Luck of the Titanic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.

Valora Luck almost misses her chance to be one of those passengers when her entry is blocked thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricts the admission of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Valora is used to obstacles, though, and isn’t about to let a silly policy stop her from getting on board and seeing her twin brother Jamie for the first time in years.

Jamie is traveling on the Titanic as a seaman on his way to Cuba with the rest of his crew but Val has bigger plans for both of them. Reunited for the first time since their father’s death, this is the perfect opportunity for the twins to revive their acrobatics act–an act that Val knows will be good enough to attract the attention of the Albert Ankeny Stewart. One look at their performance and Mr. Stewart will have to recruit them for the Ringling Circus. Then Val and Jamie can finally get back to being family again instead of near strangers.

Val’s plan is perfect. Until disaster strikes and, as the Titanic begins its last night as an ocean liner, Val and her brother will have to worry about surviving the present before they can plan for the future in Luck of the Titanic (2021) by Stacey Lee.

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Luck of the Titanic is narrated by Val as she struggles to board the luxury liner and secure passage into America for herself and her brother. The story is inspired by the real Chinese passengers on the TitanicYou can read more about Lee’s real-life inspiration to write this story in an essay she wrote for Oprah Daily.

Lee once again delivers a masterful work of historical fiction. Luck of the Titanic is carefully researched with front matter that includes a cast of characters and diagrams of the famous ship. The balances portraying the very real racism and intolerance Val and her fellow Chinese passengers would have encountered on the ship (or in attempting to travel to the United States) while also highlighting small joys as Val reconnects with her brother, befriends his crewmates, and as all of them discover the magic of this larger-than-life ship before it strikes an iceberg and begins to sink.

Val is an accomplished acrobat which adds a fun dimension to the story. Because of the novel’s setting, this aspect of Val’s life can never be the main point of the story but it still adds so much to her character as readers see her talent and joy in her work–and the contrast in how Jamie feel’s about the same performance skills.

Readers familiar with the history of the Titanic will recognize many key points including the iconic state rooms and grand stairway while the story also shows more of third class (steerage) where Jamie and his crew are located. The novel does include an attempted sexual assault which moves the plot forward (necessitating the separation of Val and some of her friends as the iceberg hits) but also feels excessive in a story that already has plenty of tension and strife for the characters.

Lee also includes nods to common theories about contributing factors to the disaster including the lack of binoculars for crew working in the crow’s nest, the pressure on Captain Smith to drive at speed, and of course the lifeboats (of which there were too few) being launched without reaching full capacity. Other details (the lack of proper warnings from the Marconi operators, the confusion as Titanic tried to signal for help from nearby ships) are left off-page in favor of a focus on the characters. While Lee shows more behind-the-scenes areas of the ship, this novel is largely populated by fictional characters whenever possible leaving notable survivors like Molly Brown and crew member Violet Jessop out of the narrative entirely.

Luck of the Titanic is both gripping and melancholy as the novel builds to its inevitable conclusion. This story of survival and family is completely engrossing while also asking readers to consider whose stories are deemed worth telling in history–and how we can work to widen that scope. Recommended for fans of adventure and historical fiction novels.

Possible Pairings: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

Defy the Fates: A Review

*Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars.*

Defy the Fates by Claudia GrayAfter their first unlikely meeting, Abel and Noemi Vidal have traveled the Loop together, saved Genesis forces from annihilation in battle, and stopped an intergalactic plague.

Now, to save Noemi one last time, Abel will have to risk everything including his own cybernetic body as he seeks help from his creator and potential destroyer.

Left for dead, Noemi doesn’t know what it means when she is saved thanks to parts that make her eerily similar to Abel. Not quite mech, but not quite human Noemi is no longer sure if she has a place on her home world anymore than she knows if she has what she needs to save Abel.

As Earth prepares for the final battle with its colony planets, Noemi and Abel once again find themselves at the center of the conflict. With the final battle looming, this unlikely pair will finally see if they’ve done enough to save the colony planets–and each other in Defy the Fates (2019) by Claudia Gray.

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Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars. The novel alternates between Abel and Noemi’s first person narrations.

