Thanks to partners NetGalley, St. Martin's Press, and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on October 19!
Those of you who follow me know that I love a new version of a classic, and I’m particularly a sucker for a Jane Eyre retelling, so when I saw that there was a Jane Eyre retelling set in Ethiopia with a fantasy twist, I requested immediately. Wow, did Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls satisfy my every hope and expectation!
This book does what the best retellings do: it takes its source material as inspiration and then spins out a new story and a new world. Here, the Jane character is Andromeda, a debtera—a type of exorcist—who can cleanse homes of the Evil Eye. In desperate straits after her mentor cast her out, Andromeda takes on a job at which ten other debteras have failed. She’s employed by the mysterious Magnus Rochester who lives in near-solitude at the far end of a desolate desert. All but a few servants and the nanny who raised him have abandoned him, apparently scared away by the curse no one can defeat.
We experience the story through Andromeda’s eyes, and what a fabulous protagonist she is. Like Jane, she’s been raised in unusual circumstances, and her values differ from those of her world. She calls herself plain but cares little about her appearance. Instead, she values her strength and skills in her profession and communicates with a blunt honesty that shocks Magnus. He, in turn, is lacking social graces after having grown up as an outsider from his family and from society, so for a while, their bluntness seems to put them at odds. And then, of course, things change.
I loved SO much about this story. Andromeda’s narrative voice is so much fun—I love her strength and her defiance of convention. Watching Magnus meet his match in Andromeda is so satisfying, and their chemistry is great. I also, however, appreciated the secondary characters: Saba, the silent and mysterious woman who takes joy in helping others; Jember, the debtera who raised Andromeda, whose complexity I found to be appealing; and even Kelela, the beautiful young woman who is Andromeda’s rival for Magnus’s affections.
Most of all, I reveled in Blackwood’s development of the magic behind the curse that Andromeda is fighting. The way it manifests throughout Magnus’s estate is haunting and imaginative and creepy: it preys on characters’ compassion for others and on their unique weaknesses, and watching Andromeda strategize the best way to fight each new Manifestation shows her intelligence, her perseverance, and her strength.
I was shocked to find out that Within These Wicked Walls is Blackwood’s debut, and it is certainly a confident, brilliant first novel. I can’t wait to see what she tackles next.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, Roaring Brook Press for the digital ARC of Jennifer Mathieu’s Bad Girls Never Say Die in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on October 19!
I’m a huge fan of Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie, which is a fabulous feminist YA novel—we had a great discussion about that one on Unabridged Podcast!—and of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (though it’s been a while since I read it! Stay gold, Ponyboy). So, when I saw that Mathieu had a new book coming out that flipped The Outsiders to a female perspective, I was All. In.
Did it work? Well, here’s what I loved. As in Moxie, Mathieu builds a compelling protagonist, a fifteen-year-old named Evie who struggles with the limited expectations of her 1964 Houston, Texas, society and of her mother and grandmother. They are thrilled that Evie’s sister is married, even though it means that she moved far away and is so, so lonely. They make it clear to Evie that she should aspire to do the same.
But Evie wants more from her life. She wants choices. She wants to have friends who are tuff. She wants to think there’s a possibility that she can leave Houston.
With her best friends—Connie, who is the toughest of them all; Juanita, Evie’s sweet neighbor; and Sunny, whose sweet sincerity has led her into a controlling relationship with her boyfriend—Evie has started skipping school and wearing makeup and defying anyone to challenge her group.
I loved this part of the book, where we see exactly why Evie loves her friends so much, how much she wishes she could regain the close relationship with her mom and grandmother without limiting herself again, and the way Evie yearns for more without always being able to articulate exactly what “more” is.
Then, everything changes. And Evie is caught up in a situation that being tough can’t get her out of.
Mathieu beautifully depicts this world. There’s a huge disparity between the “tea sippers” of upper-class Houston and Evie’s own, lower socio-economic realm. Evie is a fabulously complex character, and we feel her connection to her friends, who step up to support her as much as they can.
But at a certain point (and I can’t say much more without spoilers), I felt like the book became focused on unfurling certain plot elements—often connected to its origin story—to the detriment of its rich characters. While the book certainly shares some elements with The Outsiders, it was most successful for me when it stepped out on its own, exploring Evie’s life and the limitations she defied, again and again.
Overall, though, this book is worth reading, and I would recommend it to students—this could be a foundation for many important discussions.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Forever for the digital ARC of Sajni Patel’s First Love, Take Two in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on September 21!
I absolutely loved Sajni Patel’s The Trouble with Hating You, so when I saw her new book, First Love, Take Two was available, I requested it immediately! This is a great follow-up, a steamy, second-chance romance that builds on the first book’s events but doesn’t rely on them. (I think you could read this one even if you haven’t read book one.)
Here, Preeti Patel is trying to embrace an arranged marriage with Yuvan. He checks all the right boxes: he’s part of her conservative, Indian community, and his parents are close with hers. He’s successful, as is she, and this seems like the perfect match. But she has absolutely no chemistry with him.
Preeti has been the subject of gossip before, six years ago when she had an interracial relationship with Daniel Thompson. When her father’s sisters found out that she was dating outside the culture and the race—Daniel is Black—they set the full force of community shaming upon her and her family. Daniel’s parents were no more accepting of her, and so Preeti broke off their relationship.
Since then, Preeti has built a successful career as a doctor—she’s almost done with her residency—has taken care of her parents, and has made every effort to fly under the radar of the gossip mongers. All of that has kept Daniel from the forefront of her mind and heart . . . until her friends and his sister conspire to throw them together once more.
This book does a great job dealing with a number of serious issues: anxiety and racism and touch aversion and, above all, both the blessing and curse of being part of a close-knit community. As a doctor, Preeti deals with heartbreak—miscarriage, death, and the expectations of her patients’ families—and more and more, she’s feeling overwhelmed by expectations both at work and in her personal life.
Watching Preeti and Daniel work through their relationship to support each other is fantastic: this is such a wonderful, second-chance romance, filled with a deep backstory and nuanced characters. As always in a romance series, I love seeing Liya and Jay from book one, and I have high hopes that there will be at least one more book involving Liya and Preeti’s friend group.
First Love, Take Two is a worthy, steamy, beautiful follow-up to The Trouble with Hating You.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Tor Books for the digital ARC of T. J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on September 21!
I cried my way through large portions of T. J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door. While ultimately, I would call it a beautiful, hopeful book, it is also deeply, deeply sad. I mean, it is about death and the afterlife, so I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise, but I’m just putting that out there.
Here’s the setup: Wallace is a horrible Scrooge of a fellow who is financially successful but just a miserable human being. He’s basically alienated everyone with whom he’s ever had a relationship, but he doesn’t even recognize that because he’s so focused on work and power and money. In fact, he takes an odd sort of pride in being needlessly cruel.
Then, he dies suddenly of a heart attack. And all of those concerns that consumed his life and his time are gone.
The world he enters is populated by an eccentric crew: reapers—in this case, a reaper named Mei; a ferryman named Hugo; and the ghosts of Hugo’s grandfather Nelson and dog Apollo. Wallace is stuck in Hugo’s tea shop until he can accept his death and figure things out and be ready to cross through a mysterious door on the fourth floor.
The world building is more complex than I can or should cover, but there are fabulous conversations about Hugo and Mei’s responsibilities to the dead; about what matters in life; about who we choose to be when and if we have the chance to reconsider our choices.
I feel as if I should address a big question here since I’ve been raving about The House in the Cerulean Sea since I read it (and that’s a big reason I requested this book!): Under the Whispering Door is NOT The House in the Cerulean Sea, nor does Klune try to make it that book. I always feel as if the expectation game is so fraught, so when I go in with high expectations, I’m almost always disappointed. Did Whispering Door bring me to the giddy heights that Cerulean Sea did? No. But that’s okay. I still found myself thinking and smiling and crying. This book is a success all on its own merits, and for me, it survived the peril of comparison with one of my favorite books of the year.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Helena Hunting's When Sparks Fly in exchange for an honest review. The book will be out on September 21!
When Sparks Fly is a friends-to-lovers, open door romance about Avery Spark and Declan McCormick who have been friends since the first day of college and roommates for years. In college, their casual friendship was strengthened when Declan stood by Avery’s side after an ugly breakup. Avery had been dating their mutual friend Sam, but when Declan found out that Sam was cheating, he told Avery and chose their friendship. Now in their upper 20s, Avery and Declan are anchors for each other.
When Avery is in a car accident for which Declan blames himself, things change. Avery’s injuries are serious, and Declan, eager to make up for his mistake, vows that he’ll be the one to take cover of her as she recovers. This is a new side to their relationship, and each becomes aware of feelings that they’ve never allowed to grow.
Overall, this romance worked for me. I like the friends-to-lovers trope, and Hunting’s creation of believable back stories for both characters shows why each is hesitant to completely trust someone else. There were parts of the novel that felt repetitive, and the dialogue was sometimes too heavy—it felt more like speeches than actual conversation—but I like the tenderness of this couple and the way that they put in the time and effort to work through their relationship difficulties.
Hunting is a reliable author for me, and while I slightly prefer her rom coms, I’d recommend When Sparks Fly to romance fans.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley and Harlequin Books for the digital ARC of Jean Meltzer’s The Matzah Ball in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on September 28th!
I think that Jean Meltzer’s The Matzah Ball may be my favorite holiday read . . . ever? It’s such a beautiful balance of the notes of a romantic comedy (with a great emphasis on the comedy) and more serious content.
Here’s the premise: Rachel Rubenstein-Rosenblatt is the child of a prominent rabbi, and the position of her parents in the Jewish community means that she has been very aware—since she was a kid—that she needs to be on her best behavior at all times. She’s also, secretly, the best-selling author of Christmas-themed romances. You can see the problem.
Real-life romance has never been her thing, and she traces that challenge back to a horrible trauma at her Jewish summer camp when Jacob Greenberg, her first boyfriend, betrayed her.
Then, Jacob comes back into her life in the strangest of ways. He’s an event planner who normally works out of Europe, but he’s in New York to put on the ultimate, Hanukkah-themed event: The Matzah Ball. For true success, he needs the public approval of a pillar of the community, so he approaches Rachel’s father for his support, bringing him back into Rachel’s proximity.
The way this all spins out is great fun, but underlying it all is another of Rachel’s secrets: only her closest friends and family know that she is living with myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (Meltzer talks in her Author’s Note about why the more medical name is more appropriate). Seeing the way Rachel’s ME affects her life, her choice of profession, and her relationships anchors the extravagance of the romantic comedy in daily reality, and as Meltzer develops those parts of Rachel and Jacob’s histories, what could be an over-the-top rom-com becomes a poignant, nuanced love story.
Go ahead and start the holiday season early and pre-order Jean Meltzer’s The Matzah Ball today!
Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Catapult for the digital ARC of A. K. Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches in exchange for an honest review. The book is out on Tuesday, August 10!
I taught Arthur Miller’s The Crucible for a long time at the school where I used to teach, so I’ve dug into the Salem witch trials more than once. Parts of them still resonate: misogyny and class conflict, greed and corruption, and (of course) witch hunts both literal and metaphorical. Miller saw in the witch trials an allegory for the McCarthy trials and the obsession with unearthing communists in 1950s America, and they definitely can stand in for many modern obsessions.
A.K. Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches deals with witch trials in a 17th century English town, and while I’m sure there’s symbolic resonance there, too, it’s the sheer humanity of her novel that struck me. Through much of the book, the voice and point of view we’re following is that of Rebecca West, the daughter of a single mother who has spurned any chance of popularity by her irreverence, her cruelty, and her refusal to follow the rules of the town. Rebecca is more willing to please than her mother, but she’s got strength and independence of her own. Rebecca’s voice is vibrant and funny and wicked; her intelligence is apparent, as is her search for identity and love and comfort and companionship.
When a stranger moves to town and begins asking questions about some animals who’ve died, some women who’ve miscarried, a boy who falls ill, it doesn’t take long before the town begins to catch his fervor, and, as always, it’s mostly women—and mostly single women—who are the focus. Rebecca loves her mother but doesn’t always like her, and so at first, the scrutiny satisfies her own cruel thoughts that result from her mother’s casual unkindness. But soon, Rebecca realizes that the accusations are insidious, weaving their way through the minds of the townsfolk.
The events of the novel follow a familiar pattern, but their execution makes this a new and unique account. Blakemore builds brilliant characters who are trying to find small bits of happiness despite difficult circumstances, who revel in their friendships with other women who live lives similar to theirs. The writing is fantastic (I marked so many quotations!), and Rebecca feels just absolutely real.
This is a confident, compelling debut novel, and I’ll definitely be looking out for Blakemore’s next book.
Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Atria Books for the digital ARC of Shea Ernshaw’s A History of Wild Places in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on December 7, 2021.
I’m a fan of Shea Ernshaw’s YA books The Wicked Deep and Winterwood, so I’m not surprised that I loved A History of Wild Places, her first book for adults, as much as I did. It demonstrates the same talents for establishing and sustaining a unique, unsettling atmosphere and for building a compelling, complex world as those first two books. Ernshaw also has an ability to create complex, intriguing characters to populate her novels.
In A History of Wild Places, we start with a book within the book: Foxes and Museums, book one in the Eloise and the Foxtail series, a super-dark fairytale for children. The book’s author, Maggie St. James, has been missing for five years, and Travis Wren—the protagonist of the second layer of the novel—has been hired by her parents to find her. He has an ability to touch objects and then see their memories which has made him valuable to those searching for lost loved ones, but personal tragedy has made him back away from humanity. It’s only as a favor for a distant friend and a desperation for work that has brought him to this search.
As he follows her last-known path, he enters an isolated town in search of a mysterious community called Pastoral.
Then, the narrative shifts again and relocates into Pastoral itself, where we follow three characters: Theo, a man who is increasingly curious about what lies outside of Pastoral; Calla, who fears the potential consequences of her husband’s questions; and Calla’s sister Bee, a blind woman with abilities that make her valuable to Pastoral’s leader.
The shifting nature of truth, of what we think we understand and what lies beneath, mirrors the characters’ own search for identity and truth. It’s a gorgeous novel full of narratives made unreliable because of every character’s limited knowledge. As those disparate pieces come together, I found myself shifting them around, trying to make sense of the way the layers of the story connected.
A History of Wild Places is a brilliantly immersive novel, one that I couldn’t stop reading. Ernshaw is definitely an auto-read author for me.
Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Crown Books for Young Readers for the digital ARC of Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on August 10, 2021.
Like his earlier, brilliant The Serpent King (like this book, a five-star read for me!), Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light begins with a strong sense of place, set firmly in the Appalachian town of Sawyer, Tennessee. Cash Pruitt is sixteen and, above all else, loves his Mamaw and Papaw, who raised him after his mother’s death, and his best friend Delaney Doyle, a genius. Cash and Delaney were first drawn together as the children of addicts, and now each offers a safe place for the other.
Delaney has gained some moderate fame in the scientific community after discovering a mold that kills bacteria and that shows great promise for the healthcare industry. When she’s offered a full ride to a private boarding school, she’s desperate to escape her circumstances, but she doesn’t want to do so alone. So, she convinces the school to also provide a full scholarship for Cash.
Cash is torn between his friendship and his loyalty to his grandparents, particularly Papaw, who is dying slowly of emphysema. Ultimately, though, they convince him to grab this opportunity, and so he and Delaney move to Connecticut and become students at Middleford Academy.
Those are the bare outlines of the plot, but they don’t reveal what makes this book special.
First, Zentner is an absolutely beautiful writer, and the book is filled with gorgeous prose as Cash works through who he is and who he wants to be and how to stay true both to himself and to those whom he loves.
Beyond the writing are the characters. The tenderness between Cash and Papaw is one of my favorite things—they love each other so much, and that love is beautiful and heartbreaking and present on every page of the novel. Delaney is brilliant and strong and also fragile, someone who has survived abuse and neglect and is now ready to step into her full potential, but not alone. Watching the way the all support and challenge each other is a lovely, moving reading experience.
Cash is so smart and so sensitive, but he’s also a teenager, one who has left his family and his hometown to step into another world filled with rich people who’ve lived lives he can hardly imagine. He’s not naive, just inexperienced, and so he’s fully aware of the risks that he’s taking while also hoping to make those he loves proud.
I can’t recommend In the Wild Light enough. Just be sure to have a box of tissues by your side. This book earns every tear.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley and Counterpoint Press for the digital ARC of Nawaaz Ahmed’s Radiant Fugitives in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on August 3, 2021.
Radiant Fugitives is an ambitious debut novel with an unusual premise: it’s a story told predominantly in utero by Ishraaq, a sort of omniscient first-person narrator, allowed entry into his relatives’ perspectives before he takes his first breath. We know from the beginning that his mother, Seema, has died during labor, a piece of knowledge that casts a shadow over the book. It’s then that Ishraaq takes us back, unveiling the pasts of Seema and of the rest of his family—his aunt Tahera, his grandmother Nafeesa, and his father Bill—to consider what has led them to this point.
What’s revealed is a complex story that made me ache: it’s full of misunderstandings and missed connections that show the way these characters love each other and yet hurt each other, over and over again. It’s set against the backdrop of the candidacy and election of Barack Obama as President, driven by hope and (all too often) disappointment from those who have dared to hope.
Seema and Tahera immigrated to the United States from India. Seema left home when, after coming out to her family, her father exiled her. Her sister Tahera, a doctor, moved to the U.S. because of her marriage to a man with whom she forges a family who adheres strictly to Islam. It has been many years since their mother Nafeesa saw Seema, but now they’re united because Nafeesa insists that she must help Seema through the end of her pregnancy . . . and also because Nafeesa is dying.
The narrative weaves together these characters’ lives, circling around and back through time, until we delve deeply into their thoughts and feelings, alternately empathizing with them and frustrated by them, by their stubbornness and their inability to reach outside of their own vulnerability to each other. There’s much to admire in the way that Ahmed explores identity, in the ways that Seema is embraced by some and exiled by others because of her sexuality and that Tahera faces the same treatment because of her faith. The fact that those inconsistent reactions occur both among strangers and within their family is painful.
While there’s much to love and admire about this book, I did find the pacing to be slow, and I took several breaks from it to read other books. I think part of my issue is because of the internal nature of the narrative, and part is because the book is, often, quite sad. Still, Ahmed is considering here questions that we are—and should be—asking, about who we choose to govern and why, about who and what we welcome and accept, and about how each of us shapes an identity because of and against our families.
Behind it all is Ishraaq, a character who loves his family with such compassion and empathy and understanding that he forgives all, sharing their stories as utterly beautiful and utterly alive, even in tragedy. The contradiction inherent in the title Radiant Fugitives is borne out beautifully through Nawaaz Ahmed’s novel.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.