The Maid by Nita Prose is a cozy mystery told from the perspective of Molly Gray, a hotel maid whose steady, routine life is turned upside-down after she discovers a dead guest in one of the rooms she cleans. Molly, an autistic-coded character who struggles to read social cues, facial expressions, and anything that isn’t meant to be taken literally, quickly becomes the prime suspect for the murder after a series of misunderstandings. With help from a cast of eccentric characters and charming proverbs from her recently deceased grandmother, it’s up to Molly to clear her name and clean up the hotel before it’s too late.
Prose’s writing style brings a refreshing levity to heavy themes, and that easily makes The Maid one of my favorite new reads this year in particular. Molly is lonely and grieving—two emotions many of us have surely experienced in varying levels over the past year—but her voice is so genuine, too. You want to root for her because she’s just trying her best to be a good person and find joy where she can (even if it’s in cleaning up messes!), just like the rest of us.
The Maid also features an impressive array of characters: half are blatantly devious, and they cast just enough suspicion on the rest of the quirky bunch to really challenge readers, no matter who they might suspect committed the murder. And because Molly takes everyone she meets at face value while readers are compelled to dig beneath the surface, every interaction she has is twice as tricky to decipher. All I’ll say is every one of my guesses ended up not even close to correct. But that’s okay. The guessing is part of the fun!
However…the murder mystery actually isn’t the best part of this novel. It’s Molly! She is a wonderfully nuanced character, and I absolutely adore her. Molly sees the world differently than most people, and while it affects her daily life, it doesn’t stop her from functioning and isn’t her only defining quality. She evokes concern but is never pitied. She’s sweet, thoughtful, compassionate, and absolutely hilarious; she makes mistakes, gets angry, and is held accountable for her actions. If you enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, come get your food! You’re going to love this novel, too.
Being seen is the most tender form of love, and by giving us a character like Molly who is so original and relatable, Prose calls out to those of us who might also feel invisible in certain aspects of our lives, who yearn to be seen. The Maid is a brilliant debut that reminds us it’s cool to be earnest, to take pride in a job well done, to love family and friends, and to live a good life—no matter how big or small. This is a must-read!
Thank you to NetGalley and Random House Publishing/Ballantine Books for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Forestborn by Elayne Audrey Becker, the first book in a duology, is a young adult fantasy that features the enemies-to-lovers trope, mythical creatures, and an impossible quest. When a magical sickness targets all the humans in the realm, Rora, a shapeshifter and spy for the kingdom, is tasked with finding a cure. Flanked only by her older brother, the only person in the world she trusts, and a surly prince who doesn’t trust her at all, Rora must traverse a mysterious forest and come to terms with a past that haunts her in order to understand why magic has turned on them and how to restore balance before it’s too late.
As a shifter who lives among people who fear magic, Rora makes for a fascinating main character because she is neither human enough for the people in her kingdom nor creature enough for the magical beings with whom she identifies. It’s an extended metaphor for the hybrid existence many readers also experience, which makes Rora especially relatable and refreshing. Even better is how Becker allows her to agonize over her fears and anxieties but never actually forces her to change who she is in order to be accepted. Instead, Weslyn, the human prince who starts out detesting Rora’s very existence, is the one who must evolve his mindset. I adore both characters and their journey in this book. They’re frustrating and funny and both gentle and strong, and they’re everything you want to root for in an epic fantasy romance.
In addition to character development, Becker excels at world building. There is so much that readers need to learn—rules for a magic system even the characters find difficult to grasp at times as it’s part of the core mystery, shapeshifter logic, politics and alliances, relationships and backstories—but it never feels as though Becker is info-dumping. The pacing is perfect, and I never found myself thinking about issues with show vs. tell. Also, Becker’s beautiful prose is absolutely captivating and is the first thing that drew me into this novel. Her words paint a picture of a forest both easy to imagine and impossible to find in real life. This balance is absolutely vital to setting the tone in a novel that relies on the stark contrast between nature and civilization in order to illustrate the transformative magic of green spaces and how in our world, too, we are all “forestborn” to some extent.
Forestborn also features great representation, from both platonic and romantic relationships (m/f and m/m), old and young partners, sibling bonds, and parental love. I love it when authors understand fantasy means you can give the characters we love an inclusive world that doesn’t discriminate based on sex, sexuality, or gender. I’m especially drawn to Helos, Rora’s older brother, and his love story with Prince Finley, Weslyn’s younger brother. We don’t see enough of Helos or Finley in this book, but their love for each other underscores the main quest and, therefore, is a central part of the plot. We start to see more of Helos’ personality at the end of this book, and I have a feeling we’ll see more of him and Finley in the next installment.
Growing up, The Merlin Saga by T.A. Baron and The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander were among the books I checked out over and over again at the library. I loved the epic quests and world building, the grueling treks across unknown terrain, the mysterious magic and creatures, the packs of equipment and food (and tunics!), and the camaraderie around the fire each night. I’m always looking for stories that can measure up to the adventures that made me love books in the first place, and Forestborn absolutely scratches that itch. I couldn’t stop thinking about these characters for days after I finished the book, and I can’t wait until the next one is released. If you love old school epic fantasy adventures like I do, Forestborn is a must-read!
Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan/Tor Teen for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
All’s Well by Mona Awad is a contemporary horror-comedy with a dash of magical realism. It features Miranda Fitch, a college theater professor with debilitating chronic pain, who spends just as much time managing her pain as she does convincing people it’s real. In charge of directing the annual Shakespeare production at her college, she’s decided to produce All’s Well That Ends Well, in spite of a cast of mutinous students who want to put on Macbeth instead. It seems they might have their way and this, too, will be taken from her, until she drowns her sorrows at a bar where she meets three mysterious men and makes a Faustian bargain that appears to change the tides in her favor.
While All’s Well is readable and enjoyable on its own, I would suggest quickly perusing a summary of William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well in order to enjoy some of the more subtle nuances in this novel. Scholars classify Shakespeare’s play as a “problem play” because it features several problematic themes and generally unpleasant characters. Furthermore, while it contains a formulaic “happy ending” like all his comedies, it is far from satisfying.
Awad masterfully adapts and subverts key moments from All’s Well That EndsWell. A particular favorite of mine is how she treats the bed trick: Shakespeare uses it to prove that in the dark, all women are alike to men. He also gives women that knowledge, which allows them to wield it like a weapon when necessary. In All’s Well, Miranda consistently confuses or imagines her new beau as though he were her ex-husband, and it similarly turns into an exercise to help her get what she wants. It’s not good or nice, but who said power or control was supposed to be either?
Miranda’s experiences with pain also highlight important social commentary about health care professionals doubting women know their own bodies and pain levels. However, because Miranda is so unlikeable, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for her plight. And that is the problem: Miranda has been managing her pain for so long that it is a part of her personality now. Of course she’s unpleasant when no one ever believes she’s in pain, doctors fail to help her, and people and systems appear to collude against her well-being. But I worry that the novel features so many other wild, twisted elements that this critical issue will be easy to forget for those who doubt or question its validity. That certainly proves Awad’s point, but selective ignorance does nothing to help move the conversation forward for real people.
As readers barrel towards the conclusion, the novel takes on a sublime, almost Shakespearean quality (rather appropriately). Unexpected magic twists plots beyond recognition and reverses fates without warning. Miranda seems to find easy solutions for some of her biggest problems, but they haunt her to the point of madness at certain points. It’s challenging to keep up with everything, and not even Awad’s engaging voice could stop me from wishing for an intermission. I was somehow both bored and overwhelmed a little over halfway through the novel because I was ready for the climax. The novel felt overwritten while Miranda was at the peak of her madness, and the denouement didn’t give me what I wanted. As much as I enjoyed the beginning of this book, I was confused and unsatisfied by the end. It seems lazy to argue that was by design, given All’s Well That Ends Well is a problem play. I shouldn’t be left feeling as though someone ripped out the last 20 pages of the book!
All’s Well is a creative, macabre romp unlike anything you’ve read before. At times readers are left feeling unmoored and a little anxious as they doubt whether they want to go where the plot will lead. They’ll question who they’re supposed to be rooting for, and if all can ever actually be well for Miranda. But that’s part of the fun: Awad takes Shakespeare’s problem play…and plays with the problems.
Thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron is a young adult urban fantasy featuring Briseis, a teenager with the peculiar ability to grow flowers simply by touching seeds or plants. When her aunt dies and leaves Bri a mysterious estate in rural New York, she and her moms move there for the summer, away from the bustling concrete jungle that is Brooklyn. Surrounded by verdant forests and bucolic scenery full of plants and flowers for the first time in her life, Bri hopes to use this opportunity to learn more about herself and gain better control of her gift.
The premise of this novel—a poison garden, ancient magic, and a gothic home packed with secrets—is absolutely delicious, but I felt like I was constantly waiting for the plot to take off. Bri discovers an apothecary fully stocked with mysterious plants and a poison garden (inspired by the actual Poison Garden at England’s Alnwick Garden) hidden within her new home, and beyond Bri realizing her specialty is in handling poisonous plants, the plot seems to stall for a while here. I kept wondering what she would do with her powers, other than creating elixirs and growing ingredients for eccentric townsfolk who abruptly barge into her home requesting remedies only she can provide. The novel is heavy on exposition, and the awkward pacing made the first half a struggle to get through.
The charming if odd host of friends, family, and new acquaintances Bri makes is one of the best parts of this novel. In Brooklyn, Bri’s friends aren’t very understanding or kind towards her, and Bayron effectively illustrates how lonely it can feel to have bad friends. It’s so satisfying to experience Bri cultivate some real friendships as her story unfolds. Bloom where you’re planted? More like bloom where you’re transplanted.
Bayron subverts familiar, maybe even predictable metaphors and symbols associated with gardening and nature. This is especially noticeable in Bri’s close relationship with her parents; she’s adopted, and Bayron is especially thoughtful outlining Bri’s concerns about possibly hurting her mothers’ feelings in wanting to explore her biological family’s lineage to learn more about herself. I love that Bri’s bond with her mothers is so strong that even though she worries about hurting their feelings, she never actually tries to hide her curiosity about her ancestry or her desire to learn more about her heritage. The openness in their relationship is refreshing, and it’s so comforting that that angst is never true cause for any grief in her life.
Bayron’s use of Greek mythology as a foundation for the magic surrounding Bri’s powers and bloodline is one of the most unique elements of this story, but it takes too long before it‘s fully revealed to readers. Bri and her parents don’t even arrive at their summer residence until a quarter of the way through the book, and the process for Bri to stumble onto clues about her magic and heritage is too drawn out and convenient. I never quite understood why so many clues were hidden throughout the house if Bri’s biological family didn’t intend for her to discover those secrets. Perhaps they never anticipated she would be in the house, but then why were the clues there at all? There are so many questions and so few answers, though I should point out this novel’s the first in a series, so maybe this ambiguity is by design.
This Poison Heart puts a fresh new spin on the nature vs. nurture dialogue (quite literally where the plants are concerned!), and its strength is in the relationships Bri establishes, nurtures, and grows. While the mythology aspect is interesting, the info dumping was difficult to process, and the story at the end of this book left us with far more questions than answers. I can only hope the seedling that is this book will sprout into a series that is a bit more fully realized because I otherwise like the individual elements of this world.
Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé is a terrifying young adult thriller that crosses Pretty Little Liars with Get Out. Chiamaka and Devon, the only two Black students at their private school, begin their senior years as prefects, putting them both in the running for valedictorian. But when Aces, an anonymous bully, starts to release damaging secrets about them both, they must figure out who’s targeting them before their bright futures are completely out of reach. It isn’t long before Chiamaka and Devon discover the conspiracy isn’t as simple as locating one random bully. Their entire high school perpetuates a system of racism built to tear them down.
I have to be honest and say I groaned a bit at the Pretty Little Liars premise before I started reading Ace of Spades because what’s interesting about that? Beautiful people misbehaving at a fancy school with enough networks and funds to ensure continued success and wealth for all who walk those hallowed halls? Yawn. But I’ve never been more pleased to be proven wrong.
Àbíké-Íyímídé masterfully builds tension and suspense as Aces preys on her characters, slowly tearing them down, making readers just as anxious waiting on the next bombshell.And just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you realize the great mystery is you weren’t thinking big enough. This novel exists at the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual politics, and it sheds light on the nefarious microaggressions society uses daily to plant seeds of doubt that make us question the existence of any of it. Protagonists Chiamaka and Devon are complex and interesting, and they’re so much more than they appear on the surface as Àbíké-Íyímídé carefully shows us the way each character has built themselves up over the years, and how a prickly disposition, an aloof personality, or something as simple as a hairstyle is actually armor. And it’s a good thing, too, because it turns out they needed it.
The most striking part of this novel is the doubt the protagonists experience, particularly when they guess quite early in the plot that institutional racism is at the heart of the conspiracy against them. Both Chiamaka and Devon dismiss the possibility immediately, given the reality of racism is so prevalent in their lives that it seems almost too obvious a threat to single out since it touches every part of their lives already. Chiamaka’s family is wealthy, yet she hides the parts of herself that highlight her Nigerian-Italian heritage in order to change herself into what she believes will get her ahead in a society with predetermined ideals for success and worth, while Devon strives to escape the parts of his upbringing and sexual identity that he believes will prevent him from achieving his dreams. Both characters have spent so much of their lives fighting to escape the pitfalls of systemic racism that they blamed themselves—their past actions, sexual preferences, and histories—before ever considering they were victims of a system built specifically to target people who look like them, who dare to be great.
Ace of Spades never shies away from how all-encompassing and rotten the system is at its very core, no matter how much the characters or even the readers may want to reject or deny that horror. That thought distortion is a product of the very system. And still, I found myself constantly taking a step back to wonder if every person and thing involved in the conspiracy was too much, but really, it’s not. The novel features an abundance of bad actors, like the truly insidious Ace of Spades campers and the Niveus students; some, like Belle and the legacy families, are guilty of continuing to reap benefits from established systems even though they recognize it’s wrong; and others, like Terrell, are pulled into these larger plots because other parts of the system (like health care) already hold them hostage. In spite of their varying levels of involvement, every character played a part in propping up the current systems that perpetuate harmful, outdated narratives. That only means everyone must work together to dismantle and rebuild institutions that perpetuate systemic racism so that they no longer disadvantage some people in order to elevate others.
When a novel includes an epilogue, I’m typically already done with the story and seldom feel the need for follow-up, but Ace of Spades surprised me here as well. Without spoiling the end, I’ll only say that I like how all the problems Chiamaka and Devon identified throughout the course of the novel did not simply vanish. One victory alone cannot so easily vanquish injustice and inequality kept alive by hardened roots that have been strangling our society for centuries.
Ace of Spades is an explosive debut from Àbíké-Íyímídé that uses the high school landscape as a model for the very institutions that continue to shape the world after graduation. If at times it seems sensational, that’s only because you’ve allowed yourself to forget it’s all real. It’s a quick read, both eye-opening and validating, and an excellent way to encourage discussions among young adult readers about the injustices of systemic racism and the importance of fighting against it.
Thank you to NetGalley and Feiwel & Friends for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.