful domovoi, vengeful nymphs, and thrilling tales of Morozko–the blue-eyed demon who brings snow in his wake and claims souls who cross his path. Those who are wise do well to honor and care for the house spirits who guard their territory from Morozko and other, darker, creatures.

But things are changing throughout Rus’. Only one god is worshipped in Moscow, not a god who has room or time for house spirits and the old ways.

When Vasya’s widowed father remarries, her devout step-mother tries to bring the new ways to their home in the wild forest. Others are quick to bend to the beautiful, sophisticated mistress of the household. But Vasya sees things that others do not. She watches the spirits wasting away to mist without their regular offerings. She sees something dangerous lurking in the shadows as old rituals are neglected.

Trapped between threats of a forced marriage or confinement in a convent, Vasya is more certain than ever that her place is in the forest protecting her home and her loved ones. But as misfortune circles her family and her home, Vasya will have to challenge everything she has ever known and forge a new path for herself if she wants to face a threat straight from her childhood nightmares in The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) by Katherine Arden.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Bear and the Nightingale is Arden’s debut novel and the start of her Winternight trilogy which continues with The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch. This historical fantasy is set in the 14th century in the territory that was eventually united as Russia. All characters are presumed white. Arden includes a historical note at the end of the book detailing her inspiration, real historical events, and her own divergences from history within the novel.

The Bear and the Nightingale brings together historical events with fairytale creatures to create a richly layered story. Covering a wide span of time and adhering to traditional Russian name conventions, the beginning can feel dense as there are many characters and names to track. But, like any good story, Arden soon draws readers in as new viewpoints are explored and new elements of the plot are teased out as the story also touches on moments of horror and Vasya’s character arc as she comes of age and dares to forge her own path.

In a world where the safe paths for a woman are marriage or life in a convent, Vasya chafes as she grows older and her freedom dwindles. Vasya’s story is intensely feminist as she struggles throughout the novel to fit in the strict confines placed upon her as a woman in society–something which becomes a central theme of the trilogy–while also clinging to her agency even when it means she is literally targeted as a witch.

A slow build and deliberate pacing add tension to the story as the plot builds toward a final confrontation between Vasya and those who oppose the old ways. The Bear and the Nightingale is a story of opposites that explores the liminal spaces between blind faith and genuine belief, between feigned duty and true loyalty; a tale about familial ties and devotion to both the people and places that feel like home.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

The Maidens: A Review

The Maidens by Alex MichaelidesAfter so many years of defining herself in relation to her husband Sebastian, Mariana Andros is no longer sure who she is or how she can keep going after his sudden death.

She still has her work as a group therapist but that’s cold comfort when she has nothing but memories to hold onto.

A distressed call from Zoe, the niece she and Sebastian raised, is enough to rouse Mariana from her grief. One of Zoe’s friends at Cambridge University has been murdered. The death is violent and sinister. Worse, it is only the first.

Reluctant to leave her niece in a time of crisis, Mariana agrees to stay at the college surrounded by memories of her own time as a student when she and Sebastian first met. The longer Mariana spends on the familiar campus, the more certain she is that Edward Fosca is the killer.

Fosca is a charismatic and well-liked Greek Tragedy professor. Sharp and formidable, his cult of personality is so strong among his female students that it’s not hard to intuit his guilt despite an alibi.

As Mariana is drawn further into the investigation, her fixation on Fosca grows. Pursuing Fosca could ruin Mariana’s professional reputation, her personal relationships and–as she gets closer to the killer–even her life might be forfeit in The Maidens (2021) by Alex Michaelides.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Maidens is Michaelides’ second novel. Most of the story follows Mariana with a close third person narration. All main characters–including one readers may recognize from Michaelides’ debut–are presumed white.

The Maidens is a tense university-set thriller with an audiobook version ably narrated by Louise Brealey and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Michaelides covers similar territory here to his debut, once again featuring a psychoanalyst protagonist and a shocking case.

Although it is decidedly high concept, The Maidens does little to capitalize on any of its potential. Mariana–a theoretically complex protagonist dealing with intense grief, a patient who is stalking her (which causes her surprisingly little distress), and an increasingly obsessive interest in Fosca as the book progresses–is reduced to little more than a grieving widow. If she has a personality beyond missing Sebastian and investigating Fosca, Michaelides never shows it.

