A Forgery of Roses: A (WIRoB) Review

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

A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. OlsonPainters are disappearing throughout Lalverton with many devout citizens say this is just treatment for those who choose to paint–a creative outlet seen as holy and solely as the domain of the Great Artist. Conservatives including the governor fear the growing popularity in portraiture; the presence of Prodigy magic in Lalverton makes the taboo artform seem like even more of a threat.

With her mother–another Prodigy and talented artist–among the missing, Myra Whitlock knows she has to hide her own magical gift if she wants to keep herself and her younger sister, Lucy, safe. Scriptures are very clear that Prodigies are “a defilement of the power of our god, the Great Artist.” With magic that “gives a painter the ability to alter human and animal bodies with their paintings,” Prodigies have long been seen as “even more of an abomination than normal portrait work.” Their powerful ability also means that Prodigies “have been persecuted by the pious and captured by the greedy since the dawn of time.”

Lacking in proper training and control, Myra’s magic is even more dangerous. She can manipulate a person’s sevren threads to alter their appearance and heal injuries, but she can’t dictate when or how her magic will work instead having to paint through it while her magic buzzes “like a swarm of bees inside [her] head.” With finances dwindling in the wake of her parents’ disappearances, Myra desperately needs work to earn enough for rent, food, and for the nurse Lucy needs to help manage the symptoms of her chronic illness.

When Myra’s magic is discovered by the worst person possible, she forges an uneasy bargain with the governor’s wife. If Myra can use her Prodigy gift to resurrect the governor’s dead son, she could earn enough for a proper home, tuition to attend the conservatory, and even a real doctor to treat Lucy. If Myra fails, the governor’s wife will expose Myra as a Prodigy and her life could well be forfeit.

Spirited to Rose Manor in the dead of night, Myra has four days to complete her work before the body decays beyond help. Among the “ancient wealth and finery,” Myra sets to her grim work. But it soon becomes clear the governor’s son did not suffer an accidental fall as Myra has been told. Something more sinister is at work–something that could be even more dangerous to Myra than her exposure as a Prodigy. With reluctant help from August–the governor’s older, less favored son–Myra begins investigating the suspect death and trying to understand why her magic isn’t working. With time running out, Myra will uncover unsavory truths about the stately mansion and its residents in A Forgery of Roses (2022) by Jessica S. Olson.

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Olson blends mystery and suspense with a gothic sensibility in this standalone fantasy where all characters are assumed white. Myra narrates with an artist’s eye focused on color as seen when she describes making ladyrose gel–a medium from the author’s imagination that allows oil paints to dry fast enough for artists to complete full paintings in a matter of hours–from burnt flower petals: “As soon as it hits the water, the rose blood fans out, a spiderweb of shimmering scarlet veins crawling through the pot until the whole thing clouds like it’s full of sparkling garnet dust.” Myra’s keen eye for detail also works well within the narrative to increase tension and broadcast danger with one character described as having eyes that “glimmer like pond-slick moons” and “pearl earrings glow milky white like bones on either side of her face, twitching with every word she utters.”

To resurrect the governor’s son, Myra also has to understand the circumstances of his death and his emotional state at the time of death. As Myra explains, sevren are the “connective fibers that bind the soul to the physical form, they’re born from each person or animal’s emotional perception of their bodies. The more emotionally significant a physical feature is to that person or animal, the tighter and denser the bonds become.” Because of this, Myra takes a clinical eye to the body she is trying to restore with grisly precision as she notes “the crushed and mangled ear, the blood congealing on the hair, the fragments of skull and brain tissue” and the “scraped skin and the way the blood has pooled on the bottom of the body” while trying to paint the body as it is before layering in her changes.

Feeling a sense of urgency as time begins to run out and her paintings continue to fail, Myra works (and flirts) with August to investigate his brother’s death. While searching for clues together, August opens up about his daily struggle with severe anxiety which is well-represented in the text. As August explains, “This anxiety will always be a part of me. It’s not going anywhere, and I’m going to have to live with it for the rest of my life. But I am not broken because of it.”

Myra’s desperation to complete her work before she is exposed as a Prodigy only increases when Lucy’s illness takes a turn for the worse. Although unnamed in the text, symptoms include food sensitivity and intestinal distress which Lucy manages with scientific precision in notebooks where “food logs, graphs, and lists of symptoms are mapped out carefully on each page.” Readers will also recognize Spoon theory, described in the text as juice in a glass where “Every action of daily life—getting out of bed, bathing, dressing, doing research—siphoned juice away. Once the glass was empty, no matter how much she had left she needed to do or how much she’d hoped to get done, her body needed to rest. To refill the glass.”

A Forgery of Roses combines art, fantasy, and a truly surprising mystery with authentic and respectful representation for both anxiety and chronic illness which are seen as points of strength rather than flaws in this story where as Myra notes about Lucy “As far as I’m concerned, I may be the one with magic, but she’s the truly powerful one. Because she’s fought where I have never had to.” Myra and August’s romance and a final act filled with the surprise twists that are a hallmark of gothic literature at its best further enhance this story where a picture is worth much more than a thousand words.

Emma Carbone is a librarian and reviewer. She has been blogging about books since 2007.

Possible Pairings: The Beautiful by Renee Ahdieh, The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha Hastings, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Gallant by V. E. Schwab, The Splendor by Breeana Shields, Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor, All that Glitters by Gita Trelease

The Astonishing Color of After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. PanLeigh knows that her mother turned into a bird after she killed herself. The bird came to her before the funeral. She came again with a box for Leigh to take with her when she goes.

She isn’t sure what the bird wants or how to help her mother. All she knows is that she and her father are now in Taiwan and Leigh is meeting her maternal grandparents for the first time.

Nothing about the trip or her family is what Leigh expected. Her world feels colorless and confusing–coated with grief and filled with ghosts. But as Leigh learns more about her family, her heritage, and her mother’s past it starts to feel like Leigh might be able to find a way through in The Astonishing Color of After (2018) by Emily X.R. Pan.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Astonishing Color of After is Pan’s debut novel.

It’s taken me a while to review this book because I’ve been struggling with separating how hard this book is to read with how very good it is.

The novel opens shortly after Leigh’s mother has killed herself. Leigh comes home just in time to see her body being taken away, to see the blood, and she is haunted by the thought that she might have been able to do something if only she’d been home instead of celebrating 2.5s Day with her best friend and longtime crush Axel.

Leigh finds a way to channel her grief when a bird comes to her. Leigh knows it’s her mother. She knows the bird is real. She also knows that her mother the bird has things she shouldn’t have–photographs that were burned, heirlooms that were sent to Taiwan.

In traveling to Taiwan Leigh thinks she can somehow rescue her mother the bird and bring her home. Instead Leigh embarks on a journey of discovery and understanding as she learns more about her heritage and her family’s past. She still hurts, she still mourns, but she also begins to learn how to move on and how to forgive.

In traveling to Taiwan Leigh also begins to learn more about her family’s heritage and culture–things that were hard to hold onto as a biracial girl–especially with her mother eager to embrace her new life in America and leave the past behind.

The Astonishing Color of After is not an easy read–Pan’s writing is too visceral, too evocative for that. Instead readers are immediately drawn into Leigh’s journey. Flashbacks shed light on Leigh’s relationship with Axel–a thread that ties the novel together from its painful opening to its hopeful conclusion–while memories from Leigh’s relatives shed light on her mother’s past while also underscoring the flaws in Leigh’s memories and the things she has tried to forget.

The Astonishing Color of After is a powerful and nuanced story about loss, forgiveness, art, and all of the things that make a family–whether it’s blood or a deeper bond. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Boman, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, Tell Me No Lies by Adele Griffin, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Blood Water Paint: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I paint the blood.”

cover art for Blood Water Paint by Joy McCulloughRome, 1610: Artemisia Gentileschi had limited options when her mother died at twelve. She could join a convent or she could work in her father’s studio grinding paint, preparing canvases, and modeling as needed.

She chose art.

Now, at seventeen, Artemisia is a key factor to the success of her father’s studio–not that anyone knows it since she can’t sign her name to her art. Instead Artemisia works in secret while her father takes the credit.

Artemisia dreams of improving her craft, stepping out of her father’s shadow, and painting heroic figures like Susanna and Judith the way they were meant to be seen–not as titillating figures colored by the male gaze.

When she is raped by a fellow artist who she thought she could trust and respect, Artemesia dares to tell the truth–and to demand justice–in spite of the horrendous cost in Blood Water Paint (2018) by Joy McCullough.

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Blood Water Paint is McCullough’s debut novel. Artemisia narrates the story in sparse verse. Interspersed between these stories are prose sections in which Artemisia remembers the stories of Susanna and Judith as her mother told them to her as a child.

McCullough beautifully details Artemisia’s passion and commitment to her art. The story begins in Artemesia’s teen years and continues through her rape by Agostino Tassi and the subsequent trial. Her rage and frustration against the artistic establishment and her limited options as a woman in Rome are palpable throughout the story–especially during the trial when she is subjected first to a gynecological exam and later torture with thumbscrews to “prove” the truth of her testimony. The novel ends as Artemisia begins again returning to her painting in the wake of the trial and its outcome.

McCullough makes excellent use of free verse to highlight Artemisia’s talents and internalize her anger and fear after the rape. This format also allows the novel to provide a thorough telling while sticking to the broad strokes of Artemesia’s triumphs rather than focusing in on her suffering.

Blood Water Paint is an excellent verse novel and carefully researched historical fiction. Recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Joy about Blood Water Paint too!

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, One Great Lie by Deb Caletti, Da Vinci’s Tiger by L. M. Elliott, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

 

An Enchantment of Ravens: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Why do we desire, above all other things, that which has the greatest power to destroy us?”

cover art for An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret RogersonIn the town of Whimsy Craft is currency. The fair folk value human artistry and creativity above all else–they crave it and collect it in lieu of creating on their own. For the right talent they might even offer humans their most coveted prize: immortality.

Isobel has made a comfortable life for herself and her aunt and sisters in Whimsy thanks to her skills as a portrait painter. But even Isobel’s talent can’t protect her from the whims of the fair folk. Any fairy client is dangerous–even Isobel’s oldest and most likely harmless patron, Gadfly–but royal ones especially so.

Isobel hopes to dazzle Rook, the autumn prince, with her Craft and then never see him again. Instead, her inclusion of human sorrow in Rook’s expression may doom them both in An Enchantment of Ravens (2017) by Margaret Rogerson.

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An Enchantment of Ravens is Rogerson’s debut novel.

Isobel’s first person narration is candid and self-aware with prose that is delicately woven on a sentence level and serves well to compliment the story’s masterful world building.. She is keenly aware of the dangers of the fair folk, particularly their promise of immortality from the Green Well. The beauty and charm of the fair folk stands in stark contrast to their terrifying lack of humanity offering a nuanced interpretation of the fae that will appeal to fans of Holly Black’s faerie novels.

Instead of being drawn in by all of this glamour, Isobel is at pains to maintain her agency and control. Throughout An Enchantment of Ravens she remains utterly pragmatic and logical even as she is forced to do wild and unexpected things–with caring about and trusting Rook being the most illogical of all.

Isobel is a singular heroine and Rook an admirable foil and ally. This character-driven novel is further enhanced with a strong group of secondary characters notably including newly immortal Aster and my personal favorite, Gadfly. This standalone novel builds to a surprising and truly satisfying conclusion as pieces fall into place as neatly as the brushstrokes in one of Isobel’s portraits. An Enchantment of Ravens is an inventive and unique fantasy filled with fairies, danger, and romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Starfish: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Starfish by Akemi Dawn BowmanAll of Kiko Himura’s hopes are pinned on getting accepted to Prism–her dream art school. At Prism Kiko knows that it won’t matter that she’s half-Japanese and knows barely anything about her own culture. She won’t need to regret her failed relationships with her brothers. She’ll be able to get away from her mother who is alternately suffocating and neglectful. Best of all, Kiko knows that at Prism she’ll finally be understood the way she always used to be by her childhood best friend, Jamie.

After Prism rejects her, Kiko is forced to consider other options–especially when her abusive uncle moves into the house and makes life even more unbearable. When Kiko and Jamie meet up at a party, Kiko jumps at the improbable chance to tour art schools with him on the west coast. Along the way Kiko will learn how to be brave and and let herself be heard while understand that sometimes second choices can lead to second chances in Starfish (2017) by Akemi Dawn Bowman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Starfish is Bowman’s debut novel and a finalist for YALSA’s 2018 Morris Award.

This is a quiet and deliberate novel. Kiko knows better than most that words have weight thanks to what happened when she spoke out about her uncle’s abuse and also from the methodical way Kiko’s mother uses them to break her down. Kiko’s visions of vivid sketches and lavish paintings are interspersed throughout Starfish helping Kiko give voice to her emotions when she doesn’t feel strong enough to share them herself.

While Kiko’s strained relationship with her mother and her uncle’s abuse are key factors in Starfish, the main story here is Kiko’s growth and resilience as she begins to realize she has more options than she ever imagined.

Starfish is both heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful as Kiko comes into her own and discovers her own strength. Evocative settings and an obvious love for art are imbued in this story along with a subtle romance. Kiko is an empowering heroine readers will immediately want to cheer on. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, When We Collided by Emery Lord, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Painting Pepette: A Picture Book Review

Painting Pepette by Linda Ravin Lodding and Claire Fletcher Josette Bobette lives at #9 Rue Laffette, Paris with her family and her toy rabbit, Pepette. Josette loves Pepette dearly and takes her everywhere. One day when she and  are cuddling in the great room, she notices that every member of the Bobette family has a portrait hanging on the wall. Except that there is no portrait of Pepette!

Determined to fix this egregious omission, Josette and Pepette take to the streets of Paris to find an artist who can paint Pepette’s portrait and create a picture as special as she is in Painting Pepette (2016) by Linda Ravin Lodding, illustrated by Claire Fletcher.

Traveling through the busy streets of 1920s Paris, Josette and Pepette meet Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, and Henri Matisse. Each artist is eager to paint Pepette but Josette soon realizes that none of them quite capture everything that makes her rabbit so special (and Pepette has to agree). After a busy day and several portraits, Josette realizes that she is the best candidate to paint a portrait of Pepette and she finally finds a picture just as special as her special friend, Pepette.

Rhyming names and a repeated refrain (And Pepette had to agree) make this an excellent story time title with a lot of potential as a read-a-loud. Bold illustrations take advantage of the large page size alternating between detailed two-page spreads and closer shots of individual characters. Fletcher excellently conveys the individual styles and aesthetics of each artist that Josette encounters during her travels.

The famous artists are not mentioned by name in the story. Instead, each artists presents Josette with their portrait of Pepette which demonstrates their artistic style. An author’s note at the end of the book details exactly who Josette meets during her day too. The references to actual artists make Painting Pepette a versatile read sure to appeal to art enthusiasts both young and old.

Painting Pepette is a charming picture book filled with riotously colorful illustrations and naturally flowing text which easily moves readers through the story.

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