Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

This was a fun one. Emily Wilde is an academic, and a bit of a type: grumpy, antisocial, deeply socially awkward and mostly unbothered about it; she is passionate about her work in the field of dryadology, which is faeries, or the Folk. Her hair is absolutely without exception a mess, even under the influence of magic. We meet her en route to do a season of fieldwork in the very remote, far northern village of Hrafnsvik, whose faeries, known as the “Hidden Ones,” are poorly documented. The research she hopes to accomplish here will complete the work of a decade or more, her Encyclopaedia of Faeries, whose publication should cement her academic reputation and finally get her out of adjunct work and into a position with tenure. (Those of you who know my personal life these days will hear me chuckle in bitter recognition.) This book takes the form of her journal entries, intended as notes for her professional work and as “record for those scholars who come after me should I be captured by the Folk.” Which, mild spoiler, she will be.

Emily arrives in Hrafnsvik with her loyal dog Shadow but fails to immediately thrive, because of her clumsiness with the locals (whose help she needs, whether she acknowledges it or not) and unfamiliarity with the climate (very cold). A few small quibbles with the novel’s consistency here: Emily is proud of her past expeditions into the field, which have ranged far and wide; she is far better with fieldwork than she is at working with other mortals. “I am used to humble accommodations and humble folks–I once slept in a farmer’s cheese shed in Andalusia.” But she’s also never started a fire (?!) and doesn’t know where to begin, and can’t figure out how to split wood (certainly an acquired skill; but her inability to jump in and begin feels like it belies an experience ‘in the field’). She is assessed as an ‘indoors type’ by a sneering local, at which she bristles but doesn’t disagree. And yet she does some massive mountain hikes in the course of her research; she estimates that her daily limit is twenty miles, and in precipitous conditions. In a word, these feel like inconsistencies in the character: is she an indoors type who is unable to light a fire? or is she an intrepid mountain hiker and experienced field researcher? (There is also a woman who mourns the loss of her husband. But then her daughter comes home to both parents.) Small details, perhaps, but they catch my brain distractingly. There is still much to love, however.

After Emily’s early struggles in Hrafnsvik, she is both assisted and further irritated by a new arrival: her colleague Wendell Bambleby. Famous, handsome, and well regarded in the field – if a bit academically lazy, in Emily’s view – he decides inexplicably to crash her fieldwork party, tidying up her lodgings, charming the locals, and generally causing trouble. (To highlight their different personalities, one of his first nights in town was “the most enjoyable evening I have spent in Hrafnsvik, as the villagers largely forgot about my existence amidst the gale-force winds of Bambleby’s personality. I was delighted to sit in the corner with my food and a book and speak to no one.”) The challenging local community, the region’s mysterious and intoxicating Folk, and Bambleby – both obnoxious and somehow appealing – combine to offer Emily chances she’s never really had before, in terms of research, friendship, and romance.

The result is funny, fun, frequently silly, and also suspenseful. Emily is definitely a type (the well-meaning but curmudgeonly professor), but still charming; her new acquaintances include mortals and faeries and at least one frightening faery king. Even Shadow, the loveable loyal hound, is more than he at first seems. I loved the worldbuilding aspect of dryadology, for example, the concept of oíche sidhe, a housekeeping faery driven mad by disorder. The device of Emily’s journal means we get appended faery tales, which was fun. While the Hrafnsvik story is neatly wrapped up, Emily’s own ends on a bit of a cliffhanger; this novel is book 1 in a series, and despite some small quibbles, I’m in for book 2.


Rating: 7 needle-fingers.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

I no longer remember where I got this recommendation, but it was a *great* one.

In the opening pages we meet Mika Moon, a young Indian-born witch living in modern-day England. She was raised by a quickly-turning-over series of tutors and nannies, who were in turn employed by an elder witch named Primrose. Primrose is the keeper of the Rules for witches: in a nutshell, witches live in secret and in minimal contact with one another, because witches together mean too much magical dangerously combining in small spaces. Mika is lonely. As a relief valve for her enthusiasm for witchiness, she releases videos on her YouTube channel in which she brews potions and casts spells: it’s not meant to be taken seriously, of course. So she’s alarmed to be caught out by a strange offer to tutor three young witches at a mysterious estate called Nowhere House.

Mika struggles to balance her own strong desire for companionship, community, even family, and her passion for her work, with her grudging respect for Primrose’s Rules. Three little witches in one space should be very dangerous indeed, especially because (like young skunks!) they’re not yet in full control of their powers. Nowhere House turns out to be magical in many ways for Mika, though. She is just beginning to find the kind of kinship she feared would never be an option for someone like her – someone different – when it turns out there are still more layers of secrets than she’d realized.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is a lovely book. With themes involving outsiderness and the search for belonging, the risks of relating to other people, built families, passion for one’s calling, and every kind of love, it’s a beautiful, affirming study in humanity. Central characters show a nice diversity in age, ethnicity and sexuality. Especially with its realistic, fully-formed child characters, it feels like it wants to be friendly to young adults (such positive messages!), and I was going to classify it as such for nearly 300 pages – at which point there occurred a pretty heavy sex scene, so keep that in mind.

I’d recommend this to anyone – even kids if you’re ready to expose them to sex! – and am anxious to see more from Mandanna. I am so charmed.


Rating: 9 star fragments.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Another winner from Liz. It felt for a split second like it was going to be a bit too easy a meet-cute, but things got immediately complicated for the better.

The first thing the reader sees at the start of Part I is a brief annotation to Roald Dahl’s story “Lamb to the Slaughter,” by an A.J.F. (we assume, the title character). These annotations begin each chapter, but it takes a while to discern their intended destination or use.

Next is a chapter starring Amelia Loman, whom we meet painting her nails yellow on a ferry ride from Hyannis to Alice Island. She has a mild hangover but still feels upbeat about the appointment she’s ferrying toward: she’s a new publishing sales rep going to call on A.J. Fikry, proprietor of Island Books. Amelia is a likeable character, but A.J. – first encountered through her eyes – is prickly. I was surprised to learn that he is just thirty-nine years old, because my first impression was of a crusty old curmudgeon of a shopkeeper (a ‘type’ I recognize from bike shops, but bookstores will do just as well). He certainly fits the type, just younger than I’d originally guessed. And after that first chapter, Zevin wisely takes us from Amelia’s focus (in the close third person) to A.J.’s. I love a jerk whose bad behavior is suddenly complicated and made sympathetic by backstory.

A.J. has suffered a major loss, and he is a jerk – or at least he’s coping poorly – but then the unexpected strikes. It’s not Amelia, as I’d originally thought. It’s something a little different, and my synopsis stops here.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is delightful. It has grumpy but endearing book nerdiness; earnest, messy human emotion; the complications of grief and loss and family; whimsy and mishaps; and yes, a little romance. Also, a bookshop in a small town, with all the social drama and love and support that that can entail. It’s definitely on the sweet side, approaching precious, but never saccharine; I’m pretty sure when Liz recommended it she acknowledged that it would be best read in a mood for something sweet and light-ish, but it’s not the least bit fluffy, and even involves a sequence about the line between fiction and memoir and does it even matter? I read it in a single day and wish it had lasted longer. I could sink into the world of A.J. et al much further. I am off to see what else Zevin has written. Do recommend.


Rating: 8 vampires.

The Liar’s Crown by Abigail Owen

Pretty sure I got this one from a Shelf Awareness review, and I found it quite enjoyable. It definitely has a YA flavor, but that’s okay: I was entertained, absorbed, transported. I also learned a new label: it’s marked upper YA/NA, and I had to look that up. NA is ‘new adult,’ so that upper YA/NA takes us through late teens and early twenties, I guess. As ever, your mileage may vary, but I think that rating, if you will, makes good sense. For one thing, there’s not only violence but sexual content. Not graphic, but clear enough.

A brief prologue gives us a few details of the alternate world in which The Liar’s Crown is set. Also, there’s a map! The world is Nova, and there are six continents/kingdoms or dominions with their own rulers. Their names give clues as to climate: Savanah, Tropikis, Mariana, Wildernyss, Tyndra, and Aryd. Following the prologue (the birth of twins, and a blessing and a curse), our narrator is Meren. Her twin sister Tabra is princess of Aryd and will be queen once their grandmother dies. Meren’s existence is a secret; she lives in a city distant from the capital city, visiting her sister in the palace only in stealth. She’s been raised by her grandmother’s twin – also a secret. By tradition and heredity, her family line is ruled by queens with secret twin-sister body doubles, who stand in as queen in times of danger. Meren’s life purpose is to serve and protect her sister; she can have no true life of her own. She’s lucky to have a single friend, Cain, heir to a minor authority figure among the desert’s Wanderers. He does not, of course, know her true identity.

Meren and Tabra are 18 when this story begins, with a quick series of events: their grandmother the queen dies. King Eidolon of Tyndra, whom the girls have been trained all their lives to fear, proposes marriage to Tabra, and sends her a unique gift. Meren goes to her sister’s side, to take her place for the coronation, and to reject Eidolon’s threatening proposal; but then she is kidnapped by a man of Shadows, swept across dominions and into a world she never dreamt existed. Her captor is both terrifying and magnetic. He has surely grabbed the wrong princess, thinking he’s got the true heir to the throne; Meren must continue to play the role of Tabra, but her kidnapper is keeping secrets too. They are each responsible for lives beyond their own. They are in awful danger, and they might be falling for each other.

The Liar’s Crown has mystery and intrigue, magical powers and amulets, strange beasts and frightening environments. Meren is navigating the beginnings of love, romance, and sex – her old friend Cain has just voiced his amorous intentions as the man of shadows comes along. She yearns for her own identity (like any eighteen-year-old) but also feels her responsibilities toward her sister, her family, her dominion, her people. She has her own individual desires and also wants the best for her society. She is caught up in the difficulties of friendships, filial and romantic love – as are we all.

Meren is an accurate teenager, and sometimes feels a bit juvenile, which I guess is where I get that YA flavor I mentioned earlier, but that all feels true-to-life; and these themes are certainly universal. The storyline offers suspense, plotting for good and for ill, unknown intentions, the puzzle of whom to trust… there are battles, new alliances and tragic losses, and there are a handful of brief but well-written and compelling scenes of kissing and one memorable sex scene. This book had me looking forward to when I could snuggle back up with it, and that’s always a win. I smell a sequel, and I’m looking forward to it.


Rating: 7 death worms.

The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone by Audrey Burges

This captivating novel of miniature furniture and big themes braids strong friendships, romance, family ties and the importance of stepping outside of one’s comfort zone.

Audrey Burges’s The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone charmingly combines threads of magic, whimsy, romance, grief and loss in a debut novel of great feeling.

Readers first meets 30-something Myra in 2015 in the Arizona mountains, where she lives in the attic of her late grandfather’s cabin. She is regularly visited by her best friend Gwen, who forms Myra’s main link with the outside world–along with the website by which hundreds of thousands of followers know the Mansion, Myra’s life’s work and greatest love. She inherited the large, highly detailed, finely wrought miniature (don’t call it a dollhouse!) from her beloved step-grandmother, Trixie, who, along with Grampa Lou, taught her sewing, woodworking, painting and sculpting. “I know what gemstones look like water and what pen can draw the most convincing chain stitch on a washcloth that’s too small to sew. I can be eclectic or traditional, modern or romantic, and the Mansion absorbs those dreams into its walls.” In flashbacks, the novel also reveals a very young Myra in her loving relationship with Trixie, until the older woman’s tragic death on Myra’s fifth birthday. Other chapters introduce a woman returning to her stately home in Virginia in the 1930s. And in 2015 Virginia, a young man named Alex discovers Myra’s website, “The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone,” and the miniature Mansion itself, which is, shockingly, a perfect match to the riverside family estate where he lives alone.

Interspersed with chapters alternating between Arizona and Virginia are short essays that Myra posts on her blog: “I’ll set out with the simplest plans, a minor tweak, and wind up with a choice between full-scale renovations and a shift of perspective. An attitude adjustment or a gut job.” These many threads form a rich portrait of several easy-to-like characters.

Myra still grieves the loss of her Grandpa Lou and especially Trixie, whose skills in making miniatures she honors in continuing to curate the Mansion, painstakingly redecorating room by room. She is a recluse, but the Mansion’s website offers a rare and rich connection to the outside world; her followers view the Mansion as both escape and refuge. Then Myra is threatened with eviction, and her carefully guarded small world tilts. Things begin moving around in Alex’s home and in Myra’s miniature version–piano music emanating from a room without a piano; things that go bump in the night. The keepers of both houses must reassess their relationships to their homes and to the larger world, and it may take more than Gwen’s prodigious business savvy to save the Mansion.

Burges carefully constructs her plot with as much quirkiness and love as any of Myra’s miniatures. With sympathetic characters, high stakes and winning miniature chifforobes, The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone is dreamy, sweet and satisfying.


This review originally ran in the November 29, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 hairpin legs.

The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Following The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in the Inheritance Trilogy comes The Broken Kingdoms. (I’ve already begun on book three, The Kingdom of Gods.)

Spoilers from book one – not this book – follow.

So, we are continuing in that world in which Yeine becomes a god – or, lives her partner-soul’s god-life. In this installment, we switch protagonists, but continue with a first-person narrator who is still just learning about the world in which she lives and what role she plays in it. Here, the narrator is Oree, who like Yeine is an immigrant from the outer kingdoms to the center – but unlike Yeine, who arrived with some privilege, Oree lives not in Sky proper but in Shadow, the surrounding city where the great tree blocks most of the sunlight. Oree is a working artist who sells her wares in the street to pilgrims, other travelers from outer kingdoms come to pay their respects. (In the new world, it is uneasily permitted to worship not only Bright Itempas but other freed gods and godlings.) Oree is also blind, or nearly blind: she can see magic. Magical objects and places and people glow, and this aids her otherwise dark world. She lives in Shadow because there is so much magic there: she can see better. Or, to put it better, she is drawn to magic. Vision is a happy side effect. Her blindness is fascinating not least because she works as a visual artist, and does her best work as a painter.

This gives Jemisin the opportunity to do some interesting sensory work, playing with the visual arts and other senses, like the smells and textures that accompany different colors of paint. I love the way Oree’s vision and blindness work with magic. Here and in other plot threads, we continue to develop this fictional world and its rules – what happens when gods and mortals have babies, for examples. Also as in book one, there is a mortal who shares sex – and maybe even love – with gods and godlings. This series does involve romance, and sex. We’re talking about only one or two sex scenes per novel, but they are some of the best I’ve read.

Oree is a lovely protagonist and narrator, with a complicated past, frustrated and foolhardy – or brave – enough to stand up to those in power, godlings, even gods. She takes in a mysterious stranger and discovers a murdered godling, and finds herself embroiled in matters way over her paygrade – or are they? Jemisin continues to explore big themes (like the sins of our fathers, for example). Not for the first time, I am reminded that even in sci fi/fantasy, the lessons can be very much about humans. (I’m thinking again about the Lilith’s Brood series, as well as the rest of Jemisin’s outstanding work.) Also, this series is undeniably sexy. I’m pretty excited about book three, and looking for more.


Rating: 8 windows.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin remains outstanding. I can’t get enough.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first in another trilogy (hooray!), and again I’m hooked. At its start, we meet a narrator who writes,

I am not as I once was… I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

Her narrative comes in fits and starts; she sometimes has to back up and restart, because she is truly trying to remember as she tells her story. Her mother was an heiress of the privileged, ruling class, who gave up her birthright to marry a man from outside that class. Yeine (our narrator) has grown up in Darre, her father’s land. At nineteen, she is a chieftain there, and recently orphaned, when she is called before her maternal grandfather, effectively ruler of their known world. After considerable travel, she arrives at his court at Sky where he names her his heir, which shocks everyone – Yeine herself not least – especially because he already has two competing heirs. And so Yeine is thrown into a dangerous game of politics and intrigue, peopled by players she does not know.

Except not just people.

There were three gods once.

Only three, I mean. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. They breed like rabbits. But once there were only three, most powerful and glorious of all: the god of day, the god of night, and the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades in between. Or order, chaos, and balance. None of that is important because one of them died, the other might as well have, and the last is the only one who matters anymore.

And the dangerous game that Yeine is now playing, against her will, involves various gods as well as ruthless people.

I love the plotting and intrigue, and the characterization. I love the mythology of gods, their relationships and shifting allegiances, and that old concept that the gods are apt to be just more powerful versions of us, in all our pettiness and flaws: “We made you in our image, remember.” There are some positively dynamite sex scenes (sex with a god), and some very relateable human moments: missing one’s parents, struggling to figure out an unfamiliar culture, and (one that the romcoms love) a so-called barbarian wrestling with becoming a princess overnight. I also appreciate the nuances in narration by a character whose identity, whose very self, changes over the course of her story. Yeine’s issues with memory are challenges of perspective, too.

As usual, Tor.com has written an excellent review (in this case by Kate Nepveu) that I’ll direct you to here, borrowing just a brief snip:

…the book is beautifully paced, with plot happenings and worldbuilding revelations coming at just the right intervals to make the book extremely hard to put down. It surprised me considerably more than once, and while other people may be better at predicting plot than I am, the book doesn’t depend on surprise for its force.

What can I say? Worldbuilding, plot, character, narrative voice, twists and turns. Can’t wait for more. Buy any & all Jemisin.


Rating: 8 marks.

Once More Upon a Time by Roshani Chokshi

Once upon a time, there lived twelve reasonably attractive princesses who, when lined up together, caused such a sight that the world agreed to call them beautiful. And so they were.

Prince Ambrose and Princess Imelda fall in love at her sister’s wedding; her father, being thrifty, asks them to wed the very next day to save on expenses. He gives them a kingdom called Love’s Keep, which will thrive and prosper only as long as its rulers remain in love. Naturally, then, Imelda falls ill; a convenient witch offers to save her life if Ambrose agrees that they will give up their love for each other, thereby damning both Love’s Keep and their marriage. This story begins when Ambrose and Imelda must leave Love’s Keep, that barren land. Before they part ways forever (unclear on why they every wound up together in the first place), a different witch (at least I think it was a different witch?) appears and offers them a quest. The point of the quest is not for them to fall in love again, but stranger things have happened on quests. The estranged king and queen, then, set off through strange lands, to have adventures and meet wild beasts, cannibals, and a horse cloak that thinks it’s a horse. What will they find, and lose?

I am much intrigued by this deceptive little tale, which seems simple on its surface but (as so often!) contains depths. Both prince and princess have some hangups, some baggage, some triggers. Both have put up defensive mechanisms that limit their access to joy and love, and this is not the usual material of prince-and-princess fairy-tale romances, but it is the material of real life. I love that this princess has a trigger about the objects that have been used in her past as a means to exert control, to tie her to the earth. And in a classic miscommunication, her prince’s attempt to use that very mechanism to free her will be misinterpreted – as can happen when we establish less-than-rational associations. There is a question built in throughout as to where love comes from, and whether it can be regained once lost. What is really the obstacle to the success of the relationship and of Love’s Keep? Imelda fears that even in her joy,

This feeling will trap you. There is no freedom in this.

Is love a trap? Can one be safe in love?

Ambrose knew there was no trust in love.

Love made no promise to stay, to put down roots.

Later,

Ambrose knew there was no trust in love.

But there was no love in trusting that truth either.

As ever (and echoing that recent read, Everything, Everything), these things only work if you take a risk that they won’t.

You think it’s lust, but it’s not. It’s bravery. To close distances. To take the raw, beating part of you and hold it up to the light.

A romance, yes, but a far more pragmatic one than fairy tales tend to be. At only 133 pages, it’s an easy and absolutely joyful read. Also, please note that Imelda goes around saving Ambrose’s tail more than vice versa. I’d never heard of Roshani Chokshi but will have to find more.


Rating: 8 apples, naturally.

movie: Everything, Everything (2017)

I loved the book so much that I thought I’d love the movie, but I was wrong. I found it more gooey and less substantial, leaning too heavily on the staring into one another’s eyes and the admittedly compelling romantic trope of the view between two windows. (Also the beauty of both starring actors – and they are beautiful! but not what makes the story work.) The mother character is less warm here, and therefore less sympathetic; the mother-daughter relationship has none of the sweetness that makes it work in the book. It’s all less developed, as is always the case with book-to-movie adaptations. If the novel rose above the potentially juvenile nature of the “young adult” designation, the movie did not.

On the other hand, there was this bookstore shot with an out-of-focus copy of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake in the foreground as an Easter egg, so that’s worth some points.

I’m sure this movie is for somebody – perhaps it’s perfect for the young adult audience; it got good audience reviews. I found it too simple and saccharine. I watched the trailer for the movie version of The Sun Is Also a Star and decided to save my money. Oh well.


Rating: 4 books.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

After The Sun Is Also a Star I was sold on anything Nicola Yoon. Everything, Everything is her first novel, also a YA romance of star-crossed lovers, heavy on metaphor. I will buy whatever she writes next.

Madeline Whittier is just turning eighteen when we meet her. She lives in an immaculate home, in an entirely white room where “book spines provide the only color” and her best view of the outside world; she hasn’t left the house in seventeen years. She has SCID, or Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or “bubble baby disease.” Luckily, her mother is a doctor, so she has the best care. She loves her books and goes to school via video calls and the occasional, exhaustively decontaminated visit from her architecture teacher. She has a great relationship with her nurse, Carla, and with her mom; she’s really not unhappy with this life, until a new family moves in next door. Through pantomimes from their windows, and emails, and IMs, Madeline and Olly fall in love.

SCID (a real disease) literalizes several truths about the more universal coming-of-age story. Madeline’s mother wants to protect her, while Madeline begins to chafe at the limitations of that protection. Falling in love involves risk, and necessitates keeping secrets. Throughout this book runs the question of whether love can really kill us or not; for Madeline, perhaps, it literally can. But for Madeline, as for all of us, it is also true that for her to grow into adulthood, she’s going to have to take some risks, and her mother will have to release her grasp a little bit.

The teenaged romance is as enchanted, magical, and absolute as these things really are. Olly is a delightful character, and like the male love interest in The Sun Is Also a Star, he has his own interests and personality to complement Madeline’s. Madeline lives through her books, especially The Little Prince, until her world suddenly grows exponentially larger. Olly is building a fanciful model of the universe on his roof, to escape the trauma of his own home life. They are very sweet with each other, and the whole story is best read in a breathless rush, the way young love happens. Yoon writes lovely, fresh, sparkling prose about universal experiences made specific, detailed, and gorgeous. Her characters are multifaceted and loveable. I feel like I get to disappear into these stories, and I can’t wait for her to write another one.


Rating: 8 rewards.
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