Abrupt chapter breaks eliminate any chance for readers (or Mariana) to meditate on plot points not to mention leaving no room for anything in the way of character development. The breakneck pace of the story and its focus on plot are perhaps why so much of The Maidens feels heavy-handed. Information key to solving the mystery is obscured with plot devices including intermittent chapters from a nameless male character while the identity of the murderer is heavily broadcast even as their motivations remain frustratingly opaque.

With a resolution that is as unsavory as it is unsatisfying, The Maidens feels less like a thriller by the end and more like an object lesson in the veracity of the maxim “physician, heal thyself.” Readers looking for a twisty thriller where no one is quite who they expect would be better served by Alice Feeney’s Rock Paper Scissors which although not a dark academia novel employs similar narrative devices to better effect.

Posssible Pairings: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Now You See Me by S. J. Bolton, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, House of Correction by Nicci French, Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian,  Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

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

50 YA Books to Read for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. You might also see it referred to as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. It’s a great time to read, recommend, and showcase books by and about Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians. Not sure where to start? That’s where this list comes in. There are a lot of fantastic books to choose from on  this list, and beyond, with more coming out all the time. Happy reading!

50 YA Books to Read for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

You can shop the full list at Bookshop.

The Charmed List by Julia Abe
Ellie Kobata’s Anti-Wallflower List for the summer goes horribly wrong at number 4 when she tries to get revenge on Jake Yasuda, her former best friend–and the only person who understands her secret life as part of a magical community.

The Beautiful by Renee Ahdieh
Celine’s hopes for a new start as a dressmaker in 1872 New Orleans take a turn when she gets caught up in the city’s glittering underworld–and the ageless creatures who lurk in the darkness.

How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi
When coming out to his Muslim family ends with eighteen-year-old Amir Azadi fleeing to Rome even he’s surprised when his new life leads to a US customs room where he has to tell to a US Customs officer to keep his hard-won freedom.

I Guess I Live Here Now by Claire Ahn
After one tiny transgression Melody and her mom are whisked out of New York to join the rest of their family in Korea where Melody discovers trendsetting fashions, a cute boy, and some old family secrets.

A Show For Two by Tashie Bhuiyan
Mina Rahman knows her dreams of winning a film contest and leaving New York behind are about to come true when indie film star Emmitt Ramos agrees to star in her film–as long as she plays his tour guide. But what happens when exploring with Emmitt shows her that the city she always wanted to leave might be home after all?

A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee
Miuko’s safe if uneventful life changes forever when she is cursed. Now she has to travel across the realm of Awara to break the curse before she transforms into a demon forever.

Three Kisses, One Midnight by Roshani Chokshi, Sandhya Menon, Evelyn Skye
This Halloween in Moon Ridge, any love forged will last forever. Which is why Onny, Ash, and True are determined to brew a love potion for their coven of best friends and charm the loves of their lives.

Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco
Guided by the firebird–a creature thought to have shifted from reality to myth–Tala and a ragtag group of misfits from the Order of the Bandersnatch will have to work together to get Alex safely into Avalon and back on his throne.
Read my review.

Once Upon a K-Prom by Kat Cho
Seven years ago Elena Soo and her best friend Robbie Choi promised they’d go to prom together. Now Robbie is back to make good on that promise. Except he’s a K-pop idol and Elena isn’t sure she wants to be overshadowed by one more person in her life.

My Fine Fellow by Jennieke Cohen
Penelope Pickering decides to help her best friend Helena Higgins transform street merchant Elijah Little into a gentleman chef in this gender-flipped retelling of My Fair Lady set in an alternate 1830s England where Queen Charlotte reigns and Culinarians act as literal tastemakers cooking for the elite.

The Queen’s Assassin by Melissa de la Cruz
As an assassin, Cal’s life belongs to the queen. While Shadow dreams of becoming an assassin herself she is destined for a life in the queen’s court. When a surprise attack throws them together their attraction is as undeniable as the fact that their love comes second to their duties.

TJ Powar Has Something to Prove by Jesmeen Kaur Deo
When TJ Powar and her Sikh cousin Simran become the subject of a mean-spirited meme, TJ decides to stop shaving, waxing, and plucking her hair just like Simran and prove that you can be hairy and beautiful.

Sunny G’s Series of Rash Decisions by Navdeep Singh Dhillon
Sunny is determined to fill the notebook his brother left him with a series of rash decisions including cutting his hair and ditching his turban so that he no longer looks Sikh–or like himself at all. When Mindii steals Sunny’s notebook his latest decision to get the full prom experience turns into an all night adventure with even more decisions.

