Ophelia After All: A Review

Ophelia Rojas knows who she is: a girl who’s all about Cuban food, supporting her best friends, and her roses–both the ones she grows in her garden and the ones that embellish almost every piece of clothing she owns.

Ophelia has a reputation for one other thing: her numerous crushes on way too many boys. Ophelia gets a little tired of all the teasing sometimes but she is who she is.

Except when Talia Sanchez shows up at school, Ophelia realizes she might not know who she is quite as well as she thought. With high school ending, friendships changing, and a new crush that is totally off script, it feels like everything is up in the air. Now Ophelia has to decide if she can stay true to this new version of herself while holding onto the things and people she cares about in Ophelia After All (2022) by Raquel Marie.

Find it on Bookshop.

Ophelia After All is a standalone contemporary and Marie’s debut novel. Ophelia’s is biracial-Cuban on her mother’s side and white on her father’s leading to some thoughtful observations on racial stereotypes, microaggressions, and colorism. There’s a lot of diversity among the supporting cast including characters across the LGBT spectrum.

Ophelia’s narration is funny and thoughtful as she navigates her senior year of high school and the growing understanding that she might be bisexual–or something else she hasn’t learned the name of yet. With support from new friends like Wesley, Ophelia realizes that sexuality, like most things about a person’s identity, can be fluid and changeable. By the end of the story, Ophelia (and readers) also see that the queer community is open to all even if you’re still figuring things out.

With a crush that doesn’t go to plan and the bittersweet understanding that not all friendships are meant to last, Ophelia After All is a hopeful story about about endings and new beginnings.

Possible Pairings: The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel by Moe Bonneau, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju, All the Invisible Things by Orlagh Collins, The One True Me and You by Remi K. England, The Year I Stopped Trying by Kate Heaney, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve

Edited: A WIRoB Review

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

Edited by Barry LygaAs the title suggests, this book is an edited down version of a story–a story about Mike. And a story about Mike and Phil (Philomel). As author Lyga explains in a note that starts the novel: “This story you’re about to read is actually a partial version or an iteration, pieces of a larger whole, stitched together to cover the surgical trauma. You can read it on its own or as the companion to a grander, more epic work–and I’ve provided you the tools to do so, embedded in the text itself.”

The story begins as Mike realizes he can edit reality leading to fundamental changes in the world that only he perceives like changing the color of his now ex-girlfriend Phil’s party dress between red and blue–the latter of which better compliments Phil’s naturally teal hair and begins a journey for both characters through a series of world-shifting changes to their individual lives and their relationship with each other and reality in Edited (2022) by Barry Lyga.

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In Edited, Lyga inserts himself into the story as a quasi-character sharing notes on his creative process and authorial choices both in the narrative and in footnotes throughout the novel referencing points in Unedited–the 794 page companion to Edited–where readers can find more information on different areas like “a deeper dive into George’s miserable childhood” in chapter two of Unedited which is instead a brief paragraph in Edited.

Edited is a high concept story with a hook that will appeal to fans of meta-narratives in the vein of the films Stranger Than Fiction and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In Mike’s world children’s and YA literature is instead known as “nonadult” and Mike’s best friend George loves the author Gayl Rybar (an acronym for Barry Lyga) creating many tongue-in-cheek moments that don’t quite coalesce into meaningful world building or in-depth characterization while keeping the narrative voice impersonal as seen in Mike’s dissection of his friendship with George: “All of this leads me to believe and to understand that a best friend is perhaps best defined as someone whose upbringing sucked vastly more than your own . . . and yet steadfastly contends that your upbringing was just as bad, if not worse.” Clinical observations like this lend themselves to provocative realizations from Mike (“By this particular logic George is my best friend, but I can never be his.”) and interesting quandaries for readers but rarely lead to a larger impact on the story or characters.

Phil–the only female character of note in this book–comes with another set of programs as for most of the novel she serves as an object of Mike’s pining without becoming a fully developed character in her own right. Lyga notes this problem himself writing that Phil comes across as “paper-thin, a caricature more than a character” as she explains herself in the only chapter narrated by Phil where she breaks the fourth wall to discuss with readers the “Creator’s advantage” of the author and the multitudinous nature of characters who can be many things–both good and bad.

What Mike experiences throughout the novel is “as simple and as complex as ink on paper” in this self-referential, process-driven story where creativity trumps everything.

The Luminaries: A Review

The Luminaries by Susan DennardWinnie Wednesday used to dream of becoming a Luminary hunter. But now, several years into her family’s shunning after her father’s outing as a traitorous witch, the most Winnie can hope for is helping with Corpse Duty after Wednesday hunting shifts in the forest.

It isn’t enough. It will never be enough.

Everyone in Hemlock Falls can try to complete the Luminary hunter trials on their sixteenth birthday. Most prepare with rigorous training and study to survive the forest and fight its literal nightmares. Winnie no longer has access to any of that thanks to her father’s crimes and her family’s subsequent disgrace. But even years deep into a decade-long punishment, Winnie can still compete in the trials. She can, she hopes, still succeed and restore her family’s status in the Wednesday clan.

Grit got Winnie to compete but it won’t make up for the years of missed training or the horrifying reality of facing a nightmare in the flesh. What she needs is help from an actual hunter. Like her oldest friend and the one who was quickest to stop talking to her: Jay Friday.

The more time Winnie spends in the forest, with Jay, the more she knows it’s exactly where she’s meant to be. But dangers are lurking outside Hemlock Falls–including a new monster that only Winnie has seen. After years of being ignored and dismissed, Winnie hopes that becoming a hunter will be enough to be heard. But first she has to survive all three trials in The Luminaries (2022) by Susan Dennard.

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The Luminaries is the first book in a new series. Winnie and her family are white but there is diversity among the cast thanks to the international nature of the Luminary clans. This book started as an interactive story that Dennard launched on Twitter (more on that in her acknowledgements at the end of the book) but readers don’t need to have any familiarity with its origins to enjoy this iteration. Caitlin Davies provides an excellently narrated audiobook version.

Dennard once again delivers an action-packed plot and carefully developed world building in this series starter. Winnie knows that entering the hunter trials with her limited training is a risk that could have deadly consequences. She also knows it’s the only way to redeem her family and bring her mother, older brother, and herself back into the Wednesday fold–a hypocrisy that is not lost on Winnie as the Luminaries quickly change face after her first trial. Although Winnie’s doubts and insecurities loom large throughout the novel, her actions display Winnie’s abilities and commitment as she perseveres and works to prove herself both to the Luminary families and to herself.

The Luminaries is very much an introduction exploring the world of Hemlock Falls and the Luminary clans before a jaw-dropping conclusion that will leave readers eager to see what happens next. Starting The Luminaries is like stepping into another world; one filled with magical nightmares, dangerous witches, and a heroine trying to distinguish herself in a clan that has already dismissed her. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Lightlark by Alex Aster, A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy Banghart, The Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron, Monsters Born and Made by Tanvi Berwah, The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima, Small Favors by Erin A. Craig, Court of Fives by Kate Elliott, Crown of Oblivion by Julie Eshbaugh, All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

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

The Other Merlin: A Review

In the great kingdom of Camelot, Arthur is reluctant to take up his roles as prince and future king ever after pulling the sword from the stone. He was drunk, it was a joke! How can an old sword mean he’s destined to be a great hero when he would much rather be a botanist who spends all his time in the library?

Lancelot is happy to flirt with almost anyone who crosses his path. Except the last time he picked very badly and everything went very wrong leaving him demoted to a castle guard instead of following his dreams of becoming a knight who will faithfully serve Arthur.

Emry Merlin’s future has never been as certain as her twin brother’s. It’s always been clear that Emmett would be the child to follow in their father’s footsteps serving as Camelot’s court wizard. Never mind that Emry works harder and better when it comes to all things magic. Instead, Emry has to settle for using her magic to create alarmingly realistic stage effects.

At least, she used to.

With the sword out of the stone, things are changing in Camelot and Emmett is summoned to court to take up his role as court wizard. Except he can’t go. Which the current king, Uther, is not going to appreciate. At. All.

It seems simpler–and safer–for everyone if Emry go instead. It’s not hard to disguise herself as Emmett. It will only be a week. Except the longer Emry spends at court the more she’s caught up in the court’s intrigues and scandals, more drawn into Arthur’s inner circle, and even his longtime enemies like Lord Gawain. The more time Emry spends at court the more she learns about her magic. The more she finds herself drawn to Arthur.

When secrets are revealed and alliances threatened, Emry will have to choose between her own ambition and the prince she’s come to love in The Other Merlin (2021) by Robyn Schneider.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Other Merlin is the first book in Schneider’s Arthurian duology which continues in The Future King. Most characters are cued as white with characters falling across the LGBT spectrum notably including our narrator Emry who is bisexual.

With irreverent banter, anachronisms, and a healthy dose of teen spirit The Other Merlin is a fresh a take on familiar source material. Emry breathes new life into Camelot as she contemplates how privilege (especially in the form of wealth) and gender identity offer different characters wildly different opportunities. Emry knows she is as deserving, possibly more deserving, than her brother to act as court wizard. Whether the rest of Camelot will be able to see that beyond her gender remains to be seen in this first installment.

Multi-faceted characters, numerous side plots, and lots of action and humor make The Other Merlin a page-turning adventure. Readers faithful to the Arthurian canon may be flummoxed by Schneider’s numerous changes but those looking for an original retelling will appreciate her interpretations and updates.

Possible Pairings: Once & Future by AR Capetta and Cory McCarthy, Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst, Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion: A Review

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra RehmanCorona, Queens in the 1980s is changing as the area’s first wave of primarily Italian immigrants are replaced with Pakistani family’s like Razia Mirza’s. The tension between the old and new in the neighborhood is palpable; the criticism clear as carefully tended gardens turn to weeds in the hands of new tenants and change keeps coming.

That tension between old and new is familiar to Razia Mirza. As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who herself feels increasingly more American than Pakistani, Razia sees that same tension in herself; in her own life. Being a kid in Corona felt easy. Razia could understand the dimensions of her childhood even while she chafed against the narrow boundaries of her role as a “good girl” and a respectful part of her Muslim community.

But now, like her neighborhood, Razia is changing. She buys miniskirts from thrift stores, she listens to music her mother would call wild. Then she gets accepted to Stuyvesant all the way in the East Village in Manhattan where, for the first time, Razia feels like she has the space to be who she wants to be and not who her parents expect.

When her deepest friendship at Stuyvesant blossoms into something bigger, Razia has to decide if she can reconcile her family, her heritage, and her faith with the future she is chasing in Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion (2022) by Bushra Rehman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Short, vignette-like chapters unfold Razia’s story from early childhood into adolescence. For an even more immersive reading experience, check out the audiobook read by the author. Be aware of a few incidents of animal violence (mostly off page, but described after the fact) throughout the book if that’s a point of concern for you as a reader.

Vivid descriptions bring Razia’s world to life as her sphere slowly expands from the careful influence of her conservative parents into the punk scene surrounding Stuyvesant’s East Village neighborhood. Razia’s first person narration hints at larger stories unfolding with the circle of girls and women that comprise the Pakistani-American community in Corona but the tight focus on Razia’s experiences leave many plot threads open to interpretation by readers as they unpack Razia’s experiences alongside out protagonist.

Although romance in the conventional sense doesn’t appear in the story until the final act, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion is a love story at its core. Again and again, Razia’s world expands as she discovers learning whether it’s at school, borrowing books from her local library, or gaining a deeper understanding of what her faith means to her while reading the Quran with her mother and other female community members at regular Vazes–religious parties–in the neighborhood.

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion is a tantalizing window into one girl’s life as her world starts to expand, creating a friction between family obligations and personal growth as Razia tries to reconcile her own wants with the expectations of her family and community. Richly detailed prose bring Razia–and New York City–to life alongside provocative feminist themes of agency and freedom; this book and its author are ones to watch.

Possible Pairings: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, All the Rage by Courtney Summers, All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir, The Girls in Queens by Christine Kandic Torres, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Frankly in Love by David Yoon

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

The Rules of Magic: A Review

“For what you fix, there are a hundred remedies. For what cannot be cured, not even words will do.”

The Rules of Magic by Alice HoffmanIt was always clear that siblings Franny, Jet, and Vincent Owens were different from other children. Raised in New York City, they grow up with no knowledge of their family’s long history in Masscusetts or the curse Maria Owens cast in 1620 that changed the family trajectory forever.

Instead, determined to keep the truth of their family–and themselves–from her children for as long as possible, their mother sets down rules: no walking in the moonlight, no Ouija boards, no candles, no red shoes, no wearing black, no going shoeless, no amulets, no night-blooming flowers, no reading novels about magic, no cats, no crows, no venturing below Fourteenth Street. But even with all these rules, the children were still unusual.

At the start of the 1960s, the New York branch of the Owens family finally returns to the family home. And that changes everything. Meeting Aunt Isabelle for the first time, it starts to feel like Franny, Jet, and Vincent are meeting themselves for the first time. In a world where magic is suddenly everywhere, it seems like anything is possible–especially falling in love. But as they learn more about their family blunt and stubborn Franny, beautiful and dreamy Jet, and charismatic troublemaker Vincent will all realize no one can escape love no matter how much they might want to in The Rules of Magic (2017) by Alice Hoffman.

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The Rules of Magic is a prequel to Hoffman’s now classic novel Practical Magic. This novel focuses on Sally and Gillian’s aunts Franny and Jet when they were young women first discovering their magic and can be read on its own with only minor spoilers for Practical Magic. The story is told by an omniscient third person narrator with a close focus on Franny, Jet, and Vincent. The Owens family and all major characters are assumed white.

Hoffman perfectly captures the heady effervescence of the 1960s when the Owens family–and the country–are on the cusp of big changes. While The Rules of Magic does return to the family home in Massachusetts and even spends some time in France, the bulk of this novel is set in New York City as Franny, Jet, and Vincent come of age and come to terms with their magical abilities and the family curse. Set in Greenwich Village (specifically 44 Greenwich Street!), the novel explores cultural touchstones including the Stonewall riots and the Vietnam draft through the eyes of the Owens siblings.

Readers familiar with Hoffman’s work will recognize the lyrical style and looping narrator that slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion that will have a lasting impact for the entire Owens family. Although all three siblings play a major role in the story, the novel primarily focuses on Franny as she shifts from obstinate eldest daughter to the matriarch of the family. Franny’s role in the family is pivotal but if, like me, you find her (and her love interest Haylin) the least interesting member of the family some of this novel will feel especially slow.

The Rules of Magic perfectly captures the strange alchemy that makes New York City–especially Greenwich Village–so special while also expanding the Owens saga and the larger family story in interesting directions; a must read for fans of the series and an appropriate entry point to those new to the series.

Possible Pairings: Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert, Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim, The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, In the Shadow Garden by Liz Parker, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Among Others by Jo Walton

The First Thing About You: A WIRoB Review

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

The First Thing About You by Chaz Hayden

Moving from California to New Jersey is a great chance for 15-year-old Harris Jacobus to reinvent himself. After growing up surrounded by inaccessible beaches and being defined by his wheelchair, he’s ready for some more traditional high-school experiences. Having spinal muscular atrophy means he’ll never be able to do some things the way other people do, but it doesn’t mean he can’t use this move to try to become more popular, go to parties, and maybe find a girlfriend.

Honestly, he’d settle for finding any real friends.

Unfortunately, using a wheelchair in a school that’s supposedly accessible is still hard. And working with the school on an individualized plan for his disability is met with resistance; a lot of people need to understand that “inclusivity was not making someone feel uncomfortable for the enrichment of others.”

Instead of finding a cool crowd, Harris finds himself sitting at the loser table with Zander, a freshman who turns to “Mean Girls” for wisdom since the film “provides all the answers to our adolescent questions. How do I determine the cliques? What will it take to become popular? When do I wear pink? You see, it’s not just a movie, but a guide for the weak and afraid. Not to mention a great resource for devastating comebacks.”

Then there’s Nory, the cute girl who refreshingly treats Harris like any other guy who blocks her locker or flirts badly. (In his defense, have you ever tried to flirt while your mom — saying she’s your executive assistant — accompanies you to school?)

Harris has a foolproof strategy for gauging whether he’ll get along with someone: Ask their favorite color. “I thought about colors a lot, actually,” he explains. “Especially when I was about to meet anyone new. It was always the first question I asked them. A person’s favorite color says a lot about who they are.”

A blue himself, Harris knows that greens and purples are too close on the color wheel to make good friends, while yellows like Zander can encourage a more outgoing nature. But Nory won’t tell Harris her favorite color, leaving him unsure if it’s worth pursuing her.

After struggling to find a nurse young enough to blend in around school (and that insurance will cover), Harris’ family hires Miranda, a nursing student as eager for the work experience as she is to help Harris on his mission of reinvention. She seems perfect. Her favorite colors are orange and red, and she even graduated from Harris’ new school.

With Miranda’s help, Harris figures out how to flirt with Nory, starts sitting with the popular kids, and even gets invited to his first party. But as she pushes him to try newer, riskier things, it becomes clear that having complementary favorite colors might not be enough for a lasting relationship in The First Thing About You (2022) by Chaz Hayden.

Find it on Bookshop.

Hayden channels his own experiences growing up with spinal muscular atrophy into this contemporary debut. Harris’s wry, matter-of-fact narration clearly outlines how Harris navigates the world with his disability including daily nebulizer treatments to clear his lungs, using a laptop to complete all of his classwork, and how he eats: “My disability makes it difficult for me to life my arms and feed myself. Even small things like a piece of cereal or a plastic spoon pose a challenge. I used to have the muscles to eat independently, but over time I’ve lost them.”

This narrative lens hints at how the rest of the Jacobus family adjusts to the move, with Harris’ father balancing a big promotion with a long commute, and his mother taking on more work than ever before as Harris’ de facto nurse both at home and (later in the story) at school. Meanwhile, Harris’ older brother, Ollie, is trying to fit in at his own new school, where his lacrosse teammates resent his rising-star status and his willingness to speak out against their ableist comments.

As Harris learns more about Miranda and her history — which includes the death of a close friend and an abusive relationship — he begins to realize that growing closer to her might mean losing his friendships with Nory and Zander. It’s a loss he must weigh against Miranda’s ability to pull him out of his shell and toward the kinds of encounters he thinks he wants.

While Hayden teases out the complicated dynamic between these two characters, the questionable nature of Miranda’s behavior as an adult working with a teen — she not only encourages Harris to take risks but fosters an inappropriate bond between them, such as when she climbs into his bed after he gets sick — is never fully addressed.

Despite this plot hole, The First Thing About You presents a well-rounded story about first love, friendship, and high school with disability representation that will serve as a much needed window (or mirror) for all readers.

Until We Break: A Review

Until We Break by Matthew DawkinsTwo weeks ago Naomi Morgan lost her best friend. It was an accident, there wasn’t anything she could have done. But still Naomi is weighed down by guilt as she continues pursuing a career dancing ballet when she knows that Jessica can never dance with her again.

But even if she isn’t dancing next to her anymore, Naomi still has Jessica at her side. Jessica is quick to remind Naomi that she doesn’t have room for distractions like TV, or friends. She’s always there to tell Naomi that as a Black dancer–the only Black dancer now that Jessica is gone–Naomi has to work harder, be better.

As dancers at her academy gear up for a prestigious competition that will open doors to every conservatory program, Naomi pushes herself harder. And harder.

But when disaster strikes, Naomi is only left with herself and her grief as she recovers and contemplates if she’ll be able to dance again and, more importantly, if she wants to dance again.

Saint has never met anyone like Naomi. Even when she’s hurting, her dancing is beautiful. Watching her–and eventually drawing her–feels like Saint’s one refuge from being the sole carer for both his dying father and his younger brother.

Naomi and Saint don’t inhabit the same worlds but together they might be able to find their way to a better one in Until We Break (2022) by Matthew Dawkins.

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Until We Break is Dawkins’ debut novel. The story is narrated in close third person with alternating viewpoints following Naomi and Saint, both of whom are Black.

Until We Break explores themes of passion and grief while Naomi reluctantly acknowledges Jessica’s death and Saint faces his father’s mortality as his health deteriorates from COPD and continued smoking. While Naomi’s grief is a main theme of the story her hallucinatory conversations with Jessica are never unpacked as a potential manifestation of a larger mental health crisis.

Dawkins brings a fine eye for detail to descriptions of Saint’s art creation and, especially, to Naomi’s dance. Common problems in ballet dancers including overstrain and disordered eating are mentioned (the first with Naomi’s sprain that forces her off the dance floor for part of the novel and the latter hinted at with fellow dancer Aspen) but never addressed beyond superficial treatment as Naomi learns how to love both her dancing and herself.

Until We Break is an introspective story of healing and recovery; ideal for readers with an interest in dance or art.

Possible Pairings: Pointe by Brandy Colbert, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Christina Forest, You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

This Golden State: A Review

“I didn’t even know the choices, because I didn’t have the information.”

This Golden State by Marit WeisenbergPoppy has grown up with five family rules:

1. No using your real name.
2. No staying in one place too long.
3. If something’s weird, take one thing and run to the meeting spot.
4. Keeping our family together is everything.
5. Don’t ask about the past. For your own safety. It’s the smallest mistake that will get us caught.

Lying constantly, hiding all the time, always waiting for one disastrous slip up hasn’t left much room for seventeen-year-old Poppy to ask questions. When she was little it all seemed normal. Now, Poppy has her little sister Emma and her parents. What more does she need?

Right away, Poppy knows that their latest move is different. Her parents never answer Poppy’s questions but once they arrive in California, Poppy has even more: like how a room prepared in a safe house can feel more like hers than anywhere else she’s ever lived and why it feels like pieces of her family’s secrets are waiting to be discovered.

With her parents distracted, Poppy has more freedom than she’s used to with a chance to attend an advanced math class, earn her own money, and maybe make a real friend in the unlikely form of ultra-wealthy and popular Harry. Family has always been enough for Poppy. It has to be. But as Poppy begins to dig deeper into her parents’ past with a secret DNA test and to think more about her own desires, Poppy also realizes that no secret can be kept forever in This Golden State (2022) by Marit Weisenberg.

Find it on Bookshop.

This Golden State is a tense standalone novel narrated by Poppy. The Winslow family and most characters are cued as white with Harry’s DNA results showing ancestry going back to Jamaica, South India, and Europe.

Perfect pacing and an urgent, close-focus narrative amps up the tension immediately as readers are drawn into Poppy’s world where nothing can be taken at face value. While family secrets and the looming results from Poppy’s DNA test drive the plot, this is ultimately a story about a girl who is leaning to dream and understanding how much bigger her world can be. As Poppy tries to keep up with her wealthier classmates who have had more consistent schooling, Poppy also starts to unpack the privilege that comes with stability and everything that she has lost growing up on the run–losses that her younger sister Emma has already begun to chafe under.

Harry gives Poppy a window into a world she knows she can never inhabit living the way she currently does–one fileld with opportunity and growth. Brief moments with Harry’s verbally abusive father also underscore to Poppy how much her parents have sacrificed to keep their family safe and intact. Weisengerg thoughtfully unpacks Poppy’s loyalty and deep love for her parents alongside her growing resentment at their rules and how they have to live. As she learns more about her parents’ roles in leading the family to this point, Poppy also has to learn how to maintain her affection and fond memories while leaving room for the anger that comes with understanding.

This Golden State is a taut exercise in suspense where family is everything. Until it isn’t. While the payoff for all of Poppy’s questions and investigating can feel anticlimactic, This Golden State is a story that will stay with readers long after the open-ended conclusion. Recommended for readers seeking a thriller focused on tension instead of scares.

Possible Pairings: Don’t Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, My Mechanical Romance by Alexene Farol Follmuth, The Safest Lifes by Megan Miranda, The Liar’s Daughter by Megan Cooley Peterson, Remember Me Gone by Stacy Stokes, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick by Diana PeterfreundJust when everyone thought things couldn’t get worse at the formerly prestigious Blackbrook Academy, an accident strikes bringing another tragedy to the school’s door and into the lives of the infamous Murder Crew.

Orchid has survived her toxic former career and a deadly encounter with her stalker. But she isn’t sure how to survive losing Vaughn when they were just getting started.

Beth is still recovering from her injuries in the car crash that killed Vaughn. Tennis is a wash. But maybe that will give her a chance to focus on something else.

After losing her status as part of Blackbrook’s best platonic power couple, Scarlett’s confidence in choosing the right people is shaken. She can support Orchid and help her launch Vaughn to posthumous super-stardom. But it’s just not the same as plotting and dominating with Finn.

Finn is desperate to get back in Scarlett’s good graces for help protecting his invention as much as for their friendship. But he isn’t sure what to do if winning Scarlett’s friendship means risking whatever it is he has with Mustard.

Mustard doesn’t know what to do about his growing feelings for Finn or the deteriorating state of his new school. Things get even worse when Mustard’s roommate turns up dead and Mustard is the prime suspect.

With Blackbrook crumbling around them, the Murder Crew will have to rally together one more time to save one of their own, finally unearth the last of Blackbrook’s secrets, and throw a prom that no one is going to forget in In the Ballroom With the Candlestick (2021) by Diana Peterfreund.

Find it on Bookshop.

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick is the final book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers. Like its predecessor, this novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six main characters. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx, the rest of the cast is presumed white.

This final installment picks ups soon after the dramatic conclusion of book two with the entire Murder Crew still picking up the pieces as they sort through the school’s remaining secrets–most notably Vaughn’s past and his history with the school.

Readers who have been with the series from the beginning will appreciate the growth of all of the characters as they work together to solve one final round of mysteries at everyone’s least favorite boarding school. Finn and Mustard in particular have a lot of development as they try to navigate their fledgling relationship. Unfortunately, the primary focus of this series remains squarely on Orchid and Vaughn despite them arguably being some of the least interesting characters among the Murder Crew.

In the Ballroom With the Candlestick stay true to the board game (and the now classic 1985 film!) that inspired this series delivering murder, mayhem, and multiple endings that guarantee that this finale will have something for everyone.

Possible Pairings: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett, Heist Society by Ally Carter, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Killing November by Adriana Mather, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao