The Red Palace: A Review

The Red Palace by June HurJoseon (Korea), 1758. Everyone is listening in the palace.

With secrets and treachery in every chamber, entering the palace means walking a path stained in blood. Eighteen-year-old Hyeon hopes it will be worth it. After years of studious work, Hyeon has earned her status as a palace nurse–a position that she hopes might help her earn her estranged father’s approval, if not his respect.

After four women are brutally murdered in the public medical office under the dark of night, Hyeon’s friend and mentor Nurse Jeongsu becomes the prime suspect. Determined to clear her teacher’s name before it’s too late, Hyeon is thrust into the center of the palace’s dangerous politics as she starts her own investigation.

Unearthing palace secrets with help from young police inspector Eojin could cost Hyeon everything, especially when the pair finds evidence incriminating the Crown Prince. Together Hyeon and Eojin will have to confront the palace’s darkest truths if they want to solve the murders in The Red Palace (2022) by June Hur.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Red Palace is Hur’s latest standalone mystery. Set in eighteenth century Korea, Hur draws inspiration from the actual life of Prince Sado while bringing both her setting and characters vibrantly to life. Hur carefully details the history of Prince Sado in an author’s note at the end of the novel. The audiobook, narrated by Michelle H. Lee, offers a rich listening experiences–particularly for readers unfamiliar with Korean pronunciation. 

Hyeon’s first person narration immediately pulls readers into the action with tension that doesn’t ease until the novel’s powerful conclusion. As an illegitimate daughter, Hyeon is keenly aware of her status within Joseon’s patriarchal society where familial ties and caste are everything. Still, she rejects these constructs in order to fight for what she believes in and try to save Nurse Jeongsu.

Steady pacing, dramatic reveals, and Hyeon’s determination make The Red Palace a page turner while Hur’s careful interrogation of the limits placed on Hyeon and other young women in Joseon elevate this story into a multifaceted and truly immersive work of historical fiction. This dynamic story is rounded out with subtle hints of romance (and mutual respect) between Hyeon and Eojin and Hyeon’s changing understanding of her own status within her family.

The Red Palace is a fantastic blend of mystery and historical fiction highlighting the best parts of both genres in a powerful combination that makes this story unforgettable. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Foul Lady Fortune by Chloe Gong, Descendant of the Crane by Joan He, Splinters of Scarlet by Emily Bain Murphy, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Spectacle by Jodie Lynn Zdrok

This Golden State: A Review

“I didn’t even know the choices, because I didn’t have the information.”

This Golden State by Marit WeisenbergPoppy has grown up with five family rules:

1. No using your real name.
2. No staying in one place too long.
3. If something’s weird, take one thing and run to the meeting spot.
4. Keeping our family together is everything.
5. Don’t ask about the past. For your own safety. It’s the smallest mistake that will get us caught.

Lying constantly, hiding all the time, always waiting for one disastrous slip up hasn’t left much room for seventeen-year-old Poppy to ask questions. When she was little it all seemed normal. Now, Poppy has her little sister Emma and her parents. What more does she need?

Right away, Poppy knows that their latest move is different. Her parents never answer Poppy’s questions but once they arrive in California, Poppy has even more: like how a room prepared in a safe house can feel more like hers than anywhere else she’s ever lived and why it feels like pieces of her family’s secrets are waiting to be discovered.

With her parents distracted, Poppy has more freedom than she’s used to with a chance to attend an advanced math class, earn her own money, and maybe make a real friend in the unlikely form of ultra-wealthy and popular Harry. Family has always been enough for Poppy. It has to be. But as Poppy begins to dig deeper into her parents’ past with a secret DNA test and to think more about her own desires, Poppy also realizes that no secret can be kept forever in This Golden State (2022) by Marit Weisenberg.

Find it on Bookshop.

This Golden State is a tense standalone novel narrated by Poppy. The Winslow family and most characters are cued as white with Harry’s DNA results showing ancestry going back to Jamaica, South India, and Europe.

Perfect pacing and an urgent, close-focus narrative amps up the tension immediately as readers are drawn into Poppy’s world where nothing can be taken at face value. While family secrets and the looming results from Poppy’s DNA test drive the plot, this is ultimately a story about a girl who is leaning to dream and understanding how much bigger her world can be. As Poppy tries to keep up with her wealthier classmates who have had more consistent schooling, Poppy also starts to unpack the privilege that comes with stability and everything that she has lost growing up on the run–losses that her younger sister Emma has already begun to chafe under.

Harry gives Poppy a window into a world she knows she can never inhabit living the way she currently does–one fileld with opportunity and growth. Brief moments with Harry’s verbally abusive father also underscore to Poppy how much her parents have sacrificed to keep their family safe and intact. Weisengerg thoughtfully unpacks Poppy’s loyalty and deep love for her parents alongside her growing resentment at their rules and how they have to live. As she learns more about her parents’ roles in leading the family to this point, Poppy also has to learn how to maintain her affection and fond memories while leaving room for the anger that comes with understanding.

This Golden State is a taut exercise in suspense where family is everything. Until it isn’t. While the payoff for all of Poppy’s questions and investigating can feel anticlimactic, This Golden State is a story that will stay with readers long after the open-ended conclusion. Recommended for readers seeking a thriller focused on tension instead of scares.

Possible Pairings: Don’t Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, My Mechanical Romance by Alexene Farol Follmuth, The Safest Lifes by Megan Miranda, The Liar’s Daughter by Megan Cooley Peterson, Remember Me Gone by Stacy Stokes, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

Seton Girls: A (WIRoB) Review

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

Seton Girls by Charlene ThomasSeton Academic High is an elite prep school with an affluent and mostly white student body. With numerous teams, extracurriculars, and a student paper with thousands of subscribers, Seton is best known for its Varsity (always capitalized) football team. And with good reason. The team has been on a winning streak for twelve years–undefeated in every game leading up to the state playoffs.

Sixteen-year-old Aly Jacobs has always felt special being a part of Seton which was never a given for her the way it is for some of Seton’s legacy students. Aly and her boyfriend J already stand out as some of the only Black students–especially ones being bussed into Seton from a poorer neighborhood. Aly has always felt the pinch, keenly aware that she lacks the disposable cash to keep up with her classmates; knowing that she and J will never live closer enough to Seton to be true insiders on all of the inside jokes and routines because “it’s hard when you live an hour away, and you don’t have a car, and you don’t have twenty dollars in spare change for a pastry, and you can’t be at the coffee shop or the moves or the Galeria for pictures like these.” But every long commute, every missed hangout will be worth it because a Seton education is the first step to opportunity.

Aly deals with imposter syndrome as a junior editing the school paper while J is already getting attention as the next Varsity quarterback. Will J be able to keep the team’s undefeated streak alive? Will he take Varsity to new levels as the first Black quarterback in the school’s history? No one knows yet. Either way Parker Adams–the younger brother of the now legendary Cooper Adams who started Seton’s streak all those years ago–plans to make his own mark first.

Parker’s dream of eclipsing his brother takes a darker turn when the schoolyear starts with rumors that Parker hooked up with Britt MacDougal–his longtime girlfriend Michelle Rodriguez’s best friend–over the summer. As the school’s most popular clique fractures everything students thought they knew about Seton begins to erode. Aly learns more about Seton’s history as she befriends social outcast Britt. As their bonds deepen Aly questions the importance of Seton’s traditions and history and if her own legacy will be helping to perpetuate Seton’s privilege or speaking out against its insidious past in Seton Girls (2022) by Charlene Thomas.

Find it on Bookshop.

Thomas’ debut novel lays out “What it is.” in chapters of the same name with Aly’s first person narration beginning in August 2019 at the start of Aly’s junior year at Seton alongside flashbacks of “What it was.” where a third person narrator teases out key events that led to the advent and progression of Seton’s infamous winning streak. A prologue from The Seton Story–the paper Aly edits–immediately puts readers on alert as everything that has previously made Seton so great is stripped away with the ominous observation, “If you thought that that made us the lucky ones … You were wrong.” While there is some diversity among the principal cast including Black students Aly, J, and Britt as well as other characters cued as BIPOC based on their surnames, it is clear that Seton is predominantly white and wealthy. This income disparity in particular weighs heavily on Aly who is eager to blend in with the assumed privilege at Seton not wanting anyone to “feel like we’re different.”

Short, fast-paced chapters and prose laden with foreshadow like Parker’s description of Britt as a bomb–“And maybe you meet her and survive it and it’s a miracle that you’ll talk about forever with anyone who’ll listen. Maybe that’s what happens, and it feels like magic. Or maybe the bomb goes off and she destroys you.”–add intensity to this story as both Aly and readers begin to unpack what exactly has made Seton’s varsity team so unbeatable.

True to its title, Seton Girls, keeps the focus squarely on the school’s female student body even as it unpacks the misogyny and sexism that has long been the source of many of Seton’s storied traditions. Aly’s narration is filled with naked longing to be part of Britt’s magical group of girlsfriends, “Britt’s term, so it never, ever gets confused with the less important role of being a girlfriend,” alongside Britt, Michelle and their other friends Bianca Patel and Kelly Donahue. Aly is not alone in her fascination with “the four of them together like this weightless, perfect, intoxicating aura everywhere they go” attracting both objectifying male gazes and envious female ones adding homoerotic subtext to many of Aly’s interactions with Britt and her friends since “those girls are distracting in the most addictive way.”

Subtle characterization illustrates the income disparity between Aly and her classmates in small details like Aly’s obsession with Glad Plugins which “For a while we had to use them, when they were paving the road near our house and it made everything inside smell like tar. That’s over now, but I’m still obsessed.” These sharp observations are often undercut early in the story with Aly’s gushing sentimentality for all things Seton where “Kyle can be drunk ranting on my left and Gina-Melissa can be reciting perfection on my right, and it’s not weird, or ironic, or some wild juxtaposition. It just is. We all just belong here. And it just works.” The impact of the novel’s opening with Aly’s article in The Seton Story about Parker promising to share the truth about Seton is similarly diluted as Aly spends most of the novel debating how best to support Britt before finally delivering on the story we see on page one.

Details surrounding the varsity football team’s success are often mired in specific details of football gameplay including the playoff model change observed by Cooper Adams years ago where the team doesn’t “make it to States anymore just because we have a better regular season record than everyone else. We just need to be good enough to make it to the playoffs.” which might be pull readers out of the otherwise suspenseful backstory. The ultimate payoff for the plot, especially Britt’s character arc, comes in a final act shift that casts the entire story in a different light while highlighting the power of both agency and female solidarity.

Seton Girls is a timely novel adding to the conversation surrounding the #MeToo movement alongside questions of both privilege–especially white male privilege–and consent. As Britt aptly tells Aly “If the door is open but you know you can’t get up and walk out of it that is force. That’s, like, the greatest kind of power that exists. That is corporation-level power. And it’s that kind of power–not the muscles or the dumb boy-tanks they wear–that guys like Parker will tell you isn’t real. And swear they’re not that type. But it’s the realest thing in the world.”

Possible Pairings: One Great Lie by Deb Caletti, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories edited by Janet Gurtler, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman by Kristen R. Lee, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma

All These Bodies: A Review

All These Bodies by Kendare BlakeA series of strange murders is leaving a grisly trail across the Midwest in the summer of 1958.

The bodies are found in their cars, their homes, their beds. All of them are drained of blood. But the scenes are clean. No blood anywhere.

On September 19 the Carlson family is slaughtered in their secluded farmhouse in Black Deer Falls, Minnesota and the police might finally have a lead when Marie Catherine Hale is found at the scene.

Covered in blood, mistaken for a survivor, it soon becomes clear that Marie is something else when police realize the blood is not hers.

Michael Jensen has been following coverage of the murders all summer, eager to test his mettle as an aspiring journalist and pave the way out of his small town. When his father, the local sheriff, arrests Marie, Michael knows it’s an opportunity he likely won’t see again.

Talking to Marie, assisting the police, having firsthand access to the case files gives Michael a close-up view of the investigation and the girl at its center. Marie doesn’t look like a killer, but she’s confessing to Michael over a series of interviews. She says there’s more to the killings than anyone can imagine but as her story unfolds Michael is the one who will have to decide if the truth is the same as what people will believe in All These Bodies (2021) by Kendare Blake.

Find it on Bookshop.

All These Bodies was a 2021 Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Best Young Adult Novel. The story is narrated by Michael and all characters are assumed white.

Blake expertly unspools Michael’s naked ambition to become a journalist with his increasingly thorny ethical dilemma when it comes to using Marie’s story for his own gain. The narrative focuses on Marie and whether being complicit is the same as being an accomplice while slowly teasing out what may have happened to the Carlsons and all the other victims.

Centering Marie while having the story related by Michael explores questions of the male gaze and agency as the story builds to its dramatic finish. Marie’s journey in the media from victim to villain is nuanced and contrasts well with Michael’s own conflicting feelings on whether Marie can be the violent criminal authorities seem to think she is while also being his friend.

Michael’s pragmatic narration only increases the tension as Marie shares her confession to her role in the murders and hints at something even more sinister at play while leaving space for readers to interpret events for themselves.

All These Bodies is an atmospheric story at the intersection of true crime and horror; one that will stay with you in all of the best ways.

Possible Pairings: No Saints in Kansas by Amy Brashear, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Breaker by Kat Ellis, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, Broken Things by Lauren Oliver, Sadie by Courtney Summers, The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas, The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

Want to know more? Check out my interview with Kendare.

Belladonna: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Do not change the parts of yourself that you like to make others comfortable. Do not try to mold yourself to fit the standards someone else has set for us.”

Belladonna by Adalyn GraceSigna Farrow has spent her entire life moving from house to house as each of her numerous guardians meets an untimely end. With caretakers increasingly more interested in her wealth than her happiness, Signa’s loneliness is palpable. She craves the day she will come into her inheritance and can set up her own household filled with laughter and company–never solitude and especially not Death. The one constant in Signa’s life aside from her precarious living arrangements has been the ability to see and, regrettably, interact with Death himself–a shadowy figure of a man who is as mystified by their connection as Signa.

At the age of nineteen, there is only one year left until Signa enters society. One she needs to use well if she hopes to banish the dismal reputation her numerous deceased guardians have built for her. After years of begging–and even demanding–that Death leave her alone, Signa is more suspicious than grateful when he promises to improve her current situation. Nonetheless, she is cautiously excited to find she has some living relatives in the Hawthorne family.

Thorn Grove is a stately manor with far more luxury than Signa is used to, but it is also a house in crisis with patriarch Elijah Hawthorne lost in grief and intent on running the family business–and reputation–into the ground while eldest son Percy watches helplessly. With mourning not yet over for Elijah’s beloved wife, it seems his daughter Blythe is suffering from the same mysterious illness. With no obvious cure and her condition worsening, Death warns that it won’t be much longer before he has to claim the ailing girl as one of his own.

Experiencing stability and family for the first time is a heady mixture for Signa, reminding her of how much Thorn Grove still has to lose. Signa knows that society would frown upon a young woman experimenting with folk remedies and digging into the Hawthorne’s secrets. But she also knows that she will do anything to keep Blythe and Thorn Grove safe–even if it means risking her reputation by working with Death to search for answers in Belladonna (2022) by Adalyn Grace.

Find it on Bookshop.

Belladonna is the first book in a projected duology that will continue with Foxglove. Signa and most main characters are cued as white with more varied skin tones among the supporting cast including one of Signa’s childhood friends, Charlotte, who is described as having brown skin.

Belladonna is a gothic mystery with just the right amount of magic in the form of death personified and Signa’s own strange powers that allow her not just to speak with Death but take on some of his abilities including a resistance to poison. Sumptuous descriptions of Signa’s new surroundings set the mood as Signa familiarizes herself with Thorn Grove and its occupants while highlighting the privation of her previous homes.

Armed with nothing but an old etiquette book and her wits, Signa thinks she is prepared for what society will expect of her as a young woman. But the longer she spends at Thorn Grove and the more she embraces her own powers, the clearer it is that the societal standards Signa has clung to are skewed against her and may not be worth striving for after all. Signa’s inheritance adds another layer to this conversation as she begins to understand her privilege and realizes other women are not so fortunate when it comes to future marriages and life choices.

Haunted by spirits all her life, Signa’s innate need to investigate the happenings at Thorn Grove only increases as she is haunted by–and begins to communicate with–the ghosts of the stately manor. This novel is filled with a well-rounded cast of both the living and dead who add dimension to this rich story as the complexities of relationships among the Hawthorne family and its staff begin to unfold. At the center of this is Signa’s complicated dynamic with Death who starts the story as her greatest frustration only to become a foil, a confidante, and perhaps much more. The tension between these two characters moves the story along as much as the mystery with its own twists and surprises.

Belladonna is a thoughtful story where Signa spends as much time investigating her own wants and needs as a young woman entering society as she does trying to uncover Thorn Grove’s secrets. Belladonna capitalizes on a well-developed magic system and atmospheric prose to deliver both a satisfying mystery and romance.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Ferryman by Claire McFall, A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson, Gallant by V. E. Schwab

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

Small Favors: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Small Favors by Erin A. CraigAmity Falls is isolated. Bordered on one side by the Blackspire Mountain range and dense forest on the other, visitors are rare but dangers from the encroaching forest are not. The earliest townsfolk fought to claim the land from literal monsters–the kind that are still, to this day, whispered about after dark. Everyone knows that safety comes from simple things like following the rules of the community and avoiding the forest except for annual supply runs.

Until the last supply run fails.

With no survivors and no provisions, everyone in Amity Falls is facing a long winter.

Even with this coming scarcity, Ellerie Downing’s life remains safe and predictable. Perhaps too predictable as she chafes under the restrictions placed on her as a girl while her feckless brother is expected to take on responsibilities he seems incapable of managing for both the family and the bees that are their livelihood.

As the seasons change, strange things come to the town. Animals born with horrific defects. Inexplicable occurrences in the fields. Visitors claiming to be trappers including a handsome stranger Ellerie can tell is keeping at least one secret.

When the winter proves harder than usual, monstrous creatures come out of the shadows offering to grant wishes–to provide help–so long as they receive small favors in return. The requests seem harmless at first. Until it becomes clear that denying them will have dire consequences in Small Favors (2021) by Erin A. Craig.

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Small Favors combines supernatural and horror elements in this page turner narrated by Ellerie. Most principle characters are assumed white. The growing tensions among the insulated community of Amity Falls contrast well with the bees kept by Ellerie’s family with beekeeping playing a major role in the story.

Within the confines of Amity Falls, Ellerie is frustrated by the expectations she faces as a young woman to be passive and docile while her twin brother is largely able to do as he likes–often with unfavorable results for Ellerie and the rest of her family and minimal repercussions for himself.  As the story progresses and Ellerie sees more and more cracks in the tenets of the community, she begins to push back against the strict confines of her role in Amity Falls while also discovering her own agency leading to a well-managed treatment of feminist themes and provocative commentary on the importance  to balance individual needs with the greater good.

Craig expertly builds suspense and a growing sense of urgency as Faustian bargains slowly erode everything Ellerie has taken for granted about her home and her family. Small Favors combines the eerie seclusion of The Village, the escalating ferocity of Needful Things, and a unique magic system to create a distinctly unsettling atmosphere where nothing is as it seems. Small Favors is a quiet blend of horror and fantasy sure to keep you up all night reading.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Five Midnights by Ana Davila Cardinal, The Luminaries by Susan Dennard, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Ferryman by Claire McFall, The Poison Season by Mara Rutherford, Red Wolf by Rachel Vincent, Needful Things, The Village

The Perfect Escape: A Review

The Perfect Escape by Leah KonenNew friends Sam, Margaret, and Diana bonded over their messy divorces–different trajectories that all ended in the same place. Now they’re all single, ready to move on, and maybe in Sam’s case still just a little bitter.

A road trip out of New York City is exactly what all three of them need.

Which makes it even more of a bummer when their car breaks down in the Catskills and puts the trip on hold while their car is being repaired. It’s the same place Sam’s ex–Harry–chose to move in with his other woman, the one he left Sam to go back to. But that doesn’t have to mean anything. They can still have fun at a bar. Unless maybe Sam can use the opportunity to get Harry back.

Margaret is nervous about the trip, the expenses, her ex-husband’s increasingly erratic behavior in the apartment they’re still sharing because neither can afford to move out. But she’s also ready for a break and a distraction. Which she finds when sparks start to fly with a younger man at the bar.

When a night promising fresh starts instead leads to bad decisions, both Sam and Margaret aren’t sure what their night out means for the rest of the trip–or their futures. Then they realize that Diana never made it back from the bar. Then things get worse.

It should have been the perfect trip. None of them expected it to include a body count in The Perfect Escape (2022) by Leah Konen.

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Konen’s latest thriller is a wild ride through secrets and lies set in upstate New York. All main characters are cued as white.

As the story alternates between first person narrations, it’s clear that all of the characters are keeping their secrets close. Konen slowly teases out Sam, Margaret, and Diana’s backstories as this pressure cooker of a story builds to a twist-filled conclusion and doubts begin to rise between the close-but-new friends.

The Perfect Escape is the kind of book that you’ll enjoy the most with no expectations and minimal information. Konen continues to hone her craft with this smart and suspenseful story where she strikes the perfect balance between dropping clues and foreshadowing future events while also leaving space for truly surprising reveals.

Descriptive prose and well-realized backstories for both Sam and Margaret add substance to this stylish thriller.

Possible Pairings: The Weekend Away by Sarah Alderson, We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, The Guest List by Lucy Foley, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

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

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*