Strange Exit: A Review

“No one earned their salvation. Only the rich and lucky survived.”

Strange Exit by Parker PeevyhouseIn the advance of a nuclear holocaust, a group of teenagers won a lottery to escape Earth aboard a spaceship designed to keep them safe until it was time to return. In stasis all of the passengers enter a complex virtual reality simulation to prepare them for that return.

After sleeping for decades, many of them are still unwilling to wake up–unwilling to admit that even the sim’s barren wastelands might be worse than what they’ll face on Earth after being gone so long.

But the ship was never meant to house them forever. Food is running out. Equipment is breaking down. Still the ship won’t return to Earth. Not until everyone is out of the sim.

No one is supposed to go back in; it’s too easy to get trapped, to want to stay forever. But someone has to wake the sleepers so Lake risks it. She secretly searches the sim’s post-apocalyptic pockets for survivors ready to wake up while desperately wishing her sister was on board the ship too instead of just part of the sim.

When she rescues Taren, Lake finds an unexpected ally ready to help her search the sim. But as the situation on the ship becomes even more dire, Lake realizes Taren is willing to take dangerous chances waking the sleepers and to sacrifice whoever he has to if it means reactivating the ship. Lake isn’t ready to lose anyone else on the ship, not after they’ve all lost so much. Now Lake will to work against Taren to find the heart of the sim and shut it down herself before it’s too late in Strange Exit (2020) by Parker Peevyhouse.

Find it on Bookshop.

The story alternates close third person narration primarily from Lake’s point of view with chapters from other key characters including Taren. While the story starts strong with an engrossing opening, it is slow to build to any of the twists readers familiar with the genre may expect. Similarly, the characters who receive the most attention are often at cross purposes with the plot’s forward momentum.

Strange Exit is an eerie science fiction story set against the stark backgrounds of a failing spaceship and the ominous post-apocalyptic sim. Peevyhouse’s world building is top notch as she brings both landscapes painfully to life bringing new dimension to what is otherwise familiar sci-fi territory.

Possible Pairings: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, Dare Mighty Things by Heather Kaczynski, Warcross by Marie Lu, The Final Six by Alexandra Monir, Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, The Matrix

Of Curses and Kisses: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya MenonJaya Rao has one mission when she arrives at St. Rosetta’s Academy with her younger sister, Isha, to rehab Isha’s reputation after a media scandal. As Indian royalty there are, of course, appearances to uphold. But Jaya is used to that and it won’t stop her from finding Grey Emerson and breaking his heart.

Grey Emerson is well aware of the animosity between his family and the Raos. It’s the sort of thing that makes sense after years of feuding, a stolen ruby, and a devastating curse. After years of keeping to himself and waiting for the inevitable, Grey knows he’s almost out of time. He never expected the curse to let him live past his eighteenth birthday. He just doesn’t understand why Jaya Rao decided to come and gloat about it.

Drawn together against their better judgement, both Jaya and Grey realize they other is not what they expect. Worse, neither of them may have the full story from their families. When it feels like everything is conspiring to keep them apart, Jaya and Grey will have to work even harder to stay together and find their own happy ending in Of Curses and Kisses (2020) by Sandhya Menon.

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Of Curses and Kisses is the first book in Menon’s St. Rosetta’s Academy trilogy–a series of modern fairy tale retellings set at an elite international boarding school. If you like listening to books, treat yourself to the audiobook to hear all the accents.

Jaya and Grey’s story takes a new spin on the classic story of Beauty and the Beast. I won’t spoil the ending here, but readers familiar with the source material can certainly imagine. Despite treading familiar ground, Menon brings her own spin to this classic story as Jaya and Grey make their own way in the world.

Despite the overall light tone, some of this book can be quite heavy–particularly when it comes to Grey’s relationship with his father. Grey has suffered through years of verbal and psychological abuse from his father blaming Grey for his mother’s death in childbirth and repeatedly reminding Grey that the Emerson curse will kill him. Reading this, even through Grey’s built up cynicism and detachment is painful although I’m happy to report a big part of the plot is the start of Grey’s healing process.

Jaya and Grey are excellent protagonists acting as perfect counterpoints to each other. They’re joined in this story with a stellar supporting cast including characters readers can expect to see more of in later series installments. While romance remains center stage, the friendships between characters and the sisterhood that binds Jaya and Isha together are equally important and written beautifully.

Of Curses and Kisses is a cozy, romantic story that adds originality and flair to a familiar fairy tale. A must read for contemporary romance fans.

Possible Pairings: Romancing the Throne by Nadine Jolie Courtney, When the Stars Go Blue by Caridad Ferrer, Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Bookish Boyfriends by Tiffany Schmidt, Jackpot by Nic Stone

Practical Magic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Practical Magic by Alice HoffmanThe Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town for more than two hundred years. After all, who wouldn’t blame every wrong thing on the town witches?

It’s no surprise that sisters Gillian and Sally grow up here as outsiders–taunted and whispered about without ever being understood or even truly seen. It seems to be the only option when their aunts Jet and Fran seem to do everything they can to encourage every rumor with their strange house and the concoctions they offer at night from their kitchen door.

Gillian escapes by running away; Sally by getting married. But no matter how far they go from their family, from each other, some things–some bonds–can’t be broken in Practical Magic (1995) by Alice Hoffman.

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Like a lot of people of a certain age, my first encounter with Practical Magic was the 1998 movie adaptation starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. I love that movie. It’s iconic, one of a handful of films I know by heart and watch every chance I get. I was nervous that the novel would never stand up to the adaptation. I’m happy to report I was wrong.

The story covered in the film version is roughly the final quarter of the book with a few changes to better translate the story to a new medium. Instead of the small vignette viewers get in the movie, Practical Magic offers a wider slice of life as Gillian and Sally grow up and do everything they can to deny their family, their history, and their magical roots. Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie also play bigger roles in the book.

Practical Magic is everything I loved from the movie but more. This book has more history, more magic, more evocative scenes, plus Hoffman’s beautiful prose to tie it all together.

Possible Pairings: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, 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, Among Others by Jo Walton

The Once and Future Witches: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We may be either beloved or burned, but never trusted with any degree of power.”

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. HarrowThere’s no such thing as witches in New Salem in 1893. But there used to be. You can still catch traces of them in the witch-tales collected by the Sisters Grimm; in the stories of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone–the Last Three–as they struggled to preserve the final vestiges of their power. You can see them, the ones who came before and burned before, in the second name ever mother gives every daughter, and in the special words shared only in whispered songs and stories.

Once upon a time in this world, on the spring equinox of 1893, there are three sisters. James Juniper Eastwood is the youngest. She is wild, she is canny, she is feral. She is running away or running toward. She is lost.

Agnes Amaranth is the middle sister–the one the witch-tales say isn’t destined for adventure. She is the strongest of the three, the steadiest. She is the one who is supposed to take care of her sisters until she has to choose between them and surviving–until she becomes weak.

Beatrice Belladonna is the eldest; the wisest. She is the quiet one, the listening one who loves books almost as much as her sisters. Until seven years away break her down. Until she recognizes herself as a fool.

Maybe these three sisters are the start of the story. Maybe they’re the start of something bigger. In the beginning, there’s still no such thing as witches. But there will be in The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow.

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A prologue and epilogue from Juniper frame what is otherwise an omniscient third person narration shifting between the three sisters as, against all odds, they cross paths for the first time in seven years at a women’s suffrage rally in St. George Square in New Salem.

The Once and Future Witches is thick with betrayals and misunderstandings as Juniper still harbors anger and resentment at being left behind while both Agnes and Bella struggle with their own reasons for leaving the others behind. Themes of both sisterhood and feminism weave this story together as the Eastwood girls try to tap into magic long thought lost and reclaim everything that has been stolen from them and so many other women.

At more than five hundred pages, this is an unwieldy book. All of the sisters have their own secret stories and hurts which Harrow explores alongside the grander narrative of discovering how witching was eradicated and how it might be reclaimed. The characters are careful to acknowledge white privilege as the mainstream suffrage movement excludes women of color and the world also hints at indigenous witches in Mississippi and out west. However, given the scope of the story, Harrow’s efforts at inclusion often feel like faint hints in this alternate history rather than concrete changes.

The Once and Future Witches is a complex alternate history wrapped in folklore, fairy tales, and a plaintive rallying cry for equality centering three sisters as they find their way back to the sisterhood and the magic they had thought long lost to them.

Possible Pairings: Spellbook For the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

Eventide: A Review

Eventide by Sarah GoodmanSeventeen-year-old Verity Pruitt knows she is perfectly capable of caring for herself and her younger sister, Lilah. But after her father’s very public descent into madness, The Children’s Benevolent Society is far less certain.

In June, 1907 Verity and Lilah are sent west on an orphan train to Wheeler, Arkansas where eleven-year-old Lilah is quickly adopted and just as quickly begins to adapt to her new circumstances.

Verity does not. Desperate to stay close to her sister, Verity signs on as an indentured farmhand to an elderly couple where she soon learns that her aspirations of attending medical school have done little to prepare her for the manual labor of farm life despite her kind employers and their charismatic nephew, Abel. Worse, Verity’s plan to get herself and Lilah back to New York seems more impossible every day.

Folks in Wheeler are friendly enough but local superstitions, a strange aversion to the neighboring woods, and even Lilah’s mysterious new adoptive mother all suggest that something is wrong in this small town.

As Verity learns more about Wheeler and her own parents’ history with the place, long-buried secrets threaten to once again send Verity adrift–or worse in Eventide (2020) by Sarah Goodman.

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Eventide is Goodman’s debut novel.

Evocative prose and snippets of fairytale-like passages come together to bring both Wheeler and its mysterious past to life. Verity’s obstinate pragmatism contrasts well with this western gothic’s small town superstitions and secrets. While Verity is rash–often jumping to conclusions readers may realize are wrong before she does herself–her heart is in the right place and her compassion as she tries to protect her sister and her new friends shines through on every page.

Eventide is an atmospheric, spooky story filled with old secrets and ghosts. A meditative, melancholy story where nothing is quite what it seems. Recommended for readers looking to unearth old ghosts in an atmospheric and sometimes bittersweet setting.

Possible Pairings: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, 13 Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth

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

The Queen of Nothing: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When We Left Cuba: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“In the end life always comes down to timing.”

When We Left Cuba by Chanel CleetonFlorida, 1960: The Perez family lost everything in the Cuban Revolution. Like many former sugar barons, Emilio Perez and his family had to flee their home, leaving everything behind, when Castro came into power.

Like the rest of her family, Beatriz assumes it will be a brief exile when the family first settles in Florida. As time passes and the weeks turn into months and years, Beatriz watches in dismay as her sisters and even her parents begin to make new lives for themselves in this new country.

Beatriz is much more interested in revenge. When she is recruited by the CIA, Beatriz jumps at the chance to choose a different path for herself trying to get close to Castro and reclaim everything his regime stole from her.

As she learns more about the means the CIA is willing to use to justify their ends and watches the Cold War threaten to warm, Beatriz also has to reconcile how she can let go of everything her family lost while embracing the new opportunities–and maybe even new love–available to her in the United States in When We Left Cuba (2019) by Chanel Cleeton.

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When We Left Cuba is a companion to Cleeton’s previous novel Next Year in Havana which tells the stories of Beatriz’s sister Elisa and grand-niece Marisol.

Beatriz narrates this story of heartache and longing primarily set in the 1960s with a framing story set in 2016. How you feel about this book may also depend heavily on how you react to one of Beatriz’s love interests. Without naming any names, I will say I could not stand him and that made a lot of the book a struggle for me.

While Elisa’s story explored the moments leading up to the Cuban revolution, When We Left Cuba is more concerned with the aftermath as Beatriz tries to come to terms with everything her family has lost.

As she rails against the Castro regime, Beatriz is also able to pursue a different life filled with espionage and, later, university studies and law school–things a sugar princess would have never been able to consider in Cuba.

Compared to the tantalizing glimpse readers get of Beatriz in Next Year in Havana, this book is in some ways underwhelming. Beatriz is still working on becoming that capable, independent woman–a transformation that unfortunately mostly happens off the page here.

When We Left Cuba is an excellent return to the Perez family. An empowering story of espionage, romance, and learning how to live on your own terms.

Possible Pairings: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova, Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner, The Secrets We Kept by Laura Prescott, Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan, Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Next Year in Havana: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonMarisol Ferrera has grown up on stories of Cuba’s beauty, hearing her grandmother Elisa’s fond memories of growing up there again and again.

Elisa and her sisters were sugar queens, daughters of Emilio Perez one of Cuba’s infamous sugar barons. After years of walking the fine line between working with President Batista without ever angering his regime, the tides have turned. With Fidel Castro in power the only option the family has is to leave. At the airport in 1959 they think it will only be a short trip, a season abroad until Fidel is ousted.

In Miami in 2017 the family finally receives the news they have waited for. Fidel is dead. The Cuban exiles are free to return home. Elisa didn’t live long enough to see that day. Instead, it’s Marisol who will travel to Cuba for her grandmother.

Marisol is there to scatter Elisa’s ashes but she soon learns that Havana is not the city her family left behind decades ago. Poverty stands in harsh contrast to the island’s beauty. Political dissent is just as dangerous as it was before. And even Marisol’s grandmother still has secrets to reveal in the city of her birth.

As she discovers Cuba for herself Marisol will unearth old family secrets and define her own relationship with this country that has been the backdrop of all of her family’s hopes for decades in Next Year in Havana (2018) by Chanel Cleeton.

Find it on Bookshop.

Next Year in Havana alternates between Marisol’s story in 2017 as she travels to Havana for the first time and Elisa’s story of the month’s leading up to her family’s departure for Miami in 1958. This novel is a standalone but readers interested in learning more about the Perez family can also check out When We Left Cuba which is a companion novel about Elisa’s sister Beatriz.

Cleeton expertly balances two timelines as the stories intertwine with Marisol’s discoveries in Cuba. Seeing Cuba for the first time and learning more about her grandmother’s past, Marisol begins to understand that the Cuba she has always imagined pales in comparison to both the good and the bad of Cuba’s modern reality.

Elisa, meanwhile, learns that nothing about revolution is black and white–especially her own families role in it while her father tries to stay on Batista’s good side and Elisa herself begins an affair with a revolutionary.

While some reveals are far from surprising, the dual story line works well and is used to good effect to develop both protagonists. While some of the secondary characters lack definition Beatriz jumps off the page (in both storylines!) making her lead role in the companion book all the more exciting.

Next Year in Havana is as evocative as it is well-researched to bring Havana–both past and present–to life while hints of romance and mystery add urgency to this character-driven story. Ideal for readers looking to travel through the pages of a book and fans of sweeping family sagas. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova, Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner, Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan, Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

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

Find it on Bookshop.

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, 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*

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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*