Gray builds well on the tension and world building from previous installments in this fast-paced trilogy. The stakes are higher and the dangers are greater as the story builds toward its dramatic finish.

Because of the plot structure, numerous recaps of previous triumphs and battles are repeated throughout the story which diminish the tension. As Noemi and Abel continue to struggle with the question of where they each belong–both together and apart–some of this installment does start to feel like filler.

Defy the Fates is a solid conclusion to an action-packed trilogy perfect for readers who enjoy sci-fi and adventure with just a hint of romance. Fans of the series will appreciate the callbacks to pivotal moments and characters from earlier in the series.

Possible Pairings: Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, Beta by Rachel Cohn, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Partials by Dan Wells

A Season of Sinister Dreams: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy BanghartStill grieving the death of his son and heir during the Sickness years earlier, the elderly king of Tyne forces all magic workers to the capital where they can prolong his life and protect the castle while the rest of the kingdom suffers.

Annalise has spent years in the castle secretly using her unwieldy magic to weave a web of influence around the king, his grandson (and her cousin) Prince Kendrik, and the king’s advisors. Annalise hopes to exact revenge against the king for her mother’s death–a plan that is close to fruition when Annalise accidentally uses her magic on Kendrik leaving him hidden and monstrously transformed while Annalise becomes the new heir.

Meanwhile, Evra’s quiet country life is ruined when her magic manifests years later than expected making her the first girl ever to become a Clearsee. As magical prophets Clearsees (usually men) use their magic to interpret visions meant to guide and protect the kingdom. While Annalise prepares for her coronation, Evra reluctantly arrives at the capital where she sees cryptic visions hinting at danger. But is the danger a threat to Tyne’s rulers or is it the rulers themselves? in A Season of Sinister Dreams (2021) by Tracy Banghart.

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This plot-driven standalone fantasy alternates chapters between Annalise and Evra’s first person narrations. All characters are presumed white.

With Annalise used to hiding the scope of her powers and Evra newly invested with magic, both narrations are claustrophobic leaving readers and characters floundering. Themes of agency as both heroines try to defy expectations are undermined by extremely limited world building and backstories that never fully explain character motivations or actions–particularly Annalise’s.

Fans of Banghart’s Grace and Fury will appreciate this book’s strong female leads, fast-paced action, and the focus on Evra and Tam’s friendship despite other shortcomings.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Broken Web: A Review

Broken Web by Lori M. LeeThe Soulless is awake and recovering in the Dead Wood. The long peace between the nations of Thiy might be crumbling. And Sirscha and her best friend Saengo still have no idea how to fix any of it.

The world believes that Sirscha is a rare soulguide but she and Saengo know that Sirscha is actually a soulrender–just like The Soulless. Despite the dangers, Sirscha is determined to stop The Soulless and, if she can, save Saengo from the rot he infected her with that is slowly killing her.

With powerful allies and even more powerful enemies circling, Sirscha will have to risk everything to find–and fight–the most immediate danger in Broken Web (2021) by Lori M. Lee.

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Broken Web is the second book in Lee’s Shamanborn trilogy which begins with Forest of Souls.

Set two weeks after the explosive conclusion of book one, Sirscha and Saengo are still trying to understand Sirscha’s new powers and Saengo’s role in nurturing them as a familiar. Treachery is a constant threat hanging over the girls and their allies as they try to learn more about the Soulless and how to stop him once and for all.

Lee has created a nuanced and compelling world in this series although this book focuses more on action to move the series toward what promises to be a shocking conclusion.

Broken Web is a fast-paced, exciting installment in a singular fantasy series. A must read for fans of book one; a recommended series for readers seeking a new friendship focused fantasy adventure.

Possible Pairings: Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, The Reader by Traci Chee, Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer, Fireborne by Rosaria Munda, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

10 Truths and a Dare: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

10 Truths and a Dare by Ashley ElstonTruth: School has always been Olivia Perkins’ thing. It’s the reason she took so many AP classes that she had to squeeze in an off-campus gym class, the reason she knows exactly what she wants to major in next year at LSU, and the reason she will be salutatorian for her graduating class.

Truth: Olivia has been looking forward to Senior Party Week since she was a freshman. Every year graduating seniors host extravagant themed parties and they are not to be missed. With invites that include pajama parties, tea parties, a rodeo themed party, a scavenger hunt, and more, Olivia’s week is packed. Sure, her mother has a tracking app on Olivia’s phone while Olivia is home alone but she can handle that, right?

Truth: All of Olivia’s plans change when she finds out she might not graduate because she never completed the hours she needed to pass golf.

Truth: No one can find out about this mess and, with some help from her cousins and best friends, Olivia might be able to keep it under wraps. All she has to do is work at a golf tournament for four days while swapping phones with Charlie, Sophie, and Wes so that Olivia’s mom (and the rest of her enormous family) never finds out.

Truth: Senior Party Week is turning out to be nothing like Olivia expected with fewer parties, a lot more sunburn, and one cute golfer that even a planner like Olivia never could have prepared for in 10 Truths and a Dare (2021) by Ashley Elston.

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10 Truths and a Dare is a companion novel to Elston’s 10 Blind Dates which follows Sophie’s post-breakup shenanigans over winter break while she reconnects with her boisterous family–including cousins Olivia and Charlie and childhood friend Wes–and herself. This book is set the summer after Sophie’s adventures while Olivia works to make sure she graduates on time. Sections from Sophie, Charlie, and Wes’s point of view also show readers what’s happening while they are on phone duty pretending to be Olivia.

This story has a lot going on with parties, swapped phones, a very high-stakes golf tournament, and lots of secrets. Chapters start with a party invitation and a truth from Olivia, tying back to the book’s title and adding one more layer to an already packed story. For me, this felt like one element too many and working a bit too hard to fit Olivia’s story into a structure that made more sense for Sophie’s book.

That said, this is a still a really fun story filled with lots of great moments leading up to summer and graduation. Elston dedicates the book to the graduating classes who didn’t get these classic high school experiences because of the pandemic. My hope is that some of them can enjoy it vicariously with Olivia and her family.

10 Truths and a Dare is a fun, summery story filled with excitement for what’s next and nostalgia for what won’t come again. Recommended for readers looking for a summer romance where you’ll fall in love with the main character’s family right along with her love interest.

Possible Pairings: Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway; 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz; I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo; Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks; Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno; Save the Date by Morgan Matson; Summer Days and Summer Nights edited by Stephanie Perkins; Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie Rigaud; My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma; Recommended For You by Laura Silverman; This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Realm Breaker: A Review

Realm Breaker by Victoria AveyardCorayne an-Amarat is a pirate’s daughter eager to embark on her own adventures at sea in Allward. But she is also the last of the ancient Cor bloodline and the only one who can use the ancient spindleblade to protect her realm and make sure the Spindles that can open destabilizing passages between realms are closed.

Reluctant to embrace this lineage, Corayne joins weary immortal Dom as he attempts to mount a second quest to succeed where the first failed in closing the Spindles. Aided by a mercenary assassin and Andry, a squire and the only mortal to survive the first quest, the group will face numerous obstacles as they struggle to work together to save the world in Realm Breaker (2021) by Victoria Aveyard.

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Aveyard follows up her blockbuster Red Queen series with this homage to high fantasy that works to make more space for women and offer a more inclusive cast. The realm of Allward features people with a range of skin tones and backgrounds–Andry is described as “honey brown” while Corayne has “golden skin.”

Shifting viewpoints, flashbacks, and changing locations cut through much of the novel’s potential urgency as the narrative pauses continuously to ruminate on the failed quest seen in the prologue and offer character backstories.

Aveyard creates a compelling world with ample space for female characters in a traditionally male genre. Despite its start and stop pacing, Realm Breaker is action packed with plentiful fights, chases, and other derring-do.

Possible Pairings: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Furyborn by Clarie Legrand, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser, Fable by Adrienne Young

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

City of Villains: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

City of Villains by Estelle LaureMary Elizabeth Heart remembers when magic left Monarch City with the sudden and complete disappearance of the Scar’s newest skyscraper two years ago. It couldn’t compare to the murder of her parents and sister, but this loss is much bigger for Monarch City.

Now Mary is a high school intern with the police. Tensions are always high between the Scar’s Legacy residents with magic and the wealthy Narrows encroaching on the land for cheap real estate and not caring about the area’s magical legacy. But now a killer is taunting the police sending gift boxes of body parts.

When Mally Saint, the daughter of one of the city’s richest residents, goes missing Mary Elizabeth is as surprised as anyone to be put on the case with rookie officer Bella Loyola. As the unlikely duo delves deeper into the case, Mary Elizabeth will have to decide what to do when she discovers uncomfortable truths about the culprit, her home, and her friends in City of Villains (2021) by Estelle Laure.

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City of Villains is the first book in a trilogy that re-imagines the origins of some of Disney’s most iconic villains in a fantasy noir setting. Think Veronica Mars meets CW’s Nancy Drew but make it Disney.

Laure brings a lot of dimension to familiar territory as she ages down familiar characters like The Queen of Hearts (Mary Elizabeth), Captain Hook (Mary Elizabeth’s boyfriend), Ursula (Mary Elizabeth’s best friend) and more from all areas of the Disney morality spectrum. Disney fans will enjoy hunting down all of the Easter egg references to iconic characters. Those less familiar with the Disney-verse might wonder at the one-dimensionality of some characters who feel more like caricatures when distilled down to their key traits for brief appearances in the novel.

Monarch City as a setting owes a lot to Batman’s Gotham City with its sinister shadows and political unrest. Unfortunately, Gotham City does not translate well to prose. Part of why it works in Batman is because that series is presented as comics or films—mediums with very different world building requirements than novels.

While the premise of a teen investigating a high profile case pushes the limit for plausibility, Mary Elizabeth’s persistence and grit more than make up for this shortcoming. City of Villains is a lot of potential that isn’t always allowed to fully blossom because of the marks it has to hit as a Disney property. A must-read for Disney fans and worth a look for readers who enjoy fantasy noir.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

Lore: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It’s not always the truth that survives, but the stories we wish to believe. The legends lie. They smooth over imperfections to tell a good tale, or to instruct us how we should behave, or to assign glory to victors and shame those who falter.”

Lore by Alexandra BrackenEvery seven years Zeus punishes nine Greek gods by forcing them into the Agon. Warrior families have hunted the gods in every Agon for generations hoping to absorb their powers and receive blessings in the intervening years.

Lore always knew she was destined for greatness and glory in the Agon, meant to restore her family house’s honor. That was before Lore’s own disastrous mistake brought about the death of her entire family.

Now, seven years later, Lore thinks she’s finally made it out and started a new life. But the return of her childhood friend Castor and the goddess Athena appearing at Lore’s door prove she never escaped the brutality of the Agon. Not really.

After years of hiding and trying to forget, Lore will have to come out of the shadows and embrace her complicated past if she wants to live long enough to have a future in Lore (2020) by Alexandra Bracken.

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Lore is a standalone fantasy novel. Although the world building is heavily intertwined with Greeky mythology, the story itself includes enough information to make it approachable to those unfamiliar with the inspiration material. The book also includes a character list broken down by the family houses and lines. Lore and Castor are white although several members of the Agon families (including dark skinned Van and Iro) are from other racial backgrounds.

Lore is a fierce and often reluctant narrator. Most of her past is colored by trauma and regret over events that slowly unfold in flashbacks for readers as the novel builds to its explosive final act. Despite her desire to isolate herself and avoid further losses, Lore is surrounded by a strong group of friends and allies who add drama and levity to this potentially grim story. Lore’s best friend Miles Yoon–an outsider to the world of the Agon–is an especially fun addition to the cast and a steadfast friend to Lore.

Set over the course the week-long Agon this fast-paced story plays out against the backdrop of New York City as Lore and her allies search for a way to end the Agon forever. Lore’s efforts to find a place for herself as a young woman, both away from the Agon and within it, in a world all too quick to dismiss her is both timely and empowering.

Lore seamlessly blends elements from Greek mythology with a modern fantasy setting for a perfectly paced story of survival and fighting for what we deserve.

Possible Pairings: Antigoddess by Kendare Blake, Starling by Lesley Livingston, The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan, Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

Killing November: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Killing November by Adriana MatherNovember Adley agrees to leave her quaint small town to stay safe while her father takes care of a family emergency. When November wakes up in a remote building without electricity, completely off the grid, she realizes her father may not have given her the full story.

The Academy covers everything from poisons to the art of the deception, students should never reveal details of their past, and the school adheres to an eye-for-aye punishment.

November is pretty sure she can survive anything for a few weeks while her dad wants her to lay low. But even November isn’t sure what to expect when students start dying and everyone seems to think it has something to do with her in Killing November (2019) by Adriana Mather.

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Killing November is the high octane start to Mather’s November duology which concludes with Hunting November.

Killing November is a fun, cinematic read. Mather leans heavily on movie conventions notably including flashbacks, but these elements never integrate fully into the story. Honestly, November is often quite annoying as a protagonist. Her constant shock and horror at the Academy’s brutality is understandable at first but begins to grate as it continues for almost the entirety of the novel.

Despite numerous details, the world building for the Academy and the students who attend it are never fully explained instead serving as a backdrop for all of the novel’s action. Where this story really shines is with the secondary characters notably including Layla and Ash who add dimension to a story that otherwise runs the risk of falling flat.

Killing November is a fresh if underdeveloped take on the classic boarding school mystery. Recommended for fans of that sub-genre and spies reminiscent of James Bond and his ilk.

Possible Pairings: I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

Courting Darkness: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Courting Darkness by Robin LaFeversAfter working with her sisters of Mortain to help the duchess of Brittany secure both her duchy and her betrothal to the king of France, Sybella thought her work was done. After everything she had risked and sacrificed, after everything she had learned about herself and her god, Sybella had thought at last she would be safe and able to rest.

She is wrong.

Things in Brittany are changing and, as the young duchess prepares to travel to France for her marriage, Sybella realizes she and her sisters are still far from safe. Traveling to foreign territory as a lady in waiting, Sybella is fiercely determined to protect her duchess and her sisters with her beloved Beast at her side. But forces are conspiring to limit the duchess’s new power and ensure that Sybella’s task will be far from easy even with undercover allies waiting to be of aid with in the French court.

Genevieve has been undercover for so many years, that she is no longer sure what she is supposed to be working toward. After years of waiting to be called into service, Gen begins to fear the day that she will be useful may never come.

Feeling the walls of court life closing in, Gen sees no other option but to take matters into her own hands. Manipulating a long-forgotten prisoner into an uneasy bargain will secure both Gen’s escape and his own. But figuring out what to do without guidance from her convent and her god is much harder.

Isolated and alone, Gen will have to do what she thinks is right to save the only home she’s ever known–even if it is a distant memory. But court life is as treacherous as it is decadent and soon both Gen and Sybella will realize they are not the only players with moves to make in Courting Darkness (2019) by Robin LaFevers.

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Courting Darkness is the first book in a duology. The story is set in the same world as LaFevers His Fair Assassin trilogy including Grave Mercy, Dark Triumph, and Mortal Heart. This book can be read independently of the original trilogy although the world and characters overlap.

This book alternates between Sybella and Gen’s first person narrations in this story set months after the conclusion of LaFevers’ previous trilogy in the year 1489.

Although set in the same world as previous books, much of the mystique of Brittany and the Nine gods who preside there in the guise of neo-Christian saints is lost in this companion novel. While Sybella and Gen contend with consequences of changes to Mortain and the gifts he has bestowed on his daughters, Courting Darkness is much more grounded in political intrigue and the duplicitous French court.

LaFevers once again draws heavily from real historical events to deliver and atmospheric and well-researched story helmed by two singular heroines. Unfortunately, as Sybella realizes how much of a threat her family still poses, much of the confidence and self-assurance she gained in the previous trilogy is erased. Gen, meanwhile, is insufferably arrogant about her own ability to determine the best course of action and reckless in pursuit of her own goals.

That said, a few surprise twists and the promise of our narrators finally meeting in the sequel Igniting Darkness may be enough to salvage this promising but so far underwhelming duology.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke