The Drowned Woods: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-JonesEighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is the last living water diviner in Wales. Taken from her parents when she is was eight-years-old by Prince Garanhir, she is one of the most powerful tools in the royal arsenal. Until the prince goes too far.

Unwilling to become a weapon used against innocents ever again, Mer has been on the run for the last four years. Trained by the king’s own spymaster, Renfrew, Mer is well-equipped to hide but even she doesn’t have the resources to disappear–especially not from her own mentor.

After years of acting on the prince’s behalf, Renfrew’s loyalties have shifted. And, as every spy knows, a person with a knife and a cause can topple kingdoms. Which is exactly what Renfrew has in mind. If Mer uses her powers one last time to help destroy the magical well that protects Garanhir’s lands–and his power–the prince’s reign will be over and Mer will finally be free.

It won’t be an easy mission. But anything is achievable with the proper resources.

Fane, a fighter with prodigious strength to kill anyone who strikes him, has his own reasons for joining Renfrew’s cause. After his years as an iron fetch, Fane is left with few illusions about his own place in the world or the grief-stricken bargain he trapped himself in years ago. Accompanied by Trefor, a Corgi who may or may not be a spy for the fae, Fane is used to keeping his own counsel and wary when it becomes clear that both his loyalties and his pacifism will be tested on this journey.

With help from the rest of Renfrew’s crew including Ifanna, the Princess of Thieves and a figure from Mer’s past, they should have everything they need. More importantly, Mer should be positioned to get everything she wants as long as she remembers the most important rule a spy ever learns: always plan two escape routes–especially when magic is involved in The Drowned Woods (2022) by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Drowned Woods is set in the same world as Lloyd-Jones’ previous novel The Bone Houses. Although the stories tie together, both can be read on their own. Characters are assumed white; Mer is bisexual. The narrative shifts viewpoints–primarily focusing on Mer and Fane while flashbacks highlight key aspects of Mer and Fane’s character and reveal key details about other characters, especially the mysterious Ifanna.

With a daring heist, spies, and thieves, it’s no surprise that The Drowned Woods is filled with numerous twists and turns as the story shifts and shifts again in satisfyingly unexpected ways. As more of Mer’s backstory is revealed the complicated relationships between the crew add dimension to the plot and depth to the characters.

Lyrical prose emphasizes the fairy tale elements of Lloyd-Jones’ world building while deliberate plot management ensures quick pacing, lots of action, and plenty of humor from Trefor. Mer–a seasoned spy born with magic and trained to be ruthless–and Fane–a seasoned fighter who bargained for magic and learned his own limits the hard way–are interesting foils and allies throughout the story. Their obvious chemistry comes across in subtle interactions and well-drawn dialog as their loyalties are tested throughout the novel.

The Drowned Woods combines the best pieces of fantasy and adventure to create a gripping story filled with magic and an ensemble cast you won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Want to know more? Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Emily!

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm for review consideration*

The Book Eaters: A Review

“We can only live by the light we’re given. And some of us are given no light at all. What else can we do but learn to see in the dark?”

The Book Eaters by Sunyi DeanDevon grows up surrounded living in a manor house on the Yorkshire Moors with her family; they are always focused on tradition, on appearances, on the Family above all.

Being part of her family comes with its own responsibilities. Boys will grow up to be patriarchs or leaders, they’ll train to become the Knights who carefully manage marriages between book eaters to prevent inbreeding. Girls are a rarer commodity among the book eaters, precious. With only six girls between the Families, every one is expected to do her duty producing two children from two different husbands to help propagate the species.

Raised as a princess, eating fairytales and cautionary tales like every female book eater, Devon knows her role from a young age as clearly as she knows she craves different stories to eat. It isn’t the life she wants but, for a book eater girl, it’s the only life there is.

Prepared to do her part until her childbearing years end with the early menopause endemic to their species, Devon plans to stay detached and bide her time until she’s free. But nothing goes according to plan once she holds her first child.

Book eaters have never been known for their creativity but when her son is born not as a book eater but as a much more dangerous–and much more expendable–mind eater, Devon is determined to do everything she can to imagine a new ending for both of them in The Book Eaters (2022) by Sunyi Dean.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Book Eaters is Dean’s debut novel. The audiobook, as narrated by Katie Erich, brings Devon’s Yorkshire tyke to life.

Devon’s Family is of Romanian descent, most characters are assumed white. Devon’s sexuality as a lesbian–and another character’s asexuality–becomes central to the plot as Devon questions her narrowly defined role within the constraints of book eater society.

With its focus on bodily autonomy and personal freedom, The Book Eaters is surprisingly prescient. Dean does not shy away from scenes of assault on the night of Devon’s first “wedding” nor from disconcerting depictions of what exactly happens when a mind eater feeds making for a timely but often unpleasant narrative.

In a society of creatures who are stronger and more dangerous than humans, Devon and other characters are forced into difficult choices for their survival. This focus leads to a fast paced story interspersed with ethical quandaries of who can qualify as a hero or a villain and, more relevantly, who is worth saving.

The Book Eaters is a grim adventure with abundantly original world building; a story about the lengths we’ll go to protect family–found and otherwise.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Half Bad by Sally Green, The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, Only a Monster by Vanessa Len, This Savage Song by V. E. Schwab

*An advance copy of this title and an ALC of this title from Libro.fm was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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*

A Mirror Mended: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Mirror Mended by Alix E. HarrowFive years ago Zinnia Gray dodged her unhappy ending when she stepped out of her own version of Sleeping Beauty and found a way to save a different dying girl. Now Aurora and Zinnia’s former best friend Charm are living their happily ever after. Not that Zinnia has seen much of it.

When one strategic spindle prick is all it takes to run away from her problems, Zinnia sees no reason to stick around. Not when her GRM (Generalized Roseville Malady) is still waiting to break her down if she stops hopping across fairy tales long enough to see any of her doctors.

Forty-nine happily ever afters later, Zinnia has the process down pat, complete with stepping out before the annoying happily ever after parties get too saccharine. When Zinnia tries to leave her latest princess to enjoy her latest HEA, Zinnia’s formulaic story-hopping goes very off script.

Instead of jumping into another version of Sleeping Beauty, Zinnia is pulled into a very different tale. And this time it isn’t a princess who needs saving.

An evil queen is asking for help, specifically Snow White’s Evil Queen. Zinnia is quick to agree that the queen is very, very trapped (and very, very hot) but Zinnia isn’t sure that means she should help her when, you know, she’s evil and all.

Every queen was once a princess. But as Zinnia and this queen land in a Grimm-dark horror version of Snow White, does that mean every queen–even an evil one–also deserves a happy ending? in A Mirror Mended (2022) by Alix E. Harrow.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Mirror Mended is Zinnia’s second jaunt through the fairytale multiverse introduced in A Spindle Splintered where she traveled through myriad versions of Sleeping Beauty. While Zinnia and the principle cast are white, this installment does feature characters of color in key roles. This expansion of the cast also gives the narrative space to explore the dangers of white savior narratives common to fairytales (especially when Zinnia is decidedly not needed) alongside commentary on the reciprocity of heroism and whether survival has to be a solitary pursuit. This series also features characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Zinnia is used to helping all kinds of princesses but even she is unsure how to handle the rescue of a canonical villain–especially one prepared to threaten captivity and bodily harm if Zinnia refuses. As Zinnia learns more about the Evil Queen and her own complicated relationship with her story, Harrow explores themes of agency and empowerment while also highlighting how the framing of a story can entirely change who becomes the protagonist (and the hero).

A Mirror Mended is a fast-paced fairytale adventure filled with Zinnia’s whip-smart observations, snarky banter, and lots of chemistry between Zinnia and the Evil Queen. A must read for fans of the series and a great entry point for anyone with a fondness for fractured (and mended) fairytales.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, Ash by Malinda Lo, Gilded by Marissa Meyer, The Shadow Queen by C. J. Redwine, Nameless by Lili St. Crow, Into the Spider-Verse

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Alix.

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

You Sexy Thing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

You Sexy Thing by Cat RamboCaptain Nicolette “Niko” Larson knows better than most that leaving the service of the Holy Hive Mind is no small thing. It’s easy enough to join the ranks with promises of vast earnings to come. But once you’re in, it’s funny how the debt keeps mounting and  those payments never come.

For a moment, Niko thought she could work within the system but now, known throughout the system as the “Ten Hour Admiral,” Niko knows better.

Luckily for Niko and her crew, the only thing the Hive Mind values more than conquest is art. Including culinary art.

After proving their artistic prowess with food, Niko and her crew have settled at TwiceFar station where they try to make a go of their restaurant, The Last Chance. With a reservation book for a prestigious food critic empowered to award a coveted Nikkelin Orb to worthy restaurants, it seems like things might finally be looking up.

Until the station blows up, of course.

With their past reduced to a smoldering pile of space rubble, Niko and her crew escape onto a sentient ship called You Sexy Thing. Unfortunately, the bioship thinks it’s stolen and steers them towards a prison planet. And that isn’t even the worst of Niko’s problems as the crew tries to fend off sadistic space pirates, deliver an intergalactic heir safely to the seat of the empire, and keep Niko’s other plans alive all while still chasing that elusive Nikkelin Orb in You Sexy Thing (2021) by Cat Rambo.

Find it on Bookshop.

You Sexy Thing is a standalone space opera that hints at more to come. The story is told in omniscient third person following Niko and her motley crew. The cast of characters includes humans, humanoid aliens, and other alien characters with a range of skin tones, presentations, and gender identities. Vivienne Leheny narrates the audiobook and ably navigates the large cast during shifting perspectives and dialog.

Pragmatic strategist Neko is complimented well by the ensemble cast here including my personal favorite characters Dabrey, Niko’s four-armed former-sergeant responsible for the restaurant’s culinary achievements, and Lassite–a lizard-like priest who joined the crew to follow Niko on her journey along the spiral of destiny. Although the plot focuses squarely on Niko and her own plans, no character is given short shrift as the entire crew has moments to shine. The madcap journey of the first half of the story shifts to something darker and grittier (including moments of mental and physical torture that while not explicitly described are unpalatable–particularly in audio) before the novel’s denouement.

You Sexy Thing skillfully combines moments of sci-fi absurdity with action and high emotion as Niko and her crew face numerous obstacles after escaping TwiceFar station. Rambo delivers a story filled with adventure, found family, and ultimately with hope for the future to come.

Possible Pairings: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Riess, The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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

Be Dazzled: A Review

Be Dazzled by Ryan La SalaRaffy loves designing and creating costumes–even if he has to keep it a secret from his big-deal-art-gallery-running mom. Raffy knows that cosplay is art but try telling his mom that when she’s busy finding the next big talent.

But that’s okay because Raffy has a plan. If he can win this year’s biggest cosplay competition, he’ll win enough prize money to be able to do whatever he wants. Including going to art school for costume design.

The only problem is that Raffy had planned to compete with his boyfriend Luca. And now they’re broken up. And Luca is competing with Raffy’s nemesis.

Raffy knows all of the tricks to mend a costume gone wrong. But when the cosplay competition keeps throwing them together, Raffy isn’t sure if he’ll be able to mend his broken heart in Be Dazzled (2021) by Ryan La Sala.

Find it on Bookshop.

Be Dazzled is La Sala’s hilarious ode to all things fandom and cosplay complete with glitter, anime characters, and more hot glue than you can shake a stick at. Gay Raffy and bisexual Luca are presumed white with an inclusive supporting cast.

Raffy’s first person narration alternates between the present as Raffy embarks on his biggest cosplay competition ever and the past from Raffy and Luca’s meet cute at the craft store sponsoring the convention to their painful breakup. While Raffy does a grim postmortem of their relationship and everything that went wrong, he’ll have to decide if he’s willing to stop chasing perfection if it means having love.

Snappy prose and a fast-paced story make Be Dazzled totally engrossing. Come for the high stakes cosplay drama, stay for the will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Raffy and Luca.

Possible Pairings: Don’t Cosplay With My Heart by Cecil Castelucci, Perfect On Paper by Sophie Gonsales, Tahira in Bloom by Farah Heron, The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby, The Love Curse of Melody McIntrye by Robin Talley, Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

The Girls I’ve Been: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“What didn’t kill me made me a victim. I made me stronger.”

The Girls I've Been by Tess SharpeIt was only supposed to be twenty minutes. Twenty awkward minutes. But then it would be over. They’d meet in the bank parking lot, go in, make the deposit of the money from the fundraiser, and twenty awkward minutes later it would be over. Nora O’Malley (not her real name, by the way) has survived a lot worse than spending twenty minutes with her new girlfriend Iris and her ex-boyfriend (always best friend) Wes.

Except Nora also wants to smooth out last night’s “makeout-interruptus” when Wes found out about Nora and Iris by walking in on them. So she gets donuts. With bacon. And sprinkles. Because everyone loves donuts. Then she has to get coffee. So then she’s late and Wes and Iris are both waiting on her and there are two people ahead of them in line at the bank. Which usually wouldn’t be a problem except the two people ahead of them are also robbing the bank. And they decide to keep everyone hostage.

Nora’s survived a lot worse than some amateur hour bank robbery and she’s had plenty of therapy to unpack all of it. But she’s never had to survive anything with two of the three people she cares about more than anything, not to mention a lot of other innocent bystanders.

As the daughter of a con-artist, Nora has been a lot of girls. She’s seen a lot of things. She’s done worse. But she made it out. She’s a different girl now. A smarter, stronger one.

Now, Nora is going to need every one of those girls she used to be to thwart this robbery, keep Wes and Iris and everyone else safe, and maybe also make it out alive herself in The Girls I’ve Been (2021) by Tess Sharpe.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Girls I’ve Been is a fast-paced, standalone novel; the audiobook is read by the author. All major characters are presumed white. Nora’s bisexuality and Iris’s endometriosis add intersectionality to the cast and serve as key elements of the plot.

The Girls I’ve Been is a tense thriller narrated by Nora. Time stamped chapters during the robbery and a running list of assets Nora has to work with in the bank underscore the urgency of the situation and maintain momentum as the hostage situation escalates. Nora’s narration is pragmatic and laser focused as she works to keep the other hostages safe and tries to communicate with her older half-sister Lee (also not her real name) who is working with law enforcement on the outside. These chapters are interspersed with flashbacks of the other girls Nora has been under her manipulative mother’s grooming and training highlighting the skills (and trauma) Nora has picked up along the way that will factor in during the bank robbery. Memories of her friendships with Wes and Iris add tenderness to the story although all three have scars (some literal, some psychological) from parental abuse.

Despite the tense situation, The Girls I’ve Been is a really fun, fast-paced story. Sharpe includes all of the best elements of a good heist or con story while also offering a well-drawn look at the steep cost of being immersed in that life–a cost Nora is still paying. Although the sense of menace and danger for Nora and the other hostages is palpable, the novel never becomes graphic or viscerally violent always focusing on the characters’ survival rather than their trauma.

The Girls I’ve Been is a completely immersive, suspenseful novel that centers a bisexual protagonist and queer themes. The story is also refreshingly free of a love triangle or romantic tensions as Nora, Iris, and Wes all work to rebuild the trust between them and strengthen their friendship–while surviving a bank robbery.

Possible Pairings: A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Tell Me My Name by Amy Reed, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

Blackout: A Review

Blackout by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola YoonEveryone who’s ever lived in New York City has a blackout story. Maybe it involves the looting and chaos of the 1977 blackout. Maybe you were at your first part-time job orientation about to get your ID photo taken when the blackout in 2003 hit the entire northeast (that’s mine). Maybe you were without power for five days after Superstorm Sandy in 2011 (still me). Maybe you have a different story.

For a group of Black teens things get a lot clearer after the lights go out. Like, all the lights. Everywhere.

They all start in different places. Stranded in Manhattan, isolated from friends, worried about elderly relatives, thinking about what comes next.

But tonight is the last block party of the summer. Missing it is not an option. Whether walking, biking, or going rogue in a NYC tour bus (for real) everyone has somewhere to be tonight. And, along the way, everyone has something to learn about themselves and their heart in Blackout (2021) by by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon.

Find it on Bookshop.

Blackout is a collaborative novel featuring six interconnected stories from some of the best voices in writing YA fiction right now. Clayton–the initiator of the project–pulled these authors together to create their own version of the ubiquitous Hallmark romantic comedies that often fail to feature Black characters (or any characters of color) finding love. The audiobook is pitch perfect with narrators Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Dion Graham, Imani Parks, Jordan Cobb, Shayna Small, A.J Beckles and Bahni Turpin bringing the characters to life.

The book starts with “The Long Walk” by Tiffany D. Jackson, a story told in five acts throughout the novel as exes Tammie and Kareem reluctantly travel together back to Brooklyn after the blackout (and finding out they were both offered a single internship) leaves them stranded at the Apollo theater in Harlem. Tammie’s narration is sharp and still smarting after the breakup but as the two make their way to a block party where Kareem will be DJing, both teens realize that maybe growing apart doesn’t mean they have to stay apart.

In “Mask Off” by Nic Stone JJ (Tammie’s brother, who is bisexual) is trapped in a subway car with his longtime crush Tremain. Helping Tremain manage his claustrophobia as they escape the crowded subway allows the two to talk–and connect–more than their years at school together and JJ’s suspicions about Tremain’s sexuality have allowed. This is one of the shorter stories but Stone uses every word to great effect drawing readers into JJ and Tremain’s dramatic subway exit.

Even when her heart is broken, Nella loves visiting her grandfather at his nursing home, Althea House in “Made to Fit” by Ashley Woodfolk. There’s nothing like hearing about her grandparents’ love story or hanging out with all the cool seniors–especially when Joss and her therapy dog come around. When a cherished photo goes missing, the girls work together to try and track it down leading to a search through the house that reveals as much about their mutual interest as it does about the missing photo. Come for the cute banter, stay for the matchmaking grandfather.

“All the Great Love Stories … and Dust” starts with Lana’s big plans to finally confess her feelings for her best friend Tristan. A plan that is delayed when the blackout strands the two teens in the main branch of the New York Public Library. While Tristan never quite feels like a worthy love interest for her, Lana’s internal dialog as she tries to figure out how to finally admit her feelings is compelling and authentic.

Kayla thought she had problems before her class trip to New York City in “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” by Angie Thomas but that’s nothing compared to how the trip has been going. Things have felt stale with her longtime boyfriend Rashad for a while but that doesn’t mean that Kayla is prepared for her entire class to discuss the intricacies of her love life when Micah starts trying to get her attention. Kayla is an anxious, fast talker and her narration here is exhausting as she spins out when–with the advent of the blackout–it feels like things between her, Rashad, and Micah are about to come to a head. Unlikely advice from the class’s tour bus driver (Tammie’s dad) remind Kayla that before she can choose either boy, she has to remember how to choose herself.

Blackout wraps with “Seymour and Grace” by Nicola Yoon. Grace’s ride share to the block party takes an unexpected turn when she connects with her driver Seymour. Her entire plan for the night was to get to the block party looking sharp as hell while she gives her ex Tristan the earful he so righteously deserves. But plans change all the time. Maybe this ride share is a sign that Grace should make some changes too. Yoon brings her usual excellent prose and clever characters to this story making it a powerful conclusion to this collection.

Blackout is a fun, multifaceted story centering Black joy and highlightling love in many forms. The interconnected nature of the stories leaves room for fun Easter eggs to tie the different pieces together while leaving space for each author to shine in this book filled with humor, pathos, and plenty of love. Blackout is a must read for fans of contemporary romance–short story or novel–and a perfect introduction to these talented authors.

Possible Pairings: Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson, Summer Days and Summer Nights edited by Stephanie Perkins, The Meet-Cute Project by Rhiannon Richardson, Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie Rigaud, Up All Night: 13 Stories Between Sunset and Sunrise edited by Laura Silverman, The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith, Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm*

A Lesson in Vengeance: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Regret always comes too late.

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria LeeAfter a year away, Felicity Morrow hopes to keep a low profile at Dalloway School while she completes her senior year. Then she’ll never have to think about the prestigious boarding school or what transpired there ever again.

Being back at Godwin House feels wrong for so many reasons but especially because her girlfriend Alex is dead and won’t ever return.

Still grieving, still haunted, Felicity doesn’t know what to expect from her new housemates, especially the enigmatic Ellis Haley. Everyone knows Ellis. Everyone has read her prodigious debut novel while eagerly awaiting her sophomore effort. As much as Felicity is drawn to Ellis–as much as everyone is drawn to Ellis–Felicity balks at the cult of personality the writer has erected around herself.

Ellis is drawn to Dalloway, and particularly to Godwin House, because of its bloody history. Like Felicity herself, she’s fascinated by the story of the Dalloway Five–the five students who all died under mysterious circumstances with accusations of witchcraft hanging over them.

Everyone knows magic isn’t real. After what happened last year, Felicity needs magic to not be real. But as Ellis draws her back to the school’s dangerous not-so-hidden, arcane history Felicity will have to decide if she has the strength to face the darkness festering at Dalloway and in herself in A Lesson in Vengeance (2021) by Victoria Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a standalone novel. Felicity and Ellis are white with secondary characters adding more diversity and brief conversations of the history of segregation and exclusion inherent to elite boarding schools like Dalloway.

This novel is an ode to all things dark academia with vivid descriptions of Dalloway’s ivy-covered glory, brittle winters, and its gory past. Lee also carefully subverts the genre using both Felicity and Ellis’ queer identities to inform the story. Pitch perfect pacing and careful plot management further help this story pack a punch.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a clever, suspenseful story filled filled. Come for the satisfying mystery and evocative setting, stay for the moral ambiguity and plot twists.

Possible Pairings: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, When All the Girls Are Sleeping by Emily Arsenault, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Night Migrations” by Louise Glück, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Malleus Maleficarum, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, “The Shroud” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Dear Life by Alice Munro, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, What is Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig, Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

The Heartbreak Bakery: A (WIRoB) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

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

The Heartbreak Bakery by A. R. CapettaSeventeen-year-old baker Syd is an “agender cupcake” who still has a lot to figure out about love and the literal magic of baking.

Syd (no pronouns, please) has been with the same girlfriend since coming out as queer in middle school. Four years later it turns out the relationship Syd thought was perfect has more cracks than a badly set cheesecake, leading to a drawn-out breakup with W over one painful weekend. As Syd notes, “I think she’s great, and she thinks I like having a girlfriend too much to notice that sometimes she isn’t.”

Still smarting from the breakup and feeling blindsided, Syd does the obvious thing for a teen holding down a job as a baker while finishing high school: try to bake it out with an easy recipe for brownies which “require three things: a single bowl, a sturdy spoon, and a dedication to dark chocolate.”

Syd’s baking catharsis takes a turn when the post-breakup brownies turn out to be magical Breakup Brownies with all of Syd’s anger, frustration, and hurt baked in. Instead of letting Syd process all of those pent-up feelings, Syd has accidentally fed several bakery customers brownies that precipitate their own breakups–whether the breakups are warranted or not. Obviously, Syd feels awful and wants to erase the “special tang of guilt that comes with subtracting so much queer love from the world.”

Things get even worse when Syd witnesses bakery owners–and husbands–Vin and Alec eat the brownies and start fighting too. Every baker knows you have to clean up your own kitchen but now that the Breakup Brownies have drawn the Proud Muffin into their vortex, Syd is even more frantic to correct this magical mistake before it inadvertently causes the best queer bakery in Austin to shut down.

Proud Muffin’s cute bike delivery person, Harley (he or they–it’s always on the pronoun pin, check it first) is surprisingly receptive to Syd’s magical baking confession and, even better, ready to help mend broken hearts across the city. As Syd works through an impressive baking repertoire ranging from Very Sorry Cake to Shiny New Scones, Syd is able to bond with Harley and process the breakup with W while trying to fix all the relationship collateral damage. The only problem is that as Syd’s feelings grow for Harley, it’s unclear if their chemistry will lead to a recipe for romance or more heartbreak in The Heartbreak Bakery (2021) by A. R. Capetta.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Heartbreak Bakery is an ode to the city of Austin, queer communities everywhere, and baked goods in all of their wonderfully varied forms. Fictional locations like the Proud Muffin complement actual Austin locations like Barton Springs and 24 Diner. Syd and Harley are white with a supporting cast that is diverse and inclusive with characters from across BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities showcasing the intersectionality of many identities.

Even as a member of the Proud Muffin’s enthusiastic and supportive queer community, Syd struggles to articulate to friends and family what it feels like to be agender when “every single time [Syd] stared at the mirror and what [Syd] saw screamed back girl.” Now Syd is “pretty sure that no particular body would make sense to [Syd] all of the time” but also isn’t always sure how to explain that to anyone as easily as others share their pronouns.

Each chapter ends with a recipe, sometimes for actual baked goods readers can make themselves like the peach, strawberry, and basil Honest Pie and sometimes for abstract concepts like Today’s Gender or Baby’s First Polyam Brunch. All of the recipes are written in Syd’s distinct, wry narration with witty asides like “Realize you probably should have added the zest earlier, but you’ve been distracted by the presence of a cute baking partner. Realize that everything is going to turn out delicious either way.”

Part romantic comedy and part bildungsroman, The Heartbreak Bakery beautifully follows Syd through the madcap quest to undo the damage of the Breakup Brownies while also unpacking Syd’s fledgling relationship with Harley and Syd’s journey to fully vocalize their identity as agender (with help from freshly baked Agender Cupcakes, of course) and find their people–agender, magical baker, and otherwise.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim, Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey, Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian, Simply Irresistible (1999)