Malice by Pintip Dunn
Alice’s mundane life is upended when a sudden, sharp pain hits during lunch and a voice in her head demands that she tell Bandit Sakda that she loves him. Except that isn’t the only thing the voices wants her to do …
Read my review.

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal
Zafira–a young woman who disguises herself as the Hunter to aid her starving people–and Nasir–the crown prince who carries out deadly work for his corrupt father–are both sent to hunt for a mythical artifact that could return magic to their realm. But only if they can learn to trust each other and work together.

When We Were Infinite by Kelly Loy Gilbert
When Beth witnesses an act of domestic abuse, her friend group becomes even more important to her as she does everything she can to try and keep the tightknit group together during their senior year of high school and beyond.

Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo
Lucky and Jack both have secrets and dreams they’re afraid to share. After one unforgettable day together in Hong Kong they’ll both have to decide if chasing what they really want is worth being honest with themselves–and each other in this modernized version of Roman Holiday.
Read my review.

Foul Lady Fortune by Chloe Gong
Seeking redemption for her dark past Rosalind Lang acts as an assassin for Shanghai where her newest mission forces her to go undercover as one half of a married couple in this inventive take on As You Like It.

Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean
When Izumi finds out that her never-in-the-picture father is actually the Crown Prince of Japan she’s whisked off for a whirlwind trip to meet her paternal family. Add to the mix lots press, a cute bodyguard who might hate Izumi (or not?!), and plenty of scheming cousins and Izumi is in for a trip she–and the rest of Japan–won’t soon forget.
Read my review.

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He
In a future world ravaged by climate change, sisters Cee and Kasey will do anything to get back to each other in the wake of Cee’s disappearance in this sci-fi thriller where sisterly love is leveraged against the greater good.
Read my review.

Tahira in Bloom by Farah Heron
When her fashion internship falls through Tahira finds herself working at her aunt’s boutique, entering a flower arranging contest, and falling for the infuriating coworker whose help she needs if she wants to win.

The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur
Joseon (Korea), 1426: Hwani is crossing the sea to travel to her childhood home of Jeju, a penal island of political convicts, to retrace her detective father’s steps and–with help from her estranged sister–hopefully discover why he disappeared months ago.
Read my review.

The Wild Ones by Adiba Jaigirdar
Paheli is part of a band of magical girls, all rescued by a boy named Taraana with stars in his eyes, and granted magic to help others like them. When Taraana comes back to the Wild Ones for help, the girls will do everything they can to save him because protecting him means protecting themselves.

The Loophole by Naz Kutub
When a mysterious coffeeshop customer grants Sy three wishes in exchange for his help, who is he to argue? When it becomes clear this girl might really be magic, Sy will have to decide how much he’s willing to wish if it means a second chance at love with his ex-boyfriend.

Butterfly Yellow by Thannha Lai
Hằng and LeeRoy start as strangers in Texas in the summer of 1981. By the end of the summer these most unlikely friends will both realize that there’s more to life than plans as Hằng tries to reunite with her brother who was evacuated from Vietnam years ago as part of Operation Babylift.
Read my review. Read my interview with the author.

A Pho Love Story by Loan Le
Can Linh and Bao beat the odds and find love despite the years long feud between their families’ competing pho restaurants?

Flip the Script by Lyla Lee
Hana thinks she’s prepared to headline a new K-drama and deliver a contract romance with the actor playing her love interest for the media. But everything Hana knows about K-dramas (and love) goes out the window when she starts to fall hard for the new actress meant to play her romantic rival on the show.

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee
Val’s plan to sneak aboard ship to find her twin brother and revive their acrobat act is perfect. Until disaster strikes and, as the Titanic begins its last night as an ocean liner, Val and her brother will have to worry about surviving the present before they can plan for the future.
Read my review.

K-Pop Confidential by Stephan Lee
Candace Park would give anything to be like the glamorous K-pop idols she watches on Youtube. So when she wins a coveted chance to enter an idol trainee program in Seoul she knows she has to go. But between the rigorous training, drama between trainees, and the pressure Candace will have to decide if being an idol is worth giving up who she is now.

Seoulmates by Susan Lee
After years of rejecting her Korean heritage, Hannah Cho isn’t sure what to do when all things Korean are suddenly popular with her mostly white friend group–especially when embracing K-pop and K-Dramas could help her win back her ex-boyfriend. And her estranged childhood best friend–now a K-Drama star himself–is suddenly back in the picture.

