Beasts Made of Night: A Review

“Sin-beasts are shadows, beasts made of night. And an aki is like a ray of sunlight that comes down from the sky and shatters the sin, kills the shadows.”

Taj is the most talented sin-eater in the walled city of Kos where aki–sin-eaters–can vanquish a person’s sins for a price. Reviled by society and at the mercy of mages who control them, aki have a precarious existence within Kos society.

Taj is cocky and desperate to support his family. He knows it’s only a matter of time before he runs out of skin to cover in sin beasts he has killed–physical tattoos that manifest on his skin and transfer the guilt of the sin to the sin-eater–but Taj has no other options to support himself or survive.

When Taj is hired to eat a royal sin he is drawn into a web of intrigue and danger where the future of the entire city–and every sin-eater in Kos–is at stake in Beasts Made of Night (2017) by Tochi Onyebuchi.

Beasts Made of Night is Onyebuchi’s debut novel and inspired by Nigerian culture and folklore.

This book is wonderfully written and set in a fantastically evocative and well-realized world where sins can be summoned as physical beasts and danger is everywhere. Taj is a fast-talking character with a lot of charm, wit, and not enough caution.

Erratic pacing and a meandering plot make this a richly detailed but sometimes unsatisfying novel. While the city of Kos is detailed enough to be a character itself some of the internal logic for the magic in the novel–especially as it pertains to sin eating–is vague and poorly explained. Taj’s honest narration and winning personality, however, will quickly eclipse any gaps in the story’s world building.

Beasts Made of Night is a great story filled with action, memorable characters, and a fascinating world. While most of Taj’s story is resolved in this volume, fans will hope that this book is the start of a series.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, Frostblood by Elly Blake, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch,  The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

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One of Us is Lying: A Review

Here’s what we know:

Bronwyn always follows the rules. She’s heading to Yale next year and she would never risk that or disappointing her immigrant father.

Cooper is an all-star baseball player. His pitching abilities are sure to lead the Bayview team to victory and pave Cooper’s way to the majors–just like his father wants. But Cooper wants other things that he’s afraid to talk about out loud.

Addy is homecoming princess and not much else. She isn’t ambitious or independent but she isn’t sure why she has to be when she already has the perfect life with her boyfriend.

Nate really belongs in detention. He’s always doing something wrong and has been for years. What do you expect from a guy who’s already on probation for drug dealing.

Simon is the outcast of Bayview but he’s also one of the most powerful students there thanks to the gossip app he created that dishes all of Bayview High’s worst secrets.

All of them were caught using cell phones during school hours. All of them claim they were framed. On Monday afternoon the five of them walk into detention at Bayview High. Only four of them walk out alive. Every one else has a motive for killing Simon. But no one has any proof. Yet. As the investigation heats up Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper all have to decide how far they’ll go to keep their secrets in One of Us is Lying (2017) by Karen M. McManus.

One of Us is Lying is McManus’ debut novel. This standalone thriller was partially inspired by the 1980s movie The Breakfast Club. The novel is written in alternating first person chapters between Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper as they try to make sense of what happened to Simon.

Despite the numerous narrators each character manages to sound distinct and stand out in their own sections. Anyone who is familiar with teen movies or YA novels will recognize some of the plot points (such as staight-laced Bronwyn pursuing a relationship with the resident bad boy) but they manage to feel fresh and interesting within this story. McManus keeps a tight rein on the plot as the story’s twists which are revealed at a satisfying pace throughout the novel. Unlikely friendships, surprising romances, and quite a few surprises make One of Us is Lying a winning mystery for even the most jaded fans of the genre.

While I was a big fan of most of this novel, there are two things I need to talk about. Avert your eyes if you want to avoid spoilers.

——START SPOILERS——

Every character in the book has a big secret. We eventually learn that Cooper’s secret isn’t steroid use as everyone suspects. Instead, Cooper is gay. And he is outed during the course of the investigation. Cooper being outed by reporters during the investigation is rightly treated as egregious behavior but it also felt tiresome and a little sad to still have it be a plot device. Maybe it’s realistic but I wish we were beyond that point already.

Then there’s the big reveal about Simon’s killer. It turns out that Simon was depressed from constantly trying and failing to be one of the popular kids. Refusing to discuss other courses of action Simon kills himself and use his suicide to frame a classmate for his death.

While the suicide-as-murder-frame-up is a familiar trope in mystery novels, it’s a troubling one in a young adult novel. It’s problematic to still have mental illness be treated as a plot device and especially to not have it be addressed in any way beyond being part of Simon’s brilliant plan.f

——END SPOILERS——

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

Genuine Fraud: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You stay away long enough, there doesn’t seem like much to go back for.”

Jule is strong.She is athletic. She is resilient.

Imogen is charming. She is wealthy. She is enchanting.

Together Jule and Imogen could be the perfect pair. Or maybe that was never the plan. Whatever Imogen might think, Jule knows that they need each other.

But Jule has everything under control because she is smart. Jule is the one who will save the day, not some great white hetero action hero. Jule knows that she is the center of her story and she’ll do anything to stay there in Genuine Fraud (2017) by E. Lockhart.

This inventive standalone thriller starts at the end. Jule is in Mexico. She’s on the run. And nothing turned out the way she had planned. From there the story unspools toward the beginning and the unlikely twist of fate that set Jule on this path and her collision course with Imogen.

Even knowing how it all ends, this homage to classic thrillers and Victorian novels packs in more than its share of twists and shocking reveals. Like Jule herself Genuine Fraud is shrewd, calculating, and electric.

Possible Pairings: Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Bad Girls with Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2017*

Landscape With Invisible Hand: A Review

“We all have to find some way to live with the world as it is now.”

When the vuvv first landed they told humanity that they could cure all illnesses. No one would have to work anymore. New technology would change lives.

It should have been perfect.

But no one thought about what no one working would mean for the economy. No one considered that all of this wondrous technology would be behind a pay wall. The early adopters–the ones who could buy into vuvv tech and tap into things the vuvv might want to buy–they’re doing fine. The rest of the world, the people like Adam’s family, not so much.

His mother used to be a bank teller but vuvv tech handles that now. His father, a former car salesman, can’t sell cars to people who can barely afford food thanks to rampant inflation. Adam processes everything that’s happening through his art–gritty and meditative landscapes painting the world he sees not the shiny, retro world the vuvv think of when they look at Earth and certainly not the bright, opportunity-filled one inhabited by the rich living in their elevated houses above the planet.

When Adam and Chloe start dating, they think they can capitalize on their love by broadcasting their dates to vuvv subscribers. Their pastiches of 1950s hangouts with slang and affectations to match are just what the vuvv ordered. But it turns out dating someone and loving someone authentically while aliens watch isn’t easy. As Adam’s relationship falls apart he realizes that sometimes the only way to win the game is to stop playing all together in Landscape with Invisible Hand (2017) by M. T. Anderson.

Landscape with Invisible Hand is a strange, caustic, and sparse. Adam’s near-future world changes when aliens arrive but his struggles are depressingly timely as his family is left reeling in the wake of unemployment and skyrocketing costs.

The skies around his suburban home are filled with vuvv tech and floating buildings while malls and stores are abandoned and looted in the changing economy. Thanks to the polluted water supply Adam suffers dangerous complications of Merrick’s Disease while trying to save up for a visit to a vuvv doctor who could treat him almost immediately.

Instead of chapters this short novel (160 pages, hardcover) is framed in vignettes based on the art that Adam is creating–painted landscapes of his dilapidated house, portraits of Chloe when they first meet and fall in lust, drawings of the stuffed animals his younger sister wants to sell and ultimately throws out in her desperation to help and also to grow up. Adam’s first person narration is incisive and introspective. Anderson uses minimal details to vividly descibe the vuvv and Adam’s bleak and absurd world.

Landscape with Invisible Hand is a provocative and engrossing novel. Adam’s journey and his ultimate realization are surprising and completely satisfying. There are no neat answers or tidy resolutions here but that makes the story all the more authentic and shocking. An excellent choice for readers who aren’t sure about sci-fi yet as well as devoted fans of the genre. Read this one with a friend because so you discuss all the plot points and twists. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis, The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher at BookExpo 2017 for review consideration*

Chime: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I know you believe you’re giving me a chance–or, rather, it’s the Chime Child giving me the chance. She’s desperate, of course, not to hang an innocent girl again, but please believe me: Nothing in my story will absolve me of guilt. It will only prove what I’ve already told you, which is that I’m wicked.”

Chime by Franny BillingsleyBriony knows in her heart that every bad thing that has happened to her family is decidedly her fault. She looks sweet and innocent, the way her identical twin sister Rose looks when she isn’t screaming. But Briony knows that she is a blight on her family and probably on Swampsea as a whole–her stepmother made sure she knew.

Now Briony’s stepmother is dead and Briony is waiting to be hanged for her misdeeds. There are several places her story could start but it seems fitting, in its own way, to start with Eldric’s arrival because doesn’t every story truly begin when a good looking young man appears? Didn’t Briony’s fragile grasp on her life begin to crumble the moment she first saw his sunshine smile and his lion hair? in Chime (2011) by Franny Billingsley.

Chime was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Chime is a circuitous and layered novel written in Briony’s complicated first person narration. Long, winding sentences filled with tangents and asides lend this book the feel of a stream of consciousness and creates a strong textuality to the book.

Briony is a complex character. The loops and whorls of her consciousness are dense and exhausting to read. Just keeping up with Briony’s narration is a feat let alone penetrating it enough to get at what she is sharing and, often more importantly, what she is not sharing as she relates her story.

Chime takes place in an alternate historical England. Magic and magical creatures still flourish but industrialization is beginning to take hold in the form of electric lights and other technical wonders like metal paperclips. The contrasts between the fantastical and the technological are further emphasized in the dichotomy between Briony and Eldric as they try to make sense of each other.

Because of the peculiarities of the narrative and Briony’s initially cutting personality, Chime isn’t a book for everyone. Although it is a fantasy first and foremost, it is also a thoughtful romance and a bit of a mystery as readers unravel what brought Briony to the point of requesting she be hanged posthaste. Readers who can engage with the text and adjust to the writing style will enjoy the world building, the stories within stories, and the twists to be found.

Briony’s story is all about self-care and self love. Along the way, thanks to the vagaries of life and the calculated moves of certain characters, Briony loses sight of who she used to be and who she can become. Chime is about Briony’s journey to rediscover that lost girl of her youth and also to redeem herself–not in the eyes of others but simply for herself.

Best suited to readers who appreciate acerbic wit, rich fantasies, and multifaceted tales.

Possible Pairings: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Wildthorn by Jane Eagland, I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Hunter’s Moon by O. R. Melling, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

Thick As Thieves: A Review

Kamet is a slave but he is also poised to become one of the most powerful men in the Mede Empire thanks to his master Nahuseresh’s close relationship with the Emperor. While he knows the limitations of his life as a secretary and slave, Kamet is ambitious and eager for the chance to help shape the Empire and wield his influence–a future that is almost certainly within reach until one whispered conversation changes everything.

No longer safe in his position, or even in his city, Kamet embarks on a journey that will take him farther than he once thought possible. Traveling across the country and away from the seat of the Mede Empire, Kamet finds an unlikely ally in an Attolian soldier far from home and discovers that sometimes choice and freedom can be much more important than power or influence in Thick as Thieves (2017) by Megan Whalen Turner.

To call this book my most anticipated 2017 release would be a gross understatement. When I found out I was reviewing this book for School Library Journal (and thus getting to read it early as an ARC) I screamed and scared one of my coworkers. This series has gotten under my skin and been part of my life for almost two decades (the first book in the series, The Thief, just had its twentieth anniversary). I am so happy this series still has the love it deserves and that the series is not only in print but reissued this year (with new covers!) so that new people can discover it and love it as much as I do.

Turner returns to the world of Eugenides and her Queen’s Thief series in this fifth installment which moves beyond the familiar borders of the countries of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis. Thick as Thieves is filled with characters readers will learn to love and want to return to again and again including several from earlier books in the series.

Kamet is analytical and pragmatic–traits which come across completely in his first person narration. He brings a fresh perspective to familiar places and people while expanding the world of this series with his knowledge of Mede culture and mythology including the wayward gods, Immakuk and Ennikar.

Turner expertly negotiates Kamet’s complicated feelings about his enslavement. Intellectually Kamet knows he lacks freedom. He knows his position as a slave is vulnerable in an empire that has a singular fear of its slave population. At the same time, Kamet allows himself to be blinded by his own ambitions and his narrow view of the world. Kamet’s journey from a circumspect and scholarly secretary to a man in control of his own fate is immensely satisfying as is the way Kamet’s story intertwines with other pieces of the series and helps smaller plot points come into focus.

This whip-smart book works equally well as an introduction for readers just discovering Turner’s characters and as a way to move the series forward to what promises to be a stirring conclusion for long-time fans. Thick as Thieves is a dazzling adventure and a truly charming story of unlikely friends. A must for fantasy readers seeking titles rich with intrigue and politics. Cannot recommend this book or this series highly enough.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the April 1, 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

A Conspiracy of Kings: A (Reread) Review

Sophos has always known that he is too soft and too scholarly to be a proper heir to his uncle the king of Sounis. When he is exiled to the island of Letnos after parting ways with the magus and a thief who proved too clever for his own good, Sophos is free to spend his days reading poetry and contemplating philosophy even if it is in the company of an odious tutor.

All of that changes the moment Letnos is attacked and Sophos is abducted. Hidden away and rendered unrecognizable, Sophos has a chance to turn away from his responsibilities as Sounis’ heir.

It is not easy to become a king. But it turns out it’s even harder to forsake your own country. Navigating the murky waters of friendship and sovereignty, Sophos will have to decide if old friends can become new allies and whether or not honor, or freedom for that matter, have anything to do with ruling a country in A Conspiracy of Kings (2010) by Megan Whalen Turner.

A Conspiracy of Kings is the fourth book in Turner’s Queen’s Thief series and continues Sophos’ story–a character first introduced as one of Gen’s travel companions back in The Thief. Sophos narrates this novel in the first person. Throughout most of the novel he is talking to someone as he relates the story of what brought him all the way to Attolia after a dangerous journey across Sounis. The second person is a hard tense to negotiate but it works well here and realizing who Sophos is talking to is a revelation in itself.

Perception always plays a role in Turner’s books and A Conspiracy of Kings is no exception. The manipulations here are even more subtle as Sophos tries to fit the present Eugenides as king of Attolia with his memories of Gen the thief. In addition to that, Sophos’ own self-perception also comes into play with a fascinating character study through his narration.

Sophos is a guileless character and he is very aware of his limitations throughout the story. He is sensitive, he blushes at the drop of a hat, he is not an experienced swordsman, the list goes on. Because of this, Sophos’ narration is refreshingly forthright and direct. Sophos is quick to explain his internal struggles and even some of his shortcomings as he tries to come to terms with the shocking reality that he is responsible for the fate of an entire country. Of course, that only tells part of the story as Sophos fails to notice the ways in which he himself has changed and grown on his journey to becoming a king in his own right.

Much of this series focuses on Eugenides’ journey from boy to man and by extension from his path from man to king. A Conspiracy of Kings is a slightly different story as Sophos acknowledges not only that he is a king but also that he might have been meant to be king all along.

This book has my favorite ending of the entire series. I love the dialogue that concludes this story and I especially enjoy tracing the path of Sophos and Gen’s friendship as they begin to meet each other on equal footing. A Conspiracy of Kings is another arresting story filled with evocative prose and characters that are guaranteed to resonate.

If you enjoy A Conspiracy of Kings, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Thief, The Queen of AttoliaThe King of Attolia and Thick as Thieves.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater