Dial Em for Murder: A Review

Dial Em for Murder by Marni BatesSixteen-year-old Emmy Danvers dreams of becoming a published author. Her latest attempt at a romance novel is proving troublesome when an old man latches onto her at Starbucks. The man seems to know Emmy and refuses to leave her alone. He also slips a tablet device into her pocket as he tackles her.

Then he dies. Still sprawled on top of Emmy.

Turns out the whole thing is more than an extremely unlucky moment in an otherwise ordinary day. The tablet, locked with a password Emmy can’t figure out, contains dangerous secrets. Information someone might even kill to get.

Emmy will have to find the father she’s never met, deal with a bad boy who may or may not be an ally, negotiate complicated feelings for her long-time best friend, and avoid the killers who are still hunting her down. At least Emmy will have lots of material for her next novel in Dial Em for Murder (2016) by Marni Bates.

While Emmy comes across as a bit brassier than her sixteen years would suggest, she is a fun heroine who is easily swept along in the myriad conspiracies and spy games that seem to surround her as she tries to make sense of recent events and unlock the mysterious tablet.

Dial Em for Murder is a fast-paced mystery filled with action and adventure. Although it is currently a standalone, the ending (and its lack of closure on several fronts) suggests that readers can expect further installments. Sure to appeal to fans of Ally Carter and other spy-centric adventures.

Possible Pairings: All Fall Down by Ally Carter, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Pretending to Be Erica by  Michelle Painchaud, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan

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

Twist: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Twist is the sequel/companion to Loop. As such this review contains major spoilers for book one.*

Twist by Karen AkinsBree Bennis should be living happily ever after now that she’s saved her mother, found a way to fight back against ICE’s plans to change the timeline to their advantage, and reunited with her boyfriend Finn from a different century.

But it turns out being a time traveler is never easy.

In the twenty-third century, ICE is still trying to alter the timeline by allowing non-shifters to time travel to points in their own pasts. Bree’s reverter can undo the changes before the timeline is permanently altered but she can only work so fast. Now that she is no longer a chipped Shifter, she can literally see when her reality changes.

Everything still feels controllable until Bree’s Future Self stops her from fixing one key change to Bree’s own life six months earlier. Losing the last six months of her life, Bree never travels to the twenty-first century to meet her boyfriend Finn. She never tangles with ICE. But she knows the timeline is still at risk and she still has to stop it.

Now, Bree is stuck undercover with Wyck as her boyfriend. Sure he hasn’t tried to kill her on this timeline but Bree still remembers him as Evil Wyck and she still doesn’t want to pretend to date him. With only a minimal sense of what she has to do to stop ICE, Bree can’t even take a moment to stew when Finn shows up in the twenty-third century dating another Shifter. As a time traveler, Bree should have time on her side. But as ICE’s changes become more extreme, with more devastating personal consequences for her, Bree knows she’s running out of time in Twist (2015) by Karen Akins.

Twist is the sequel to Loop and the conclusion of Bree Bennis’ story.

Twist is a trippy, page-turning continuation of Bree’s adventures. The story is filled with the catch-22 time travel scenarios readers will remember from book one. While this book has a contained story and recaps of key moments, it heavily references Loop and should not be read out of order.

Akins expertly manipulates familiar time travel conventions and tropes to create a unique story filled with twists and turns. While the timeline keeps changing, Bree and Finn’s relationship remains relatively constant as the emotional heart of this story.

Snappy prose and Bree’s witty first-person narration enhance this story and bring readers along for the sometimes bumpy ride across multiple reality shifts for Bree and the timeline. While the story has some nail-biting moments of suspense (and worry for this likable cast of characters), this book is a finale worthy of these characters. Twist is an immensely satisfying conclusion to an adventurous and fascinating sci-fi duology. Highly recommended for readers seeking a new time travel adventure.

Possible Pairings: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Infinity of You & Me by J. Q. Coyle, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Hourglass by Myra McEntire, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, Pivot Point by Kasie West, Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

The Gilded Cage: A Review

The Gilded Cage by Lucinda GrayOrphaned at a young age, Katherine Randolph and her brother suddenly find out about a grandfather they never met and an inheritance they can hardly imagine. Moving from their Virginia home to Walthingham Hall in England catapults them both to the highest echelons of society.

Katherine is unprepared for the wealth and luxuries suddenly at her disposal. She is uncertain how she will fit into this new world that seems to accept her brother so much more easily.

When her brother drowns unexpectedly, Katherine refuses to believe that it was an accident. Everyone at Walthingham is keen to see Katherine observe proper mourning customs and move on. But how can she when she suspects foul play in her brother’s death? With no one to trust and far too many likely suspects, Katherine will have to sift through Walthingham’s many secrets and sinister lies if she hopes to unearth the truth before it’s too late in The Gilded Cage (2016) by Lucinda Gray.

Katherine is an interesting heroine and narrator. Throughout the novel her American, working class sensibilities come up against the strict standards of British high society showcasing the contrasts between both. Although set slightly before its start in the 1870s, this book’s depiction of 1820s England hearkens back to the gilded age of the US as well.

While Katherine is persistent and headstrong, it is unfortunately often the male characters in this story that discover vital clues to unraveling the mysteries surrounding Walthingham.

The Gilded Cage is a solid gothic mystery. While the story is atmospheric and spooky (complete with a truly chilling asylum), details beyond that about the time period are sparse in this thin novel. Readers familiar with mystery tropes will also likely realize what’s happening at Walthingham long before Katherine. Short chapters and a few genuinely jaw dropping moments make The Gilded Cage a fast-paced story ideal for readers seeking a quick diversion.

Possible Pairings: The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee, A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis

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

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.

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*

It Wasn’t Always Like This: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

It Wasn't Always Like This by Joy PrebleThanks to a mysterious tea, Emma O’Neill and her family stopped aging. Charlie Ryan and his parents suffered the same fate. By 1916, Emma has been seventeen for two whole years.

When an organization called the Church of Light notices, both families are targeted. Emma and Charlie survive the massacre but they aren’t sure they can ever really be safe. Separated during their escape, they are still bound together by their love for each other even as circumstances conspire to keep them from finding each other.

Over the last hundred years Emma’s gotten good at hiding and at noticing patterns. It takes someone with her uniquely long perspective to realize a decades long series of murders have something in common: every victim bears a striking resemblance to Emma.

The murders are coming closer together now–closer than they have in a very long time. Which can only mean Emma’s enemies are getting closer too. As Emma hunts the murderer she begins to hope, for the first time in a long while, that solving this case might also help her find Charlie again in It Wasn’t Always Like This (2016) by Joy Preble.

It Wasn’t Always Like This has been likened to Tuck Everlasting meets Veronica Mars. It turns out that this comparison is wonderfully accurate.

Preble uses sparse prose for Emma’s no-nonsense narration. Third person narratives from other characters are interspersed throughout for necessary exposition.

It Wasn’t Always Like This offers a fascinating perspective with its immortal teenager heroine. Emma is as jaded as the best hard-boiled detectives and possibly even more world-weary. But she is also still seventeen. She is still rash and impetuous. Sometimes she’s still dangerously optimistic in spite of everything she has seen. Throughout the novel Emma keeps wondering if she can ever really learn from her mistakes and grow when it is physically impossible for her to grow up or mature.

A high stakes mystery and lots of action make this a page-turner even while the characters hearken to a more thoughtful tome. It Wasn’t Always Like This is a refreshingly original mystery with a little something for everyone. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit, Enchanted Ivy by Sarah Beth Durst, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, Dreamology by Lucy Keating, The Devil and Winnie Flynn by Micol Ostow and David Ostow, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Veronica Mars (TV show)

With Malice: A Review

“They’re hinging everything on meeting the legal term of having done something with malice aforethought. That you wanted to do something badly, and you planned it.”

With Malice by Eileen CookEighteen-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital room recovering from a broken leg and a traumatic brain injury with no memory of how she got there.

She doesn’t remember anything about her study abroad trip to Italy six weeks ago with her best friend Simone. She doesn’t remember the car crash that killed Simone or the flight her wealthy father chartered to get her to an American hospital. She doesn’t remember why she might need the lawyer her father has hired.

Everyone thinks they know what happened between Jill and Simone thanks to witness accounts and the sensational news coverage, but it’s up to Jill to figure out the truth for herself in With Malice (2016) by Eileen Cook.

This character-driven thriller teases out what might have happened between the two girls as the events leading to the accident slowly unfold. Jill’s recovery in the hospital includes realistically portrayed rehab for her broken leg and speech therapy for the aphasia that leaves her forgetting words. Therapy sessions allow Jill to process the trauma of the accident while working through her retrograde amnesia.

Cook intersperses Jill’s first person narration with supplemental materials including police interviews, news coverage, and blog posts about the car crash. Travel guide excerpts are as close as readers will get to any Italian locations as Jill’s memories of the trip remain elusive for most of the novel.

Flashbacks, Facebook posts, and emails help to further develop Jill and Simone’s characters as well as their complicated relationship. The rest of the cast fall more comfortably into stock character territory including the rich-but-absent dad, the smooth-talking lawyer and the wannabe-Casanova-tour-guide.

Questions of what Jill remembers and what might have been a dream or suggested memory lend a chilling quality to the conclusion of this novel. A solid thriller that expertly navigates familiar territory, With Malice will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

Possible Pairings: The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Breaker by Kat Ellis, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the April 2016 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen on various sites online*

The Leaving: A Review

The Leaving by Tara AltebrandoEleven years ago six kindergartners were taken from their school and disappeared without a trace. There have been movies and conspiracy theories but nothing close to the truth; no kind of resolution for the parents and siblings left behind.

Until now.

When five of the missing children come back they’re sixteen years old and healthy. They have no memory of what happened or where they’ve been held. They barely remember the lives they’re returning to. None of them remember the sixth victim, Max.

Scarlett returns to a mother she hardly knows and a life that doesn’t quite fit while Lucas finds a family that has moved on without him and threatens to shatter with his return. Avery remembers both Scarlett and Lucas as well as she remembers the day Max never came home. Now, eleven years later, she waits again for a brother who doesn’t return.

Everyone wants to know what happened. Scarlett, Lucas, and the others are desperate to fill in the gaps in their memories while Avery is grasping for some trace of her still-missing brother. All five of the returned children begin to find strange clues that seem to be leading them somewhere. But only Lucas and Scarlett–with Avery’s prodding–are willing to follow the clues wherever they may lead in The Leaving (2016) by Tara Altebrando.

Altebrando juggles three narrators and numerous plot lines over the course of this novel. The story alternates first person narrated chapters between Scarlett (whose narration includes unconventional formatting and patterned text), Lucas (whose barely-there memories surface as blocky black text), and Avery (who has the most conventional narration). All three of the narrators are white but from a variety of economic backgrounds which adds another dimension to their connected stories.

There is something inherently cruel about this premise which Altebrando explores with frightening detail. The prose here is sparse leaving details to the imagination that make the experiences of the kidnapped children all the more horrifying to imagine. There are no easy answers here and no clean resolution–something that gives The Leaving a lasting impact.

The Leaving is, ostensibly, a thriller. The novel is packed with suspense and razor-sharp tension in short chapters that build to a chilling conclusion. At the same time, this story is also a thoughtful character study. Who are we without our memories? Who can we become? Is a blank slate of a childhood that different from the gradual forgetting that comes as we grow older? Are the monsters we fear any less frightening if we don’t remember them?

The Leaving is an ambitious work of suspense that is atmospheric, eerie, and incredibly successful. A must read.

Possible Pairings: The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Breaker by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, False Memory by Dan Krokos,  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

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