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The last wizard in the city of Oblya has three daughters, and his youngest, Marlinchen, is meek and subservient, bending to her father's tempestuous nature and her sisters' scornful criticisms. But Marlinchen knows the boundaries of her proscribed life and does not stray outside them. That is, until her sisters drag her into the city to go to the ballet. The dance awakens something in Marlinchen, as does the sight of its principal dancer, Sevas. The door to rebellion now cracked open, Marlinchen begins to strain against the cords that bind her to her father's will. And as she steps out of his shadow bit by bit, there is no returning to the way things used to be.

Ava Reid unearths the darkness at the root of fairy tales.

Set in the same universe as Ava Reid's debut novel, The Wolf and the Woodsman, Juniper & Thorn tells a haunting story of modernization, love and escape from abuse. Reid's prose is at times heavy and muted and at others soaring and poetic, contrasting Marlinchen's family home, the only world she has ever known, with Sevas' seemingly liberated life—a life Marlinchen desperately wishes to experience. The expansiveness Reid evokes in Marlinchen's interactions with Sevas (via his dancing but also simply his earnest, luminescent presence) is welcome and necessary, turning a claustrophobic story into one that is also transcendent and hopeful. This combination of sweeping, emotional descriptions and scenes of tightly wound suspense brings to mind both Eastern European ballet classics such as Stravinsky's “The Firebird” and Tchaikovsky's “Swan Lake” and gothic horror like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House—a juxtaposition that makes Juniper & Thorn an utterly compelling read. 

Readers who would prefer to avoid themes of abuse and self-harm, as well as intense depictions of gore and body horror, should avoid Juniper & Thorn, since these elements recur with frequency. However, readers who are prepared for such territory will find a brilliant novel both tender and chilling, one that will challenge their ideas about monstrosity and magic and drag them from the depths of dread to the heights of hope.

Set in the same world as her debut, The Wolf and the Woodsman, Ava Reid's Juniper & Thorn is a tender, chilling story of love and escape from abuse.

Two-time Booker Prize-winning British author Hilary Mantel's books pack a memorable punch, no matter what she writes. Fans have devoured her Wolf Hall trilogy, whose final book, The Mirror & the Light (2020), was 784 pages long. Her memoir was lengthy, too—400 pages for Giving Up the Ghost (2003). Now readers are in for a decidedly different yet equally rich treat: a brief collection of short stories (clocking in at 176 easily digestible pages) that she intriguingly describes as “autoscopic” rather than autobiographical. 

Learning to Talk consists of seven stories, arranged chronologically, in which Mantel reflects loosely on her English childhood and explores, as she writes in the preface, “the swampy territory that lies between history and myth.” She explains that the writing of these stories was a “strenuous” process that took years. For example, the first and final lines of “King Billy Is a Gentleman” arrived almost simultaneously, but she needed “twelve years to fill in the middle.” 

These are evocative, precisely drawn, ghost-ridden tales about impoverished, difficult times, yet they are also filled with a growing awareness that better things await. In the aforementioned “King Billy Is a Gentleman,” the narrator describes her gradual realization that her mother created a scandal by bringing in a lodger who became her mother's lover. In the arresting “Curved Is the Line of Beauty,” the narrator and her family take a day trip to Birmingham, where the narrator becomes hopelessly lost in a junkyard with another girl—just as Mantel wanders in the memories, myths and secrets that filled her childhood. In “Learning to Talk,” the narrator is beginning to find her voice while taking elocution lessons to learn to “talk proper.” Notably, the narrator says, “Surely it was not necessary to talk for a living? Wouldn't it be possible to keep your mouth shut, and perhaps write things down?”

Why write such stories after publishing a memoir? In the final story, which shares its title with Mantel's memoir, the author answers this question precisely: “The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me. It resists finishing, and partly this is because words are not enough; my early world was synesthetic, and I am haunted by the ghosts of my own sense of impressions, which reemerge when I try to write, and shiver between the lines.”

Learning to Talk is an unusual and ultimately fascinating amalgam of fact and fiction as Mantel sorts through the puzzle pieces of her past. 

Learning to Talk is a brief, unusual and ultimately fascinating amalgam of fact and fiction as two-time Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel sorts through the puzzle pieces of her past.

In Julie Mayhew's Greek island-set thriller, Little Nothings, little cuts do lasting damage and friendships are as intense and heartbreaking as romantic relationships.

Thanks to her friendless childhood and dysfunctional family, Liv Travers never felt like she belonged. Even getting married to her husband, Pete, and giving birth to a daughter, Ivy, didn't fundamentally change how she felt. But bonding with Beth and Binnie at a singalong music class for mothers and babies radically shifted her perspective.

So when an interloper comes along and rocks their happy triad, it's intolerable. The new girl, Ange, is shinier and bossier than Liv's other friends. Soon she has them all in her thrall, and the vibe shifts from supportive and homey to acquisitive and competitive, like a suburban London version of “Keeping Up with the Kardishians.” Regular group outings now take place at fashionable restaurants with bills totalling hundreds of pounds a pop. Every part of the group's lifestyle gets an upgrade, and everyone is expected to conform. It's hard to keep up financially, and even worse, Ange seems to want to run Liv off. Liv is excluded from group events with flimsy excuses, and no one else notices the manipulation. All the “little nothings,” the cuts and insults delivered so casually, add up, and the hostilities increase during an expensive group vacation to the Greek island Corfu. How far will Liv go to protect her found family, and what will she risk?

Rather than follow a chronological timeline, Mayhew uses flashbacks to reveal what pushed Liv and her friends to the brink. It's an effective, psychologically driven structure, with each flashback being triggered thematically by an event in the present. As the full picture emerges, it's easy to wonder if any friendship is worth all that drama, especially as neither Beth nor Binnie really seems to have Liv's back. But to Liv, these women aren't just friends, they're soulmates; Mayhew even likens the intimacy of these female friendships to marriage. In a way that's reminiscent of both Nikki May's thriller Wahala and the novels of Patricia Highsmith, the intense relationships are vital to the women's sense of their own identities. Vowing to not be that lonely girl again, Liv in particular hangs on with the fervor of a person in a rocky marriage warding off divorce.

Anchored by a deliciously layered and desperately unreliable narrator, Little Nothings enriches the familiar setup of an intruder shaking up a happy idyll with a compelling, creative structure and distinctive voice. It's obvious that what Liv needs are better friends and a truckload of therapy, but singular obsessions make for seductive and fun reading, even if the depth of Liv's interiority makes the other characters look thin and shabby by comparison. A good choice for fans of relationship-driven stories with a sinister edge, Little Nothings hits the same sweet spot as the works of Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty.

With her Greek-island set thriller, Little Nothings, Julie Mayhew hits the same seductive sweet spot as writers like Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty.

A Riley Sager novel is a guaranteed wild ride, and the New York Times bestseller’s hotly anticipated sixth book, The House Across the Lake, is no different. Sager is the literary equivalent of a master chef, using a deft hand to configure tasty ingredients—a complex, grieving woman with alcoholism; a missing supermodel with dangerous secrets behind her dazzling smile; and the picturesque lake that brings them together—then adding a generous pinch of pulp and a delicious surprise at the end. The result is an addictive beach read that fans will devour in one sitting and leave feeling thoroughly sated.

Rear Window meets Lake Placid in the story of Casey Fletcher, a character actress with a complicated legacy. Her mother, legendary musical theater performer Lolly Fletcher, who prefers hoofing it on stage to providing emotional support, has shipped her off to the family cottage and ordered Casey to relax and reflect. Casey is also supposed to stay sober, which is all but impossible given her grief over the recent accidental death of her husband, Len, in the lake right next to the cottage. Enter Tom and Katherine Royce, a tech mogul and retired model, respectively, who are staying in the glass house across the lake. A tentative friendship between the women ensues, but soon after, Katherine disappears without a trace. Is Tom responsible? How about hunky handyman Boone? Or do the answers lie in the body of water that claimed the love of Casey’s life?

Sager (Survive the Night, Home Before Dark) balances the novel’s short timeline and limited setting with rich characterization for all, especially Katherine, whom the reader meets as she nearly drowns in the dark, freezing lake, and Casey, whose never-ending supply of snarky one-liners and wisecracks never quite camouflages the deep emotional turmoil that ended her once-successful acting career. The House Across the Lake is a psychological thriller that’s thoroughly personality-driven, following women whose motives, means and opportunities are as murkily fascinating as the titular loch.

Riley Sager’s latest thriller is an addictive beach read that fans will devour in one sitting—and leave feeling thoroughly sated.

The Drowning Sea is an atmospheric procedural starring a detective at a crossroads in her life.

Retired Long Island homicide detective Maggie D'arcy is spending the summer in West Cork, Ireland, with her Irish boyfriend, his son and her teenage daughter. They vacation in the picturesque village of Ross Head, but the idyllic trip is cut short when human remains wash up on the shore near their cottage. The body is that of Polish immigrant Lukas Adamik, whose disappearance months earlier led many in Ross Head to assume that he had returned to Poland. But when the police determine that the body was only recently deceased and rule out an accident or suicide, the mystery of where Lukas has been—and what happened to him—consumes the small community.

In addition to that, Maggie's hostess, Lissa Crawford, asks her to look into the disappearance of her childhood governess, Dorothea. The Crawfords were once the owners of the local manor, Rosscliffe House, which Lissa sold after her family was beset by unfortunate circumstances. Chief among them was her father's tragic suicide on the cliffs, after which Dorothea vanished. As Maggie investigates what happened to Dorothea, she realizes her case may be linked to the murder of Lukas.

The previous two Maggie d'Arcy mysteries have been set in both Ireland and Long Island, but The Drowning Sea completely immerses readers in Ross Head. Author Sarah Stewart Taylor creates a rich and slightly gothic atmosphere, with the ocean beating against the treacherous, wind-swept cliffs as Rosscliffe House looms over it all. Despite this subtle shift in tone, The Drowning Sea continues the series' exploration of the inner life of its main character: Maggie becomes increasingly obsessed with the case, her dogged detective work serving as a distraction from the reasons for her retirement and the question of whether to uproot her and her daughter's lives by permanently moving to Ireland.

The Drowning Sea‘s gorgeous backdrop and stalwart sleuth will satisfy and impress mystery readers, particularly fans of traditional whodunits.

The Drowning Sea's gorgeous setting and stalwart sleuth will satisfy and impress mystery readers, particularly fans of traditional whodunits.

Eily and her father live by the sea, not far from the mysterious island of Lisnashee, home to the fairy folk known as the Good People. Eily's father ventures annually to the island to gather fog, which has magical properties. It's a dangerous job, but the village folk rely on the fog water for charms, cures and protection, particularly from the Good People. But this year, Papa accidentally makes the trip to Lisnashee without his charm meant to ward off fairy spells, leaving Eily with her own job to do.

Marianne McShane's text in The Fog Catcher's Daughter feels like it's been passed down through generations, a folk legend whispered in hushed tones to little ones leaning forward to listen. Her tale is filled with rich sensory descriptions. When she writes that “a cold wind shivered across the sand,” you'll tremble right along with Eily. Young readers are sure to wonder, as I did, whether The Fog Catcher's Daughter is based on a true story. An author's note gives a glimpse into the Irish folklore that underpins the tale, as well as the real-life Moroccan practice of fog catching that inspired McShane to create it.

Illustrator Alan Marks' watercolor art is so ethereal and captivating, you'll want to hang it on the wall. Windswept grasses and tumbling waves create a landscape that seems both fantastical and utterly real. Fog creeps around corners, rises from the ground and blows across the water, becoming a character every bit as significant as Eily herself. At times, Marks depicts the Good People as mere wisps of mist and other times as distinct, ghostly figures, perfectly capturing their ambiguous, tempestuous nature. A soft, warm-toned hearth scene as well as the lush greens of spreads depicting Eily's family's fields offer a reassuring and welcoming contrast to the wild blues and grays of Lisnashee. You'll especially want to linger on a wondrous two-page spread of the village apothecary shop and its shelves packed with plants, shells, stones and bottles. 

Though it contains slightly spooky themes, The Fog Catcher's Daughter doesn't haunt so much as enchant.

This original tale feels like it's been passed down through generations, a folk legend whispered in hushed tones to little ones leaning forward to listen.

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