Spells Trouble (Sisters of Salem #1) by P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast

I’d never read any books from either of these bestselling authors before I picked up Spells Trouble, but I really love the idea of a mother-daughter duo writing urban fantasies featuring teenage twin sisters who are witches descended from those persecuted at the infamous Salem witch trials.

Hunter and Mercy Goode are on the cusp of their 16th birthdays. They’ve lived in Goodeville all their lives with their Wise Woman, Kitchen Witch mother Abigail. On the night of their 16th birthday Abigail is going to consecrate them to their chosen deities, while reaffirming the protection spell that keeps their town safe from the mythological terrors at their door. You see, Goodeville was founded on a conjunction of five different underworlds, and witch magic is essential to keeping the gateway to each underworld firmly sealed against the monsters that threaten to break loose from their immortal prisons in order to freely prey on mortals.

Trouble is, something goes terribly awry at the consecration ceremony, and Abigail has to sacrifice herself in order to protect her daughters and seal the Norse gate once more. With her dying words, she begs her girls to fortify the gateways, each marked by an unusual tree in a pentagram pattern around the town. Hunter and Mercy must fight through their sorrow, bewilderment and sheer lack of knowledge in order to figure out how to carry out their mother’s wishes, even as a monster lurks, waiting to kill again.

I really dug a lot of the ideas here, and admired how the Casts acknowledge and honor the contributions of Native Americans in/to their magic system. I also liked how the twins were shaped as distinctly different personalities: Hunter is introverted but strong after a young adolescence of being bullied for being a lesbian, while Mercy is light-hearted and kind, if perhaps too enamored of her hot jock boyfriend Kirk. In the face of tragedy, Mercy gets sad while Hunter gets mad, and the friction of their flaws is dealt with a sensitivity that makes for absorbing reading. I also really enjoyed the depictions of their relationships with their best friends and with Kirk, as well as with the delightful Xena.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/28/spells-trouble-sisters-of-salem-1-by-p-c-cast-kristin-cast/

Still Lives by Maria Hummel

I am a total sucker for mysteries set in the art world, so I was already inclined to love this book even before I was seduced by, first, the unusual-for-the-art-world LA/West Coast setting, then by Maria Hummel’s gorgeous prose.

Still Lives follows Maggie Richter, one-time investigative journalist turned PR flack for the prestigious Rocque Museum. She’s dreading their upcoming exhibit by Kim Lord, a painter known for her provocative self-portraits, featuring the artist posing as various female murder victims through American history. The concept has Maggie feeling incredibly queasy, and she’s not the only one at the Rocque to feel that way, tho she’s probably the only one to dread Kim’s show for the entirely personal reason of her ex-boyfriend Greg having very quickly moved on from their relationship to take up with Kim instead.

When Kim is a no-show to her own opening, Maggie is relieved at having avoided another awkward encounter with her and Greg both. But after Kim’s phone and a bloody cloth are found in places that not only suggest foul play but also incriminate Greg in her disappearance, Maggie is drawn into investigating what happened to the missing artist, not only as part of her work at the art museum, but also because of her unresolved feelings for Greg. Helped and hindered in turn by her friends and co-workers, Maggie must navigate not only rarefied art circles, but also her own uncomfortable relationships with LA and her past and the people and feelings she can’t seem to leave behind.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/27/still-lives-by-maria-hummel/

Sunday Funday In Koreatown by Aram Kim

This adorable picture book is a wonderful blend of Richard Scarry and Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, from a Korean American perspective. Yoomi is looking forward to Sunday Funday but everything seems to go wrong from the very moment she wakes up. No cartoons, no favorite breakfast, no favorite shirt to wear — and that’s even before she leaves the house! Surely, things will get better once she arrives in Koreatown with her dad for a visit to the shops and to grandma… won’t they?

Teaching the value of perseverance and flexibility, Sunday Funday In Koreatown embroiders on its universal themes with details that lovingly highlight the culture of the Korean diaspora in a way that embraces both readers already familiar with the culture or otherwise. I really enjoyed following along with Yoomi’s day and especially appreciated the recipe for kimbap at the end! My twins ADORED this book. As they’re both cat people — in more senses than one, as my youngest especially sometimes behaves more like a sentient feline than a semi-feral child — their sense of identification with Yoomi and the rest of her cat family was high. This book was perfect for reading aloud and captured their attention from start to finish. My ten year-old read this on his own, ofc, and rated it quite highly. “4.5 stars!” he chirps, while perched on my lap, typing away at his own writing assignment (yes, I am twisted in my office chair to write rn. Yes, this is a very awkward position to type from.)

I love how Aram Kim uses this series to casually incorporate Korean American culture into contemporary children’s literature, showing how to do it in a way that’s wildly entertaining while being respectful both to her people and to young readers. It’s another great book for Asian American Pacific Islander heritage month, and one I’m so pleased to have on my family’s shelves.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/26/sunday-funday-in-koreatown-by-aram-kim/

Rami The Ramadan Cat by Robyn Thomas & Abira Das

The second part of my sister’s Raya book-present-bundle to my eldest, this delightful tale of a lonely young Muslim boy finding friendship through a lost cat was a joy to me and my 10 year-old (and had my perhaps overly-emotional sister in tears, lol.)

Saleem has just moved to a new city and desperately misses the friends and cousins who made up his old social circle. With Ramadan approaching, he also misses all the hustle and preparations that are surely going on where he was from, despite the best efforts of his parents to make up for it. But a lost cat appears in his backyard on the very first night of Ramadan, a cat who takes very quickly to Saleem and his parents. At first Saleem wants so much to keep Rami — nicknamed for the holy month — for himself, but an incident at the mosque makes him realize that the right and responsible thing to do is try to reunite the cat with its own family. But what will Saleem do when his only friend leaves him?

Tho I grumbled a little at the idea that Saleem had no friends despite being in a new school and mosque, I do understand that it can be difficult for some kids to make human friends vs animal. Robyn Thomas’ empathetic, understated tale evokes both the loneliness of the recently displaced as well as the seemingly magical comfort of an animal buddy. I imagine that she and artist Abira Das collaborated closely to ensure that the perfectly suited illustrations showed off the multicultural aspects of Saleem’s household (apple pie and Eid Mubarak balloons!) and neighborhood. It was a breath of fresh air to see a diversity of religions, races and abilities handled so matter-of-factly throughout.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/25/rami-the-ramadan-cat-by-robyn-thomas-abira-das/

The Lights Of Prague by Nicole Jarvis

How to make the now well-worn trope of vampires and monster hunters feel fresh and new again? Set the proceedings in historic Prague, with a firm eye on local history and mythology free of the influence of the too-standard figures of modern, Western-European-leaning pop culture, while also infusing a 21st-century sensibility to the proceedings.

We open on Domek Myska, a lamplighter who takes his responsibilities of keeping night-time Prague safe for pedestrians both seriously and to their logical conclusion. While lamplighters have historically acted as a de facto policing force in many cities, Domek and his fraternity also guard against the literal monsters that haunt Prague, most often in the form of deadly pijavice (the book never uses the word vampire but that’s their closest analog.) When Domek dusts a pijavice one night, the strange urn the monster was carrying transfers itself to his ownership, forcing Domek to reassess not only his abilities and his loyalties, but also to question what it means to be a monster.

To complicate matters further is his relationship with the rich and widowed Lady Ora Fischerova. Beautiful and eccentric, she’s spent long years hiding a secret of her own. Coming back to Prague, however, has unearthed a past that she wants to remain buried yet can’t stay away from. She’s also finding it hard to resist Domek’s aura of solidity and kindness. Will her attractions, to him and to her past ties, prove her undoing?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/24/the-lights-of-prague-by-nicole-jarvis/

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

In 1808 the United States made the importation of slaves illegal, but illegitimate trade in humans continued until the eve of the Civil War. Supply and demand persisted on both sides of the Atlantic. “Habituated to the lucrative enterprise of trafficking and encouraged by the relative ease with which they could find buyers for their captives, Africans opposed to ending the traffic persisted in the enterprise.” (xviii) Enslaving people had a traditional role in some societies, capturing slaves brought political dominance, and selling them onward brought wealth, which in turn bought more power.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

“King Ghezo of Dahomey renounced his 1852 treaty to abolish the traffic and by 1857 had resumed his wars and raids. Reports of his activities had reached the newspapers of Mobile, Alabama. A November 9, 1858, article … caught the attention of Timothy Meaher, a ‘slaveholder’ who, like many proslavery Americans, wanted to maintain the trans-Atlantic traffic. In defiance of constitutional law, Meaher decided to import Africans illegally into the country and enslave them. In conspiracy with Meaher, William Foster, who built the Clotilda, outfitted the ship for transport of the ‘contraband cargo.’ In July 1860, he navigated to the Bight of Benin. After six weeks of surviving storms and avoiding being overtaken by ships patrolling the waters, Foster anchored the Clotilda at the port of Ouidah.” (xix)

A young man named Kossola was among the thousands being held in the slave pens in Ouidah. He had been captured in a raid on his home village and brought over land to be sold overseas. He survived the passage on the Clotilda, the last known transport of slaves to the United States. He was enslaved on a farm in Alabama until 1865 when Union troops brought news of his freedom. Thereafter, he lived in a settlement of former slaves known as Africatown (later, Plateau) working as a farmer and a laborer until an accident made him incapable of heavy labor. The community appointed him sexton of the church. That was his occupation when Zora Neale Hurston, then a student of anthropology (she worked with Frank Boas, who also taught Ursula K. Le Guin‘s father), visited Kossola in 1927 and wrote down his history and stories.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/24/barracoon-by-zora-neale-hurston/

Bismillah Soup by Asmaa Hussein & Amina Khan

In a contemporary Somali village, young Hasan promises his mother a feast while his father is away working in the city. Trouble is, there isn’t any food in the pantry. Hasan runs to the local mosque, and with the help of the imam and various (semi-unwitting) villagers and mosque goers, puts together the promised feast along the lines of the classic Stone Soup fable.

My ten year-old loved this book, rating it a solid 5 stars, but I spent most of my time either chuckling or exclaiming over what a grifter Hasan was being. I remember the original fable involving a peddler finessing a town into sharing their individual ingredients for the common good, thereby teaching them a necessary lesson about working together (or socialism, if you will.) This book had the same basis but a narrower focus: Hasan isn’t trying to feed a village, he’s trying to impress his mom. Fortunately for him, his village is willing to go along with it, in the way of any mosque-focused community looking for an excuse to come together and have a feast.

And that, I thought, was the largest part of this book’s charm, the way it displayed the generosity and spirit of a Muslim village humoring a boy who loves his mother, while feeding the community. It showcases a trust in God’s will via the good-heartedness of one’s neighbors, all through a simple tale that riffs off of a familiar fable. Amina Khan’s expressive illustrations suit the story perfectly, evoking a Somali village and its inhabitants with joyful cartoon imagery well-suited for the book’s target audience.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/21/bismillah-soup-by-asmaa-hussein-amina-khan/

Sage And King by Molly Ringle

This might be the first fantasy romance novel where not only did I not want to gouge out the eyes of the protagonists at any point in the proceedings, I was actively rooting for their happiness because I respected every single one of their decisions.

Prince Zaya, third in line to the throne of Lushrain, spends his days being the frivolous young man about town, devoted to the theater and a mainstay of the newspapers’ gossip pages. When his older sister the Queen and his older brother, her heir, are killed in a freak landslide, Zaya is suddenly thrust into power, a position that he neither welcomes nor enjoys. As part of his initiation to the throne, he’s brought to the mountainside retreat of Heartwood, where he discovers an awful secret: magic, long outlawed in his nation, has been secretly thriving, cultivated here by the sages and advisors relied on by generations of monarchs.

Col may be one of the most powerful sages Heartwood has ever trained, but his relatively sheltered upbringing amidst them does nothing to prepare him for the glamour or intensity of the young king. Tasked with gradually introducing magic to Zaya, and hopefully earning his confidence and trust, he doesn’t expect their initial attraction to grow into something more profound. But he’s keeping a terrible secret from Zaya that could not only destroy their relationship but also the very stability of their kingdom.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/20/sage-and-king-by-molly-ringle/

The Album Of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory

This novella combines three of my favorite things: murder mysteries, sci-fi (and I don’t care if calling it that is “vulgar”, Matt) and boy bands! Add a police detective with a fascinating history, literary snarkiness and huge doses of humor, and you’ve got a book that hits all of my reading sweet spots.

Las Vegas Police Detective Luce Delgado is called to the scene of the Matador hotel, where music producer Dr Maury Bendix has been found clawed to death in his bed, next to the bloodied and extremely drugged up form of one of his protegees, Bobby O, “the cute one” of the world’s hottest boy band WyldBoyZ. As Bobby O is part ocelot, he’s immediately considered prime suspect, tho it soon becomes clear that all five members of the WyldBoyZ — genetically modified human-animal hybrids who fled a burning barge conducting secret scientific experiments in the middle of the ocean before achieving global superstardom — had plenty of reason to want Dr M dead. Could the murderer have actually been Devin, “the romantic one”, who was perhaps too close to Dr M’s wife? Or Matt M, “the funny one”, who was looking to leave the band to pursue academia? Surely it couldn’t have been Tusk, “the smart one”, or Tim, “the shy one”? Could the murderer really be, as Luce’s pun-loving partner Detective Banks posits, “a rabid fan”?

Complicating matters is the fact that Luce’s 9 year-old daughter, Melanie, is a megafan herself. But Melanie’s expertise may be the key to cracking the case, and to saving the lives of even more people in the WyldBoyZ’ charmed, endangered circle.

The Album Of Dr Moreau packs a lot of terrific cultural commentary into less then 200 pages, celebrating and critiquing its subjects in witty ways that lean into both thoughtfulness and humor. Matt really is the funny one — I loled at at least two of his wisecracks, needing to put the book down as I just lost it laughing. The novella’s length, however, is also its main drawback. This is such a smart story that deserves to be drawn out into a full-length novel, with a little more reflection and slightly less pressured pacing. I felt like the murder mystery went by too quickly, juddering forward in transitions that could have used a little more story padding to smooth it all out. The sci-fi aspects could also have been given a bit more meat: I’d still like to know the whole deal with Jorge, for example. Like, I get who he is but I’d like to know a bit more of how he became who he did. That said, I really appreciated all the writing on music and pop culture, which was treated here with both the reverence and ribaldry it deserved. I’ll definitely be looking out for more of Daryl Gregory’s work from here on in.

The Album Of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory was published May 18 2021 by Tordotcom and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/19/the-album-of-dr-moreau-by-daryl-gregory/

Punch Me Up To The Gods: A Memoir by Brian Broome

Structured around Gwendolyn Brooks’ seminal poem We Real Cool and a bus ride where Brian Broome observed a young Black boy named Tuan interacting with his father, this autobiography in essays is a profound, powerful examination of the life of a gay black man growing up in late 20th century America.

Born and raised in 1970s northeastern Ohio, Brian knew he was different from other boys at an early age, and not in a way that his parents or society approved of. His father, especially, thought that constantly, viciously beating him would instill the desired manliness that he seemed to lack. As soon as Brian was able, he left small town life for the lure of a big city, where he thought he might finally find his people and a life of liberation and love. Things don’t go as planned, and the shy young man discovers drink and drugs before finally being able to discover himself.

Standard memoir stuff, but Mr Broome pulls even fewer metaphorical punches than his father did in actuality, tho the younger man directs his ruthlessness in a more deserved direction, interrogating the issues of race, sexuality and masculinity that made him the person he is today. Punch Me Up To The Gods is an unflinchingly honest examination of all the terrible things that shaped him, whether done to or by him, as well as a stunningly generous expression of love and compassion for all the hurting, hurtful people just struggling to survive in a world that too often encourages fear of and cruelty to the “other”. The memoir is beautifully shaped, using Ms Brooks’ poem as a narrative scaffolding while also providing another throughline in the form of Mr Broome’s meditations on Tuan’s life as they both journey on the bus. The writing is astounding throughout this brilliantly crafted, searingly intelligent critique of a culture that could have very easily destroyed Mr Broome. That he could come through decades of pain to write this masterpiece of empathy and honesty is a testament both to his own character and will, and to the threads of kindness and hope that we need to keep displaying in our everyday lives. Books like this encourage us all to work to be less racist, to be less colorist, to not judge people based on gender or sexuality. It’s an important, vital, absorbing read.

I did not, however, care for Yona Harvey’s introduction. On the plus side, it didn’t spoil Mr Broome’s narrative. On the minus, it talked mostly about James Baldwin (to which, awesome but irrelevant — Mr Broome discusses Mr Baldwin in the text and it doesn’t need embroidering upon) and also about Ms Harvey’s own attitude to the book, which quite frankly set my teeth on edge. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had patience for those kids who revel in shaming and narcing, the way that entire “you’re gonna get in trouble” singsong passage she includes so vividly evokes. I’d honestly recommend skipping the introduction entirely so you can better enjoy this excellent memoir without the intrusive shadow of judgey assholes looming larger than they need to.

Punch Me Up To The Gods: A Memoir by Brian Broome was published today May 18 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/18/punch-me-up-to-the-gods-a-memoir-by-brian-broome/