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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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

Ferryman: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Ferryman by Claire McFallWhen Scottish teenager Dylan boards a train from Glasgow to Aberdeen to meet her estranged father for the first time in years she is certain that the momentous trip will change everything. What she won’t realize until later is that instead of meeting her father she will never complete her journey–dying when her train crashes.

Except Dylan wakes up inside her train car, alone and in the dark after the crash, where “Her imagination filled in the blanks, packing the route through the carriage with upturned seats, luggage, broken glass from the windows, and squishy, slick things that were solidifying in her mind’s eye into limbs and torsos.” Outside of the wreckage there is no sign of  disaster recovery; all Dylan sees is a solitary, sandy-haired teenage boy watching her.

It’s clear that something is different about this cobalt eyed boy who does not “stand or even smile when he [sees] her looking at him” and “just continue[s] to stare.” The only two people in an isolated area, Dylan reluctantly agrees to follow Tristan across the unwelcoming landscape away from the wreckage. Along the way Dylan begins to realize that she is not trekking across the Scottish highlands with a startlingly attractive teenage boy–the kind who always “made her nervous” because “they seemed so cool and confident, and she always ended up getting tongue-tied and feeling like a total freak.”

Dylan is dead, traveling through the aptly named wasteland alongside Tristan, her personal ferryman.

As a ferryman Tristan “guide[s] souls across the wasteland and protect[s] them from the demons” keen to devour new and pure souls like Dylan’s. Along the way he also “break[s] the truth to them, then deliver[s] them to wherever they’re going.” Tristan has shepherded more souls than he can count across the wasteland, a task that has become increasingly transactional as his journeys blend together into goodbyes. “Each soul that waved goodbye at the end of the journey had taken a small piece of him with them, torn off a tiny piece of his heart. After a while, he had hardened.” As he reminds Dylan, everyone has to cross the wasteland which he describes as “Their own personal wilderness. It’s a place to discover the truth that you have died and come to terms with it.”

The wasteland is not a place to make friends or fall in love. But as they learn more about each other, and themselves, Dylan and Tristan realize they are not prepared to admit that reaching the end of their path will also mean their inevitable separation as Dylan goes where Tristan cannot follow in Ferryman (2021) by Claire McFall.

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First published in the UK in 2013 and nominated for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, McFall’s acclaimed debut novel Ferryman has made its way to the US with the rest of the trilogy, Trespassers and Outcasts, slated to follow. A movie adaptation is also in the works. All characters are cued as white in this series with world building loosely inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Charon.

With a heavy focus on the drudgery of walking through the wasteland, McFall is slow to unpack Dylan and Tristan’s mutual attraction although both characters find something they lack in the other.

In spite of himself Tristan appreciates Dylan’s unique perspective and unexpected kindnesses to him when “Most souls, when they discovered what had happened to them, were too absorbed in their own sorrow and self-pity to show much interest in this road between the real world and the end” much less in the ferryman guiding them through it. After countless years changing himself to appear to “look appealing” and trustworthy to each of his souls, Tristan is shocked to have the space to define himself as more than his role as a ferryman and whatever the souls in his charge choose to project onto him.

Dylan, meanwhile, is used to feeling the limits of her agency as a teenage girl who is constantly concerned with doing and saying the right thing. “She was the shy, serious student. Quiet, diligent, but not particularly clever. All of her successes had to be earned through hard work, which was easy when you had no friends.” But in Tristan Dylan finally finds the appreciation she had previously lacked with Tristan who sees Dylan as “a soul worth protecting. A soul worth caring about. A soul that he wanted to give a piece of himself to.”

Although Tristan initially acknowledges some of the unequal power dynamics at play between himself–an ageless, supernatural being–and Dylan–a seemingly ordinary girl despite the high caliber of her soul–this aspect of the plot is never fully explored. Tristan’s initial hesitation since “as her protector, he would be taking advantage of her vulnerability if he acted on his feelings” shifts quickly to a heartfelt confession and both struggling with their looming separation.

