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)

Little Thieves: A Review

The little thief steals gold, but the great one steals kingdoms; and only one goes to the gallows.
-Almanic proverb

Little Thieves by Margaret OwenFor Vanja Schmidt, nothing has ever been free–not even the love of her godmothers Death and Fortune. After years struggling to avoid trapping herself in service to either of the godmothers who refuse to claim her as their own, Vanja has almost earned enough to buy her freedom. By earn, she means stolen.

Vanja has left an impressive trail of damage in her wake ranging from stolen jewels to, most recently, a stolen life. Being Princess Gisele’s trusted maid should have kept Vanja safe. It didn’t. So Vanja finds her own way to safety by stealing Gisele’s enchanted pearls and using them to impersonate the princess. Gisele is left penniless and alone. But that is a small price to pay for Vanja to be safe and free–one she’d pay again twice over.

When Vanja is so close to freedom she can taste it, all of her lies threaten to bury her.

Vanja angers the wrong god and incurs a very dangerous curse on what should have been her last heist. Now Vanja will become exactly what she always wanted unless she can break the curse. It starts with a ruby on her cheek that could pay her entire way if only she could pry it loose. She can’t, of course. And neither can anyone else who covets it. That isn’t Vanja’s biggest problem.

If Vanja is unable to make amends for her past misdeeds in two weeks, the jewels will spread and kill her. Even if she survives that, Gisele’s fiance has pushed up their wedding. Meaning Vanja might find herself married to a brute of a prince who seems intent on making sure his bride never makes it past the honeymoon.

Worse, someone has finally caught onto Vanja’s schemes. And he might be the one person too smart for Vanja to outwit.

After years of cons and heists, Vanja is intimately familiar with the trinity of want. She knows how dangerous it is to be loved, or wanted, or used by the wrong people. She is less certain of how to find the right people to help her–let alone convince them to trust her–to steal back her life in Little Thieves (2021) by Margaret Owen.

Find it on Bookshop.

Little Thieves is an inventive retelling of the German fairytale “The Goose Girl.” It is also the first book in a duology. The story is narrated by Vanja with section headings grouped under different fairy tales Vanja shares with readers–each tale includes an illustration done by the author. Vanja is among several characters cued as white although the world Owen conjures strays from the stereotypical Germanic setting of many fairy tales to make space for characters who are BIPOC and from span the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Owen breathes new life into this familiar tale by reframing the story to follow the supposed villain. Flashbacks in the form of fairytales illuminate the deeds and misdeeds that led Vanja to steal Gisele’s pearls. They also offer hints of how Vanja can make her way back from it and break the curse.  Young sleuth Emeric Conrad is an apt foil to Vanja’s schemes and ably keeps pace with her throughout this clever tale.

After years of getting by on her wits and what she could steal with her own two hands, Vanja is slowly forced to admit that she might not be able to do everything alone. As she finds new allies–reluctant and otherwise–she slowly builds out a support system and confronts the role her own tendency for self-destruction played in her checkered past. Owen skillfully demonstrates Vanja’s growth throughout the novel as she moves from a girl willing to pry a ruby off her own face (if only she could) to one who might have to sacrifice everything to save the people she’s hesitantly begun to care about.

Little Thieves is a sleek page-turner that seamlessly blends classic fairytale elements with a high stakes con, sardonic humor, and flawed characters you can’t help but adore. Come for the imaginative world building and a truly distinct retelling, stay for the gasp-worthy twists, found family, and slow burn romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows

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

Gilded: A Chick Lit Wednesday (Blog Tour) Review

Gilded by Marissa MeyerAs a young man Serilda Moller’s father earned favor for his daughter from Wyrdith, the god of stories and fortune. But everyone knows a blessing from a god is not so different from a curse; especially when it comes from a trickster god like Wyrdith, the god of lies themself.

Now Serilda is almost grown and known throughout the village of Märchenfeld. The children adore her for her stories. The adults, quicker to call her a liar, are decidedly less enthusiastic. But Serilda knows every story has two sides and she knows the power in telling the most interesting story possible spinning a tale as rich as gold from seemingly nothing.

Serilda is mostly content with her small life at the mill with her father until one of her tales draws the attention of the Erlking. Whisked away by his wild hunt, Serilda is ordered to make one of her biggest lies come true. He wants her to spin straw into gold.

Desperate to save herself and her father from the Erlking’s ire, Serilda makes a bargain with a mysterious boy who haunts the Erlking’s castle. Not quite a ghost but not quite human, the boy wants to help. But all magic requires payment. And as Serilda’s lies get bigger and her feelings for the boy grow, Serilda is uncertain how much more she can afford to pay.

There are two sides to every story. The hero and the villain. The dark and the light. The blessing and the curse. Fortunes are always changing. And Serilda will soon learn that the turning of fortune’s wheel might be the greatest lie of all in Gilded (2021) by Marissa Meyer.

Find it on Bookshop.

Gilded is the first book in a duology retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. Although the story is grounded in Germanic folklore and Serilda is white, Meyer works to create a world that is more inclusive than that of traditional fairytales with secondary characters with brown skin and LGBTQ+ relationships. The gods in the pantheon of this world are non-binary.

Serilda is a sly narrator who is keenly aware of her reputation as a liar–a reputation she does little to deny even to her detriment–although she views her world with clear eyes and honest assessments of her place in it as well as the dangers of drawing the Erlking’s attention.

Fully developed characters and lush settings combine with Meyer’s nuanced world building and intricately presented mythology to create a riveting adventure. Serilda’s travails and her resilience keep the story moving forward despite the high page count (512 pages hardcover).

Meyer returns to her roots with this latest reinterpretation of Rumpelstiltskin. Gilded imbues the source material with gothic horrors, mythical creatures, and dangerous magic to create a dark and thrilling tale.

Possible Pairings: A Curse As Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow, Stain by A. G. Howard, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, Little Thieves by Margaret Owen, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

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

ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calpse: A Graphic Novel Review

ParaNorthern: and the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calypse by Stephanie Cooke and Mari CostaFall break for Abby means helping out at her mom’s coffee shop and babysitting her little sister, Ella. Hopefully in between all that Abby will get to hang out with her friends Hannah (a ghost who immigrated from a spectral dimension), Gita (a wolf-girl), and Silas (a pumpkinhead doing his best to spread awareness and encourage a gourd-free autumn for all). If she’s really lucky Abby will also get to practice some of her spellwork and potions–if she gets goods enough maybe her mom will add some of Abby’s potions to the menu.

When Ella is bullied by speed demons, Abby obviously has to help. But something goes wrong with her magic. Instead of diverting the bullies Abbby opens a portal to another realm. A realm filled with chaos bunnies.

The bunnies are super cute when they’re on their side of the portal. When they start hopping through North Haven they’re decidedly less cute and markedly more chaotic.

With the bunnies leaving a trail of, well, chaos in their wake Abby will have to get help from her friends to fix her magic and stop this a-hop-ocalypse in its tracks in ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calpse (2021) by Stephanie Cooke, illustrated by Mari Costa.

Find it on Bookshop.

ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calpse is a fun middle grade graphic novel that introduces readers to Abby, her friends, and the magical town of North Haven. Abby and her family are Black. Hannah is brown skinned and wears a hijab. Cooke and Costa have worked together to create a town that is presented as both inclusive and magical with background characters as well. This creates a lot of front-loading in terms of world building but it also makes North Haven a town readers will want to return to again and again.

Cooke drops readers into the middle of the story without a lot of explanation about North Haven’s clearly magical underpinnings or Abby’s abilities as a witch. As it turns out, that’s something Abby is still figuring out herself which becomes a big part of the book’s plot. Costa uses an orange-hued palette for scenes in North Haven while more magical panels on other planes are more purple. Snappy dialog between Abby’s friend group demonstrates support and gives space to a developing romance between Abby and Gita. Costa’s illustrations make bloodthirsty chaos bunnies cuter than they have any right to be while also admirably portraying motion and action including an expertly drawn double page spread of the rabbits runnning rampant through the coffee shop.

The fast clip of the story can feel rushed but remains enjoyable. Themes of support and love from both friends and family add heart to this magical adventure.

Possible Pairings: Moonstruck by Grace Ellis, Shae Beagle, Kate Leth; Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner; Snapdragon by Kat Leyh; Garlic and the Vampire by Bree Paulsen; Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks; Camp Midnight by Steven T. Seagle; The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner; Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

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

The Nature of Witches: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Nature of Witches by Rachel GriffinWitches maintain the weather and climate in every season. But as the weather becomes more erratic, the climate more damaged by shaders (those without magic) who take the witchs’ help for granted, it’s becoming harder for the witches to keep nature in balance. More witches are dying of depletion than ever before as they push their seasonal powers beyond their limits to try and help.

Clara could change that. As the first Everwitch born in a hundred years, she is stronger than any other witch alive. With her magic tied to every season, she should be positioned to help with out-of-season storms and other unpredictable weather phenomenon.

The problem no one is willing to acknowledge is that Clara’s magic is as dangerous as it is strong.

In Autumn, Clara is ready to do anything to deny her power. Her magic has already cost Clara her parents and her best friend. She isn’t prepared to lose anyone else.

In Winter, it’s harder to ignore how dangerous things are becoming for witches and shaders alike. Even Clara has to accept that she needs to help–no matter the risks.

In Spring, Clara falls for Sang, the spring witch helping her learn to control her powers. As Clara becomes more comfortable with her magic, falling for Sang feels inevitable even if it means making him a target for her magic. Clara already severed ties with her ex-girlfriend to protect her. She isn’t sure she can do that to Sang.

In Summer, Clare will have to decide once and for all if she can balance her happiness and her magic–and how much she’s willing to give up for either in The Nature of Witches (2021) by Rachel Griffin.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Nature of Witches is Griffin’s debut novel. Clara is white, Sang is Korean American, and there is diversity among the supporting cast.

This novel is strongly tied to the seasons which are on full display at the Eastern School of Solar Magic in Pennsylvania where most of the story takes place. The novel is set over the course of one year with parts broken up by the seasons which trace both the changing weather and subtle changes in Clara’s personality and moods as different seasons gain dominance.

Clara’s efforts to find control and ground her magic read as an extended (and for many readers, much needed) metaphor for mindfulness and acceptance. While some narrative threads–including Clara’s reluctant status as a rare Everwitch–will feel familiar to genre readers, Clara’s path to internal acceptance will be affirming and welcome for readers living in a world that often feels as out of control as Clara’s own. The weighty beginning as Clara moves through grief for her parents and other casualties from her magic also lightens throughout the narrative as Clara fully processes her losses. The slow burn between Clara and Sang as well as Clara’s complicated history with her ex-girlfriend add another dimension to this story and cue Clara as canonically bisexual.

Griffin’s lush writing is evocative and well-informed. Griffin became a certified weather spotter for the National Weather Service while writing this novel. A magic system that is cleverly integrated into our modern world underscores the current climate crisis and need for change while offering readers a decidedly escapist story. The Nature of Witches is the perfect choice for readers looking for a magic-infused story with high stakes, characters with chemistry, and lush writing. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Sweet and Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Twister

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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, Gilded by Marissa Meyer, 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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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