SOCIAL DISTANCE. READ TOGETHER.

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There are two reasons I don’t link to big box stores or book sellers when I recommend a book. Of course, I hope my readers will borrow from their local public libraries (as I do!). But I also hope that when readers purchase books, they’ll support independent book shops.

Patronizing local small businesses is more important now than ever. To find a local bookstore near you, check out this handy search: https://www.indiebound.org/indie-store-finder

A STUDY IN SCARLET WOMEN by Sherry Thomas

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Charlotte Holmes is utterly unsuited to marriage. She thrives on intellectual puzzles, little to no conversation, and an unhealthy sweets consumption that frequently leads her perilously close to her Maximum Tolerable Chins; none of this would endear her to the typical Victorian husband. She fended off marriage proposals bravely until her 25th year, under the assumption that her father would honor his promise to pay for her education. When he reneges, she does the only logical thing: renders herself ineligible for marriage through a sexual liaison with an unprincipled and unhappily-married gentleman.

Alas, his domineering mother catches them in the act, and scandal ensues. Charlotte flees her irate parents, only to discover that it is far more difficult than she expected for a “fallen woman” to find work. Furthermore, when the unhappily-married gentleman’s mother winds up dead, Charlotte’s sister becomes implicated in a murder inquiry. With the help of the widowed Mrs. Watson (a middle-aged former actress) and her old friend (and love of her life) Lord Ingram, Charlotte sets out to do what she does best–observe, make conclusions, and solve puzzles that baffle even the most intrepid and clever police inspectors.

Of course no one would believe the deductions of fallen woman and society scandal Miss Charlotte Holmes. The mysterious, bedridden, (entirely fiction) Mr. Sherlock Holmes however….

Sherry Thomas breaks out of the romance genre with a thrilling, funny, well-plotted, and (yes) romantic mystery series with a strong cast of characters and an immersive historical world that will keep readers rapt and turning pages. I read them all, then immediately read them again. Can’t wait for another LADY SHERLOCK book!

A Study In Scarlet Women (The Lady Sherlock Series Book 1) - Kindle edition  by Thomas, Sherry. Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA by TJ Klune

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Linus takes his job as a case worker investigating orphanages for magical youth very seriously. He does his work thoroughly, accurately, and impersonally. And it’s precisely his thorough, accurate, and impersonal track record that prompts Extremely Upper Management to offer him a temporary, top secret assignment: to spend a month evaluating an exclusive seaside orphanage for extraordinary magical youth (including, among others, the Antichrist). Although initially overwhelmed by the unusual assignment, Linus finds that the magical youth–and their exceptional caretaker, Arthur–are working their way into his heart and threatening his objectivity as a caseworker. And as his impersonal lens cracks, he must question the truths he’s been taught, the morality of his own work, and how far he is personally willing to go for love.

A well-deserved award-winner, THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is a quirky, funny, sweet, thought-provoking social-commentary with equal parts humor and heart. Highly recommend for adults and older teens–anyone who likes stories that are a little weird and a little magical with a healthy dose of undermined social norms and queer romance.

Cover art

MAD, BAD, AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW by Samira Ahmed

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Khayyam is grateful to have the summer in her father’s native Paris to get her life together. Her senior year is about to start. Her never-quite-official boyfriend is off to college and popping up in Instagram pics with other girls. And worst of all, Khayyam has ruined all of her chances of becoming an art historian with one ill-conceived, under-researched essay erroneously linking Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Delacroix.

“The work of a dilettante, not a future art historian.” That was how the head judge at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago had described her work. Khayyam had hoped that participating in the essay contest would set her apart–show the Art Institute how serious she was–so that the School would take a closer look at her college application. Now, she wonders if she’s distinguished herself in a bad way and is destined for still more rejection.

But when she meets a descendent of Alexandre Dumas (another, younger, perfectly charmant Alexandre Dumas) by chance at a cafe, Khayyam sees new possibilities opening up for her. Maybe she and Alexandre can work together to unravel the truth behind Dumas’ connection with Delacroix and salvage Khayyam’s reputation as a future art historian. And maybe in the process, they can discover the identity and history Leila–a woman of Asian and Muslim descent (like Khayyam)–who was described by the poet Byron, painted by the artist Delacroix, but never given a voice of her own.

With the hashtag #writeherstory, Ahmed attacks the narratives that men build around women (particularly women of color and intersections of marginalized identities)–narratives that subsume women’s own voices and cast them as sexual objects in dramas directed by the men around them. She mounts her assault poetically with the interweaving of Khayyam’s voice with the voice of Leila, fictional in reality but real in the world of the narrative. Khayyam’s conflicts and power struggles with the men in her life parallel on a less grand scale the experiences of Leila in her interactions with the male-dominated artistic community–many well-intentioned men, none quite listening to Khayyam or to Leila. I loved every page of this book and highly recommend it to older YA readers who like deep, thought-provoking (thought-requiring) realistic fiction, especially readers with an interest in art history and/or classic literature.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes

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Evvie Drake was leaving Tim. She was literally in the car, her suitcase packed in the trunk, when her phone rang. There had been an accident. Her husband was dead.

One year later, Evvie’s life does not resemble the freedom she imagined she’d find without Tim. Her family and friends think it’s grief, but really it’s something else. Guilt. Guilt for the lack of grief. Guilt that she ever wanted to get away from Tim, who was in everyone else’s eyes, completely and utterly perfect. Guilt for the remote possibility that the universe had known she wanted to escape and had taken the matter into its own hands.

But when she takes in a former all-star baseball pitcher as a lodger, Evvie gradually begins to enjoy life again. Because Dean is full of possibility–new friendship, new project, new distraction. What Evvie doesn’t count on is that in trying to fix Dean’s life, she may have to confront the darkness in her own past and the ghosts Tim left behind.

An engaging contemporary romance, EVVIE DRAKE is a fun read and great book club book for groups that enjoy “women’s fiction.”

SLAY by Brittney Morris

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As one of only four Black kids at her preppy high school, Kiera gets tired of answering stupid questions. Like, “Can I wear dreadlocks?” How is she supposed to answer that? Do they expect her to speak for all Black people? It’s one of the reasons she created SLAY, an online VR gaming universe exclusively for other Black gamers. In SLAY, Black gamers can just be themselves without having to worry about facing the kind of harassment Kiera experienced in other MMORPGs. But when one of the players is murdered IRL, SLAY becomes the subject of international attention and a catalyst for racially charged conflict and conversation.

Engaging from page one, SLAY uses a gaming lens to explore the diversity of Black experiences in the US and around the world. From Kiera–an American high schooler trying to balance the expectations of her friends, boyfriend, and family with her own hopes for herself–to an assortment of other players around the globe, readers see how Black people experience discrimination in various social and even family settings. We also see through Kiera’s experience how the VR experience that allows her to express herself authentically without discomfort or fear of judgment (an experience she does not have IRL at her high school) can also allow bigots to play out violent racist fantasies without fear of consequences. This book is important and beautifully written. I highly recommend it to teens and adults.

A CURIOUS BEGINNING by Deanna Raybourn

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Veronica Speedwell has no interest in becoming a mother of six. So she tells the Vicar’s wife after her Aunt Nell’s funeral. After all, with Aunt Nell gone, she no longer has ties in England and can immediately undertake another of her expeditions to the tropics, her bread and butter as a lepidopterist hunting rare butterflies. And while she’s abroad, she can engage in some healthy and commitment-free sexual release with a like-minded, anonymous man or two. Marriage to a boring English gentleman with a sizable brood of his own? Thank you, but no.

But before Veronica can embark on her expedition, she is assaulted by a thug and then rescued by a middle-aged German baron who claims to know her parents–of whom Veronica has no knowledge herself. The baron escorts her to London, leaving her in the care of a taxidermist and naturalist named Stoker. Before he can return for her, however, the baron is murdered. Fleeing for their own safety, Veronica and Stoker form a reluctant alliance to find the baron’s murderer and Veronica’s assailant–and on the way, discover a startling truth about Veronica’s parentage.

A suspenseful, action-packed mystery with a touch of romance, A CURIOUS BEGINNING starts off a series with a delightfully nonconformist Victorian feminist for a narrator and a surly but noble love interest/partner in slightly-criminal-criminal-investigation. Very fun read with plenty of thrills to keep you turning pages!

(Just FYI, Book 4 is my favorite.)

THE BEAST PLAYER by Nahoko Uehashi

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Elin’s mother has always cared for the water serpents, the Toda. She is the best Toda doctor in all of Aluhan. But when the most powerful Toda mysteriously die, Elin’s mother is blamed and sentenced to death. After failing to rescue her mother, Elin flees and takes refuge with a beekeeper in a neighboring territory. There she learns of her own gift of communication with the Toda, of her mother’s connection with the mystical Ahlyo people, and of her own place in the civil war between the country of her birth and the country where she found refuge.

An award-winning novel with masterful world-building, THE BEAST PLAYER will appeal to YA fantasy fans despite the protagonist’s youth (age 10 at the novel’s start). For graphic novel fans, there are manga and an anime TV series!

THE CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK by Elizabeth Peters

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At 32, Amelia Peabody is undeniably a spinster–and she intends to stay that way. To escape the host of unwanted and opportunistic suitors that descended after her father’s death, she takes her sizeable inheritance and sets off on a journey to explore the world.

She never gets past Egypt.

When she stops to tour Amarna, she and her companion, Evelyn, learn that the archaeologist Evelyn loves–and his infuriating brother, Emerson–have been hit with a fever. In the course of nursing (the ungrateful) Emerson back to health, Amelia gets swept up in a thrilling mystery involving a (seemingly) animated mummy that will draw her closer to her one true love (Egypt) and the man that unfortunately seems to meet her at every turn.

One if my favorite, favorite book series ever, Amelia Peabody starts out as Victorian romantic suspense, through later books fall solidly in the mystery category. Intentionally over the top, and an inevitable page turner, this is a great, classic read for anyone who loves mystery with a dash of romance or romance with a dash of mystery.

A SPY IN THE HOUSE by Y.S. Lee

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Mary Yang should have been hanged. She would have been–in fact–had the headmistresses of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls not been interested in her promising skills and personality. Because more than an Academy, Miss Scrimshaw’s is a cover for a feminist spy ring called the Agency. And at 17, Mary (now under the pseudonym of Mary Quinn) is ready for her first assignment. She infiltrates the household of wealthy merchant as a companion for his vapid daughter in the hopes of finding clues as to the whereabouts of missing cargo ships. It is supposed to be an easy job for a beginning agent. But Mary and her supervisors didn’t count on the presence of a charismatic (and persistent) young man. Or on the fact that this particular job has a connection to Mary’s long-buried past….

A fun Victorian mystery with crossover appeal for teens and adults, A SPY IN THE HOUSE is the first in THE AGENCY series. Lee has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture, and her credentials show in her meticulous world-building. Recommend to readers who (like me!) enjoy a touch of romance in their mysteries.

DAMSEL by Elana K Arnold

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It is Emory’s destiny to kill a dragon and rescue a damsel. Without achieving this task, he cannot become king. Though Emory does not feel ready when his father dies, he has no choice but to travel to the gray land and hunt a dragon and its damsel. He succeeds on his quest, and rides home triumphant, his damsel before him in the saddle. But the damsel has no memory of the event. She has no memories at all before waking on Emory’s horse. He assures her that he “saved her,” informs her that she is to be his bride, and gives her the name “Ama.” But Ama is not sure how she feels about this hunter, her savior. And as she struggles to fit into the roles prescribe to her, she begins to wonder about her past and whether or not she has any control over her future.

I would not necessarily call this novel YA. Not that teen readers couldn’t enjoy it, certainly, and I’m sure many do, but it read more like adult allegorical fantasy to me. Regardless of your age, be warned of graphic violence and abuse (sexual, emotional, physical).

Because of the allegorical nature of the story, the “twist” is very obvious from early on, and so what drives the plot forward is not a question of where Ama came from/what “mysterious” past she has forgotten, and more the suspense of not knowing exactly how it will end. (I mean, we can hope that Ama will find a happy or at least less-miserable ending, but we don’t know what that will be.) Though there’s an old quip that the purpose of a novel is to create a compelling main character and then find the best ways to torture him/her/them, this novel is particularly torturous. Ama is forced to suffer until she must break one way or the other–either become a rabbit or a cat, as one character puts it.

I think the key to enjoying this novel would be first to savor the gorgeous prose. And second to remember that it is allegory. All characters are (I believe intentionally) underdeveloped. The point of the novel is to turn fairytale traditions on their heads (especially the trope of the prince earning a maiden’s “hand” in marriage by “saving her,” often by some form of sexual/romantic act like a kiss or–as in the original Sleeping Beauty fairytale–rape), and with this purpose in mind it’s the symmetry of actions that becomes important. Predator/prey relationships feature throughout with human characters (Ama in particular) switching between the two groups. There are some reviewers who have felt the ending is arbitrary. I disagree. I won’t spoil it (insofar as it isn’t obvious) but the groundwork is laid for the specific moment even before Emory fights the dragon at the beginning. Again, it’s all about the parallels in this story. Hunter and hunted. Predator and prey.

As much as I do believe the book is well-written, I cannot think of a teenager to whom I would recommend it. I’m not saying that teen isn’t out there, but I’d have to know for certain that she/he/they were not a survivor of sexual violence or abuse of any kind. Full disclosure, I had to stop about 1/2 of the way through and just skimmed to the ending because the graphic violence and (particularly the emotional) abuse was too much for me. And while I know that some books are more disturbing to adults than to children because we bring a different set of experiences to them (e.g. The Giver as traumatizing for parents but not for kids who don’t have babies of their own), that is not the case with this novel. Arnold intends all readers to be deeply disturbed; if you’re not disturbed, you missed the point. It’s a well-crafted book, but proceed with caution–especially when recommending it to others.