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

Lucky Girl: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Lucky Girl by Jamie PactonFortuna Jane Belleweather has always been good with numbers. As the only winner of the most recent lottery jackpot, Jane know there are 58,642,129 to claim the ticket. And every one of them includes a dollar sign.

Unfortunately, Jane can also see four big problems that stand between her and the big prize:

  1. Jane is still seventeen for two weeks. This isn’t terrible since she has 180 days to claim the ticket. Except if anyone finds out she bought the ticket as a minor it’s a criminal offense. So aside from being in big trouble, she wouldn’t be able to claim the winnings.
  2. The most obvious solution is to give her mom the ticket to cash. But after her father’s death, Jane’s mother has started hoarding other peoples’ possessions (and their memories, whatever that means) so Jane isn’t sure she can trust her mother with that much cash. Or really any cash.
  3. Jane’s best friend Brandon Kim is determined to reveal the big winner on his website, Bran’s Lakesboro Daily, to better prove his chops as an aspiring journalist and land a coveted internship at CNN.
  4. Then there’s the biggest problem: Jane’s ex-boyfriend Holden is back on the scene with a lot of ideas about spending Jane’s winnings. And trying to claim them for himself.

Winning the lottery should be the luckiest thing to ever happen to Jane, but as she struggles with keeping her big secret and figuring out how to claim her winning’s she wonders if this is a case where a strike of luck is more bad than good in Lucky Girl (2021) by Jamie Pacton.

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Jane narrates this standalone contemporary. Jane, like most of the small Wisconsin town residents, is white. Her best friend Brandon is Korean. Jane is bisexual.

Pacton packs a lot into a short novel as Jane comes to terms with her life-changing win and figures out how to claim her winnings (or if she even should). While this decision understandably drives most of the plot, Jane and her mother are also still grieving the death of Jane’s father and dealing with the aftermath (isolation for both of them and hoarding for Jane’s mom).

While some of the plot–particularly everything to do with Holden–can feel heavy-handed, Pacton delivers a very sweet slice-of-life story focused very squarely on Jane and her support system. Jane’s friendship with Brandon (and Brandon’s long-distance girlfriend who is in Australia) nicely centers this story and, once Jane comes clean, proves that she has more people in her corner than she realizes.

Lucky Girl is a fun bit of escapism that also thoughtfully tackles heavier themes of grief and loss. Recommended for readers seeking a change of pace in their next read.

Possible Pairings: Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, Jackpot by Nic Stone, Lucky in Love by Kasie West

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

Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town: A Review

Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie Sue HitchcockIn a small town, you are forever defined by the worst thing that ever happened to you. Maybe your mother died and you’re so angry you see red every time you miss her. Maybe your best friend went missing, her body found two years later. Maybe you almost lost your little sister when a stranger approached her in the woods. Maybe your mother and father refused to listen when you tried to tell them what happened to you at church every Sunday in the confessional.

And maybe what happens to define you in your small town has an echo. A ripple when your best friend reinvents herself as the girl every boy wants. An attempt at justice that leaves you lighter and sparks a fire in your wake. A missed connection as you cross paths with a volunteer firefighter in the evacuation center.

Maybe this is all there is. All anyone in your small town will ever know about you. But maybe you’ll still die famous because doesn’t everyone die famous in a small town?

Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town (2021) by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock is a collection of loosely inter-connected short stories.

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Starting in Alaska the stories follow teen characters across the Pacific Northwest and Alaska as their lives cross paths in the aftermath of a devastating abduction, a sexual abuse scandal at a small town church, and a forest fire that changes everything.

Shifting viewpoints and locations slowly come into focus as readers find the core of the book where each story is a spoke around one (or all) of these events.

Standouts in the collection include “Alaska was Wasted on Us” and “The Stranger in the Woods” which serve as interesting mirrors with the two possible outcomes in the face of a near tragedy (Fiona realizing how wrong she is about Finn and Jenny realizing how close her family came to losing sister Jade forever).

Fans of Hitchcock’s previous Morris Award nominated short story collection will enjoy the similar structure found in Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town. Recommended for short story fans and readers of suspense.

Possible Pairings: Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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

Don’t Date Rosa Santos: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Demand more of your possibilities.”

Don't Date Rosa Santos by Nina MorenoEveryone knows that the Santos women don’t go near the water. Not anymore. Rosa Santos knows that better than anyone. After her grandfather died to make sure Rosa’s pregnant grandmother made it to Florida, and after her own father died at sea when her mother was eighteen and pregnant, Rosa knows that the Santos women and boys on boats don’t mix.

Despite her grandmother’s bad memories, Rosa is desperate to visit Cuba herself. Something she thought she had finally figured out with a dual enrollment program at her local community college and a study abroad program at a four year university.

Just when Rosa can start to imagine herself walking along the maricon in Havana, the study abroad program is cancelled leaving all of Rosa’s plans up in the air. Which is how Rosa, the girl who has never set foot near Port Coral’s beach finds herself organizing the annual spring festival to try and save the local marina.

Rosa’s reluctant helper is Alex Aquino whose family owns the marina. Back in town for the first time since graduation, Alex is not the gawky boy Rosa remembers. This Alex has tattoos, a beard, and a smile that just might be lethal. He also has baking skills and, worst of all, his own boat.

As Rosa and Alex grow closer, Rosa has to decide if a family curse is a good enough reason to give up on all of the things she wants most in Don’t Date Rosa Santos (2019) by Nina Moreno.

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Don’t Date Rosa Santos is Moreno’s debut novel. Through Rosa’s narration readers are introduced to the charming town of Port Coral, Florida and its quirky residents.

While the main plot focuses on Rosa’s efforts to save the Port Coral marina, this is a story about grief and family history. Rosa has grown up with her grandmother, Mimi, learning Mimi’s tricks when it comes to brujeria and making a home for herself in Port Coral. Meanwhile, Rosa’s mother is a wandering artist who hasn’t felt at home in Port Coral since her teens when Rosa’s father died. All three generations of women have been touched by tragedy–a linking thread that drives the family further apart instead of drawing them together.

These ruminations on grief are tempered with the madcap preparations for the festival and Rosa’s tentative romance with Alex–one of the best male leads you’ll find in a YA rom com–and Rosa’s efforts to try and understand her own family’s history both in Port Coral and in Cuba.

Don’t Date Rosa Santos is a perfect blend of the setting from Gilmore Girls, the magic in Practical Magic, and just a hint of the strong family ties in Charmed. The perfect choice for readers looking for a sweet romance with humor and intrigue in equal measure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake, Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, By the Book by Amanda Sellet, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar

Amelia Unabridged: A Review

Amelia Unabridged by Ashley SchumacherAmelia Griffin and her best friend Jenna met because of N. E. Endsley’s Ornan Chronicles. They’re the books that gave Amelia a refuge after her father left and her family fell apart. They’re the books that gave her Jenna and, through her, a second family.

Seeing N. E. Endsley at an author festival should be the perfect start to their last summer before college. Instead, it all goes horribly wrong when Jenna has a chance encounter with the author and Amelia doesn’t.

Before either of them can back away from their biggest fight ever, Jenna is killed in a car accident.

Without Jenna Amelia isn’t sure who she is, let alone what her future should look like.

When a rare edition of the Ornan Chronicles makes its way to Amelia, she’s certain the book is a last gift–maybe even a last message–from Jenna. Amelia tracks the book’s journey back to a charming bookstore in Michigan where she also finds the reclusive author himself.

Amelia knows the book is a clue, a message. But it’s only as she gets to know N. E. Endsley that Amelia begins to realize the book is just the beginning of what Jenna was trying to share with her in Amelia Unabridged (2021) by Ashley Schumacher.

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Amelia Unabridged is Schumacher’s debut novel. The story is written in Amelia’s first person narration with some flashbacks to key moments in her friendship with Jenna.

This book holds a special place for me after I had the chance to read an early copy in 2020 to potentially blurb it. Schumacher’s writing is top-notch as she delivers a story that is both wrenching and hopeful.

This ode to books and magic (and books about magic) offers a meditative exploration of grief and healing as Amelia and Nolan (N. E. Endsley) both work through their own tragedies and figure out how to move forward in a world that their losses have rendered unrecognizable.

Amelia Unabridged is a nuanced and poignant story about finding your place and your people when all of the things you’ve learned to take for granted are torn away. Whimsical without being twee, authentic without being brutal; Amelia is a heroine readers won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Everything All At Once by Katrina Leno, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Eliza and Her Monster by Francesca Zappia, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

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

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, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Among Others by Jo Walton

Kind of a Big Deal: A Review

Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon HaleJosie Pie was a big deal in high school. She was always the lead in school productions, her teachers always said she was destined for greatness. Which is why it made so much sense when Josie dropped out of high school to be a star.

Now, almost a year later, Josie is starting to wonder if she made the right choice. Turns out hitting it big on Broadway isn’t as easy as hitting it big in high school. After a series of failed auditions Josie is starting to wonder if she was ever star material. It certainly doesn’t feel that way while she words as a nanny.

Josie keeps in touch with her best friend, her boyfriend, and her mom. But there’s only so much you can talk about without admitting massive failure (and mounting credit card debt).

When Josie and her charge find a cozy bookstore, Josie receives a pair of special glasses that transport her into her current read. Literally. In the books she can save the day in a post-apocalyptic world, fall in love in a rom-com, and more.

Living out these fantasies is the best thing that’s happened to Josie in a while. But the longer she stays inside the stories, the harder it is to remember why she should come back to her own life in Kind of a Big Deal (2020) by Shannon Hale.

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Hale’s latest YA novel is a genre mashup. Framed by Josie’s contemporary coming of age story, Hale also plays with conventions in dystopian sci-fi, romantic comedies, and historical fiction (genres Hale has by and large tackled previously in her extensive backlist).

Kind of a Big Deal takes on a lot using these genre adventures to help Josie get a handle on her own life. Unfortunately, the stories within this story are often more compelling than Josie’s real life leaving Josie and her friends feeling one dimensional throughout. Stilted dialog and a premise that pushes the limits of plausibility (particularly with eighteen-year-old Josie being solely in charge of a seven-year-old girl while her mother works out of the country) further undermine this otherwise novel premise.

Kind of a Big Deal is a unique take on losing yourself in a good book. The story reads young and might have worked better for a middle grade audience or radically rewritten with older characters for an adult novel. Recommended for readers looking for plot driven genre studies.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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

The Scapegracers: A (WIRoB) Review

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

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail ClarkeThe “township of Sycamore Gorge doesn’t fuck around where Halloween is concerned” which is why October is the one time of year where Eloise “Sideways” Pike earns a modicum of respect and attention from classmates who would otherwise ignore her as the resident lesbian witch whose dads run the local antique shop.

After years of “skulking near the bottom, lurking behind the bleachers, doing magic tricks for bottles of Coke,” Sideways is suddenly and irrevocably catapulted to the top of the West High social pyramid when Jing Gao, Lila Yates, and Daisy Brink pay Sideways forty dollars to add some real magic to the start of “scare-party season.”

Sideways is almost as surprised as Jing and Yates and Daisy when the magic works. As she puts it: “Even following my spell book by the letter, the most I could do was burn paper, unbreak dishes, make scrapes and cuts scab faster. What the four of us could do was something else. I felt seasick and disgustingly in love with it, with them.”

Party magic soon leads to dead deer in a drained pool, an unknown party guest nearly assaulting Yates, devils, and trouble as the girls start to learn more about the magic they all share and what it means for their fledgling friendship in The Scapegracers (2020) by Hannah Abigail Clarke.

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Sideways’s first person narration is descriptively lyrical observing the pale “bruise-lavender blue” air even as she remains extremely grounded when it comes to her own loneliness and lack of social skills. Sideways sees herself better suited to “skulking under bridges” than befriending the most popular clique in school, let alone flirting with Madeline–the stranger recruited as a fifth for their coven. Despite meddling efforts from her new friends, the course of love, much like magic, does not run smooth for Sideways.

Clarke cleverly dismantles classic popular girl tropes as Sideways and readers learn more about the triumvirate who quickly adopt Sideways into their ranks with surprising loyalty and affection. Sideways, Daisy, and Madeline are described as white, Yates is Black, and Jing is Asian—presumably Chinese. The characters are also diverse in terms of sexuality with lesbian Sideways and bisexual Jing among others.

Clarke’s debut is the start of a trilogy filled with magic, lilting prose, snappy dialog, and witches embracing their own power. Feminist themes and strong character bonds make this book an ideal companion to Kim Liggett’s The Grace Year, Hannah Capin’s Foul is Fair, and Leslye Walton’s Price Guide to the Occult. The Scapegracers is an excellent addition to the recent crop of novels highlighting sisterhood (especially unlikely ones) fueled by both feminist rage and solidarity.

Possible Pairings: Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

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*