A Fierce and Subtle Poison: A Review

A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha MabryLucas spends every summer with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. The resort there, an old convent, sometimes feels more like home to Lucas than the mainland ever does.

The stories he hears there about the cursed girl with the green skin and the poison in her veins sometimes feel more real than any of the girls Lucas spends the summer romancing as a diversion. Lucas has always wanted to help her; imagined himself breaking Isabel’s curse once and for all.

This summer, when his latest girlfriend disappears and Lucas starts receiving letters from Isabel herself, his life becomes inextricably entwined with the island, the curse, and a desperate search to save another lost girl before it’s too late in A Fierce and Subtle Poison (2016) by Samantha Mabry.

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A Fierce and Subtle Poison is Mabry’s debut novel. It’s easy, while reading, to see how the seeds of this story led to her subsequent novels All the Wind in the World and Tigers, Not Daughters.

Narrated by Lucas, this novel explores colonization and gentrification. Lucas witnesses firsthand the entitlement of white tourists and the damage his own father’s resorts cause to the island’s often fragile history.

Mabry expertly blends suspense and magic realism in this story of poison and disappeared girls although by the second half of the book it begins to feel like too many things are thrown into the plot as Lucas learns more about Isabel and her past.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is a subtle story of longing and growing up. Recommended for readers who want to follow along with characters searching for their own compass–moral or otherwise.

Possible Pairings: Girl Serpent Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Sadie by Courtney Summers

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: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, 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

Young Jane Young: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle ZevinWhat if the worst mistake you ever made is the only thing anyone remembered about you?

Aviva Grossman never planned to have an affair with a married congressman. She certainly never planned to become the center of the scandal that might end his political career and definitely stops hers before it has a chance to start.

But a scandal doesn’t happen to just one person, or even two. It has a much wider orbit drawing others into the fallout.

Rachel Grossman doesn’t know what her daughter did or didn’t do. But she does know that Aviva’s heart is in the right place. She knows she wants to protect her daughter even if she has no idea how to do that when Aviva’s private life becomes front page news.

Jane Young always thought she could keep her head down, focus on raising her daughter Ruby, and everything would work out. She’s wrong, it turns out, and soon finds herself drawn into the Maine political scene as she runs for local office.

Ruby knows her mother is hiding something and she knows being thirteen isn’t as easy as her mom thinks. But she doesn’t know what to do about either of those things and hopes her online pen pal Fatima might be able to help.

Then there’s Embeth Levin. Embeth has built her life on being a congressman’s wife and cleaning up his messes. But who will be there to clean her up when things start to spin out?

Five women, lots of secrets, one scandal, and one way to move forward in Young Jane Young (2017) by Gabrielle Zevin.

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Young Jane Young is a story told in five parts–each focusing on one of the women above. Zevin plays with different narrative forms and styles to tease out a complicated story about feminism, identity, reputation and the dangerous moments when all three intersect.

The less you know about this story going in, the better. Part of the magic is the way in which Zevin weaves these five seemingly disconnected narratives together into one cohesive and powerful story about all the ways to be a woman when it feels like the entire world has an opinion on who you’re supposed to be.

Young Jane Young is as smart, funny, and incisive as the woman at the center of its story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

You Are the Everything: A (WIRoB) Review

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

cover art for You Are the Everything by Karen RiversSixteen-year-old Elyse Schmidt is eager to get home to California. Anywhere is acceptable, as long as it’s away from the damp Parisian air that irritates her Junior Idiopathic Arthritis (or “Junky Idiotic Arthritis,” as she calls it) and all of the things that didn’t happen on her trip: romance, kissing, and, most disappointing of all, bonding with her longtime crush, Josh Harris.

Elyse and her school band had been “in Paris to play in a band festival, which turned out to be no different from every band festival in America,” except this time, Elyse was hungover and played badly, and her band placed third. On the plane home, she wishes she could “undo everything, especially the stupid fight” she’s in with her best friend, Kath.

But she can’t, which becomes painfully clear as the plane continues its progress home.

Elyse’s wish for something to happen on the plane, “something that would make this trip worthwhile after all,” goes horribly awry when the plane crashes, leaving Elyse and Josh as the only survivors in You Are the Everything (2018) by Karen Rivers.

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During the disaster, Elyse reminds herself of all of the things that she never made time for before: “You never went to Wyoming. You never fell in love. You never decided who you were going to be. You never finished your graphic novel. You didn’t live long enough to warrant an autobiography. You never thought of a good name for the YouTube channel that you never started.”

She hopes to do things differently if she has a second chance.

Elyse is “aware of deciding” of choosing between living and dying. Then it’s a few months later. Elyse is in Wyoming. Despite the horrendous losses (of Kath, of her classmates, of her own eye), her new life could be pulled from the pages of the graphic novel she never finished: Me and Josh Harris: A Love Story.

She always knew she “might be able to make the story real if [she] want[ed] it badly enough,” and now, in Wyoming, she and Josh are finally together. She is “the girl who was dead and is now alive.” She is Josh Harris’ girlfriend — part of the couple everyone else at school wants to talk about. She is happy. This, Elyse knows, “is what dreams look like when they come true.”

She still isn’t as confident as she could be, but after the crash, Elyse realizes that she is “so much braver and sharper, as though the crash carved off [her] dull edges, leaving [her] as glistening and dangerous as a razor.”

Her brain doesn’t work the way it did before. Time doesn’t pass the same way. Elyse tries to ignore these changes and what they mean, but slowly, painfully, she sees how spotty her memory has become and how the pieces of her new life don’t quite fit together the way they should.

Elyse realizes that “it’s only possible to ignore an obvious truth for so long before you have to acknowledge it” and is forced to confront what really happened during the crash, along with all of the regrets that come with that reality.

Memories and dreams blend with the visceral reality of the crash. This heady story capitalizes on the reader’s limited point of view to give the novel’s conclusion the most impact. The stream-of-consciousness style and sweeping tone of Elyse’s second-person narration are striking contrasts to the pace of the story, much of which is set on Elyse’s flight home.

The unusual choice to write the novel in second person lends an immediacy to the text and gives each pronouncement more impact as the story builds toward its poignant conclusion: “Your mouth is full of blood and teeth and regret for all the things you didn’t do and you are crying for the year when you were seventeen, which isn’t going to happen.”

While parts of the story feel emotionally manipulative, the blend of affecting prose and a character-driven plot make for a smart and sometimes surprising premise. Readers of books in the vein of We Were Liars by E. Lockhart or A Room Away from the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma may guess the novel’s inevitable outcome long before Elyse herself does.

You Are the Everything is an emotional novel about unmet potential and missed connections, resignation, and acceptance, and, at its center, a girl who never had the chance to finish deciding what kind of person she wanted to become. “Just a splice in time when all of the everything can happen that will ever happen and now you can just stop trying so hard, you can just let go.”

Possible Pairings: But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma

A Room Away From the Wolves: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:
cover art for A Room Away from the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma
Sabina “Bina” Tremper is used to being known as a liar and a thief. The real surprise comes when Bina’s mother, Dawn, sides with Bina’s stepsisters and refuses to even consider that. this time, Bina might be telling the truth.

Hoping to defuse the situation, Dawn plans for Bina to temporarily move out. She hopes if Bina stays with her stepfather’s church friends, the girls will have time to reconcile.

But Bina has other plans. She instead decides to go to New York City.

New York City has always been a dream for Bina — a dream she used to share with her mother before Dawn abandoned it for safety and stability in the suburbs with Bina’s churchgoing stepfather.

It feels a little like destiny when Bina calls Catherine House and finds out they have a room available right when she needs it. Catherine House is “a boardinghouse for young women, first opened in 1919 after a personal tragedy,” when an incident took Catherine de Barra’s life. The house was also the site of many of her mother’s cherished stories from a summer spent in New York City before she returned to the abusive boyfriend she would marry soon after Bina was born.

Bina is certain that going to the city is the answer and her chance for a new start. “With an old suitcase and a fresh black eye,” Bina follows in her mother’s footsteps, hitchhiking to Manhattan and making her way to Catherine House at the intersection of Waverly Place and, yes, Waverly Place.

Inside the house, Bina is expected to follow rules that are “binary and boring and lifted from another time,” including a strict curfew and keeping the upper floors of the house as a “no-male zone at all times.”

The last of the rules is a vow asking boarders to promise they will not speak to “reporters, authors, historians, or anyone else, excluding female blood relations in the first and second degree (mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters) about the goings-on inside the house, nor the founder, though deceased, while in residence or afterward, effective up to 99 years.”

The stipulation doesn’t bother Bina. She’s more than willing to follow the rules and sign the vow, so long as it means she will finally have a room to call her own in the city in A Room Away From the Wolves (2018) by Nova Ren Suma.

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The glamor and camaraderie from her mother’s stories about Catherine House never materialize for Bina. The closest thing she has to a friend is Monet Mathis, her downstairs neighbor and, according to Bina, “the first person on this patch of crowded earth who knew who I was and not who I tried to be.”

Monet could be Bina’s greatest threat in the house, her closest friend, or maybe even something more. Unlike everyone else in her life, Bina is able to meet Monet as equals — liars and thieves and girls who are only able to take off their masks with each other.

Tangled up in her fascination with Monet and the girl’s lavish lies about her past, Bina begins to suspect she’s also unearthing secrets about the house — something to do with the summer her mother spent there all those years ago, a ring that should be lost but suddenly isn’t, and a photograph of the house’s founder, Catherine de Barra, that seems to move with a purpose Bina can’t quite grasp.

A Room Away From the Wolves is an exploration of unfulfilled potential, female friendship, and second chances as much as it is an ode to New York City and all of the things that make it “sinister and strange and perfect.”

Deliberate, tense plotting combined with an unreliable narrator and looping prose obscure as much as they reveal both about Bina and the boardinghouse. This novel is part mystery, part ghost story, and intensely focused on growing up and what that means for a girl who already has a reputation for all of the wrong reasons.

Readers familiar with Suma’s earlier novel The Walls Around Us will recognize similar themes as Bina is forced to strip away her reputation and her bravado until she is left with only the truth about herself and her place in the house.

A Room Away From the Wolves is a timely book about a flawed girl who learns that she is allowed to be broken, so long as she can also keep trying and continue chasing that best version of herself.

Possible Pairings: The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, You Are the Everything by Karen Rivers, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

Votes for Women! American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot: A Non-Fiction Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Votes for Women! American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot by Winifred Conkling Votes for Women! American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot (2018) by Winifred Conkling is engaging narrative non-fiction at its best.

This book offers a nuanced history of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States from the Seneca Falls convention through to the momentous vote that ratified the nineteenth amendment with the moments leading up to the vote and its aftermath framing the book as prologue and epilogue.

Most of the book is follows Elizabeth Cady Stanton from her birth through to the moment that she realized women having the right to vote was key to equal rights and her subsequent dedication to the suffrage movement. Letters and ephemera highlight Stanton’s abiding friendship with Susan B. Anthony and other women within the suffrage and prohibition movements–two groups that often overlapped. They also underscore some of the inner conflicts that are not often covered in broad strokes about this moment in history.

The last few chapters of the book shift the focus to Alice Paul and Lucy Burns with their more militant approach to the fight for women’s suffrage including their numerous arrests, hunger strikes, forced feedings, and nonviolent protest.

Votes for Women! is frank in a way that many history books are not. Conkling covers some of the uglier moments of the suffrage movement thoughtfully, including the ways in which the suffrage movement divided when faced with choosing between votes for women or votes for African American men. No one within the movement was perfect and the fight for suffrage as a whole often disregarded women of color as well as the poor and working class–something that Conkling writes about thoughtfully and without apology.

The end of the book includes extensive end notes, timelines, resources, and more.

Votes for Women! is a thorough and comprehensive history with short chapters, engaging narrative and even suspense after all these years. Timely and empowering, Votes for Women! is a vital read in this current political climate. Highly recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Winifred about Votes for Women starting tomorrow!

Tell Me No Lies: A (WIRoB) Review

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

cover art for Tell Me No Lies by Adele GriffinIt’s October 1988, and Lizzy Swift is finally in 12th grade at her all-girls high school. She was promised glamor and excitement, certain that, at Argyll, “there was no bigger prize” than being a senior.

But now, all she feels is tricked.

So far, the year has been just like every other; she hasn’t taken part in any of the big moments that she always thought would make up her senior year. Instead, Lizzy is busy filling her transcript with items to add to her Princeton application.

She studies to stay on the honor roll, works on drawings for her AP art portfolio, and tries to convince her best friends and fellow nerds, Gage and Mimi, to step outside of their comfort zones with her. But athlete Gage is happy just marking time until college, while Mimi’s free time is spent chatting with her boyfriend.

Lizzy used to think all she wanted was to blend in, to make it easier to pretend no one knows about her epilepsy. It’s been years since she had a grand mal seizure during chorus class, after all.

Since then, Lizzy has managed to largely ignore her condition, never talking about her medication, the doctor, or the risk of seizures that makes her parents overprotective. But she’s constantly on guard, always waiting for her next seizure. And being dubbed “spaz” by popular Wendy Palmer hasn’t helped her social standing.

Lizzy is as shocked as anyone when new girl Claire Reynolds chooses to lavish attention on her, first with shared eyeliner and later with secret trips into the city. Claire is effortlessly cool in a way Lizzy desperately wants to emulate.

Of course, Claire has her own secrets about why she came to Argyll during her senior year, but Lizzy is so thrilled with the friendship that she’s willing to overlook Claire’s secrecy in Tell Me No Lies (2018) by Adele Griffin.

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(While Lizzy’s epilepsy plays a large role in her character arc, readers may lament that there is no author’s note included to detail the research and resources Griffin may have used to try to authentically portray the condition.)

She also keeps picking up the tab for Claire, despite the fact that Claire and her divorced mother now live with their extremely wealthy aunt and her 16 cats. These, Claire explains, “had the run of the house and could do anything they wanted, plundering like pirates, knocking over vases, scratching curtains and portraits, sleeping anywhere.”

Despite her misgivings about Claire, Lizzy treasures their friendship, as it allows her to present a new version of herself for the first time in years. Her newfound confidence even leads Lizzy to date a longtime crush, Matt Ashley.

But even with their obvious chemistry and affection, which Griffin sweetly shows on the page, every time Lizzy and Matt try to connect physically, it feels like something is off — especially during an awkward hand job that seems to push them further apart instead of bringing the couple closer together.

Is it because Lizzy skipped third grade and is the youngest in her class? Or is something else making Matt hold back every time they’re alone together?

While Lizzy’s focus for most of the novel is her relationship with Claire and Matt, she — and readers — come to appreciate the constant and familiar presence of her best friends, who support her even as they struggle to understand her changing tastes and attitude.

Attention from Mimi’s older brother, Theo, a college student and model described as a “Korean James Bond,” is a confusing addition to Lizzy’s rather overfilled senior year, as their once-easy friendship shifts to a more intense flirtation.

This YA novel about the excitement of new relationships and experiences plays out against the backdrop of fear and paranoia surrounding the AIDS crisis and the shifting norms and politics of the times.

Offhand references to Keith Haring, Joy Division, and other key figures of the period further help set a scene which may feel very remote for today’s teen readers. Plot threads, including sexual abuse by a teacher, closeted gay teens, and the constant fear of HIV, are timely given the setting, if somewhat unnecessary additions to this already jam-packed novel.

Still, Tell Me No Lies is an atmospheric ode to the joys of self-discovery and true friendships. It’s an ideal choice for anyone interested in the 1980s or looking for a compulsively readable piece of historical fiction.

Possible Pairings: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

All the Wind in the World: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for All the Wind in the World by Samantha MabrySarah Jacqueline Crow and James Holt are used to long, hot days working the maguey fields of the Southwest. The work is brutal but they have a plan. Keep their heads down, do the work, save enough money to head back east where everything isn’t so dry and they can start a ranch of their own. They do one other thing to make sure they can survive and stay together: they keep their love a secret at all costs. It’s safer, they’ve learned, to pose as cousins instead.

Forced to run again after an accident, Sarah Jac and James follow the trains to the Real Marvelous–a ranch known for its steady work and possible curse. The work is the same and their plan should stay the same too. But as strange things begin to happen on the ranch Sarah Jac realizes that their old tricks won’t be enough to keep them safe–they may not even be enough to keep Sarah Jac and James together in All the Wind in the World (2017) by Samantha Mabry.

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All the Wind in the World is Mabry’s sophomore novel. It was also selected as a longlist title for the 2017 National Book Award.

All the Wind in the World is intensely character driven with a tight focus on Sarah Jac and James as they struggle to stay true to each other while keeping their relationship a secret. Sarah Jac’s first person narration makes it immediately obvious that something isn’t right at the Real Marvelous but, like readers, Sarah kept guessing as to what menace is befalling the ranch and its workers for much of the story. Mabry’s writing is tense and sexy as the story builds to its shocking conclusion.

This is the kind of novel that is immediately gripping in the moment–a true page turner despite the methodical pacing and relatively straightforward plot. However upon further inspection holes do start to show in the world building. While the dry, near dessert landscape of the Southwest is evocative and beautifully described the characters offer little explanation for how things got to this point. The payoff for the curse of the Real Marvelous (or the lack thereof) remains equally vague and open-ended.

Any shortcomings in the world or the plot are more than balanced out by the lush prose and singular characters. Sarah Jac and James are not easy characters. They are both flawed and grasping as they struggle to get past their day-to-day existence and strive for something more. How far should either of them be willing to go to get there? That’s a hard question to answer both for them and the reader.

All the Wind in the World is a striking, tightly wound novel. Readers will immediately be swept up in Sarah Jac and James’ story of longing, love, and darker impulses. A must-read for fans of magic realism. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

The Walls Around Us: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We were alive. I remember it that way. We were still alive, and we couldn’t make heads or tails of the darkness, so we couldn’t see how close we were to the end.”

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren SumaAmber is an inmate at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center. She might have been innocent once but that’s a hard quality to hold onto on the inside. Like most of the girls at Aurora Hills, Amber is obsessed with the regrets inherent in choosing one path over the other; with the moment everything goes wrong.

Violet, on the other hand, is at the start of a promising ballet career on the outside. Violet has never had much use for co-dependence when her own success and future are at stake. She has a singular focus on the future, on what comes next, on endings.

Then there’s Orianna. Her story is inextricably linked to both Amber’s and Violet’s, but it’s only in the gaps and overlaps in both of their stories that anyone can begin to understand Ori’s.

These three girls had lives and dreams and futures on the outside. They have secrets they keep close inside the walls of Aurora Hills and in their own hearts. At some point three girls arrive at Aurora Hills. But only time will tell if all of them get to walk away in The Walls Around Us (2015) by Nova Ren Suma.

Every aspect of The Walls Around Us comes together to deliver a story about contrasts in one form or another, something that often comes across in terms of themes like guilt vs. innocence and perception vs. reality. Even the title of the book and the vines on the cover hint at the dichotomy between what is “inside” and “outside” for these characters whose lives are all defined in some way by arriving at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center as well as by the secrets that they hold close.

Subtle characterization and Suma’s deliberate writing serve to bring the two narrators, Amber and Violet, to life.

Amber’s narration is filled with short sentences and staccato declarations. She has spent so long defining herself as part of the whole at Aurora Hills that for much of her narration she describes herself as part of a collective “we”; part of a group comprised of her fellow inmates even when she is usually on the periphery as an observer. Everything about Amber’s narration focuses on beginnings and the past. Her chapter titles are always taken from the first words of her chapters. She has an intense and pathological fear of choosing the unknown and having to start again–a motif that is brought to disastrous fruition by the end of the novel.

Violent, despite being on the outside, is a harder character with sharper edges. Her narrative is filled with racing thoughts and run-on sentences. Her chapters are all titled for the final words in her chapters. Throughout the novel she returns, again and again, to what her future will hold. Until the end of the novel when her ever-forward momentum is cut abruptly and permanently short.

Although she is not a narrator and is most often seen in flashbacks or memories, Orianna is the third pivotal character in the novel. Everything Violet and Amber do within the arc of the book is informed by their relationships to Orianna. If Amber is meant to signify the past in The Walls Around Us and Violet is meant to exemplify the future, it’s safe to argue that Orianna is firmly grounded in the present with all of the opportunity and promise that position implies.

Suma’s lush writing moves readers between the past and the present as the story shifts fluidly between Amber and Violet’s memories of what brought them to Aurora Hills and what comes after in this novel that explores the cost of freedom and the power of hope.

The Walls Around Us received 5 starred reviews and much critical acclaim. It is a masterful blend of literary writing, magic realism and a decidedly eerie ghost story. With a layered and thoughtful plot, vivid prose, and skillfully explore themes and characters, The Walls Around Us is not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Tumbling by Caela Carter, Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, With Malice by Eileen Cook, The Graces by Laure Eve, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, We Are the Wildcats by Siobhan Vivian, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

Jackaby: A Review

“One who can see the ordinary is extraordinary indeed, Abigail Rook.”

Jackaby by William RitterAbigail Rook has few prospects when she arrives in New Fiddleham, New England in 1892. After fleeing her boring and proper life (and parents) in England, she is keen to continue her adventures in this new country. Unfortunately having adventures require certain necessities, all of which require money.

After failing to get a series of menial jobs, Abigail finds herself in the unique position of serving as an investigative assistant to one R. F. Jackaby, investigator of the unexplained.

While Jackaby has a keen eye for the extraordinary–complete with the ability to see supernatural creatures and magic auras–Abigail is especially skilled at seeing the ordinary details that come together as the basis of any investigation.

Abigail and Jackaby, with the help of handsome police officer Charlie Cane, will have to work together to solve a series of grisly murders in New Fiddleham before they become the next victims–or the prime suspects in Jackaby (2014) by William Ritter.

Jackaby is Ritter’s first novel. A sequel, Beastly Bones, is slated for publication in September 2015.

Abigail is a fine addition to the recent crop of strong and self-sufficient heroines. In addition to being key to Jackaby’s investigation, Abigail is also a winsome narrator with quick thinking and a sharp tongue. It is wonderful to see a heroine who is able to acknowledge her strengths as easily as she does her weaknesses.

Jackaby is a character who will feel immediately to fans of Sherlock Holmes. Although he is not entirely original, Jackaby’s unfailingly belief in things unseen combined with his abrupt manner and deadpan humor make Jackaby a winning character in his own right.

Ritter is at pains throughout Jackaby to stress that Abigail has no romantic interest in Jackaby whatsoever. Although it is great to see a mystery and a fantasy sans romance, it was also disappointing because these two characters complement each other so perfectly. The lack of romance is complicated (much to the plot’s detriment) with secondary characters written in for both Abigail and Jackaby as quasi love interests. Abigails preoccupation with a certain police officer often feels particularly forced and unnecessary to the plot.

Despite its winning characters, Jackaby is somewhat weak as a mystery. Ritter includes several fairly obvious clues early on to leave attentive readers waiting to see big reveals for most of the novel. Uneven pacing also move the narrative along in often clumsy starts and stops until the denouement which seems to drag needlessly.

As a fantasy, Jackaby is an excellent novel with a fully realized world complete with a perfect blend of magic and historical details. A great choice for fans of historical fantasies or mysteries alike.

Possible Pairings: Knightley and Son by Rohan Gavin, Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones, Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, Death Cloud by Andrew Lane, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld