The Cousins: A Review

The Cousins by Karen M. McManusThe Story family always lived by one simple rule: family first, always.

That was before the family matriarch mysteriously disinherited and banished all of her children from the family estate on Gull Cove Island with nothing but a letter saying, “You know what you did.” Now cousins Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah barely know each other. They’ve never met their infamous grandmother.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t familiar with the Story family reputation: glamorous, mysterious, and just a little bit tragic. It doesn’t mean they aren’t just a little bit curious when their grandmother reaches out inviting the cousins to work at a local resort for the summer and reconnect. They soon realize the letters they received are a far cry from the real grandmother they find when they arrive on the island.

Everyone in the Story family has secrets but there’s something seductive about family secrets and the way they can become a part of you until exposing them feels just like losing part of yourself. After a lifetime of secrets surrounding their family history, Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah will have to uncover the truth to help their entire family move on in The Cousins (2020) by Karen M. McManus.

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The Cousins is a standalone mystery. Chapters alternate between Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah’s first person narrations. Third person chapters interspersed throughout the story from Milly’s mother, Allison, in 1996 show the events leading up to the disinheritance. With the exception of Milly who is half-Japanese, the Story family is white. A few secondary characters are BIPOC and play small but key roles in the story.

McManus packs a lot into this slim, fast-paced novel as the cousins begin to collaborate to start putting together the pieces of their family’s troubled past. Aubrey, a guileless narrator eager to connect with her estranged family, is a fun contrast to calculating Jonah and shrewd Milly who have more complicated reasons for coming to the island.

The Cousins balances its multiple timelines and plot threads shifting viewpoints so the right character is able to present the right information to readers for maximum impact. Tightly controlled narratives and excellent plot management leave just enough breadcrumbs for readers to try to make sense of the Story family’s secrets along with the protagonists.

The Cousins is an utterly engrossing mystery filled with suspense, complex family dynamics, and three narrators that are as multifaceted as the mystery they’re trying to solve.

Possible Pairings: The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao, Knives Out

All the Broken People: A Review

Lucy King is ready to start over in Woodstock, New York. She has her dog, she has cash, she has her suitcase with her mother’s vintage silk scarf and her father’s hammer. She has plans for a quiet life where her past will never come back to haunt her.

All the Broken People by Leah KonenEnter Vera and John, Lucy’s painfully stylish neighbors who quickly take Lucy under their wing. After being isolated for so long Lucy craves their attention and friendship enough that she knows she’d do almost anything to keep it.

When the couple asks for Lucy’s help to get a fresh start of their own, Lucy knows she has to help. But what starts as a bit of fraud with minimal consequences and an accidental death becomes something else when someone turns up dead.

Receiving more attention than she wanted, Lucy finds herself at the center of the investigation not just as a witness but a likely suspect. After coming so far to start again, Lucy will have to figure out who she can trust–and who’s really to blame–if she wants to keep the new beginning she fought so hard to create in All the Broken People (2020) by Leah Konen.

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All the Broken People is Konen’s adult debut. You might recognize her name from her previous YA titles.

All the Broken People is an eerie story where every tension is amplified by Lucy’s isolated, first person narration. After escaping a relationship marked by gaslighting and abuse, Lucy no longer trusts anyone. Not even herself. As her carefully constructed life in Woodstock begins to collapse, she’s forced to confront the events that led her here and what she has to do to get out again.

All the Broken People is the kind of book where the less you know when you start, the better. Konen expertly demonstrates her range as an author with this thriller debut filled with menace and ground-pulled-out-from-under-you twists.

Possible Pairings: Only Truth by Julie Cameron, The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney, The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

The Midnight Lie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We had been taught not to want more than we had. I realized that wanting is a kind of power even if you don’t get what you want. Wanting illuminates everything you need, and how the world has failed you.”

“Wanting something doesn’t always mean it is owed to you.”

The Midnight Lie by Marie RutkoskiNirrim’s life in Herath is a prolonged exercise in survival. She is used to having little. She is used to keeping secrets. She has Raven who is almost like a mother. She has friends. She has the knowledge that she helps people even if it is dangerous.

It is the way it has always been. It has always been enough. Until the day Nirrim makes a terrible mistake. Arrested and jailed, Nirrim could be charged any tithe the authorities choose–her hair, her blood, something much harder to part with.

In prison Nirrim encounters Sid, a mysterious thief with a brash manner and numerous secrets. Speaking with Sid across the dark prison, Nirrim begins to wonder if things really do have to stay the way they are or if, perhaps, they can be changed.

As Nirrim and Sid search for answers about the secrets of the High Kith and Herath itself, Nirrim will have to decide if doing more than surviving is worth the risk–and the cost in The Midnight Lie (2020) by Marie Rutkoski.

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The Midnight Lie is the first book in a duology. It is set in the same world as Rutkoski’s Winner’s Curse trilogy.

As the title suggests, this book is full of lies both that Nirrim tells to other characters (and even readers) as well as the lies she tells herself to reconcile the privation and struggles she has endured to survive. After years of wanting nothing, because wanting is dangerous, Sid blows Nirrim’s small world apart and forces Nirrim to confront her wants and desires for the first time.

Lyrical, dreamlike prose lends a fairytale sensibility to this otherwise grim tale as both Nirrim and Sid face increasingly risky stakes in their search for answers. As an outsider with wealth and an air of mystery, Sid operates with a certain level of freedom and safety–things Nirrim has never even dreamed of–which lead to thoughtful discussions of privilege and power dynamics between the two characters. Sid’s gender identity and presentation therein also add another layer to the story.

The chemistry between Nirrim and Sid is palpable–especially in flirty dialog that adds needed levity to this story. The final act will leave readers with more questions than answers as secrets are revealed and decisions are made for better or worse.

The Midnight Lie is a meditative exploration of the power of memory and desire as well as presentation. Fans of this tense, sexy story will be eager to see what comes next in the conclusion to this series.

Possible Pairings: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, Ever Cursed by Corey Ann Haydu, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

The Sullivan Sisters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn OrmsbeeSisters Eileen, Claire, and Murphy used to be close. A visionary, a planner, and a performer respectively the sisters could accomplish amazing things–like making their house feel like a home even with their father dead and their mother increasingly absent.

But that was years ago. Now the girls can barely stand to be around each other.

At eighteen Eileen has been carrying a potentially dangerous secret for years. She is working a dead end job. She’s managed to hide her drinking from her mother so far. Her sisters aren’t as easy to fool.

Seventeen-year-old Claire is an Exceller and she is ready to use everything at her disposal to Excel, succeed, get the hell out of her small Oregon town, and find her first girlfriend. With advice from her favorite self-help Youtuber, Claire has done everything right. But she still didn’t get into Yale–the only college she applied to.

Fourteen-year-old Murphy has always felt like a fifth wheel in her family. She never met her father so she can’t miss him. Her mom is never around. Eileen and Claire never have time for her. Luckily, Murphy has her magic tricks to keep her company. She used to also have Siegfried the family turtle. But then she forgot to feed him one too many times.

Days before Christmas Eileen receives a letter that could change everything. The sisters have inherited a house from an uncle they’ve never heard of. A house that could have answers for Eileen, money for Claire to get out of town, and a chance for Murphy to feel like she’s part of a family again in The Sullivan Sisters (2020) by Kathryn Ormsbee

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The Sullivan Sisters alternates between third person chapters from each sister. Unfortunately, the clinical tone of the narration also makes the sister’s blend together. A heavy reliance on quirks to define their personalities doesn’t help matters.

Your feelings about this book will depend heavily on your expectations going in. If you are looking for a heartfelt story of sisters reconnecting, this is the book for you. If, like me, you came expecting an atmospheric house mystery you will likely be disappointed.

Ormsbee tackles a lot in the book and the mystery aspect, such as it is, barely makes the list. What The Sullivan Sisters does well is present three flawed characters (four if you count their mother) who have gotten so used to drifting along that they need a major jolt (like a surprise inheritance) to get back on track.

Throughout the book Eileen is forced to confront her alcoholism (she is in AA by the end of the story). Claire has to admit that her self-help idol may not be as helpful as she thought but also it may not be as terrible as Claire thought to be queer in a small town–even without a plan. Murphy is a hard one. She is funny and often the most approachable of the sisters. But she also killed Siegfried the turtle through her own neglect–something that was hard to swallow even with an abundance of remorse on her part.

The Sullivan Sisters is a story about connection and secrets. Recommended for readers who enjoy reading about complicated sibling relationships, family secrets, and flawed characters.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

*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, Ever Cursed by Corey Ann Haydu, 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*

The Candle and the Flame: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“She will be all right. Not right now but later, when it hurts a bit less, she will be all right.”

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza AzadNoor is a city of many peoples and many cultures; a refuge for all who might need one. But it wasn’t always that way. This new city has only been able to flourish in the wake of a tragic attack by the Shaytateen–djinn who crave chaos–where they slaughtered everyone in the city save for three humans.

Fatima was one of those survivors and even now, eight years later, she is still haunted by the attack, what was lost, and what she had to do protect her sister and their adopted grandmother.

The city now exists in a tenuous peace ruled by a new maharajah who shares control of the city with Zulfikar, emir of the Ifrit–djinn who seek to create order and reason to counter the chaotic Shayateen–who protect the city.

When the Ifrit Name Giver is killed, Fatima finds herself transformed. No longer human, not quite djinn, she is now Fatima Ghazala–a young woman drawn into the city’s politics as outside threats and internal unrest threaten everything Noor represents and everything it could become in The Candle and the Flame (2019) by Nafiza Azad.

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The Candle and the Flame is Azad’s debut novel. This standalone fantasy is also a finalist for YALSA’s Morris Award for Excellence in Debut Fiction.

Vibrant descriptions immediately draw readers into Noor with multiple closer third person perspectives moving the story forward as Azad explores Fatima Ghazala’s transformation as well as the challenges facing both the city and its rulers.

Thoughtful explorations of trauma and consent set this novel apart as Fatima Ghazala works to come to terms with her past and what it means for who she has become. This struggle plays out in small things as Fatima Ghazala asserts her right to be referred to by her newly chosen name and on a grander scale as she carves out a place for herself both in Noor and among the Ifrit.

A gorgeous book with a swoon-worthy romance where the romantic leads meet as partners and allies before anything else; The Candle and the Flame is an evocative fantasy with lush writing and rich world building that explores themes of colonization and feminism. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, The City of Brass by S. K. Chakraborty, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst, We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

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

The Deceivers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Careful is a luxury you have when your baseline isn’t chaos.”

The Deceivers by Kristen SimmonsBrynn Hilder is willing to do whatever it takes to get out of her hardscrabble neighborhood in Chicago. Unfortunately, a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to paying for college.

When her mom’s sleazy boyfriend finds out about Brynn’s low level cons and the money she’s already saved up, he steals all of it and gives Brynn an ultimatum: start running cons for him or start selling his drugs.

Enter Vale Hall, an elite boarding school that seems to be the answer to all of Brynn’s problems. The school promises a free ride to any college of her choice . . . for a price. Instead of earning good grades and building up her extracurriculars, Brynn and the other Vale students are expected to use their conning abilities to help the school with special projects.

Brynn knows she’s up to the task. But as she learns more about her first mark and the lines she’ll have to cross to entrap him, Brynn has to decide how far she’s willing to go to get what she wants in The Deceivers (2019) by Kristen Simmons.

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The Deceivers is the start of Simmons’ Vale Hall trilogy–a con filled story partially inspired by the story of Odin and his Valkyrie.

Brynn is a practical, calculating narrator. She has spent years hardening her heart and telling herself she can do whatever it takes to chase a better life without fully understanding the risks or the costs. After being the poorest person in the room for so long, her time at Vale Hall forces Brynn to confront the fact that she isn’t the only one facing hard choices and limited opportunities.

Used to depending on herself and no one else, Brynn slowly and reluctantly builds up a support system at Vale Hall as she gets to know the other students, especially her potential love interest Henry and his group of friends–part of a supporting cast of characters who are as varied as they are authentic.

The Deceivers is the perfect blend of action and suspense as Brynn delves deeper into Vale Hall’s underworld and the stakes continue to climb for her and the another students. Smart cons, snappy dialog, and pitch perfect pacing set this novel apart. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Killing November by Adriana Mather, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carry Ryan, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney

The Guinevere Deception: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stories are not nails to be driven home. They are tapestries to be woven.”

“Sometimes we have to hide from what others see in order to be what we know we are.”

Guinevere comes to Camelot as a stranger–a princess who will marry the young king who has banished magic and his mentor, the wizard Merlin, from his kingdom as he tries to bring order to the chaos threatening to destroy everything he has worked so hard to build.

Except Guinevere died before she ever came to Camelot. No one knows the real identity of the girl who was sent to replace Guinevere–her name is a secret, her past a mystery. All that matters is that Merlin sent her to Camelot to protect Arthur.

Threats abound in Camelot as Guinevere investigates scheming nobles, mysterious new arrivals drawn by the kingdom’s promise, and magic fighting to get past her own rudimentary protections.

Magic is chaos–a natural force always waiting to reclaim what Arthur and Camelot stole away–a fact Guinevere knows better than most. With danger circling and secrets everywhere, Guinevere will have to rely on her own cunning as she decides who to trust and what to fight for in The Guinevere Deception (2019) by Kiersten White.

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The Guinevere Deception is the first book in White’s Camelot Rising trilogy.

White brings inventive world building and a feminist lens to her Arthurian retelling that centers a decidedly unique Guinevere. This historical fantasy breathes new life into the familiar source material with layers of intrigue and suspense as Guinevere tries to uncover both the hidden threats to Camelot and the secrets of her own past with Merlin.

The push and pull between the order of newly built Camelot and the chaos of primordial magic that previously ruled drive the plot forward as Guinevere comes closer to understanding Arthur’s greatest threat. This tension is mirrored by Guinevere’s struggle to be the protector she needs to be while also molding herself into the queen Arthur needs to rule beside him.

The Guinevere Deception is a fast-paced adventure filled with intrigue, magic, and the barest hints of romance and enduring friendship as Guinevere begins to make a place for herself in a kingdom she never could have imagined when Merlin plucked her out of the forest. A must reads for fans of Arthurian legend and readers looking for a fantasy with feminism and heroism in equal measure–with just a touch of existential dread to keep things interesting. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

The Okay Witch: A Graphic Novel Review

Moth Hush has never felt like she fits in among the other kids in Founder’s Bluff. On her thirteenth birthday she finds out that might not be entirely her fault.

It turns out Moth comes from a long line of witches.

Moth thinks that having magic powers will make things easier, or at least make her cooler. But even with support from her new friend Charlie and her old friend Mr. Lazlo (now a cat and sort of Moth’s familiar), making sense of her new powers isn’t easy.

Moth will have to confront old secrets and her hometown’s legacy before she can truly embrace her powers or her family’s past in The Okay Witch (2019) by Emma Steinkellner.

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The Okay Witch is Steinkellner’s graphic novel debut.

Steinkellner blends witchcraft and magic with a classic story of friendship, family and all of the complications therein. Full color illustrations with expressive characters and detailed backdrops bring Moth’s world and Founder’s Bluff to life. A careful use of color also accentuates the different light in scenes as the story shifts between day and night and, later, between Moth’s present and flashbacks about her family.

The Okay Witch is a funny, sweet graphic novel perfect for the autumn season. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever felt like a misfit and witchy types everywhere. Guaranteed to be a new favorite.

Possible Pairings: Little Witches by Leigh Dragoon; Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale, Nathan Hale, Dean Hale; The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson; The Power of Poppy Pendle by Natasha Lowe; The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag; Audrey’s Magic Nine  by Michelle Wright, illustrated by Courtney Huddleston and Tracy Bailey; Kiki’s Delivery Service

Be sure to also check out my interview with Emma!

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

The Last True Poets of the Sea: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Violet’s life is filled with lost things. Her entire family history is wrapped up in the lost shipwreck of the Lyric. When the ship sank, Violet’s great-great-great-grandmother Fidelia was the only survivor. She swam to shore, fell in love, and founded the town of Lyric, Maine–the place Violet and her twin brother Sam have returned to every summer.

This year, the trip to Lyric comes early and Violet is making it alone in the wake of Sam’s suicide attempt. She’s supposedly going because Sam needs time to recover. But Violet knows she’s really being sent away because she wasn’t there when Sam needed her. At least, that’s how it feels when she remembers the partying she was doing while her brother was trying to take his own life.

Alone and angry, Violet starts to wonder if finding the Lyric might be the key to finding a way to move forward. With help from Liv Stone, an amateur local historian, Violet tries to uncover generations old secrets about Lyric and her family’s place there, fall in love, and most importantly to forgive herself for surviving and her brother for struggling in The Last True Poets of the Sea (2019) by Julia Drake.

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The Last True Poets of the Sea is Drake’s debut novel and a retelling of Twelfth Night. Drake’s editor described this book at BookExpo’s YA Editors’ Buzz panel as a story about swimming up when it feels easier to swim down which I think is the perfect descriptor as so much of Violet’s story is about survival–both her ancestor Fidelia’s and her own as she realizes how much she’s missed while partying.

This novel is filled with evocative settings and delectable, deliberate prose. Violet’s guilt over not being able to help Sam and her return to Lyric are tempered with a smart queer romance as Violet and Liv grow closer. Orion, Violet’s new coworker and Liv’s longtime friend, is a perfect counterpoint and anchor in this satisfying love triangle.

The Last True Poets of the Sea is a thoughtful and immediately engrossing story about grief, family, and forgiveness. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett; The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han; A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi; This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills; Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno; I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson; Birthday by Meredith Russo; Small Town Hearts by Lillie Vale

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*