A Fierce and Subtle Poison: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tigers, Not Daughters: A (WIRoB) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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