Book Review: The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

This is Holmberg’s fourth entry into her Paper Magician universe. This is not a direct sequel, rather The Plastic Magician explores new themes and magics within the same universe as the Paper Magician Trilogy. This means you can read this book as a standalone without having read the others. But I’m going to say right now that if you haven’t read the original trilogy, then you are seriously missing out.

In this story, we leave magicians Ceony Twill and Emery Thane behind and instead follow Alvie Brechenmacher, an American girl with German parents who desperately wants to be a polymaker, that is- a magician who works with plastic. As polymaking is the newest and least understood magic, there is an entire world waiting for discovery, and Alvie, naturally brilliant and creative, wants to make her mark on the world. When she manages to apprentice to the world’s foremost polymaker, all of Alvie’s dreams seem to be coming true. But when she and her mentor develop a groundbreaking new invention, old rivalries emerge and Alvie learns that the world of magician can be a dangerous one.

This was a great addition to the Paper Magician world. Alvie is a fantastic protagonist–unapologetically brilliant, kind, creative, and more than a little socially awkward. I also enjoyed how, despite the book’s historical setting, everyone seems to take Alvie’s intellect as a given, and as an asset. Alvie occupies the brilliant inventor trope that is so often the territory of male characters, and she does it well. I always love a female protagonist who is comfortable with their own intelligence.

In fact, my biggest complaint would be that the antagonist of this book, while amoral and devious, exists more as a witless foil than a true challenge. While he certainly succeeds in disrupting things in the book (as he must), once his master plan was revealed, I felt a bit let down (really guy, that was your plan? And then what?!).

In all, this is a fun YA book that will appeal to a wide age range. Fans of the previous books will enjoy this one, and anyone who thinks this book looks good should check out the Paper Magician, like, yesterday.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

Fair warning: this is the second book in Caruso’s Swords and Fire Series. If you haven’t read The Tethered Mage, then there’s probably going to be spoilers in here for the first book. Of course, if you haven’t read Tethered Mage, then you’re missing out on a fantastic fantasy series and should go read it right now. I’ll wait.


Amalia Cornaro’s political star is on the rise. After averting disaster and civil war within the Raverran Empire, she has, however reluctantly, accepted her place as her mother’s heir. But the Witch Lords of Vaskandar, led by the sadistic skinwitch Ruven, are preparing for war with the Empire. These incredibly powerful mages, each more or less invincible in their own realms, could spell the end of Raverra itself. Amalia and her fire warlock falcon, Zaira, once again find themselves the first line of defense for their homeland.

The Tethered Mage was one of my favorite debut fantasy novels. Caruso created a world (based loosely on renaissance Venice) that was full of magic and people, a world that was vibrant, that had a feel of reality and history to it. In Defiant Heir, Caruso build on this strong foundation, and allows the world and her characters to grow.

This story takes us out of the now-familiar Raverra and into Vaskandar, of which we hear only vague rumors before. I enjoyed how the focus on the Witch Lords allowed for the magic system of the world to grow and evolve alongside the characters.

This book is ostensibly in the young adult genre, but is engaging and intelligent enough to appeal to a wide range of readers. Anyone looking for a fantastic fantasy series featuring a smart, resourceful, and relatable female lead need look no further.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Welcome to Romero Park by Amber Michelle Cook

Welcome to Romero Park by Amber Michelle Cook

Romero Park is the ancestral home of Edward Dorchester, your classic haughty-yet-troubled gothic noble. It is harvest time, and Dorchester is planning a ball to celebrate the announcement of his engagement. But as the local gentry descend upon the manor, and the servants scramble to get everything in order, a fell moon rises on the proceedings, and a mysterious corruption is slowly working its insidious way through the manor house and grounds.

I wasn’t sure what I was in for when I started this book. Let’s face it, the zombie thing is on the decline, and classic-literature-plus-undead is hard to do right. Fortunately, Cook does a fantastic job with Romero Park, giving us both zombie mayhem and Victorian correctness in one package. The book uses the bones of Jane Eyre, and drapes it in rotting flesh and gnashing teeth. The story moves from person to person, flirting with the Brönte plot we know and love, but veering away into wholly original (and very entertaining) territory.

My original beef with the book is that it was largely build-up with little climax. Now that I know the book is the first in a planned trilogy, I can understand the reasons for the pacing. Cook slowly builds up the terror in store, letting us see glimpses of a future calamity, and setting us upon several red herrings. It also lets me appreciate the time the author takes with each of her characters, letting them live and breathe a bit before the undead come knocking.
This book, quite simply, is an enormous amount of fun. You know how the story is supposed to go, and you happily anticipate the chaos of the zombie apocalypse to come. And let’s face it, who hasn’t wanted some version of Blanche Ingram to get eaten by a horde of mindless undead?

If you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and I will confess that I enjoyed this book more), or like a whiff of rotting flesh with your classic literature, this is an incredibly entertaining read. I’m waiting on tenterhooks to see how the story plays out in the next book!

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James


The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

In the 1950s, Idlewild Hall in rural Vermont was a place where families sent daughters they’d rather forget. The residents of the boarding school are illegitimate, traumatized, criminal. But the school may be haunted by more than bad memories; a spirit called Mary Hand is said to stalk the halls, and four roommates, bonded over shared misery, will face the spirits of Idlewild when one of them disappears.

Meanwhile, in 2014, a local journalist is shocked to hear that long-abandoned Idlewild Hall is being restored. Her own obsession with the overgrown and forgotten school started when her sister’s body was discovered on the grounds twenty years earlier. As she begins to dig into the history of the school, she finds old mysteries entwined with new, and a growing sense that something haunts the grounds of the old school.

This was a wonderful mystery story with a supernatural twist. St. James weaves her narrative between 1950 and 2014, slowly parsing out information and clues to the reader. The book is atmospheric; the boarding school exudes a palpable sense of menace and despair. Fiona Sheridan, the journalist, and the four roommates from 1950 are well-written, with the young students quickly becoming characters to care about and fear for. 

The supernatural elements of the story are well done, and fit organically into the plot. Who, or what, Mary Hand may be is dangled in front of the reader, but largely kept teasingly out of reach until the very end.

In all, this is a wonderfully satisfying mystery that avoids the pitfalls of the mystery thriller genre. Anyone who wants a ghost story mixed in with their mystery will enjoy this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

This is the third book in the Veronica Speedwell series. Naturally there will be spoilers for the first two books in the review below. Don’t forget to check out my reviews of A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking.

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After the adventures of the past two books, Veronica and Stoker have eased in to a unique sort of friendship. Kept busy cataloguing the vast (and strange) collections of the Earl of Rosemorran, who hopes to turn his family’s collection of oddities into a museum. When a cursed Egyptian expedition, complete with mysterious deaths and disappearances, makes the tabloids, irrepressible Veronica can’t resist getting involved, especially once it becomes clear that Stoker has a dark past with one of the curse’s victims. With scandal threatening to undo her friend, Veronica wades into the breach, determined to prove Stoker’s innocence.

Deana Rayboun continues her comedic-romantic-Victorian-mystery series in fine form. She provides plenty of ribald humor, sexual tension, and a juicy mystery. By this point in the series, we are well beyond the awkward introduction portion, and can simply sit back and enjoy watching the characters bounce off one another. In A Treacherous Curse, we get to see the relationship between Veronica and Stoker deepen and mature (possibly the wrong word choice here) as Stoker’s past comes back to threaten him in the present. Though I’ll confess that it took me a bit to warm up to her, Raybourn has quite a fun, strong character in Veronica Speedwell. Here is a woman who knows what she wants and society be damned. 

Fans of the first two books will enjoy this continuation of the series. Anyone looking for an atypical Victorian mystery series should add this to their TBR.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley


Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

The first book in the Kat Holloway mystery series introduces us to our heroine; a Victorian-era cook with secrets in her past that leave her teetering on the fine edge of respectability. After starting a new position as cook for a wealthy and influential London family, Kat’s professional life takes a blow when her young assistant is brutally murdered. With the help of her long-time friend (and mysterious the secret-agent type), Daniel McAdam, Kat vows to uncover the truth about what happened to the young woman. As the plot thickens, the scope of the crime continues to grow, until even Queen Victoria placed at risk.

I love a good period mystery. Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery Series is a perennial favorite. Seeing the typical Victorian mystery through the eyes of a cook (generally depicted as tyrants or foils) also promised to be interesting and novel. And in general, Death Below Stairs delivered on its 19th century promises. Kat Holloway is intelligent but not perfect, Daniel McAdam is mysterious and reserved, and the supporting cast of characters is eccentric and entertaining.

However, I do have to say that this book doesn’t read like the first in a series. There is a lot of backstory, especially with Kat and McAdam, that is mentioned but not explained. Past events are referenced obliquely and little detail is given. I assume that a lot of this will be fleshed out in future books, so no harm done, but the book feels more like jumping in at book four or five than starting fresh. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I’m glad the author has fleshed out her characters to this extent, but I did have to check multiple times that this was indeed the start of a series. 

Nevertheless, fans of period mysteries, especially Victoeian-era mysteries, will probably enjoy this book a great deal. This a well-crafted mystery, perfect for consuming over the course of a chilly gray afternoon.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess

A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess

Spoiler Alert: This is the second book in the Kingdom of Fire Series (you can read my review of the first book, A Shadow Bright and Burning, here). There are definitely going to be spoilers for the first book in this review. 

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So after defeating Korozoth, The Shadow and Fog, Henrietta Howell finds herself more or less (increasingly less) accepted by the sorcerer community. The ward that protected London is gone, Rook is slowly turning into a monster, she’s still of magician stock, she’s not the chosen one, the remaining Ancient Ones continue to devastate the country, and oh yeah, R’hlem the Skinned Man is demanding she be turned over to him. And engraving that demand in the flesh and bones of her countrymen. So, things are not exactly going smoothly.

When Henrietta’s research uncovers a possible way to defeat the Ancient Ones, her fellow sorcerers are hesitant to jump, as it seems magician magic is needed to defeat the monsters. Henrietta must risk herself, her friends, and her country to uncover the secrets of the Ancient Ones and stop their reign of terror.

I really enjoyed the first book on this series. Cluess’ intelligent use of sexism and classism to construct her magical world was cannily done. Her use of lovecraftian imagery against a Jane Eyre background was excellent, and provided some truly creepy imagery.

Poison does neglect the sharp societal insight of the first book, and the shadow-haunted visuals of the previous story are toned down a bit here. The first was atmospheric and gothic, this book lends itself more to adventure. Less a Jane Eyre and more a Jane Austen.

That is not to say that I didn’t like the book. Cluess keeps the plot running at a frenetic pace (I finished the book in a single day). She also has provided her main characters room to grow and mature. Henrietta herself is a fantastic heroine, flawed and idealistic, traumatized and striving. It is easy for characters like this to become so involved in navel gazing that the reader loses interest, but Cluess manages to keep Henrietta in our hearts.

The requisite love triangle is still there (grumble, grumble, grumble), but the dynamics change throughout the book. In the interest of maintaining a spoiler-free review, I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that no one comes out smelling like a rose.

So, if you enjoyed the first book, you’re likely going to enjoy this one as well. Anyone seeking an intelligent YA fantasy series should certainly add this one to their TBR list (but definitely start with the first one).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughn


Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughn

James Whitehouse is a successful politician and close friends with the Prime Minister. Sophie is his faithful wife. Then a scandal breaks, James is accused first of having an affair with a member of his staff, then of rape. Sophie desperately needs to believe in her husband’s innocence. Kate Woodcroft, the prosecuting attorney, sincerely believes in his guilt. As the case moves on, secrets from the past threaten to come to light.

This is a slow-building thriller that explores the nature of love and truth, privilege and power. Vaughn does a splendid job of alternating between the past and present, and between husband, wife, and prosecutor. We explore each person’s life, and see what a fragile thing truth really is.

The book builds slowly, which can be frustrating for those who want the plot to go-go-go. And any one experiencing psychological thriller fatigue (like me), can find the slower pace a bit trying. But in all, Vaughn’s exploration of how privilege impacts truth is a vital and important topic in this day and age. I would recommend you give it a go.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we have always lived in the castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I am on a roll recently with reading these classic horror stories! The Haunting of Hill House (also by Jackson) and The Woman in Black by Susan Hill are classics in the genre for good damn reason, and I was hoping to continue the trend with We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Merricat lives in crumbling Blackwood Manor with her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian. Once the Blackwoods were an admired and socially prominent family–until someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Cutting themselves off from hostile townfolk and overly nosy society ladies, the surviving sisters and their Uncle live a strange, reclusive life. Until (naturally) a distant relative with designs on the rumored family fortune comes to call. The increasing disruption of her ordered life causes Merricat to frantically try to set things right again.

As I said before, this book is a classic for a reason. There are tropes and cliches aplently, but you have to remember that this was one of the books that created those tropes. I especially love the voice that Jackson gives to Merricat, only twelve when most of her family was murdered, and growing up increasingly isolated. Now eighteen, she has developed numerous methods, both mental and magical, of keeping herself and her remaining family safe from a hostile world. There is a 1967 movie called Spiderbaby (which stars a young Sid Haig and Lon Chaney Jr.) which strongly reminds me of this book.

What I like most is how normally Merricat’s abnormalities are portrayed. She has grown up in virtual isolation, with no one but her rather insane uncle and suspected-poisoner sister to raise her. As a result, Merricat seems to perpetually exist in a limbo between adulthood and a child-like state. She is the only one in her family capable of shopping for groceries (and selecting weekly library books), but she also believes in the power of charms (such as buried marbles) to keep herself and her family safe.

This is a very short book, only 160 pages, and the perfect size for reading on some gray, drizzly afternoon (preferably with the autumn wind whistling through the thinning leaves and a hot cup of tea by your elbow). If you haven’t yet read this horror classic, I strongly encourage you to move it up to the top of your to-read list in time for Halloween.