The Wren Hunt: A Review

cover art for The Wren Hunt by Mary WatsonRaised by her grandfather, Wren Silke has grown up in Kilshamble, Ireland. She knows every inch of the town and the woods. And she knows that every year on Stephen’s Day she will be chased through the woods as part of the annual Wren Hunt.

The Wren Hunt is meant to be figurative–not an actual hunt. But the Judges–a group with magical connections to nature–take the hunt all too seriously chasing Wren until they draw blood. As Augurs–people who can use patterns and connections to see the future–Wren and her community are in the minority in Kilshamble. With Judges controlling most of the nemeta–objects from which both groups draw power–it’s only a matter of time before the Augurs are wiped out entirely.

Eager to help and imagining a future where she won’t be hunted, Wren volunteers to help the Augurs reclaim their advantage (and hopefully some nemeta) by going undercover at Harkness House. But nothing is as it seems among the Judges or the Augurs and soon Wren will have to decide who she can truly trust as she tries to end this bloody feud in The Wren Hunt (2018) by Mary Watson.

The Wren Hunt is Watson’s first foray into YA fantasy.

Wren’s first-person narration is tense and often claustrophobic as Wren tries to stop the latest hunt and only manages to escalate it instead. Her frenzied, stream-of-consciousness style narration is fast-paced and immediate.

Atmospheric descriptions and the eerie opening go far to pull readers into the story and bring Kilshamble to life. Unfortunately the magic system is never explored (or explained) at length making it difficult for readers to keep up with Wren as she is drawn into internal politics and soon caught between both groups in her role as a spy.

The Wren Hunt is a strange and sometimes messy story with an intricate plot set in a complex world. Watson artfully explores themes of agency and loyalty though fails to deliver a truly satisfying fantasy. Recommended for readers who like their books to be part story to absorb and part puzzle to assemble.

Possible Pairings: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima, Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox, Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier, Mister Monday by Garth Nix

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

A Curse So Dark and Lonely: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid KemmererPrince Rhen, heir to Emberfall, is cursed to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth birthday until he can find a woman to fall in love with him even as he transforms each season into a monstrous beast. The season resets after every failure–all three hundred and twenty-seven of them.

When Harper intervenes in what looks like an abduction on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s finds herself transported into another world. Instead of worrying about her dying mother or the risks her brother is taking to pay off their absent father’s debts to a loan shark, Harper is trapped in Emberfall at the center of the curse.

Harper is used to being underestimated because of her cerebral palsy, something that she hopes might help her get home to her family. Instead she is shocked to learn that she is Rhen’s last chance to break the curse. But Harper isn’t sure if the fate of a kingdom can be enough to make her fall in love in A Curse So Dark and Lonely (2019) by Brigid Kemmerer.

Kemmerer’s Beauty and the Beast retelling introduces a unique world filled with fantasy and menace.

Rhen is an accomplished if pessimistic strategist while Harper is impulsive to the point of recklessness. Despite their obvious tension and occasional chemistry, Rhen’s evolving friendship with his guard commander Grey is often more compelling than Harper’s interactions with either man.

While Harper and Rhen accomplish much over the course of the novel, A Curse So Dark and Lonely has little in the way of closure. Rich world building, hints of a love triangle, unresolved questions about the curse, and Emberfall’s uncertain future will leave readers anxious to see what happens next.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Stain by A. G. Howard, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West, Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

*A more condensed version of this review was published in the November 2018 issue of School Library Journal*

Two Can Keep a Secret: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Welcome to life in a small town. You’re only as good as the best thing your family’s done. Or the worst.”

cover art for Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManusWelcome to Echo Ridge, population 4,935. Echo Ridge looks like small town America at its finest. But looks can be deceiving.

Ellery knows about all about the secrets hidden in Echo Ridge because her family is at the heart of them. Her aunt went missing from the town when she was Ellery’s age–sixteen. Five years ago their family was in the news again when a homecoming queen was murdered, her body found at the local Murderland amusement park.

Malcolm wishes he could forget Echo Ridge’s darker side and the role his brother played in the murder five years ago as prime suspect. Declan was never arrested but a small town’s memory is long and he was never cleared either. Even when Malcolm’s mother remarries it isn’t enough to change what the town thinks of his family. Not really.

When Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are sent to live with their grandmother while their mother is in rehab it hardly feels like a fresh start. Instead, Echo Ridge seems to be choked by past tragedies it can’t forget. When another girl–another homecoming queen–goes missing both Ellery and Malcolm will have to explore Echo Ridge’s darkest secrets to uncover the truth and the killer in Two Can Keep a Secret (2019) by Karen M. McManus.

McManus’s latest standalone mystery is a tense exploration of a town with a dark past. The novel alternates between Ellery and Malcolm’s first person narration. This novel capitalizes on the strengths of McManus’s debut novel One of Us is Lying (multiple narrators, tense pacing, conversational and readable prose) without the problematic resolution.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a refreshingly realistic mystery where, although Ellery identifies as a true crime buff and would-be amateur sleuth, she still gets things wrong and still needs help from actual investigators to crack the case.

The contrast between Ellery with her connection to one of the town’s victims and Malcolm with his connection to one of the town’s suspects is striking. Their chemistry and nearly immediate rapport is countered by these preconceived identities that should place them on opposite sides. Instead their friendship is made of stronger stuff with rock solid loyalty and hints of romance that add much-needed levity to an otherwise dark story.

The story’s secondary cast including Ellery’s twin bother Ezra and Declan’s best friend Mia are also welcome additions who flesh out the cast in this short but evocative story.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a taut mystery filled with unexpected turns and surprises that will keep readers guessing right until the last line. Recommended for amateur detectives, mystery lovers, and true crime enthusiasts alike.

Possible Pairings: Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, This is Our Story by Ashley Elston, The Body in the Woods by April Henry, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Amateurs by Sarah Shepard

The Wicked King: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*The Wicked King is the second book in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. This review contains spoilers for the first book in the series, The Cruel Prince.*

“We get power by taking it.”

cover art for The Wicked King by Holly BlackIt has been five months since Jude’s coup to secure the throne for her brother, Oak. Five months since Oak went into hiding in the mortal world and Jude tricked Cardan into accepting the throne in his place.

After years of constantly striving for safety and power in a world determined to keep her at a disadvantage, Jude finally has everything she wants. Cardan is bound to her for a year and a day, making Jude the power behind the throne–a position she hardly could have imagined when she became a spy for the court.

But days pass quickly for the fey and even a year of them is hardly enough time for Jude to accomplish everything she wants.

Jude struggles to make sense of her dangerous attraction to Cardan while scrambling to keep him in check without revealing their alliance. But Jude and Cardan aren’t the only ones fighting to control the throne. With a traitor in their midst and enemies circling, Jude’s bargain with Cardan may expire long before she can ensure Oak’s safety in Faerie–or her own in The Wicked King (2019) by Holly Black.

The Wicked King is the second book in Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. To avoid spoilers, start at the beginning with The Cruel Prince.

The Wicked King picks up five months after the conclusion of The Cruel Prince. Jude should be content, finally in a position of power after living for so long as an outsider. But after years learning strategy at Madoc’s knee, Jude knows better than most that power is much easier to lose than it is to keep. Jude starts this trilogy scrambling for protection. In this installment, she is instead grasping at power as she tries to figure out how to hold onto it.

This installment expands the world as Jude is forced to consider politics between the fey courts–often with disastrous consequences. Additionally, Jude and Cardan continue to hate each other even as they are drawn inexorably together with tension that practically crackles on the page.

Jude continues to wield her greatest asset in Faerie–her ability to lie–with deadly precision. But just as readers think they can guess where this plot will lead, everything changes as it turns out the truth can be as lethal as a well-crafted lie.

The Wicked King is everything I love about The Cruel Prince but amplified. The stakes are higher, the risks are greater, and the twists are all the more shocking because of it. If you’re only going to read one sequel this year, make it this one. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Rule: A Review

cover art for Rule by Ellen GoodlettWith the king dying, his heir murdered, and rebellion brewing in the east it might be only a matter of time before the kingdom of Kolonya and the outer Reaches descends into chaos.

Desperate for an heir, the king finds three unlikely options:

Zofi has lived her entire life with a band of Travelers in the Reaches. Her loyalty to her family is boundless. But only Zofi knows how far she has already gone to protect those she holds dear.

In the Eastern Reach Akeylah is desperate to get away from her abusive father. She’s even willing to perform dangerous and forbidden magic–completing a spell that will have far-reaching consequences for the entire kingdom.

Ren has grown up in Kolonya in the heart of the kingdom. Working as a lady’s maid she is biding her time until she can climb the social ladder out of the servants’ quarters forever. Her latest plot might do the trick, but only if she isn’t arrested for treason first.

Summoned by the king, all three girls are certain they will soon be facing arrest if not execution. Instead are faced with the shocking truth: as the king’s illegitimate daughters all fighting for the chance to become his next heir. The only problem is that someone in Kolonya knows their secrets and is prepared to reveal them all to keep the girls from taking their rightful place in Rule (2018) by Ellen Goodlett.

Rule is Goodlett’s debut novel and the start of a new series. The book follows all three sisters in alternating close third person chapters.

If this book sounds a lot like Three Dark Crowns, that’s because it is. The book starts with a very similar premise but instead of focusing on the sisters’ in-fighting to get the crown these heirs have the additional problem of a blackmailer.

My main problem with this story is that it made no sense to me that the king has not one but three illegitimate heirs that he has chosen to keep away from the palace while still keeping tabs on them. Every problem the sisters have, every misdeed they knowingly or unknowingly committed, stems from being unaware of their parentage which feels extremely convenient as a plot point upon which an entire series hinges.

Zofi, Akeylah, and Ren are interesting heroines in a world that remains surprisingly under-developed considering its fraught politics. They have different reasons to want (and dread) rising to the throne and unique perspectives about their changed circumstances. Subterfuge, scheming, and unsuitable love interests abound as each sister tries to keep her secrets while gaining the upper hand in their journey to the crown.

Rule is a scandalous page-turner ideal for readers who enjoy fantasy and suspense in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

The Wicked Deep: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Wicked Deep by Shea EarnshawTwo hundred years ago in the town of Sparrow three sisters were drowned as witches. Every year since then the Swan sisters have returned to Sparrow, claiming the bodies of unwitting local girls and using them to wreak their vengeance on the town by drowning boys foolish enough to fall under their sway.

Every Swan Season is the same, ending only when each sister has claimed a new victim.

Penny can see what others can’t including long buried secrets about the sisters and the Swan Season. But she knows that secret can only go so far against a curse. She is used to watching the Swan Season unfold with wary detachment, certain that this one will be  like all the others ending with death, suspicion, and grief.

Except this year there is a new outsider in town—a boy named Bo who refuses to believe the Swan sisters can pose any real danger to anyone, especially him. A boy that Penny is determined to protect. As the Swan Season unfolds Penny and Bo will work together to unravel the truth of the curse and the sisters. But as the Swan Season nears its end Penny realizes that the only way to save Bo might be by sacrificing herself in The Wicked Deep (2018) by Shea Earnshaw.

The Wicked Deep is Earnshaw’s debut novel.

The Wicked Deep is a tense bit of fantasy woven through with suspense as the novel builds toward the disastrous conclusion of the Swan Season. Penny’s first person narration is frank and often cynical with lyrical prose as she slowly searches for a way to break the curse and save Bo.

This story is filled with twists and surprises about both Penny and Bo. Unfortunately the story also flags in the second act as Penny and Bo repeatedly discuss what ending the curse might entail and how far they are willing to go if it means freeing the island from the sisters’ menace forever.

The Wicked Deep is an atmospheric story filled with witches, secrets, and a scorching romance with far-reaching consequences. Recommended for readers looking for a spooky book to read curled up by a fire and fans of Practical Magic especially.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

Starry Eyes: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Starry Eyes by Jenn BennettZorie and Lennon used to be best friends. But that was before the homecoming dance last year and well before their families started feuding around the time that Lennon’s moms opened a sex toy shop right next to the massage shop that Zorie’s parents run.

Seeing Lennon and remembering how close they used to be still stings, but they’ve gotten good at avoiding each other. At least, Zorie thought they had until her mom adds a surprise adventure to Zorie’s carefully scheduled summer. (Even though she knows that being spontaneous gives Zorie hives. Literally.)

What starts as a luxe week-long glamping trip to cheer up a friend (and maybe hook up with her longtime crush) turns into a nightmare when Zories realizes that Lennon is rounding out the group. Then things go really wrong and Zorie and Lennon are stranded in the wilderness. Alone.

Needing each other to survive without any distractions might be just what Zorie and Lennon need to reconnect as they try to get back to civilization. But even after working through old hurts and secrets, they’ll have to see if their renewed friendship is ready for the real world in Starry Eyes (2018) by Jenn Bennett.

Bennett’s latest standalone contemporary romance is an absolute delight and has made me an instant fan. I also love the way this book is designed. The book is broken into three parts, each accompanied by a sketch by Bennett (who has a fine arts degree) of Zorie and Lennon’s camping gear. Lennon is an amateur mapmaker and Bennett also created maps to accompany the story which really help bring their down and the trails they travel to life.

Starry Eyes has a refreshingly varied cast and also highlights two of the many alternatives to a “traditional” nuclear family. Lennon lives with his moms but is also close with his Egyptian-American father–something that becomes more important as the plot progresses. Meanwhile Zorie’s mother died when she was eight and since then Joy, her Korean-American stepmother, has been more of a parent than her father leading to divided loyalties as Zorie uncovers a secret that could  tear her parents’ marriage apart.

Zorie is a type A nerd who plans and micromanages her own life to fend off her anxiety while also pursuing her passion for astronomy. She’s a fun and honest narrator who takes being pushed way out of her comfort zone (mostly) in stride. Laid back Lennon is the perfect foil to Zorie. His interests lie in horror, snakes, maps, and (luckily for Zorie) hiking and camping–two things that just might get them back home in one piece. While the hurt on both sides is obvious as they try to piece together what went wrong, their chemistry crackles throughout the novel.

Starry Eyes is a rich and entertaining romance. Come for the witty banter and tension, stay for the evocative descriptions, clever plotting, and nuanced characters. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins