Magic for Liars: A Review

Magic For Liars by Sarah GaileyIvy has never been magic. She has gotten used to the bitter ordinariness–especially whenever she is compared to her identical twin sister Tabitha, a magic prodigy.

Ivy never wanted to be magic, really. But she still wonders if it wouldn’t have made some things easier. Tabitha is able to get rid or freckles that plague both of them, her eyes always sparkle a bit more, and everything seems to come much more easily for her. People never stick to Ivy and she wonders sometimes if she had been magic if that might have been different.

Ivy knows exactly who she is: the half-feral detective with the perpetual hangover, covered in ink and smudges, devoid of magic. She knows that isn’t an Ivy anyone would want.

When she is hired to investigate a grisly murder at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages where Tabitha teaches Theoretical Magic, Ivy thinks it could be her chance to make good as an investigator. It might be her chance to be a different Ivy and, if she does things right, it could change everything.

But being around so much magic and so many what-ifs is intoxicating. As questions arise and the suspect list grows, Ivy will have to keep her head clear if she wants to get to the truth in Magic for Liars (2019) by Sarah Gailey.

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Magic for Liars is a standalone fantasy noir mashup complete with a flawed detective as the protagonist.

Ivy has spent most of her life lonely and starved for attention. Being in her head is hard, but it’s supposed to be as her inner turmoil plays out against the larger backdrop of the murder investigation.

Magic for Liars is a mystery wrapped around a sometimes painful examination of the stories we tell ourselves in an effort to make the world see us the way we wish it would. A tightly paced, largely flawless mystery that delivers on every front. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Storm Front by Jim Butcher, The Secret Place by Tana French, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Once Broken Faith by Seanan McGuire, The Rook by Daniel O’Malley,, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Take Me With You: A Review

Take Me With You by Tara AltebrandoBefore the school messaging app summons them all to an empty classroom after school, they barely know each other.

Eden is struggling with anxiety while she grieves her father. Her mother tries to be there, be present, but Eden still feels alone with all of these fears and even scarier feelings.

Marwan has two priorities: excelling enough in soccer to get a college scholarship and getting out of Queens. His immigrant parents don’t understand either and would prefer Marwan channel his energy into working at the family’s Persian restaurant that he will one day inherit.

Eli loves all things tech and gaming. But it’s hard to focus on either while his grandfather is dying a slow death in a nursing home and Eli feels like even more of an afterthought in his own family.

Ilanka has always prided herself on keeping other people at a distance–the better to plan an exit strategy from her claustrophobic family, the rhythmic gymnastics she isn’t sure she cares about, and ignore the fact that her “best” friend isn’t much of a friend at all.

None of them know why they’re summoned to the classroom. They don’t even notice the device at first.

Until it lights up and starts telling them the rules: Don’t tell anyone about the device. Never leave the device unattended. No one leaves.

Later, there will be other rules, a few mistakes, and a lot of questions but first they’re told to take the device with them. Brought together by a mysterious device Eden, Marwan, Eli, and Ilanka will have to work together to uncover answers or suffer the consequences in Take Me With You (2020) by Tara Altebrando.

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Altebrando’s latest standalone thriller is a dynamo alternating between multiple points of view with tension you can cut with a knife.

This character-driven thriller has an intense plot situated perfectly between suspense and speculative fiction. At the same time, while answering questions about the device motivates all four characters, the story’s ultimate focus is on the unlikely connection formed between themin the most unlikely of circumstances.

Take Me With You is a tense, thoughtful thriller with a perfectly executed denouement; the eerily possible thriller you’ve been waiting for. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, Infinite in Between by Carolyn Mackler, One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus, All Our Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

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

When We Vanished: A Review

When We Vanished by Alanna PetersonAndi Lin and her mother are doing everything they can to keep anyone from finding out that her father’s new job is actually participating in a clinical trial at the food corporation Nutrexo.

After Andi hears executives whispering about a dangerous research study at a company party, she worries it might be the same study her dad is involved with–especially since she hasn’t heard from him in over a week. When Andi asks her neighbor Cyrus Mirzapour to help, they wind up in over their heads when a nonviolent protest ends with a bombing and both of them being held captive alongside Cyrus’s older brother, Naveed and younger sister, Roya.

Trapped and desperate to discover the truth and save themselves, Andi and Cyrus find themselves at the center of a conspiracy with consequences that are hard to imagine–and closer to home than either of them realize in When We Vanished (2020) by Alanna Peterson.

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When We Vanished is Peterson’s debut novel and the start of her Call of the Crow quartet. The book is published by Peterson’s newly created publishing company Rootcity Press which, as their website states, “operates on a not-for-profit model, and donates a portion of all proceeds to grassroots-based organizations focused on racial justice and food equity”

As such, this eco-thriller works to raise awareness about the dangers of fast/processed foods and genetically modified foods some of which can be seen on the book’s companion site Nutrexo Truth.

Unfortunately in sharing these timely messages Peterson’s novel highlights graphic scenes of animal cruelty with “EcoCows” kept in unsanitary and inhumane conditions at Nutrexo and scenes of torture when Naveed is sprayed with a noxious pesticide as part of the villain’s continued experiments leaving him with lasting nerve damage.

While these scenes viscerally showcase the dangers of modifying foods, particularly the increased spread of antibiotic resistant infections, the violence that will stay with readers far longer than the message.

When We Vanished is an unflinching eco-thriller best suited to readers comfortable with gore and grit.

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

We Are the Wildcats: A (Blog Tour) Review

“They already know they will never forget tonight. And it’s only just getting started.”

We Are the Wildcats by Siobhan VivianBeing a Wildcat means team first, always. It means grueling workouts, a second family, and always, always listening to Coach. It means Field Hockey, and nothing else, during the season. Sure, there are other teams at West Essex. Sure, the entire school’s mascot is the Wildcat. But when you talk about the Wildcats everyone knows you’re talking about the girls’ Field Hockey team.

After a crushing end to their last season, all of the returning girls have something to prove:

Mel didn’t come through the way she expected in their last games. She didn’t lead. Now, more than ever, she needs to show Coach and the other girls that she has what it takes to be the captain this year. She knows that starting the season off right with the annual psych-up dinner and distribution of their varsity jerseys is exactly what the team needs.

No one works harder than Phoebe on or off the field. She might have to go twice as hard to keep up with Mel’s effortless skill. But she doesn’t mind. Being a part of the team is worth it. Even after blowing out her ACL, Phoebe doesn’t regret anything she did for the team. She made her choices and it’s only a matter of time before she’s back on the field.

Ali is one of the best goalies the Wildcats have ever had. Which is why it was so shocking when she let two goals by with almost no fight in their championship game last season. Now Ali is ready to prove to herself and her team that she is ready. Even if it means facing Darlene McGuire again. Even if it means missing her nephew’s first birthday to make sure she’s at their scrimmage.

Kearson wasn’t supposed to be on the varsity team at all. But when Phoebe is injured she’s ready to step up for the team and, especially, for Phoebe. But being chosen to join the team isn’t the same as belonging on the team. Something Kearson is still struggling with at the start of the new season.

Then there are the new girls: sophomore Grace and incoming freshman Luci. Both of them know being a Wildcat is something special. But as their first night together as a team takes an unexpected turn all six girls will have to decide how to balance putting the team first with taking care of themselves in We Are the Wildcats (2020) by Siobhan Vivian.

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We Are the Wildcats is set over the course of twenty-four hours with chapters alternating between close third person chapters following the six characters above as they all come to terms with what really went wrong last season and Coach’s role in it. Except for Ali who is Korean-American and Luci who is half Argentine, all of the characters are described as white.

Vivan delivers a tense story of friendship, team camaraderie, and intersectional feminism as each character tries to reconcile the love they feel for their sport and their team with what is increasingly clear is a toxic relationship with their coach. The suspense amps up even higher as the novel moves to its dramatic conclusion when the team finally unpacks all of Coach’s lies to realize how much he has been manipulating them and the school during his tenure.

Excellent writing and distinct personalities for the POV characters make this story immediately engrossing. Although abrupt the ending is satisfying as each girl works to find balance between supporting their teammates and putting themselves first.

We Are the Wildcats is a must read if you like your intersectional feminism with a healthy dose of sports and camaraderie.

Possible Pairings: Tumbling by Caela Carter; Every Reason We Shouldn’t by Sara Fujimura; Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry; The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

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

Havenfall: A Review

Havenfall by Sara HollandHavenfall is a world unto itself–an inn situated at the gateways between worlds offering neutral ground for the Last Remaining Adjacent Realms. It’s also the one place where people believe Maddie Marrow when she tells them what really happened to her brother all those years ago.

Maddie knows that this summer is her last chance to prove herself to her uncle Marcus and earn her spot as his successor running the inn. She’s up to the challenge. But when Maddie gets to Havenfall she realizes that things have started changing. Her best friend Brekken is a Fiordenkill soldier, Marcus is keeping secrets, and then there’s the new girl–Taya–who is supposed to be temporary help for the summer but draws Maddie’s attention more than she cares to admit.

When a body is found on the grounds and Marcus is attacked, Maddie is left to pick up the pieces and figure out the truth before Havenfall and the tenuous peace it represents is ruines in Havenfall (2020) by Sara Holland.

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As the start of a new series, Havenfall lays a lot of groundwork introducing readers to Maddie’s world at the inn and the adjacent realms Fiordenkill and Byrn as well as Solaria, a rogue realm whose portal was sealed off years ago. While the premise is interesting and offers a unique spin on traditional portal fantasies, the world building is one of the bigger problems with this book.

One of the tenets of the story is that that the porous nature of the portals between realms is part of why we have myths with magic even though Earth does not have magic of its own. Solarians–the main villain for a significant part of Havenfall–come from a world that is associated with mythology including djinn, vampires, demons, and soulstealers. This choice is problematic because djinn are also the only non-white/non-western mythology named in the entire story. It’s also the only mythos associated with a specific religion/culture which, again, here is being coded as villainous.

I won’t get into spoilers explaining Maddie’s history with Solaria but suffice to say that her hatred of the entire Solarian race informs a lot of her character. Does Maddie eventually see the error or her ways? Yes. Are reparations being made? Kind of. Did we need to spend an entire book vilifying an entire race (which although presented as white in the novel is the only group in the book associated with a nonwhite culture)? Absolutely not. What’s worst, the only notable person of color in the entire cast of characters is Marcus’s husband who is from one of the other “good” worlds.

Holland’s ambitious world building never gels enough to transcend this messy foundation. Similarly, the plot never quite comes together despite ample time spent setting up the story with an incredibly slow beginning. Maddie is bisexual–a fact that is refreshingly a nonissue for her family and friends but which also hints at a love triangle that frustratingly never leads anywhere interesting.

Havenfall is a mystery wrapped in a portal fantasy setting that centers an ambitious if often naive heroine. Recommended for readers who prefer slow building suspense to quick action and are willing to overlook messy world building entirely.

Possible Pairings: Caraval by Stephanie Garber, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, Mister Monday by Garth Nix, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, The Archived by Victoria Schwab

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

The Night Country: A Review

*The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers*

“We were predators set loose in a world not made to withstand us. Until the summer we became prey.”

The Night Country by Melissa AlbertIt’s been two years since Alice Proserpine fought her way out of the Hinterland and the fairytale she inhabited there with help from Ellery Finch–the boy who chose to explore other worlds instead of returning with Alice to New York City.

Being an ex-story isn’t easy even in a city like New York where strangeness already lurks on every corner. At first it seems like Alice might really be able to reinvent herself with a new, human life. But something is happening to the Hinterland survivors who made it out–something that’s leaving them dead.

While Alice tries to track down the culprit, Ellery has to try to find his own way out of the Hinterland before there’s nothing left.

Everyone knows how a fairy tale is supposed to end but as Alice and Ellery search for answers and a way home, they soon realize that their tales are far from over and may not end happily in The Night Country (2020) by Melissa Albert.

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The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers. Alice’s pragmatic first person narration contrasts well with third person chapters following Ellery as he tries to find his way home and, possibly, back to Alice.

While Alice spent most of The Hazel Wood trying to understand who she was, The Night Country focuses on Alice’s struggle to decide who she wants to be now that she is free to shape her own story.

The Night Country is a suspenseful story of loss, hope, and searching. This fairytale noir adventure blends romance and mystery with plenty of action as Alice struggles to stop a conspiracy with ramifications she can barely imagine. A must read for fans of portal fantasies, mysteries, and readers who prefer their magic with bloody sharp edges.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the November 2019 issue of School Library Journal*

The Grace Year: A Review

“Trust no one. Not even yourself.”

Tierney James lives in a grim world where nothing is more dangerous than a woman left unchecked–especially a young woman about to come into her power.

That’s why girls are sent away for their grace year–their sixteenth year–to live in isolation in the wilderness. No one speaks of the grace year. But everyone knows the purpose: to exorcise a girl’s magic before she returns to civilization either to marry or become a laborer.

Tierney has spent her life searching for scraps of information about what happens out in the woods. All she knows is that not all of the girls come back whole, not all of them come back at all, and this year she’ll be one of them in The Grace Year (2019) by Kim Liggett.

Part dystopia, part thriller, The Grace Year follows Tierney on her grace year as she journeys with the other grace year girls into the wilderness. Haunted by dreams of a girl she cannot identify and promises of change, Tierney chafes under the constraints placed on her in a society intent on subjugating women before they become dangerous.

Tierney’s first person narration is filled with vitriol and righteous frustration as she realizes that the biggest challenge won’t be surviving the wilderness, it will be surviving the other girls. Horror and suspense blend well with Tierney’s journey as she comes closer to the truth surrounding the grace year.

The Grace Year is the angry feminist survival story of your dreams. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon, The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

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

Caster: A Review

Magic killed Aza Wu’s sister. Shire had more experience and more innate talent as a caster than Aza. She was able to work in secret, completing illegal full magic spells for customers to help keep Wu Teas open and pay their required tributes to Saint Willow–the gang leader overseeing their sector of Lotusland.

Shire has been dead for almost a year and Aza is no closer to fully controlling her own abilities as a caster or paying back her family’s mounting debts.

Desperate and just a little reckless, Aza’s efforts to investigate Shire’s death leads her to an underground casting tournament. Winning could be solve most of Aza’s problems. But losing could leave her dead in Caster (2019) by Elsie Chapman.

Caster is a gritty urban fantasy set in a world where magic–that is, full magic–taps into the earth’s energy and is slowly destroying it. Desperate to stave off further disasters, full casting has been declared illegal. But that doesn’t change that some people still have the ability to cast–or the fact that it’s the only option Aza sees for keeping her family afloat.

Stark prose, restrained world building, and suspense immediately draw readers into Aza’s world and the web of intrigue surrounding her sister’s death. High action and detailed fight scenes bring the casting tournament to life.

Caster seamlessly blends mystery and fantasy elements in this story where organized crime and full magic go hand in hand. Based on the ending, readers can only hope that this is but the first of Aza’s adventures.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, White Cat by Holly Black, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, Devil’s Pocket by John Dixon, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan, Unwind by Neal Shusterman

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

The Kingdom: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Kingdom by Jess RothenbergThe Kingdom™ is more than a theme park. Filled with rides, augmented reality shows, and much more, The Kingdom™ is a completely immersive experience where visitors dreams come true.

Ana is one of seven fantasists. Like the formerly extinct species that roam The Kingdom™’s parks, Ana is genetically engineered–partly biological and part machine. She and the other fantasists reign over the park as imagined princesses greeting visitors, performing, and helping park visitors’ dreams come true.

Fantasists can understand and identify emotions. But they aren’t supposed to experience them. Except Ana is fairly certain she feels something when she befriends Owen Chen, one of the park’s employees.

Ana isn’t the only thing malfunctioning in the park. Engineered animals keep dying, her sisters are scared. Then there are the nightmares. When Ana is accused of murdering Owen, she knows she is innocent. But it’s all too easy for the public to believe the worst.

After spending her whole life catering to the whims of others, Ana will have to learn to speak for herself if she wants to survive in The Kingdom (2019) by Jess Rothenberg.

The Kingdom is a sleek blend of mystery and sci-fi elements in a dystopian world where resources are limited and escapism is worth any price. Ana’s story unfolds in a non-linear narrative including Ana’s first person narration, trial transcripts, and interviews.

While the non-linear narrative lends an element of suspense to this story, it never builds tension instead making for slow pacing and the sense that Ana is deliberately withholding information.

Questions of sentience, humanity, and mercy are interrogated throughout the narrative as Ana and her sisters are dehumanized and subjugated as part of their lives as Fantasists. Gory scenes with animal deaths further emphasize the theme park’s grim inner workings.

The Kingdom is a stark story set in an eerily plausible world. Recommended for readers who like their speculative fiction, and their heroines, to have a little grit.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton, The Similars by Rebecca Hanover, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Devils Unto Dust: A Review

“Life doesn’t care how hard you’re trying, doesn’t care how much you’ve already lost, it will still break in and crush you and leave you bruised and bloody. And still expect you to keep going, because what else can you do?”

Devils Unto Dust by Emma BerquistTen years ago, the sickness started spreading across West Texas. It had a name back then. Now, it doesn’t need one; it’s everywhere. No one survives the infection. It’s only a matter of time before the infected become shakes, mindless creatures intent on attacking the living and nothing else.

Daisy “Willie” Wilcox is used to scraping by in Glory, Texas. Ever since her mother died, it’s been Willie making sure food gets on the table and taking care of her younger brother, Micah, and the twins. It’s never been easy, and Willie knows it’s unlikely to get easier, but she keeps going.

When her good-for-nothing drunk father disappears with four hundred dollars, it’s Willie who is expected to repay the debt. Seeing no other options, she hires the Garrett brothers to help her cross the desert and track her father down. They’re young for hunters, inexperienced, but that also means they still have something to prove. It means they don’t worry too hard about proof that she can pay her entire way.

The desert is an unforgiving place. With no towns, no shelter, and shakes everywhere even the smallest misstep can leave you dead–or worse. Chasing her father’s trail Willie learns how far she is willing to go for her family and who she can trust. But she’ll need even more than that to survive in Devils Unto Dust (2018) by Emma Berquist.

Devils Unto Dust is Berquist’s debut novel. (Be sure to also check out the audiobook as read by Devon Sorvari who brings Willie’s narration to life.)

Willie is razor sharp and, when she has to be, incredibly calculating. Determined to save herself and her family at any cost, she pushes herself well past her limits with consequences that will change her life–and her world–forever.

Berquist contrasts a bleak landscape and Willie’s stark narration with a suspenseful plot and high action. Willie’s life is very small in Glory–a reality that she resents even as she resigns herself to it. Like the desert unfolding at the start of her journey, Willie’s world also starts to expand as she realizes there might be more to life than just surviving in a world ravaged by the zombie-like shakes.

Devils Unto Dust blends a dystopian world and a western sensibility to great effect. The novel’s gritty setting and violent shake attacks are countered by a surprising sweetness as Willie allows herself to begin to trust both in a future for herself and in new allies. Devils Unto Dust is a searing story about choices, survival, and learning who you are. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, The Demon Trapper’s Daughter by Jana Oliver, This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers, Generation Dead by Dan Waters