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.

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, 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*

The Vanishing Stair: A (WIRoB) Review

Here’s a teaser from the start of my review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

cover art for The Vanishing Stair by Maureen JohnsonEllingham Academy is a prestigious Vermont boarding school founded by eccentric billionaire Albert Ellingham. Its students are encouraged to think of learning as a game while pursuing their passions. Some of them come to the academy to write, others to create. That’s the one thing that binds the students together: “Everyone at Ellingham Academy had a thing.”

Stevie Bell’s thing is crime; specifically, solving the Ellingham case.

In 1936, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. Despite doing as the kidnappers asked and paying a ransom, Ellingham never reunited with his family. Iris’ body was soon found; Alice was never recovered.

The biggest clue in the case was the “Truly Devious” letter — an eerie poem reminiscent of Dorothy Parker that promised violence and maybe even death.

Stevie isn’t the first person to try to solve the case. But she has something no one else does: new evidence. It’s all contained in an old tea tin filled with “a bit of white feather, a bit of beaded cloth, a tarnished, gold-colored lipstick tube with the mummified remains of a red lipstick, a tiny enameled pillbox in the shape of a shoe, some pieces of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem.”

Together, these “humble objects” are proof that the infamous Truly Devious letter may not have been tied to the case at all, but a student prank.

The problem is that Stevie’s parents pull her out of Ellingham mere weeks into her first term, after the death of another student, Hayes Major (whose murder Stevie tried to solve). Knowing what happened to Hayes, and knowing that another student was likely involved, Stevie senses missing pieces.

You can read my full review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/the-vanishing-stair

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Truly Devious: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stevie Bell had a simple desire: she wanted to be standing over a dead body.”

cover art for Truly Devious by Maureen JohnsonStevie Bell has two great passions: the study of crime in general and the Ellingham case specifically. She has read all the books, all the articles, and all of the case transcripts about the kidnapping of Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter. She knows the contents of the Truly Devious letter–the biggest clue in the case–by heart. She knows every facet of the case and she knows that she is going to be the person to solve.

That passion, that certainty, is what earns Stevie admission to the elusive and prestigious Ellingham Academy–a Vermont boarding school where learning is a game. In the school students can create, learn, and study their own passions whatever they may be. There are geniuses, novelists, artists, and more.

Stevie still thinks there’s a possibility that her admission might have been a mistake.

But she isn’t going to let that, or her anxiety, stop her from solving the Ellingham case–no matter how cold it may be. She just needs to get a handle on her new classes and her housemates. Except someone has other plans. When death returns to Ellingham Stevie finds herself at the center of a case that’s anything but cold in Truly Devious (2018) by Maureen Johnson.

Truly Devious is the first book (and first act) in Johnson’s tightly plotted Truly Devious trilogy which continues in The Vanishing Stair. The story follows Stevie in close third person along with chapters interspersed throughout following key players in the Ellingham case as the kidnapping and failed ransom drop unfold.

Stevie’s knowledge of mystery conventions and true crime contrast well with her open bewilderment and naiveté when it comes to dealing with her classmates–especially David the mysterious prankster who is almost as annoying as he is attractive to Stevie.

When a student dies on campus, Stevie is drawn even deeper into Ellingham’s myriad secrets and discovers that there might be more to both cases than she initially thought. Evocative settings and an intricate plot are only somewhat impeded by poorly executed characterization with some behaviors that never quite hit the mark.

Truly Devious is an ode to classic boarding school mysteries. Recommended for true-crime enthusiasts, amateur detectives, and of course anyone who’s ever dreamed of finding a body in the library.

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

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, 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

Strange Grace: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Strange Grace by Tessa GrattonA long time ago a witch fell in love with a devil.

The witch gave the devil her heart and a pact was made in the town of Three Graces. Now, nothing is bad and nothing changes. The crops never fail and no one dies before their time. Everything is good.

Every seven year the town’s best boy is anointed as a saint to run through the forest. On the Slaughter Moon he is sent into the forest from sundown to sunrise with nothing but his wits to protect him. His sacrifice renews the bargain every seven years.

That’s the story Three Graces has always known and always told. But can the story be trusted at all? When the bargain needs to be renewed early, Arthur, Mairwen, and Rhun aren’t so sure.

An angry boy, a witch, and a saint run into the forest together. They’ll need each other if they hope to change the shape of the bargain and Three Graces before the next Slaughter Moon in Strange Grace (2018) by Tessa Gratton.

Gratton’s latest standalone novel is a thoughtful commentary on fear, sacrifice, and toxic masculinity wrapped in a page-turning story set in an eerie world where magic has the power to change everything and the forest has teeth.

As the daughter of the current witch Mairwen’s implicit trust in the bargain, in the devil, and in the forest itself is sorely tested as she realizes all is not as it seems in Three Graces.

Rhun has always known he would be the next saint. There is no denying he is the town’s best boy and he is willing to make the sacrifice. But as he prepares to lose everything, Rhun wonders if anyone in town truly knows him.

Arthur has grown up in the shadow of the Slaughter Moon and his mother’s fear of it. Raised as a girl for his first seven years, Arthur is desperate now to prove himself as strong, as good, and as masculine as the other candidates. But even Arthur knows that he is more angry than anything else.

As they prepare for the premature Slaughter Moon, Mairwen, Arthur, and Rhun are haunted by the decisions that have left their lives hopelessly intertwined. Drawn together as much as they are driven apart, none of them know how they can find an ending together when it it is unlikely they’ll all survive the night of the saint’s run.

Strange Grace is a tense blend of fantasy and suspense. Recommended for readers who enjoy their fantasy tinged with horror and old secrets and anyone seeking a polyamorous romance when the chemistry between the characters is undeniable.

Possible Pairings: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton, The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson, Last Things by Jacqueline West

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, Sadie by Courtney Summers

The Leaf Reader: A Review

“I did feel like I was pretending, at least at the start. I admit that. But whenever you start on something, it always feels a little like pretending, right? If you let that stop you, you might never try anything new.”

cover art for The Leaf Reader by Emily ArsenaultMarnie is halfway through high school and she’s accepted that she’ll never be popular. And if that’s true, better to give the people what they want and be really eccentric, right?

In the past year Marnie has gotten a reputation for reading tea leaves to tell the fortunes of classmates. Marnie knows it’s just for fun. She assumes her classmates do too.

But then Matt Cottrell comes to Marnie for a reading that seems to reveal more about the disappearance of Matt’s best friend Andrea last year. Marnie has never thought she could really read the future in tea leaves. But as she and Matt start looking into Andrea’s disappearance together, Marnie starts to wonder if she was wrong. It seems like the tea leaves are trying to tell her the Matt is dangerous. And if that’s true, Marnie’s growing attraction could be deadly in The Leaf Reader (2017) by Emily Arsenault.

The Leaf Reader is Arsenault’s first novel written for a young adult audience.

I went into this one with almost no expectations after receiving it very randomly from a neighbor. Marnie’s introspective narration and her fascination with reader tea leaves immediately drew me in. The story includes some basic information on interpreting leaves and their symbols which adds a fun dimension to the story.

Arsenault’s plotting and story are executed well and come to life with vivid descriptions of Marnie’s surroundings. The descriptions of characters are sometimes less vibrant and less charitable in a way that seems to suggest Marnie, or perhaps the author herself, held little fondness for some of the characters.

Marnie is a frank narrator who is immediately honest about her own status as an outsider in her small town. She is less willing to accept that she might not be the only one with secrets–something that becomes increasingly obvious to readers as the tense plot finally reaches a breaking point in the final act.

The Leaf Reader is a unique spin on some familiar mystery tropes. A great choice for fans of suspense.

Possible Pairings: The Opposite of Here by Tara Altebrando, The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams