The Left-Handed Booksellers of London: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth NixThings are changing in London in 1983. Some of the changes are ones you might recognize while others in this slightly alternate London are, appropriately, slightly different.

Things are changing for eighteen-year-old Susan Arkshaw too as she travels to London to try to find her father–a man she has never met–only to cross paths with the left-handed Merlin St. Jacques and, by extension, the rest of his eccentric family.

The St. Jacques clan has always kept London’s monsters, goblins, and other eldritch creatures in check and grounded in the Old World through a combination of magic, research for the right-handed of the family, brute force for the left-handed, and it seems in Merlin’s case through raw charisma as well. But the St. Jacques clan also has to make a living. So they sell books in the New World of modern London as well, as one does.

Susan isn’t sure how to deal with Merlin’s outrageous good looks or his even more outrageous flirting. Worse, she seems to be caught up in an Old World struggle that has been building for years–one that Merlin has been investigating in relation to his mother’s murder.

With help from his right-handed sister, Vivien, Merlin and Susan will have to follow Susan’s scant clues to find her father and determine Susan’s role in this Old World conflict before it bleeds into New World London and tears its unique booksellers apart in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (2020) by Garth Nix.

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Witty banter and high stakes battles contrast well with bigger questions of what constitutes the greater good in a time when both magic and the modern world are rapidly evolving even as the booksellers themselves may be stagnating after years of complacency. If another urban fantasy novel has ever had such a painfully realistic depiction of shoddy institutional management, I haven’t read it.

Susan is a pragmatic, no-nonsense heroine from her worldview down to her buzz cut and Doc Martins who is quick to adapt as her entire world begins to shift beneath her feet. Merlin is, by contrast, flamboyant and whimsical with a larger than life personality to match his massive wardrobe fit for every occasion with snappy suits, nice dresses, and everything in between including multiple weapons. As the final point of this trio Vivien adds some much-needed practicality and steals every scene she’s in.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London artfully subverts traditional gender roles both in society and within the fantasy genre with a story that defies as many expectations as its characters. Very fun. Very British. Very 1980s. Very much recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

The Angel of the Crows: A Review

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine AddisonAfter suffering an egregious injury on the front in Afghanistan, Dr. J. H. Doyle is forced to return to England in 1888 and none too happy about it. With a bad leg, a foul temper, and a war pension that doesn’t quite go far enough in London, Doyle is unsure what to do upon returning until a friend makes a surprising suggestion.

Everyone knows about the angels–after all Nameless can be found in front of every place of worship or bakery, any habitation large enough hopes to have an angel claim it as their dominion, and–like Doyle–everyone knows the damage that can be wrought by angels who have Fallen.

Then there is Crow the self-described Angel of London. Claiming the entire city as his dominion, Crow works as a consultant with the police and for select clients. His focus is singular, his crow-like wings are massive and prone to toppling furniture when Crow is excited, and he is in need of a flatmate.

Moving into 221B Baker Street, both Crow and Doyle have secrets they would prefer to keep. But they also have work to do as Doyle is drawn into Crow’s investigations of murder scenes with strange words on walls, locked room mysteries, and even the case of the Whitechapel Murderer who has been butchering prostitutes with increasing frequency in The Angel of the Crows (2020) by Katherine Addison.

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The Angel of the Crows started life as Sherlock wingfic (fan fiction which imagines one character with wings) and, in many ways, that is still the story readers have in the finished book.

While Crow and Doyle live in a distinct and well-realized fantasy world filled with elements of steampunk and magic, between their original adventures (notably their hunt for Jack the Ripper) Addison also retells some of the most familiar cases from Sherlock Holmes’ long canon. Readers familiar with “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of the Four,” “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and “The Adventure of Speckled Band” will immediately recognize the stories being retold here.

Addison stays very close to her source material while imbuing each story with the magical elements intrinsic to her version of London. A story element with a double edge as it makes the book both immediately familiar and, in certain cases, nearly too predictable.

The Angel of the Crows is strongest when Crow and Doyle are in their element and exploring new territory–albeit often with fun references to the class mysteries that inspired this novel. Addison also raises interesting questions about gender identity and agency throughout the story from both Doyle and Crow’s experiences. While some of this gave me pause in that it felt very much like a plot device, the execution over the course of the novel as a whole was handled well and raises more questions and avenues of discussion than concerns.

The Angels of the Crows is an incredibly thorough and original retelling. Whether or not they are a fan of Holmes and Watson, readers can only hope to see more of Crow and Doyle.

Possible Pairings: Soulless by Gail Carriger, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley, The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lillith St. Crow

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

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*

A Treason of Thorns: A Chick Lit Wednesday

A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. WeymouthAfter seven years in exile during her father’s house arrest, Violet finally has a chance to return home to Burleigh House–one England’s six great houses responsible for the welfare of the country and its people. Violet has always loved Burleigh better than anyone–a fondness that remains even knowing that Burleigh’s mighty house magic is what ultimately killed her father.

Returning to Burleigh is not the fond reunion Violet has dreamt of. The house is decrepit and wary after years without a proper caretaker. Her childhood friend, Wyn, spent the last seven years trapped inside with Violet’s father and he too is changed as a result.

Trying to heal a grieving house and her own heart will lead Violet down the same path her father walked before her: committing high treason trying to find Burleigh’s deed and unbind the house from the king.

As Violet and her friends get closer to finding the deed she will have to decide if she is  prepared to follow in her father’s footsteps as caretaker of the great house even if it means losing Wyn forever or if she might find a way to keep both her home and her heart intact in A Treason of Thorns (2019) by Laura E. Weymouth.

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Weymouth’s latest standalone fantasy offers a compelling alternate history in circa 1800s England although with a strong focus on Violet and Burleigh itself, many of the novel’s excellent secondary characters lack space to fully shine.

A Treason of Thorns has a few surprises and a satisfying romance, but much of the novel’s potential feels unfilled with a plot that meanders and resolutions that fail to fully capitalize on the underpinnings of the world’s magic system.

A Treason of Thorns is a fast-paced and truly original fantasy with a premise perfect for fans of the world of Downton Abbey (and living houses). Recommended for readers seeking a fast-paced historical fantasy with a world they won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: Eventide by Sarah Goodman, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, llusions of Fate by Kiersten White

The Light Between Worlds: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. WeymouthSix years ago Evelyn and Phillipa Hapwell and their brother Jamie went outside to the family bomb shelter. Years of drills trained them well to get to the shelter and not wait for anyone, not even their parents.

Instead of walking into a shelter, the siblings find themselves transported to the Woodlands, a forest kingdom preparing for a war of its own. Philippa and Jamie always knew any stay in the Woodlands would be temporary–how could it be anything else?

But even now, all these years later, Ev is still sneaking into the woods and trying to find her way back. Cervus, their guide in the Woodlands, always told Ev that Woodlander’s heart always finds its way home. But can that still be true after so long?

Philippa is happy to be home, happy to leave everything that happened in the Woodlands behind, and try to move on. When Ev disappears, Philippa has to confront everything that happened in the Woodlands–including her own betrayals along the way–if she wants to find out what happened to her sister in The Light Between Worlds (2018) by Laura E. Weymouth.

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The Light Between Worlds is a standalone portal fantasy and Weymouth’s debut novel. The first half of the story, set in 1949, is told in Ev’s first person narration. The second half, in 1950, is narrated by Philippa. (The audiobook uses different voice actresses for each narrator and is an excellent production.)

As you might have guessed, this was a heavy read filled with melancholy for what all of the siblings have lost and, especially for Ev, genuine despair. In other words, it was not a good choice to read when the Covid-19 related quarantine started in March. Be warned, the novel does depict Evie’s self-harm as a coping mechanism after she returns to London.

Readers familiar with portal fantasies will find the story they expect here while readers new to the sub-genre might feel more tension around the question of what happened to Ev. Both Evie and Philippa’s parts include flashbacks both to their time in the Woodlands and the weeks immediately after their return. While the Woodlands chapters are evocative and provide a story within the story, they never do much to explain the appeal of the Woodlands even to Evie who feels more at home there than in London.

The Light Between Worlds is filled with beautiful, visceral, evocative writing and offers a thoughtful exploration of both post traumatic stress and trauma. An acquired tasted but one that marks Weymouth as an author to watch.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Dangerous Alliance by Jennieker CohenLady Victoria Aston lives comfortably with her father, helping to manage the family estate and enjoying the relative freedom and security afforded to a young woman whose sister has made a good marriage.

Unfortunately all is not as it appears. When her sister has to flee her abusive husband, Vicky must rise to the challenge of finding a suitable husband by the end of the season before her family is left destitute.

Vicky is certain her favorite Jane Austen novels can provide the guidance she needs in this endeavor despite being surprisingly silent on the subjects of recently returned but still painfully distant best friends and, perhaps more urgently, mysterious accidents that may prevent Vicky from surviving her season long enough to find a suitor in Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance (2019) by Jennieke Cohen.

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This debut novel is a well-researched homage to all things Austen complete with chapter epigraphs from Austen’s classic novels. Cohen (a member of The Jane Austen Society of North America) also provides a detailed author’s note demonstrating the care and research that has gone into bringing Vicky’s story and her world to life.

The close third person narration primarily focuses on Vicky with chapters from other characters, notably including Vicky’s estranged best friend Tom Sherborne, helping to further expand the story. Vicky is a plucky heroine who faces numerous challenges with aplomb and a fair bit of good humor when following in the footsteps of her favorite literary heroines proves less successful than she might have hoped.

Dangerous Alliance is part madcap adventure and part romance wrapped up in a mystery surrounding the accidents that plague Vicky from the very first page. While this genre mashup can be disorienting, the story sticks close to the wit and gentle tone readers familiar with Austen would expect–complete with a satisfying resolution. Recommended for fans of romantic comedies, cozy mysteries and, of course, Jane Austen.

Possible Pairings: Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Antsey; Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger; The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha Hastings; Murder, Magic, and What We Wore by Kelly Jones; A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee; Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix; These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas

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

The Guinevere Deception: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stories are not nails to be driven home. They are tapestries to be woven.”

“Sometimes we have to hide from what others see in order to be what we know we are.”

Guinevere comes to Camelot as a stranger–a princess who will marry the young king who has banished magic and his mentor, the wizard Merlin, from his kingdom as he tries to bring order to the chaos threatening to destroy everything he has worked so hard to build.

Except Guinevere died before she ever came to Camelot. No one knows the real identity of the girl who was sent to replace Guinevere–her name is a secret, her past a mystery. All that matters is that Merlin sent her to Camelot to protect Arthur.

Threats abound in Camelot as Guinevere investigates scheming nobles, mysterious new arrivals drawn by the kingdom’s promise, and magic fighting to get past her own rudimentary protections.

Magic is chaos–a natural force always waiting to reclaim what Arthur and Camelot stole away–a fact Guinevere knows better than most. With danger circling and secrets everywhere, Guinevere will have to rely on her own cunning as she decides who to trust and what to fight for in The Guinevere Deception (2019) by Kiersten White.

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The Guinevere Deception is the first book in White’s Camelot Rising trilogy.

White brings inventive world building and a feminist lens to her Arthurian retelling that centers a decidedly unique Guinevere. This historical fantasy breathes new life into the familiar source material with layers of intrigue and suspense as Guinevere tries to uncover both the hidden threats to Camelot and the secrets of her own past with Merlin.

The push and pull between the order of newly built Camelot and the chaos of primordial magic that previously ruled drive the plot forward as Guinevere comes closer to understanding Arthur’s greatest threat. This tension is mirrored by Guinevere’s struggle to be the protector she needs to be while also molding herself into the queen Arthur needs to rule beside him.

The Guinevere Deception is a fast-paced adventure filled with intrigue, magic, and the barest hints of romance and enduring friendship as Guinevere begins to make a place for herself in a kingdom she never could have imagined when Merlin plucked her out of the forest. A must reads for fans of Arthurian legend and readers looking for a fantasy with feminism and heroism in equal measure–with just a touch of existential dread to keep things interesting. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

Newt’s Emerald: A Review

Lady Truthful (Newt to her friends) is enjoying a rather typical eighteenth birthday until the Newington Emerald–a family heirloom and her entire inheritance from her dearly departed mother–disappears.

While the men in her life are keen to solve the problem for her, Truthful has a better idea. Disguised as a man complete with a mustache, Newt sets out to follow the emerald’s trail and recover the stolen artifact.

