Serious Moonlight: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You have the chance to make different choices.”

Serious Moonlight by Jenn BennettBirdie Lindberg’s previously small life is in flux after her strict grandmother’s death. In a bid to gain some independence after finishing homeschooling and earning her high school equivalency, not to mention getting some work experience before college, Birdie convinces her grandfather to let her job hunt on the mainland.

Working the graveyard shift at a historic Seattle hotel won’t be interesting, but it should be easy. Plus, there’s the added bonus of giving Birdie plenty of opportunities to hone her observation skills as an aspiring detective.

At least until Birdie realizes that she’ll be working with Daniel Aoki–amateur magician, graveyard shift van driver, and the other half of an awkward one-afternoon fling that Birdie thought she could safely pretend never happened.

Ignoring Daniel to preserve what’s left of her dignity proves impossible when he asks for her help investigating a reclusive writer holding secret meetings at the hotel. Faced with Daniel’s smoking hotness, his genuine need, and her own curiosity, Birdie knows she has to help.

As Birdie and Daniel work on this real-life mystery together, she soon realizes that the bigger mystery might be what to do about her own feelings for Daniel in Serious Moonlight (2019) by Jenn Bennett.

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Bennett’s latest standalone novel is filled with all of my favorite things including tons of references to classic detective stories. Birdie is a capable, smart heroine still learning how to come into her own with support from her grandfather and her nonconformist artist aunt, Mona. Daniel is charismatic, funny, and everything Birdie (and readers) could want in a male lead.

The hotel mystery and Birdie’s approach to life as she works to pursue her dream of becoming a private investigator add a lot of intrigue and fun to this contemporary romance.

On a personal level, it also felt like this book was written just for me. I identified so much with Birdie throughout the story as she struggles to come out of her shell and give herself the space and permission she needs to grow and thrive. This book is also the first time I have ever seen a story truly capture the weird blend of abject panic and genuine desire inherent to actually wanting to interact with someone.

Serious Moonlight is fantastic, filled with just enough tension to make the mystery aspect interesting while keeping the main focus on Birdie and her relationships. Birdie and Daniel are delightful lead characters complimented by an eccentric and entertaining cast of supporting characters. A new favorite for me, and maybe for you too. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore; Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert; The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo; Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson; Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus; Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke; The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe; Past Perfect by Leila Sales; Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith; This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura

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

Romanov: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Romanov by Nadine BrandesAnastasia “Nastya” Romanov expects her family to be exiled in the wake of the revolution that dethroned her father Tsar Nicholas. Instead, Nastya and her family are soon imprisoned in Ekaterinburg and the family’s hopes to live their days out in quiet obscurity are dashed.

The Bolsheviks are reluctant to let the Romanovs go–especially with growing political unrest and threats of their rescue by the royalist White Russians.

On her way to Ekaterinburg Nastya has one task: smuggle a mysterious magical spell back to her family. The spell’s secrets have been lost to time, but Nastya’s father is still sure it is the secret to saving their family.

Imprisoned and isolated, the family tries to find small joys–and small kindnesses–where they can. As Nastya grows closer to Zash, a Bolshevik soldier with his own secrets, Nastya will have to decide what will pose a bigger danger to her family: the cost of using the spell or trying to befriend the enemy in Romanov (2019) by Nadine Brandes.

Find it on Bookshop.

Brandes’ standalone novel infuses the history of the doomed Romanov family with magic and a bit of hope as it leans into the long-held legend that Anastasia and Alexei survived their family’s execution.

Romanov is well-researched and immediately evocative of both the dangerous unrest in Russia after the revolution and also the claustrophobic isolation Nastya and her family must have felt during their imprisonment in Ekaterinburg. The depiction of Nikolai’s hemophilia is done especially well.

While Brandes brings these characters to life with convincing detail, it’s an idealized picture that fails to explore the damage done by Tzar Nicholas’ reign including the rampant poverty and the widely held theory that his lack of training to become Tsar led to incompetence and bad decisions. Nastya, understandably perhaps, keeps her father on a pedestal and does not interrogate these problems in her first person narration.

The magic Brandes tries to incorporate into the story is always clumsy and never integrates well into what is otherwise a very straightforward work of historical fiction. Instead of adding to the story it often feels tangential at best despite building suspense over when (and how) to use the mysterious spell.

Romanov is an original if bittersweet alternate history. Recommended for readers who don’t mind to read their historical fiction through rose colored glasses.

Possible Pairings: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston, Dreaming of Anastasia by Joy Preble, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandraby Helen Rappaport , The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

Tigers, Not Daughters: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha MabryEveryone in Southtown knows the four Torres sisters. And everyone remembers the night they were caught trying to run away — especially the boys across the street, who flock to Hector’s house at night to watch Ana, the eldest at almost 18, undress in her bedroom window.

While she does, they dream of all the ways they could save her from their “old neighborhood, with its old San Antonio families and its traditions so strong and deep we could practically feel them tugging at our heels when we walked across our yards.”

If it wasn’t for their infatuation and accidental intervention in the sisters’ escape attempt, everything might have been different. Ana would never have fallen from her window; she “wouldn’t have died two months later and her sisters wouldn’t have been forced to suffer at the hands of her angry ghost.”

A year later, after “a brief but catastrophic mourning period,” the girls’ widowed father is barely keeping it together. Jessica is trying to focus on her boring job at the pharmacy, her boyfriend, and not much else. Iridian hasn’t left the house in weeks — all the better to read Ana’s old supernatural romances and write the best scenes of her own. And Rosa, the youngest, always “more attentive than most people,” tries to follow the signs — the connections — when a hyena goes missing from the zoo on the anniversary of Ana’s death in Tigers, Not Daughters (2020) by Samantha Mabry.

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Set primarily over the course of 10 days, this book follows the surviving sisters in close third-person as they move through the grief over Ana’s death and the increasingly obvious signals that she isn’t entirely gone.

Flashbacks narrated collectively by Hector’s friends relate all of the ways in which the boys bear witness to the disasters that befall the Torres sisters and, more importantly, highlight “the many times we could have said or done something and, instead, we said and did nothing.”

These multiple viewpoints allow the story to shift between the girls’ linear narrations and the boys’ flashbacks that chronicle all the ways the sisters have been objectified — and failed — by the men in their lives.

This shift is especially obvious as Jessica repeatedly tries to move out of her overbearing and abusive boyfriend’s shadow, “tired of boys pulling on her, attempting to invade the life she’d tried so hard to keep protected.”

Though each sister has her own journey to complete while making peace with Ana’s sudden death, all three learn the importance of saving themselves — and each other — instead of remaining, as Iridian thinks, at the mercy of men “trying to leave their bruises all over her and her sisters.”

Throughout Tigers, Not Daughters, author Samantha Mabry blends elements of magical realism, moments of connection and grief, and genuinely eerie scares to create a story exploring the “magic in small things,” as well as a timely ode to sisterhood and feminism.

Possible Pairings: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, When I Cast Your Shadow by Sarah Porter, Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth, The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters, Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan Wolf

The Bone Houses: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-JonesRyn has spent most of her life surrounded by the dead in the village of Colbren. She watched her father at his work as a gravedigger and now, after his disappearance, it is Ryn who puts the village’s dead to rest. It is Ryn who makes sure the dead stay at rest–especially those buried too close to the woods.

The restless dead are always called “bone houses” in the stories. Legend talks often of the curse that makes some dead walk. So often, in fact, that most people believe it really is only a fable. Ryn has always known better but especially now when more and more bone houses are making their way to Colbren.

Ellis has spent most of his life hiding first on the outskirts of court and more recently behind the maps he makes. Coming to Colbren could make Ellis’ name and earn him a fortune provided he can find a guide to lead him through the woods to make the first map of the area–especially the mountain ranges beyond the forest.

When the bone houses surface with new prevalence and more violent attacks, Ryn has her own reasons for agreeing to act as Ellis’ guide. Secrets lie in the mountains and, deeper still, answers both Ryn and Ellis never thought they’d find provided they can survive that long in The Bone Houses (2019) by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lloyd-Jone’s standalone novel is an eerie blend of fantasy and light horror set against an historic Welsh setting. Chapters alternate between Ryn and Ellis’ close third person perspectives.

While Ryn is comfortable with her physicality and fears losing her work as gravedigger more than most bone houses, Ellis is more cerebral and struggles to mange chronic pain from childhood injuries that never properly healed.

Lyrical prose and lush descriptions immediately bring Colbren and the surrounding woods to life. Suspense is carefully managed as Ryn and Ellis are drawn further into the mystery surrounding the bone houses’ origins in their search for a way to stop them. A gently presented romance adds much needed sweetness to what could otherwise be a grim and tense story.

The Bone Houses is a thoughtful exploration of the intersection of fable and reality and a comforting interpretation of both death and grief. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Hunted by Meagan Spooner, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

The Light at the Bottom of the World: A Review

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London ShahThousands of feet underwater, humanity tries to find a way forward on a planet that changed forever sixty-five years ago when the water levels started to rise and never stopped. Strange as it may be, it’s the only world Leyla McQueen has ever known.

When her father is accused of the worst possible crime and arrested with no chance to defend himself, Leyla knows she has to get him out. Even if her best chance to do that is trying to win the ultra competitive, ultra dangerous London Submersible Marathon.

When the race doesn’t go to plan, Leyla realizes her father’s arrest is tied to much bigger secrets in London. With no other options and no help in sight, Leyla has to leave the only home she has ever known and confront dangerous truths to save her father before it’s too late in The Light at the Bottom of the World (2019) by London Shah.

The Light at the Bottom of the World is Shah’s debut novel and the start of her Light the Abyss duology.

Leyla is a great narrator who has obvious affection for her small corner of this underwater world while acknowledging the devastation that led humanity to it. Despite a strong premise and evocative setting, the stakes of Leyla’s mission never translates to an actual sense of urgency even as she is caught in a race against time to save her father before she is detained by the authorities herself.

The story and its slang remains very grounded in modern cultural references and terminology even though the story is set decades in the future. The varied cast of secondary characters are unfortunately under-utilized for a lot of this plot-driven novel.

The Light at the Bottom of the World is a classic dystopian featuring a kickass Muslim girl, lots of submarines, lots of water, and lots of action. Recommended for readers seeking any or all of the above in their science fiction.

Possible Pairings: The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron, The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau, A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen, Matched by Ally Condie, Crown of Oblivion by Julie Eshbaugh, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Warcross by Marie Lu, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, The Program by Suzanne Young

A Beginning At the End: A Review

A Beginning at the End by Mike ChenA global pandemic has changed the societal landscape and devastated the population. In the wake of the End of the World, while many people are waiting for life to return to normal, four people are trying to move forward as best they can.

Moira, a former pop star, used the initial outbreak as a chance to break away from her controlling father and start a new life. Six years later, Moira is living as normal a life as anyone can now. At least until her father begins a public campaign to try and find her.

While everyone else hides inside or behind surgical masks offering flimsy protection, Krista throws herself into the world planning events for people unwilling to risk the physical interactions themselves. But not many people are planning parties with the threat of a new outbreak looming and Krista is one cancelled event away from losing everything.

Rob survived. His wife didn’t. All Rob wants is to bring up his daughter, Sunny, as best he can. The only problem is new government regulations threaten to take Sunny away to place her in a more stable family environment.

In a world waiting to return to a normal that might never come Moira, Krista, Rob, and Sunny will need each other more than anything if they want to survive in A Beginning At the End (2020) by Mike Chen.

Chen’s sophomore novel explores themes of connection and survival against a post-apocalyptic San Francisco setting with chapters alternating between Moira, Krista, and Rob’s perspectives.

Evocative descriptions and thorough world building make this story of a global pandemic eerily timely although a slow start fails to build the momentum needed for later plot points and twists.

A Beginning at the End is a character driven, post-apocalyptic novel that offers hope for the current situation we are in with the Covid-19 global pandemic. In short come for the post-apocalyptic landscape, stay for the feels.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton; The Salt Line by Sally Goddard-Jones; In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen; The Fireman by Joe Hill; The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin; Severance by Ling Ma; Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel; The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah