Witchy fall vibes, sapphic love, and a cute cozy town atmosphere collide in this fun rom-com. And it's the start of a series!
A short reader disclaimer: So first off, I have to SINCERELY apologize to the publisher, as I messed up and did not review this book in a timely manner despite having an early digital copy. In general, I've struggled a lot more with ARC reviews this past year due to a lot of upheaval in my personal life, but that's not this book's fault or the publishers so please keep that in mind.
On to the review!
So, did you ever watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Halloweentown, or those other adorable witchy vibe tv shows and wish they had a lot more lesbian action and just a gooey romantic plot arc?? Payback's a Witch is the novel for you.
The magical town of Thistle Grove has been the home of several powerful witch families for generations—including the Harlow family. Emmy Harlow thinks that her family's line isn't exactly prestigious or on the same level as the others, but it's still their claim to fame and Emmy's the reluctant heir of the situation.
The catch is, Emmy fled Thistle Grove years ago due to some unfortunate angst and hasn't been back to her home town in quite some time.
When she does come back for the all-important tournament that requires all of the Thistle Grove witch family heirs to be present, Emmy is met with something new: the enigmatic and wickedly devious Talia Avramov, one of the other family heirs and a reluctant partner-in-arms.
Will Emmy and Talia intertwine as they work together to bring down their mutual ex, Gareth, or will tensions collide?
Ok y'all, this was super cute. I do regret missing out on the opportunity to read this in the fall, when the vibes would have been immaculate, but this did give me a wonderful dose of the season anyway. Payback's a Witch was clever, funnier than I expected it to be, and filled with a lot of small town shenanigans.
I had some small quibbles with the pacing and lack of real stakes—it was a bit too quaint for me, a little less dramatic angst than I tend to like in my romances—but overall I do think it was a wonderful and fun rom-com to spend an afternoon reading.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
The 1960s, Greek islands, a young girl on the cusp of artistic pursuits and adulthood, and a saturated look at men and women colliding together.
Sense of place: ★★★★★
Erica's a fresh-faced young woman from London who's just arrived on Hydra, one of the picturesque Greek islands haunted by the rich, artistic, and beautiful. Its 1960, bohemia is all the rage, sexuality and the artistic are colliding together in various ways. It's heady days, and a heady setting.
A Theater for Dreamers follows Erica's journey into this rich tapestry of desires, art, lush settings, and mired interpersonal relationships. For us readers, it's an interesting blend of fact and fiction too—Leonard Cohen's real life persona meets a fictional group of folks in this window into the past. It's fantastically described, enviously set in a beautiful location, and classically portrayed through the eyes of our young and naïve protagonist.
I am, admittedly, a weird audience for this book. Every once in a while I like to step out of my reading comfort zone, if you will, and try things setting in different genres and settings. Historical fiction and destination locations/summer reads are not usually my cup of tea, so I think my rating reflects the fact that this isn't my usual read.
I found Erica to be an enjoyable main character to follow, if a bit annoyingly naïve. (I find this is often the case though with this kind of setup, so let's call it part of the territory.) Her fresh eyes experiencing this kind of sweltering landscape of sensual politics and artists in collision was extremely well done. Even though we've seen this story before, I thought it was done well.
I will say the novel lost me a bit with its sheer number of descriptions and meandering prose. I'm a "get to the point" type of reader unless it's a special case (usually in the fantasy realm) so I found myself getting frustrated with the paragraph to paragraph pacing. But do take that with the reviewer's grain of salt—I think this prose will work beautifully for those who love historical fiction/beach reads.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Stunning. These stories are raw, unresolved, crystalline, and opaque at the same time. The words ache with talent.
Emotional resonance: ★★★★★
Strength of collection: ★★★★
First off, a short callout to Call Number Box (pun intended) for bringing this short story collection to my attention. Call Number Box is a quarterly book subscription that focuses on new Black literature and is curated with a very cool librarian vibe (we get call numbers, library stickers, etc.).
On to the collection now. Milk Blood Heat was, to put it simply, stunning. I don't have much more to say on the subject without rambling endlessly, so instead, enjoy some short thoughts on each of the stories:
Milk Blood Heat - 5 stars
A heavy opener. Two girls turn 13, become blood sisters despite their skin color. Only one girl makes it through, and she's left to pick apart the duality of life.
Feast - 5 stars
This one is definitely a trigger warning: avoid it if you have sensitivity for miscarriages and bodily discussions. One woman can't move on from an early miscarriage and her obsession consumes her.
Tongues - 4.5 stars
Tackling the patriarchal nonsense at the heart of hardcore Christianity, this is another coming-of-age story packed with teeth. Shivers abound from some of those lines.
The Loss of Heaven - 4 stars
Fred is an aging man. Fred thinks he is important and that the flirting bartender authentically cares for him—it helps him avoid thoughts of his dying wife. Fred is wrong. This was a longer story and while excellent, I have to be honest, I wish this collection had been entirely female.
The Hearts of Our Enemies - 5 stars
Mothers and daughters, both realizing that the other is just a woman, making choices in a man's world filled with snakes.
Outside the Raft - 3 stars
This one was my personal least favorite of the bunch. It's a survival story of two young girls in a deadly moment on the water, and while well-told it wasn't memorable in this all-star collection.
Snow - 4.5 stars
I feel conflicted about this one. Maybe it's because I've been there before - a woman unsatisfied in her circumstance... but is she actually unsatisfied, or is she just in need of a reality check?
Necessary Bodies - 5 stars
This one was a PUNCH. A woman is pregnant, she hasn't told her mother, and she's ruminating her ultimate choices as she plans her mother's birthday party. I loved the ending.
Thicker Than Water - 4.5 stars
Obviously this collection is filled with heavy topics, so this initial road trip story is much darker than it first appears—and the beginning is already pretty grim. I liked it for its complexities, I disliked it for its complexities. Strong emotions.
Exotics - not rated
Commentary on the dehumanization of society from the eyes of the "elite." Another one with some chills, albeit small ones as this story was so short.
[Last story, which I have forgotten] - unrated
I'm typing this up away from my copy, and I've forgotten this one. Will update the review when I can.
Yes, I loved it just as much as the first one. Happiness is an Ali Hazelwood book.
Love on the Brain comes out on August 23!
There is no better way to start this review than by using what the book's description starts with:
Like an avenging, purple-haired Jedi bringing balance to the mansplained universe, Bee Königswasser lives by a simple code: What would Marie Curie do?
And with that, that's almost all you need to know about Love on the Brain, with the added information that this is an exquisite enemies-to-lovers romance with a dose of lighthearted angst—and absolutely jam-packed with bonkers humor.
Bee and Levi are ENEMIES. This is known. In grad school, Levi made it extremely clear that he couldn't stand the sight of Bee and made it his mission to avoid her at all possible costs. Bee never really understood how she came to acquire an arch nemesis, but she rolled with it and life moved on. They both graduated and Bee thought she'd never see Levi again.
But of course, life has a funny way of dealing with your expectations.
When the opportunity of the lifetime lands in Bee's lap—working for NASA as their lead neuroscientist for a cool project—Bee is over the moon! This is it! Her dream, coming true! What could go wrong!
Well, Levi is listed as the engineering co-lead to the project. That is definitely a wrinkle.
Can these two scientists become more than nemesis?
Y'ALL. I thought The Love Hypothesis was in danger of being a one-hit wonder. It was too funny, too lovable, and too tailored to that perfect blend of steamy romance and plot. It was perfect—and how often do we get multiple perfects in a row with an author? It was the perfect storm of all of my favorite things and I thought to myself "there's now way that Ali Hazelwood can match herself with the next book."
Well, I'm eating my hat today. Hazelwood matched her energy with this one and then some--Love on the Brain was everything I wanted it to be and yet also, somehow, still fresh. How she managed to take a similar STEM-based setup and bring new feelings, scenarios, and characters to the table baffles my mind, but I digress. This was 10/10, my sweet cinnamon roll, the peanut butter to The Love Hypothesis' jelly, the answer to our Science! hetero romance dreams.
Read it, love it, and then come back here and rant to me about it because I would love that.
Bring on the next one, Ali!!
Thank you to Berkley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
I think the concepts, representation, and emotional journeys were all top tier. I laughed out loud a lot and absolutely loved the side characters with all of my soul. But I must say, the actual plot and pacing were dull by comparison.
Representation: all of the stars
Viola Carroll is finally living the the life she's always wanted. When Waterloo and the war gives her the perfect opportunity to disappear for good and start a new, true life for herself as Viola, she runs with it and never looks back.
But Viola's past has not fully escaped her, and one of the people from her past haunts her still. Her childhood best friend, Justin Gracewood, needs help.
The Duke of Gracewood is in mourning for his lost best friend. He blames himself for the loss, the war, and for his disability returning from the warfront. Gracewood is slipping into an opium dependency and a depression with no light in sight. Things are dire.
When Viola learns of Gracewood's distress, she and her sister-in-law, the Lady Marleigh, decide to intervene. Viola knows she's playing with fire—how long can she hide her very-much-alive presence from her oldest friend?—but the choice is a done deal. She is going to help Gracewood no matter the cost.
But Viola's new ability to explore life as her true womanly self has opened up yet another wrinkle when it comes to Gracewood: she can no longer ignore the fact that her feelings for him are considerably more than friendly.
Will these two old friends see past themselves and achieve an ideal form of happiness?
Quaint, happy, and filled with heart, A Lady for a Duke is a shining example of a new type of inclusive historical romance.
Let's start this reaction off with some honesty: I am very conflicted about my star rating of this review.
On the one hand, I want to support this title and showcase how happy I am to see it exist, see it hold such a positive and happy storyline, and see it receive a wide readership. Squeals all around, this was adorable and wonderful and I felt all of the feelings.
On the other hand, I have to discuss the significant flaws in this novel's pacing, plot construction, and overall sense of boringness due to its drawn out pacing and lackluster scenes.
This novel is almost 500 pages long... and it feels like it. Cute scenes of emotional honesty between Viola and Justin were awesome and I loved them, but after the 200 page mark it became painfully obvious that we as readers were going to basically experience the same variant of the same type of emotional scene over and over again. Viola and Justin have barely any drama—which was good for the health of their relationship—but it did lead to a lack of opportunity for newness in their dialogue and interactions. Justin reassures Viola about X, Viola reassures Justin about Y....wash and repeat. So many of their scenes could have been remixed into any spot in the plot and been completely fine, that's how identical in tone and importance they were.
The only spot of freshness in this story did not come from the main characters at all—it came from the side characters, Lady Marleigh (sister-in-law to Viola) and Lady Gracewood (Justin's younger sister). They were doing fresh things in this story, thank goodness, and Justin and Viola got to semi-react to those events throughout the novel. But that did make for awkward reading in a romance subniche that tends to rely on its main characters to provide the agency in a story.
Definitely a conflict, and frankly a good one to have as again, the fact that this book is here at all on the bookshelves in the store is a wonderful thing. I'm glad this book exists and that I can quibble over its issues—but as a reviewer I do still need to highlight them.
Eagerly looking forward to more fresh stories in the historical romance canon to join this one on the shelves.
A witty duo, the 1940s with a modern edge, and a whole lotta mystery. If you read anything remotely related to cozy mysteries or dynamic female duos being badasses, you NEED to have this on your radar.
It's the mid-1940s in New York City and Willowjean "Will" Parker is working as night shift muscle for an abandoned construction site. Will's always looking for cash in between circus gigs, and this one pays as well as anything. (And Will knows how to handle herself.)
What Will isn't expecting, however, is to witness Lillian Pentecost in action. Middle-aged, wielding an elegant cane for her multiple sclerosis (M.S.), and dressed in an impeccable tailored suit, Ms. Pentecost is here to catch a killer and completely unbothered by Will's presence.
Will ends up killing said murderer—with a throwing knife to the back—for Ms. Pentecost's sake.
The dynamic duo is born.
Months later, Will and Ms. Pentecost are the best private detectives in the game, with cases spanning from the mundane to the spectacular. And this time, it's a classic locked-room mystery that's piqued their interest. A rich man dies, supposedly by suicide. A year later, his widow dies in a locked room after a disturbing séance.
Are the two deaths connected, and if so, are they murders?
This was so. much. fun. I can't state that enough. For one thing, it's rare to find a cozy mystery series that packs a punch at every single level. Engaging characters? Check. Engaging plot beyond the basics? Check. Authentic bisexual representation? Check. Intricate world-building beyond the murder? Check. Humor for days? Check.
Fortune Favors the Dead had it ALL, folks. I am in love with these characters and their adventures. I hope the author writes many, many more to come. Do yourself a solid and pick this up, I promise you won't regret it.
Previous fans of Rory Power are in for an adjustment, and the rest are also in for an interesting time. This adult fantasy was a combination of intense setup, rich worldbuilding, uneven pacing, and a unique sense of character. I feel mixed about it...but at the end of the day, positive? I'll do my best to unpack my feelings here.
Sense of place: ★★★
Pacing: ★★ for the first half, higher for the second half
Character arcs: ★★ 1/2
Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
Twins Rhea and Lexos have grown up over the course of a century with a unique set of powers. As a part of this world's ruling class of elite families, the twins' father, Baba, owns several of the world's various magical gifts and has bequeathed them to his children as needed. Rhea controls the passing of the seasons with her seasonal consort sacrifices, while Lexos stitches the constellations in the night sky each night and handles the ocean's tides.
In their seat of power, the twins, Baba, and their two younger siblings have ruled their small territory with an iron fist for over a century. The magical gifts of each ruling family pass along to subsequent family members in a patriarchal line of succession—unless someone comes along and murders the whole family and takes the gifts for himself—like Baba did.
This mythic and heavily Greek-inspired fable feels epic in scope from the start, with one sibling painting the colors of the garden to color in the plants of the realm and another building mechanical animals that manifest as real beings elsewhere. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for this world's grasp of magic. High concepts of magic are at their best here.
Rhea and Lexos are the heart of this novel. Their two points of view carry us through this sprawling epic of political intrigue, toxic families, and cultural influences. A serious dose of ancient Greek carries through into the political structure of this novel—and by serious, I mean SERIOUS, as a non-Greek academic I found this element unnecessarily confusing to grasp—while in other aspects of this novel popular book concepts peek out from the shadows in some of the side adventures and softer plot sides.
It's an interesting story set in a very confusing world and tied to a classic twist on a basic plot: how far will you go for family, and when do you choose yourself?
Ultimately, I found In A Garden Burning Gold to be a confusing mesh of too much and too little at the same time.
Too much: Reliance on the reader's knowledge of Greek influence. As mentioned above, if you are not familiar with the political intricacies of ancient Greek systems, the first half of the book is unnecessarily confusing and puts you immediately on the back foot. It also makes the first half of the book an absolute slog, as that half is almost entirely setup and politics. The author does work on explaining it for the average reader, but it was hard and I was aware that I was missing a few tricks right off the top. An unfortunately frustrating element for me.
Too little: Sense of authenticity in the family interactions. This is not a spoiler for significant events, but I will say that for siblings who have coexisted with each other in their family estate for almost 100 years, they do not feel like it. They don't understand each other, there are fundamental divides in their ability to communicate on even the basest of levels. They are also 100% reliant on their relationship with their toxic father to dictate how they interact with each other. It felt like no other family dynamic I've ever seen (positive or negative) and it made the family seem more like distant relatives that happened to be cohabitating as opposed to actual flesh and blood siblings. Siblings know each other, regardless of how the parent tries to manipulate the relationship(s). Even if its a toxic vibe, siblings know each other.
I also struggled with some of the plot reveals and character arcs, if I'm honest. Rhea's naivety bothered me, Lexos' inability to separate his sense of worth from his father and their family status seemed static and only gained dynamism toward the end. This is clearly a story that is going somewhere, and I can feel it's going to be epic, but given our starting point the entry into the world was a harder read to enjoy.
The ending was fantastic though... I think book two is going to rise from the foundations of this one with a lot of improvement given where we finally got our characters to be. Looking forward to continuing.
Thank you to Del Rey for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
An ominous, snail-paced crawl to the finish line with a lot of hidden horror and an ambiguously dark ending. This was interesting, but soooo not for me. (Take the star rating with a grain of salt.)
First off, I'd like to say that my low rating is 100% tied to my personal feelings for this novel's content and my general reading experience. I think, like most horror novels, how we respond to content warnings and plot points are very much dependent on individual reader preferences—and it's hard to know what you're getting into without spoiling yourself to a book's contents. Sundial was one of those reads for me—if I'd known where the plot was going to go when I started reading, I would have passed on it. (For that reason, I think some people who aren't excited by the book's pitch but do like certain horror tropes would love this book. But they'll have a hard time learning that without knowing details beforehand. A conundrum that often exists in this genre. )
But hey, we're here now, and I am going to do my best to sell this very well-told story that did not work for me, personally.
Rob's life as a suburban mom of two daughters looks great on the surface. Her husband has money and is respected, her job is stable and conservatively appropriate, and her two daughters appear to be beautiful and normal.
This is a horror novel, so I'll stop there with how things "appear" to be.
Rob's hiding behind several of her secrets, and her husband, Irving, isn't much better. Come to think of it, her oldest daughter, Callie, and her youngest daughter, Annie, also have their secrets. This is a family bound in their silence and (badly) hiding behind the cracks.
The façade is crumbling, and Rob's about to realize that there's nothing she can do to reverse the damage—it's time to do damage control.
And for Rob, the only thing that makes sense is to return to the start of everything--Sundial.
An isolated compound in the middle of the Mojave desert, Sundial is where Rob grew up. It's an odd place—almost cult-like—with more scientific experiments and death than most of us can imagine. Her family is bizarre, her upbringing strange. Rob's childhood and its secrets lay buried in the dirt along with the truth.
Rob grabs her oldest daughter, Callie, and flees to Sundial to fix the problem. (What is the problem though, exactly? Is it what Rob thinks it is? Is it was Callie thinks it is? Is it even what we, the readers, think it is?)
Told through split POVS, split timelines, and interspersed with story entries of a fictional world, one thing is true for this novel—the story is never solid.
Sundial is a very interesting concept for a novel. It takes many pieces from other stories, and its display of the truth/reveals held a classic "twist" flavor to it that made sense when looking at the entire novel from a bird's eye view. (In practice, it led to a very frustrating reading experience.)
As the reader, I was so frustrated by the stilted, distanced gaze. All of these characters felt like they were permanently behind a glass wall—sounds and pictures came through just fine, but I could never forget that there was a wall between us. I was so aware of the story being a "story" the entire time.
I also think that without foreknowledge of the ending, the entire first half of the book feels like a snail crawl. I didn't know what was happening, not enough action was carrying me through the confused intro stage, and I was so aware of the metaphorical wall between character vs. reader that my connection to the characters didn't exist. There was nothing tying me to continuing this story beyond the sense of duty I had as a book reviewer to complete my read of an advance reader copy.
Personal issues aside, I do think Sundial excelled in its sense of place and setting. The desert compound that the book takes its title from is grounded in gritty realities and horrors that felt as real and oppressive as a desert heat. The horrors within this book had a unique backdrop in Sundial's sense of place, and the animal elements were different than other horror novels I've personally read. The unique factor is strong here—genre readers will no doubt appreciate that.
I think all fans of horror should consider picking this up, especially if my cons don't seem like cons above... this is definitely an interesting and unique entry into a genre that is brutally exacting in its demands for new content.
A window into a potential future, a commentary on our Earth's ecosystemic future, a murder mystery, and a story of motherhood all in one. Clean Air is hard to pin into one category. And that's not a bad thing at all.
Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
This one's a weird one. But worth a try for the right audience, and anyone who is interested in genre mashes.
Clean Air follows the story of Izabel, a stay-at-home mom, who lives in a bubble home. (Ok, technically an airtight dome around her property, but still.) Her husband, Kaito, works remotely with the robot technology that harvests food in this brave new world. Her young daughter, Cami, only knows this life. The future has come.
Humanity's climate-changing, disasterous ways finally led to a crisis: the trees revolted. Gradually, or not-so-gradually depending on who you ask, the trees began to produce a poisonous pollen in such large quantities that it began to wipe out humans. In large masses. This feels vaguely like a mixed metaphor of COVID and climate, but the author handled it pretty well.
Now, a much, MUCH smaller civilization of humanity eeks out a life in these bubble communities that exist to prevent exposure to the rest of the planet. It's almost idyllic, when you get past the sheer "OH MY GOD" of it all.
Everyone is happy, everyone is cared for, everyone if cohabiting...
Nothing will go wrong again, right?
Humans are totally, totally able to exist without fracturing in some way...right?
Sigh. Of course not.
When someone viciously punctures a hole in a family's bubble home one night, the entire family dies from the pollen exposure. It was a murder, and it had to have been done by one of the community members. And the murderer keeps doing it, and more people keep dying.
Izabel, our mom with no experience, turns into our amateur investigator as she realizes that if someone doesn't stop this murderer, they'll eventually get to her and her family. It quickly becomes a fixation for Izabel... and we're along for the ride.
I thought Clean Air did a ton of things really well--juggling a bunch of different genres, juxtaposing this future situation with our own, and highlighting the core tenants of humanity that remain no matter the year, or the situation, or the future. Motherhood remains. Corruption remains. The will to survive remains. And some other things.
As someone who is not usually a science fiction/dystopian/futuristic reader, I can't say this novel was an ultimate favorite for me—it would have needed something speculative/magical to truly attach as that's who I am as a reader--I think it speaks to Clean Air's credit that I stayed invested and gripped by Izabel's journey the entire time. The murder mystery definitely helped with that, as without that compelling whodunit/whydunit narrative it would have felt much more meandering for me.
Overall, a very engaging and compelling read. Definitely recommended for fans of any of the genres I've mentioned so far, and anyone interested in the prismatic future predictions of climate change fiction.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Occasionally you read a book so immersive and stunning, you can only hold on and settle in for the ride. I'm not usually an adult literary fiction gal but this one snuck in and smacked me sideways.
As a woman, stories centered on gender and gender freedoms vs. oppression are always hard hitters for me. This one was no exception—strap in, folks.
In different cultures, countries, and regions, the situation around a woman's freedom varies between relative freedom to unsettling/unsafe realities. In this particular story, the author delves into the following: What does it mean to be a woman here? What about over there?
Honor explores these questions of womanhood, freedom, and agency through an Indian lens when one woman comes back to India after an adulthood of American living and reckons with her personal freedoms versus those of the Indian women in her home country.
Indian-American journalist, Smita, returns to India at the beginning of this novel and discovers that she's been brought here for a serious reason—she's asked to cover the story of Meena, a Hindu woman who is experiencing a dangerous form of community-led hatred with Meena's recent decision to marry a Muslim man. Meena's situation is dire. Smita can help, especially because of her status as an Indian-American woman without the restrictions of the local landscape.
Smita sets herself on the case, knowing that doing this will open a can of worms. But she can't stop—Meena needs help.
Smita and Meena might both be Indian women, but their polar-opposite situations create a chasm for Smita as she is forced to reckon with her identity as an Indian-American woman and how much that differs from Meena's current reality.
With absolutely beautiful prose and a heartbreaking core, Honor is one of those novels that explores heavy, lingering concepts with a deftness that keeps you reading—and keeps you hoping for the end.
There are so many powerful themes at play here: sense of family, sense of duty and tradition, the threads of hope. The ties that bind and the cultural and community identities that cause harm while encouraging growth and family. The dualities at the heart of so many.
To be honest, I feel like my review is struggling to encompass the realities of this story in a way that at all resembles the beauty of this novel. I'm not usually at a loss for words, but for Honor the scope was different and the emotions were deeper. This was an unstoppable story, and I am honored (pun intended) at the offer to be a part of its initial press.
If you are interested in literary fiction and stories centered on women, I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.