Aided by the shrewd but unobservant Major Harnett who believes her to be a man, Newt chases clues and dark magic across England in search of the emerald. As she comes closer to her quarry Newt will also have to confront the uncomfortable realization that in aligning herself with Major Harnett she may also have fallen in love with him in Newt’s Emerald (2013) by Garth Nix.

Newt’s Emerald is Nix’s standalone tribute to regency romances everywhere–but with magic, of course.

Close third person narration and distinct world building help to add nuance to this comedy of errors as Newt embarks on a madcap journey to retrieve a stolen emerald and, perhaps, understand the machinations of her own heart.

Sparkling dialog, clever magic, and a plucky heroine make Newt’s Emerald an enjoyable diversion. Recommended for fans of both regency romance and historical fantasy.

Possible Pairings: The Hummingbird Dagger by Cindy Antsey, Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger, Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance by Jennieke Cohen, Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Carry On: A Review

cover art for Carry On by Rainbow RowellSimon Snow is not the chosen one anyone expected. He might not even be the chosen one we deserve. But he’s the only one we have.

Simon is supposed to be the most powerful wizard alive. But most of the time his wand doesn’t work properly, he can’t remember spells when he needs them, or he starts massive fires. All told, Simon would much rather spend his time eating sour cherry scones than trying to fight the Mysterious Humdrum–the magic eating monster that’s been tormenting Simon, and the rest of the magical world, since Simon arrived at Watford School of Magicks when he was eleven.

On top of that Simon’s girlfriend just dumped him and his roommate is missing. Baz being out of the picture might actually be a plus. Except Baz is from one of the most notoriously evil magic families out there. Also he’s a vampire so he could be causing all sorts of trouble while he’s away.

Simon doesn’t know what to expect from his last year at Watford but he certainly didn’t realized he’d be spending so much of it worried about Baz–or at least worried about Baz hurting people–in Carry On (2015) by Rainbow Rowell.

Carry On is partially inspired by Rowell’s earlier novel Fangirl–a book which included slash fiction written by one character about a Harry Potter-esque series. Rowell takes those elements and reworks them in this story. I will say up front that this book was a lot more fun and a lot smarter than I expected it to be given the story’s origins.

Carry On is witty, sexy, and just familiar enough to catch the in-jokes. It also offers a fascinating commentary on what it means to have a chosen path only to realize it might not be the path you want—aside from being completely wrong–as Simon struggles to figure out what his future will look like outside of Watford.

The novel alternates narration between Simon and Baz (who is tragically absent for the novel’s first act) which works well to showcase the dynamic between these characters while also amping up the tension as they shift somewhat reluctantly–and much to their own dismay–from sworn enemies to boyfriend and boyfriend. While the romance is fun, the subversion of the usual nemesis tropes are also well done as both Simon and Baz are forced to admit that the person they thought they hated above all others might also be the only one who might understand them.

I will say I still have trepidation about whether this romance between two boys is a story that a straight woman should be telling. But at the same time, Baz is a vampire and Simon is a wizard so there are a lot of reasons this book is positioned differently than if it were a truly contemporary story.

Carry On is a fun, campy boarding school fantasy with two precious idiots doing the best they can. Recommended for readers who have read Harry Potter a zillion times and are looking for something different but still familiar.

Possible Pairings: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Fence by C. S. Pacat, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, Timekeeper by Tara Sim, Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu

Witch Born: A Review

cover art for Witch Born by Nicolas BowlingEngland, 1577: Alyce can’t trust anyone after her mother is burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. With only the barest instructions and a mommet doll to guide her, Alyce heads to London. She hopes it will be easy to follow her mother’s instructions to find the hangman.

Along the way Alyce has to dodge dangerous witch hunters and learn how to trust new friends and allies. But Alyce isn’t the only one in London with a mission. Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are both searching intently for Alyce. Both queens want to use her, but only one of them for good in Witch Born (2018) by Nicholas Bowling.

Witch Born is a thoroughly researched historical fantasy. Bowling brings the squalor and wonder of the sixteenth century to life along with the near-constant terror of witchcraft. Genuinely frightening witch hunters and evocative settings make this slim novel a page turner.

Because of Alyce’s young age, this novel is also ideal for readers of all ages. Alyce is a winsome heroine sure to endear herself to readers in this gripping debut. Recommended for readers of both fantasy and historical fiction.

Possible Pairings: We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett, Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley, Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin, Savvy by Ingrid Law, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

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