Belladonna: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Do not change the parts of yourself that you like to make others comfortable. Do not try to mold yourself to fit the standards someone else has set for us.”

Belladonna by Adalyn GraceSigna Farrow has spent her entire life moving from house to house as each of her numerous guardians meets an untimely end. With caretakers increasingly more interested in her wealth than her happiness, Signa’s loneliness is palpable. She craves the day she will come into her inheritance and can set up her own household filled with laughter and company–never solitude and especially not Death. The one constant in Signa’s life aside from her precarious living arrangements has been the ability to see and, regrettably, interact with Death himself–a shadowy figure of a man who is as mystified by their connection as Signa.

At the age of nineteen, there is only one year left until Signa enters society. One she needs to use well if she hopes to banish the dismal reputation her numerous deceased guardians have built for her. After years of begging–and even demanding–that Death leave her alone, Signa is more suspicious than grateful when he promises to improve her current situation. Nonetheless, she is cautiously excited to find she has some living relatives in the Hawthorne family.

Thorn Grove is a stately manor with far more luxury than Signa is used to, but it is also a house in crisis with patriarch Elijah Hawthorne lost in grief and intent on running the family business–and reputation–into the ground while eldest son Percy watches helplessly. With mourning not yet over for Elijah’s beloved wife, it seems his daughter Blythe is suffering from the same mysterious illness. With no obvious cure and her condition worsening, Death warns that it won’t be much longer before he has to claim the ailing girl as one of his own.

Experiencing stability and family for the first time is a heady mixture for Signa, reminding her of how much Thorn Grove still has to lose. Signa knows that society would frown upon a young woman experimenting with folk remedies and digging into the Hawthorne’s secrets. But she also knows that she will do anything to keep Blythe and Thorn Grove safe–even if it means risking her reputation by working with Death to search for answers in Belladonna (2022) by Adalyn Grace.

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Belladonna is the first book in a projected duology that will continue with Foxglove. Signa and most main characters are cued as white with more varied skin tones among the supporting cast including one of Signa’s childhood friends, Charlotte, who is described as having brown skin.

Belladonna is a gothic mystery with just the right amount of magic in the form of death personified and Signa’s own strange powers that allow her not just to speak with Death but take on some of his abilities including a resistance to poison. Sumptuous descriptions of Signa’s new surroundings set the mood as Signa familiarizes herself with Thorn Grove and its occupants while highlighting the privation of her previous homes.

Armed with nothing but an old etiquette book and her wits, Signa thinks she is prepared for what society will expect of her as a young woman. But the longer she spends at Thorn Grove and the more she embraces her own powers, the clearer it is that the societal standards Signa has clung to are skewed against her and may not be worth striving for after all. Signa’s inheritance adds another layer to this conversation as she begins to understand her privilege and realizes other women are not so fortunate when it comes to future marriages and life choices.

Haunted by spirits all her life, Signa’s innate need to investigate the happenings at Thorn Grove only increases as she is haunted by–and begins to communicate with–the ghosts of the stately manor. This novel is filled with a well-rounded cast of both the living and dead who add dimension to this rich story as the complexities of relationships among the Hawthorne family and its staff begin to unfold. At the center of this is Signa’s complicated dynamic with Death who starts the story as her greatest frustration only to become a foil, a confidante, and perhaps much more. The tension between these two characters moves the story along as much as the mystery with its own twists and surprises.

Belladonna is a thoughtful story where Signa spends as much time investigating her own wants and needs as a young woman entering society as she does trying to uncover Thorn Grove’s secrets. Belladonna capitalizes on a well-developed magic system and atmospheric prose to deliver both a satisfying mystery and romance.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Ferryman by Claire McFall, A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson, Gallant by V. E. Schwab

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

The Drowned Woods: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-JonesEighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is the last living water diviner in Wales. Taken from her parents when she is was eight-years-old by Prince Garanhir, she is one of the most powerful tools in the royal arsenal. Until the prince goes too far.

Unwilling to become a weapon used against innocents ever again, Mer has been on the run for the last four years. Trained by the king’s own spymaster, Renfrew, Mer is well-equipped to hide but even she doesn’t have the resources to disappear–especially not from her own mentor.

After years of acting on the prince’s behalf, Renfrew’s loyalties have shifted. And, as every spy knows, a person with a knife and a cause can topple kingdoms. Which is exactly what Renfrew has in mind. If Mer uses her powers one last time to help destroy the magical well that protects Garanhir’s lands–and his power–the prince’s reign will be over and Mer will finally be free.

It won’t be an easy mission. But anything is achievable with the proper resources.

Fane, a fighter with prodigious strength to kill anyone who strikes him, has his own reasons for joining Renfrew’s cause. After his years as an iron fetch, Fane is left with few illusions about his own place in the world or the grief-stricken bargain he trapped himself in years ago. Accompanied by Trefor, a Corgi who may or may not be a spy for the fae, Fane is used to keeping his own counsel and wary when it becomes clear that both his loyalties and his pacifism will be tested on this journey.

With help from the rest of Renfrew’s crew including Ifanna, the Princess of Thieves and a figure from Mer’s past, they should have everything they need. More importantly, Mer should be positioned to get everything she wants as long as she remembers the most important rule a spy ever learns: always plan two escape routes–especially when magic is involved in The Drowned Woods (2022) by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

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The Drowned Woods is set in the same world as Lloyd-Jones’ previous novel The Bone Houses. Although the stories tie together, both can be read on their own. Characters are assumed white; Mer is bisexual. The narrative shifts viewpoints–primarily focusing on Mer and Fane while flashbacks highlight key aspects of Mer and Fane’s character and reveal key details about other characters, especially the mysterious Ifanna.

With a daring heist, spies, and thieves, it’s no surprise that The Drowned Woods is filled with numerous twists and turns as the story shifts and shifts again in satisfyingly unexpected ways. As more of Mer’s backstory is revealed the complicated relationships between the crew add dimension to the plot and depth to the characters.

Lyrical prose emphasizes the fairy tale elements of Lloyd-Jones’ world building while deliberate plot management ensures quick pacing, lots of action, and plenty of humor from Trefor. Mer–a seasoned spy born with magic and trained to be ruthless–and Fane–a seasoned fighter who bargained for magic and learned his own limits the hard way–are interesting foils and allies throughout the story. Their obvious chemistry comes across in subtle interactions and well-drawn dialog as their loyalties are tested throughout the novel.

The Drowned Woods combines the best pieces of fantasy and adventure to create a gripping story filled with magic and an ensemble cast you won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Want to know more? Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Emily!

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm for review consideration*

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories: A Review

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black, illustrated by Rovina CaiOnce upon a time there was a boy with a wicked tongue. Dressed in rags, raised on cat’s milk, he soon discovered that the best way to be seen was to be unkind. Later you might get to know him as a cruel prince and a wicked king. But before that he was a boy trying to make his way in a world that could have destroyed him if he hadn’t come to rule it in How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories (2020) by Holly Black, illustrated by Rovina Cai.

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How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories is a companion novella to Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy which includes The Cruel PrinceThe Wicked King, and The Queen of Nothing. The novella is largely focused on Cardan’s childhood but a framing story is set after the events of the trilogy so be sure to read all of them first to avoid spoilers.

This novella is really for the fans of the series. What a delight to return to the world of faerie and get another glimpse of my favorite monstrous girl (Jude) and my favorite wicked boy (Cardan). Black balances showcasing what comes after the original series in the framing story with flashbacks to Cardan’s upbringing as a neglected-if-spoiled youth in the royal court.

Questions of inevitability and change play out both for young Cardan and throughout the novella as Cardan encounters the same fairytale multiple times–each with subtle changes. This conceit brings the entire novella together with a dynamic finale while also nodding to the power of story–an element which imbues every book in this series.

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories is illustrated throughout with lavish full color artwork that brings Cardan and his world to live. Cai does a beautiful job giving life to these characters who already have so much personality in prose. A lovely return to a world that hints at even more stories to discover.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Defy the Fates: A Review

*Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars.*

Defy the Fates by Claudia GrayAfter their first unlikely meeting, Abel and Noemi Vidal have traveled the Loop together, saved Genesis forces from annihilation in battle, and stopped an intergalactic plague.

Now, to save Noemi one last time, Abel will have to risk everything including his own cybernetic body as he seeks help from his creator and potential destroyer.

Left for dead, Noemi doesn’t know what it means when she is saved thanks to parts that make her eerily similar to Abel. Not quite mech, but not quite human Noemi is no longer sure if she has a place on her home world anymore than she knows if she has what she needs to save Abel.

As Earth prepares for the final battle with its colony planets, Noemi and Abel once again find themselves at the center of the conflict. With the final battle looming, this unlikely pair will finally see if they’ve done enough to save the colony planets–and each other in Defy the Fates (2019) by Claudia Gray.

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Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars. The novel alternates between Abel and Noemi’s first person narrations.

Gray builds well on the tension and world building from previous installments in this fast-paced trilogy. The stakes are higher and the dangers are greater as the story builds toward its dramatic finish.

Because of the plot structure, numerous recaps of previous triumphs and battles are repeated throughout the story which diminish the tension. As Noemi and Abel continue to struggle with the question of where they each belong–both together and apart–some of this installment does start to feel like filler.

Defy the Fates is a solid conclusion to an action-packed trilogy perfect for readers who enjoy sci-fi and adventure with just a hint of romance. Fans of the series will appreciate the callbacks to pivotal moments and characters from earlier in the series.

Possible Pairings: Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, Beta by Rachel Cohn, The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Partials by Dan Wells

A Season of Sinister Dreams: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy BanghartStill grieving the death of his son and heir during the Sickness years earlier, the elderly king of Tyne forces all magic workers to the capital where they can prolong his life and protect the castle while the rest of the kingdom suffers.

Annalise has spent years in the castle secretly using her unwieldy magic to weave a web of influence around the king, his grandson (and her cousin) Prince Kendrik, and the king’s advisors. Annalise hopes to exact revenge against the king for her mother’s death–a plan that is close to fruition when Annalise accidentally uses her magic on Kendrik leaving him hidden and monstrously transformed while Annalise becomes the new heir.

Meanwhile, Evra’s quiet country life is ruined when her magic manifests years later than expected making her the first girl ever to become a Clearsee. As magical prophets Clearsees (usually men) use their magic to interpret visions meant to guide and protect the kingdom. While Annalise prepares for her coronation, Evra reluctantly arrives at the capital where she sees cryptic visions hinting at danger. But is the danger a threat to Tyne’s rulers or is it the rulers themselves? in A Season of Sinister Dreams (2021) by Tracy Banghart.

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This plot-driven standalone fantasy alternates chapters between Annalise and Evra’s first person narrations. All characters are presumed white.

With Annalise used to hiding the scope of her powers and Evra newly invested with magic, both narrations are claustrophobic leaving readers and characters floundering. Themes of agency as both heroines try to defy expectations are undermined by extremely limited world building and backstories that never fully explain character motivations or actions–particularly Annalise’s.

Fans of Banghart’s Grace and Fury will appreciate this book’s strong female leads, fast-paced action, and the focus on Evra and Tam’s friendship despite other shortcomings.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea KempPenelope “Pen” Prado dreams of opening her own pastelería next to her father’s restaurant (and local institution in Austin, Texas): Nacho’s Tacos. While Pen has managed to get her experimental desserts on the menu, her traditional parents are unwilling to let Pen go any further instead wanting her to focus on nursing school. Watching her brother flounder managing the restaurant, Pen finally admits she’s been skipping classes and finds herself fired.

Pen’s last day is Xander Amaro’s first and his opportunity to finally change his luck and make a place for himself with his aging abuelo. Meeting when both of them are spinning out, shouldn’t lead anywhere. Except it does drawing Pen and Xander together in the heady reality of first love, finding their own paths, and working together to save the restaurant that comes to mean everything to both of them in Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet (2021) by Laekan Zea Kemp.

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Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet is Kemp’s debut novel. The story alternates between Pen and Xander’s first person narration.

Kemp brings the setting of Austin, Texas and its Chicanx vibrantly to life while offering a carefully detailed behind-the-scenes look at the fast-paced, high octane world of a restaurant kitchen.

Staccato writing and snappy dialog immediately draw readers into Pen and Xander’s stories as the two crash into each others’ orbit. Pen’s vicious anxiety attacks and Xander’s own stressors worrying about his grandfather and his own immigrant status can make for a claustrophobic–and nerve-inducing–narration.

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet is a thoughtful, fast-paced story perfect for readers looking for a romance with an unlikely connection and delicious food descriptions.

Possible Pairings: Permanent Record by Mary HK Choi, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan, Lobizona by Romina Garber, When We Collided by Emery Lord, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

Don’t Date Rosa Santos: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Demand more of your possibilities.”

Don't Date Rosa Santos by Nina MorenoEveryone knows that the Santos women don’t go near the water. Not anymore. Rosa Santos knows that better than anyone. After her grandfather died to make sure Rosa’s pregnant grandmother made it to Florida, and after her own father died at sea when her mother was eighteen and pregnant, Rosa knows that the Santos women and boys on boats don’t mix.

Despite her grandmother’s bad memories, Rosa is desperate to visit Cuba herself. Something she thought she had finally figured out with a dual enrollment program at her local community college and a study abroad program at a four year university.

Just when Rosa can start to imagine herself walking along the maricon in Havana, the study abroad program is cancelled leaving all of Rosa’s plans up in the air. Which is how Rosa, the girl who has never set foot near Port Coral’s beach finds herself organizing the annual spring festival to try and save the local marina.

Rosa’s reluctant helper is Alex Aquino whose family owns the marina. Back in town for the first time since graduation, Alex is not the gawky boy Rosa remembers. This Alex has tattoos, a beard, and a smile that just might be lethal. He also has baking skills and, worst of all, his own boat.

As Rosa and Alex grow closer, Rosa has to decide if a family curse is a good enough reason to give up on all of the things she wants most in Don’t Date Rosa Santos (2019) by Nina Moreno.

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Don’t Date Rosa Santos is Moreno’s debut novel. Through Rosa’s narration readers are introduced to the charming town of Port Coral, Florida and its quirky residents.

While the main plot focuses on Rosa’s efforts to save the Port Coral marina, this is a story about grief and family history. Rosa has grown up with her grandmother, Mimi, learning Mimi’s tricks when it comes to brujeria and making a home for herself in Port Coral. Meanwhile, Rosa’s mother is a wandering artist who hasn’t felt at home in Port Coral since her teens when Rosa’s father died. All three generations of women have been touched by tragedy–a linking thread that drives the family further apart instead of drawing them together.

These ruminations on grief are tempered with the madcap preparations for the festival and Rosa’s tentative romance with Alex–one of the best male leads you’ll find in a YA rom com–and Rosa’s efforts to try and understand her own family’s history both in Port Coral and in Cuba.

Don’t Date Rosa Santos is a perfect blend of the setting from Gilmore Girls, the magic in Practical Magic, and just a hint of the strong family ties in Charmed. The perfect choice for readers looking for a sweet romance with humor and intrigue in equal measure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, By the Book by Amanda Sellet, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar

Talking to Strangers: A Non-Fiction Review

How did Fidel Castro and his spies fool the CIA for years? Why did Prime Minister Chamberlain think Hitler was trustworthy? How did no one realize what Bernie Madoff was doing with all of his investments? What transpired to make it possible for Larry Nassar to abuse countless patients at his gymnastics-centered medical practice–often with parents of his victims in the same room?

Author Malcolm Gladwell explores these questions and more in his latest book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know (2019).

Find it on Bookshop.

Before we discuss anything else, you need to know this is not an easy book–especially not during the ongoing pandemic which adds its own kind of stress to everything. Additionally, the audiobook is narrated by Gladwell and features recordings of the people being quoted whenever possible. This choice has the double-edged result of making an excellent production while also making the events discussed that much more immediate and visceral for readers/listeners.

Talking to Strangers covers a few things most of which boil down to chapters about people in the worst situations or chapters about the worst people.

Gladwell uses what happened to Sandra Bland as entry point and framing device into his topic. Some of this is reductive as it sets aside the systemic racism at the root of police brutality and the unfair targeting of BIPOC citizens by police. Similarly Gladwell’s theory that sexual assault can ever come down to misunderstandings due to overdrinking and their resulting blackouts is hard to hear and very much the statement only a man could or would ever make.

Other chapters explore Castro’s spy network within the US, Hitler’s ability to mislead Chamberlain in advance of WWII, as well as other familiar news items. Most of which is hard to hear. The book ends with discussions of so-called “advance interrogation techniques” (torture) and the circumstances that may have helped lead to Sylvia Plath’s suicide.

Despite the difficult content, Talking to Strangers includes some useful insights people can bring to their interactions with others including the need for awareness of situational context, peoples’ tendency to believe the best in people, and the reality that people may broadcast one emotion with body language and mannerisms while presenting very different ones with their speech.

Talking to Strangers is informative if challenging to read with a solid introduction to a few key aspects of interpersonal communication as well as a deep exploration of current events that readers may or may not recognize from previous news viewing. I hesitate to say I’d recommend this book because I had such a hard time with it myself, but if the premise sounds interesting then you should definitely check it out.

A God in Ruins: A Review

A God in Ruins by Kate AtkinsonTeddy could have been a poet or a banker. Instead war intervened and he became an RAF bomber pilot. Those years spent bombing German civilians, never knowing if he’d live through his next mission, were the best years of his life–the best moments–even with the violence, the death, and his time as a POW.

But everyone has to return to the ground eventually and when the war ends, Teddy becomes a husband and a father, a journalist, and more. But his hardest role even all those years later will be living in a future he never thought he’d see in A God in Ruins (2015) by Kate Atkinson.

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Readers of Atkinson’s previous powerhouse novel Life After Life will recognize protagonist Teddy as Ursula Todd’s favorite brother–a figure she worked across multiple lives to save when he is declared missing in action and presumed dead after a failed bomb run. While both books function separately, it is unlikely readers will catch all of the nuance and subtleties of this novel without reading Life After Life first.

Teddy only has one life so this novel does not explore the same themes of reincarnation although Atkinson uses the same nonlinear structure with multiple points of view to excellent effect.

From here on this review will have some spoilers for the rest of the book, proceed with caution:

Continue reading A God in Ruins: A Review

The Queen of Nothing: A Review

*The Queen of Nothing is the final book in Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. To avoid spoilers, start at the beginning with The Cruel Prince.*

“We have lived in our armor for so long, you and I. And now I am not sure if either of us knows how to remove it.”

The Queen of Nothing by Holly BlackJude has spent years learning strategy and how to survive as a mortal in the High Court of Faerie. She has spied, killed, and fought for every scrap of power. But taking power is easier than keeping it.

After trusting Cardan for one last gambit, Jude is the mortal Queen of Faerie–a title no one acknowledges and one that does her little good while exiled in the mortal world.

Betrayed and furious, Jude is keen to return to Faerie and reclaim what is hers by right, not to mention her sorely damaged dignity. The opportunity comes sooner than expected when Jude’s sister Taryn needs her identical twin’s help to survive the aftermath of her own betrayals and lies.

When Jude returns, war is brewing in Elfhame. After years teaching herself to be a warrior and a spy, Jude will now have to learn how to be a queen and embrace her humanity to save the only place that has ever felt like home in The Queen of Nothing (2020) by Holly Black.

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The Queen of Nothing is the final book in Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. To avoid spoilers, start at the beginning with The Cruel Prince.

It’s always hard to talk about the end of a series without revealing too much. Black pulls no punches in this fast-paced conclusion filled with surprising twists, unexpected reunions, and even some redemption arcs.

Jude continues to be a dynamo narrator filling the story with grim observations and shrewd strategy as she tries to keep Elhame from falling into enemy hands. After watching Jude embrace her strength and ruthlessness, it’s a powerful shift as she is forced to instead embrace her mortality and compassion to succeed this time.

The Queen of Nothing is the perfect conclusion to a favorite series. Every character gets exactly what they deserve in the best possible way. A must read for fans, of course, and a trilogy not to be missed for anyone who enjoys their fantasy with healthy doses of strategy and fairies. Highly recommend.

Possible Pairings: Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel