How We Fall Apart: A Review

How We Fall Apart by Katie ZhaoAt Sinclair Prep, the whispers never stop; it’s a small price to pay for being at the most elite private high school in the country. Graduating from Sinclair Prep will open doors for every student–even scholarship kids like Nancy Luo.

Nancy knows a full scholarship and perpetual class rank as second best isn’t enough to make her truly belong at Sinclair Prep. Nancy’s best friend, Jamie Ruan, is quick to remind Nancy of that whenever she lets herself forget. But even with Jamie’s vicious reminders, even with everything she’s had to sacrifice to get this far, Nancy knows Sinclair Prep is the first step to becoming one of the beautiful, entitled people who can get whatever they want.

When Jamie doesn’t show up for Honors night, Nancy thinks it’s her chance to step into the spotlight and finally claim her spot at the top.

Nancy realizes how wrong she was when Jamie is found dead. As rumors spread that Jamie was murdered, an anonymous post on Tip Tap, the school’s gossip app, from “The Proctor” points to Jamie’s best friends–Nancy, Krystal Choi, Akil Patel, and Alexander Lin–as the prime suspects. The Proctor promises to reveal all of their darkest secrets on Tip Tap until they admit their complicity in Jamie’s death.

If the Proctor makes good on their threats, Nancy and her friends could lose everything–including Nancy and Alexander’s coveted scholarships. In a group of friends where everyone is hiding something, could keeping a secret prove deadly?

At Sinclair Prep Nancy has always known that being good and being the best are mutually exclusive. As the stakes climb, Nancy will have to choose how much she’s willing to give–and to take–in order to stay at the top in How We Fall Apart (2021) by Katie Zhao.

Find it on Bookshop.

How We Fall Apart is the first book in a projected duology. The story, narrated by Nancy, starts with the fallout from Jamie’s death. Flashbacks throughout the novel shed light on the secrets Nancy and other members of her friend group are trying so hard to keep buried during the murder investigation.

How We Fall Apart is one of the best mysteries I’ve read this year. Zhao’s plotting is unrivaled as every single thread in this story proves to be crucial to the larger plot while also leaving just enough seeds to justify a second book. At the same time, readers should be advised that mental health plays a major part in this story–and in the circumstances of Jamie’s death. Be sure to check Zhao’s website for full trigger warnings.

Nancy is a calculating protagonist. She knows what she wants and exactly what price tag to attach to it as she struggles to keep her head above water within Sinclair Prep’s cutthroat social scene. With everything to gain, and so much to lose, Nancy is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her spot at the school leading her to increasingly ruthless choices as the novel progresses.

How We Fall Apart is an engrossing mystery set in the pressure cooker of an elite high school. Say hello to your next dark academia obsession.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, The Best Lies by Sarah Lyu, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund

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

Firekeeper’s Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Firekeepers Daughter by Angeline BoulleyDaunis Fontaine has always felt like an outsider. Sometimes she’s “too Indian” for her mother’s white relatives. As an unenrolled tribal member thanks to the scandal surrounding her parents’ relationship and her own birth, Daunis never feels like she’s fully part of life on the Ojibwe reservation no matter how much time she spends with that side of her family.

With her pre-med college plans on hold after her grandmother’s debilitating stroke, Daunis feels more adrift than ever. Enter Jamie the newest member of her half-brother Levi’s hockey team. Jamie and Daunis click but that doesn’t change all of the little things about his background that don’t quite make sense.

In the wake of a tragedy that hits too close to home, Daunis learns the truth about Jamie and finds herself at the center of a far-flung criminal investigation as a confidential informant. Delving deeper into the investigation, Daunis will have to confront uncomfortable truths about her own family’s past and the reservation community to discover the truth. After years of admiring her elders, Daunis will have have to embrace being a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) herself to see things through in Firekeeper’s Daughter (2021) by Angeline Boulley.

Find it on Bookshop.

Firekeeper’s Daughter is Boulley’s debut novel.

Boulley describes this story as the indigenous Nancy Drew she always wanted to read and that really is the best description. With plot threads exploring opioid addiction (and dealing), grief, and sexual assault, Firekeeper’s Daughter is a heavy read.

Subplots involving hockey, Daunis’s complicated feelings about her family, and more can make the story seem sprawling at times although Boulley admirably ties every single thread together by the end.

Daunis’s high stakes investigation and her intense relationship with Jamie plays out against the fully realized backdrop of life in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and on the Ojibwe reservation. Daunis’s focus on her own culture and heritage are crucial to the plot bringing Daunis closer to the real culprit complete with a focus on traditional (herbal) medicine and the importance of community elders.

Firekeeper’s Daughter is a taut, perfectly plotted mystery with a protagonist readers won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Every Stolen Breath by Kimberly Gabriel, Fake ID by Lamar Giles, The Bodies We Wear by Jeyn Roberts, Sadie by Courtney Summers, Veronica Mars

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

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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

If We Were Villains: A Review

If We Were Villains by M. L. RioSeptember 1997: Oliver Marks is finishing his fourth and final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois. After surviving the yearly cuts to his acting program as students fail to meet expectations, it feels like the world is laid at his feet. Everything is ahead of him. This year, it seems, anything can happen.

It will take months for Oliver to realize how right he is.

Ten years later Oliver is finishing the final days of his decade-long prison sentence when the man who arrested him arrives with a surprising ask. Detective Colborne is retiring, leaving his life with the police behind. But he wants answers first. He wants to know what happened at Dellecher all those years ago and, this time, he wants to know the truth.

Returning to the scene of the crime–of so many smaller crimes, if he’s being honest–Oliver sets the scene for Colborne as he remembers that final year with the players in this tale: Richard the tyrant, Alex the villain, James the hero, Wren the ingenue, Meredith the temptress, and Filippa–the one everyone always forgets, always to their disadvantage. And then there’s Oliver, never quite sure where he fits on stage or off.

After three years of settling into roles they seem to know by heart, everything changes during their final year. One of the seven is dead. More than one of them is guilty. One will take the blame. And, ten years later, Oliver will finally tell the truth in If We Were Villains (2017) by M. L. Rio.

Find it on Bookshop.

Rio’s debut novel is part atmospheric thriller, part suspenseful mystery all steeped in Shakespeare and the dangerous energy that can make relationships both exhilarating and toxic.

Structured as a play, the story unfolds over five acts as Oliver narrates key scenes with prologues before each act where he further sets the scene for Colborne. This character driven story is dynamite building slowly to an explosive and often surprising conclusion enhanced by Rio’s excellent foreshadowing and parallels to Shakespearean tragedies.

While If We Were Villains keeps a tight focus on Oliver and his fellow theater students, not all characters are created equal. Oliver and James in particular are so nuanced and so authentically flawed that the other characters often seem flat in comparison as they play to type (this may in part be due to Oliver’s own lens as narrator but still felt like something that could be explored more). Meredith and Wren are especially are disappointingly lacking in depth returning, again and again, to the same concerns and the same shortcomings while Filippa remains, in many ways, a mystery herself.

Set in 1997 and 2007, If We Were Villains is surprisingly hesitant to consider sexuality beyond binaries. While some characters are, understandably, hesitant to let themselves be labeled the novel as a whole refuses to even consider the possibility of both bisexuality and pansexuality as queer identities. This is not damaging to the story but it is erasure worth considering when deciding whether or not to consider this title.

If We Were Villains is a tense, thoughtfully executed story of love, obsession, and missed chances. Perfect for readers fascinated by all-consuming relationships, drama in the classic sense, and of course Shakespeare in every sense. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Macbeth by William Shakespeare, King Lear by William Shakespeare, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Foul is Fair: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Foul is Fair by Hannah CapinElle’s glittering life is torn to shreds when she and her friends crash a St. Andrew’s Prep party and the golden boys there choose Elle as their latest target.

Her best friends Mads, Jenny, and Summer get Elle out of there. They help her bandage the cuts, throw out the ruined dress, and most importantly change her appearance.

Because after that night, after what they did to her, Elle is gone.

She’s Jade now and she is going to make every single boy who hurt her pay.

Her parents are going to turn a blind eye. Her coven of best friends are going to help. And a boy named Mack is going to take the blame for all of it in Foul is Fair (2020) by Hannah Capin.

Find it on Bookshop.

Capin’s modern retelling of Macbeth is a gory revenge fantasy set against a world of luxury and decadence and LA’s upper echelon. (Readers can find a content warning at the front of the book as well as on the author’s website.)

Jade’s first person narration is sleek, sharp, and almost lyrical enough to call iambic pentameter to mind. While the story does little to develop any character beyond their designated role in this revenge fantasy, Jade’s coven of friends is diverse including bisexual Summer, Jenny who is Korean, and Mads–a trans girl and Jade’s oldest and best friend.

The accelerated timeline and copious murder both require a willing suspension of disbelief as Jade sets her revenge quest in motion–all over the course of one week.

Foul is Fair is as bloody as it is campy. Recommended for readers who prefer their revenge fantasies with justifiably angry girls and a healthy dose of gore.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, Anna K.: A Love Story by Jenny Lee, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Kingdom by Jessica Rothenberg, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

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

Sadie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Sadie by Courtney SummersThe only thing that has ever really mattered to Sadie is her little sister, Mattie. Sadie pins all of her hopes and dreams onto Mattie. She gives her the care and affection their mother can’t usually manage. Mattie is better and more and she deserves everything Sadie never thinks to want for herself.

But then Mattie is murdered.

The trail is cold and the police don’t care. After all, she’s just another dead girl.

But Sadie knows who did it. And she knows she is the only one who can make them pay–even if it means losing herself in the process.

Weeks later West McCray hears about Sadie while he’s recording a radio segment on small, forgotten towns in America. The police might not care, most of the town might not care, but West finds that he does. What starts as a podcast soon becomes a much larger project as West delves into Sadie’s past and tries to follow her trail before it’s too late in Sadie (2018) by Courtney Summers.

Find it on Bookshop.

Summers’ latest standalone alternates between Sadie’s first person narration and West’s podcast segments as he follows her trail.

Sadie is a brutal story about the disasters left in the aftermath of loss and poverty. Despite the violence surrounding Mattie’s murder and Sadie’s own revenge quest, the prose never sensationalizes it. Through West, Summers makes a deliberate choice to never make Mattie into a plot point and never to appeal to the lowest common denominator by glamorizing violence.

Sadie is a calculating and singular narrator. Her shrewd narration contrasts sharply with dialog as she navigates the world with a severe stutter (a speech impediment that could have been fixed when Sadie was a child if her mother had bothered to pursue treatment). That contrast in particular highlights the way that Sadie explores poverty and privilege–particularly as West begins to unpack his own privilege in being able to initially dismiss Sadie’s disappearance as too common and not interesting enough for a podcast.

Nothing here is neat or simple–including Sadie herself. While the ending leaves readers with a lot of questions it also places the decision of how her story will unfold, back in her own hands–a freedom that was impossible to imagine at the beginning of the novel. Sadie is an incisive story about agency and feminism as well as an utterly engrossing thriller. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

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

Four Dead Queens: A Review

cover art for Four Dead Queens by Astrid ScholteFour queens rule Quadara. Together, yet apart just like the country’s four quadrants: Archia, Eonia, Ludia, and Toria.

Keralie is one of the best thieves in all of Toria stealing missives, technology, and  contraband from other quadrants that her employer Mackiel can sell in his black market auctions. It isn’t the life Keralie’s parents’ ever imagined for her, but it is the one she’s been groomed for since she was ten.

Even Keralie’s skills prove insufficient when her latest target–a messenger from Eonia–discovers her theft. If he can’t make his delivery, Varin’s life could be forfeit leaving him with little choice but to follow Keralie to retrieve his stolen goods.

What starts as a simple exchange soon escalates when Keralie and Varin discover a plot to assassinate all of Quadara’s queens. With no one else to trust, Keralie and Varin have to set aside their mutual distrust to form a reluctant alliance if they want to escape Mackiel and capture the assassin in Four Dead Queens (2019) by Astrid Scholte.

Four Dead Queen‘s is a standalone adventure that’s part mystery, part thriller, and part speculative fiction.

Quadara and the individual quadrants have the potential to be fascinating backdrops for this story. Unfortunately Quadara is never situated in a larger world making the tension between the quadrants and outside threats feel forced if not entirely contrived. The politics of succession and Queenly Law (the rules that dictate how the quadrants are divided and ruled) also make very little sense and further underscore the poor development of this world.

Keralie’s first-person narration gives depth to both herself and Varin who is simultaneously her foil and her love interest. Sadly both protagonists stumble through the story without anything resembling agency as they are repeatedly driven from one reactive position to the next. The rest of the characters are exceedingly flat–a problem that is especially obvious with Mackiel the supposedly charming criminal mastermind who never once manages to come across as anything but slimy and manipulative.

Four Dead Queens is suspenseful and well-paced with high action and a deep sense of urgency as Keralie and Varin hunt the assassin. In contrast, the mystery’s resolution is a bitter disappointment as much of the actual intrigue comes more from the author’s deliberate manipulation of the story’s timeline and perspective rather than true plot twists.

It’s no surprise that this story has a body count but it’s both disappointing and problematic that two of the only queer characters characters and two of the only dark-skinned characters (including one raised in secret in two small rooms) are among the first victims. Varin’s position as an Eonian with a premature death date is also troubling and surprising as he comes from a quadrant known for its medical advancements and life-prolonging technologies.

Four Dead Queens is an interesting if sometimes frustrating mystery but the fantasy world framework of Quadara is shoddily built at best. A high-concept story that fails to capitalize on a unique world and instead remains painfully predictable and opaque.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Rule by Ellen Goodlett, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg, The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

Breaker: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Breaker by Kat EllisNaomi doesn’t want to board at Killdeer Academy but she can’t stay with her grandparents now that her grandmother has so much to do taking care of Naomi’s grandfather as his Alzheimer’s progresses.

Kyle hopes to be able to remake himself at Killdeer Academy with a new last name and a determination to forget all about his serial killer father. His mother’s decision that Kyle should board is a surprise. But he’s dealt with worse.

Kyle expects to have a completely blank slate at the Academy. The only problem is that he recognizes Naomi immediately. She was the daughter of his father’s last victim. Kyle wants to stay away from Naomi but he isn’t sure how to ignore when she seems to actually want to be his friend–and maybe even more. When people start dying on campus both Naomi and Kyle will have to confront their pasts to stop the murders in Breaker (2016) by Kat Ellis.

Find it on Bookshop.

The book alternates first person narration between Kyle and Naomi which makes both protagonists well-rounded. While other characters factor into the story in crucial ways, they remain decidedly secondary to Kyle and Naomi and are consequently somewhat less developed. Excerpts from ephemera related to Kyle’s father further complicate the story.

In a departure from her debut mystery fantasy, Blackfin Sky, Ellis delivers a much darker story here. Kyle is haunted by his father’s legacy as a serial killer, terrified that the stigma will cling to him forever and the thought that he could have turned out like his father. Naomi saw her mother’s murder and has spent the intervening years doing her best to not think about her mother at all to avoid the pain of that traumatic loss.

Kyle and Naomi are a completely unlikely pair but their chemistry in Breaker, not to mention their draw to each other is undeniable in this fast-paced thriller that is sure to appeal to fans of the genre. Breaker is a creepy and atmospheric story filled with choice details that bring Killdeer Academy to life in all of its eerie and dilapidated glory.

Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, With Malice by Eileen Cook, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

You can also read my interview with Kat about Breaker!

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

Lock & Mori: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Lock & Mori by Heather W. PettyModern London can be a strange and dangerous place. For Miss James “Mori” Moriarty it can also be decidedly dull. Between school, where she knows all of the answers, and home, where life with her father can feel like stepping into a mine field, Mori’s only refuge is solitude.

After one especially bad day, Mori meets Sherlock “Lock” Holmes.

That night they meet again in Regent’s Park at the scene of a murder.

When Lock challenges Mori to solve the murder before him, she has no intention of participating in his game–particularly with the only rule being that they share all information. She has no intention of having anything to do with Lock at all.

Mori’s intentions quickly change when she is drawn into the investigation and realizes the truth might be closer than she could possibly imagine. Mori begins keeping secrets even as she finds herself drawn closer to Lock and to a revelation about the case that could change her life forever in Lock & Mori (2015) by Heather W. Petty.

Lock & Mori is Petty’s first novel and the start to a Lock and Mori trilogy.

Almost everyone knows what happens to these characters in the original Sherlock Holmes stories–it’s impossible not to when the struggle between Sherlock and Moriarty has become part of the public consciousness over the years.

Lock & Mori is an admirable homage to one of literature’s best villains and arguably the greatest of fictional detectives. It is also, thanks to a solid plot and some unique reinterpretations on Petty’s part, an excellent mystery in its own right. By imagining Moriarty as a girl, Petty complicates and adds new dimensions to Moriarty’s relationship with Holmes.

Lock and Mori are, of course, smart characters. Readers familiar with their inspirations would expect nothing less. Although both Mori and Lock are analytical in the extreme, they are never cold. Mori struggles with affection (both receiving and giving) while Lock is often mystified by basic human interaction. Even with those limitations, both characters have obvious moments of empathy and sincerity without any of the aloofness so often associated with a sharply deductive mind.

It is also fascinating to see these two characters when they are younger and less sure. Sherlock, so often beyond reproach, is still learning here. Mori, although the hero of this story, remains a mystery as readers wonder what path will unfold for her in future installments.

Lock & Mori is a fantastic series starter. A great read for mystery fans in general and Sherlock fans in particular. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, Dial Em for Murder by Marni Bates, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The Body in the Woods by April Henry, Every Breath by Ellie Marney, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, Into the Dim by Janet B. Taylor, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams

You can also read my exclusive interview with Heather!

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls: A Review

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn WeingartenJune and Delia used to be friends. Best friends. Even when it felt like their home lives were falling apart, June knew she could count on Delia. She knew their secrets tied them together.

That was a while ago. Over a year. Before June started dating Ryan. Before Delia met Ryan and things got . . . weird.

June hasn’t spoken to Delia since.

Now Delia is dead. Burned to death in her step-father’s shed, they say. Suicide, they say.

June doesn’t believe it.

Certain that Delia was murdered, June sets out to uncover the truth. Instead of easy answers, she finds a complicated  tangle of secrets and lies that will change everything she thought she knew about her best friend in Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls (2015) by Lynn Weingarten.

Find it on Bookshop.

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls is Weingarten’s fourth novel. It is a stand-alone title.

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls is a complicated novel. Weingarten employs varied narrative techniques and format choices throughout to create prose with as many twists as the plot.

Like June herself, readers never know exactly what to expect in this book. The plot is uneasy and often difficult as June unearths raw moments from her past with Delia. This story is partly the postmortem of a friendship with flashbacks and June’s memories detailing how the girls’ friendship began and, later, how it unraveled.

The rest of the novel focuses more closely on June’s investigation of Delia’s death and her increasing questions about what really happened. June is never certain who to trust, lending a sense of uncertainty and unease to a novel where allegiances–and even facts–are constantly shifting.

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls is a solid thriller with moments of genuine suspense, numerous shocks, and a powerful ending that demands to be discussed at length. A must-read for fans of thrillers in general and readers who like a novel that keeps them guessing.

Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, With Malice by Eileen Cook, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, The Graces by Laure Eve, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*