This debut came at me from left field! I cried, I laughed, I shouted "why" at the book. Let's just say I connected deeply to Tabitha's emotional journey through the author's skillful window into her world. A new favorite series for me!
I am so late this party—the third (and final?) book in this series is already out and I'm just now pulling up with my review of this first book. Oh well. Sometimes it's like that.
Black Girls Must Die Exhausted is that rare novel that completely transports you into the emotional journey of its protagonist. From page one, I was WITH Tabitha Walker in the way of all great storytelling. Tabitha very quickly became a friend.
Tabitha Walker did everything by the book—even down to the personal milestones. Have a good job. Have a good lifestyle routine. Have a nice-on-paper boyfriend. Have good relationships with her girlfriends. She's reaching for her next promotion and about to land a down payment for her first home. Things are looking good! Check, check, check.
But just as we meet Tabitha, her life freezes in place.
That last thing on her checklist that I forgot to mention? It was having a family. And Tabitha's just found out that she's got 6 months left of viable time to make her parenthood dreams come true.
Now it's time for Tabitha to reassess her life goals and pivot, fast. With her entire checklist now sidelined and reshuffled, we're buckled in as she swerves to keep climbing on her to success.
It seems like curveball after curveball keeps coming her way, and despite all of her successes, this last mic drop moment onto her life has got her sense of self shaking a bit. But there's happiness even in the journey, and Tabitha's framework of friends and family are there to help her weather the tide.
This novel is such a gem.
Now, to get my one and only critique out of the way--yes, this book was a bit of a rambler. I actually started with the audiobook and quickly(!) decided to transition to the physical copy because I found myself struggling to stay on pace with the meandering sense of backstory vs. real plot. There's a TON of context.
But after a while, I got into the flow. The strong sense of Tabitha's personality, which shines from the very first page, kept me going past the meandering back stories and contextual sidebars. And by the time I hit the 30% mark, I was in love with this story. I cared for Tabitha and rooted for her and her friends at each turn. They felt real, like "listening in to a conversation at the next table" real.
I'm so happy that Tabitha's journey has more books in it. While I think many readers could find satisfaction in stopping here at the end of the first book, I am definitely ready to see what happens next!
Call me an oddball: I loved this story. Simple exterior, complex interior. And, best of all, unforgettable.
Keiko Furukura is a woman who lives on the edges of everyone's "normal" expectations. She's worked in a low-level, part-time position at a local convenience store for decades with no advancement or wish for change. She is single, lives alone, and has no desire for change in her personal life either.
In fact, Keiko's life could be defined quite simply as: She is content as she is, and she does not wish for change.
However, as with many people who live outside of the bounds of "normal" societal expectations, the rest of Keiko's social and familial sphere cannot live with this reality.
Even though it doesn't affect them, even though Keiko is happy and able to pay her bills, the rest of the world is constantly asking her for more, for "normal," and for Keiko to change.
As Keiko herself put its, "the foreign body" is either assimilated or eliminated. So Keiko tries to assimilate based on other people's expectations.
Convenience Store Woman is Keiko's journey toward assimilation and selfhood. And she just might find out how to achieve personal joy along the way.
I thought this story was simultaneously extremely endearing and off-putting at the same time. (Much like Keiko herself, perhaps.) Keiko's life and internal motivations are intentionally on the off-beat for the rest of society, and that friction point is the keystone of this novel's entire existence. If it rubs you the wrong way, then it is telling you that this small story has a message worth exploring.
Especially in our modern times, where so many people are exploring different lifestyles, ways of operating in society, and finding their own joy in the human experience—this is excluding discussions of identity, self-presentation, and sexuality, as that's not the core of this novel--I think Convenience Store Woman is a reflection on the bizarre nature of our current times.
Who cares if Keiko is unmarried, alone, and working a "dead-end" job? Why does it bother others, when it doesn't bother Keiko and affects no one in a negative way?
Why do we, as a society, value the "normal" above all else? Even when—or maybe, especially when—our values of "normal" are extremely bizarre when viewed from a distance?
I thought one of the most ground-breaking and fundamental moments in this novel was when Keiko is internally examining the behaviors of her sister and friends when it comes to a relationship decision that she makes in this novel. (Omitting the details to avoid spoilers.)
Keiko's made a choice, and it's arguably made her daily life and future much worse. BUT, because it's a more "normal" decision that others know how to react to, the reactions from her friends and family are satirically positive. They're thrilled, even with this clearly negative life choice! Keiko becomes confused, quite logically, at the reasoning behind this. It's not a good choice for her, and she is not happy with it, but their reaction is so overwhelmingly positive—which is a reaction Keiko is unused to seeing--that is makes Keiko believe that this choice is what she "should" continue to make. This is just one example of societal reflection used throughout the novel that I found so fascinating to read.
Such an interesting social commentary. We've seen this type of concept before in other literary works, of course, but there is something so "of the now" about Convenience Store Woman and its endearingly likeable edge. A very clever novel with a surprising amount of heart.
What a cool, demonic sapphic noir! C.L. Polk always knows how to write the most intriguing worlds and yet keep them accessible to the casual speculative reader.
First off, I must say that the Tordotcom publishing house has become unstoppable with their cover design and title choices recently. This cover + this title? It was screaming to be read.
Helena Brandt is a magical woman living in Chicago in the mid-1900s. In this alternate-yet-similar America, magic and demons are all too real. And there are "good" magic users and "bad" magic users.
Ten guesses as to what side Helena's been labeled... Yep, you were right: a "bad" magic user, or warlock in this world.
Helena made one life-altering decision nearly 10 years ago, and the Brotherhood of good magicians cast her out for her sins. Ever since that fateful day, Helena's turned to a life of magical detective work and crime photography.
But life isn't all roses and daisies for a female detective in 1940s Chicago. Especially for a queer one who doesn't stay in her lane. With enemies closing in, the law a constant threat, and an internal clock ticking ominously down to a very final end, the LAST thing Helena needs is to encounter the worst case of her detective career.
She'd walk away from that job in a hot minute, but her boss offers her a deal that she just can't refuse...
And now it's up to Helena to catch a killer before the deadly trap closes around her.
Even Though I Knew the End was C.L. Polk at their finest. Complicated concepts done simply with accessible character development and dialogue. A fantastical world with the codes and dark sides of our real-world reality. And some very intriguing twists that feel simple and predictable...until they're not.
I recommend this novella to anyone who enjoys historical noir, queer stories, demonic thrillers, and perfectly packaged short fiction. This was a fun ride!
GILD - Raven Kennedy
Intriguing concept. This entire first book felt like it could have easily been a condensed prologue instead of a drawn-out novel…. But I am seeing the glimmer of a cool plot here for the later books in the series.
Disclaimer: This is a reaction review. If you are interested in the book's plot, please see the book description!
As someone with a pulse and access to the online book community over the past few years, I'd heard of this book. It's hard to be in this community and somehow avoid seeing the Plated Prisoner series somewhere. For a while there, it felt like it have the ubiquitous staying power of Sarah J Maas—it was everywhere!
I went from interest, to zero interest, to extreme interest over the years. Fantasy romance with a lot of TikTok hype? I don't know... It's about King Midas and involves toxic relationship vibes and trigger warnings? Absolutely zero interest. But wait, it's actually got [soft spoiler] in there and involves some strong character redirections? Okay, never mind, sign me up.
It's been a journey. So I finally sat down and picked it up!
Gild is one of those books that I feel like I will never read again. Let me explain. Similarly to Maas' Throne of Glass novel (as in, the actual first book in the series and not the series itself), there are some introductory books out there that exist as barely-there prologues that are necessary evils for "first books" and then are immediately improved upon with later books in the series. Sometimes SO dramatically improved, that when you pick up the series later for a reread you don't even bother with that dull first book. (While I reread Throne of Glass as a series every year, I never actually go back to book one, I skip right to book 3 and onward.)
This was a similar reading experience. Gild had a really cool hook: Auren, a woman with literal gold skin/body parts, is kept in a gilded cage by King Midas. It's a toxic, well-worn love between Midas and Auren involving her pining for him and excusing his toxicity and Midas keeping her as his ultimate prize and allowing Auren just enough affection that she stays docile. As the Midas mythos goes, this was a very unique place to start. And it had enough world building to really intrigue me as a reader.
But then... this novel stalled out for me in a major way.
Auren's situation is the definition of two-dimensionally flat. She's essentially an enslaved sexual object in this scenario, and she both acknowledges that fact and simultaneously thinks she's more than that. And for the entirety of this novel--
MILD SPOILERS, STOP HERE IF VAGUE SPOILERS BOTHER YOU
—every single interaction between Auren and any male character was stripped down to this. She's lusted upon, constantly threatened with sexual assault, and then occasionally treated nicely for the purposes of showing the reader why Auren hasn't completely revolted in her cage by now. This dichotomy of an abusive relationship between Auren vs. Everyone was seemingly endless and, after a point, useless as a plot device.
And, problematic reliance on sexual assault as a plot device and lack of conversations around enslaved sex workers aside, this led to an extremely uninteresting and depressing narrative. I kept questioning why people enjoyed this series if this was all there was. Regardless of your opinions on dark topics in your fiction, this wasn't a well-told story!
But I kept going, because I'd been softly spoiled for some of the later elements in the books and I wondered if this series would follow another of Maas' books, A Court of Thorns and Roses, with its unique bait-and-switch structure to that series.
Let's just say that things got much more interesting in the last 10% of this story. So interesting, in fact, that I downloaded the second book IMMEDIATELY and thought to myself, "here we go, finally" and got to reading. More POVs, a new character has arrived, and the chess board has changed... I'm ready for the real plot. Let's go!
NOTE: Not recommended for sensitive readers. Trigger warnings for sexual assault, graphic sexual situations with murky consent, toxic relationships, emotionally abusive relationships, death, internalized mental health struggles.
Long-time fans of Kristen Ashley will be pleasantly surprised—I sure was! Very plot-forward and emotionally wholesome, The Girl in the Mist is the start of a new leg for KA.
Emotional angst: ★
Let's get two things out of the way right at the top: This book felt EXACTLY like a Kristen Ashley book in many ways. It also, surprisingly, did not.
Ashley's extremely distinctive writing style was present here—in particular, her dramatic pacing of single sentences as paragraphs used in a blatant way for dramatic layering of thoughts. This is a "love it or hate it" style, and I'll be honest, I have to be in the perfect mood for it. (I also seem to feel differently about it based on the format I consume the story? Kindle is the way to go, folks. The printed page really highlights this style and drives me nuts to look at from a distance, whereas the ebook format disguises this technique and you get into the groove.)
However, the distinctive KA styling aside... I was taken aback by this story. The Girl in the Mist was a different type of romance for my expectations, and the setting/plot/characters were a refreshing experience.
Unlike many, many other KA stories, this one makes a fantastic entry point into the KA universe and could be read as a standalone series too.
Delphine LaRue is a famous actress-turned-author who has a stalker. At the beginning of this novel, we learn that Delphine's stalker has escalated to the point where she needs to leave town and go lay low for while—she's not in the witness protection program, but she's in the KA commando version of it. (Longtime fans will recognize some names, even though none of the names are actually present as active characters in this story.)
So Delphine escapes to a cabin on the lake in the small Pacific Northwest town of Misted Pines.
It's a small town where everybody knows everybody. And everybody already knows Delphine LaRue.
This interesting, small town vibe aside, Delphine also has an interesting development. She meets her smoking-hot neighbor—single dad and retired FBI profiler, Cade Buchanan.
When a local girl is discovered dead, Misted Pines circles the wagons and Cade Buchanan gets involved. Delphine, being an empty-nest mother herself and an independent woman of means, also gets involved.
Sparks fly and situations escalate as the murder mystery at the core of this small town exposes the rotten roots of the "picture perfect" Misted Pines neighborhood.
I have some complicated feelings for this story. On the one hand, I think it's one of the most well-plotted and well-built worlds that I've read from this author. The mystery had some twists that I didn't see coming. The characters experienced quite a lot of emotional growth and unique situations. The town as a character was strong.
But... your girl loves drama. (Me, it's me, I love the drama.)
And I come to Kristen Ashley for that bad-boy, ridiculously Alpha male drama that involves a lot of running around, relationship drama complete with fights, making up, and all that jazz.
And Delphine and Buchanan just...didn't engage in any of that. I think it was a combination of their ages (they've done that before, they're wiser, they don't have the time for that B.S.), and the fact that the romance wasn't the core of this story. Their real-life drama was the murder mystery, so they didn't bring that into the home space.
Which was... fine. But there were several moments where Delphine and Buchanan had lots of reasons to have a lovers' drama and/or at least a playful dialogue about things and KA just... dropped it. We didn't get any of those highs and lows. This was emotionally wholesome to the point of being flat for the romantic pairing.
And, because of that, I found myself taking forever to finish this book. (Forever in KA standards, at least, whereas I usually start a KA book and don't put it down until it's done.) I think this book will have a wide readership, and it deserves it, but I do hope that the further books in the series give us a little Drama Drama for my drama-queen soul. Lol!
I went to from super hyped about this concept last year...to a lukewarm reading experience....and then a few days later to the realization that—despite my love for Roshani Chokshi—I just did not like this at all. I think this has a certain readership, and I'm sad I'm not one of them.
Sense of uniqueness: ★★
Investment into the characters: ★
Once upon a time, a man who believed in fairy tales married a beautiful, mysterious woman named Indigo Maxwell-Casteñada. He was a scholar of myths. She was heiress to a fortune. They exchanged gifts and stories and believed they would live happily ever after—and in exchange for her love, Indigo extracted a promise: that her bridegroom would never pry into her past.
Indigo is the beautiful and enigmatic muse woman of everyone's dreams. She's too flawless, clearly a bit dangerous, and so beautiful that you can't look away. The Bridegroom certainly can't. He loves his wife more than life itself and is willing to follow her into the dark.
One day, Indigo receives a message that her aunt is dying in her childhood home, the House of Dreams. Taking her bridegroom with her—this man is never named, so apologies for using "bridegroom" over and over again, it's a part of the dream-style repetition in this novel—they arrive at the surreal and darkly Other house.
It's while we're exploring this elaborate house filled with the echoes of secrets that we meet our second POV: Azur.
Azur's timeline is during Indigo's childhood, and she was Indigo's everything. A childhood spent surrounded by magic and twin ties and secrets and oaths, Azur and Indigo were two sides of the same coin. It was going to be Indigo and Azur, forever and ever.
But there's no Azur here with Indigo and the bridegroom.
As the bridegroom explores the House of Dreams, Azur's tale unfolds in the chapters in between. The House of Dreams has witnessed a lot of secrets, and it has some secrets of its own.
Will the bridegroom be able to keep his promise?
Or will he look back into the dark and find out the truth about Indigo's past?
Alright. So I'm not going to dissect the plot or anything here. I think this is a story that is intentionally like a fable, and more importantly, intentionally like the echoes of a story arc that some of us readers have likely read before. It's also a story that cares more for its ominous atmosphere and sense of lyrical flow than its concrete plot.
There's nothing wrong with any of that. But I will say that I wish this book had brought some more things to the table. For how drawn out it felt, for the amount of actual plot that happened in its pages, I needed more as a reader. I wanted something surprising, I wanted this very familiar arc to bring something fresh as a payoff for its very slow pacing. I needed to feel closer to these characters that felt, emotionally, like they were separated from me by layers and layers of glass. I just needed... more.
So, if you're like me and the above items bother you, I'd skip this one. But if you like the concept and don't mind that kind of thing, I do still recommend this one.
This was an intentionally messy story. And for...why? I don't know, and the more I sit with this the more I find myself bothered. (But who knows, that's likely the point.)
Overall message: ★★★
The best thing about this novel is its title. That's not as mean as it sounds, hear me out. I Have Some Questions For You relates to our main character's profession—she's a podcaster, she is literally paid to ask questions as talking points—and it also clearly relates to how this book is both posing its own questions at its audience and also meant to make us, as audience, ask questions.
A never-ending chain of questions, if you will.
And that's where this novel frustrated me to no end.
It's 2018. Bodie Kane has accepted a job at her old high school alma mater. Granby, a prestigious and private boarding school for elite high school students, has called her back as a short-term teacher for a podcasting class.
Bodie's got complicated feelings about Granby and her relationship to it.
In 1995, her one-time roommate was murdered. Thalia Keith, the beautiful and enigmatic girl whom everyone liked. The police quickly convicted the Black gym assistant, an early 20-something man who was convicted on hearsay, drug charges, and trace amounts of DNA.
This story is one that you've heard before. As the novel brings up throughout its pages, "you know the one." The one where she asked for it. The one where she was on birth control, and therefore consented. The one where she was found in the pool / the basement / the trunk / the woods. The one where it was the man she trusted. The one who was a beautiful white girl who died. The one where there was a Black man present, and that was enough.
Now armed with middle-aged wisdom and a 2018 lens on gender interactions, police bias, racism, and more, Bodie has feelings about this case. And she's never been able to let that go.
Her podcasting class sees 1995 as ancient history, so when one of her students asks Bodie if she can cover the infamous case of Thalia Keith, Bodie agrees. She's worried that this might be too biased. She's worried about her position of power as a teacher and if this will open up a can of worms she won't be able to justify. But like many things in Bodie's life, she lets it happen around her anyway and she justifies it to herself.
Tangled up in this story are themes of inappropriate conduct, gender imbalances, racism, unsolved justice, the #MeToo movement, messy relationships, and flawed perspectives. And all of the above sits in a messy knot, endlessly looping from one thing to the next and getting tighter and tighter as the novel progresses.
I don't know. I honestly don't. This novel covers understandably heavy topics that are meant to provoke an emotional response. I think it does this element well.
But I think that this novel boils down to one thing: it was messy and unsatisfying.
I Have Some Questions For You seemed to want to poke at everything and everyone indiscriminately—look at all of this injustice, look at all of this bias, look at all of these selfish people protecting themselves, look at this racism, look at this misogyny, look at this horror of endless fetishized female murder.
Every single piece of this story—Bodie's home life, Bodie's work life, Thalia's timeline, the narration style, the side characters, the endless plot points meant to mirror the core themes—seemed to want to simultaneously be a thesis moment confirming the story's overall message and also serve to be its own counterpoint in the argument.
I don't want to spoil this story, so I'll stop there, but let's just say that I did not feel like this tangled knot was justified, and I don't think it did anything to aid the genre or cultural dialogue. It just shone a light on all of the mess, which I guess highlights that I don't like those types of stories where their purpose is just to yell.
I recommend this story more to literary fiction fans as opposed to mystery fans.
Books like these are why I adore fantasy with all of my heart. A pirate queen cajoled out of retirement for one last payout. A deadly sea with supernatural consequences. And a myth in the making.
Narrative voice: ★★★★★
The Adventures of Amina Al-Sarafi reads like one of those great myths that creep up on your slowly. As your parents, schoolmates, books, and media tell it to you—it's almost like it's always been there, a fictional story existing outside of your own lived existence and yet wholly real somehow, grounded in historical fact and cultural relevancy.
To put it even more simply: Mention the concept of "greek gods" to almost anyone on the street these days and they have the story already. They know the strokes, or they know at least several small details that have made it into their brain via cultural osmosis.
When I read Amina's tale for the first time, I felt that stirring. That behemoth feeling in the deep that this is a tale that's more real than fiction, more muchness than just a fable told to mimic the 1100s Indian Ocean tales for a 2020s audience.
Like the best fantasy tales of new and old—Amina Al-Sarafi is here now, and she's always been here and always will be here. Her tale is too rich to ignore.
Combining elements of seafaring adventure, heists, monsters, and more, The Adventures of Amina Al-Sarafi struck me most in its unique and unputdownable voice. Amina's no-nonsense, middle-aged motherhood persona was a treat in its (unfortunate) uniqueness in today's fantasy market and also a hilarious narrator in her endless dry wit and "let me tell you how bad things went to shit" attitude.
There is nothing I did not like about this story. It stands proudly in the canon besides Chakraborty's already titanic City of Brass trilogy, and other fantasy legacies such as R.F. Kuang, Fonda Lee, Jacqueline Carey, Jenn Lyons, and more.
Oh, and there's the swashbuckling, seafaring, mythologically induced adventures with all of the plot points you could possibly want rolled into the most attractive package to any fantasy fan. I enjoyed the hell out of myself. I think others will too.
BEFORE I LET GO - Kennedy Ryan
Well I've clearly wasted many previous years without the joy that is Kennedy Ryan. Before I Let Go was nothing short of flawless.
Emotional Range: ★★★★★
Sense of Joy: ★★★★★
Yasmen and Josiah Wade are divorced. After a cataclysmic series of tragedies, the Wades couldn't keep their foundation strong—they fractured in the aftermath of a sorrow so deep they couldn't reach each other. Their vows included "til the wheels fall off." They never imagined that anything could shake that unbreakable, lifetime love.
But something did, and now they're two separate ships.
Well... Not quite.
They're still co-parents of two beautiful children, Deja and Kassim, which they both co-raise with love and daily support.
They're also still co-owners of their business—the highly successful restaurant, Grits, is something they grew together and is almost as important to them as their children.
So the Wades are still a team... even if that team looks a little (lot) different these days.
Yasmen's spent two years in therapy, and with a healthier way to cope and the assistance of her therapist and medication, she's finally starting to feel like herself again after two years of endless night. She'll never, NEVER stop loving Josiah, even though she's the one who forced their hand into the situation of separation.
Josiah's always been strong. He won't stop for the bad things, because if he keeps moving those bad things will fade. He's been in constant motion ever since the wrecking ball hit. Every bone in Josiah's body will always love Yasmen. However, he knows that door is closed and all he can do is try to pick up his pieces and love what's left.
But where there is love... there is always a way back in. And the Wades are going to find that the light and love could reach them if they find a way to follow it.
Before I Let Go is a story of pain, grief, and recovery. It's a second-chance phoenix rising from the ashes. I sobbed my way through this reading experience—sometimes sad tears, sometimes happy tears, sometimes more. This was an emotional release of a book!
I aspire to have a life as rich and beautiful as Yasmen and Josiah's. From the tears and pain to the light and love, this was such a beautiful, real journey and I feel blessed to have had this reading experience in my life. I have no complaints, besides of course my own internal AGH! that it took me this long to try Kennedy Ryan.
This book might include some serious darkness, true, but it is really about the light that shines in all the cracks. What a stunning, utterly perfect read. Pick it up!
Filled with whimsy, endearingly slow, and overall very sweet--this book sits nicely on the shelf with other low-stakes cozy fantasies like The House on the Cerulean Sea.
Quaint setting: ★★★★★
Mika Moon lives a very isolated life. As one of the only witches in Britain, her childhood was a revolving door of distant caretakers and absent maternal witches. Covens don't congregate, you see. Everyone knows that magic clumps around groups of witches—and the higher the concentration of magic, the higher the level of exposure risk. To be a witch is to be alone.
Mika's calm and isolated existence comes to and end with an unexpected invite to teach homeschooled witches in the remote countryside. A found family needs her help, and Mika's curiosity gets the better of her—they live in a place called Nowhere House. Who could resist that?
Mika's in for a treat. With a curmudgeonly (and disturbingly attractive) librarian breathing down her neck, three untrained young witches, a delightfully wacky elderly gay couple, and a beloved housekeeper, Nowhere House is quite full already. But Mika's always carved out a niche for herself, even if its usually a separate and temporary affair.
Let the lighthearted shenanigans begin...
The "cozy fantasy" is clearly having its time in the sun! These adorable, low-stakes plots with quaint settings and happy vibes seem to be all the rage in both publishing and in the bookish community.
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is definitely one of the quaintest of the lot, at least for me.
Now, in full transparency, clearly I only gave this novel three stars. I can't say its due to any particular fault of the novel--this story is well told and follows the seemingly standard format that has emerged for these sorts of cozies. Low stakes, high quaintness, saccharine emotions...and an enduring sense of "all is right in the world" vibes.
However, I know myself—and your girl likes drama. And angst. And high-stakes. None of which occurred here in this story. Come for the cuteness, and stay for the atmosphere!
(And take this review with a grain of salt and wave goodbye to me at the gate as I quickly depart and return to my usual lane of high-drama, high-stakes angst.)
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.