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

Fire & Heist: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fire & Heist by Sarah Beth DurstFor the Hawkins family, successfully pulling off your first heist is a major accomplishment. It’s an introduction into society, a rite of passage, and of course the best way for a were-dragon to start building their first hoard of gold.

The technical term is actually wyvern, but Sky has always thought calling herself and her family were-dragons really gets to the point even if no wyvern has been able to take on their true dragon form since they lost their connection with Home generations ago.

With Sky’s first heist coming up fast, Sky has to start picking her crew and figure out how to get over her ex-boyfriend Ryan once and for all. But with her mother missing and an ancient jewel in the mix that could change everything for the wyvern community, Sky’s first heist is going to be anything but routine in Fire & Heist (2018) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Find it on Bookshop.

This standalone fantasy is part adventure and part heist as Sky tries to uncover the truth about her mother’s work and the jewel she was tracking before her disappearance. High stakes heist scenes contrast well with high fantasy elements as Sky learns more about her dragon past.

Snark, light romance, and real mystery make Fire & Heist a page-turning adventure with distinct characters in a truly unique world. Recommended for readers looking for a new spin on both dragons and heist tropes.

Possible Pairings: Heist Society by Ally Carter, Wicked Fox by Kat Cho, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston, The Iron King by Julie Kagawa

The Deceivers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

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

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

Possible Pairings: The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Killing November by Adriana Mather, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carry Ryan, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney

Caster: A Review

Magic killed Aza Wu’s sister. Shire had more experience and more innate talent as a caster than Aza. She was able to work in secret, completing illegal full magic spells for customers to help keep Wu Teas open and pay their required tributes to Saint Willow–the gang leader overseeing their sector of Lotusland.

Shire has been dead for almost a year and Aza is no closer to fully controlling her own abilities as a caster or paying back her family’s mounting debts.

Desperate and just a little reckless, Aza’s efforts to investigate Shire’s death leads her to an underground casting tournament. Winning could be solve most of Aza’s problems. But losing could leave her dead in Caster (2019) by Elsie Chapman.

Caster is a gritty urban fantasy set in a world where magic–that is, full magic–taps into the earth’s energy and is slowly destroying it. Desperate to stave off further disasters, full casting has been declared illegal. But that doesn’t change that some people still have the ability to cast–or the fact that it’s the only option Aza sees for keeping her family afloat.

Stark prose, restrained world building, and suspense immediately draw readers into Aza’s world and the web of intrigue surrounding her sister’s death. High action and detailed fight scenes bring the casting tournament to life.

Caster seamlessly blends mystery and fantasy elements in this story where organized crime and full magic go hand in hand. Based on the ending, readers can only hope that this is but the first of Aza’s adventures.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, White Cat by Holly Black, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, Devil’s Pocket by John Dixon, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan, Unwind by Neal Shusterman

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend: A Non-Fiction Review

You’ve read the story of Jesse James
of how he lived and died.
If you’re still in need;
of something to read,
here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

cover art for Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of Legend by Karen BlumenthalYou might think you know the story of Bonnie and Clyde–the love struck couple who went on a crime spree throughout Texas in the 1930s. Over the years they have been immortalized in stories, songs, and on film.

Thanks to the advent of photography, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were documented in newspapers which printed Bonnie’s poetry left behind after a fortuitous flight from a safe house. The media and the public were quick to latch onto these ill-fated young people ready to cast them as a modern answer to Robin Hood.

Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend (2018) by Karen Blumenthal unpacks this sensationalized story to look at the facts.

By examining the poverty of their neighborhood and the other barriers they faced growing up in Texas Blumenthal tries to offer some explanation of how two poorly educated teens became two of the most notorious criminals of our time.

Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend is a quick and informative read with numerous photos and first-person accounts from witness statements. Recommended for true crime enthusiasts and mystery readers of all ages.

