Review: Assembly by Natasha Brown

Assembly is a sharp, vignette-style novella that follows a young, black, and unnamed protagonist who is disillusioned by her life. On the surface, she is living the dream: she’s making good money at her job at a bank, she recently bought her own apartment, and she’s in a relationship. But underneath, she feels like she’s performing in every aspect of her life. She’s also hiding a dark secret.

If you like slow, literary, and character-driven stories with commentary on race, class, and the corporate world, you should think about picking up Assembly. It really feels like the unraveling of life that’s perfect on the surface. In my opinion it was a little too short and I wanted to learn more about the protagonist, but it will make you think about a lot of societal issues and evaluate your own life and choices.

I’d love recommendations for other culturally relevant, slim fiction like this one!

Review: The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova

A hardcover copy stands on a bookshelf next to a tea tumbler and a candle.

Alexis:

If you’re looking for a magical realism story that blends an Ecuadorian version of Encanto with certain aspects of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, then this is the book for you!

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is a family saga. It has two separate timelines. One timeline follows Orquídea, the grandmother and matriarch of the Montoya family, who immigrated to the United States. The other follows her grandchildren, specifically Marimar, Rey, and Tatinelly. 

The first half is very slow moving, taking its time to introduce the setting, a small town called Four Rivers, and its characters. Córdova’s writing is beautiful and lush, and strange at times. Her voice is perfect for magical realism.

At its core, despite being a family saga, this book is a mystery. What happened to Orquídea when she was younger that made her so mysterious? Where did her magic come from? 

This is not a book to be binged. It’s a book to take in slowly. You have to take time to take everything in and appreciate the weird magical moments, like magical flowers growing from bodies, ghosts, a river monster, and an old zombie rooster named Gabo that keeps coming back to life. 

My main critique is that while I like slow-moving stories, it took me a while to get invested in the characters, and there was also a character death towards the end that I think could’ve been handled better.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is both hilarious and tragic, and I especially enjoyed getting to know Marimar and Rey. If you like family sagas and magical realism, then I think you’ll like this one. 

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5 /5 

Review: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Anna: Fun fact, I took this picture with my husband’s phone because I lost mine playing with my dog in the snow and then found it a week later (and somehow it still works)!

Small Things Like These is a short, satisfying novella about doing the right thing. This was the perfect book to read in the snow- it’s set in the days leading up to Christmas in a small town in Ireland. Bill Furlong is a coal merchant, and he’s hardworking, respected, and essential to the town. He loves his wife and five daughters and is proud of the life he’s built for him. But when delivering coal, he discovers a dark secret hidden in the town’s covenant and his whole worldview is challenged.  

This book is about how difficult it can be to make one small decision that you know to be the right one when everyone around you encourages you to ignore it. It’s about the hypocrisy of people who call themselves Christians yet do horrible things, and about the Catholic church’s complete control over a community.

Maybe this book is a little predictable, but it’ll give you exactly what you want from it.

Review: Among Thieves by M.J. Kuhn

A copy of Among Thieves rests on a gray blanket next to a candle and a dilute calico cat.

Alexis:

Among Thieves was actually the last book I read in 2021!

It’s a heist novel set in a dark, gritty world. We follow many POVs, but all of the characters are working for Callum Clem, the leader of the Saints gang. In this world, there are magical people called Adepts who are brainwashed and owned as slaves by the people in power.

There were many aspects of this book that I loved. Kuhn’s writing, and writing style, is great. She writes great descriptions, and she describes people especially well. Each time we meet a new character, we get a very Dickensen description, so that we not only know what the character physically looks like, but we get a sense of what each person is actually like, as well. 

The banter is fun and quick. The magic system is interesting and feels different from other magic systems. 

But there were a couple of things that kept me from being fully invested in the story.

  1. Cursing is realistic in adult fantasies like these, but I often felt like Kuhn could have been a little more choosy about where she inserted swear words, and it would’ve made more of an impact. Instead, the amount of cursing tended to pull me out of the story.
  2. The worldbuilding was thrown at you. I had a hard time getting through the first 100 pages because my brain was trying to play catch up, all while reading from multiple new POVs.
  3. And finally…I wanted a map. I know this is a small thing, but a map definitely would’ve helped me imagine the world a little better.

Overall, this was a fun read. I think if you like heist novels like Six of Crows but are looking for an adult version with a full cast of characters, then you might like this.

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐.5 /5 

Review: Bewilderness by Karen Tucker

Anna: Starting 2022 strong! I loved this book.

Irene and her best friend, Luce, live in a small town in North Carolina. They work as servers and have been sober for nearly a year. But that night, something happens with Luce’s boyfriend, Wilky, that sends them spiraling back into using. The narrative is structured by a dual timeline, so we get to go back see their entire journey with addiction from the start, including the big breaking point that made them first became sober.

Bewilderness is a dark story about substance abuse, addiction, and the cycles of addiction. On the surface this is an important, cautionary tale: addiction kills. But at its core it’s about the complex friendship between Irene and Luce, and how their relationship changes and is tested over the years. And the writing is beautiful. Bewilderness is perfectly paced, it’s heartbreaking, and I couldn’t put it down. If you liked Marlena by Julie Buntin, I think you should check this one out. 

I also learned so much about addiction, the path to sobriety, and just how hard it is to stay clean. I encourage you to check out Karen Tucker’s website and read some of her interviews to learn more.

Trigger warnings: Addiction & drug use 

Review: Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer

A pink gloved hand holds up the bright green cover of Into the Heartless Wood in front of a snowy backyard and fenceline.

Alexis:

I finished my first book of the year on the first snow day!

Into the Heartless Wood follows Owen, a 17-year-old burgeoning astronomer who lives with his father and baby sister. They live by the edge of the woods, where a witch and her tree siren daughters, who lure humans to their deaths, live…and where Owen lost his own mother. 

But when the witch’s youngest siren daughter, who calls herself Seren, finds herself saving Owen’s life instead of ending it, their lives become intertwined. 

Everyone knows I’m a sucker for a book that focuses on creepy woods. And this book had all of the elements I was looking for: atmospheric vibes, lyrical writing, and dual POVs.

The story is both beautiful and brutal. Happy and sorrowful. The ending was tragic, yet I loved it! It’s slow-paced, and the writing is dreamy and full of beautiful forest imagery. Seren’s POV is written in verse, and I thought it worked really well for her character.

My only main critique is that I wish Owen and Seren had a bit more chemistry on the page. It’s also worth noting that even though I tend to gravitate towards slower-paced novels, the main plot didn’t appear until halfway through.

Despite this, I really enjoyed this one, and it was the perfect read for a snow day paired with a mug of hot chocolate.

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

Anna’s Favorite Books of 2021

It’s that time of year again! That time when we start thinking about everything we read in the past year—what we loved, hated, and everything in between. This year, I revolutionized my reading by keeping a reading journal within my bullet journal. I kept notes there on each book I read. I found that this helped me internalize each book, think critically about the plot and writing style, and more clearly remember the books I read throughout the year. 

Looking back on my reading in 2021, here’s what I found:

My top genres were mystery and thriller, which I’ve never read much of before this year. Many of my favorite books of the year fall into this genre, including my favorite series of the year, Tana French’s The Dublin Murder Squad and Anthony Horowitz’s Susan Ryeland’s series. In contrast, I also read some really bad thrillers and came to the conclusion I prefer crime/murder mysteries over physiological thrillers. We’ll see if this genre sticks!

I didn’t read much nonfiction at all, coming in with one essay collection, Disability Visibility, and just one memoir, Flesh and Blood by N. West Moss. I love memoirs, especially, so that’s something I want to read more of again in 2022!

Let’s get to the best books I read this year, by genre but in no particular order:

Literary Fiction

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott

Summary: In a world divided by a coup, climate disaster rages. The Rain Heron follows different characters as they try to survive as well as the appearance of a mythical rain hero. 

Dystopian; environmental; climate control; lyrical; magical realism 

If you like: Abby Geni & books like Severance 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Summary: Silvie’s dad is an Ancient Britain/Iron Age enthusiast. He forces his family to spend 2 weeks a year living in the woods with an Archeology class and professor. This year, things change.

Favorite Quote: “Without a house, it occurred to me, it is much harder to restrict a women’s movement. Harder for a man to restrain a woman.” – page 59 

This coming-of-age novel manages to have a conversation about misogyny and abuse in so little pages. 

Content Warnings: Physical & Emotional Abuse 

 

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh 

Summary: Three sisters grow up on an isolated island with their father and mother. They’ve been told the outside world isn’t safe, and they are made to perform horrible experiments on each other. When men arrive from the outside world, they realize their parents might not be telling the truth.

Content Warnings: Sexual, Emotional & Physical Abuse

If you like: The Handmaid’s Tale

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Summary: This is a fictionalized account of William Shakespeare’s family and the death of his son, Hamnet, during the Black Plague.

