If We Were Villains: A Review

If We Were Villains by M. L. RioSeptember 1997: Oliver Marks is finishing his fourth and final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois. After surviving the yearly cuts to his acting program as students fail to meet expectations, it feels like the world is laid at his feet. Everything is ahead of him. This year, it seems, anything can happen.

It will take months for Oliver to realize how right he is.

Ten years later Oliver is finishing the final days of his decade-long prison sentence when the man who arrested him arrives with a surprising ask. Detective Colborne is retiring, leaving his life with the police behind. But he wants answers first. He wants to know what happened at Dellecher all those years ago and, this time, he wants to know the truth.

Returning to the scene of the crime–of so many smaller crimes, if he’s being honest–Oliver sets the scene for Colborne as he remembers that final year with the players in this tale: Richard the tyrant, Alex the villain, James the hero, Wren the ingenue, Meredith the temptress, and Filippa–the one everyone always forgets, always to their disadvantage. And then there’s Oliver, never quite sure where he fits on stage or off.

After three years of settling into roles they seem to know by heart, everything changes during their final year. One of the seven is dead. More than one of them is guilty. One will take the blame. And, ten years later, Oliver will finally tell the truth in If We Were Villains (2017) by M. L. Rio.

Find it on Bookshop.

Rio’s debut novel is part atmospheric thriller, part suspenseful mystery all steeped in Shakespeare and the dangerous energy that can make relationships both exhilarating and toxic.

Structured as a play, the story unfolds over five acts as Oliver narrates key scenes with prologues before each act where he further sets the scene for Colborne. This character driven story is dynamite building slowly to an explosive and often surprising conclusion enhanced by Rio’s excellent foreshadowing and parallels to Shakespearean tragedies.

While If We Were Villains keeps a tight focus on Oliver and his fellow theater students, not all characters are created equal. Oliver and James in particular are so nuanced and so authentically flawed that the other characters often seem flat in comparison as they play to type (this may in part be due to Oliver’s own lens as narrator but still felt like something that could be explored more). Meredith and Wren are especially are disappointingly lacking in depth returning, again and again, to the same concerns and the same shortcomings while Filippa remains, in many ways, a mystery herself.

Set in 1997 and 2007, If We Were Villains is surprisingly hesitant to consider sexuality beyond binaries. While some characters are, understandably, hesitant to let themselves be labeled the novel as a whole refuses to even consider the possibility of both bisexuality and pansexuality as queer identities. This is not damaging to the story but it is erasure worth considering when deciding whether or not to consider this title.

If We Were Villains is a tense, thoughtfully executed story of love, obsession, and missed chances. Perfect for readers fascinated by all-consuming relationships, drama in the classic sense, and of course Shakespeare in every sense. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Macbeth by William Shakespeare, King Lear by William Shakespeare, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Forest of Souls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Forest of Souls by Lori M. LeeSirscha Ashwyn has nothing and to most of her fellow cadets in the Queen’s Company she is less than nothing. None of that matters to Sirscha. She knows that she can prove them all wrong once she secures her spot as apprentice to the Queen’s Shadow–the spymaster who bows only to the queen herself.

Years of training and waiting fall apart in a flash when Sirscha’s best friend Saengo is killed during a shaman attack and Sirscha’s own shamanic powers are revealed–when she brings Saengo back to life.

Being a shaman in Thiy is a dangerous thing–something that could leave Sirscha in prison for the rest of her life. But the Spider King has other plans, believing Sirscha could be the key to strengthening the tenuous peace between Thiy’s fractious countries.

With alliances shifting and war on the horizon, Sirscha will have to embrace her new identity if she wants to secure a future for herself, Saengo, and everything she loves in Forest of Souls (2020) by Lori M. Lee.

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Forest of Souls is the first book in Lee’s Shamanborn series. It is written in Sirscha’s often sardonic first person narration.

Lee presents readers with a richly detailed and thoroughly imagined world inspired by both medieval fantasy and Chinese culture. Given the depth of the world building (the book includes a several glossaries) the story can feel short in comparison but promises even more exploration of the world of Thiy and its magic in later installments.

Sirscha is a strong, fierce heroine who struggles with self-doubt after years of being told she’d never be enough. Her journey to come into her own and embrace her power–both as a shaman and as a young warrior–is empowering; it’s impossible to not root for for Sirscha and Saengo.

