Take Me With You: A Review

Take Me With You by Tara AltebrandoBefore the school messaging app summons them all to an empty classroom after school, they barely know each other.

Eden is struggling with anxiety while she grieves her father. Her mother tries to be there, be present, but Eden still feels alone with all of these fears and even scarier feelings.

Marwan has two priorities: excelling enough in soccer to get a college scholarship and getting out of Queens. His immigrant parents don’t understand either and would prefer Marwan channel his energy into working at the family’s Persian restaurant that he will one day inherit.

Eli loves all things tech and gaming. But it’s hard to focus on either while his grandfather is dying a slow death in a nursing home and Eli feels like even more of an afterthought in his own family.

Ilanka has always prided herself on keeping other people at a distance–the better to plan an exit strategy from her claustrophobic family, the rhythmic gymnastics she isn’t sure she cares about, and ignore the fact that her “best” friend isn’t much of a friend at all.

None of them know why they’re summoned to the classroom. They don’t even notice the device at first.

Until it lights up and starts telling them the rules: Don’t tell anyone about the device. Never leave the device unattended. No one leaves.

Later, there will be other rules, a few mistakes, and a lot of questions but first they’re told to take the device with them. Brought together by a mysterious device Eden, Marwan, Eli, and Ilanka will have to work together to uncover answers or suffer the consequences in Take Me With You (2020) by Tara Altebrando.

Find it on Bookshop.

Altebrando’s latest standalone thriller is a dynamo alternating between multiple points of view with tension you can cut with a knife.

This character-driven thriller has an intense plot situated perfectly between suspense and speculative fiction. At the same time, while answering questions about the device motivates all four characters, the story’s ultimate focus is on the unlikely connection formed between themin the most unlikely of circumstances.

Take Me With You is a tense, thoughtful thriller with a perfectly executed denouement; the eerily possible thriller you’ve been waiting for. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, Infinite in Between by Carolyn Mackler, One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus, All Our Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

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

Havenfall: A Review

Havenfall by Sara HollandHavenfall is a world unto itself–an inn situated at the gateways between worlds offering neutral ground for the Last Remaining Adjacent Realms. It’s also the one place where people believe Maddie Marrow when she tells them what really happened to her brother all those years ago.

Maddie knows that this summer is her last chance to prove herself to her uncle Marcus and earn her spot as his successor running the inn. She’s up to the challenge. But when Maddie gets to Havenfall she realizes that things have started changing. Her best friend Brekken is a Fiordenkill soldier, Marcus is keeping secrets, and then there’s the new girl–Taya–who is supposed to be temporary help for the summer but draws Maddie’s attention more than she cares to admit.

When a body is found on the grounds and Marcus is attacked, Maddie is left to pick up the pieces and figure out the truth before Havenfall and the tenuous peace it represents is ruines in Havenfall (2020) by Sara Holland.

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As the start of a new series, Havenfall lays a lot of groundwork introducing readers to Maddie’s world at the inn and the adjacent realms Fiordenkill and Byrn as well as Solaria, a rogue realm whose portal was sealed off years ago. While the premise is interesting and offers a unique spin on traditional portal fantasies, the world building is one of the bigger problems with this book.

One of the tenets of the story is that that the porous nature of the portals between realms is part of why we have myths with magic even though Earth does not have magic of its own. Solarians–the main villain for a significant part of Havenfall–come from a world that is associated with mythology including djinn, vampires, demons, and soulstealers. This choice is problematic because djinn are also the only non-white/non-western mythology named in the entire story. It’s also the only mythos associated with a specific religion/culture which, again, here is being coded as villainous.

I won’t get into spoilers explaining Maddie’s history with Solaria but suffice to say that her hatred of the entire Solarian race informs a lot of her character. Does Maddie eventually see the error or her ways? Yes. Are reparations being made? Kind of. Did we need to spend an entire book vilifying an entire race (which although presented as white in the novel is the only group in the book associated with a nonwhite culture)? Absolutely not. What’s worst, the only notable person of color in the entire cast of characters is Marcus’s husband who is from one of the other “good” worlds.

Holland’s ambitious world building never gels enough to transcend this messy foundation. Similarly, the plot never quite comes together despite ample time spent setting up the story with an incredibly slow beginning. Maddie is bisexual–a fact that is refreshingly a nonissue for her family and friends but which also hints at a love triangle that frustratingly never leads anywhere interesting.

Havenfall is a mystery wrapped in a portal fantasy setting that centers an ambitious if often naive heroine. Recommended for readers who prefer slow building suspense to quick action and are willing to overlook messy world building entirely.

Possible Pairings: Caraval by Stephanie Garber, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, Mister Monday by Garth Nix, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, The Archived by Victoria Schwab

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

The Girl King: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Girl King by Mimi YuLu has always known she will become her father’s successor, the first female ruler in the Empire of the First Flame’s long history. She has trained for this role for her entire life. But just as she is poised to take her rightful place, her father names Set, a male cousin, as heir instead disgracing Lu and trapping her in a betrothal she never wanted.

Furious and determined to claim her rightful place as heir, Lu’s search for allies leads her to Nokhai–the only survivor of a clan of shapeshifters who may need Lu’s help to understand his shifter abilities.

Min is timid and quiet. She always thought she’d live a quiet life in her sister Lu’s shadow. But when Lu leaves to find allies for her cause, Min discovers a dangerous power of her own–one that could make Set the proper heir or give Min her own chance to claim the throne in The Girl King (2019) by Mimi Yu.

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The Girl King is Yu’s debut novel and the start of a series.

Yu creates a nuanced but dense world. Unfortunately the court intrigue and unique magic system only serve to highlight weak characterization for both Lu and Min who often come across as one note and unlikable despite their ambitions. Problematic racial dynamics within the world adds an uncomfortable layer to this story already populated by calculating and unexciting characters.

The Girl King is an interesting but not always ideally executed fantasy. Recommended for readers seeking a fantasy story with complex sister dynamics.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Descendant of the Crane by Joan He, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Before She Ignites by Jodi Meadows, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

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

Past Perfect Life: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Past Perfect Life by Elizabeth EulbergAlly Smith loves her life in small-town Wisconsin. After moving around with her father for most of her childhood, Ally is thrilled that they landed in a place where she can feel at home surrounded by friends who are more like family.

She knows that things are going to change soon since she’s a senior in high school but that still feels far away–especially when figuring out if she and her friend Neil are still just friends or becoming something more seems much more urgent.

Ally isn’t sure what to do when she finds out that everything she thought she knew about her perfectly ordinary life has been a lie. Ally’s past isn’t what she’s been told. Her family isn’t what she thought. In fact, her name isn’t even Allison–it’s Amanda.

With her old life blown apart, Ally has to figure out how she can fit herself into this strange new life. And if she even wants to try in Past Perfect Life (2019) by Elizabeth Eulberg.

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Eulberg’s latest standalone novel veers into mystery and suspense territory with a plot reminiscent of Caroline B. Cooney’s classic The Face on the Milk Carton.

While Past Perfect Life could have become sinister, the story manages to stay upbeat thanks to the vast support system that Ally has around her while her world begins to fall apart. With everything changing, she finds comfort in old friends and new family both in Wisconsin and her new home in Tampa, Florida.

Ally’s first person narration complements the tension of the plot as she learns the truth about her life although the novel’s slow pacing diminishes some of the impact as readers begin to understand the truth about Ally’s family and her past. Well-drawn characters shift the story from black and white to morally ambiguous grey as Ally and readers try to understand what happened and who should be blamed (or forgiven).

Past Perfect Life is a surprisingly gentle story about found family, embracing the messy parts of your past, and learning who you are. Recommended for readers who want a thriller with less nail biting and more friendship and romance.

Possible Pairings: The Opposite of Here by Tara Altebrando, The Last Forever by Deb Caletti, The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney, Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan, Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King

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

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*

The Opposite of Here: A Review

“There’s always somewhere else I want to go, but when I get there I always want to leave.”

cover art for The Opposite of Here by Tara AltebrandoThe last thing Natalie wants to do for her seventeenth birthday is go on a “sail-a-bration” cruise with her parents and best friends. Even nine months after her boyfriend died in a car accident it still feels too soon.

But once the plan is in motion, Natalie realizes there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

Her best friends Lexi, Nora, and Charlotte are excited so Natalie tries to be too. Lexi is ready for all the fun the cruise has to offer–especially if her boyfriend Jason never has to hear about it. Nora has been down for a while and Natalie hopes that maybe the cruise will do her some good. Maybe she’ll even find a new guy to like, it’s been a while. Charlotte is used to keeping a low profile at school and following the rules. On the cruise no one cares if she’s black enough or white enough–she can just be herself.

Natalie’s low expectations for the cruise rise when she unexpectedly meets a cute guy. He’s funny and exciting and Natalie’s attraction is immediate. But she doesn’t see him after their moonlit conversation and he blows off their plans to meet later.

At first the rejection stings and Natalie is prepared to move on. But then she starts to wonder if there might be more to it than that. How can a guy disappear on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean? Is it crazy to think he might have jumped?

Natalie isn’t sure where to start when she doesn’t even know his name. But she knows she has too look. The only problem is that the harder Natalie looks for answers, the more questions she seems to uncover in The Opposite of Here (2018) by Tara Altebrando.

Find it on Bookshop.

Altebrando’s latest standalone thriller is a perfect balance of suspense and intrigue as Natalie begins to investigate the bizarre disappearance of the guy she meets on the first night of her cruise.

Instead of chapters the novel is broken into days with the cruise itinerary marking the start of each new section. Assigned by her film studies teacher to shoot a two line film during the cruise, Natalie also imagines various scenarios in short screenplay snippets.

While not quite unreliable, Natalie is a restrained narrator holding back information from readers, and maybe even form herself, as she tries to move past the worst events of the last year. She is sardonic, capable, and singular in her search for the (possibly) missing boy.

Because of its short length and close focus on Natalie the rest of the characters in The Opposite of Here can feel less dimensional by comparison although they do each have their own arcs–something Natalie and readers realize together as Natalie comes to understand that she wasn’t the only one affected by her boyfriend’s death or the events of the cruise.

Taut pacing and menace imbue the pages as the narrative toes the line between reality and the power of suggestion in this story that asks readers to separate fact from fiction. The Opposite of Here is a tense thriller sure to keep readers guessing right until the last page. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, Fragments of the Lost by Megan Miranda, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roerhig, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

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

Reign the Earth: A Review

Shalia loves the desert and her place there with her family. But she also knows that her people are desperate for piece and it’s in her power to give them that. Shalia is willing to give up her freedom and leave the desert if it means her family will be safe.

Marrying a stranger and becoming Queen of the Bonelands is a terrifying prospect but no more so than watching more of her family die as the Bonelands try to track down the resistance movement that’s been plaguing them.

Shalia’s hopes of finding love in her arranged marriage are soon dashed when she realizes that her husband, Calix, cares more for power than he ever will for her. Calix is determined to destroy the few remaining Elementae–people who can control mysterious elemental magic–like Shalia’s best friend and, disturbingly, like Shalia herself. 

Struggling to hide her growing powers from Calix and make sense of the dangerous murmurs of rebellion Shalia will soon have to choose decide if she is willing to give up her own future in a bid for peace in Reign the Earth (2018) by A. C. Gaughen.

Reign the Earth is the first book in Gaughen’s Elementae series.

This fast-paced adventure is set in a world where magic has been forced into hiding and dangers lurk everywhere. While Shalia struggles to resign herself to the future she chose for herself she also longs for more as she begins to realize she can no longer live with only the well-being of her family in mind.

A dense beginning filled with clunky world building bog down the start to this otherwise sweeping story. While brown skinned Shalia is a daring and sympathetic heroine, her first person narration is often narrow in focus making the pacing slow and adding misplaced naivete to an otherwise often dark story of magic, abuse, resilience, and strength.

Recommended for fans of high fantasy, fierce heroines, and readers who enjoy novels with an evocative setting.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Roar by Cora Carmack, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Glass Spare by Lauren DeStefano, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

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

Song of the Current: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You told me we’re all calling out to the world and magic is the world calling back.”

Caroline Oresteia’s family has guided wherries across the Riverlands for generations–all of them called by the river god. Caro knows that her home is on the river, but she has never heard the river god call her in the language of small things. Now seventeen, she’s starting to wonder if he ever will.

After her father is arrested for refusing to transport a mysterious crate, Caro volunteers to deliver the cargo for her father’s release. Being no stranger to the Riverlands, it’s an easy assignment save for the pirates who want the same cargo. But traveling with the mysterious cargo soon draws Caro into a dangerous web of political intrigue and secrets forcing her to choose between the life she always dreamed of and a much grander future–if she’s brave enough to claim it in Song of the Current (2017) by Sarah Tolcser.

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Song of the Current is Tolcser’s debut novel and the start of a new series.

Caro’s first person narration is immediately enthralling. Her voice has a cadence and rhythm all its own that easily draws readers into her story. Caro is capable and self-sufficient from growing up on her father’s wherry but she soon learns that sometimes even the strongest people need to accept help now and then.

Tolcser expertly blends authentic nautical details with an original fantasy world where magic manifests and the gods still speak. Although Caro spends most of the novel aboard ship (or wherry) the world of Song of the Current looms large from the map in front of the book to the details that help bring the story to life from frogmen to the vocabulary of the wherrymen.

As with most boxes that are not meant to be open, the story really starts when Caro gets a good look at the cargo she is carrying and begins to understand the ramifications of delivering it as planned. What follows is a high stakes chase across the Riverlands as Caro and her allies try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers.

Song of the Current is a fascinating nautical fantasy sure to appeal to readers looking for a new story filled with pirates and adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, Black Hearts by Nicole Castroman, Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Fable by Adrienne Young

Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy: A Review

Whether it’s secretly cheering them on or not-so-secretly waiting for them to meet a bad end, readers love villains. Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy capitalizes on that fascination while failing to explore the reasoning behind it in this unwieldy collection edited by Youtube sensation Ameriie.

Each author’s short story is inspired by a Booktuber-provided prompt ranging from vague like “A young Moriarty” for Susan Dennard’s “Shirley and Jim” which presents a modern (and female) Holmes meeting Moriarty for the first time at boarding school to bizarrely specific. Renée Ahdieh’s sci-fi story “The Blood of Imuriv” is inspired by the prompt “The grandson of an evil, matriarchal dictator who tried to rule over the universe wants to follow in her footsteps and accidentally loses his temper, killing his sibling in a game of chess.”

This wide range of prompts leads to stories of varying quality and makes this cross-genre collection less than cohesive. BookTuber contributions range from personality quizzes and literary criticism about the stories to personal essays related to the prompts.

Standout stories include Soman Chainani’s “Gwen and Art and Lance” (“A modern-day mash-up of the King Arthur legend and Persephone-Hades myth”) which is written entirely in texts and emails between the titular characters as Gwen tries to manipulate Art into taking her to prom amidst unwanted overtures from Lance and “Death Knell” by Victoria Schwab (“Hades wakes up after being unconscious at the bottom of a well in Ireland”) which offers a nuanced meditation on what it means to be Death–and what it means to try to run from it.

There are no redeeming qualities for most of the villains here and, for the most part, a lot of superficiality. One notable exception is Cindy Pon’s poignant story “Beautiful Venom” (prompt: “Medusa, go!”) which makes the Greek myth relevant to modern readers as they watch Mei Feng become Mei Du in Pon’s tragic retelling with a Chinese setting. Because You Love to Hate Me is a marketable if not entirely serviceable collection that will appeal to fans of the contributing authors.

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

Stealing Snow: A Review

Stealing Snow by Danielle PaigeSnow has spent most of her like behind the walls of the Whittaker Institute. The high security asylum is meant to help rehabilitate troubled patients, like Snow, let go of their delusions.

But Snow doesn’t think she’s crazy. Not really.

Being near Bale makes like at the Institute bearable. At least until Bale claims he can see what Snow really is when they kiss. And breaks her hand in two places.

When mysterious hands grab Bale and pull him through a mirror, Snow knows that she has to follow. A voice in her dreams tells Snow exactly what to do in order to escape. Following the voices directions, Snow makes it outside and finds herself in the wintry world of Algid.

Snow soon learns that Algid is her true home and her father is determined to do everything he can to hold onto the throne–and keep Snow far away from it. As magic, mayhem, and trickery collide, Snow will have to decide who she can trust if she wants to rescue Bale and make it out of Algid alive in Stealing Snow (2016) by Danielle Paige.

Find it on Bookshop.

Stealing Snow is the start of Paige’s new series which is a dark retelling of The Snow Queen.

Paige goes for a darker tone right from the start with Snow residing in an asylum that seems to come straight from the pages of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While this setting offers a gripping backdrop for the opening of the story, it also often defies logic as readers realize Snow has been at the Institute since she was a child (and is, in fact, still only seventeen suggesting there should have been at least some type of schoolwork or high school equivalency studies).

The story picks up considerably when Snow actually arrives in Algid and more of the novel’s characters are introduced. Snow finds a veritable band of misfits as she makes her way through Algid trying to find her father, the Snow King, and rescue her love Bale.

Along the way Snow encounters numerous love interests, her own snow magic, and vast conspiracies that stretch between Algid and our world. While this series opener raises many questions about Snow, her family, and Algid, readers will have to wait for future installments for most of the answers.

Stealing Snow is a fast-paced adventure with a sharp-tongued narrator who isn’t afraid to be ruthless. Paige takes some of the familiar elements of The Snow Queen and shakes them up with an inventive reimagining of the this fairy tale and the frighteningly evocative world of Algid. Recommended for readers looking for a new fairytale retelling that is extra dark.

Possible Pairings: Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly, Havenfall by Sara Holland, Splintered by A. G. Howard, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Reign of Shadows by Sophie Jordan, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, Ruined by Amy Tintera

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