Warning: This book will make you cry. I loved the magical element and creative liberties O’Farrell took with Shakespeare’s history. 

Content Warnings: Death; Grief

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Summary: Lifelong friends and penpals Eileen and Alice live very different lives. One is a wealthy, successful author post-mental health collapse and the other has been stuck in the same job for years. When they finally decide to visit each other, tensions mount. 

Don’t come at me, Sally Rooney haters. No one writes characters, dialogue, and life like Sally Rooney. This is a beautiful novel about mental health, fame, and how friendships change over time.

Thriller & Mystery 

The Likeness by Tana French

Summary: When a woman named Lexie is found dead, Detective Cassie Maddox, who looks just like her, goes undercover as Lexie.

This is my favorite of the Dublin Murder Squad books so far and has dark academia elements.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Summary: Drawing Master Walter Hartright teaches art at an estate and becomes intrigued by a crime and the mysterious presence of a woman in white. 

This massive book is surprisingly readable and reminded me of my love for Victiorian fiction. 

Like all Victorian fiction, there are themes of madness, surveillance, and lack of women’s agency in society. 

Northern Spy by Flynn Berry

Summary: Tessa’s word unravels when she finds out her sister is a member of the IRA. 

This is a twisty novel about family, loyalty, and lies that helped contextualize the conflict in Ireland for me.

The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James

Summary: Carly drops out of college and travels to the haunted town of Fell, New York to investigate the disappearance of her Aunt Viv 20 years earlier.

There are some really terrifying ghost scenes in this, but this is ultimately one of the most heartwarming thrillers I’ve ever read.

Content Warnings: Sexual abuse

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Summary: A woman, Cecily, disappears from Branlow Hall and the answer is hidden in a book by the late mystery writer Alan Conway. The family asks his ex-editor, Susan Ryeland, to find Cecily. 

This book-within-a-book may be even better than the first book in this series! The plotting and double mystery is so cleverly written. 

Young Adult

Yolk by Mary H.W. Choi

Summary: Jayne moves from Texas to New York for college and to flee from her first generation Korean parents. There she reunites with her older sister, June, who reveals she has cancer.

This is one of the most intense and emotional books I’ve ever read. Unlike other tear-jerker YA books that deal with cancer very badly, Yolk treats it with respect. 

Content Warnings: Cancer; Eating Disorders

The Valley and the Flood by Rebecca Mahoney

Summary: Following the death of her best friend, Rose struggles with PTSD. One day, trying to escape her grief, she ends up in a strange town that she can’t leave. 

Warning: You won’t have a clue what’s going on for the first 100 pages or so, but this book is so creative, emotional, and interesting that you’ll want to keep reading. It’s all one big metaphor for PTSD. 

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

Summary: In a futuristic world destroyed by climate change, Kasey searches for her lost sister, Cee. 

This book asks big questions about science and humanity, such as, if we don’t act to save the world now, when will we? And, when will we hold big polluters responsible? But at the center of all this is the complicated relationship between two sisters. 

The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold

Summary: A group of kids try to survive a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by flu flies. 

I loved everything about this book. It’s about sacrifice, found family, hope, survival, and it had a huge twist that blew my mind.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danworth

Summary: Dual timelines one-hundred years apart follow creepy happenings and strange deaths at The Brookhants School for Girls. 

Admittedly this book could have been a lot shorter, but this sapphic mystery includes some of the best characterization I’ve ever read in YA.

The River Has Teeth by Erica Waters

Summary: When Natasha’s sister Rochelle disappears, she turns to the witchy girl, Della, who lives by the woods where she went missing.

Set in rural Tennessee, this is a really atmospheric and original fantasy/mystery with LGBTQ+ rep.

Fantasy 

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Summary: A fantasy based on Pre-Columbian American mythology. 

This is a complex, perfectly paced fantasy that follows multiple characters. One of the biggest problems I usually have with fantasy as an adult is the length, and this book didn’t lag for one second. Black Sun ended on a huge cliffhanger, and I can’t wait for the sequel. 

Middle Grade

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus

Summary: When orphaned siblings Anna, Edmund, and William are forced to leave London during World War II, they make a pact to find a new family in the countryside. Instead, they’re placed with several horrible families. Their only solace: the library . 

If you liked: The War that Saved My Life

I binged this cozy middle grade treasure in one sitting. This is a great story about found family, the tenacity of children, and how books can save lives. 

Happy reading! I’m excited to see what 2022 brings and hope that everyone has a great year, reading wise and otherwise.

Alexis’ Top 10 Books of 2021

Alexis:

I say this every year, but I can’t believe this year is already over!

Thanks to graduating from grad school and staying inside because of the pandemic, I read a total of 82 books this year, an all-time record for me.

In no particular order, here are my top 10 reads of 2021.

Forestborn ⁣by Elayne Audrey Becker
Kingdom of the Cursed ⁣by Kerri Maniscalco
The Wolf and The Woodsman ⁣by Ava Reid
Defy the Night ⁣by Brigid Kemmerer
The Bone Shard Daughter ⁣by Andrea Stewart
The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart⁣
Under the Whispering Door ⁣by TJ Klune
For the Wolf ⁣by Hannah F. Whitten
Legendborn ⁣by Tracy Deonn
The Infinity Courts by Akemi Dawn Bowman

I have some really great books lined up for 2022. There are so many new books coming out that look amazing, but I have some older series on my tbr list, too.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Review: A Far Wilder Magic by Allison Saft

A Kindle with the cover of A Far Wilder Magic is being held in front of a Christmas present and Christmas tree.

Alexis:

Thanks so much to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press & Wednesday Books for my e-ARC of A Far Wilder Magic!

The story follows two characters: Margaret and Weston. Margaret lives in a small town, where an event called the Halfmoon Hunt is happening soon. The hunt is for the hala, a magical fox. And while Margaret owns a hound named Trouble, she needs an alchemist in order to enter the hunt.

Weston, or Wes, is desperate for an apprenticeship as an alchemist. He travels to Margaret’s town in order to appease Margaret’s mother, a famed alchemist, to become her apprentice. But Margaret’s mother isn’t there, and Wes finds himself joining the hunt with Margaret.

There were so many elements of this book that I loved. Saft’s writing is atmospheric and lovely, with a dash of creepy when describing the woods and the hala’s dark presence. 

The story has dual POVs, which I always love, and it’s character-driven. What I really appreciated about this book is that both Wes and Margaret are flawed characters. They feel very real, and their motivations feel very real, because of this. Wes is boisterous and utterly charming, but he’s also a swaggering womanizer. Margaret, on the other hand, is strong and stubborn, but she’s a recluse due to her absent parents, and is unwilling to let anyone in.

Their personalities are foils of each other—grumpy and sunshine—and I found that it worked well alongside their shared feeling of being outsiders. Both of them struggle against discrimination and ostracization. 

I thought the slow-burn romance was well done. However, I will say I went into this expecting it to be YA, and while it definitely feels like YA, there are a couple of scenes, while not spicy, that do veer more towards NA. It’s just something to keep in mind when going into this or recommending it to teens.

My only critique is that the worldbuilding very closely mirrors our world in the 1920s. The city is a thinly veiled New York. The religions are almost carbon copies of Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism. I almost wanted this to be a true historical fantasy set in the 1920s, or the worldbuilding to stray a little farther from the real world. That being said, I think Saft handled the main theme of xenophobia/antsemtisim well.

I really enjoyed this one, and if you like flawed and dynamic characters, character-driven stories, romantic fantasies, and atmospheric reads, then I think you’ll enjoy it!

Pub day: March 8, 2022

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5

TW: Antisemitism, animal injury and death, gore, parental neglect, panic attacks, nationalism and xenophobia

Review: The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart

Alexis:

The Bone Shard Emperor is the sequel to The Bone Shard Daughter, one of my favorite reads from earlier this year. 

Like the first book, it follows 5 POVs: Lin, Jovis, Phalue, Ranami, and Sand/Nisong. Jovis is still my favorite, as well as his talking, bonded otter-like creature named Mephi. But I felt like I got to know Lin’s character better, as well.

I love how Stewart began to reveal more of the world’s history, as well as the mystery surrounding Mephi and some other characters. 

Also like the first book, this was a 5-star read for me. However, I don’t think it was quite as well done as the first. Phalue and Ranami get even less page time in the book, so I found myself not caring about their characters as much as I wanted to. 

But my biggest critique is that there was also a romantic storyline that, while had potential and made sense from a logical viewpoint, didn’t quite work for me. The characters just didn’t have any chemistry on the page.

Despite moving at a slow pace, I love Stewart’s writing, and I love her worldbuilding, and I never felt bored; I was always drawn into the story. 

However, I especially loved the last quarter of the book. A lot of interesting developments are happening, and based on the great ending, I’m excited to see where the third and final book takes the story!

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