A Criminal Magic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Criminal Magic by Lee KellyThanks to the passage of the 18th Amendment, magic is finally illegal. But making something illegal doesn’t make it disappear–it just makes it sexier and, for two unlikely sorcerers, that much more dangerous.

Joan Kendrick has seen firsthand how damaging magical shine can be. It is more potent than liquor, more addictive than narcotics, and in the wrong hands it can be deadly. When it looks like magic might be the only way to save her family’s home, Joan forges a risky bargain. If Joan can learn to harness her magic it could change everything. But only if she can stay alive long enough to enjoy it.

Magic has taken everything from Alex Danfrey forever changing the trajectory of his life, landing his father in prison, and even ruining Alex’s own good name. Alex never wanted to work as an undercover prohibition agent–certainly not one peddling magic for the head of the Shaw crime syndicate. But who is he to turn down the one chance he has to turn his life around?

Joan and Alex are on opposite sides in a battle that’s been threatening to erupt for years. When lines are drawn both of them will have to determine where the others’ loyalties–and their trust–truly lies in A Criminal Magic (2016) by Lee Kelly.

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Kelly’s unique vision of magic and magical distillation adds an interesting element to the world here, as do the complex illusions Joan learns to peddle as a speakeasy performer. Unfortunately so much time is spent explaining the internal logic of the magic systems that much of the plot’s forward momentum is lost in these technical details.

One of the main tenets of prohibition, in retrospect at least, is the fact that much of the movement was grounded in false logic. For example, removing a man’s access to liquor would not make him less likely to hit his wife (the movement was very interested in stopping domestic violence). Instead it makes it more likely for him to hit his wife while sober.

What happens, then, if the idea of prohibition is actually grounded in fact? Kelly spends a lot of time telling readers that magical shine is as dangerous as everyone fears–something shown repeatedly in the story as peripheral characters suffer through addiction and withdrawal. While this concept is interesting it is never fully explained or explored in the narrative never doing anything new or fully addressing the inherent tensions of the time period.

A Criminal Magic is a heady blend of historical fiction and fantasy whose main characters have obvious chemistry albeit in an often under-utilized setting.

Possible Pairings: Westside by W. M. Akers, The Diviners by Libba Bray, Storm Front by Jim Butcher, The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman, Priest of Bones by Peter MacLean, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

Harley in the Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn BowmanHarley never thought she’d have to run away to the circus. Not when her parents already run a successful one in Las Vegas. After years of dreaming of becoming an aerialist and performing on the static trapeze, Harley hopes her parents will finally see her how serious she is and let her begin training professionally after high school.

Instead they double down on their demand that Harley focus on college first and then consider the circus–even though Harley knows she is in her prime as a performer right now, something that may not be true after four years in school studying something she has no interest in learning.

After her latest fight with her parents goes too far, Harley feels like she only has one choice: join a rival traveling circus.

Life on the road isn’t what Harley expected. The performers at Maison du Mystère don’t trust her, the trapeze artist who is supposed to mentor Harley actively hates her, and worst of all Harley has to live with the guilt over what she did to her parents so that she could snatch this opportunity. Harley has never felt like she fit into her family–never enough of any one thing to truly share biracial parents’ and her grandparents’ histories–and now she’s afraid she may not be enough for the circus either.

As she struggles to carve out a place for herself at the Maison du Mystère and proof to herself and her parents that she has what it takes, Harley will have to decide if the sacrifices–and the choices–that she’s made to get to this point are worth it in Harley in the Sky (2020) by Akemi Dawn Bowman.

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Harley in the Sky tackles a lot but it’s all handled exceptionally well and works to create a well-rounded, character-driven story. While trying to earn a spot in the circus Harley  grapples with her identity as the child of two biracial parents and what that means for her own cultural identity (or her lack thereof when she feels she is not quite enough of any one thing to truly claim it). She also tries to explain the coping mechanisms she has created for herself to deal with depression and mania and the stigma her own parents carry toward discussing mental illness. (Harley remains undiagnosed in the novel because, as she tells other characters, the way she moves through the world is normal to her and not something she needs help handling right now.)

Harley is a smart, passionate narrator. She understands her world through her physicality–something Bowman captures beautifully–and she isn’t afraid to go after what she wants even if she sometimes goes too far chasing those dreams. But she is also constantly learning and growing and, perhaps most importantly, she is always trying to do better–something that can never be undervalued in a novel or in real life.

Harley in the Sky is an ode to the beauty and the work of circus life as seen through the eyes of someone who loves every aspect of it. Come for the circus setting, stay for the sweet romance and thoughtful conversations on friendship, intersectionality, and work. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Akemi Dawn Boman about this book!

Possible Pairings: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Circus by Olivia Levez, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, American Girls by Alison Umminger

The Lady Rogue: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Lady Rogue by Jenn BennettTheodora wants nothing more than to join her father on his hunts around the world for priceless relics. Unfortunately, her father still sees Theo as a little girl instead of the capable researcher she has become at seventeen years of age.

While Theo sits at their hotel doing crosswords to pass the time, her father is out gallivanting his nineteen-year-old protégé Huck Gallagher–the boy Theo once thought she might love.

After a painful parting and a long separation, no one is more surprised than Theo when Huck shows up in Turkey with nothing but her father’s travel journal and instructions to get Theo to safety.

Theo has other ideas and soon the unlikely duo is combing through the travel journal as Theo tries to follow her father’s trail on his hunt for the legendary and supposedly magical bone ring of Vlad the Impaler. They hope that finding the ring will also lead them to Theo’s missing father. But Theo and Huck aren’t the only ones hunting the ring and Theo’s father may not be the only one in danger in The Lady Rogue (2019) by Jenn Bennett.

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The Lady Rogue is a standalone historical adventure set in 1937. With high speed chases, fast-pacing, and even some magic this story is an enjoyable homage to all of the things that make action movies like The Mummy (starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz) great.

Theo and Huck are a reluctant team at the start of this story which inspires much banter as well as regrets on both sides as the pair tries to make their way back to each other. Ciphers, puzzles, and excerpts from Richard Fox’s travel journal add to the story as Theo tries to follow Richard’s trail to the bone ring.

The Lady Rogue is a whip-smart adventure with hints of romance and the supernatural. As the book’s dedication suggests, The Lady Rogue is an ideal choice for meddlesome girls and anyone who’s ever been unable to walk away from a good puzzle.

Possible Pairings: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee, The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell, Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Mummy (1997)

The Invention of Sophie Carter: A Review

“None of us are the same, and we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Our comparisons are invariably false when we compare their strengths to our weaknesses.”

The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha HastingsEngland, 1851: Orphaned and grudgingly cared for by their reluctant guardian, identical twins Sophie and Mariah Carter don’t think they need anyone else when they have each other.

What the sisters need, desperately, is a chance at lives filled with more than the drudgery they’ve known for the last ten years. Sophie dreams of using her clockmaking skills to become a renowned inventor while, with the right instruction, Mariah’s artistic talents could make her a leading painter.

Sophie’s plan to get them both to London for the summer to see the Queen’s Great Exhibition (for Sophie) and London’s finest art (for Mariah) almost works. The problem? Their aunt will only accommodate one sister. To avoid separation the girls travel to London together agreeing to take turns being “Sophie.”

At first, the plan is simple enough since no one can tell the twins apart. But as Sophie forges an unlikely friendship with businessman Ethan and Mariah warms to their aunt’s prickly ward Charles both girls will have to contend with their own feelings and ambitions as well as the two young men who each think they’re falling in love with the real Sophie in The Invention of Sophie Carter (2020) by Samantha Hastings.

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The Invention of Sophie Carter is Hastings’ second novel. Chapters alternate between close third person following each sister during their adventures around London and in their aunt’s house.

Breezy narration, a pitch perfect historical setting, and just the right amount of romance make this story a delight. Themes of sisterhood and individuality elevate this romance adding dimension to both sisters as their horizons expand with the opportunities they are able to seize in London. Ethan and Charles are also excellent foils to both sisters.

The Invention of Sophie Carter is a delightful read and just what I needed right now. Readers are sure to be as smitten with the Carter sisters as their suitors are by the end of this utterly charming novel. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my interview with Samantha about the book here on the blog!

Possible Pairings: Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Antsey, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, Dangerous Alliance by Jennieke Cohen, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

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

The Voting Booth: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Voting Booth by Brandy ColbertMarva Sheridan has been preparing for this day for years. She has campaigned, phone banked, and helped register voters. Now she’s ready to vote in her first election because she knows it’s the best way to make a difference.

Duke Crenshaw is over the election even before he gets to his polling site. His family has always been politically minded thanks to his big brother, Julian. But it hasn’t been the same since Julian’s death. Now all Duke wants to do is get voting over with and focus on his band’s first ever paid gig that night.

Except when Duke gets to the polling place, he can’t vote.

Marva isn’t about to let anyone get turned away from the polling place–not even a stranger. So she volunteers to do everything she can to make sure Duke gets his vote in.

What starts as a mission to get one vote counted quickly turns into a whirlwind day filled with drives across the city, waiting in lines, hunting for one Instagram famous cat, grassroots organizing, and maybe even some romance in The Voting Booth (2020) by Brandy Colbert.

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The Voting Booth is Colbert’s best book yet and my personal favorite. Set over the course of one hectic election day, the novel follows Marva and Duke along with flashbacks expanding key details of their lives throughout the novel.

Colbert pulls no punches as her characters confront with voter suppression and racism. Both of them also try to deal with how best to “explain their Blackness” as Marva examines her relationship with her white boyfriend and Duke navigates being biracial while living with his white mother.

The story is tense and authentic but it’s also gentle and often extremely funny. Although Duke’s life especially has been touched by tragedy before the start of the novel, you know the characters are going to be okay. Marva and Duke carry the story but they have a lot of help from excellent secondary characters notably including Duke’s younger sister Ida and Marva’s parents.

The Voting Booth is a hopeful, zany, romantic comedy complete with an Internet famous cat but also an empowering story about politics and pushing back against injustice. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Today, Tonight, Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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

Girl, Serpent, Thorn: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa BashardoustSoraya knows all about stories. She knows about princesses and monsters. Most of all, she knows which role she plays in her own story.

She is a princess, yes. But the princesses in stories don’t have to be hidden away as a secret. The princesses in stories are not cursed with a poisonous touch.

Soraya has always known she is dangerous both in truth because of the poison running in her veins but also as an idea. How can anyone trust her twin brother to rule as the shah of Atashar if they find out about Soraya and what she can do?

When her search for answers and a way to break the curse lead Soraya to a guard who claims he can see her for more than her poison and a prisoner in the dungeons who may have the answers Soraya needs, she will have to decide if she will be a princess or a monster in Girl, Serpent, Thorn (2020) by Melissa Bashardoust.

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Bashardoust’s sophomore novel is steeped in Persian culture and folklore drawing inspiration from “The Shahnameh” as well as traditional European fairy tales and Zoroastrianism.

At the start of Girl, Serpent, Thorn Soraya’s world is claustrophobic. She has spent years in isolation and is starved for affection and human contact–things that she fears are impossible for her to ever receive because of her curse.

Soraya’s desperation to break her curse lead her to difficult choices that threaten both herself and her family’s legacy. Although these twists are heavily broadcast the emotional resonance is strong as Soraya deals with the consequences of her actions and strives to do better both for herself and those she cares about.

The book’s love triangle often feels suspect as all characters involved lie and manipulate to get what they want. This dynamic does little to diminish the chemistry between Soraya and Parvaneh and further underscores the hard won respect and trust that becomes a foundation of their relationship.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is an evocative, tantalizing tale. Recommended for anyone who has ever wondered what really separates a hero (or a princess) from a monster.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

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

Hunted by the Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Every heart holds a warrior. Some are born, some are made, while some choose to never take up arms. What you are and who you will become will be entirely up to you.”

Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz BhatenaBorn with a star-shaped birthmark on her arm, Gul could be the subject of a prophecy that predicts the downfall of King Lohar of Ambar. That’s enough for Gul to be hunted along with every other girl with such a birthmark. Never mind that Gul can barely control the immense magic she supposedly to possesses.

After years of hiding, King Lohar’s soldiers finally find Gul and her parents. Gul escapes, her parents do not.