Only a Monster by Vanessa Len
Monsters are real. When Joan’s entire family comes under threat she’ll have to embrace her own monstrousness to save them.

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim
When her brothers are cursed and turned into cranes princess Shiori will have to use her own forbidden magic to save them.

A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin
A competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shennong-shi (masters of ancient and magical tea making) might be Ning’s best hope to save her sister’s life. But only if she can survive the backstabbing competition and fierce court politics she finds within the imperial city.

Heiress Apparently by Diana Ma
Gemma Huang’s big acting opportunity forces her to break her family’s biggest rule: never set foot in Beijing. After arriving in the city, Gemma starts a summer of big reveals and romance as she learns more about her family’s mysterious past.

Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove by Rati Mehrotra
Katyani’s lifelong plans of becoming a guardwoman in the Garuda and advising the crown prince are torn away when tragedy strikes. Alone in a land infested with monsters, Katyani will have to learn to embrace her true identity if she wants to forge her own path.

Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta
Eris and Sona are on opposite sides in a violent war until chance brings them together and the girls who thought they were sworn enemies end up forming an unlikely alliance–an maybe even stronger bonds.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
Mina searches for the Sea God in order to save her brother in this retelling of the Korean folktale The Tale of Shim Cheong.

An Arrow to the Moon by Emily XR Pan
The more Hunter Yee and Luna Chang are drawn to each other, the more strange things begin happening in their town as they try to navigate love and family secrets.

Sunny Song Will Never Be Famous by Suzanne Park
As Sunny discover new friendships, a boy named Theo who is as annoyingly fond of farm puns as he is cute, and some other new connections, she’ll learn that sometimes you have to go offline to really grow during a summer at a digital detox camp.
Read my review. Read my interview with the author.

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad
Four sisters, four seasons, four romances in one book as Nidhi, Avani, Rani, and Sirisha Singh all find love at their family home–and the most romantic inn in America–The Songbird Inn on Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest.

The Ivory Key by Akshaya Raman
Four siblings, one magical artifact, centuries of secrets as Vira, Ronak, Kaleb and Riya reluctantly work together to replenish their kingdom’s dwindling magic supplies.
Read my review.

Alone Out Here by Riley Redgate
A weekend tour of a prototype spaceship takes on a new meaning when the apocalypse is early and Leigh Chen is among the handful of survivors who manage to escape the planet.

The City of Dusk by Tara Sim
The four realms of Life, Death, Light, and Darkness all converge in the City of Dusk. Without favor from their patron gods, all of the realms are dying–something the four heirs refuse to accept without a fight.

The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons
Vale Hall, an elite boarding school that seems to be the answer to all of Brynn’s problems, 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–a task for which Brynn is uniquely well prepared.
Read my review.

This Place Is Still Beautiful by XiXi Tian
Sisters Margaret and Annalie Flanagan will have to confront their family’s fractious past–including their white father abandoning them and their Chinese mother–after their house is vandalized with a racist slur.

Loveboat Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen
The last thing Ever Wong wants to do is spend her summer in an educational program in Taiwan learning Chinese and preparing to start at Northwestern’s pre-med program in the fall. Instead of rigorous study Ever finds herself in a program with minimal supervision and her exuberant roommate Sophie Ha egging her on as Ever breaks every one of her parents rules–especially when it comes to no dating.
Read my review.

Private Label by Kelly Yang
Serene Li and Lian Chen don’t have a lot in common except for being the only Asian American kids in their affluent white community in Southern California. Still, a chance meeting at a Chinese club at school quickly brings the two together.

Love Decoded by Jennifer Yen
Gigi Wong’s plan to turn her aunt’s professional matchmaking advice into an app to make new friends goes awry when the app goes viral and Gigi finds herself at the center of a school scandal that hurts her best friends Kyle and Etta.

Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon
When beautiful new student Cirrus Soh mistakenly thinks Sunny Dae is in a rock band like his older brother, the nerdy teen feels he has no choice but to go along with it. Faking it until he makes it seems easy. Until Cirrus asks to see Sunny play and his fake band starts to feel very real.

How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao
At Sinclair Prep Nancy has always known that being good and being the best are mutually exclusive. As the stakes climb, Nancy will have to choose how much she’s willing to give–and to take–in order to stay at the top.
Read my review.

A Forgery of Roses: A (WIRoB) Review

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

A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. OlsonPainters are disappearing throughout Lalverton with many devout citizens say this is just treatment for those who choose to paint–a creative outlet seen as holy and solely as the domain of the Great Artist. Conservatives including the governor fear the growing popularity in portraiture; the presence of Prodigy magic in Lalverton makes the taboo artform seem like even more of a threat.

With her mother–another Prodigy and talented artist–among the missing, Myra Whitlock knows she has to hide her own magical gift if she wants to keep herself and her younger sister, Lucy, safe. Scriptures are very clear that Prodigies are “a defilement of the power of our god, the Great Artist.” With magic that “gives a painter the ability to alter human and animal bodies with their paintings,” Prodigies have long been seen as “even more of an abomination than normal portrait work.” Their powerful ability also means that Prodigies “have been persecuted by the pious and captured by the greedy since the dawn of time.”

Lacking in proper training and control, Myra’s magic is even more dangerous. She can manipulate a person’s sevren threads to alter their appearance and heal injuries, but she can’t dictate when or how her magic will work instead having to paint through it while her magic buzzes “like a swarm of bees inside [her] head.” With finances dwindling in the wake of her parents’ disappearances, Myra desperately needs work to earn enough for rent, food, and for the nurse Lucy needs to help manage the symptoms of her chronic illness.

When Myra’s magic is discovered by the worst person possible, she forges an uneasy bargain with the governor’s wife. If Myra can use her Prodigy gift to resurrect the governor’s dead son, she could earn enough for a proper home, tuition to attend the conservatory, and even a real doctor to treat Lucy. If Myra fails, the governor’s wife will expose Myra as a Prodigy and her life could well be forfeit.

Spirited to Rose Manor in the dead of night, Myra has four days to complete her work before the body decays beyond help. Among the “ancient wealth and finery,” Myra sets to her grim work. But it soon becomes clear the governor’s son did not suffer an accidental fall as Myra has been told. Something more sinister is at work–something that could be even more dangerous to Myra than her exposure as a Prodigy. With reluctant help from August–the governor’s older, less favored son–Myra begins investigating the suspect death and trying to understand why her magic isn’t working. With time running out, Myra will uncover unsavory truths about the stately mansion and its residents in A Forgery of Roses (2022) by Jessica S. Olson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Olson blends mystery and suspense with a gothic sensibility in this standalone fantasy where all characters are assumed white. Myra narrates with an artist’s eye focused on color as seen when she describes making ladyrose gel–a medium from the author’s imagination that allows oil paints to dry fast enough for artists to complete full paintings in a matter of hours–from burnt flower petals: “As soon as it hits the water, the rose blood fans out, a spiderweb of shimmering scarlet veins crawling through the pot until the whole thing clouds like it’s full of sparkling garnet dust.” Myra’s keen eye for detail also works well within the narrative to increase tension and broadcast danger with one character described as having eyes that “glimmer like pond-slick moons” and “pearl earrings glow milky white like bones on either side of her face, twitching with every word she utters.”

To resurrect the governor’s son, Myra also has to understand the circumstances of his death and his emotional state at the time of death. As Myra explains, sevren are the “connective fibers that bind the soul to the physical form, they’re born from each person or animal’s emotional perception of their bodies. The more emotionally significant a physical feature is to that person or animal, the tighter and denser the bonds become.” Because of this, Myra takes a clinical eye to the body she is trying to restore with grisly precision as she notes “the crushed and mangled ear, the blood congealing on the hair, the fragments of skull and brain tissue” and the “scraped skin and the way the blood has pooled on the bottom of the body” while trying to paint the body as it is before layering in her changes.

Feeling a sense of urgency as time begins to run out and her paintings continue to fail, Myra works (and flirts) with August to investigate his brother’s death. While searching for clues together, August opens up about his daily struggle with severe anxiety which is well-represented in the text. As August explains, “This anxiety will always be a part of me. It’s not going anywhere, and I’m going to have to live with it for the rest of my life. But I am not broken because of it.”

Myra’s desperation to complete her work before she is exposed as a Prodigy only increases when Lucy’s illness takes a turn for the worse. Although unnamed in the text, symptoms include food sensitivity and intestinal distress which Lucy manages with scientific precision in notebooks where “food logs, graphs, and lists of symptoms are mapped out carefully on each page.” Readers will also recognize Spoon theory, described in the text as juice in a glass where “Every action of daily life—getting out of bed, bathing, dressing, doing research—siphoned juice away. Once the glass was empty, no matter how much she had left she needed to do or how much she’d hoped to get done, her body needed to rest. To refill the glass.”

A Forgery of Roses combines art, fantasy, and a truly surprising mystery with authentic and respectful representation for both anxiety and chronic illness which are seen as points of strength rather than flaws in this story where as Myra notes about Lucy “As far as I’m concerned, I may be the one with magic, but she’s the truly powerful one. Because she’s fought where I have never had to.” Myra and August’s romance and a final act filled with the surprise twists that are a hallmark of gothic literature at its best further enhance this story where a picture is worth much more than a thousand words.

Emma Carbone is a librarian and reviewer. She has been blogging about books since 2007.

Possible Pairings: The Beautiful by Renee Ahdieh, The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha Hastings, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Gallant by V. E. Schwab, The Splendor by Breeana Shields, Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor, All that Glitters by Gita Trelease

Vinyl Moon: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. BrowneFive weeks ago Angel was dating Darius. Five weeks ago she still believed he loved her. Five weeks ago, after one terrible night, all of that changed.

Now Angel is across the country in Brooklyn. She’s getting used to living with her uncle Spence and exploring the Flatbush neighborhood that’s now home. She’s trying to figure out who she is when she doesn’t have Darius telling her everything she’s doing right–or wrong–and who she is when she doesn’t have her younger brother Amir or the triplets to take care of.

After that horrible night and the argument that changed everything, Angel know she needs to heal. She just isn’t sure if she deserves to yet.

As she makes new friends and discovers books and music that feel like they were made for her, Angel starts to realize her world could be bigger than her family, bigger than Darius. For the first time in years, Angel has space to be anything she wants to be–once she figures out who that is in Vinyl Moon (2022) by Mahogany L. Browne.

Find it on Bookshop.

Set over the course of a school year, Vinyl Moon is a deceptively short novel with quick vignette-like chapters narrated by Angel as she gets situated and begins to feel at home in Brooklyn. Free verse poems are interspersed with the prose highlighting different elements of the story and adding a lyrical quality to this unique reading experience. The audiobook is narrated by Bahni Turpin (quickly becoming one of my favorite voice actors) who does a fantastic job bringing Angel’s world–and her voice–to life.

Angel and most characters are Black. Angel’s classmates include characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum with a variety of lived experiences including a single mother finishing high school, secret poets and DJs, and alternatives to college with potential love interest Sterling who is in the ROTC. The story is also deeply and authentically grounded in its New York City setting and specifically Brooklyn as Angel explores many neighborhood instituations that local readers will readily recognize.

The novel features flashbacks that slowly unpack exactly what happened to get Angel to Brooklyn and her complicated past with her family. As she gains distance from everything that happened with Darius, Angel begins to understand what happened and her agency in making sure it does not happen again. New friendships, her uncle, and support from teachers at her new school also help Angel view her fraught relationship with her mother in a new light and realize some relationships are worth saving.

My favorite part of Vinyl Moon is Angel’s journey to understand her own past while discovering a love for books, poetry, and music–Browne presents this plot thread with joy and passion as Angel’s world starts to expand. As Angel observes, “It’s not that I don’t like reading. I’ve just never had room to do anything for myself.”–a sentiment that applies to so many people making their way back to (or discovering) things they love.

Vinyl Moon is empowering, hopeful, and not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, Push by Sapphire, Genesis Begins Again by Alicia Williams

Book of Night: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“That’s what good con artists did. They didn’t need to convince you of anything, because you were too busy convincing yourself.”

Book of Night by Holly BlackCharlie Hall remembers the way things were before magic was real. Her life would have taken a different course without shadow magic and the underground market it created for stolen shadows, arcane spells, and–most importantly for Charlie–hidden knowledge. She might have become a different woman if she didn’t move so quickly from small cons to the much bigger cons of stealing long hidden, very dangerous spells.

But some bullets can’t be dodged. You have to take the hit.

Which is why Charlie is more determined than ever to start fresh. No cons. No heists. And definitely no magic. She can’t stop her younger sister Posey from searching online for traces of magic at all hours, can’t stop Posey from splitting her own tongue so she’ll be ready when her shadow wakes up. What Charlie can do is take a boring stable job tending bar, spend time with her boring stable boyfriend Vince, and make sure Posey’s tuition is paid on time. Simple.

Except you don’t get into the spell market without building a reputation, without meeting unsavory characters, without sometimes being the unsavory character. That makes it hard to start fresh.

When the worst parts of her past come back to haunt her, Charlie’s boring stable life is thrown into chaos. Delving deeper into the world she thought she’d left behind, Charlie quickly learns that danger doesn’t just lurk in the shadows–sometimes it’s the shadows themselves in Book of Night (2022) by Holly Black.

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Book of Night is Black’s adult market debut.

Charlie is a pragmatic main character, having survived her share of hard knocks and dealt a few herself along the way. Even in world with magic, Charlie is aware that to be normal means fitting into a very narrow box–one that’s hard to find when you’re poor and have a past like hers. While this tense narrative centers on a job Charlie can’t refuse, at its core Book of Night is a story about growing into yourself and learning to embrace every part of yourself–even the ones you’ve tried so hard to bury.

When magic can be bought and sold or stolen and hoarded, Charlie walks the shadow-thin line between going too far and not going far enough to protect everyone she loves. Book of Night delivers noir elements with world-weary heroine Charlie alongside the fantasy and wonder inherent to a world where magic is real but still new enough to not be fully understood. Book of Night is filled with satisfying twists and gasp-worthy reveals perfect for long-time Holly Black fans and new readers alike.

Possible Pairings: Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Gallant by V. E. Schwab

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

Bravely: A Review

Bravely by Maggie StiefvaterMerida of DunBroch is the kind of girl that magic seeks. While others try to understand magic’s arcane ways, Merida has known from a young age to be wary of it–especially after a curse almost turned her mother and her younger brothers into bears forever.

Now, Merida knows better than to chase magic. Instead she has traveled. She has explored. She has learned. But it still always feels like something is missing. Like she’s waiting for something to change.

Then she hears the knock on Christmas Eve. When goddesses and gods make themselves known to you, you listen whether you want to understand their magic or not.

When Feradach the god of ruin himself says he is going to bring catastrophic change to your home and your family, you try to stop him.

When that doesn’t work, you strike a bargain with help from the Cailleach, the most ancient of goddesses and one who might have a soft spot for Merida and her family.

Once the bargain is struck, Merida has a year to change all of the things that have grown stagnant in DunBroch and show Feradach how much they can change without his ruination.

One princess, two gods, three voyages, four seasons for Merida to save everything she holds dear in Bravely (2022) by Maggie Stiefvater.

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Bravely is an official continuation of Princess Merida’s story (as originally seen in the 2012 Disney film Brave) written by Stiefvater. Set a few years after the events of the film, Bravely references Merida’s past but functions on its own. All characters in this Scottish-set story are presumed white.

A close third person narrator and eerie opening lend Bravely a fairytale feel as the stage is set for Merida’s bargain with Feradach. Stiefvater populates Merida’s world with a combination of historical figures, familiar faces from the film, and gods and goddesses (some historically accurate, some imagined) alongside entirely new characters to create a large cast that takes some time to get to know and care about. Set over the course of the year, this story builds slowly before finding its footing in the second half as the plot shifts into new territory.

A slow start builds to a satisfying conclusion as Bravely blends new and old to create a story centered on themes of change and renewal. Bravely is an appropriately nuanced story perfect for Disney fans and readers of historical fantasy alike.

Possible Pairings: Ferryman by Claire McFall, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Little Thieves by Margaret Owen, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

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

The Last Legacy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Last Legacy by Adrienne YoungThe Roths are well-known in Bastian as thieves and cheats. There are rumors they’ve done worse. But no one is stupid enough to say that to a Roth’s face.

Bryn knows her uncle Henrik has plans for her. She knows she has a place with the fiercely loyal family if she can only be ruthless enough to claim it.

But after years spent trying to cram herself into the narrow role the Roths have carved out for her, Bryn also knows that sometimes opportunity is just another word for a stacked deck and being accepted by her family will come with a steeper cost than Bryn ever imagined.

When business trumps everything, there’s always a bargain to be made but in a family where there are rules and consequences, making your own fate could be a costly mistake in The Last Legacy (2021) by Adrienne Young.

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The Last Legacy is set in the same world as Young’s Fable series. It is set after the events of Fable and Namesake and can be read on its own. Main characters are assumed white. The audiobook features an excellent narration by Suzy Jackson.

Bryn brings a singular focus to her narration as she struggles to understand the complex dynamics of the Roth family and her role among them. Bryn is well aware of her strengths and what she brings to the table as the Roths try to scrub their less-than-glowing reputation in Bastian and earn a coveted spot as merchants. It’s only as she learns more about the Roths–and the lengths Henrik is willing to take to secure lasting stability for them–that Bryn begins to understand her own naivete about her family and, more importantly, the cost of trying to forge her own path among them.