Forest of Souls is a high action story filled with magic, secrets, and unbreakable friendships. Recommended for readers who want their fantasy with more inclusion, more kickass girls, and more dragons.

Possible Pairings: Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, The Reader by Traci Chee, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Fireborne by Rosaria Munda, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

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

Take Me With You: A Review

Take Me With You by Tara AltebrandoBefore the school messaging app summons them all to an empty classroom after school, they barely know each other.

Eden is struggling with anxiety while she grieves her father. Her mother tries to be there, be present, but Eden still feels alone with all of these fears and even scarier feelings.

Marwan has two priorities: excelling enough in soccer to get a college scholarship and getting out of Queens. His immigrant parents don’t understand either and would prefer Marwan channel his energy into working at the family’s Persian restaurant that he will one day inherit.

Eli loves all things tech and gaming. But it’s hard to focus on either while his grandfather is dying a slow death in a nursing home and Eli feels like even more of an afterthought in his own family.

Ilanka has always prided herself on keeping other people at a distance–the better to plan an exit strategy from her claustrophobic family, the rhythmic gymnastics she isn’t sure she cares about, and ignore the fact that her “best” friend isn’t much of a friend at all.

None of them know why they’re summoned to the classroom. They don’t even notice the device at first.

Until it lights up and starts telling them the rules: Don’t tell anyone about the device. Never leave the device unattended. No one leaves.

Later, there will be other rules, a few mistakes, and a lot of questions but first they’re told to take the device with them. Brought together by a mysterious device Eden, Marwan, Eli, and Ilanka will have to work together to uncover answers or suffer the consequences in Take Me With You (2020) by Tara Altebrando.

Find it on Bookshop.

Altebrando’s latest standalone thriller is a dynamo alternating between multiple points of view with tension you can cut with a knife.

This character-driven thriller has an intense plot situated perfectly between suspense and speculative fiction. At the same time, while answering questions about the device motivates all four characters, the story’s ultimate focus is on the unlikely connection formed between themin the most unlikely of circumstances.

Take Me With You is a tense, thoughtful thriller with a perfectly executed denouement; the eerily possible thriller you’ve been waiting for. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, Infinite in Between by Carolyn Mackler, One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus, All Our Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

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

Tunnel of Bones: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Maybe is a match in the dark.

“Maybe is a rope in a hole, or the key to a door.

“Maybe is how you find the way out.”

Tunnel of Bones by Victoria SchwabCassidy Blake’s best friend Jacob is a ghost. This wasn’t as big of an issue until Cassidy and her parents (and Jacob) traveled to Scotland to film a TV about the world’s most haunted places. There Cassidy learned that she isn’t just a girl who can talk to ghosts. She is a ghost hunter tasked with putting ghosts to rest.

This has, understandably, created some tension between the two friends.

But understanding her role as a ghost hunter will have to wait when the Blakes travel to Paris and Cassidy accidentally awakens a dangerously strong ghost.

As the new ghost and Jacob both grow stronger Cassidy will have to rely on old friends and new to put this new menace to rest before it’s too late in Tunnel of Bones (2019) by Victoria Schwab.

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Tunnel of Bones is the second book in Schwab’s middle grade series following Cassidy Blake. The story starts in City of Ghosts but thanks to sufficient recaps the books can be read independently or even out of order.

I love this series. There is nothing more comforting to me than reading about Cassidy’s growing pains as a friend to Jacob and as a fledgling ghost hunter. Readers can expect to see the usual spooky suspects in Paris including the Catacombs and a poignant visit to Notre Dame before the fire in April 2019 left the historic cathedral in ruins.

New locations and new reveals add dimension to Cassidy’s understanding of her ghost hunting abilities as well as Jacob’s backstory. Schwab expertly balances scares and laughs in this fast-paced read that is sure to entertain readers both young and old. A surprise ending will leave readers especially eager to see what awaits Cassidy and Jacob in the next installment.

Tunnel of Bones is as entertaining as it is evocative. Come for the ghosts and stay for the friendships–just be sure to have a snack on hand because the descriptions of all of the French cuisine Cassidy discovers will leave you hungry.

Possible Pairings: The Jumbies by Tracy Baptiste, Doll Bones by Holly Black, The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken, The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Sorcery of Thorns: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Knowledge always has the potential to be dangerous. It is a more powerful weapon than any sword or spell.”

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret RogersonBooks are always dangerous things, but especially so in Austermeer’s Great Libraries where magical grimoires whisper beneath iron chains that prevent them from ensorcelling any who stray too near. Releasing a grimoire could lead to disaster if it has time to run unchecked and transform into a monstrous creature of ink and leather.

Elisabeth grew up among these creatures and more as a foundling in one of the Great Libraries. Her dreams of remaining there and earning her status as a librarian are dashed when a grimoire is unleashed and she is blamed.

Desperate to clear her name and discover the true culprit, Elisabeth forms a risky alliance with the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn. Together they uncover a far-reaching conspiracy to destroy the Great Libraries and possibly the rest of the world.

Elisabeth has always known that sorcerers are evil. Who else would be able to use magical grimoires to summon demons and perform magic? But as Elisabeth realizes Nathaniel might be the only person she can trust, she will have to question everything she thought she knew about sorcerers, demons, and herself if she hopes to save all that she holds dear in Sorcery of Thorns (2019) by Margaret Rogerson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Rogerson’s sophomore novel is a delightful standalone fantasy filled with all of my favorite things. While the story is often plot driven as Eilsabeth tries to discover the culprit behind attacks on the Great Libraries and clear her name, this story really shines when focusing on the characters.

Elisabeth’s world is very small at the start of this novel. The Great Library is all she has ever known and, for the most part, all she thinks she needs. It is only as she begins to work with Nathaniel that she realizes some of her deepest held beliefs might be fundamentally flawed. This kind of character development could feel heavy-handed or leave readers with a small-minded protagonist in the hands of a lesser author but Rogerson pulls it off expertly.

Nathaniel is the sarcastic, brooding, bisexual male lead of your dreams complete with his undying loyalty to servant Silas who is one of the best friends found in fantasy literature (and also canonically asexual).

Throughout the course of the novel, all three main characters struggle to transcend what is expected of them and their chosen identities to become something better and, in doing so, try to save each other and their world. Sorcery of Thorns is a charming adventure with a carefully managed plot filled with twists and turns as well as thoroughly enjoyable world building and powerful friendships. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Lirael by Garth Nix, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Chosen Ones: A Review

Chosen Ones by Veronica RothTen years ago a prophecy predicted that one of five teenagers would become the Chosen One–the only person capable of defeating the Dark One and ending his reign of death and destruction.

Sloane was one of the five and together with Matt, Albie, Ines, and Esther they defeated the Dark One near Chicago.

Now everyone is supposed to move on and mourn and watch life return to normal.

Sloane can’t do that.

Haunted by memories and traumas from fighting the Dark One, Sloane feels adrift even with her friends to anchor her. When one of them turns up dead the day before the Ten Years Celebration of Peace, Sloane begins to realize she may not be the only one who hasn’t moved on in Chosen Ones (2020) by Veronica Roth.

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Chosen Ones is Roth’s adult debut and the start of a new duology.

While marketed as a story about young adults trying to move past their teenaged destinies, Chosen Ones is actually familiar dystopian fare for a slightly older audience. The scene is set for a story of acceptance and moving on only to shift rather abruptly to a new fight with a villain where the Earth’s fate is at stake.

Readers keen on high action and drama will appreciate this shift while others may be left wanting a book with a bit more focus on characters and a little less in the way of fantasy elements.

Chosen Ones is familiar fare aged up with sexier writing and edgier villainy. Recommended for readers looking to branch out beyond the familiar YA suspects in the genre, but not too far.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemison, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

All the Birds in the Sky: A Review

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane AndersPatricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead were friends once, a long time ago.

That was before Patricia found out from the Parliament of Birds that she was a witch. Before her education on spells, magic, and how to avoid Aggrandizement began at Eltisley Maze.

It was before Laurence found the blueprints for his first two second time machine and started building an artificial intelligence. Before he found his people and his place with other mad scientists so desperate to save the world that they don’t think too hard about how they’re changing it.

They were friends when they were children. Before Patricia saved Laurence’s life and vanished.

Now they’re grown up, living in San Francisco although they travel in different orbits. After years of circling each other something has brought Patricia and Laurence back together. But neither of them can tell if their reunion is meant to fix all of the things that have started going wrong in the world or break them beyond repair in All the Birds in the Sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders.

(Find it on BookShop.)

Anders’ ambitious blend of sci-fi and fantasy starts when Patricia and Laurence are children, following them through middle school into adulthood. The breakneck pacing contrasts sharply with the way Patricia and Laurence’s carefully drawn characters develop and grow over the years.

All the Birds in the Sky is an exercise in contrasts as Laurence and Patricia find themselves on opposite sides of a struggle to save a rapidly declining plane. This shift is particularly evident in the protagonists’ dramatically different worldviews and all of the ways it becomes clear that there may not be any good choices left for either of them.

Snappy prose, witty dialog, and intricate world building will immediately draw readers into this action-filled plot story. Recommended for readers who like their speculative fiction as timely as it is snarky.

Possible Pairings: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

Past Perfect: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Past Perfect by Leila SalesThere are only three types of kids who get summer jobs at Colonial Essex Village as historical reenactors living their best 1700s lives instead of working at the mall like everyone else:

There are the history nerds. You may recognize them by how hotly they debate the virtues of bayonets over pistols, their pale skin, and their generally unappealing personalities.

There are the drama kids. While they couldn’t care less about historical accuracy, drama kids are all about dressing up and staging cool scenes where they get fake shot and fall down fake dead while the history nerds gripe about how that isn’t how it really happened blah blah blah.

The third type of teenager working at Colonial Essex Village is, arguably, the rarest type: The kids whose parents already work there.

Chelsea’s father is the Essex Village silversmith and her mother is the silversmith’s wife, which means that Chelsea has been spending every summer as the silversmith’s daughter for basically forever.

Now that she’s sixteen Chelsea is looking forward to working at the mall with her best friend, Fiona, where they can hone their skills as ice cream connoisseurs and Chelsea can finally get over Ezra, the boy who broke her heart.

Except Fiona is very much a drama kid and very much looking forward to working at Colonial Essex. So obviously Chelsea has to work there too. Even if Ezra is also working there. Even if it means Chelsea gets sucked into being second-in-command in the annual war all of the teen staffers at West Essex stage every year against the Civil Warriors from the Civil War reenactment site across the street and, worst of all, even if Chelsea’s new crush is one of those very same Civil Warriors in Past Perfect (2011) by Leila Sales.

Find it on Bookshop.

Chelsea is a very specific type of protagonist who will not work for everyone. She is often self-centered to the point of being low key unreliable and she’s incredibly snarky. I, for one, think she is a riot and appreciate the conversational tone Sales manages to evoke in Chelsea’s first person narration.

While Chelsea is a reluctant historical reenactor, she is nothing if not loyal to Essex and its legacy as the superior historical site in town compared to the subpar Civil Warriors. (Don’t even get her started on the Ren Fairies from the renaissance faire.) This loyalty leads to some difficult choices when Chelsea has to decide how far she’s willing to go to help her side win–not to mention if there’s such a thing as too far when it comes to war.

There is definitely some romance and some flirting, but the real love story here is between Chelsea and her best friend Fiona. As they are pulled in different directions by their jobs at Colonial Essex (and the war), their friendship experiences growing pains for the first time as both girls are forced to evaluate their priorities.

This book explores themes of friendship and ethics while asking interesting questions about history and the past–especially if anything can ever truly be in the past. Past Perfect is a funny, clever story about friendship, ethics, history and the unexpected moments where they intersect. Recommended for readers who like their stories of summer employment with a lot of history and snark.

Possible Pairings: All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Pilgrim’s Don’t Wear Pink by Stephanie Kate Strohm, My Faire Lady by Laura Wettersten

The Ten Thousand Doors of January: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. HarrowJanuary Scaller is used to certain doors being closed to her. Living as the ward of Mr. Locke, a wealthy man who travels in his own bubble of authority and privilege, does much to ease January’s movement through a world that doesn’t always understand her.

But even Mr. Locke’s influence can never change her origins as the daughter of a poor explorer or the color of her copper skin. She is used to never quite fitting in and never quite knowing her place among the empty halls of Locke’s vast mansion. She is used to wondering when her father will return from his numerous expeditions searching out new rarities for Locke’s vast collection. Most of all, January is used to waiting.

Everything changes the moment January finds a door, although it takes her nearly a decade to truly understand its importance. In a world where doors can lead a person much farther than an adjacent room, January will have to rely on a book filled with secrets and regrets and her own wits to determine which doors are meant to be open wide and which should remain under lock and key.

Doors can be many things to many people but more than anything, they are change. For January it may be impossible to walk through a door without changing everything in The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019) by Alix E. Harrow.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is Harrow’s debut novel. The story alternates between January’s lyrical first person narration and chapters from the mysterious book she finds among Mr. Locke’s myriad artifacts.

Part portal fantasy, part coming-of-age story, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a story about a young woman discovering her own power and agency in both a literal and figurative sense as she grows up in a world that has sought to systematically strip her of both.

Harrow builds tension well as the novel moves toward a dramatic climax both in January’s story and in the story-within-a-story of the book she finds. Moments of genuine magic and sweetness are tempered with thoughtful examinations of what it means to be a person of color in a world that too often defaults to white and favors it above all else.

January is clever, plucky heroine learning to find her voice after years of trying to keep quiet and maintain a low profile. Her personal growth is complimented well with the ragtag community she builds as she learns more about Doors and her own connection to them.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an ambitious examination of privilege, choice, and connection wrapped up in a distinct magic system and truly singular world building. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt; Passenger by Alexandra Bracken; The Meq by Steve Cash; Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore; Ink, Iron, and Glass by Gwendolyn Clare; The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove; The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig; Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones; A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly; Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire; The Starless Sea by Erin Morgensten; Uprooted by Naomi Novik; Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel; Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson;The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth; Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Lucky Caller: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It doesn’t devalue what you had with them, the stuff you experienced, the time you spent with them. That’s still valid, even if it wasn’t built to last. It’s not any less significant.”

Lucky Caller by Emma MillsNina is fine coasting through high school. After all, it’s called the path of least resistance for a reason. Taking radio broadcasting as her elective is one more way to have an easy senior year.

Until it isn’t.

Nina’s radio team is not at all who she would have chosen. There’s Joydeep–who is happy to steer their radio show toward the easiest theme possible and steps up to host despite his obvious lack of comfort behind the mic–and Sasha–a girl who has never slacked on anything and doesn’t know what to make of this group of misfits. Then there’s Jamie, the childhood friend Nina has been actively trying to avoid since middle school.

Turns out, no one on the team knows what they’re doing with the radio show. Nina’s home life is on the verge of a big change as her mom gets ready to remarry. And Jamie, confusingly, might want to talk to her again. Then just when Sounds of the Nineties seems to be hitting its stride as a show, internet rumors and rogue fandoms threaten to ruin their fragile success.

When it starts to feel like nothing is made to last, Nina will have to decide if some things are actually worth working for in Lucky Caller (2020) by Emma Mills.

Find it on Bookshop.

Mills’ latest standalone contemporary is set in the same world as her previous novels and once again taps into themes of fandom and belonging to great effect.

Nina is a self-proclaimed passive participant in her own life. She doesn’t like to think too deeply about anything and she avoids conflict. Both of which led to her years-long avoidance of her best friend Jamie despite his living in the same apartment building.

While the plot of Lucky Caller centers Nina’s radio show and her family dynamics as she adjusts to the idea of her mom remarrying, Nina’s willful ignorance about her father’s short-comings as a long distance parent and her own potential for change add a secondary layer to this otherwise straightforward story. As Nina works through these self-delusions she, along with readers, begins to get a clearer picture of her own life compared to the performative persona Nina presents in public to make things easier.

Despite the lack of self-awareness, Nina is incredibly pragmatic and acknowledges that a lot of life is transient and changing. She knows relationships, like so many other things don’t always last, but she also learns that a set expiration date doesn’t make a friendship or any other relationship any less valuable.

Lucky Caller is a thoughtful, sentimental, laugh out loud funny story with one of my favorite plot twists of all time in the final act. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Four Days of You and Me by Miranda Kenneally, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Past Perfect by Leila Sales, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Listen to Your Heart by Kasie West, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner