My Calamity Jane: A Review

My Calamity Jane by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, Brodi AshtonThe story starts in Cincinnati in 1876 with “Wild Bill’s Wild West,” a traveling western show run by Bill Hickok. The show is always a big attraction featuring the legendary lawman, Frank Butler the Pistol Prince, and none other than Calamity Jane–heroine of the plains.

But the show has a secret: Bill along with his adoptive children Frank and Jane uses the show as a cover to hunt garou (you might know them as werewolves).

Jane is thrilled to have a family after so long on her own. Frank loves the show almost as much as his poodle, George. Neither of them is sure what will happen to the show (or them) when they find the subject of their hunt and Bill is able to retire.

Things go wrong very quickly after Annie Oakley (or rather, Annie Mosey–she isn’t the Little Sureshot yet!) tries to join the show. Annie earns her way into the show, soundly beating Frank in a shooting competition. But does shooting prowess mean Annie can be trusted with the hunt’s real purpose–especially when she seems to hate garou more than anything?

When a hunt leaves Jane with something that looks a lot like a garou bite, she has one desperate change to find a cure in Deadwood–a town that holds secrets and dangers for Jane and everyone she cares about in My Calamity Jane (2020) by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, and Brodi Ashton.

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In case you couldn’t tell, My Calamity Jane is a western mashup re-imagining the real lives of narrators Calamity Jane, Frank Butler, Annie Oakley, as well as Bill Hickok and many other legends of the American west. Although many events have changed, the story stays true to the spirit of these real life historical figures while offering more optimistic ends for many. This is particularly true for Jane whose lonely life is reimagined here with a sweet queer romance and whose penchant for chaos and self-destruction is reframed as an asset..

While Jane centers this story, Annie and Frank’s romance from their first shooting competition to their growing respect and eventual partnership on stage anchors much of the plot. It’s also almost entirely true (minus the werewolves).

The American West, as seen by white settlers and romanticized for white audiences in popular cultural, is inherently problematic. The authors acknowledge this in their omniscient narration and in conversations Annie has with Many Horses and Walks Looking, Lakota sisters whose help and practical advice are crucial to efforts to save Jane before it’s too late.

The story explores themes of allyship and tolerance through Annie’s interactions with garou (taking the place of the abusive family who kept Annie hostage as a child whom, even in her memoirs, Annie only ever referred to as “the wolves”) rather than using the only Native characters for a teachable moment. The acknowledgements include a list of further reading including several Native perspectives.

My Calamity Jane is a delightfully inventive reinterpretation of the old west; a tall tale filled with found family, fancy shooting, humor, and adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza; Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming; Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the June 2020 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West: A Non-Fiction Review

Presenting Buffalo Bill by Candace FlemingNowadays Buffalo Bill is a legend, part of the story of the westward expansion of the United States and the “Wild West” as it has been romanticized for white audiences in popular culture.

In fact, Buffalo Bill was part of that romanticizing with the creation of his traveling Wild West show.

But before William Cody became the showman better known as Buffalo Bill, he was a boy raised on the frontier–the son of a man who would become a prominent abolitionist, he may have ridden with the Pony Express (or not), among other exploits.

One fact remains: Buffalo Bill is an enduring part of American history–both good and bad–and helped define an era as much with his very real show as his tall tales. You can learn more about both (and separate one from the other) in Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West (2016) by Candace Fleming.

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Fleming brings her usual thorough research and care to this biography filled with illustrations and primary sources including Cody’s own memoirs and those of his sister Julia. Fleming balances facts with Bill’s penchant for mythologizing his own life with tall tales and other embellishments in sidebars called “Panning for the Truth” where she works to parse the sometimes limited facts from first person accounts.

Each chapter also opens with a dramatic and, given the textual format, surprisingly cinematic account of various key acts in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West which truly transport readers to the show. Fleming also brings a modern lens to this moment in history highlighting the US government’s systemic campaign against Native Americans and also Cody’s own role therein.

Although a little melancholy, as many stories of the famous figures of the old west are, Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West is as fascinating as Buffalo Bill himself. This book does a lot to demonstrate how, often much to his own dismay, Cody was really first and foremost a showman with innovative ideas about showmanship, presentation, and (later on) employing both women and Native performers.

Possible Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza; My Calamity Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

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.

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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

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.

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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

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You can’t expect people to give you the things you love, unless you know how to ask.”

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve ValentineBy 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names. By then, the men had already given up asking and called them all princess.

Jo, the oldest, is the closest thing the younger ones have to a mother. She taught them all to dance cobbling together lessons from the steps she saw at the movies. Jo makes sure the girls all make it out every night and she makes sure they make it back before their father knows they’re gone. That’s why she’s always been “The General.”

It’s not a good life or an easy one. But it seems like something they can all survive while they wait for something better. That is until their father decides to marry them off. Jo always feared they would have to escape their father’s townhouse but she didn’t realize they’d do so separated, with no resources, and no way to find each other again.

Jo is used to setting things aside to take care of her sisters. What she still has to figure out is how to make a life for herself as she tries to find them again in The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (2014) by Genevieve Valentine.

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This standalone novel blends an evocative 1920s setting with an inventive retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The third person narration shifts between sisters with a primary focus on Jo and Lou, the second oldest, in electric prose that is replete with incisive observations and witty parenthetical asides.

Quick pacing, snappy writing, and hints of romance immediately draw readers into Jo and her sisters’ journey filled with both second chances and new beginnings.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a story about agency, choice, and the difference between surviving and really living wrapped up in a jazzy retelling readers won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin; The Guest Book by Sarah Blake; The Diviners by Libba Bray; Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George; Button Man by Andrew Gross; The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman; The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews; Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi; China Dolls by Lisa See; Bachelor Girl by Kim Van Alkemade; The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams; Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Spindle and Dagger: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson CoatsWales, 1109: When Elen’s home was raided by a warband three years ago her younger sister died in the ensuing fires. Her older sister was cut down just short of killing the warband’s leader, Owain ap Cadwgan. Despite the violence and her own sexual assault, Elen survived, healing Owain ap Cadwgan’s wounds and weaving a tale of protection.

She tells all who will listen that Owain ap Cadwgan cannot be killed–not by blade, blow, or poison–so long as Saint Elen protects him, so long as he keeps her namesake by his side.

None of what she tells them is true.

Balanced on a knife’s edge and haunted by echoes of the raid that killed her family, Elen knows one false step, one accident could leave Owain dead and render her own life forfeit.

When Owain abducts Nest, the wife of a Norman lord, and her children, war soon follows. As her lies begin to unravel, Elen dares to imagine a different life but first she will have to determine where her loyalties lie in Spindle and Dagger (2020) by J. Anderson Coats.

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Elen’s first person narration is frank and immediately engrossing, drawing readers into the precarious world she has created for herself. With violence and danger everywhere, Elen is forced to be as calculating and as ruthless as the warband that is both her greatest protection and her greatest danger.

High action and battles contrast sharply with the choices Elen is forced to make to ensure her own survival. Coats’ evocative prose and themes of agency and feminism add nuance and depth to this otherwise fast-paced story.

Spindle and Dagger is brutal, bloody, and carefully researched historical fiction. Recommended for readers looking for fierce heroines and history with all the gory details.

Possible Pairings: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

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

Angel Mage: A Review

“They had been drawn into the affairs of the great and could not easily escape.”

Angel Mage by Garth NixLiliath has spent more than a century hiding, asleep, hoping to regroup after the Fall of Ystara before she tries to reunite with her lover, Ystara’s archangel Palleniel. Rallying Ystara’s descendants around her, Liliath prepares to use her formidable angelic magic to be with Palleniel at long last.

But she will need more than Ystarans who have long been shunned by the angels–unable to benefit from even the most basic angelic magic without fear of being killed by the Ash Blood plague or transformed into beastlings–to complete her plan.

In nearby Sarance, four young people are the last pieces she needs: Simeon’s dreams of becoming a doctor are sidetracked when a scientific procedure goes horribly wrong; Henri, an opportunist to his core, thinks his luck may have changed when he receives a new position; Agnez has earned her way into the musketeers as a cadet; and Dorotea’s hopes to be left alone to study icon-making and angelic magic are dashed when her singular skill draws unwanted attention.

The four are immediately drawn to each other even as happenstance and greater forces conspire to bring them together. Although they start as Liliath’s pawns, these four unlikely friends may also be the only ones who can stop her in Angel Mage (2019) by Garth Nix.

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Nix’s newest standalone fantasy showcases a true ensemble cast with shifting close third person perspective in each chapter following the four friends and, notably, the story’s antagonist Liliath.

Despite the magical additions, Angel Mage is uncannily timely as the characters explore themes of tolerance and discrimination in a world with a refugee crisis of its own. Inventive magic and an inclusive society give this story a setting with refreshingly modern sensibilities. This story is also notably free of all but the barest hints of romance. Instead, the growing friendship and trust between Simeon, Henri, Agnez, and Dorotea takes center stage as the four friends work together to understand the conspiracy into which they have been drawn and how best to use their distinct skills to try to stop it.

Angel Mage is an homage to friendship, magic, and The Three Musketeers–elements which blend surprisingly well in this fast-paced adventure. While Simeon, Henri, Agnez, and Dorotea’s journey reaches a logical and earned conclusion, fans can only hope Nix will return to this world again one day.

Possible Pairings: Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Flamecaster by Cinda Williams Chima, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes

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

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*

Daisy Jones & The Six: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“History is what you did, not what you almost did, not what you thought about doing.”

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins ReidDaisy Jones is a lot of things. By now, you’ve probably heard a few.

She’s the daughter of well-known British painter Frank Jones and French model Jeanne LeFevre. She became an It girl without really trying in the 1960s. In the 1980s a colored-contact company even created a shade called Daisy Blue inspired by her eyes. She was known for wearing hoop earrings and bangles up her arm. It was her chest on that album cover.

Yes, she’s inspired a few men along the way. But that’s not the important part. Daisy is never going to be a muse. She’s never going to do what anyone else wants. She’s the somebody. End of story.

And sure, The Six were already on the rise by the time Daisy came on the scene. How could they be anything else with lead man Billy Dunne writing hits and making a mark with his brother Graham and talented band members like Karen Karen?

But can anyone argue that The Six got so much bigger after Daisy joined? Would their sophomore album Aurora have defined rock and roll for a generation if Daisy hadn’t written every song alongside Billy?

Daisy and Billy were always going to be stars. Daisy Jones & The Six was always going to be a sensation. But it was only after the band’s mysterious breakup in 1979 that any of them became legends in Daisy Jones & The Six (2019) by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

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Written as an oral history Daisy Jones & The Six is formatted with transcripts from characters speaking with a largely unidentified interviewer who is trying to understand the band’s meteoric rise and abrupt breakup.

The oral history format is used to excellent effect highlighting distinct character voices while offering surprisingly insightful plot details through artful dialog and anecdotal accounts.

The writing, from a sentence level onward, is masterful with each of the many  characters having a cadence while recounting events leading up to the novel’s dramatic conclusion. In other words: Daisy Jones & The Six is what an ensemble cast in a book should look like.

Through Daisy and Billy readers see what it means to be a creator and to work in collaboration. The ramifications of choice loom large throughout the novel as characters face not just hard decisions but the consequences that come with them. It’s easy to want to be a good person or create good art. It’s much harder, it turns out, to make the decisions required to actually be good.

Daisy Jones & The Six is a phenomenal novel about art, friendship, and the power that comes with choosing. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Haters by Jesse Andrews, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, The Ensemble by Aja Gabel, Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon, Exile by Kevin Emerson, How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Sadie by Courtney Summers