With their slog through the wasteland and unspoken longing taking up much of the plot, Ferryman is slow to build to its dramatic conclusion. The novel’s final act offers tantalizing glimpses of world building surrounding what comes beyond the wasteland and what it will mean for both Dylan and Tristan. Readers new to this series will be excited to see these aspects more fully explored in later installments.

Possible Pairings: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, You Are the Everything by Karen Rivers, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde

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.

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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)

All Our Hidden Gifts: A (WIRoB) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby and Solo: A (WIRoB) Review

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

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

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

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

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amber & Clay: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia IredaleThe god Hermes draws readers into “the tale of a girl as precious as amber, / the tale of a boy as common as clay” as he introduces Melisto, a pampered girl in Athens, and Rhaskos, a Thracian slave in Amber & Clay (2021) by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale. Find it on Bookshop.

Although close in age, the two “weren’t alike, but they fit together, / like lock and key.” In normal circumstances, they would never meet, but what is ever normal when the gods are watching?

Their stories begin when both are young children. In segments of verse, Rhaskos remembers his early years as a slave up to the night his mother tattoos him in the Thracian tradition, only to be sold before she can explain the markings to him. Renamed Thratta, Rhaskos’ mother joins Melisto’s household, where she is meant to tend the little girl and ease some of the child’s wildness.

While Rhaskos misses his mother and treasures small moments of beauty observing the horses in his master’s stables in Thessaly, Melisto has her own struggles in Athens. Her mother resents Melisto’s disobedience and willfulness. She also fears that she will “crack her skull / or black her eye, or shake her / so hard” that she will break her daughter’s neck.

Rhaskos’ lyrical, carefully structured blank verse provides contrast with Melisto’s prose passages as the story weaves in voices from Hermes and Hephaistos to Athena and Artemis, among other members of the Greek pantheon. A comprehensive author’s note explains the creative choices Laura Amy Schlitz made in drawing from Greek history and embracing the strophe-antistrophe technique common in Greek plays — as seen in the “Turn and Counterturn” poems, where two characters share their different perspectives on parts of the plot. The book also includes a helpful cast of characters at the beginning.

Archaeological images (illustrated by Julia Iredale) and exhibit-style captions add further dimension to this sprawling narrative. Artifacts that prove key to the story include an “unusually fine” amber gold necklace “found on the Athenian Akropolis, near the ruins of the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia”; Rhaskos’ first pottery casting; and others.

Everything changes for both children when Melisto is called on to serve as a Little Bear at the Sanctuary of Artemis in Brauron. As Hermes explains: “My point is: little is known. / What was meant to be a mystery / is still a mystery. / Except we’re going to lift the veil a little, / and peek. We’ll see Brauron / through Melisto’s eyes— / Melisto’s going to Brauron, / to serve as a Little Bear.”

At the sanctuary, Melisto enjoys unprecedented freedom, allowing her to explore nature, indulge her wildness, and finally thrive as she begins tending a bear cub reserved for a future sacrifice to honor Artemis. Back in Thessaly, Rhaskos’ world becomes even smaller under his abusive new master, Menon, inspiring Hephaistos, the god of fire, metalworking, and masonry, to form a plan to intervene on Rhaskos’ behalf to “send my boy to Athens / and wrest him away from Menon.”

While Melisto decides to honor what she knows is right at Brauron despite Artemis’ supposed wishes, and Rhaskos dreams of a life where he is free and able to make art, events are set in motion that will put the pair on a life-changing, utterly unexpected collision course.

Schlitz’s ambitious standalone middle-grade story is meticulously researched and brings ancient Greece to life as Hermes instructs readers on the country’s proper name (“Don’t call it Greece”), and Rhaskos is shown Athenian attractions like the Trojan Horse and the Akropolis, where “the stones of the temples were bathed in gold” for the first time.

What begins as a story about a spoiled girl and a common boy becomes, in the author’s capable hands, a much larger commentary on art, friendship, and identity as we watch Melisto and Rhaskos transform, becoming “the girl as electric as amber, the boy, indestructible as clay.”

Possible Pairings: The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, Stone River Crossing by Tim Tingle

The Scapegracers: A (WIRoB) Review

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

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail ClarkeThe “township of Sycamore Gorge doesn’t fuck around where Halloween is concerned” which is why October is the one time of year where Eloise “Sideways” Pike earns a modicum of respect and attention from classmates who would otherwise ignore her as the resident lesbian witch whose dads run the local antique shop.

After years of “skulking near the bottom, lurking behind the bleachers, doing magic tricks for bottles of Coke,” Sideways is suddenly and irrevocably catapulted to the top of the West High social pyramid when Jing Gao, Lila Yates, and Daisy Brink pay Sideways forty dollars to add some real magic to the start of “scare-party season.”

Sideways is almost as surprised as Jing and Yates and Daisy when the magic works. As she puts it: “Even following my spell book by the letter, the most I could do was burn paper, unbreak dishes, make scrapes and cuts scab faster. What the four of us could do was something else. I felt seasick and disgustingly in love with it, with them.”

Party magic soon leads to dead deer in a drained pool, an unknown party guest nearly assaulting Yates, devils, and trouble as the girls start to learn more about the magic they all share and what it means for their fledgling friendship in The Scapegracers (2020) by Hannah Abigail Clarke.

Find it on Bookshop.

Sideways’s first person narration is descriptively lyrical observing the pale “bruise-lavender blue” air even as she remains extremely grounded when it comes to her own loneliness and lack of social skills. Sideways sees herself better suited to “skulking under bridges” than befriending the most popular clique in school, let alone flirting with Madeline–the stranger recruited as a fifth for their coven. Despite meddling efforts from her new friends, the course of love, much like magic, does not run smooth for Sideways.

Clarke cleverly dismantles classic popular girl tropes as Sideways and readers learn more about the triumvirate who quickly adopt Sideways into their ranks with surprising loyalty and affection. Sideways, Daisy, and Madeline are described as white, Yates is Black, and Jing is Asian—presumably Chinese. The characters are also diverse in terms of sexuality with lesbian Sideways and bisexual Jing among others.

Clarke’s debut is the start of a trilogy filled with magic, lilting prose, snappy dialog, and witches embracing their own power. Feminist themes and strong character bonds make this book an ideal companion to Kim Liggett’s The Grace Year, Hannah Capin’s Foul is Fair, and Leslye Walton’s Price Guide to the Occult. The Scapegracers is an excellent addition to the recent crop of novels highlighting sisterhood (especially unlikely ones) fueled by both feminist rage and solidarity.

Possible Pairings: Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert, Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Tigers, Not Daughters: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha MabryEveryone in Southtown knows the four Torres sisters. And everyone remembers the night they were caught trying to run away — especially the boys across the street, who flock to Hector’s house at night to watch Ana, the eldest at almost 18, undress in her bedroom window.

While she does, they dream of all the ways they could save her from their “old neighborhood, with its old San Antonio families and its traditions so strong and deep we could practically feel them tugging at our heels when we walked across our yards.”

If it wasn’t for their infatuation and accidental intervention in the sisters’ escape attempt, everything might have been different. Ana would never have fallen from her window; she “wouldn’t have died two months later and her sisters wouldn’t have been forced to suffer at the hands of her angry ghost.”

A year later, after “a brief but catastrophic mourning period,” the girls’ widowed father is barely keeping it together. Jessica is trying to focus on her boring job at the pharmacy, her boyfriend, and not much else. Iridian hasn’t left the house in weeks — all the better to read Ana’s old supernatural romances and write the best scenes of her own. And Rosa, the youngest, always “more attentive than most people,” tries to follow the signs — the connections — when a hyena goes missing from the zoo on the anniversary of Ana’s death in Tigers, Not Daughters (2020) by Samantha Mabry.

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Set primarily over the course of 10 days, this book follows the surviving sisters in close third-person as they move through the grief over Ana’s death and the increasingly obvious signals that she isn’t entirely gone.

Flashbacks narrated collectively by Hector’s friends relate all of the ways in which the boys bear witness to the disasters that befall the Torres sisters and, more importantly, highlight “the many times we could have said or done something and, instead, we said and did nothing.”

These multiple viewpoints allow the story to shift between the girls’ linear narrations and the boys’ flashbacks that chronicle all the ways the sisters have been objectified — and failed — by the men in their lives.

This shift is especially obvious as Jessica repeatedly tries to move out of her overbearing and abusive boyfriend’s shadow, “tired of boys pulling on her, attempting to invade the life she’d tried so hard to keep protected.”

Though each sister has her own journey to complete while making peace with Ana’s sudden death, all three learn the importance of saving themselves — and each other — instead of remaining, as Iridian thinks, at the mercy of men “trying to leave their bruises all over her and her sisters.”

Throughout Tigers, Not Daughters, author Samantha Mabry blends elements of magical realism, moments of connection and grief, and genuinely eerie scares to create a story exploring the “magic in small things,” as well as a timely ode to sisterhood and feminism.

Possible Pairings: Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Book of Night by Holly Black, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee, When I Cast Your Shadow by Sarah Porter, Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth, The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters, Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan Wolf

With the Fire on High: A (WIRoB) Review

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

cover art for With the Fire on High by Elizabeth AcevedoEmoni Santiago knows that when people see her name, they get an idea of the person they’re going to meet — the same way people thought they knew the kind of girl she was when she got pregnant her freshman year at Schomburg Charter High School.

She didn’t want to give away information like that for her daughter. Instead, she explains:

“I wanted to give Babygirl a nice name. The kind of name that doesn’t tell you too much before you meet her, the way mine does. Because nobody ever met a white girl named Emoni, and as soon as they see my name on a résumé or college application they think they know exactly what kind of girl they getting.”

But even if people who see her as a teen mother think they know her, Emoni knows they don’t see the full picture. They don’t understand that her top priority since Babygirl was born is to be a good mother.

Even with help from her grandmother, ‘Buela, at home, Emoni has a lot more than college plans on her mind at the start of senior year in Philadelphia. While her best friend, Angelia, is looking at the best graphic-arts programs and enjoying her relationship with her new girlfriend, Emoni is trying to decide if college (or a relationship) can have a place in her future alongside the hopes and dreams she wants to make a reality for Babygirl. And she wonders if it’s time to focus on doing rather than “spending four years pretending to do” in college.

When an opportunity to take an immersive culinary-arts class comes up at school, Emoni knows this is one thing she has to do even if she isn’t sure what to expect — or even if she can afford the class’ trip to Spain alongside the day-to-day costs of helping ‘Buela keep their house afloat.

“If you ask her to tell it, ‘Buela starts with the same story” of Emoni hopping up on a stool and seasoning her first meal at age 4. Emoni doesn’t know what to believe, but “ever since then ‘Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don’t know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I’m happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty.”

Unfortunately, her natural affinity for food and years of experimentation in the kitchen don’t go far when it comes to prepping Emoni for the rigors of the culinary class. Chef Ayden wants to prepare them for work in a restaurant, but Emoni chafes under the structure and restrictions that seem designed to impede her creativity.

Emoni already knows a lot about taking care of herself and the people she loves, but over the course of her senior year, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to learn even more about cooking, family, and opening her heart in With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevdo.

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Author Elizabeth Acevedo’s follow-up to her blockbuster verse-novel debut, The Poet X, is another sensational contemporary story. Broken into three parts, With the Fire on High follows the sour, savory, and bittersweet moments as Emoni moves toward graduation and tries to figure out what’s next both for herself and her family.

Emoni’s first-person narration is frank and introspective. She is confident and secure in who she is and the choices she has made, but she also knows that people may have misconceptions about her as a result — something that the novel explores especially well through Emoni’s rivalry and eventual cautious friendship with her classmate “Pretty Leslie Peterson,” about whom Emoni has her own preconceived notions.

Quick, evocative descriptions bring Emoni’s Philadelphia to life as she moves through her neighborhood, where “the sounds of West Allegheny Avenue rush in to greet [her]: cars honking, buses screeching to a stop, rapid Spanglish yelled from the corners as people greet one another, and mothers calling out last-minute instructions to their kids from open windows” and beyond to other parts of the city.

While a romance as sweet as any of her desserts unfolds between Emoni and a new student, the core of this story is the found family and support system that Emoni creates for herself and Babygirl — a family that gets even bigger once she is willing to ask for help when she needs it, because, “like Chef Ayden always says, sometimes you need a team to help you.”

With the Fire on High is a delectable confection filled with optimism, humor, and an obvious affection for each and every character — especially Emoni, a heroine readers will not soon forget.

Possible Pairings: The Heartbreak Bakery by A. R. Capetta, A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis, 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, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

The Vanishing Stair: A (WIRoB) Review

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

cover art for The Vanishing Stair by Maureen JohnsonEllingham Academy is a prestigious Vermont boarding school founded by eccentric billionaire Albert Ellingham. Its students are encouraged to think of learning as a game while pursuing their passions. Some of them come to the academy to write, others to create. That’s the one thing that binds the students together: “Everyone at Ellingham Academy had a thing.”

Stevie Bell’s thing is crime; specifically, solving the Ellingham case.

In 1936, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. Despite doing as the kidnappers asked and paying a ransom, Ellingham never reunited with his family. Iris’ body was soon found; Alice was never recovered.

The biggest clue in the case was the “Truly Devious” letter — an eerie poem reminiscent of Dorothy Parker that promised violence and maybe even death.

Stevie isn’t the first person to try to solve the case. But she has something no one else does: new evidence. It’s all contained in an old tea tin filled with “a bit of white feather, a bit of beaded cloth, a tarnished, gold-colored lipstick tube with the mummified remains of a red lipstick, a tiny enameled pillbox in the shape of a shoe, some pieces of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem.”

Together, these “humble objects” are proof that the infamous Truly Devious letter may not have been tied to the case at all, but a student prank.

The problem is that Stevie’s parents pull her out of Ellingham mere weeks into her first term, after the death of another student, Hayes Major (whose murder Stevie tried to solve). Knowing what happened to Hayes, and knowing that another student was likely involved, Stevie senses missing pieces.

Was Hayes’ death an accident or something worse? And what happened to Ellie, the most likely suspect, after she disappeared through a passage before she could be interrogated?

Stevie isn’t sure how she can answer these questions without being at Ellingham — a problem remedied by the unlikely and unlikable Edward King, “the worst man in America” (and a thinly veiled imitation of Donald Trump), who offers Stevie the chance to return to Ellingham in exchange for keeping tabs on his son, David, who is finishing his last year there, ideally without impeding his father’s presidential aspirations.

It’s an impossible bargain, and Stevie knows she has to accept even if it means avoiding David and their mutual attraction. Knowing her time at Ellingham can end at any moment — especially since her presence seems to be doing very little to ground David — Stevie focuses on solving the case, which leads to shocking revelations about the school’s past in The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson.

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Maureen Johnson, a mystery lover and true-crime aficionado, imbues her heroine and this second installment of the Truly Devious series with that same love and respect for investigation. Stevie’s work isn’t glamorous, nor does it involve shortcuts. She knows she doesn’t “have all the answers,” but she isn’t afraid of the grunt work it takes “to find the lead, to find the single sentence in the single piece of paper that made you stand so suddenly that your head spun and then you’d know that you cracked the case.”

Stevie’s keen eye for investigation is tempered by real-world concerns like figuring out what her feelings for David mean and managing her anxiety with a combination of medication and other coping mechanisms. Stevie’s friends are quick to help, but she knows that her anxiety can manifest at any time since “anxiety and excitement are cousins: they can be mistaken for each other at points.”

The novel follows Stevie with a close-third-person narration. Trial transcripts and witness statements are interspersed throughout as Stevie delves deeper into the Ellingham case. Alongside her, readers follow the case to its surprising conclusion via chapters chronicling the varying perspectives of key players and witnesses.

While much of the Ellingham case is solved here, readers can expect a new mystery as Stevie is left to figure out how to reveal her findings — not to mention lingering questions over the school’s more recent spate of deaths. This series is a must-read for YA-mystery lovers, but be sure to start at the beginning with Truly Devious before diving into this one.

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith