The Bone Orchard: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I won’t be ashamed of remaking myself. And I won’t turn my back on myself.

The Bone Orchard by Sara A. MuellerCharm is a survivor. After the fall of Inshil, Charm is brought to Borenguard. She is confined to a life running Orchard House, a brothel and gambling den, and tending the adjacent bone trees–the last trace of her necromantic skills. Again and again she has used the trees to regrow her bone ghosts, her children really, Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride, and Pain.

Each ghost has her own role to play, her own part, to keep Orchard House together. Charm oversees it all, madam and mistress both, as everyone from Borenguard’s elite to the Fire Drinkers–the empire’s psychically gifted police force–frequents Orchard House and buys time with the ghosts.

Except on Tuesdays. When the house is closed for all but the Emperor who comes for Charm herself.

Until one Tuesday when everything changes. Instead of coming to the house, Charm is summoned to the palace where the Emperor lay dying with one last charge for his mistress.  The Emperor knows one of his cruel sons is responsible for his murder. If Charm can determine which one, and thereby also choose which son is best fit to rule, Charm will finally be free.

But serving the emperor with this one last task will put everything–and each of the ghosts–Charm has built at risk. With her own fate and the fate of her bone ghosts uncertain, Charm will have to decide if she can serve the Emperor’s last wishes while also finally serving her own interests in The Bone Orchard (2022) by Sara A. Mueller

Find it on Bookshop.

Please be aware of the content warnings for this book which includes instances of domestic abuse, rape, incest, torture, pedophilia, and other acts of violence.

Mueller’s standalone fantasy is a nuanced and richly plotted story set in a world populated by people with varied skin tones and sexual orientations including one central character who is cued as nonbinary/genderqueer. The bone ghosts are described as “colorless” and lacking in pigmentation. Shifting viewpoints move between Charm and several of the bone ghosts as the story slowly spins out and gains momentum.

The setting of Orchard House acts as a key character itself giving space to unpack the unequal power dynamics at play between many of the characters because of gender and glass–and between Charm and each of the bone ghosts who carry their own burdens and traumas. The house also highlights the ways in which history is written (or rewritten) by the victors as more of its provenance is revealed.

Be warned, this story is often gruesome and unsavory as Mueller throws open the closed doors of the brothel and also explores exactly why each of the Emperor’s sons are so deeply damaged and awful. Nonetheless, The Bone Orchard is a satisfying mystery and meditative political fantasy that begs to be savored. As the many layers of both Charm and Borenguard’s pasts are peeled back the novel builds to a complex denouement where Charm–and others–transcend the restrictions placed upon them as they learn to embrace and respect what they have done in order to survive.

Through shifting lenses and an intricate plot including mystery, political machinations, and more The Bone Orchard explores what it means to inhabit the world alternately as a captive, a potential victim, and as a survivor; grim but ultimately empowering.

Possible Pairings: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, All the Murmuring Bones by Angela Slatter, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

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

Reckless Girls: A Review

Reckless Girls by Rachel HawkinsLux and her boyfriend, Nico, have a plan: they’re going to fix up Nico’s boat the Susannah and travel around the world. Every day will be an adventure. But boats, especially boats that need fixing, are expensive. And so far the only adventure Lux has had is seeing if she can survive another boring shift as a housekeeper at a Hawaiian hotel.

When college friends Brittany and Amma charter Nico’s boat to sail to a remote South Pacific island, it feels like the adventure Lux has been hoping for is finally starting. The boat is fixed, things are finally moving. Even Brittany and Amma feel like the perfect passengers–feel like they might become friends.

Meroe Island is secluded, picturesque, and a bit like paradise.

It’s a dream come true. At first.

But the island also has a dark past with a history filled with shipwrecks, rumors of cannibalism, and even suspected murder. It’s easy to imagine trouble lurking in the shadows, especially when they realize The Susannah isn’t alone.

First it’s Jake and Eliza–a wealthy couple as sleek as their expensive catamaran. Then it’s another stranger.

As the atmosphere of the island shifts, so too do the new relationships between the small group.

There’s nowhere to go on an island as small as Meroe. And when the trouble starts, there’s no one to stop it in Reckless Girls (2022) by Rachel Hawkins.

Find it on Bookshop.

Reckless Girls is a standalone thriller. All characters are assumed white. Check out the audiobook narrated by Barrie Kreinik for an immersive read.

Detailed descriptions of both the island and the boats quickly immerse readers in the story and distract from a slow build as Lux and the rest of her foursome acclimate to Meroe Island. This quiet start is broken up with flashback chapters that slowly reveal the backstories (and secrets) the main characters are keeping close. The initial lack of action works in stark contrast to the twist-filled final act where the pacing realy picks up.

Fans of thrillers will appreciate the suspense and claustrophobic isolation of the setting, but mystery fans might find the payoff and reveals fall short of jaw-dropping.

Reckless Girls is an atmospheric thriller; a perfect addition to your beach reading list.

Possible Pairings: How to Kill Your Best Friend by Lexie Elliott, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell, The Club by Ellery Lloyd, The Wild Girls by Phoebe Morgan, The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse, Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman, The Woman in Cabin Ten by Ruth Ware

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm*

Our Crooked Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“So. Magic. It is the loneliest thing in the world.”

Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa AlbertIn the suburbs, right now Ivy is ready for summer–even one that starts with a breakup (hers) and a broken nose (not hers). Ivy feels like strange things always happen around her, like she’s always waiting. But she’s never sure what for. She’s even less sure when strange things start happening around her house. First there’s the dead rabbit on the driveway. There’s the open door she knows she locked. Then there are the cookies, each with one perfect bite taken out while she’s home alone.

In another life, Ivy might talk to her mom Dana about what’s happening. But it’s been a long time since Ivy and her mom have been able to discuss anything. It’s been a long time since her mom has even looked at her, since she’s been anything close to present for the family.

Back then, in the city Dana is waiting for things to start. She’s always been perceptive, some might call it uncanny. She had to be to survive her childhood. Back then, the summer she turns sixteen, Dana realizes she might be able to be more than uncanny. With help from her best friend Fee and a striving newcomer, they could all be magic.

In another life, Dana might have seen the risks and understood the costs before it was too late. She doesn’t.

Instead Dana’s choices here in the city will have lasting consequences leaving a mark on her and on Fee and, most of all, on Ivy who will be left alone to unravel her mother’s secrets and the havoc left in their wake in Our Crooked Hearts (2022) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

Our Crooked Hearts is a stark urban fantasy where magic doesn’t come without a cost. Ivy and Dana are white, Dana’s best friend Fee is Latinx. The story alternates between Ivy’s narration (in the suburbs, right now) and Dana’s narration (in the city, back then) in Chicago and its suburbs.

Although the plot highlights their fractious relationship, Ivy and Dana follow similar character arcs in spite of their different trajectories. Both girls are brittle and filled with an abrasive vulnerability as they struggle to understand their place in a world that never feels like it fits–a theme that gains potency as more of their backstories are revealed. This dual storyline is used to great effect with each plot moving toward its inevitable and potentially painful conclusion.

It’s impossible to read any book now without considering the mental landscape where it germinated, particularly in the context of the global pandemic. Both Ivy and Dana struggle with isolation as they flirt with power in a literal (magical) sense and in relation to their own agency as teenage girls. These struggles can easily be writ large and applied to so many of the changes we have all had to make because of the pandemic. One quote in particular, “I could still observe the shock of it, the impossibility, but I’d run out of the energy to feel them.” encapsulates living and working through the pandemic so clearly–especially the burnout and stress and increasingly bleak current events.

Both narratives are imbued with a noir sensibility and a keen eye for detail that lead to observations like “It was one of those raw, unjust spring afternoons when the air is so bright and clean it focuses the whole world like a lens, but it’s cold still and you’re shivering.” Albert blends fantasy and horror elements into a tense story that feels like it could happen anywhere, to anyone, while also possessing a strong sense of immediacy that makes it impossible to turn away.

Our Crooked Hearts is a magic-filled, intergenerational story with all of the edges sharpened into razors; a dangerous fantasy with an eerie stepped-out-of-time otherness.

Possible Pairings: Book of Night by Holly Black, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Mayhem by Estelle Laure, Extasia by Claire Legrand, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Melissa.

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

Last Things: A Review

Last Things by Jacqueline WestEveryone in town has heard of Anders Thorson and his band, Last Things. The metal group has made a place for themselves on the local scene and as their–especially Anders’–reputation grows there’s no reason to doubt that the band is going to be big way beyond the town and even beyond Minnesota. With comparisons to Opeth and talent scouts circling, it’s clear that Anders is prodigiously talented.

But Anders isn’t sure if he wants to pay the price for all that fame. Especially when everyone is increasingly interested in Anders and only Anders. The band started as a project between friends. Leaving them behind isn’t an option. Is it?

Thea Malcom has been keeping an eye on Anders for a while now. They haven’t spoken, he may not even know her, but Thea is there at the back of every show. She’s always watching. She says she’s trying to protect Anders. But is she really? Or could she be the reason both his cat and his sort-of girlfriend have disappeared?

Things are changing. Anders will have to decide if he wants to let them and if he can trust Thea and her promises to keep him safe in Last Things (2019) by Jacqueline West.

Find it on Bookshop.

Last Things is a supsenseful and atmospheric story with all characters assumed white. Vivid descriptions of the woods surround town and Anders’ musical endeavors pull readers into this page-turner. Chapters alternate between Anders and Thea which works well to increase the tension in the plot as it becomes clear that Thea (and readers) know more about the strange occurences at work around Anders than the guitar prodigy himself.

Thea’s mystery past and Anders’ own reluctance to remember exactly what he promised away to get to this point raise further questions that move the narrative along to its dramatic finish. With Faustian bargains and palpable menace Last Things is an ideal choice for both fantasy and horror/suspense.

Possible Pairings: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

Rock Paper Scissors: A Review

Rock Paper Scissors by Alice FeeneyBehind closed doors something has been wrong with Mr. and Mrs. Wright for a long while. First it’s the things they don’t talk about it, then there’s the time they spend apart.

Adam has always been a workaholic, happy to toil away adapting best-selling novels into screenplays while neglecting his own creative projects. Amelia has built her whole world around Adam but she knows their marriage is becoming more and more fragile. Most people can see the writing on the wall even if they can’t read it.

Amelia also knows that the right move can set them back on course, so when she wins a trip to Scotland it feels like fate.

Except someone is lying. And someone else never planned for both of them to come back from this trip in one piece in Rock Paper Scissors (2021) by Alice Feeney.

Find it on Bookshop.

Rock Paper Scissors is a standalone thriller. Most chapters alternates point of view between Adam and Amelia. Letters for each wedding anniversary are interspersed throughout offering a glimpse into the past with letters thematically tied to traditional wedding gifts (starting with paper) as well as so-called words of the year (including rock). I can’t say much more about the book’s structure without giving away some of the key twists but if you want an atmospherically creepy reading experience, do check out the audiobook narrated by Richard Armitage and Stephanie Racine.

Feeney presents a satisfying and troubling story that is part thriller and part marriage post-mortem. Amelia’s mysterious past and Adam being face blind (unable to recognize anyone–even loved ones–and unable to read facial expressions accurately) add elements of unreliability and even more suspense to an already taut story.

Rock Paper Scissors is a fast-paced, surprising story about two toxic people who may or may not get the exact ending they both deserve. Come into this one knowing as little as possible for the biggest impact.

Possible Pairings: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks, All the Broken People by Leah Konen, Best Day Ever by Kaira Sturdivant Rouda, Tell Me My Name by Erin Ruddy

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration through Libro.fm*

The Maidens: A Review

The Maidens by Alex MichaelidesAfter so many years of defining herself in relation to her husband Sebastian, Mariana Andros is no longer sure who she is or how she can keep going after his sudden death.

She still has her work as a group therapist but that’s cold comfort when she has nothing but memories to hold onto.

A distressed call from Zoe, the niece she and Sebastian raised, is enough to rouse Mariana from her grief. One of Zoe’s friends at Cambridge University has been murdered. The death is violent and sinister. Worse, it is only the first.

Reluctant to leave her niece in a time of crisis, Mariana agrees to stay at the college surrounded by memories of her own time as a student when she and Sebastian first met. The longer Mariana spends on the familiar campus, the more certain she is that Edward Fosca is the killer.

Fosca is a charismatic and well-liked Greek Tragedy professor. Sharp and formidable, his cult of personality is so strong among his female students that it’s not hard to intuit his guilt despite an alibi.

As Mariana is drawn further into the investigation, her fixation on Fosca grows. Pursuing Fosca could ruin Mariana’s professional reputation, her personal relationships and–as she gets closer to the killer–even her life might be forfeit in The Maidens (2021) by Alex Michaelides.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Maidens is Michaelides’ second novel. Most of the story follows Mariana with a close third person narration. All main characters–including one readers may recognize from Michaelides’ debut–are presumed white.

The Maidens is a tense university-set thriller with an audiobook version ably narrated by Louise Brealey and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Michaelides covers similar territory here to his debut, once again featuring a psychoanalyst protagonist and a shocking case.

Although it is decidedly high concept, The Maidens does little to capitalize on any of its potential. Mariana–a theoretically complex protagonist dealing with intense grief, a patient who is stalking her (which causes her surprisingly little distress), and an increasingly obsessive interest in Fosca as the book progresses–is reduced to little more than a grieving widow. If she has a personality beyond missing Sebastian and investigating Fosca, Michaelides never shows it.

Abrupt chapter breaks eliminate any chance for readers (or Mariana) to meditate on plot points not to mention leaving no room for anything in the way of character development. The breakneck pace of the story and its focus on plot are perhaps why so much of The Maidens feels heavy-handed. Information key to solving the mystery is obscured with plot devices including intermittent chapters from a nameless male character while the identity of the murderer is heavily broadcast even as their motivations remain frustratingly opaque.

With a resolution that is as unsavory as it is unsatisfying, The Maidens feels less like a thriller by the end and more like an object lesson in the veracity of the maxim “physician, heal thyself.” Readers looking for a twisty thriller where no one is quite who they expect would be better served by Alice Feeney’s Rock Paper Scissors which although not a dark academia novel employs similar narrative devices to better effect.

Posssible Pairings: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Now You See Me by S. J. Bolton, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, House of Correction by Nicci French, Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian,  Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration through Libro.fm*

A Forgery of Roses: A (WIRoB) Review

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

A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. OlsonPainters are disappearing throughout Lalverton with many devout citizens say this is just treatment for those who choose to paint–a creative outlet seen as holy and solely as the domain of the Great Artist. Conservatives including the governor fear the growing popularity in portraiture; the presence of Prodigy magic in Lalverton makes the taboo artform seem like even more of a threat.

With her mother–another Prodigy and talented artist–among the missing, Myra Whitlock knows she has to hide her own magical gift if she wants to keep herself and her younger sister, Lucy, safe. Scriptures are very clear that Prodigies are “a defilement of the power of our god, the Great Artist.” With magic that “gives a painter the ability to alter human and animal bodies with their paintings,” Prodigies have long been seen as “even more of an abomination than normal portrait work.” Their powerful ability also means that Prodigies “have been persecuted by the pious and captured by the greedy since the dawn of time.”

Lacking in proper training and control, Myra’s magic is even more dangerous. She can manipulate a person’s sevren threads to alter their appearance and heal injuries, but she can’t dictate when or how her magic will work instead having to paint through it while her magic buzzes “like a swarm of bees inside [her] head.” With finances dwindling in the wake of her parents’ disappearances, Myra desperately needs work to earn enough for rent, food, and for the nurse Lucy needs to help manage the symptoms of her chronic illness.

When Myra’s magic is discovered by the worst person possible, she forges an uneasy bargain with the governor’s wife. If Myra can use her Prodigy gift to resurrect the governor’s dead son, she could earn enough for a proper home, tuition to attend the conservatory, and even a real doctor to treat Lucy. If Myra fails, the governor’s wife will expose Myra as a Prodigy and her life could well be forfeit.

Spirited to Rose Manor in the dead of night, Myra has four days to complete her work before the body decays beyond help. Among the “ancient wealth and finery,” Myra sets to her grim work. But it soon becomes clear the governor’s son did not suffer an accidental fall as Myra has been told. Something more sinister is at work–something that could be even more dangerous to Myra than her exposure as a Prodigy. With reluctant help from August–the governor’s older, less favored son–Myra begins investigating the suspect death and trying to understand why her magic isn’t working. With time running out, Myra will uncover unsavory truths about the stately mansion and its residents in A Forgery of Roses (2022) by Jessica S. Olson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Olson blends mystery and suspense with a gothic sensibility in this standalone fantasy where all characters are assumed white. Myra narrates with an artist’s eye focused on color as seen when she describes making ladyrose gel–a medium from the author’s imagination that allows oil paints to dry fast enough for artists to complete full paintings in a matter of hours–from burnt flower petals: “As soon as it hits the water, the rose blood fans out, a spiderweb of shimmering scarlet veins crawling through the pot until the whole thing clouds like it’s full of sparkling garnet dust.” Myra’s keen eye for detail also works well within the narrative to increase tension and broadcast danger with one character described as having eyes that “glimmer like pond-slick moons” and “pearl earrings glow milky white like bones on either side of her face, twitching with every word she utters.”

To resurrect the governor’s son, Myra also has to understand the circumstances of his death and his emotional state at the time of death. As Myra explains, sevren are the “connective fibers that bind the soul to the physical form, they’re born from each person or animal’s emotional perception of their bodies. The more emotionally significant a physical feature is to that person or animal, the tighter and denser the bonds become.” Because of this, Myra takes a clinical eye to the body she is trying to restore with grisly precision as she notes “the crushed and mangled ear, the blood congealing on the hair, the fragments of skull and brain tissue” and the “scraped skin and the way the blood has pooled on the bottom of the body” while trying to paint the body as it is before layering in her changes.

Feeling a sense of urgency as time begins to run out and her paintings continue to fail, Myra works (and flirts) with August to investigate his brother’s death. While searching for clues together, August opens up about his daily struggle with severe anxiety which is well-represented in the text. As August explains, “This anxiety will always be a part of me. It’s not going anywhere, and I’m going to have to live with it for the rest of my life. But I am not broken because of it.”

Myra’s desperation to complete her work before she is exposed as a Prodigy only increases when Lucy’s illness takes a turn for the worse. Although unnamed in the text, symptoms include food sensitivity and intestinal distress which Lucy manages with scientific precision in notebooks where “food logs, graphs, and lists of symptoms are mapped out carefully on each page.” Readers will also recognize Spoon theory, described in the text as juice in a glass where “Every action of daily life—getting out of bed, bathing, dressing, doing research—siphoned juice away. Once the glass was empty, no matter how much she had left she needed to do or how much she’d hoped to get done, her body needed to rest. To refill the glass.”

A Forgery of Roses combines art, fantasy, and a truly surprising mystery with authentic and respectful representation for both anxiety and chronic illness which are seen as points of strength rather than flaws in this story where as Myra notes about Lucy “As far as I’m concerned, I may be the one with magic, but she’s the truly powerful one. Because she’s fought where I have never had to.” Myra and August’s romance and a final act filled with the surprise twists that are a hallmark of gothic literature at its best further enhance this story where a picture is worth much more than a thousand words.

Emma Carbone is a librarian and reviewer. She has been blogging about books since 2007.

Possible Pairings: The Beautiful by Renee Ahdieh, The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha Hastings, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Gallant by V. E. Schwab, The Splendor by Breeana Shields, Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor, All that Glitters by Gita Trelease

The Girls I’ve Been: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“What didn’t kill me made me a victim. I made me stronger.”

The Girls I've Been by Tess SharpeIt was only supposed to be twenty minutes. Twenty awkward minutes. But then it would be over. They’d meet in the bank parking lot, go in, make the deposit of the money from the fundraiser, and twenty awkward minutes later it would be over. Nora O’Malley (not her real name, by the way) has survived a lot worse than spending twenty minutes with her new girlfriend Iris and her ex-boyfriend (always best friend) Wes.

Except Nora also wants to smooth out last night’s “makeout-interruptus” when Wes found out about Nora and Iris by walking in on them. So she gets donuts. With bacon. And sprinkles. Because everyone loves donuts. Then she has to get coffee. So then she’s late and Wes and Iris are both waiting on her and there are two people ahead of them in line at the bank. Which usually wouldn’t be a problem except the two people ahead of them are also robbing the bank. And they decide to keep everyone hostage.

Nora’s survived a lot worse than some amateur hour bank robbery and she’s had plenty of therapy to unpack all of it. But she’s never had to survive anything with two of the three people she cares about more than anything, not to mention a lot of other innocent bystanders.

As the daughter of a con-artist, Nora has been a lot of girls. She’s seen a lot of things. She’s done worse. But she made it out. She’s a different girl now. A smarter, stronger one.

Now, Nora is going to need every one of those girls she used to be to thwart this robbery, keep Wes and Iris and everyone else safe, and maybe also make it out alive herself in The Girls I’ve Been (2021) by Tess Sharpe.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Girls I’ve Been is a fast-paced, standalone novel; the audiobook is read by the author. All major characters are presumed white. Nora’s bisexuality and Iris’s endometriosis add intersectionality to the cast and serve as key elements of the plot.

The Girls I’ve Been is a tense thriller narrated by Nora. Time stamped chapters during the robbery and a running list of assets Nora has to work with in the bank underscore the urgency of the situation and maintain momentum as the hostage situation escalates. Nora’s narration is pragmatic and laser focused as she works to keep the other hostages safe and tries to communicate with her older half-sister Lee (also not her real name) who is working with law enforcement on the outside. These chapters are interspersed with flashbacks of the other girls Nora has been under her manipulative mother’s grooming and training highlighting the skills (and trauma) Nora has picked up along the way that will factor in during the bank robbery. Memories of her friendships with Wes and Iris add tenderness to the story although all three have scars (some literal, some psychological) from parental abuse.

Despite the tense situation, The Girls I’ve Been is a really fun, fast-paced story. Sharpe includes all of the best elements of a good heist or con story while also offering a well-drawn look at the steep cost of being immersed in that life–a cost Nora is still paying. Although the sense of menace and danger for Nora and the other hostages is palpable, the novel never becomes graphic or viscerally violent always focusing on the characters’ survival rather than their trauma.

The Girls I’ve Been is a completely immersive, suspenseful novel that centers a bisexual protagonist and queer themes. The story is also refreshingly free of a love triangle or romantic tensions as Nora, Iris, and Wes all work to rebuild the trust between them and strengthen their friendship–while surviving a bank robbery.

Possible Pairings: A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Tell Me My Name by Amy Reed, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

Comfort Me With Apples: A Review

Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. ValenteSophia was made for him. Her man. Her everything. She knows it in her bones every time she looks at him, every time she goes about her day making sure everything is perfect for him.

Because everything in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. He’s made sure of it–building steps and stools and adjustments so Sophia doesn’t feel dwarfed in their too-large house with their too-large things. And soon, she’ll have her own space; a basement he’s building out just for her.

Her husband is away quite a bit, leaving Sophia alone to get to know her neighbors, to keep up their home. But that’s just how marriage works, isn’t it? How can it be anything else when it’s all so perfect?

But perfection doesn’t mean that Sophia is without questions. It starts with the locked drawer and a strange hairbrush. It keeps going with a shard stuck in the knife block.

Everything is perfect. Surely the neighbors would tell her if they knew otherwise. Surely someone would say something. But there just isn’t any need when it’s all going so very well, right? in Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente.

Find it on Bookshop.

Comfort Me With Apples is a brief novella exploring suspense, horror, and retelling a story you might already know. To say more would be to give away the story’s biggest reveal.

Valente layers in a lot of interesting details from the chapter titles to the creepy excerpts from the Arcadia Gardens Homeowner’s Association agreement sprinkled throughout the story. Each layer expertly adds suspense and builds tension as Sophia–and the story–move toward one final revelation. While the payoff is satisfying, it is also clearly the entire point of this novella leaving little room for what came before or what might follow. Readers wanting more will be served well by Valente’s extensive (and often longer form) backlist of titles as well as The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey–a full length novel that explores similar themes in a more sci-fi setting.

At just over a hundred pages, Comfort With Apples is a quick, atmospheric jaunt perfect to read before bed–preferably with a glass of apple cider and all of the lights on.

Possible Pairings: Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders, And Again by Jessica Chiarella, The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey, Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link, Foe by Iain Reid, Among Others by Jo Walton

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

A Lesson in Vengeance: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Regret always comes too late.

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria LeeAfter a year away, Felicity Morrow hopes to keep a low profile at Dalloway School while she completes her senior year. Then she’ll never have to think about the prestigious boarding school or what transpired there ever again.

Being back at Godwin House feels wrong for so many reasons but especially because her girlfriend Alex is dead and won’t ever return.

Still grieving, still haunted, Felicity doesn’t know what to expect from her new housemates, especially the enigmatic Ellis Haley. Everyone knows Ellis. Everyone has read her prodigious debut novel while eagerly awaiting her sophomore effort. As much as Felicity is drawn to Ellis–as much as everyone is drawn to Ellis–Felicity balks at the cult of personality the writer has erected around herself.

Ellis is drawn to Dalloway, and particularly to Godwin House, because of its bloody history. Like Felicity herself, she’s fascinated by the story of the Dalloway Five–the five students who all died under mysterious circumstances with accusations of witchcraft hanging over them.

Everyone knows magic isn’t real. After what happened last year, Felicity needs magic to not be real. But as Ellis draws her back to the school’s dangerous not-so-hidden, arcane history Felicity will have to decide if she has the strength to face the darkness festering at Dalloway and in herself in A Lesson in Vengeance (2021) by Victoria Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a standalone novel. Felicity and Ellis are white with secondary characters adding more diversity and brief conversations of the history of segregation and exclusion inherent to elite boarding schools like Dalloway.

This novel is an ode to all things dark academia with vivid descriptions of Dalloway’s ivy-covered glory, brittle winters, and its gory past. Lee also carefully subverts the genre using both Felicity and Ellis’ queer identities to inform the story. Pitch perfect pacing and careful plot management further help this story pack a punch.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a clever, suspenseful story filled filled. Come for the satisfying mystery and evocative setting, stay for the moral ambiguity and plot twists.

Possible Pairings: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, When All the Girls Are Sleeping by Emily Arsenault, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Night Migrations” by Louise Glück, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Malleus Maleficarum, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, “The Shroud” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Dear Life by Alice Munro, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, What is Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig, Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao