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*

Don’t Hate the Player: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Don't Hate the Player by Alexis NeddEmilia Romero is the star of her high school field hockey team, a straight A student, and a world class secret keeper. It’s the only way she’s found to keep her double life as a player on a competitive esports team in Guardians League Online (GLO) on the down low. Emilia isn’t ashamed of her gaming–she knows she’s great at it. But she also knows that the gaming community is very white and very male and not a great place for a Puerto Rican teen girl to be honest about who she is.

When her team qualifies for a local eSports tournament, Emilia knows she can’t miss this opportunity. Keeping her gaming life separate from her real life, gets a lot more complicated when Emilia recognizes one of the competitors.

Jake has had a crush on Emilia since they met as kids at an arcade birthday party. His underdog team qualifying for the tournament is exciting enough. Seeing Emilia and being thrown back into her orbit? That’s a whole other level.

Competing in the tournament should be as simple as letting the best player win. But when the stakes rise Emilia and Jake both realize they have a lot to gain–and potentially lose–depending on the tournament’s outcome. Growing closer as gamers is great but it will take more than the perfect hidden combo to make sure they can stay close in real life too in Don’t Hate the Player (2021) by Alexis Nedd.

Find it on Bookshop.

Don’t Hate the Player is Nedd’s debut novel. Most of the story is narrated by Emilia with some chapters in third person following Jake.

Nedd knows her stuff and delivers a story entrenched in online gaming that remains approachable to non-gamer readers. The high stakes of the tournament contrast well with the tension as, with Jake’s help, Emilia tries to keep her identity a secret to avoid harassment from the gaming community. Jake has been a gamer all of his life and is aware of the harassment faced by non-male/non-white players from the experiences of his own GLO teammates who include BIPOC players who are queer and trans.

Emilia’s efforts to balance her parents’ expectations with her own desires adds a lot of dimension to the story. Both Jake and Emilia’s friends offer a strong support system as the competition at the tournament amps up and add a lot of humor to the story.

Don’t Hate the Player is a funny, romantic story that shines a light on the joys (and hazards) of the gaming community while proving that sometimes a little competition can bring people together. Recommended for gamers, romantics, and readers looking for books with a healthy dose of humor.

Possible Pairings: Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Analee in Real Life by Janelle Milanes, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi, Don’t Read the Comments by Eric Smith, Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

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

Piranesi: A Review

Piranesi by Susanna ClarkeThe rooms in the House are infinite. Connected by endless corridors and Vestibules with walls lined with thousands of Statues–each unique in both appearance and in name. Water moves through these Halls, waves flooding and draining according to the changing of the Tides.

Piranesi understands the House and its ways intimately. He can navigate the Halls and track the Tides. He visits his favorite Statues and, most importantly, he tends to the House as he explores its vast spaces.

There is one other living person in The House: The Other, a man searching for A Great and Secret Knowledge that Piranesi suspects he may never find.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite. It provides everything that Piranesi needs. But even with his intimate knowledge of the House and its workings, Piranesi doesn’t know what it means when evidence of another Person emerges.

Will they be friend as Piranesi hopes? Foe as The Other warns? As Piranesi comes closer to answering these questions he will also unravel an awful truth as vast and immeasurable as the House itself in Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke.

Find it on Bookshop.

Piranesi is Clarke’s deceptively slim followup to her blockbuster novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There is simultaneously a lot to talk about here and very little that can be said without revealing spoilers (which I have avoided here).

Clarke is an excellent writer. Despite the quirks of Piranesi’s first-person narration and the idiosyncrasies of the book’s structure, readers are immediately drawn into this strange and layered story.

The intricate unfolding of the plot contrasts sharply with mounting urgency as The Other tries to find the mysterious new person and kill them while Piranesi tries to save them. Even the meandering, stream of consciousness style of much of the book can’t diminish the tension as the novel builds inexorably to its climax.

Unfortunately, the actual ending is not as compelling as the buildup; no one is settled or even okay by the end, nothing is resolved. For a story that starts so big, with so many vast possibilities, the final outcome feels like the least compelling direction Piranesi could have taken.

Piranesi is a fascinating exercise in craft as Clarke expertly manages both the narrative and plot with well-timed reveals and twists. These notable elements underscore how little actually happens throughout the novel, especially in terms of characterization or growth.

Possible Pairings: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Slade House by David Mitchell, The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami, The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, Or What You Will by Jo Walton

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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: Once Upon a Broken Heart 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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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*