With schemes and violence at every turn, Bryn finds an unlikely ally in Ezra–the family’s prodigiously talented silversmith. Young does an excellent job building their fractious relationship from grudging respect into a slow burn romance that will have lasting consequences for the entire Roth family. As Bryn’s options for working with her family and within Bastian’s cutthroat guild system dwindle the narrative becomes claustrophobic, conveying Bryn’s desperation as the story escalates and builds to its dramatic finish.

While lacking the nautical flavor of the Fable books, this book is a satisfying expansion of that world. The Last Legacy is a complex, fast-paced adventure with a slow burn romance and a heroine charting her own course.

Possible Pairings: Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier, Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer, The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

You Sexy Thing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

You Sexy Thing by Cat RamboCaptain Nicolette “Niko” Larson knows better than most that leaving the service of the Holy Hive Mind is no small thing. It’s easy enough to join the ranks with promises of vast earnings to come. But once you’re in, it’s funny how the debt keeps mounting and  those payments never come.

For a moment, Niko thought she could work within the system but now, known throughout the system as the “Ten Hour Admiral,” Niko knows better.

Luckily for Niko and her crew, the only thing the Hive Mind values more than conquest is art. Including culinary art.

After proving their artistic prowess with food, Niko and her crew have settled at TwiceFar station where they try to make a go of their restaurant, The Last Chance. With a reservation book for a prestigious food critic empowered to award a coveted Nikkelin Orb to worthy restaurants, it seems like things might finally be looking up.

Until the station blows up, of course.

With their past reduced to a smoldering pile of space rubble, Niko and her crew escape onto a sentient ship called You Sexy Thing. Unfortunately, the bioship thinks it’s stolen and steers them towards a prison planet. And that isn’t even the worst of Niko’s problems as the crew tries to fend off sadistic space pirates, deliver an intergalactic heir safely to the seat of the empire, and keep Niko’s other plans alive all while still chasing that elusive Nikkelin Orb in You Sexy Thing (2021) by Cat Rambo.

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You Sexy Thing is a standalone space opera that hints at more to come. The story is told in omniscient third person following Niko and her motley crew. The cast of characters includes humans, humanoid aliens, and other alien characters with a range of skin tones, presentations, and gender identities. Vivienne Leheny narrates the audiobook and ably navigates the large cast during shifting perspectives and dialog.

Pragmatic strategist Neko is complimented well by the ensemble cast here including my personal favorite characters Dabrey, Niko’s four-armed former-sergeant responsible for the restaurant’s culinary achievements, and Lassite–a lizard-like priest who joined the crew to follow Niko on her journey along the spiral of destiny. Although the plot focuses squarely on Niko and her own plans, no character is given short shrift as the entire crew has moments to shine. The madcap journey of the first half of the story shifts to something darker and grittier (including moments of mental and physical torture that while not explicitly described are unpalatable–particularly in audio) before the novel’s denouement.

You Sexy Thing skillfully combines moments of sci-fi absurdity with action and high emotion as Niko and her crew face numerous obstacles after escaping TwiceFar station. Rambo delivers a story filled with adventure, found family, and ultimately with hope for the future to come.

Possible Pairings: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Riess, The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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

The Words We Keep: A Review

The Words We Keep by Erin StewartThree months after the Night on the Bathroom Floor, high school junior Lily Larkin feels like her life is falling apart. Because it is.

On the Night on the Bathroom Floor Lily found her older sister Alice hurting herself. Alice hasn’t been home since. And Lily has been struggling to fill all of the Alice-shaped gaps she left behind.

If Lily can do enough at home, get good enough grades at school, make it to State in track, get into UC Berkeley, and keep doing everything right it will all be okay. Her family needs a win and all Lily has to do is keep winning.

Except Lily feels like she’s starting to lose it. She’s uninspired, overwhelmed, and struggling to hide all of it from her family and her friends.

When she’s partnered with a new student who knows all about the Night on the Bathroom Floor, Lily is worried Micah Mendez will reveal all of her family’s secrets. Instead, he might be the one person who can help Lily find her way back to herself in The Words We Keep (2022) by Erin Stewart.

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Lily and her family (and most secondary characters) are presumed white. Micah is Mexican American.

The Words We Keep is Stewart’s second novel and I wish I could recommend but I can’t. Read on for a discussion of some of the issues I had with this book including spoilers:

Continue reading The Words We Keep: A Review