Light From Uncommon Stars: A Review

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka AokiShizuka Satomi has spent years building up her reputation as the Queen of Hell. It’s a name fitting for someone with her reputation of building up violin prodigies–more fitting than most people realize.

Shizuka made a deal with the devil forty-nine years ago. Now, if she wants to keep her own soul–and her own prodigious success–she has to deliver seven souls. With six delivered and one soul left, Shizuka should feel secure. But she doesn’t. She wants her last soul to belong to someone special. Someone she’s been struggling to find for years already.

Katrina Nguyen is a transgender runaway with no one to turn to. She has her hormones, her laptop, and her violin and she knows no matter how bad things get she can survive if she has those things. When Shizuka offers to help life Katrina lift her up, it seems too good to be true. As Katrina comes closer to Shizuka’s secrets she realizes how true her initial doubts really are.

From a donut shop on a highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Lan Tran is slowly drawn into this Faustian drama. A retired starship captain with four children to support and protect, Lan has her own priorities. She wants to keep a low profile at Starrgate Donuts for herself and her family. Which is why her blossoming crush on Shizuka is so inconvenient–especially when Lan realizes it might be mutual.

As Shizuka, Katrina, and Lan are drawn into each others’ lives, the three women begin to realize that in order to overcome their separate challenges they might just need each other in Light From Uncommon Stars (2021) by Ryka Aoki.

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Light From Uncommon Stars is a blend of sci-fi and fantasy elements in a contemporary California setting. The close third person narration shifts between Shizuka, Katrina, Lan, and other pivotal characters.

Aoki expertly blends these seemingly disparate elements into a seamless story filled with heart and hope even as Katrina, particularly, deals with rejection, hate, and sexual assault. Katrina also spends part of the novel as a sex worker while she tries to survive on the streets–an element that is handled thoughtfully but is still, understandably, heavy.

This evocative novel is imbued with a strong love of music and filled with delicious food descriptions. Light From Uncommon Stars is a sprawling story of redemption and connection. Recommended for readers looking for a novel that defies both expectations and genre classifications.

Possible Pairings: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu, Gideon the Ninth by Tamysn Muir, Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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

A Spindle Splintered: A Review

“Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it. It’s aimless and amoral and chauvinist as shit. It’s the fairy tale that feminist scholars cite when they want to talk about women’s passivity in historical narratives. Even among the other nerds who majored in folklore, Sleeping Beauty is nobody’s favorite. Romantic girls like Beauty and the Beast; vanilla girls like Cinderella; goth girls like Snow White. Only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty.”

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. HarrowZinnia Gray has always known Sleeping Beauty has its problems, even before she read about the medieval version Zelladine (don’t Google that one, you don’t want to know). She also knows that Sleeping Beauty is the one story where a girl like her manages to turn things around and get a happy ending. Of course Zinnia loves Sleeping Beauty.

After years of moving fast and trying to pretend her clock isn’t running out thanks to the rare Generalized Roseville Malady that causes protein to build up in all the places it shouldn’t be in her organs, Zinnia knows she’s almost out of time. She rushed through high school, a degree in folklore at the local college, and she tried to rush away from her parents’ stifling efforts to save her.

Now Zinnia is here at her twenty-first birthday. She knows no one else with GRM has lived to see twenty-two. She knows true love’s kiss isn’t going to save her because she never gave herself permission to fall in love. That doesn’t stop her best friend Charmaine “Charm” Baldwin from loving Zinnia fiercely and giving her the exact kind of Sleeping Beauty themed birthday party she’d want for her last one.

The party is about what you’d expect: Whimsical and ironic until it turns maudlin and sad. Until things go sideways when Zinnia pricks herself on a spindle (she has to try it, okay?) and finds herself in another version of Sleeping Beauty with another dying girl trying to dodge her supposed happy ending–one that Zinnia might actually be able to save–in A Spindle Splintered (2021) by Alix E. Harrow.

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A Spindle Splintered is a novella inspired by Harrow’s desire to “spiderverse” a fairytale and the start of a new series. The story includes silhouette illustrations by Arthur Rackham that, as the copyright page notes, “were unavoidably harmed, fractures, and splintered during the design process.” These illustrations add an eerie note to the physical book while hinting at the darker origins behind many fairy tales that have become sanitized over time.

Zinnia’s narration is sharp-witted and often bitter–fitting for a character who knows she’s almost out of time–while her unshakeable friendship with Charm provides a grounding force throughout the fast-paced story. On the other side of the portal (or whatever it is that transports her, Zinnia was never big on science) she meets another dying girl. Primrose is the epitome of a fairy tale princess. Except that after she’s saved from her own hundred year sleep, she has no desire to marry her rescuer, Prince Harold, or any other man for that matter.

Part portal fantasy, part retelling, A Spindle Splintered offers a new interpretation of Sleeping Beauty both for Zinnia and the girl she meets after that fateful spindle prick. Recommended for readers looking for a no-nonsense protagonists and a decidedly modern take on a classic fairy tale.

Possible Pairings: Sleepless by Cyn Balog, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Stain by A. G. Howard, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Ash by Malinda Lo, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, Into the Spider-Verse

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

A Dark and Starless Forest: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah HollowellDerry has been living in a secluded house in the woods with her siblings and their protector, Frank, for years. They don’t have luxuries like cosmetics or snack foods or even new books and DVDs. They’re not spoiled at all. But they’re taken care of. They’re safe.

Which Frank has told them is much more important in a world that fears their magic. It’s the same reason he calls them alchemists instead of that more dangerous word: witches.

White, fat, sixteen-year-old Derry and her siblings dislike Frank and fear him even as Frank reminds them that he took them in when no one–not even their parents–wanted them. Derry and her siblings–eldest Jane (who is Black); Winnie (who is fat and white); Brooke (fat, Deaf, Mexican-American); white twins Elle and Irene (Irene is trans); nonbinary, Mexican-American Violet; and the youngest identical Black twins Olivia and London–have fierce bonds between them. Which makes it so much worse when first Jane and then Winnie disappear.

Frank says the girls must have died in the dense forest surrounding their home. But as Derry explores the forest she wonders if the disappearances might be tied to Frank himself.

As she learns more about Frank and her own magical affinity for growing both real and imagined plants Derry will have to decide how far she is willing to go to keep her loved ones safe in A Dark and Starless Forest (2021) by Sarah Hollowell.

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Despite each sibling having distinct magical abilities, this element of the story is largely set dressing for the novel’s plot which is a blend of horror and suspense sprinkled with hints about a dark moment in Derry’s past that makes her reluctant to re-enter the forest in her search for Jane (and later Winnie). The novel is also notable for its focus on the bond between Derry and her siblings with a total absence of romance subplots.

Derry’s first-person narration amplifies the siblings’ isolation with a palpable fear of Frank and his punishments, including the dreaded time out room whose horrors are honed to each sibling’s worst nightmares (blaring lights and erratic, staticky noise for Derry). The restricted narrative works to amp up the tension but leaves many questions about how the siblings’ magic works and, more importantly, the implications of said magic in the outside world.

Hollowell is at pains to create an inclusive cast with some elements (Violet being nonbinary, Irene’s trans identity, everyone’s use of ASL–designated by single quotes around signed dialog–to communicate with Brooke) integrated into the narrative better than others. Derry’s quest to find her missing siblings and save all of them from Frank drives the story but leaves little room for character development of the other siblings who are often absent from the action and remain little more than names and attributes.

Derry’s moral ambiguity is unresolved by the end of the novel as she embraces darker choices to save her siblings heedless of the consequences. Questions about world building and what will come next for all of the siblings are also up in the air. A Dark and Starless Forest is a dark, inclusive blend of horror and extremely light fantasy. Ideal for readers looking for a slightly supernatural tale of suspense.

Possible Pairings: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Half Bad by Sally Green, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton, Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Across the Green Grass Fields: A Review

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuireRegan was seven years old when she learned that the most dangerous thing a girl can be is different. It’s the reason her former best friend, Heather, is a social pariah on the playground. It’s the reason Regan knows to stay on her other best friend Laurel’s good side even if it means keeping herself in a very specific box.

As Regan gets older it becomes more and more obvious that she won’t fit inside that box for much longer. Her love of horses is only barely acceptable to other girls as their interests start to shift to boys. While all of the other girls seem to be maturing, Regan wants everything to stay the same. When her parents tell Regan that she is intersex a lot of things start to make sense. Her friendship with Laurel is not one of those things as she rejects Regan in the cruelest way possible.

Distraught and desperate to get away, Regan runs to the woods and keeps running until she passes through a magical door into the Hooflands. In a world populated by centaurs and other horse-like creatures, every human is unique and no one thinks Regan is too different. Instead, for the first time, Regan feels at home.

But a human in the Hooflands only means one thing. The land needs a hero. Whether Regan is ready to be one or not in Across the Green Grass Fields (2021) by Seanan McGuire.

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Across the Green Grass Fields is the sixth installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway.

While Regan’s story is similar in tone and style to the other novellas in this series, her story is largely divorced from the rest of the series and functions entirely as a standalone. Regan and the Hooflands are odes to Horse Girls everywhere. Although Regan’s first encounters in the Hooflands are with the centaurs who accept her as part of their herd and the unicorns they tend, the Hooflands have many more horse-adjacent creatures including kelpies, perytons, and kirins like the current Hooflands queen Kagami.

Despite her awe and immediate love for the Hooflands, Regan knows she isn’t truly safe or home. Her centaur friends are quick to warn her that humans only come to the Hooflands when there is a great need bringing about changes that, while mythic in nature, are poorly documented beyond the fact that most humans are never seen again after embaring on their life-changing quest.

Regan’s story walks a fine line between menace and enchantment as readers come to love the Hooflands and her friends as much as Regan does. Even while waiting for the foreshadowed dangers to arrive.  Across the Green Grass Fields is a razor sharp commentary on the dangers of embracing the status quo and a perfect entry point for this long running series which promises more adventures to come.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Scwhab, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

Come Tumbling Down: A Review

“The Moors turned us both into monsters. But it did a better job with me.”

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireIdentical twins Jack and Jill found dangers and horrors when they stepped through their magical door into the Moors. They also found themselves for the first time. But in a world where everyone is a villain of some sort, hard choices have to be made–choices that have consequences for both sisters.

Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children carrying her sister’s body. Jack had to kill Jill before she could murder anyone else in her mad quest to get back to the Moors and her dark master. But death isn’t always permanent in the Moors. Even when it should be.

When Jack herself is carried back to the school in a storm of lightning and chaos, she’ll need to turn to old friends and some new enemies for help to clean up Jill’s latest mess.

In a world where science comes close to magic and monsters can sometimes be heroes, balance must be maintained. And there’s always a cost in Come Tumbling Down (2020) by Seanan McGuire.

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Come Tumbling Down is the fifth installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series. While most of the novellas in this series function as standalones, Come Tumbling Down is a direct continuation of the plot that begins in Every Heart a Doorway and continues in Down Among the Sticks and Bones and Beneath the Sugar Sky so be sure to read those first.

McGuire introduces readers to a wide variety of alternate worlds in this series. The Moors is, arguably, the worst–a high logic world with clear nods to Dracula and Frankenstein where monsters lurk in every shadow and even the heroes sometimes have to be villains. That might make the world sound like a thin pastiche but McGuire applies her considerable talents to build a world that is nuanced and filled with moral ambiguity.

The interplay between hero and villain–and what it means to be a monster–plays out in Come Tumbling Down as readers begin to understand the choices that led Jack and Jill down their divergent paths. Familiar characters from Eleanor West’s school also play significant roles as they all do their best to try and help Jack and the Moors.

Come Tumbling Down is a grim page turner where actions have consequences and love can heal as easily as it can sour. This installment showcases all of the things McGuire does best in this series as she digs into the world of the Moors with a sharp focus on main character Jack and antagonist Jill. A must-read for fans of the series.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Scwhab, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

The Girl From the Sea: A Graphic Novel Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Girl From the Sea by Molly Knox OstertagFifteen-year-old Morgan Kwon is counting down the days until she finishes high school. Once she graduates Morgan will be able to start her real life at college where she won’t have to worry about her divorced mom or her moody younger brother, Aiden.

Best of all, Morgan won’t have to keep any more secrets–like the fact that she’s gay. Even with a supportive family and a great group of friends, Morgan isn’t sure how anyone will take that news. She isn’t sure she wants to find out.

Everything changes one night when Morgan falls into the water. Saved by a mysterious girl named Keltie, Morgan starts to wonder if she doesn’t have to wait for her real life to start after all.

Kelie is pretty and funny. She helps Morgan see Wilneff Island in a new light. She’s also a little strange. But by the time Morgan learns the truth about Keltie, she knows she’ll do whatever it takes to help Keltie. Even if it means revealing some of her own secrets in The Girl From the Sea (2021) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

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The Girl From the Sea is a summery standalone graphic novel illustrated in full color.

The story closely follows Morgan as she balances summer fun with her friends (including clever pages of texts between the group of girls interspersed throughout the book) alongside getting to know Keltie. This sweet story of first love and embracing yourself is rounded out with hints of environmentalism and selkie folkore that Morgan and Keltie unpack together as Keltie reveals her secrets.

Tight plotting, carefully detailed illustrations, and fully realized characters make The Girl From the Sea a graphic novel that readers will want to revisit again and again.

Possible Pairings: The Lucky List by Rachael Lippincott, Bloom by Kevin Panetta, You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez, Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

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

All Our Hidden Gifts: A (WIRoB) Review

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

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue Unlike her successful and much older siblings, Maeve Chambers has never been known as an exemplary student. While Maeve and her former best friend Lily O’Callaghan both made it out of the slow reading class where they met, school is still a struggle for Maeve. A lot of things are a struggle for her when “sometimes frustration and rage surge through [Maeve], sparking out in ways [she] can’t predict or control.”

Adrift at her Catholic school, St. Bernadette’s, where she struggles to keep up with classwork and make new friends after her estrangement from Lily, Maeve is familiar with detention. “The story of how [Maeve] ended up with the Chokey Card Tarot Consultancy can be told in four detentions, three notes sent home, two bad report cards, and one Tuesday afternoon that ended with [her] locked in a cupboard.” After locating a mysterious deck of tarot cards while cleaning out said cupboard, Maeve discovers an unexpected knack for interpreting the cards for herself and classmates earning a certain notoriety (and some pocket money) as her reputation grows. Every card is easy to learn and understand except for one: The Housekeeper–a card that has no known meaning in any tarot guide Maeve can find.

What starts as a mysterious extra card soon invokes disastrous results when Maeve is goaded into offering a reading to Lily in front of their entire class. The Housekeeper’s appearance leads to harsh words between the former friends before Lily’s sudden disappearance.

Without a clear explanation for what happened to Lily, Maeve knows she’s an obvious person of interest in the case. As she tries to understand what happened to Lily and if it connects to the sudden increased popularity of a local fundamentalist group called the Children of Brigid, Maeve realizes that she, and the Housekeeper card, may have played a bigger role in Lily’s disappearance than she realized.

With help from Lily’s older brother Rory (Roe to those closest to him) and new friend Fiona, Maeve will have to uncover the truth behind the Housekeeper and her own affinity for magic if she wants to bring Lily home. Maeve describes Fiona as having an Irish first name, an English last name (Buttersfield), brown skin from her Filipina mother and limited “patience for other people’s bullshit” as many people try to fit her into various boxes. Most of the rest of the cast is presumed white.

All Our Hidden Gifts is Caroline O’Donoghue’s YA debut and the projected start of a series. Find it on Bookshop.

Black and white illustrations by Stefanie Caponi of different tarot cards–including the infamous Housekeeper–are included throughout the novel. Readers will learn tarot basics along with Maeve as she begins to interpret cards while readers familiar with tarot will recognize key symbology and common card meanings. Readers especially well-versed in tarot might also recognize the cover artwork by Lisa M. Sterle, the artist behind the Modern Witch Tarot deck and guide journal.

O’Donoghue folds many different elements into this often sprawling narrative that tries to unravel the dual mysteries of Lily’s disappearance and the Housekeeper card while also tackling increased intolerance throughout the Irish city of Kilbeg as escalated by the Children of Brigid and their eerily savvy American leader, Aaron. Mysticism and folklore add another layer to this already packed story as one character asserts “every culture you can think of has some version of the White Lady” whether or not she is called the Housekeeper.

Against this larger backdrop, Maeve tries to understand her–and the Housekeeper’s–role in Kilbeg’s unrest while navigating her new friendship with Fiona. Maeve’s fledgling romance with Roe–who sees his pronouns and gender identity as negotiable as he works on expressing his truest self with his chosen name and genderqueer fashion—adds some sweetness to an otherwise grim story trying to find Lily.

Flashbacks to the events leading up to Maeve and Lily’s falling out contrast with the tense present as the story builds to a dramatic conclusion that readers can only hope will be followed with a second book.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell, Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling

Baby and Solo: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Baby and Solo by Lisabeth PosthumaRoyal Oaks, Michigan, 1996: After being in and out of mental hospitals for years, seventeen-year-old Joel Teague is almost Normal. He hasn’t had any visible signs of What Was Wrong With Him since he was fifteen, he goes to therapy, and he even has a new prescription from his therapist: Get a part-time job. While Joel’s overbearing mother is wary of the advice, Joel’s father is hopeful. So is Joel, as he puts it, “Maybe all that remained between me and being Normal again was providing goods or services to my peers for minimum wage for a while. It was worth a try.”

Enter ROYO Video where Joel is soon working part-time and well on his way to becoming the “Doogie Howser of the video store corporate ladder.” In a store where every employee goes by the name of a movie character, Joel is more than ready to become Solo, short for Han Solo Star Wars—Joel’s favorite movie and a movie that’s been forbidden in his home since the Bad Thing Happened. With the new name, Joel also gets a tabula rasa (clean slate) to try making friends, working, and proving he is totally capable of being Normal.

At the store, Joel finds routine work surprisingly comforting as he gets to know his motley assortment of coworkers including sexy manager Jessica (Scarlet at the store) who claims “Scarlett O’Hara’s her favorite movie character” but lacks “the decency to spell her name with both t’s,” The Godfather—an Asian girl who “had presence in the way someone ballsy enough to call herself ‘The Godfather’ should,” and Nicole/Baby (from Dirty Dancing).

What starts as a routine job quickly becomes something more as Joel discovers the potential for real connection with his coworkers—especially Baby who is dealing with her own Something Wrong With Her while introducing Joel to the ins and outs of the video rental world and improving his film education one movie viewing at a time in Baby and Solo (2021) by Lisabeth Posthuma.

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As Joel becomes friendlier with Baby, he realizes that getting to know her might also involve letting her get to know him—including What Was Wrong With Him even after establishing his clean slate—a risk he isn’t sure he’s willing to take. As he notes, “It’s a lot of responsibility, knowing the entire truth about a person, and I was too busy trying to become what I might have been to get involved in What Was Wrong with someone else.”

This character-driven novel slowly unspools the intensely mutual (and notably platonic) friendship between Solo and Baby as they share their vulnerabilities and help each other through a tumultuous year including a pregnancy and continued mental health struggles. When new employee Maverick (Andres in real life) joins the ROYO video team, Joel is also forced to confront his own internalized homophobia courtesy of his mother and his family history with The Bad Thing That Happened and partially led to What Was Wrong with Joel.

Joel’s first-person narration is wry and straight to the point with careful asides hinting at his years “in and out of the psych ward” and how they impacted him (one notable example being that Joel is “hard to scandalize” now) alongside practical advice from his years of therapy that he shares with both readers and other characters processing complex emotions including grief and loss. After years of keeping people at a remove, Joel is terrified of connection, even as he craves it—a push and pull that continues throughout the story as Joel begins to understand that “if you want to experience healthy intimacy in relationships, you’re going to have to be emotionally vulnerable with someone at some point.”

As the title suggests, Joel and Baby are the central point of this story but they are far from the only worthwhile characters. The mostly white cast is fully developed and well-realized. 1990s pop culture, movie references thanks to the video store setting and an in-theater viewing of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and day-to-day retail struggles including quirky customers, a mandatory Secret Santa exchange, and more highlight Joel’s new reality while he hints at The Bad Thing that happened and works to find closure with What Was Wrong.

Whether or not readers were around for the 1990s and the pre-streaming world of video rental, Baby and Solo is a universal and timeless story of friendship, growth, retail employment and the ups and downs of all three.

Possible Pairings: Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes, The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle, Nice Try Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

In the Study With the Wrench: A Review

*In the Study With the Wrench is the second book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue. Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers.*

In the Study With the Wrench by Diana PeterfreundOne blizzard and one murder later, Blackbrook Academy is a disaster. The campus is still in disarray with unrepaired storm damage. Students are withdrawing faster than you can say, “Did you hear about Headmaster Boddy’s murder?”

And, in the midst of the media firestorm, six students have earned an unwelcome reputation as the Murder Crew after discovering the body and helping to solve the murder.

Orchid relishes being back on campus even with the school’s tanking reputation because being there, being Orchid, means she’s safe from her past. Vaughn Green is thrilled that he and Orchid have a chance to spend more time together–but he also knows that means she’ll have more time to figure out what he’s hiding. In the wake of discovering some of Finn Plum’s secrets, Scarlett is reeling as one half of a former platonic power couple while Finn struggles to figure out how to win back her trust. Beth “Peacock” Picach is back on top of her tennis game thanks to a new life coach. Then there’s Sam “Mustard” Maestor who is still trying to make sense of his new (surprisingly dangerous) school … and his infatuation with the often deeply annoying Finn.

In a school that’s still filled with unaswered questions, maybe it’s no surprise when another dead body turns up and brings the Murder Crew to the center of another investigation in In the Study With the Wrench (2020) by Diana Peterfreund.

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In the Study With the Wrench is the second book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers.

Like its predecessor, this novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six main characters. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx, the rest of the cast is presumed white.

In the Study With the Wrench picks up shortly after the conclusion of book one as students return for a new term to find the school and its campus much changed. Peterfreund expands on plot twists revealed in the previous novel’s final chapter while delving deeper into Blackbrook Academy’s secrets in this second installment. Readers also learn more about Vaughn’s tense home life and his complicated connection to the school as well as seeing more of more of Orchid’s past.

While this information sets up a lot of interesting plot threads to be tied up in the conclusion of this fast-paced trilogy, Vaughn and Orchid are often the least interesting characters as readers quickly learn more about their respective situations than either character–or anyone else in the book–giving some later plot twists less impact. The classic game characters, reinterpreted by Peterfreund, continue to be the greatest strength of this series.

With an almost literal cliffhanger ending, more murder, and plenty of suspects, In the Study With the Wrench is another exciting installment in a mystery that is equal parts humor and suspense.

Possible Pairings: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett, Heist Society by Ally Carter, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Killing November by Adriana Mather, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

A Psalm for the Wild-Built: A Review

“The human body can adapt to almost anything, but it is deceptively selective about the way it does so.”

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky ChambersSibling Dex begins to dream of hearing crickets in the wild. Sibling Dex is very good at what they do as a monk in Panga’s city-located monastery. But have they become complacent?

Thinking the answer might be yes, Dex decides to become a tea monk. There’s nothing arcane about it but there is still a learning curve as Dex figures out how to listen to peoples’ problems and offer them a perfectly brewed cup of tea. With a self-sustaining wagon and increasing experience, Dex has everything they need.

But it turns out crickets are extinct in most of Panga.

After years of traveling the same route between Panga’s outermost villages, Dex decides their last chance to hear those crickets is to travel even farther out. Into the wild.

Then Dex meets Splendid Speckled Mosscap in the middle of the forest. Mosscap is one of the many robots on Panga who, after gaining self-awareness a century ago, chose to abandon the city and travel into the wild.

Now, the robots feel it’s time to check in on the humans and see what they need. And Mosscap has decided that Dex is the perfect person to help it figure that out. But as Dex struggles to figure out what they want for themself, the monk doubts that they can help a robot answer such a large question for all of Panga. Maybe there will at least be some crickets along the way in A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021) by Becky Chambers.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the first novella in Chambers’ new solarpunk series, Monk & Robot.

Chambers turns her considerable world building talents to imagine a bright future for humanity where society is harmonious, sustainable, and sees robots as little more than the stuff of legend until Mosscap comes along.

The gentle, character-driven narrative gives readers ample time to get to know Dex and understand the nuances of their work as a tea monk (as well as Dex’s restlessness) as Dex travels alone and, later, when Dex and Mosscap begin to talk. Philosophical questions of how robots and humans can (or should) interact as well as discussions of where passions can fit into this future pepper the story as Dex and Mosscap begin to understand what they can accomplish together.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the bright start to a series that promises to be as thought-provoking as it is cozy. Recommended for readers looking for science fiction with a little more tenderness and a lot of tea.

Possible Pairings: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Ryka Aoki, Last Day by Ruta Domenica, Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh, The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, All Systems Red by Martha Wells

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