THE PRICE GUIDE TO THE OCCULT by Leslye Walton

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Nor just wants to live a normal life. Or at least as normal of a life as you can have when you’re the youngest in a long line of cursed witches on quirky, touristy island. The Blackburn women have managed to live fairly quietly for the past several generations, their witchcraft mostly explained away as just another local oddity–unusual talents of the islanders. But when Nor’s estranged mother begins selling witchcraft on the mass market, the quiet equilibrium of the island is immediately threatened. Not only will the Blackburn secret be exposed, but dark magic comes at a bloody price. To save her world and the friends and neighbors she loves, Nor will have to face her mother and embrace the power inside herself that she has always tried to hide.

An engaging new fantasy novel focused on a teenage girl’s complicated relationship with an abusive mother. The ending is left open for a sequel. I’d recommend it to readers who enjoy dark, character-driven fantasy.

HOW WE LEARNED TO LIE by Meredith Miller

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Joan has known Daisy’s brother was getting involved in something dark ever since the moment he came home covered in someone else’s blood. But when she tries to talk to Daisy about it, he brushes her off. Daisy knows his brother is somehow involved in the angel dust that has been making its way around the school, but how can he talk to Joan about it? She seems to have her own secrets these days, too. The biology teacher, for example. Secrets and lies push the friends further and further apart as violence and tragedy become familiar in their town.

A thread of mystery and suspense runs through this novel which is otherwise a character study and profile of a struggling community. The author paints a violent and corrupt world in the most beautiful poetic language (occasionally at the expense of clarity). I would recommend this novel to fans of literary historical or realistic fiction.

SHE LOVES YOU (YEAH, YEAH, YEAH) by Ann Hood

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Ever since the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, Trudy’s life has had a clear sense of direction. She and her father have had a way to connect, despite his busy work life, and she has been the president of the most popular club at school–Rhode Island’s first Beatle’s fan club chapter. But in sixth grade, things start to change. Other kids begin to leave the Beatles fan club, including Trudy’s best friend, Michelle, who never seems to have time to spend with Trudy anymore. Trudy’s dad is so caught up with work that he barely speaks to her. And her teachers are suddenly calling her “Gertrude.” Now the president of the least popular club in school, Trudy isn’t sure how to get her life on track. Until she finds out the the Beatles will be coming to Boston for a concert, that is. Trudy is certain that if she could just meet Paul McCartney, everything in her life would fall back into place. And even the most insurmountable obstacles won’t be enough to stop her from making it to that concert.

This coming-of-age story gives middle grade readers a glimpse of middle school life in the tumultuous sixties, while keeping the focus on the universal tensions of friendships and family life. I expect that it will appeal as much to realistic fiction readers as to historical fiction readers. An enjoyable, light read.

MONSTROUS BEAUTY by Elizabeth Fama

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Hester has resigned herself to a life without love. Her mother died days after giving birth to Hester, as her grandmother died days after giving birth to her mother, and her great-grandmother. . . . All Hester knows is that for the women in her family, love kills. But when Hester meets a mysterious young man at the beach, she begins to uncover a dark tale from the past–a story of love and loss, of humans and sea-folk, the living and the lingering dead. And something in this past may have an important connection to Hester’s future. In her desperation to learn more about the past and free herself from her curse, Hester overlooks the very real danger lurking in the present.

Based on the jacket summary, I had expected this novel to be a paranormal romance. It is definitely not! Although there are some romantic moments in the book, the focus of the novel is on the journey of a young woman to uncover her ancestral past, break a curse, and find the strength to free herself from the weight of past tragedies and forge her own destiny. It is suspenseful and powerfully written with a rich, history-inspired fantasy woven into a quaint, contemporary, small town. Fama’s extensive research shows in the realism of her past and present settings and the authenticity of her characters without ever leading to copious explication. I highly recommend this novel to historical fiction readers and fantasy readers who enjoy gripping, character-driven stories. I had trouble putting it down!

The audiobook is phenomenal. I highly recommend it.

I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK by Michelle McNamara

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In the years leading up to her death, true crime writer Michelle McNamara diligently researched the serial killer and rapist that she labeled “The Golden State Killer.” Only two months after the posthumous publication of this book, a suspect was finally identified and arrested in connection with the decades-old crimes. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark reads partly as a police procedural mystery, with focus on the investigators, the collection of evidence, the piecing together of threads over the years, and the different theories swirling around the unsolved (at the time) case. It also reads as a bit of an autobiography of McNamara, with both the stories of her own life and her emotional connections to cold cases that she intended to share and the annotations about her writing process added by those close to her after her death. The interwoven plot lines of the investigators and writer in their relentless pursuit of justice made the book a gripping and powerful read at the time of its publication.

The arrest of Joseph DeAngelo only heightens the book’s appeal. Readers who may have been astounded that a cold case could be broken after so many years can see the inner workings of the investigation–the sometimes wild leads investigators followed relentlessly, some dead ends, but others astoundingly prescient given the investigation’s conclusion. The knowledge that the killer was finally caught also adds some catharsis to an otherwise unsettling ending where the killer remained free and the writer did not live to pursue her investigation further.

True crime is a tricky genre, especially for relatively recent crimes where in-depth studies may seem voyeuristic or insensitive to those loved ones still grieving. Through her focus on the investigation, McNamara gives a clear sense of purpose to every detail that she includes. The more graphic and salacious information is not provided to shock readers or to dramatize a family’s tragedy, but rather to build a wall of evidence with which to ultimately bring the killer to justice. If you are interested in this case or in true crime, I would highly recommend this book.

PRETTY DEAD GIRLS by Monica Murphy

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As a senior and leader of the Larks (a select service organization for young women), Penelope is queen of the school. Sure, there is some tension and drama among the Larks, but that is to be expected when you have that many beautiful, popular high school girls in one place. But when senior Larks begin getting murdered, Penelope’s perfect life suddenly becomes a dangerous nightmare. Desperate to find the killer before any more of her friends perish, Penelope accepts help from the strange and mysterious boy who seems to know more than he is telling her. The more she gets to know him, the more she begins to fall for him–and to wonder if some of his secrets might be darker than he is letting on.

Although I was underwhelmed by the character development, this thriller is definitely a page turner. It will keep you guessing, and although the motive cannot be figured out based on the details you are given, there are enough clues to let you guess the killer in advance, if you want to. Overall, not my favorite teen thriller, but a fun read.

THE WIZARDS OF ONCE by Cressida Cowell

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Xar, the son of the wizard king, is known for being a troublemaker–disobedient, destructive, leading his ragtag entourage of sprites and snow cats into all kinds of danger. And the fact that at thirteen his magic still hasn’t come in makes him even more unruly. Wish, the warrior princess, is downright weird. Her limp, her eyepatch, and her odd interests make her hardly fit to call herself a warrior. But the mischief of these two sworn enemies reaches new heights when two forbidden errands collide in the Badwoods. Xar has come to set a trap for a witch, the darkest, most evil magic creature ever to exist, which everyone believes are extinct, but whose magic Xar hopes to steal. Wish enters the Badwoods chasing her pet, an iron spoon that must be magic and is therefore thoroughly forbidden (much to her young Assistant Bodyguard’s anxiety). She also has a magic sword she found near her mother’s dungeon that has an inscription claiming that it kills witches. And unfortunately for both Wish and Xar, that sword may be blood-curdlingly necessary.

As much as this novel is the thrilling start to a creative and engaging new fantasy series, it is a coming of age tale for two very different protagonists, each struggling to find a place in their respective society and to work through a complicated relationship with their respective intimidating parent. I suspect that the cheeky omniscient narrator would have annoyed me had I not been listening to the brilliantly performed audiobook. But otherwise, I loved everything about it. Can’t wait for the next installment!

I highly recommend the audiobook (performed by David Tennant), a well-deserved Odyssey Award Honor recording.