The Forest of Stolen Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Forest of Stolen Girls by June HurJoseon (Korea), 1426: The year of the crown princess selection when young women like Hwani should be dreaming of entering the palace as a princess. Hwani has never been interested in marriage or the selection process.

Instead, she is crossing the sea to travel to Jeju, a penal island of political convicts. Her childhood home.

Months ago, Hwani’s father made the same journey. He didn’t return.

Detective Min went to the island investigating the disappearance of thirteen girls–disappearances that might be tied to the forest incident–an event so traumatic that Hwani has blocked out all but the barest details.

Coming back to the island will bring Hwani face to face with her estranged younger sister, Maewol, for the first time in years. In their search for the truth, both sisters will have to confront buried memories from their past and the island’s dark secrets in their search for the truth in The Forest of Stolen Girls (2021) by June Hur.

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Hwani’s efforts to find her missing father and solve his last case contrast well with the smaller story of her own difficulties in deciding how to balance societal conventions with her own dreams and goals. Hwani’s tentative reconnection with her sister–who has been left alone on the island for years to train with the local shaman–adds further depth and tenderness to this thoughtful story.

An author’s note at the end demonstrates Hur’s thoughtful research for this novel while contextualizing the story here into the larger context of Korean history.

The Forest of Stolen Girls is a tense and atmospheric mystery that is both well-plotted and nuanced. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Splinters of Scarlet by Emily Bain Murphy, Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popovic, The Beast is An Animal by Peternelle Van Arsdale, The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

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

The Ones We’re Meant to Find: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Ones We're Meant to Find by Joan HeIn a world that has been ravaged by climate change, eco-cities guarantee clean air, water, and shelter. They also require all residents to live sustainably. By living less.

Kasey Mizuhara has always thrived in the eco-city. She doesn’t mind the close quarters or spending a third of her life in stasis. She prefers it. Everything is so much easier when she can focus on science instead of people.

Kasey isn’t sure she can ever forgive her older sister Celia for hating the eco-city enough to leave it three months ago never to return.

Kasey knows that her sister is gone. Dead. Logically, leaving the safety of the eco-city only ends one way. She’s known that for a while. But Kasey is still desperate to retrace Celia’s steps to try and understand.

Cee has been alone on an abandoned island for three years. She has enough food to survive and a long-vacant house for shelter but not much else. She has no memory of how she got there or who she was before.

She knows she has a sister. Kay. She knows that Kay is waiting for Cee to find her.

Cee will do whatever it takes to get back to her sister. Even if it means cracking open all of the secrets from her past–including the ones Cee has been too afraid to confront.

In a world founded on logic and numbers, there isn’t a lot of room for love. Or choice. But Kasey and Cee will choose how to find each other. And how far they’ll go to get there in The Ones We’re Meant to Find (2021) by Joan He.

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The Ones We’re Meant to Find is a quiet, character driven story. Chapters alternate between Cee and Kasey’s narrations (Cee’s in first person, Kasey’s in third person). Both sisters grieve for what they have lost and, in their own ways, cope with that finality against the backdrop of imminent global catastrophe.

The less you know going into this story, the better. He expertly doles out all of the information readers need to unravel the story–and the secrets–alongside Kasey and Cee as the novel builds to its staggering and affecting conclusion.

The Ones We’re Meant to Find is an eerily plausible sci-fi thriller where sisterly love is leveraged against the greater good. Come for the intense emotions and taut pacing, stay for the intricate world building and ethical quandaries. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, More Than This by Patrick Ness, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, Extras by Scott Westerfeld, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

A Dark and Starless Forest: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah HollowellDerry has been living in a secluded house in the woods with her siblings and their protector, Frank, for years. They don’t have luxuries like cosmetics or snack foods or even new books and DVDs. They’re not spoiled at all. But they’re taken care of. They’re safe.

Which Frank has told them is much more important in a world that fears their magic. It’s the same reason he calls them alchemists instead of that more dangerous word: witches.

White, fat, sixteen-year-old Derry and her siblings dislike Frank and fear him even as Frank reminds them that he took them in when no one–not even their parents–wanted them. Derry and her siblings–eldest Jane (who is Black); Winnie (who is fat and white); Brooke (fat, Deaf, Mexican-American); white twins Elle and Irene (Irene is trans); nonbinary, Mexican-American Violet; and the youngest identical Black twins Olivia and London–have fierce bonds between them. Which makes it so much worse when first Jane and then Winnie disappear.

Frank says the girls must have died in the dense forest surrounding their home. But as Derry explores the forest she wonders if the disappearances might be tied to Frank himself.

As she learns more about Frank and her own magical affinity for growing both real and imagined plants Derry will have to decide how far she is willing to go to keep her loved ones safe in A Dark and Starless Forest (2021) by Sarah Hollowell.

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Despite each sibling having distinct magical abilities, this element of the story is largely set dressing for the novel’s plot which is a blend of horror and suspense sprinkled with hints about a dark moment in Derry’s past that makes her reluctant to re-enter the forest in her search for Jane (and later Winnie). The novel is also notable for its focus on the bond between Derry and her siblings with a total absence of romance subplots.

Derry’s first-person narration amplifies the siblings’ isolation with a palpable fear of Frank and his punishments, including the dreaded time out room whose horrors are honed to each sibling’s worst nightmares (blaring lights and erratic, staticky noise for Derry). The restricted narrative works to amp up the tension but leaves many questions about how the siblings’ magic works and, more importantly, the implications of said magic in the outside world.

Hollowell is at pains to create an inclusive cast with some elements (Violet being nonbinary, Irene’s trans identity, everyone’s use of ASL–designated by single quotes around signed dialog–to communicate with Brooke) integrated into the narrative better than others. Derry’s quest to find her missing siblings and save all of them from Frank drives the story but leaves little room for character development of the other siblings who are often absent from the action and remain little more than names and attributes.

Derry’s moral ambiguity is unresolved by the end of the novel as she embraces darker choices to save her siblings heedless of the consequences. Questions about world building and what will come next for all of the siblings are also up in the air. A Dark and Starless Forest is a dark, inclusive blend of horror and extremely light fantasy. Ideal for readers looking for a slightly supernatural tale of suspense.

Possible Pairings: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Half Bad by Sally Green, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton, Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters

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

Come Tumbling Down: A Review

“The Moors turned us both into monsters. But it did a better job with me.”

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireIdentical twins Jack and Jill found dangers and horrors when they stepped through their magical door into the Moors. They also found themselves for the first time. But in a world where everyone is a villain of some sort, hard choices have to be made–choices that have consequences for both sisters.

Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children carrying her sister’s body. Jack had to kill Jill before she could murder anyone else in her mad quest to get back to the Moors and her dark master. But death isn’t always permanent in the Moors. Even when it should be.

When Jack herself is carried back to the school in a storm of lightning and chaos, she’ll need to turn to old friends and some new enemies for help to clean up Jill’s latest mess.

In a world where science comes close to magic and monsters can sometimes be heroes, balance must be maintained. And there’s always a cost in Come Tumbling Down (2020) by Seanan McGuire.

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Come Tumbling Down is the fifth installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series. While most of the novellas in this series function as standalones, Come Tumbling Down is a direct continuation of the plot that begins in Every Heart a Doorway and continues in Down Among the Sticks and Bones and Beneath the Sugar Sky so be sure to read those first.

McGuire introduces readers to a wide variety of alternate worlds in this series. The Moors is, arguably, the worst–a high logic world with clear nods to Dracula and Frankenstein where monsters lurk in every shadow and even the heroes sometimes have to be villains. That might make the world sound like a thin pastiche but McGuire applies her considerable talents to build a world that is nuanced and filled with moral ambiguity.

The interplay between hero and villain–and what it means to be a monster–plays out in Come Tumbling Down as readers begin to understand the choices that led Jack and Jill down their divergent paths. Familiar characters from Eleanor West’s school also play significant roles as they all do their best to try and help Jack and the Moors.

Come Tumbling Down is a grim page turner where actions have consequences and love can heal as easily as it can sour. This installment showcases all of the things McGuire does best in this series as she digs into the world of the Moors with a sharp focus on main character Jack and antagonist Jill. A must-read for fans of the series.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Scwhab, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

How We Fall Apart: A Review

How We Fall Apart by Katie ZhaoAt Sinclair Prep, the whispers never stop; it’s a small price to pay for being at the most elite private high school in the country. Graduating from Sinclair Prep will open doors for every student–even scholarship kids like Nancy Luo.

Nancy knows a full scholarship and perpetual class rank as second best isn’t enough to make her truly belong at Sinclair Prep. Nancy’s best friend, Jamie Ruan, is quick to remind Nancy of that whenever she lets herself forget. But even with Jamie’s vicious reminders, even with everything she’s had to sacrifice to get this far, Nancy knows Sinclair Prep is the first step to becoming one of the beautiful, entitled people who can get whatever they want.

When Jamie doesn’t show up for Honors night, Nancy thinks it’s her chance to step into the spotlight and finally claim her spot at the top.

Nancy realizes how wrong she was when Jamie is found dead. As rumors spread that Jamie was murdered, an anonymous post on Tip Tap, the school’s gossip app, from “The Proctor” points to Jamie’s best friends–Nancy, Krystal Choi, Akil Patel, and Alexander Lin–as the prime suspects. The Proctor promises to reveal all of their darkest secrets on Tip Tap until they admit their complicity in Jamie’s death.

If the Proctor makes good on their threats, Nancy and her friends could lose everything–including Nancy and Alexander’s coveted scholarships. In a group of friends where everyone is hiding something, could keeping a secret prove deadly?

At Sinclair Prep Nancy has always known that being good and being the best are mutually exclusive. As the stakes climb, Nancy will have to choose how much she’s willing to give–and to take–in order to stay at the top in How We Fall Apart (2021) by Katie Zhao.

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How We Fall Apart is the first book in a projected duology. The story, narrated by Nancy, starts with the fallout from Jamie’s death. Flashbacks throughout the novel shed light on the secrets Nancy and other members of her friend group are trying so hard to keep buried during the murder investigation.

How We Fall Apart is one of the best mysteries I’ve read this year. Zhao’s plotting is unrivaled as every single thread in this story proves to be crucial to the larger plot while also leaving just enough seeds to justify a second book. At the same time, readers should be advised that mental health plays a major part in this story–and in the circumstances of Jamie’s death. Be sure to check Zhao’s website for full trigger warnings.

Nancy is a calculating protagonist. She knows what she wants and exactly what price tag to attach to it as she struggles to keep her head above water within Sinclair Prep’s cutthroat social scene. With everything to gain, and so much to lose, Nancy is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her spot at the school leading her to increasingly ruthless choices as the novel progresses.

How We Fall Apart is an engrossing mystery set in the pressure cooker of an elite high school. Say hello to your next dark academia obsession.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, The Best Lies by Sarah Lyu, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund

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

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

Mexican Gothic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-GarciaMexico, 1950: Noemí Taboada, 22, leads an easy, if sometimes boring, life as a glamorous debutante. Her biggest concerns are usually which men to dance with each night, how many dresses she can wear in a day, and convincing her father to continue paying her college tuition instead of urging her to find a husband.

Noemí’s predictable life is upended when a frantic letter arrives from her cousin, Catalina. After a whirlwind courtship and marriage, everyone assumed that Catalina was living happily in the Mexican countryside on her husband’s family estate. But her letter hinting at poisoning, menace, and other threats suggests otherwise.

Although she is an unlikely rescuer, Noemí is certain she can get to the bottom of things once she gets to Catalina. Even unflappable Noemí doesn’t know what to make of High Place when she arrives. The once-stately mansion is nearly derelict, mold creeps along the walls, locals won’t make the trek up the mountain path to the estate, the family lives in isolation.

Catalina’s alluring but menacing husband dismisses the contents of the letter and seems determined to block Noemí’s access to her cousin. Worse, Noemí catches the eye of the family’s ancient patriarch who is uncomfortably interested in the purity of his family line.

Uncertain of who she can trust, not sure if she can believe her own senses, Noemí will have to rely on her own wits to unearth High Place’s dark secrets and try to get herself and her cousin out alive in Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Find it on Bookshop.

Mexican Gothic is a standalone horror novel filled with all of the lavish descriptions and ill-defined menace readers familiar with gothic horror will appreciate. Written in close third person, the novel follows Noemí as she comes to High Place and begins to discover the estate’s long-buried secrets.

Moreno-Garcia uses masterful pacing to amplify both the tension of the narrative and High Place’s menace as Noemí comes closer to the truth. The first two thirds of the novel are very gothic and very creepy with a tightly controlled story. The climax, and explanations, take a dramatic turn with an outcome that feels more like the plot of a 1950s B horror movie as the elements behind High Place’s depravity continue to pile up.

Horror and supernatural elements work together to unpack the sinister truth behind High Place but readers should also be aware that the novel includes instances of sexual assault, gaslighting, body horror, cannibalism, emotional abuse, and incest.

Mexican Gothic is a genuinely scary if sometimes bizarre story. Lavish descriptions, deliberate prose, and a singular heroine make this book a standout in the genre.

Possible Pairings: The Wildling Sisters by Eve Chase; The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson; Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi; Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff; The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, Crimson Peak, Mother!

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

Mayhem: A Review

Mayhem by Estelle LaureCalifornia, 1987: Mayhem Brayburn and her mother have never been like everyone else. May can see it in her mother Roxy’s constant pain, her pull to the water, the gaping hole of her father’s absence in the wake of his suicide years ago.

When her step-father goes too far, Roxy and Mayhem make their way back to the beach town–and the family history–that Roxy left behind when May was a baby. Santa Maria is everything May always hoped it would be. She meets her aunt’s foster kids, finds the family she always wanted and, amazingly, discovers her own connection to the Brayburn family’s long line of magic.

But not everything is magical in Santa Maria. Girls are going missing. Soon, Mayhem’s own efforts to find the culprit draw her into a strange world of vigilante justice and revenge as she learns more about the town–and her family’s–darker secrets in Mayhem (2020) by Estelle Laure.

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If this standalone fantasy sounds a lot like the 1987 film The Lost Boys, that’s because it is. While Laure imbues Mayhem with its own magic and world building, the story stays close to the original plot of the classic vampire film complete with brief appearances by the iconic Frog brothers. Laure also brings more diversity to the cast in her update–the Brayburns are white but May’s farther was Brazilian and Jason and Kidd are biracial (Black and white).

Questions of why this story had to be set in 1987 instead of modernized are also inevitable and not well answered by any authorial choices.

How you feel about this book might depend on your familiarity with the film and your feelings about it. Mayhem includes a lot of nods to the original film but shifts in surprising ways to make space for the Brayburn’s family history as seen in a mysterious diary Mayhem finds upon exploring her new home. Unfortunately these two storylines don’t always mesh well feeling more like two separate stories than one, cohesive plot.

Mayhem is ideal for readers who like their witches fierce and their vampire references vintage.

Possible Pairings: The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Lost Boys

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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*