Possible Pairings: Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century by Sarah Miller

Hold Me Like a Breath: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany SchmidtIn a world where organ donation is strictly regulated, Penelope Landlow’s Family helps those who can’t afford to wait for legal organ transplants . . . as long as they can afford to pay black market prices.

With rival families and upstarts jockeying for position, Penelope knows as well as anyone that the Family business is dangerous. With the Organ Act making its way through congress she also knows the Family business is on the verge of a major change.

Thanks to an autoimmune disorder called Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) that causes excessive bruising and bleeding, Penelope also knows she’ll never really be a part of the Family business–changes or not.

With her entire family, and even her lifelong crush, convinced that she is far too fragile for the Family business or anything resembling a normal life, Penelope spends her days dreaming of NYC, shopping, watching C-Span, and wandering her family’s lavish estate.

It isn’t enough.

When disaster strikes, Penelope is thrust into a world of secrets and betrayals she is ill-equipped to understand. As she struggles to make sense of her shattered past and shape her own future she’ll also learn that life isn’t always a fairy tale. Sometimes you have to make your own happy ending in Hold Me Like a Breath (2015) by Tiffany Schmidt.

Hold Me Like a Breath is the first book in Schmidt’s Once Upon a Crime Family trilogy. It is loosely inspired by the story “The Princess and the Pea.”

Penelope is an interesting heroine in that she is spunky while also being painfully naive thanks to her sheltered upbringing. Although she is fragile because of her ITP, Penelope is not easily broken as she demonstrates repeatedly throughout the narrative.

With organized crime, black market organs and murder as part of the plot, Hold Me Like a Breath is not your typical fairy tale romance. Sweet moments of first love are tempered with suspense and action as Penelope tries to make sense of the catastrophe that leaves her alone for the first time.

Hold Me Like a Breath is an engaging mystery and coming-of-age story complete with twists that turn the narrative completely upside down not once but twice. A romantic lead who sees Penelope as a true equal helps move the romance here from saccharine and sweet to rock solid and empowering.

Schmidt blends elements of mystery and romance in this retelling that is as unique as it is exciting. In addition to nods to the source material, this book also builds a world that is developed down to the finest details and includes a diverse cast of characters who readers will look forward to seeing in book two. Hold Me Like a Breath is a clever page-turner with a heroine who learns what it takes to chase her own happily ever after in this sensational start to what is sure to be a marvelous series.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, White Cat by Holly Black, Strings Attached by Judy Blundell, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Stain by A. G. Howard, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

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

You can also check out my interview with Tiffany!

Bright Young Things: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“They were all marching toward their own secret fates, and long before the next decade rolled around, each would escape in her own way–one would be famous, one would be married, and one would be dead.”

Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen1929: Cordelia Grey and Letty Larkspur are leaving their stifling Ohio town behind to seek fame and fortune in New York City. With a big voice and hopes to match, Letty knows it’s only a matter of time before she hits it big in the biggest city of all. Cordelia is seeking other things–things she can’t even tell her best friend Letty without looking like a fool–even if Cordelia knows her future is in New York.

Along the way to their dreams the girls will face hardships and separation. They’ll meet cads and swells. One of them will even take up with one of New York’s elite flappers–a girl named Astrid Donal.

Everyone comes to New York expecting big things. But Cordelia and Letty will both have to make hard choices to get everything they want while the Jazz Age is still raging in Bright Young Things (2010) by Anna Godbersen.

Bright Young Things is the first book in Godbersen’s 1920s series. It is followed by Beautiful Days and The Lucky Ones. (Godbersen is also the author of the bestselling Luxe series.)

I love historical fiction. Show me a book set anywhere between 1900 and 1940 and there is a 99% chance that I will want to read it. I especially love the 1920s and flappers. (I even wrote a research paper in high school about 1920s fashion. But that’s another story.) My point in sharing all of this? I am pretty well-read when it comes to 1920s–fashion, social mores, history.

What does that have to do with Bright Young Things? It’s part of why I didn’t like it more. I wanted to love this book and I wanted to be excited about the series. But after reading so many other books set in the period the plot and setting started to feel very familiar.

Most of the characters in Bright Young Things are privileged; they have money, they have status, they get what they want. They’re careless like Tom and Daisy Buchanan. And that is great if you want to re-live the frenzy and decadence of The Great Gatsby. But if you want more nuance or something new, well, that isn’t going to be found in Bright Young Things as it treads familiar themes with the decadence of the 1920s, the thrill of speakeasies and the danger of falling for the wrong boy.

My favorite parts of the story were when Letty struck out on her own and found work as a cigarette girl–something I never read about–which was fascinating and ended all too soon. Besides Letty the other characters felt painfully vapid and superficial.

Godbersen lays all of the groundwork for the series with the sprawling prologue and introduction of characters who will be key later in the story. But I never felt excited enough while reading Bright Young Things to feel any urgency in continuing with the series (if I ever will).

This would be a great introductory read for anyone hoping to start reading historical fiction in general or about the 1920s specifically. If you already know about the period and want to move beyond the basics I’d suggest The Diviners by Libba Bray which delves deeper into a variety of areas during the decade albeit in the midst of a supernatural murder investigation.

Possible Pairings: The Diviners by Libba Bray, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, New York City: A Short History by George J. Lankevich, Vixen by Jillian Larkin, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

The Shadow Society: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Shadow Society by Marie RutkoskiDarcy Jones doesn’t remember anything before the day she was abandoned at a Chicago firehouse. She was five years old.

Since then, Darcy has been bounced from foster home to foster home–never quite fitting in, never quite putting down roots.

Things finally seem to be different on Darcy’s first day back at Lakebrook High. Her second year at the same school, Darcy finally has friends and even a foster mother who seems keen to keep Darcy around; all simple reasons for Darcy to be happy.

Then a new boy arrives at the school and eyes Darcy as if she were an enemy, maybe even a threat. Conn McCrea is both fascinating and frightening as he insinuates himself into Darcy’s life. As she gets to know Conn she also begins to discover strange truths about herself and a world that shouldn’t exist–a world where the Great Chicago Fire never happened and creatures called Shades have created an organization called the Shadow Society intent on eliminating humans.

Darcy always wanted to be part of something, to belong somewhere. But she may have more than she bargained for with Conn and infiltrating the Shades in The Shadow Society (2012) by Marie Rutkoski.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Shadow Society is Rutkoski’s first young adult novel. She is also the author of the popular Kronos Chronicles series for younger readers.

Part fantasy, part alternate history The Shadow Society is an evocative novel that is as haunting as it is enchanting. Rutkoski masterfully brings not one but two versions of Chicago to life on the page with characters that are charmingly real and entertaining. While the story is grounded in Darcy’s journey to find the truth about herself, the novel also is refreshingly grounded with strong friendships. (Conn and Darcy’s complicated relationship doesn’t hurt either.)

A well-realized world and completely delightful characters come together with a gripping, surprising plot to create a winning combination in The Shadow Society.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Shadow Society by J. Q. Coyle, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, Two Summers by Aimee Friedman, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Pivot Point by Kasie West, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

You can also check out Marie Rutkoski’s Q & A with Andrea Cremer about The Shadow Society here: http://www.macteenbooks.com/ya/a-qa-with-marie-rutkoski-andrea-cremer/#.UKSGDIUZooh

 

Because It Is My Blood: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

**As the second in a series, this book (and the review) may contain spoilers for All These Things I’ve Done. You have been warned.**

Because It Is My Blood by Gabrielle ZevinAnya Balanchine knows firsthand that being the presumptive heir to an illegal chocolate empire comes with its fair share of complications. After a turbulent year filled with futile attempts to move beyond her criminal reputation and date a truly ill-advised boy–all while caring for her brother and sister–Anya is hoping that the start of autumn and her release from Liberty Children’s Facility will bring with it calmer times.

Unfortunately, nothing about Anya’s life after Liberty is calm. Her criminal record makes attending (not to mention finishing) high school nearly impossible.

Her little sister Natty has grown up during Anya’s time away. Scarlet, her best friend, seems closer than ever to her odious boyfriend Gable. And Win? The boy who made Anya want to give up almost everything her family stood for seems to have a new love.

Anya isn’t sure where she fits into this world where everything and everyone has moved on without her except that she hopes it has nothing to do with her extended family. Or chocolate.

Unfortunately, as ever, Anya’s wants are overlooked as she is drawn back into the Balanchine’s world of crime, chocolate and intrigue. Taken away from the city and the people that she loves, Anya will have to decide what price she is willing to pay for safety and who she truly wants to be in Because It Is My Blood (2012) by Gabrielle Zevin.

Because It Is My Blood is the second book in Gabrielle Zevin’s Birthright series which started with All These Things I’ve Done.

As exciting as Because It Is My Blood can be, this novel’s strength is in its focus on Anya. She is still impetuous and often acts rashly. But she is also circumspect and calculating–as is fitting of a mafiya princess, even a reluctant one.

While Anya struggles with familiar questions about her family and her identity, Zevin keeps the story original with her surprising turns and Anya’s wry, eloquent narration. Readers will also notice Anya’s continued growth as she moves out from her dead father’s shadow (and advice) to begin making her own decisions.

Zevin also continues to delicately build Anya’s world in Because It Is My Blood with some tantalizing hints of what readers can expect in the latter half of this series. As our heroine moves beyond the island of Manhattan, Zevin develops the politics of 2083 that surround a country where chocolate is illegal and many other items are in short supply.

Because It Is My Blood proves that Anya still has more to learn and even more tricks up her sleeve making this book another absorbing installment in an already gripping series.

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Strings Attached by Judy Blundell, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, Leverage (television series), White Collar (television series)

Thanks to Esther Bochner at Macmillan Audio I also have a clip to share from the audiobook of Because It Is My Blood: You can listen to the clip on my website.

You can also read my exclusive interview with Gabrielle Zevin!

Also be sure to check out the cool trailer.

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012

All These Things I’ve Done: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle ZevinAnya Balanchine lives in a world where chocolate is illegal, water is scarce and New York City is a ghost of what it once was. Central Park is no longer a park. The Metropolitan Museum is a night club.

Anya’s life has been touched by tragedy, if not hardship, as the daughter of an infamous (and dead) crime boss. With her parents gone, it falls to Anya to take care of her siblings and protect them from the family business.

But when the family business is illegal chocolate, it’s hard to stay on the sidelines–especially when the new boy at school that you might like happens to be the son of the new assistant district attorney. Suddenly all of the decisions Anya has been avoiding need to be made and this time it might not be possible to keep everyone safe.

In a world where so much has changed and family means everything, falling in love could be deadly in All These Things I’ve Done (2011) by Gabrielle Zevin.

All These Things I’ve Done is the dynamic start to Zevin’s Birthright series–happily so since this book leaves readers who are looking for dystopians, noir stories, and even heist stories like White Cat or Heist Society wanting a lot more.

Although the story is  little gory and gritty at times (and maybe even a little bleak thinking about a world where the Met is a nightclub and paper is a thing of the past) Zevin still manages to imbue Anya’s narrative with hope. Throughout all of her travails, Anya manages to persevere. Even at her most ruthless and pragmatic Anya remains a completely sympathetic heroine. Zevin also cleverly reverses typical tropes casting Anya as the hero while her boyfriend stands in as the “damsel in distress” of this story.

The writing here is beautiful and frank, immediately evoking the strange new world Anya calls home complete with details specific to New York and a remarkably well-realized landscape. All These Things I’ve Done presents a taut story filled with tension and suspense that starts off what promises to be a remarkable series.

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Strings Attached by Judy Blundell, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, Leverage (television series), White Collar (television series)

You can also read my exclusive interview with Gabrielle Zevin!

*A copy of this book was acquired for review from the publisher*