Grieving and desperate for a way to get revenge against the king and the soldier who pulled the trigger, Gul throws in with the Sisters of the Golden Lotus–women who offer her shelter, protection and, most importantly, training in warrior magic.

Cavas has never had magic. If he had, he could afford his ailing father’s medicine without selling secrets. More importantly, his father might not be sick in the first place. But those are wishes Cavas knows better than to entertain. Joining the military might be a way out–a way to survive. But that path isn’t without its own dangers.

Thrown together in the heart of Ambar, Gul and Cavas are immediately drawn to each other even as they find themselves in a world filled with dangerous secrets that could change everything for both the kingdom and themselves in Hunted by the Sky (2020) by Tanaz Bhathena.

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Hunted by the Sky is the nail-biting start to Bhathena’s Wrath of Ambar series and her first foray into fantasy in a world inspired by medieval India. The story alternates between first person chapters narrated by Gul and Cavas.

Bhathena presents a richly detailed world filled with magic, mystery, and dangerous inequalities with non-magical humans living in poverty while at the mercy of the magical upper class’s whims. Because of that, much of this world is steeped in violence or the threat of it in the form of casual brutality as well as sexual violence leveraged as a threat to both male and female characters.

Gul and Cavas are angry protagonists, frustrated by their circumstances and looking for an escape. Neither of them expect to find each other in the midst of these much larger concerns let alone to have their paths align in surprising moments of connection.

Hunted by the Sky is an intense, fast-paced story filled with surprising twists, a unique magic system, and truly memorable characters. Recommended for readers looking for their next non-western set fantasy obsession.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst, Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Tanaz about Hunted by the Sky too!

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

My Calamity Jane: A Review

My Calamity Jane by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, Brodi AshtonThe story starts in Cincinnati in 1876 with “Wild Bill’s Wild West,” a traveling western show run by Bill Hickok. The show is always a big attraction featuring the legendary lawman, Frank Butler the Pistol Prince, and none other than Calamity Jane–heroine of the plains.

But the show has a secret: Bill along with his adoptive children Frank and Jane uses the show as a cover to hunt garou (you might know them as werewolves).

Jane is thrilled to have a family after so long on her own. Frank loves the show almost as much as his poodle, George. Neither of them is sure what will happen to the show (or them) when they find the subject of their hunt and Bill is able to retire.

Things go wrong very quickly after Annie Oakley (or rather, Annie Mosey–she isn’t the Little Sureshot yet!) tries to join the show. Annie earns her way into the show, soundly beating Frank in a shooting competition. But does shooting prowess mean Annie can be trusted with the hunt’s real purpose–especially when she seems to hate garou more than anything?

When a hunt leaves Jane with something that looks a lot like a garou bite, she has one desperate change to find a cure in Deadwood–a town that holds secrets and dangers for Jane and everyone she cares about in My Calamity Jane (2020) by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, and Brodi Ashton.

Find it on Bookshop.

In case you couldn’t tell, My Calamity Jane is a western mashup re-imagining the real lives of narrators Calamity Jane, Frank Butler, Annie Oakley, as well as Bill Hickok and many other legends of the American west. Although many events have changed, the story stays true to the spirit of these real life historical figures while offering more optimistic ends for many. This is particularly true for Jane whose lonely life is reimagined here with a sweet queer romance and whose penchant for chaos and self-destruction is reframed as an asset..

While Jane centers this story, Annie and Frank’s romance from their first shooting competition to their growing respect and eventual partnership on stage anchors much of the plot. It’s also almost entirely true (minus the werewolves).

The American West, as seen by white settlers and romanticized for white audiences in popular cultural, is inherently problematic. The authors acknowledge this in their omniscient narration and in conversations Annie has with Many Horses and Walks Looking, Lakota sisters whose help and practical advice are crucial to efforts to save Jane before it’s too late.

The story explores themes of allyship and tolerance through Annie’s interactions with garou (taking the place of the abusive family who kept Annie hostage as a child whom, even in her memoirs, Annie only ever referred to as “the wolves”) rather than using the only Native characters for a teachable moment. The acknowledgements include a list of further reading including several Native perspectives.

My Calamity Jane is a delightfully inventive reinterpretation of the old west; a tall tale filled with found family, fancy shooting, humor, and adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza; Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming; Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the June 2020 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

A Treason of Thorns: A Chick Lit Wednesday

A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. WeymouthAfter seven years in exile during her father’s house arrest, Violet finally has a chance to return home to Burleigh House–one England’s six great houses responsible for the welfare of the country and its people. Violet has always loved Burleigh better than anyone–a fondness that remains even knowing that Burleigh’s mighty house magic is what ultimately killed her father.

Returning to Burleigh is not the fond reunion Violet has dreamt of. The house is decrepit and wary after years without a proper caretaker. Her childhood friend, Wyn, spent the last seven years trapped inside with Violet’s father and he too is changed as a result.

Trying to heal a grieving house and her own heart will lead Violet down the same path her father walked before her: committing high treason trying to find Burleigh’s deed and unbind the house from the king.

As Violet and her friends get closer to finding the deed she will have to decide if she is  prepared to follow in her father’s footsteps as caretaker of the great house even if it means losing Wyn forever or if she might find a way to keep both her home and her heart intact in A Treason of Thorns (2019) by Laura E. Weymouth.

Find it on Bookshop.

Weymouth’s latest standalone fantasy offers a compelling alternate history in circa 1800s England although with a strong focus on Violet and Burleigh itself, many of the novel’s excellent secondary characters lack space to fully shine.

A Treason of Thorns has a few surprises and a satisfying romance, but much of the novel’s potential feels unfilled with a plot that meanders and resolutions that fail to fully capitalize on the underpinnings of the world’s magic system.

A Treason of Thorns is a fast-paced and truly original fantasy with a premise perfect for fans of the world of Downton Abbey (and living houses). Recommended for readers seeking a fast-paced historical fantasy with a world they won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, llusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Serious Moonlight: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You have the chance to make different choices.”

Serious Moonlight by Jenn BennettBirdie Lindberg’s previously small life is in flux after her strict grandmother’s death. In a bid to gain some independence after finishing homeschooling and earning her high school equivalency, not to mention getting some work experience before college, Birdie convinces her grandfather to let her job hunt on the mainland.

Working the graveyard shift at a historic Seattle hotel won’t be interesting, but it should be easy. Plus, there’s the added bonus of giving Birdie plenty of opportunities to hone her observation skills as an aspiring detective.

At least until Birdie realizes that she’ll be working with Daniel Aoki–amateur magician, graveyard shift van driver, and the other half of an awkward one-afternoon fling that Birdie thought she could safely pretend never happened.

Ignoring Daniel to preserve what’s left of her dignity proves impossible when he asks for her help investigating a reclusive writer holding secret meetings at the hotel. Faced with Daniel’s smoking hotness, his genuine need, and her own curiosity, Birdie knows she has to help.

As Birdie and Daniel work on this real-life mystery together, she soon realizes that the bigger mystery might be what to do about her own feelings for Daniel in Serious Moonlight (2019) by Jenn Bennett.

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Bennett’s latest standalone novel is filled with all of my favorite things including tons of references to classic detective stories. Birdie is a capable, smart heroine still learning how to come into her own with support from her grandfather and her nonconformist artist aunt, Mona. Daniel is charismatic, funny, and everything Birdie (and readers) could want in a male lead.

The hotel mystery and Birdie’s approach to life as she works to pursue her dream of becoming a private investigator add a lot of intrigue and fun to this contemporary romance.

On a personal level, it also felt like this book was written just for me. I identified so much with Birdie throughout the story as she struggles to come out of her shell and give herself the space and permission she needs to grow and thrive. This book is also the first time I have ever seen a story truly capture the weird blend of abject panic and genuine desire inherent to actually wanting to interact with someone.

Serious Moonlight is fantastic, filled with just enough tension to make the mystery aspect interesting while keeping the main focus on Birdie and her relationships. Birdie and Daniel are delightful lead characters complimented by an eccentric and entertaining cast of supporting characters. A new favorite for me, and maybe for you too. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore; Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert; The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo; Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson; Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus; Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke; The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee; The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe; Past Perfect by Leila Sales; Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith; This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg