Book Review

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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.

Book cover for This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron.

Whenever you hear a story about villainous women, you should ask who’s telling the story.

Kalynn Bayron, This Poison Heart

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.

History belongs to all of us.

Kalynn Bayron, This poison Heart

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 its 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.

Book Review

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

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.

Book cover for Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé.

I realized quite quickly that people hate being called racist more than they hate racism itself.

Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Ace of Spades

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.

They treat my Black skin like a gun or a grenade or a knife that is dangerous and lethal, when really, it’s them. The guys at the top powering everything.

Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Ace of Spades

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.

I have to stop myself from apologizing—because what would I even be sorry for? Existing too loud?

Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Ace of Spades

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.

Book Review

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers opens with 28-year-old Dr. Grace Porter celebrating her PhD in astronomy with a girls’ trip to Las Vegas, which ends with Grace drunkenly marrying Yuki, a woman she meets that night. The dreamy, lyrical prose describing her wife and the way Grace feels when she’s with her instantly makes clear this isn’t an embarrassing mistake to be undone as quickly as possible. This is a new beginning for Grace, a swerve from her otherwise carefully planned life. It sets her on a path to figuring out if she actually wants the idealized visions of success she’s felt compelled to pursue all her life.

Book cover for Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

She is afraid of being a brown, gold, bee-honey lesbian in an academic industry all too willing to overlook the parts of her that don’t make sense to them.

Morgan Rogers, Honey Girl

Yuki, who hosts a late-night radio show for “lonely creatures” when she’s not busy waitressing, leans into everything Grace has been conditioned to believe works against her pursuit of success. These two characters work remarkably well as foils to one another. Yuki helps reveal to Grace what she’ll lose if she continues sacrificing personal relationships and mental health in order to grasp at professional opportunities that aren’t promised. She teaches Grace it’s okay to toss the entire script and redefine what’s best for her. And Grace grounds Yuki, who’s constantly getting lost in fleeting adventures from her listeners as she searches wearily for a home in her very own story. It is such a delight to witness these fully realized characters learn how to weave their lives together and grow into better people as a result.

The monster motif—particularly persistent in Yuki’s radio shows about actual supernatural creatures—is most striking when Rogers employs it as a metaphor in Grace’s struggle to find belonging. It is only in refusing to be the monster in her own story—the element that won’t fit or conform—that empowers Grace to start prioritizing herself by attending therapy to be better present in her own life. This part of the novel is messy and emotional and often difficult to read, but learning to be kind to yourself—to be your best self—is hard work.

She will not let them spin her into a scary story, a thing whispered about and cast aside.

Morgan Rogers, Honey Girl

Grace’s parents—her father, especially—cement the idea that you’re never too old for a coming-of-age. Colonel, her ex-military father, might initially remind readers of toxic parental figures who’re immovable forces against progress and growth. But he eventually reveals his own struggles and anxieties, making his point-of-view more understandable. Grace’s relationship with Colonel is complicated and nuanced; they’re rarely on the same page as she begins to explore what will make her happy, but Rogers never makes him Grace’s enemy. Grace’s upbringing is different from her father’s, which causes much of the strife in their relationship, but ultimately, they both want Grace’s happiness. It’s worth noting, however, that were it not for the importance Rogers places on communication between all her characters, Grace and Colonel might never have moved past their misunderstandings. Of course, communication only works when both sides are willing to engage.

At its core, Honey Girl is largely a novel about queer friendships and found family. Grace and Yuki each boast a quirky cast of warm, caring companions who offer support, witty banter, and sage advice as they strive to build a life together. The characters who orbit Grace and Yuki also have their own romances and dramas, making their social lives especially immersive and comforting for readers.

I knew the field was going to be difficult to navigate, but I thought if I pushed long enough and hard enough, it would just bend to my will…But what if I was right to step away? What if I make my own career, instead of going after the most prestigious job? What if the best job is the one that makes me happy and satisfied?

Morgan Rogers, Honey Girl

As a woman of color who’s also earned a PhD, I love this novel for how it so precisely gives voice to the anxiety and existential dread that comes with attempting to balance what is expected of me personally and culturally alongside the urgency of what I yearn to achieve professionally within an institutional model that relies on outdated narratives and histories to define value in a system that doubts and excludes me at its ivory tower core.

Rogers does the important work of shining a light on this tension by broaching difficult topics that don’t always have easy answers. And she gifts us with Grace, who chooses to invest in herself when she comes to terms with the reality that is an academic system that will only suffer for its inability to make room for her at present.

Honey Girl refuses to endorse systems that demand contorting yourself into something unrecognizable and uncomfortable to fit within boxes you don’t even want. It champions self-care as the path towards self-empowerment; it highlights the value of finding your tribe and being a good friend. Finally, it reminds us that happiness and success are subjective concepts defined only as broadly as we allow.

Book Review

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman is one of the quirkiest, most delightful novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It’s equal parts humorous and tragic, bewildering and familiar—never just one thing by design. This locked-room mystery opens with a failed bank robbery at a cashless bank (hence the failure), followed by an accidental hostage situation at an apartment viewing from which the hostage-taker/would-be bank robber vanishes, leaving father-son police duo Jim and Jack so perplexed and out of their depth that they Google how to figure out this crime that didn’t actually take place, using testimony from eight hostages with wildly different, unhelpful takes.

Book cover for Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

It’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is.

Fredrik Backman, Anxious People

The hostages include Zara, a cynical bank manager emotionally paralyzed by grief and depression; retired couple Anna-Lena and Roger, who flip apartments to avoid addressing problems in their marriage; pregnant lesbian couple Julia and Ro, who struggle with the weight of their anxieties about parenthood; achingly sweet and grandmotherly Estelle, nursing a deep and familiar hurt; the hilariously focused real estate agent who, in spite of the hostage situation, is most concerned no one appears to show appropriate interest in the apartment or her cleverly named real estate agency, House Tricks; and, finally, poor Lennart, who somehow ended up in his underwear, trapped in a giant rabbit’s head, and a little regretful he’s wound up in this situation but along for the ride, regardless.

Anxious People is told through interweaving narratives that reveal how seemingly unrelated characters from varying walks of life are connected—a truth that echoes throughout the major themes in this novel. Backman employs a disarming charm and wit to broach heavy topics such as suicide, survivor’s guilt, and depression with a fresh and welcome frankness that feels safe and invites discussion. Zara, one of the most abrasive personalities in the bunch who literally carries around her anxiety with her, ended up being one of my favorite characters because Backman is able to demonstrate through her that we should all be so kind as to forgive ourselves for past transgressions.

We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.

Fredrik Backman, Anxious People

Given the novel is set in a small Swedish town near Stockholm, the concept of “Stockholm Syndrome” seems almost unavoidable, especially because it is derived from the psychological bond formed between a captor and his hostages during a botched bank robbery that took place in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Cleverly, Backman hardly mentions it by name, which prevents readers from noticing as they fall prey to a version of it while they commiserate with often unlikable yet sincere characters just trying their best to make it from one day to the next. Any one of us could’ve been trapped in that apartment. In fact, any one of us could’ve been that bank robber.

Backman strives to cover the full, messy spectrum of emotions that accompany uncomfortable experiences like anxiety, guilt, and grief, which allows him to winnow out poignant messages about forgiveness, hope, and love. The most striking result of his storytelling style is it reflects truths about ourselves we recognize only once we identify them in Backman’s characters. That is the point, of course.

That’s the power of literature, you know, it can act like little love letters between two people who can only explain their feelings by pointing at other people’s.

Fredrik Backman, Anxious People

Anxious People reminds us we are never alone in shouldering our burdens, even though it might feel that way sometimes. Through humor and heartbreak, Backman weaves a thought-provoking story that ultimately impresses on us the urgency of exercising kindness, compassion, and patience towards others and, most importantly, towards ourselves.