All These Bodies: A Review

All These Bodies by Kendare BlakeA series of strange murders is leaving a grisly trail across the Midwest in the summer of 1958.

The bodies are found in their cars, their homes, their beds. All of them are drained of blood. But the scenes are clean. No blood anywhere.

On September 19 the Carlson family is slaughtered in their secluded farmhouse in Black Deer Falls, Minnesota and the police might finally have a lead when Marie Catherine Hale is found at the scene.

Covered in blood, mistaken for a survivor, it soon becomes clear that Marie is something else when police realize the blood is not hers.

Michael Jensen has been following coverage of the murders all summer, eager to test his mettle as an aspiring journalist and pave the way out of his small town. When his father, the local sheriff, arrests Marie, Michael knows it’s an opportunity he likely won’t see again.

Talking to Marie, assisting the police, having firsthand access to the case files gives Michael a close-up view of the investigation and the girl at its center. Marie doesn’t look like a killer, but she’s confessing to Michael over a series of interviews. She says there’s more to the killings than anyone can imagine but as her story unfolds Michael is the one who will have to decide if the truth is the same as what people will believe in All These Bodies (2021) by Kendare Blake.

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All These Bodies was a 2021 Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Best Young Adult Novel. The story is narrated by Michael and all characters are assumed white.

Blake expertly unspools Michael’s naked ambition to become a journalist with his increasingly thorny ethical dilemma when it comes to using Marie’s story for his own gain. The narrative focuses on Marie and whether being complicit is the same as being an accomplice while slowly teasing out what may have happened to the Carlsons and all the other victims.

Centering Marie while having the story related by Michael explores questions of the male gaze and agency as the story builds to its dramatic finish. Marie’s journey in the media from victim to villain is nuanced and contrasts well with Michael’s own conflicting feelings on whether Marie can be the violent criminal authorities seem to think she is while also being his friend.

Michael’s pragmatic narration only increases the tension as Marie shares her confession to her role in the murders and hints at something even more sinister at play while leaving space for readers to interpret events for themselves.

All These Bodies is an atmospheric story at the intersection of true crime and horror; one that will stay with you in all of the best ways.

Possible Pairings: No Saints in Kansas by Amy Brashear, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Breaker by Kat Ellis, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, Broken Things by Lauren Oliver, Sadie by Courtney Summers, The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas, The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

Want to know more? Check out my interview with Kendare.

The Drowned Woods: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-JonesEighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is the last living water diviner in Wales. Taken from her parents when she is was eight-years-old by Prince Garanhir, she is one of the most powerful tools in the royal arsenal. Until the prince goes too far.

Unwilling to become a weapon used against innocents ever again, Mer has been on the run for the last four years. Trained by the king’s own spymaster, Renfrew, Mer is well-equipped to hide but even she doesn’t have the resources to disappear–especially not from her own mentor.

After years of acting on the prince’s behalf, Renfrew’s loyalties have shifted. And, as every spy knows, a person with a knife and a cause can topple kingdoms. Which is exactly what Renfrew has in mind. If Mer uses her powers one last time to help destroy the magical well that protects Garanhir’s lands–and his power–the prince’s reign will be over and Mer will finally be free.

It won’t be an easy mission. But anything is achievable with the proper resources.

Fane, a fighter with prodigious strength to kill anyone who strikes him, has his own reasons for joining Renfrew’s cause. After his years as an iron fetch, Fane is left with few illusions about his own place in the world or the grief-stricken bargain he trapped himself in years ago. Accompanied by Trefor, a Corgi who may or may not be a spy for the fae, Fane is used to keeping his own counsel and wary when it becomes clear that both his loyalties and his pacifism will be tested on this journey.

With help from the rest of Renfrew’s crew including Ifanna, the Princess of Thieves and a figure from Mer’s past, they should have everything they need. More importantly, Mer should be positioned to get everything she wants as long as she remembers the most important rule a spy ever learns: always plan two escape routes–especially when magic is involved in The Drowned Woods (2022) by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

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The Drowned Woods is set in the same world as Lloyd-Jones’ previous novel The Bone Houses. Although the stories tie together, both can be read on their own. Characters are assumed white; Mer is bisexual. The narrative shifts viewpoints–primarily focusing on Mer and Fane while flashbacks highlight key aspects of Mer and Fane’s character and reveal key details about other characters, especially the mysterious Ifanna.

With a daring heist, spies, and thieves, it’s no surprise that The Drowned Woods is filled with numerous twists and turns as the story shifts and shifts again in satisfyingly unexpected ways. As more of Mer’s backstory is revealed the complicated relationships between the crew add dimension to the plot and depth to the characters.

Lyrical prose emphasizes the fairy tale elements of Lloyd-Jones’ world building while deliberate plot management ensures quick pacing, lots of action, and plenty of humor from Trefor. Mer–a seasoned spy born with magic and trained to be ruthless–and Fane–a seasoned fighter who bargained for magic and learned his own limits the hard way–are interesting foils and allies throughout the story. Their obvious chemistry comes across in subtle interactions and well-drawn dialog as their loyalties are tested throughout the novel.

The Drowned Woods combines the best pieces of fantasy and adventure to create a gripping story filled with magic and an ensemble cast you won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Want to know more? Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Emily!

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm for review consideration*

The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne: A Review

The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne by Jonathan StroudScarlett McCain has been a formidable criminal for years; her reputation as a notorious outlaw growing with every bank robbery.

Far beyond the safety of the city walls after a particularly daring escape, Scarlett finds an abandoned bus. Typically this could mean danger or access to supplies which are always scarce. Or it could mean both.

The bus holds more than Scarlett bargained for when she finds herself stuck with the hapless, lone survivor of the crash. Albert Browne projects harmless naivete with every word out of his annoying mouth. Scarlett is fairly certain she could break him in half without much effort. And she is sorely tempted.

When Scarlett reluctantly agrees to escort Albert across the wilds of England to a rumored safe haven it changes the trajectory of both their lives forever.

Not necessarily for the better.

Even Scarlett is surprised by the dogged pursuit once she and Albert begin traveling together evading the law, trackers, and worse. Scarlett is no stranger to being on the run. But she isn’t sure what it means for herself or her strange new companion when it seems their pursuers aren’t chasing her at all in The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne (2021) by Jonathan Stroud.

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The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne is the first book in Stroud’s latest YA series. Scarlett and Albert are white, there is some diversity (as indicated by names and described skintones) among the secondary cast. The story alternates close third person perspective following Scarlett and Albert with a gripping audiobook narrated by Sophie Aldred.

Fans of Stroud’s previous novels, particularly his Lockwood & Co. series, will appreciate the same snark and reluctant bonding between these ragtag protagonists. The action-filled narrative contrasts well with both Scarlett and Albert keeping their pasts close as they learn to trust each other and slowly reveal their secrets.

With a focus on the main characters and their adventures some of the world building feels more like broad strokes than concrete details as Stroud paints a bleak future with England fragmented from societal instability and implied damage from climate change. New world orders and dangerous creatures roaming the wilds add further tension to this fast-paced story and leave plenty of room for expansion in later installments.

The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne is a compelling origin story for two outlaws with hearts of gold and hopefully many more stories to tell.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, Dustborn by Erin Bowman, The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Flood City by Daniel Jose Older, The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah, Ice Breaker by Lian Tanner, Blood Red Road by Moira Young

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

Book of Night: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“That’s what good con artists did. They didn’t need to convince you of anything, because you were too busy convincing yourself.”

Book of Night by Holly BlackCharlie Hall remembers the way things were before magic was real. Her life would have taken a different course without shadow magic and the underground market it created for stolen shadows, arcane spells, and–most importantly for Charlie–hidden knowledge. She might have become a different woman if she didn’t move so quickly from small cons to the much bigger cons of stealing long hidden, very dangerous spells.

But some bullets can’t be dodged. You have to take the hit.

Which is why Charlie is more determined than ever to start fresh. No cons. No heists. And definitely no magic. She can’t stop her younger sister Posey from searching online for traces of magic at all hours, can’t stop Posey from splitting her own tongue so she’ll be ready when her shadow wakes up. What Charlie can do is take a boring stable job tending bar, spend time with her boring stable boyfriend Vince, and make sure Posey’s tuition is paid on time. Simple.

Except you don’t get into the spell market without building a reputation, without meeting unsavory characters, without sometimes being the unsavory character. That makes it hard to start fresh.

When the worst parts of her past come back to haunt her, Charlie’s boring stable life is thrown into chaos. Delving deeper into the world she thought she’d left behind, Charlie quickly learns that danger doesn’t just lurk in the shadows–sometimes it’s the shadows themselves in Book of Night (2022) by Holly Black.

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Book of Night is Black’s adult market debut.

Charlie is a pragmatic main character, having survived her share of hard knocks and dealt a few herself along the way. Even in world with magic, Charlie is aware that to be normal means fitting into a very narrow box–one that’s hard to find when you’re poor and have a past like hers. While this tense narrative centers on a job Charlie can’t refuse, at its core Book of Night is a story about growing into yourself and learning to embrace every part of yourself–even the ones you’ve tried so hard to bury.

When magic can be bought and sold or stolen and hoarded, Charlie walks the shadow-thin line between going too far and not going far enough to protect everyone she loves. Book of Night delivers noir elements with world-weary heroine Charlie alongside the fantasy and wonder inherent to a world where magic is real but still new enough to not be fully understood. Book of Night is filled with satisfying twists and gasp-worthy reveals perfect for long-time Holly Black fans and new readers alike.

Possible Pairings: Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Gallant by V. E. Schwab

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

The Last Legacy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Last Legacy by Adrienne YoungThe Roths are well-known in Bastian as thieves and cheats. There are rumors they’ve done worse. But no one is stupid enough to say that to a Roth’s face.

Bryn knows her uncle Henrik has plans for her. She knows she has a place with the fiercely loyal family if she can only be ruthless enough to claim it.

But after years spent trying to cram herself into the narrow role the Roths have carved out for her, Bryn also knows that sometimes opportunity is just another word for a stacked deck and being accepted by her family will come with a steeper cost than Bryn ever imagined.

When business trumps everything, there’s always a bargain to be made but in a family where there are rules and consequences, making your own fate could be a costly mistake in The Last Legacy (2021) by Adrienne Young.

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The Last Legacy is set in the same world as Young’s Fable series. It is set after the events of Fable and Namesake and can be read on its own. Main characters are assumed white. The audiobook features an excellent narration by Suzy Jackson.

Bryn brings a singular focus to her narration as she struggles to understand the complex dynamics of the Roth family and her role among them. Bryn is well aware of her strengths and what she brings to the table as the Roths try to scrub their less-than-glowing reputation in Bastian and earn a coveted spot as merchants. It’s only as she learns more about the Roths–and the lengths Henrik is willing to take to secure lasting stability for them–that Bryn begins to understand her own naivete about her family and, more importantly, the cost of trying to forge her own path among them.

With schemes and violence at every turn, Bryn finds an unlikely ally in Ezra–the family’s prodigiously talented silversmith. Young does an excellent job building their fractious relationship from grudging respect into a slow burn romance that will have lasting consequences for the entire Roth family. As Bryn’s options for working with her family and within Bastian’s cutthroat guild system dwindle the narrative becomes claustrophobic, conveying Bryn’s desperation as the story escalates and builds to its dramatic finish.

While lacking the nautical flavor of the Fable books, this book is a satisfying expansion of that world. The Last Legacy is a complex, fast-paced adventure with a slow burn romance and a heroine charting her own course.

Possible Pairings: Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier, Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer, The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

The Girls I’ve Been: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“What didn’t kill me made me a victim. I made me stronger.”

The Girls I've Been by Tess SharpeIt was only supposed to be twenty minutes. Twenty awkward minutes. But then it would be over. They’d meet in the bank parking lot, go in, make the deposit of the money from the fundraiser, and twenty awkward minutes later it would be over. Nora O’Malley (not her real name, by the way) has survived a lot worse than spending twenty minutes with her new girlfriend Iris and her ex-boyfriend (always best friend) Wes.

Except Nora also wants to smooth out last night’s “makeout-interruptus” when Wes found out about Nora and Iris by walking in on them. So she gets donuts. With bacon. And sprinkles. Because everyone loves donuts. Then she has to get coffee. So then she’s late and Wes and Iris are both waiting on her and there are two people ahead of them in line at the bank. Which usually wouldn’t be a problem except the two people ahead of them are also robbing the bank. And they decide to keep everyone hostage.

Nora’s survived a lot worse than some amateur hour bank robbery and she’s had plenty of therapy to unpack all of it. But she’s never had to survive anything with two of the three people she cares about more than anything, not to mention a lot of other innocent bystanders.

As the daughter of a con-artist, Nora has been a lot of girls. She’s seen a lot of things. She’s done worse. But she made it out. She’s a different girl now. A smarter, stronger one.

Now, Nora is going to need every one of those girls she used to be to thwart this robbery, keep Wes and Iris and everyone else safe, and maybe also make it out alive herself in The Girls I’ve Been (2021) by Tess Sharpe.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Girls I’ve Been is a fast-paced, standalone novel; the audiobook is read by the author. All major characters are presumed white. Nora’s bisexuality and Iris’s endometriosis add intersectionality to the cast and serve as key elements of the plot.

The Girls I’ve Been is a tense thriller narrated by Nora. Time stamped chapters during the robbery and a running list of assets Nora has to work with in the bank underscore the urgency of the situation and maintain momentum as the hostage situation escalates. Nora’s narration is pragmatic and laser focused as she works to keep the other hostages safe and tries to communicate with her older half-sister Lee (also not her real name) who is working with law enforcement on the outside. These chapters are interspersed with flashbacks of the other girls Nora has been under her manipulative mother’s grooming and training highlighting the skills (and trauma) Nora has picked up along the way that will factor in during the bank robbery. Memories of her friendships with Wes and Iris add tenderness to the story although all three have scars (some literal, some psychological) from parental abuse.

Despite the tense situation, The Girls I’ve Been is a really fun, fast-paced story. Sharpe includes all of the best elements of a good heist or con story while also offering a well-drawn look at the steep cost of being immersed in that life–a cost Nora is still paying. Although the sense of menace and danger for Nora and the other hostages is palpable, the novel never becomes graphic or viscerally violent always focusing on the characters’ survival rather than their trauma.

The Girls I’ve Been is a completely immersive, suspenseful novel that centers a bisexual protagonist and queer themes. The story is also refreshingly free of a love triangle or romantic tensions as Nora, Iris, and Wes all work to rebuild the trust between them and strengthen their friendship–while surviving a bank robbery.

Possible Pairings: A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Tell Me My Name by Amy Reed, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

A Criminal Magic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Criminal Magic by Lee KellyThanks to the passage of the 18th Amendment, magic is finally illegal. But making something illegal doesn’t make it disappear–it just makes it sexier and, for two unlikely sorcerers, that much more dangerous.

Joan Kendrick has seen firsthand how damaging magical shine can be. It is more potent than liquor, more addictive than narcotics, and in the wrong hands it can be deadly. When it looks like magic might be the only way to save her family’s home, Joan forges a risky bargain. If Joan can learn to harness her magic it could change everything. But only if she can stay alive long enough to enjoy it.

Magic has taken everything from Alex Danfrey forever changing the trajectory of his life, landing his father in prison, and even ruining Alex’s own good name. Alex never wanted to work as an undercover prohibition agent–certainly not one peddling magic for the head of the Shaw crime syndicate. But who is he to turn down the one chance he has to turn his life around?

Joan and Alex are on opposite sides in a battle that’s been threatening to erupt for years. When lines are drawn both of them will have to determine where the others’ loyalties–and their trust–truly lies in A Criminal Magic (2016) by Lee Kelly.

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Kelly’s unique vision of magic and magical distillation adds an interesting element to the world here, as do the complex illusions Joan learns to peddle as a speakeasy performer. Unfortunately so much time is spent explaining the internal logic of the magic systems that much of the plot’s forward momentum is lost in these technical details.

One of the main tenets of prohibition, in retrospect at least, is the fact that much of the movement was grounded in false logic. For example, removing a man’s access to liquor would not make him less likely to hit his wife (the movement was very interested in stopping domestic violence). Instead it makes it more likely for him to hit his wife while sober.

What happens, then, if the idea of prohibition is actually grounded in fact? Kelly spends a lot of time telling readers that magical shine is as dangerous as everyone fears–something shown repeatedly in the story as peripheral characters suffer through addiction and withdrawal. While this concept is interesting it is never fully explained or explored in the narrative never doing anything new or fully addressing the inherent tensions of the time period.

A Criminal Magic is a heady blend of historical fiction and fantasy whose main characters have obvious chemistry albeit in an often under-utilized setting.

Possible Pairings: Westside by W. M. Akers, The Diviners by Libba Bray, Storm Front by Jim Butcher, The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman, Priest of Bones by Peter MacLean, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

Fire & Heist: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fire & Heist by Sarah Beth DurstFor the Hawkins family, successfully pulling off your first heist is a major accomplishment. It’s an introduction into society, a rite of passage, and of course the best way for a were-dragon to start building their first hoard of gold.

The technical term is actually wyvern, but Sky has always thought calling herself and her family were-dragons really gets to the point even if no wyvern has been able to take on their true dragon form since they lost their connection with Home generations ago.

With Sky’s first heist coming up fast, Sky has to start picking her crew and figure out how to get over her ex-boyfriend Ryan once and for all. But with her mother missing and an ancient jewel in the mix that could change everything for the wyvern community, Sky’s first heist is going to be anything but routine in Fire & Heist (2018) by Sarah Beth Durst.

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This standalone fantasy is part adventure and part heist as Sky tries to uncover the truth about her mother’s work and the jewel she was tracking before her disappearance. High stakes heist scenes contrast well with high fantasy elements as Sky learns more about her dragon past.

Snark, light romance, and real mystery make Fire & Heist a page-turning adventure with distinct characters in a truly unique world. Recommended for readers looking for a new spin on both dragons and heist tropes.

Possible Pairings: Heist Society by Ally Carter, Wicked Fox by Kat Cho, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston, The Iron King by Julie Kagawa

The Deceivers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Careful is a luxury you have when your baseline isn’t chaos.”

The Deceivers by Kristen SimmonsBrynn Hilder is willing to do whatever it takes to get out of her hardscrabble neighborhood in Chicago. Unfortunately, a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to paying for college.

When her mom’s sleazy boyfriend finds out about Brynn’s low level cons and the money she’s already saved up, he steals all of it and gives Brynn an ultimatum: start running cons for him or start selling his drugs.

Enter Vale Hall, an elite boarding school that seems to be the answer to all of Brynn’s problems. The school promises a free ride to any college of her choice . . . for a price. Instead of earning good grades and building up her extracurriculars, Brynn and the other Vale students are expected to use their conning abilities to help the school with special projects.

Brynn knows she’s up to the task. But as she learns more about her first mark and the lines she’ll have to cross to entrap him, Brynn has to decide how far she’s willing to go to get what she wants in The Deceivers (2019) by Kristen Simmons.

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The Deceivers is the start of Simmons’ Vale Hall trilogy–a con filled story partially inspired by the story of Odin and his Valkyrie.

Brynn is a practical, calculating narrator. She has spent years hardening her heart and telling herself she can do whatever it takes to chase a better life without fully understanding the risks or the costs. After being the poorest person in the room for so long, her time at Vale Hall forces Brynn to confront the fact that she isn’t the only one facing hard choices and limited opportunities.

Used to depending on herself and no one else, Brynn slowly and reluctantly builds up a support system at Vale Hall as she gets to know the other students, especially her potential love interest Henry and his group of friends–part of a supporting cast of characters who are as varied as they are authentic.

The Deceivers is the perfect blend of action and suspense as Brynn delves deeper into Vale Hall’s underworld and the stakes continue to climb for her and the another students. Smart cons, snappy dialog, and pitch perfect pacing set this novel apart. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Killing November by Adriana Mather, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carry Ryan, The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

Caster: A Review

Magic killed Aza Wu’s sister. Shire had more experience and more innate talent as a caster than Aza. She was able to work in secret, completing illegal full magic spells for customers to help keep Wu Teas open and pay their required tributes to Saint Willow–the gang leader overseeing their sector of Lotusland.

Shire has been dead for almost a year and Aza is no closer to fully controlling her own abilities as a caster or paying back her family’s mounting debts.

Desperate and just a little reckless, Aza’s efforts to investigate Shire’s death leads her to an underground casting tournament. Winning could be solve most of Aza’s problems. But losing could leave her dead in Caster (2019) by Elsie Chapman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Caster is a gritty urban fantasy set in a world where magic–that is, full magic–taps into the earth’s energy and is slowly destroying it. Desperate to stave off further disasters, full casting has been declared illegal. But that doesn’t change that some people still have the ability to cast–or the fact that it’s the only option Aza sees for keeping her family afloat.

Stark prose, restrained world building, and suspense immediately draw readers into Aza’s world and the web of intrigue surrounding her sister’s death. High action and detailed fight scenes bring the casting tournament to life.

Caster seamlessly blends mystery and fantasy elements in this story where organized crime and full magic go hand in hand. Based on the ending, readers can only hope that this is but the first of Aza’s adventures.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, White Cat by Holly Black, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, Devil’s Pocket by John Dixon, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan, Unwind by Neal Shusterman

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*