Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion: A Review

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rules of Magic: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bounce Back: A Graphic Novel Review

Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!Moving to a new country means a lot of changes for Lilico Takada. In Japan Lilico was popular and the captain of her school basketball team. In Brooklyn, Lilico has to start from scratch with her best friends on the other side of the world and a whole new school culture to figure out–all while working on improving her English. When Lilico’s hopes of finding new friends on the basketball team ends with a painful rejection, Lilico finds unlikely help from her cat, Nico, who turns out to be way more than a regular housecat.

With magical Nico dispensing advice and two new friends excited about Japanese culture (and talking cats), Lilico finally start to find her footing. As Lilico navigates a year full of changes for her entire family, she’ll take any help she can to figure out where she fits in Bounce Back (2021) by Misako Rocks!

Find it on Bookshop.

Bounce Back is a standalone graphic novel filled with sports, friendship, and some magic. The book reads in the Western (left-to-right) style with artwork in Misako’s typical manga-infused style. The pages include quick asides, footnotes, and even back matter with a guide to draw Nico, create some of the characters’ signature fashions, and learn Japanese. Nico’s transformation from beloved pet cat to talking guardian spirit also makes this a great stepping stone from magical girl stories to more contemporary fare.

Lilico comes from a close-knit family and Bounce Back does a great job of showing the upheaval for both Lilico and her parents as they adjust to the move–especially Lilico’s mom who has to work even harder to make her own friends and learn English since she doesn’t work outside of the home. With a strong focus on basketball this graphic novel blends sports with Japanese culture and even fashion as Lilico and her new classmates find intersecting interests.

Full color illustrations are easy to follow and bring Lilico and her semi-magical world vibrantly to life. Bounce Back is a fun manga-style graphic novel perfect for anyone whose ever had to deal with being the new kid.

Possible Pairings: Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas, New Kid by Jerry Craft, Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza, Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai, Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte, Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Alice Austen Lived Here: A Review

Alice Austen Lived Here by Alex GinoSam and TJ love being best friends and they love being nonbinary. Sam knows they’re lucky to have a family that gets it and is supportive and even luckier to have cool neighbors like femme Jess (who is fat and fabulous like Sam) and her family right in the same building.

Even at twelve, Sam already knows that not everyone is going to be as supportive which is why it’s no surprise that Sam and TJ’s history teacher is way more interested in teaching about Dead Straight Cis White Men (DSCWM for short) than anything really interesting. When they have to work on a presentation to create a new statue for Staten Island, Sam and TJ are determined to find someone outside of the DSCWM spectrum. Someone like photographer Alice Austen who lived right on Staten Island for years with her female partner.

When the kids find out that Alice Austen lived right in Sam’s very own apartment, the two become even more committed to their project. In researching Alice Austen and preparing their contest entry Sam learns more about the queer history surrounding his own friends and neighbors like Jess and 82-year-old lesbian Ms. Hansen as well as the larger history found throughout New York City.

Sam has never felt more connected to the queer community but as the contest deadline looms Sam and TJ worry their passion for representing Alice Austen might not be enough in Alice Austen Lived Here (2022) by Alex Gino.

Find it on Bookshop.

Gino’s latest novel taps into the moment as Sam and TJ become part of the movement to create monuments throughout New York that are more representative of the city’s diverse population. Be sure to check out the audiobook to hear Gino read their own words but check out a print copy for an author’s note about Gino’s connection to the story (and Alice) as well as some pictures of Alice Austen.

Sam is described as pale and blonde while TJ is described as having dark hair and tan skin. Most of Sam’s neighbors are presumed white. In addition to immersing readers in Sam and TJ’s ultra supportive community, this story also introduces readers to both Alice Austen and (later on) Audre Lorde–both real people whose work had lasting impact in New York, in queer communities, and beyond.

Alice Austen Lived Here is a gently told story about queer community, found family, and standing up for what you believe in. While Sam and TJ aren’t always sure their statue will win, their commitment is unwavering and an object lesson in staying true to yourself.

Possible Pairings: A High Five for Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner, Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker, Pride: An Inspirational History of the LGBTQ+ Movement by S. A. Caldwell, Twelfth by Janet Key, Ciel by Sophie Labelle, Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff, A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll, Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Vinyl Moon: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. BrowneFive weeks ago Angel was dating Darius. Five weeks ago she still believed he loved her. Five weeks ago, after one terrible night, all of that changed.

Now Angel is across the country in Brooklyn. She’s getting used to living with her uncle Spence and exploring the Flatbush neighborhood that’s now home. She’s trying to figure out who she is when she doesn’t have Darius telling her everything she’s doing right–or wrong–and who she is when she doesn’t have her younger brother Amir or the triplets to take care of.

After that horrible night and the argument that changed everything, Angel know she needs to heal. She just isn’t sure if she deserves to yet.

As she makes new friends and discovers books and music that feel like they were made for her, Angel starts to realize her world could be bigger than her family, bigger than Darius. For the first time in years, Angel has space to be anything she wants to be–once she figures out who that is in Vinyl Moon (2022) by Mahogany L. Browne.

Find it on Bookshop.

Set over the course of a school year, Vinyl Moon is a deceptively short novel with quick vignette-like chapters narrated by Angel as she gets situated and begins to feel at home in Brooklyn. Free verse poems are interspersed with the prose highlighting different elements of the story and adding a lyrical quality to this unique reading experience. The audiobook is narrated by Bahni Turpin (quickly becoming one of my favorite voice actors) who does a fantastic job bringing Angel’s world–and her voice–to life.

Angel and most characters are Black. Angel’s classmates include characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum with a variety of lived experiences including a single mother finishing high school, secret poets and DJs, and alternatives to college with potential love interest Sterling who is in the ROTC. The story is also deeply and authentically grounded in its New York City setting and specifically Brooklyn as Angel explores many neighborhood instituations that local readers will readily recognize.

The novel features flashbacks that slowly unpack exactly what happened to get Angel to Brooklyn and her complicated past with her family. As she gains distance from everything that happened with Darius, Angel begins to understand what happened and her agency in making sure it does not happen again. New friendships, her uncle, and support from teachers at her new school also help Angel view her fraught relationship with her mother in a new light and realize some relationships are worth saving.

My favorite part of Vinyl Moon is Angel’s journey to understand her own past while discovering a love for books, poetry, and music–Browne presents this plot thread with joy and passion as Angel’s world starts to expand. As Angel observes, “It’s not that I don’t like reading. I’ve just never had room to do anything for myself.”–a sentiment that applies to so many people making their way back to (or discovering) things they love.

Vinyl Moon is empowering, hopeful, and not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, Push by Sapphire, Genesis Begins Again by Alicia Williams, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

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*

They Wish They Were Us: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Why did the boys have the power? Why did they make the rules while we dealt with the consequences?”

Everything on Gold Coast, Long Island has a shine; a glimmer from expensive, well-made things and the people who can acquire those things so effortlessly.

Watching her parent’s struggle to keep up with their affluent neighbors and to pay her brother’s hefty tuition at Gold Coast Prep, Jill Newman has always known she doesn’t belong among the Gold Coast elite. The pressure she feels to maintain her scholarship and make good on all of her parents’ hard work is constant.

Being a Player is supposed to make it all easier. After a hellish year of hazing from the older members of the Gold Coast Prep secret society, Jill is in. With the Players’ impressive alumni network and not-so-secret app Jill has access to the answers to every test she might encounter at school and contacts to open any doors she wants for college and beyond. Once you get a seat with the Players, you’ll do anything to keep it.

Jill’s best friend Shaila Arnold never made it that far. Three years ago she was killed by her boyfriend, Graham, during the final night of initiation–the night Jill can barely think about. Graham confessed. The case has been closed for years. It’s over and Jill and her other friends have moved on.

Until Graham’s sister tells Jill that his confession was coerced. But if Graham didn’t kill Shaila, who did? As Jill delves deeper into the events leading up to Shaila’s death she’ll unearth old secrets about the Players on her way to the truth. But when you set yourself against a group that can get everything they want, they also have everything to lose in They Wish They Were Us (2020) by Jessica Goodman.

Find it on Bookshop.

They Wish They Were Us is Goodman’s debut novel. A TV adaptation called ‘The Players Table” is in development at HBO Max.

Jill is Jewish and most characters are presumed white aside from Jill’s other best friend Nikki whose family are Hong Kong emigres. Jill’s first person narration is tense as she reluctantly digs into Shaila’s murder while also reluctantly unpacking unpleasant memories from her own initiation into the players.

This plot-drive story tackles a lot while Jill deals with the pressures of her elite school and her complicated feelings about the Players and their hazing. Privilege, wealth, and self-presentation are also big topics as Jill begins to realize she isn’t the only one struggling to keep up appearances at Gold Coast Prep. Toxic masculinity and feminism also play big roles in the story although Goodman’s treatment of both can feel heavy-handed in its service to moving the story along.

Obvious red herrings, salacious twists, and the backdrop of luxe Gold Coast locales make They Wish They Were Us a frothy page turner.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, Admission by Julie Buxbaum, Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, These Vengeful Hearts by Katherine Laurin, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

Charming As a Verb: A Review

All kids are charming as an adjective. Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger has always been charming as a verb.

It’s a skill that has served him well as he smiles and Smiles his way through his various hustles on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Henri is a straight A student on scholarship at the elite FATE academy where he manages to keep up with his affluent friends and stay on top of academics. He is also, secretly, the owner (and sole dog walker) at Uptown Updogs.

As the child of Haitian immigrants, Henri is used to facing a lot of pressure. His father works as the superintendant of their building, his mother is close to becoming a firefighter after leaving her career as a paralegal. Henri himself is, hopefully, on his way to Columbia University–the dream he and his father have been chasing for as long as Henri can remember.

Everything seems to be falling into place until two obstacles land in Henri’s path. First, his alumni interview at Columbia does not go well making him question his eventual acceptance which had previously seemed inevitable after all of his hard work. Then Corinne Troy, his classmate and neighbor, threatens to blow Henri’s dog walking hustle apart. In exchange for keeping his secret, Corinne demands that Henri help her loosen up before own Ivy League dreams are ruined by a recommendation pointing out her “intensity.”

Henri reluctantly agrees only to realize that Corinne might actually be kind of fun. And cute. As he and Corinne grow closer, Henri grows more frantic to ensure his acceptance at Columbia. After working so hard, for so long, Henri is pretty sure he’ll do anything it takes to get in. What he didn’t count on is the people he might hurt along the way in Charming As a Verb (2020) by Ben Philippe.

Find it on Bookshop.

Charming As a Verb is, for lack of a better word, a charming story. Henri is just the right blend of calculating, sympathetic, and totally oblivious as he navigates the challenges of senior year and the college application process–not to mention his confusing feelings for Corinne, the one girl he can’t seem to charm with an easy Smile. Henri makes a lot of bad choices along the way (reader, I screamed at him while reading) but those decisions make his growth by the end of the story all the more satisfying.

While Henri is the linchpin holding this novel together, the supporting cast and evocative New York settings really make the story shine. Henri’s best friend Ming, a Chinese student adopted by Jewish parents, offers a contrast to Henri’s scrimping and saving while also providing rock solid support for Henri throughout his questionable decisions. It’s rare to find male friendship depicted so purely and it’s great to see. The fellow members of the debate team (and the debate competitions themselves) also add a lot of humor to the story while showcasing more of life at FATE Academy.

Henri’s complicated relationship with his family–especially his father whose Columbia dreams have shaped so much of Henri’s life thus far–is handled beautifully in this story as all of the Haltiwangers find their ways back to each other by the end of the story in a final act filled with hard conversations and a lot of love.

Charming As a Verb delivers on all fronts, cementing Ben Philippe as a go-to author for characters who are as sardonic as they are endearing. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Admission by Julie Buxbaum, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forrest, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, Again Again by E. Lockhart, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

How We Fall Apart: A Review

How We Fall Apart by Katie ZhaoAt Sinclair Prep, the whispers never stop; it’s a small price to pay for being at the most elite private high school in the country. Graduating from Sinclair Prep will open doors for every student–even scholarship kids like Nancy Luo.

Nancy knows a full scholarship and perpetual class rank as second best isn’t enough to make her truly belong at Sinclair Prep. Nancy’s best friend, Jamie Ruan, is quick to remind Nancy of that whenever she lets herself forget. But even with Jamie’s vicious reminders, even with everything she’s had to sacrifice to get this far, Nancy knows Sinclair Prep is the first step to becoming one of the beautiful, entitled people who can get whatever they want.

When Jamie doesn’t show up for Honors night, Nancy thinks it’s her chance to step into the spotlight and finally claim her spot at the top.

Nancy realizes how wrong she was when Jamie is found dead. As rumors spread that Jamie was murdered, an anonymous post on Tip Tap, the school’s gossip app, from “The Proctor” points to Jamie’s best friends–Nancy, Krystal Choi, Akil Patel, and Alexander Lin–as the prime suspects. The Proctor promises to reveal all of their darkest secrets on Tip Tap until they admit their complicity in Jamie’s death.

If the Proctor makes good on their threats, Nancy and her friends could lose everything–including Nancy and Alexander’s coveted scholarships. In a group of friends where everyone is hiding something, could keeping a secret prove deadly?

At Sinclair Prep Nancy has always known that being good and being the best are mutually exclusive. As the stakes climb, Nancy will have to choose how much she’s willing to give–and to take–in order to stay at the top in How We Fall Apart (2021) by Katie Zhao.

Find it on Bookshop.

How We Fall Apart is the first book in a projected duology. The story, narrated by Nancy, starts with the fallout from Jamie’s death. Flashbacks throughout the novel shed light on the secrets Nancy and other members of her friend group are trying so hard to keep buried during the murder investigation.

How We Fall Apart is one of the best mysteries I’ve read this year. Zhao’s plotting is unrivaled as every single thread in this story proves to be crucial to the larger plot while also leaving just enough seeds to justify a second book. At the same time, readers should be advised that mental health plays a major part in this story–and in the circumstances of Jamie’s death. Be sure to check Zhao’s website for full trigger warnings.

Nancy is a calculating protagonist. She knows what she wants and exactly what price tag to attach to it as she struggles to keep her head above water within Sinclair Prep’s cutthroat social scene. With everything to gain, and so much to lose, Nancy is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her spot at the school leading her to increasingly ruthless choices as the novel progresses.

How We Fall Apart is an engrossing mystery set in the pressure cooker of an elite high school. Say hello to your next dark academia obsession.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, The Best Lies by Sarah Lyu, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund

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

An Unkindness of Magicians: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat HowardFortune’s Wheel has begun its Turning. When it ceases rotation, all will be made new.

So begins every Turning in the Unseen World. Letters, emails, and other missives are sent to every House throughout New York City–a warning to prepare.

Some like Laurent Beauchamps–an outsider as a Black man and a new initiate to magic–hope to establish their own Houses. Others like Laurent’s best friend Grey Prospero–a legacy to magic despite being disinherited–see this Turning as a chance to prove themselves and reclaim what should rightfully be theirs no matter the cost.

The Turning is also a chance for established Houses like the Merlins to maintain their position at the top ruling over the Unseen World. While leaders of larger Houses like Miranda Prospero hope to grasp at this chance to shake things up.

Houses can represent themselves in the Turning or hire out help. Miranda doesn’t know what to make of Ian Merlin choosing to represent her House instead of his own father’s but she knows she can’t afford to turn down Ian’s offer if she wants to finally wrest power away from Miles Merlin.

What no one at the Turning counted on was Sydney: the mysterious champion Laurent hires. An outsider herself, Sydney knows how magic works and she knows it is breaking. If she has her way, the entire magic system underpinning the Unseen World will be destroyed before she’s finished.

Fortune’s Wheel is turning. Some will rise, some will fall. But at the end of this one, everything will change and it will be time for the world to be remade in An Unkindness of Magicians (2017) by Kat Howard.

Find it on Bookshop.

An Unkindness of Magicians is a standalone urban fantasy with a shifting close third person narration. The story unfolds in different directions as the narratives shifts between Sydney, Miranda, Ian and other key players in both the Unseen World and the Turning itself.

Against the backdrop of the Turning and its magical competitions Howard builds out the Unseen World, its archaic hierarchies, and the iniquities at the center of how magic is used and distributed in a sharp examination of privilege and legacy. Unsolved murders throughout the Unseen World add another dimension to this already rich story.

An Unkindness of Magicians is a nuanced and intricate novel with a slow build as plots and characters begin to intersect in advance of a sensational conclusion. Howard populates this story with a group of fiercely determined and clever characters–especially women–looking for justice and victory in a world that would willingly to cast them aside. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Book of Night by Holly Black, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman, Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly, Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth