The Red Palace: A Review

The Red Palace by June HurJoseon (Korea), 1758. Everyone is listening in the palace.

With secrets and treachery in every chamber, entering the palace means walking a path stained in blood. Eighteen-year-old Hyeon hopes it will be worth it. After years of studious work, Hyeon has earned her status as a palace nurse–a position that she hopes might help her earn her estranged father’s approval, if not his respect.

After four women are brutally murdered in the public medical office under the dark of night, Hyeon’s friend and mentor Nurse Jeongsu becomes the prime suspect. Determined to clear her teacher’s name before it’s too late, Hyeon is thrust into the center of the palace’s dangerous politics as she starts her own investigation.

Unearthing palace secrets with help from young police inspector Eojin could cost Hyeon everything, especially when the pair finds evidence incriminating the Crown Prince. Together Hyeon and Eojin will have to confront the palace’s darkest truths if they want to solve the murders in The Red Palace (2022) by June Hur.

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The Red Palace is Hur’s latest standalone mystery. Set in eighteenth century Korea, Hur draws inspiration from the actual life of Prince Sado while bringing both her setting and characters vibrantly to life. Hur carefully details the history of Prince Sado in an author’s note at the end of the novel. The audiobook, narrated by Michelle H. Lee, offers a rich listening experiences–particularly for readers unfamiliar with Korean pronunciation. 

Hyeon’s first person narration immediately pulls readers into the action with tension that doesn’t ease until the novel’s powerful conclusion. As an illegitimate daughter, Hyeon is keenly aware of her status within Joseon’s patriarchal society where familial ties and caste are everything. Still, she rejects these constructs in order to fight for what she believes in and try to save Nurse Jeongsu.

Steady pacing, dramatic reveals, and Hyeon’s determination make The Red Palace a page turner while Hur’s careful interrogation of the limits placed on Hyeon and other young women in Joseon elevate this story into a multifaceted and truly immersive work of historical fiction. This dynamic story is rounded out with subtle hints of romance (and mutual respect) between Hyeon and Eojin and Hyeon’s changing understanding of her own status within her family.

The Red Palace is a fantastic blend of mystery and historical fiction highlighting the best parts of both genres in a powerful combination that makes this story unforgettable. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Foul Lady Fortune by Chloe Gong, Descendant of the Crane by Joan He, Splinters of Scarlet by Emily Bain Murphy, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Spectacle by Jodie Lynn Zdrok

Murder For the Modern Girl: A Review

Murder for the Modern Girl by Kendall KulperChicago, 1927 is a positutely marvelous place to find parties if you’re a flapper like Ruby. It’s also a city rampant with crime, corruption, and murder.

But Ruby can explain every single one of her murders. Honest.

In a time and place where women are always vulnerable, Ruby has found an unlikely niche for herself doling out vigilante justice between parties with a variety of poisons that have left a trail of unsolved crimes in her wake. She isn’t particularly worried about being caught. Not when her father, the state’s attorney, is the only one with a good head on his shoulders in Chicago’s law enforcement.

Which is why it’s not entirely surprising when someone targets Ruby and her father.

Luckily, Ruby isn’t just a pretty face or a vigilante. She’s her father’s protege as much as anything with her own keen eye for the law. One she’s ready to use to find whoever hurt her father. Unluckily, Ruby realizes that her brand of justice isn’t quite as anonymous as she thought after an encounter with a bland morgue technician in an alley.

Guy hasn’t used his real name–or his real face–for a long time. How can he when he’s working so hard to hide from his shameful past? Working in the morgue might be the break Guy needs to understand his strange shapeshifting ability. Until an exuberant flapper upends his careful plans.

Together this unlikely duo will have their hands full trying to fight corruption, find the would-be assassin, and keep themselves out of prison in Murder for the Modern Girl (2022) by Kendall Kulper.

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Murder for the Modern Girl alternates between Ruby and Guy’s first person narrations. All characters are assumed white.

Kulper delivers jazz age vibes and surprising fantasy elements in this story where Ruby uses her ability as a mind reader to deliver justice while Guy struggles to understand his own strange power–elements that are never fully explained or integrated into the story although they are key to the plot. Readers dive right into the fast-paced story with minimal backstory for either protagonist as the action keeps coming. Readers questioning Ruby’s motives may have a hard time getting on board with her status as a vigilante and, essentially, a serial killer but it is an arc that’s fully explored throughout the novel and does end with Ruby turning her back on her life of crime to fight for justice through more conventional means.

Filled with slang, speakeasies, and fabulous dresses, Murder for the Modern Girl is an inventive mystery filled feminist justice and more adventure than you can shake a stick at.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, Born of Illusions by Teri A, Brown, A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson, Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz, Spectacle by Jodie Lynn Zdrok

Salt Magic: A Graphic Novel Review

Salt Magic by Hope Larson and Rebecca MockVonceil is ecstatic when her older brother, Elber, comes home after serving on the front in the Great War. But the brother who comes back isn’t the one the Vonceil remembers. Wartime has made him serious and responsible–ready, even, to marry the girl he left behind–when Vonceil thought they’d have more time to play and get to know each other again.

Things get stranger when a sophisticated and mysterious woman arrives at their Oklahoma farm dressed all in white. She blames Elber for leaving her behind in France. She wants him to join her now.

When Elber refuses, she curses the family well and turns the entire town’s fresh water supply into saltwater.

To save her town and try to rescue her brother, Vonceil will have to travel far from everything she’s ever known into a world filled with magic, shapeshifting animals, and witches including a fickle Sugar Witch and the lady in white herself–a Salt Witch in Salt Magic (2021) by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock.

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Salt Magic is the latest standalone graphic novel from Larson and Mock. All characters are presented as white.

Vonceil’s adventure blends historical fiction set at the end of World War I with larger than life fairytale magic–a contrast that mirrors Vonceil’s own mixed feelings about getting older and growing up. Mock’s artwork is sophisticated and layered as she captures both the vast emptiness of the midwest and the lush, decadent magical world Vonceil discovers. Detailed and vibrantly colored artwork fully capitalizes on the full color page design and perfectly conveys the lush magic of the story–especially the Sugar Witch’s confections.

A well-paced plot and nuanced characters elevate this story filled with action, adventure, and magic.

Possible Pairings: A House Divided by Haiko Hornig, Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi, Pony by R.J. Palacio, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, Oyster War by Ben Towle

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

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion: A Review

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra RehmanCorona, Queens in the 1980s is changing as the area’s first wave of primarily Italian immigrants are replaced with Pakistani family’s like Razia Mirza’s. The tension between the old and new in the neighborhood is palpable; the criticism clear as carefully tended gardens turn to weeds in the hands of new tenants and change keeps coming.

That tension between old and new is familiar to Razia Mirza. As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who herself feels increasingly more American than Pakistani, Razia sees that same tension in herself; in her own life. Being a kid in Corona felt easy. Razia could understand the dimensions of her childhood even while she chafed against the narrow boundaries of her role as a “good girl” and a respectful part of her Muslim community.

But now, like her neighborhood, Razia is changing. She buys miniskirts from thrift stores, she listens to music her mother would call wild. Then she gets accepted to Stuyvesant all the way in the East Village in Manhattan where, for the first time, Razia feels like she has the space to be who she wants to be and not who her parents expect.

When her deepest friendship at Stuyvesant blossoms into something bigger, Razia has to decide if she can reconcile her family, her heritage, and her faith with the future she is chasing in Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion (2022) by Bushra Rehman.

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Short, vignette-like chapters unfold Razia’s story from early childhood into adolescence. For an even more immersive reading experience, check out the audiobook read by the author. Be aware of a few incidents of animal violence (mostly off page, but described after the fact) throughout the book if that’s a point of concern for you as a reader.

Vivid descriptions bring Razia’s world to life as her sphere slowly expands from the careful influence of her conservative parents into the punk scene surrounding Stuyvesant’s East Village neighborhood. Razia’s first person narration hints at larger stories unfolding with the circle of girls and women that comprise the Pakistani-American community in Corona but the tight focus on Razia’s experiences leave many plot threads open to interpretation by readers as they unpack Razia’s experiences alongside out protagonist.

Although romance in the conventional sense doesn’t appear in the story until the final act, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion is a love story at its core. Again and again, Razia’s world expands as she discovers learning whether it’s at school, borrowing books from her local library, or gaining a deeper understanding of what her faith means to her while reading the Quran with her mother and other female community members at regular Vazes–religious parties–in the neighborhood.

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion is a tantalizing window into one girl’s life as her world starts to expand, creating a friction between family obligations and personal growth as Razia tries to reconcile her own wants with the expectations of her family and community. Richly detailed prose bring Razia–and New York City–to life alongside provocative feminist themes of agency and freedom; this book and its author are ones to watch.

Possible Pairings: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, All the Rage by Courtney Summers, All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir, The Girls in Queens by Christine Kandic Torres, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Frankly in Love by David Yoon

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

The Rules of Magic: A Review

“For what you fix, there are a hundred remedies. For what cannot be cured, not even words will do.”

The Rules of Magic by Alice HoffmanIt was always clear that siblings Franny, Jet, and Vincent Owens were different from other children. Raised in New York City, they grow up with no knowledge of their family’s long history in Masscusetts or the curse Maria Owens cast in 1620 that changed the family trajectory forever.

Instead, determined to keep the truth of their family–and themselves–from her children for as long as possible, their mother sets down rules: no walking in the moonlight, no Ouija boards, no candles, no red shoes, no wearing black, no going shoeless, no amulets, no night-blooming flowers, no reading novels about magic, no cats, no crows, no venturing below Fourteenth Street. But even with all these rules, the children were still unusual.

At the start of the 1960s, the New York branch of the Owens family finally returns to the family home. And that changes everything. Meeting Aunt Isabelle for the first time, it starts to feel like Franny, Jet, and Vincent are meeting themselves for the first time. In a world where magic is suddenly everywhere, it seems like anything is possible–especially falling in love. But as they learn more about their family blunt and stubborn Franny, beautiful and dreamy Jet, and charismatic troublemaker Vincent will all realize no one can escape love no matter how much they might want to in The Rules of Magic (2017) by Alice Hoffman.

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The Rules of Magic is a prequel to Hoffman’s now classic novel Practical Magic. This novel focuses on Sally and Gillian’s aunts Franny and Jet when they were young women first discovering their magic and can be read on its own with only minor spoilers for Practical Magic. The story is told by an omniscient third person narrator with a close focus on Franny, Jet, and Vincent. The Owens family and all major characters are assumed white.

Hoffman perfectly captures the heady effervescence of the 1960s when the Owens family–and the country–are on the cusp of big changes. While The Rules of Magic does return to the family home in Massachusetts and even spends some time in France, the bulk of this novel is set in New York City as Franny, Jet, and Vincent come of age and come to terms with their magical abilities and the family curse. Set in Greenwich Village (specifically 44 Greenwich Street!), the novel explores cultural touchstones including the Stonewall riots and the Vietnam draft through the eyes of the Owens siblings.

Readers familiar with Hoffman’s work will recognize the lyrical style and looping narrator that slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion that will have a lasting impact for the entire Owens family. Although all three siblings play a major role in the story, the novel primarily focuses on Franny as she shifts from obstinate eldest daughter to the matriarch of the family. Franny’s role in the family is pivotal but if, like me, you find her (and her love interest Haylin) the least interesting member of the family some of this novel will feel especially slow.

The Rules of Magic perfectly captures the strange alchemy that makes New York City–especially Greenwich Village–so special while also expanding the Owens saga and the larger family story in interesting directions; a must read for fans of the series and an appropriate entry point to those new to the series.

Possible Pairings: Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert, Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim, The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, In the Shadow Garden by Liz Parker, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Among Others by Jo Walton

All These Bodies: A Review

All These Bodies by Kendare BlakeA series of strange murders is leaving a grisly trail across the Midwest in the summer of 1958.

The bodies are found in their cars, their homes, their beds. All of them are drained of blood. But the scenes are clean. No blood anywhere.

On September 19 the Carlson family is slaughtered in their secluded farmhouse in Black Deer Falls, Minnesota and the police might finally have a lead when Marie Catherine Hale is found at the scene.

Covered in blood, mistaken for a survivor, it soon becomes clear that Marie is something else when police realize the blood is not hers.

Michael Jensen has been following coverage of the murders all summer, eager to test his mettle as an aspiring journalist and pave the way out of his small town. When his father, the local sheriff, arrests Marie, Michael knows it’s an opportunity he likely won’t see again.

Talking to Marie, assisting the police, having firsthand access to the case files gives Michael a close-up view of the investigation and the girl at its center. Marie doesn’t look like a killer, but she’s confessing to Michael over a series of interviews. She says there’s more to the killings than anyone can imagine but as her story unfolds Michael is the one who will have to decide if the truth is the same as what people will believe in All These Bodies (2021) by Kendare Blake.

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All These Bodies was a 2021 Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Best Young Adult Novel. The story is narrated by Michael and all characters are assumed white.

Blake expertly unspools Michael’s naked ambition to become a journalist with his increasingly thorny ethical dilemma when it comes to using Marie’s story for his own gain. The narrative focuses on Marie and whether being complicit is the same as being an accomplice while slowly teasing out what may have happened to the Carlsons and all the other victims.

Centering Marie while having the story related by Michael explores questions of the male gaze and agency as the story builds to its dramatic finish. Marie’s journey in the media from victim to villain is nuanced and contrasts well with Michael’s own conflicting feelings on whether Marie can be the violent criminal authorities seem to think she is while also being his friend.

Michael’s pragmatic narration only increases the tension as Marie shares her confession to her role in the murders and hints at something even more sinister at play while leaving space for readers to interpret events for themselves.

All These Bodies is an atmospheric story at the intersection of true crime and horror; one that will stay with you in all of the best ways.

Possible Pairings: No Saints in Kansas by Amy Brashear, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Breaker by Kat Ellis, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, Broken Things by Lauren Oliver, Sadie by Courtney Summers, The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas, The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

Want to know more? Check out my interview with Kendare.

The Immortalists: A Review

The Immortalists by Chloe BenjaminNew York City, 1969: The Gold siblings are looking at another monotonous summer together on New York City’s Lower East Side. But even as they anticipate the days blend together, they know that things are about to change. This is the last summer they’ll all be together like this before summer jobs and school and so many other things get in the way.

It seems like the perfect time to do something drastic like visit the mystical psychic Daniel has heard about in whispers all around the neighborhood, leading them to the cluttered apartment on Hester Street. They say the woman can tell you exactly when you’ll die. But none of them understand what that means when they still have so much life left. At least, they think they do.

As time passes, they’ll all be shaped by that hot summer day and the dates the fortuneteller told them. Simon–the youngest, the golden boy–will never stop running; throwing himself into anything and everything as he tries to find love and, if he’s lucky, his truest self as he runs away to San Francisco in the 1980s.

In the 1990s Klara lands in Las Vegas. After years of trying to make a go of her show as an illusionist, her act might finally be taking off. But after years performing as a mentalist, Klara is no longer sure where reality ends and the magic begins–a blurred line that could lead to her greatest performance ever. Or have disastrous consequences.

Daniel, the eldest, has spent his life as a doctor. It isn’t always glamorous but he’s happy, isn’t he? When one unexpected Thanksgiving shows Daniel everything he could have had–and everything he never will–he becomes obsessed with understanding the truth of the mystical woman all those years ago.

Varya never had much use for people–or for the prediction she received on Hester Street–but as she finds herself more and more entrenched in her work on longevity research, even practical Varya begins to wonder if things would have–could have–been different if they’d all made different choices on that long ago summer day in The Immortalists (2018) by Chloe Benjamin.

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The Gold family is white and Jewish with varying levels of faith with more diversity among the secondary cast. The story is broken into four parts–one following each sibling–over the course of twenty some odd years.

Benjamin’s sweeping generational family saga tackles big questions of fate vs agency without offering many answers one way or another. Crossing the country and spanning decades, The Immortalists captures the zeitgeist of the times starting with the frenzied energy of San Francisco in the 1980s and the ensuing panic and grief of the growing AIDS crisis. Simon’s section starts when Simon is only sixteen leading to a lot of instances of reading about Simon’s underage sexual encounters with much older men. While not unrealistic for the time it still felt uncomfortable to read about in relation to a character who is still essentially a child.

The omniscient third person narrator also clings closely to the female gaze–particularly with Simon but also even in the opening page with Varya–focusing needlessly on objectification particularly with instances when Simon wants the “challenge” of another “hard” body like his own. There could be arguments that this adds nuance to literary fiction but, for me, it only served to constantly draw me out of the story.

Ultimately The Immortalists raises some interesting questions by putting a family through an increasingly unpleasant series of events across a generation. Readers interested in philosophical questions about life choices will find a lot to appreciate here while readers hoping to lean more into the fantastical elements will be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, An Extraordinary Destiny by S. N. Paleja, One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle

Sherwood: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Who are you to say that being a lady, in itself, is not its own kind of war?”

Sherwood by Meagan SpoonerWhen Robin of Locksley dies fighting in the Crusades for his king, it leaves Marian’s entire future uncertain. For years, Marian knew she would marry Robin and stand beside him when he became Lord of Locksley. They would make a life together, the way they had always planned, and they would protect Locksley town and its residents from the Sheriff of Nottingham. Together.

Now Marian is painfully aware of her uncertain future. Guy of Gisborne serves as the sheriff’s right hand. He hopes to cement his place as a gentleman first by laying claim to Locksley land and then by claiming Marian herself.

With her options dwindling and time running short, Marian is driven to a desperate decision to don Robin’s green cloak and act as a protector when he no longer can. What began as one impulsive act quickly gains a life of its own as news of Robin’s return spreads and brings hope to people with in desperate need of it.

Marian never meant to hide behind a hood, she never meant to become Robin. With Guy getting closer to her secret, with the sheriff enraged, Marian knows she has to stop. But with so many people counting on her–on Robin Hood–she isn’t sure how she can in Sherwood (2019) by Meagan Spooner.

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Spooner continues her series of standalone retellings of classic tales with Sherwood. All characters are assumed white.

Sherwood reinterprets familiar source material with new twists and imbues the story with strong feminist themes. Marian has always been aware of her vulnerabilities and limitations as a woman in medieval society where the paths available to her include marriage or life in a convent and much in between. These restraints gain new urgency when Marian’s planned future is stripped away with Robin’s unexpected death–leaving her to grieve her lost future as much as her childhood best friend.

This impressive take on Robin Hood features familiar characters and plot points retold with clever changes that make Sherwood into something new. Marian’s precarious role as a noblewoman is portrayed well as societal pressures call for her to stop mourning Robin and choose a new suitor. At the same time, as she works with Sherwood’s most notable outlaws, Marian’s privilege is checked by her new (and sometimes reluctant) allies who keep her grounded in the realities of living in poverty or on the run from the law.

Without revealing too much about the plot, I will say Spooner’s treatment of Guy of Gisborne is one of my favorite character reinterpretations of all time. This story reimagines Guy as a more nuanced character than the usual dour enforcer and positions him to serve as a foil and counterpoint to Marian throughout.

Sherwood stays true to the source material and the spirit of the characters while also being entirely unique and adding new layers to a familiar tale. Sherwood is a richly layered and deeply feminist story filled with adventure and surprises; perfect for fans familiar with Robin Hood and new readers alike.

Possible Pairings: No Good Deed by Kara Connolly, The Forest Queen by Betsey Cornwell, Hood by Jenny Moke Elder, Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, Bravely by Maggie Stiefvater, The Bone Spindle by Leslie Vedder, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

Siren Queen: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Siren Queen by Nghi VoShe falls in love with the movies first. Wanting to be a star comes later.

Even though it’s hard to see herself–a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill–in any of the pre-code films that immediately captivate her, it’s easy to picture herself on the big screen one day. The impossible part is imagining any other life for herself.

So she makes her way through productions as an extra alongside the changelings with more experience and less to lose. She courts attention from the studios gambling that she’ll one day have a place of her own in the skies above Hollywood. She learns how to bargain for her own chance at success without anyone trying to ride her coattails. She starts to speak for herself before any man decides to put words in her mouth.

She steals her own sister’s name and remakes herself into Luli Wei.

But getting in with the studio–choosing a new name–is only part of the journey. There’s also the training. Navigating the fires. Hiding the realest parts of yourself so the studio can make you whoever it needs you to be.

For a Chinese American girl like Luli, there’s also avoiding all the easy shortcuts the studio wants her to take. To be a maid. To talk funny. To play a fainting flower. To do any of the obvious things Luli refuses to attach to her new name.

The studios all run on ancient magic–blood bargains that would just as soon chew Luli up as bring her to the top. She has always known the risks. Every hopeful starlet does. They all think they’ll be the one to beat the odds.

Luli does too. She also knows something the other starlets don’t. She knows that bargaining with monsters sometimes makes you into one. That’s a chance she’s willing to take if it means getting everything she’s ever wanted in Siren Queen (2022) by Nghi Vo.

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Siren Queen gives Hollywood’s golden age the fantasy treatment, reinventing the studio system that dominated Hollywood film production into the 1950s as a dangerous playing field populated by fairies, spirits, and dangerous bargains.

This deceptively straightforward story about chasing fame also offers a thoughtful commentary on navigating identity in the public and private spheres as Luli falls in love (and lust) for the first time and begins to learn that being a queer woman in the 1940s will have consequences for her career and her ambitions. This theme is followed to different conclusions with the main plot, with Luli’s first love interest (another actress who spends most of her career passing), and through the character arc of one of Luli’s first friends and mentors–an actor who has unmistakable allusions to Cary Grant. The siren films–which become defining aspects of Luli’s career–also offer nods to the now cult classic films from producers like Val Lewton and special effects forerunners like Ray Harryhausen.

Vo plays well with structure giving Luli’s story the three acts common to most movies and also playing with the narrative voice (second person for most of the story) leading to tantalizing questions of what will come next for Luli.

Siren Queen is a love letter to old Hollywood and an allegory on the rewards and possible perils of choosing your own path. Luli Wei’s quest for fame and immortality is one readers won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott, I Kissed a Girl by Jennet Alexander, City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Show Girl by Nicola Harrison, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Only the Dead Know Burbank by Bradford Tatum, Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner, The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

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

Clark and Division: A Review

Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara1944: Twenty-year-old Aki Ito and her parents have just been released from Manzanar–the camp where they were detained by the US government after Pearl Harbor with thousands of other Japanese Americans.

With everything they knew in California gone, the family is being resettled in Chicago with help from Aki’s older sister, Rose, who was released and sent there months earlier to pave the way for a new Japanese American neighborhood near Clark and Division streets.

The sisters’ relationship changed during Manzanar and Aki is eager for their reunion to sweep away the last of the tensions and secrets between them. But instead of finding Rose waiting for them, the remaining Itos arrive in Chicago to the shocking news that Rose is dead–killed by a subway car in what officials are calling a suicide.

Aki refuses to believe her sister would do this to herself, especially on the eve of their Chicago arrival. While she and her parents try to start new lives, Aki also delves into Rose’s past trying to piece together the missing months and understand what really happened to her sister in Clark and Division (2021) by Naomi Hirahara.

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Clark and Division is a thoughtful and well-researched historical fiction novel. Most main characters are Japanese American. Aki also starts a friendship with a Jewish American woman and a Black woman working at a local library which leads to conversations about intersectionality and the different baggage all three carry while navigating a world where the default is thought to be white and male.

Although Hirahara is an Edgar award winning author writing under a crime imprint, the investigation into Rose’s death (and the mystery such as it is) are secondary plot elements. The real story here is the experience of Japanese Americans like Aki–a Nisei (Japanese American born in America)–and her parents who are both US citizens during World War II when they are detained and after as they try to rebuild their lives. Aki’s first person narration strikes a good balance between exposition and background introducing readers to 1944 Chicago with richly detailed descriptions. The narrative also slowly teases out details about Rose’s past and the cultural landscape of the Japanese American community the Itos have joined in Chicago.

While some conclusions feel anticlimactic compared to the buildup of the mystery, Hirahara presents a well-rounded and complex story. Readers looking for inclusive and layered historical fiction will enjoy spending time with Aki on her search for answers in Clark and Division.

Possible Pairings: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles, The Artist Colony by Joanna Fitzpatrick, Best Laid Plans by Gwen Florio, Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, The Hollywood Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal, Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart