Sugar Town Queens: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Sugar town queens never back down from a fight.”

Sugar Town Queens by Malla NunnAmandla Zenzile Harden is familiar with her mother’s strange visions and her difficult days. But even she is taken aback when, on the morning of her fifteenth birthday, her mother Annalisa tells Amandla that she has to wear a blue sheet as a dress to bring her father home. It’s been only Amandla and her mother for as long as Amandla can remember. She has never met her father. Wearing an ugly sheet isn’t going to change that.

Life in Sugar Town isn’t what anyone would call easy. Everyone has their struggles and their problems in the township near Durban, South Africa. Although their shack is shabby by some standards, it’s home and it’s always tidy thanks to Annalisa’s meticulous cleaning. But even in the township, Amandla and her mother stand out not just for Annalisa’s strange behavior and uneven memory but because Annalisa is white and Amandla is brown.

After years of trying to piece together the scraps of her mother’s fractured memories into something resembling a family history, Amandla is ready for answers. When she finds more cash than she’s ever seen in her mother’s purse along with an address, Amandla decides it’s a sign to find answers.

With help from her best friend Lil Bit and newer friend Goodness, Amandla follows the clues to the truth about herself, her mother, and old family secrets that will change Amandla’s understanding of family forever in Sugar Town Queens (2021) by Malla Nunn.

Find it on Bookshop.

Sugar Town Queens is Nunn’s first novel for young adults. Amandla is biracial (her mother is white and her father is described as Zulu in the narrative–one of the few things Amandla knows about him), Amandla’s friends and other township residents are Black.

Amandla’s first person narration is direct and to the point in the way of young people who have to grow up quickly because of hard circumstances. Amandla is well aware of the poverty she and her mom live with but, over the course of the novel, she also finds moments of lightness with Lil Bit and Goodness and even starts a romance with Goodness’s earnest brother. Although the romance is entirely age appropriate and sweet, I admit that I would be very happy to never hear another character describe someone’s lips as “juicy” ever again.

While friendship (and first love) are key parts of the story, the main focus here is family as Amandla literally stumbles upon her maternal grandmother after following the clues she has found. Learning more about her grandparents, Amandla realizes that a family reunion will not mend everything that has broken in her mother nor will it erase her grandfather’s racist opinions of his poor, biracial granddaughter. With new family and new relationships, however, Amandla does begin to understand that forgiveness can have its place as much as justice when more of Annalisa’s past is revealed.

With her grandmother’s declining health and Annalisa’s limited mental stability, the urgency is real to find answers before it’s too late making Sugar Town Queens a page turner as the novel builds to a striking finish. The contrast between the affluent Harden family and Amandla’s own upbringing in Sugar Town further highlights the inequalities that still exist in South Africa long after the end of Apartheid thanks to Nunn’s carefully detailed descriptions of both Sugar Town and Durban.

Sugar Town Queens is a fast-paced story about family, grief, and the power to be found in asking for–and accepting–help where themes of family and female friendship emphasize the importance of community and support systems.

Possible Pairings: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Truth About White Lies by Olivia A. Cole, All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney, Tiffany Sly Lives Here by Dana L. Davis, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds, The Means That Make Us Strangers by Christine Kindberg, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Immortalists: A Review

The Immortalists by Chloe BenjaminNew York City, 1969: The Gold siblings are looking at another monotonous summer together on New York City’s Lower East Side. But even as they anticipate the days blend together, they know that things are about to change. This is the last summer they’ll all be together like this before summer jobs and school and so many other things get in the way.

It seems like the perfect time to do something drastic like visit the mystical psychic Daniel has heard about in whispers all around the neighborhood, leading them to the cluttered apartment on Hester Street. They say the woman can tell you exactly when you’ll die. But none of them understand what that means when they still have so much life left. At least, they think they do.

As time passes, they’ll all be shaped by that hot summer day and the dates the fortuneteller told them. Simon–the youngest, the golden boy–will never stop running; throwing himself into anything and everything as he tries to find love and, if he’s lucky, his truest self as he runs away to San Francisco in the 1980s.

In the 1990s Klara lands in Las Vegas. After years of trying to make a go of her show as an illusionist, her act might finally be taking off. But after years performing as a mentalist, Klara is no longer sure where reality ends and the magic begins–a blurred line that could lead to her greatest performance ever. Or have disastrous consequences.

Daniel, the eldest, has spent his life as a doctor. It isn’t always glamorous but he’s happy, isn’t he? When one unexpected Thanksgiving shows Daniel everything he could have had–and everything he never will–he becomes obsessed with understanding the truth of the mystical woman all those years ago.

Varya never had much use for people–or for the prediction she received on Hester Street–but as she finds herself more and more entrenched in her work on longevity research, even practical Varya begins to wonder if things would have–could have–been different if they’d all made different choices on that long ago summer day in The Immortalists (2018) by Chloe Benjamin.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Gold family is white and Jewish with varying levels of faith with more diversity among the secondary cast. The story is broken into four parts–one following each sibling–over the course of twenty some odd years.

Benjamin’s sweeping generational family saga tackles big questions of fate vs agency without offering many answers one way or another. Crossing the country and spanning decades, The Immortalists captures the zeitgeist of the times starting with the frenzied energy of San Francisco in the 1980s and the ensuing panic and grief of the growing AIDS crisis. Simon’s section starts when Simon is only sixteen leading to a lot of instances of reading about Simon’s underage sexual encounters with much older men. While not unrealistic for the time it still felt uncomfortable to read about in relation to a character who is still essentially a child.

The omniscient third person narrator also clings closely to the female gaze–particularly with Simon but also even in the opening page with Varya–focusing needlessly on objectification particularly with instances when Simon wants the “challenge” of another “hard” body like his own. There could be arguments that this adds nuance to literary fiction but, for me, it only served to constantly draw me out of the story.

Ultimately The Immortalists raises some interesting questions by putting a family through an increasingly unpleasant series of events across a generation. Readers interested in philosophical questions about life choices will find a lot to appreciate here while readers hoping to lean more into the fantastical elements will be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, An Extraordinary Destiny by S. N. Paleja, One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle

The Perfect Escape: A Review

The Perfect Escape by Leah KonenNew friends Sam, Margaret, and Diana bonded over their messy divorces–different trajectories that all ended in the same place. Now they’re all single, ready to move on, and maybe in Sam’s case still just a little bitter.

A road trip out of New York City is exactly what all three of them need.

Which makes it even more of a bummer when their car breaks down in the Catskills and puts the trip on hold while their car is being repaired. It’s the same place Sam’s ex–Harry–chose to move in with his other woman, the one he left Sam to go back to. But that doesn’t have to mean anything. They can still have fun at a bar. Unless maybe Sam can use the opportunity to get Harry back.

Margaret is nervous about the trip, the expenses, her ex-husband’s increasingly erratic behavior in the apartment they’re still sharing because neither can afford to move out. But she’s also ready for a break and a distraction. Which she finds when sparks start to fly with a younger man at the bar.

When a night promising fresh starts instead leads to bad decisions, both Sam and Margaret aren’t sure what their night out means for the rest of the trip–or their futures. Then they realize that Diana never made it back from the bar. Then things get worse.

It should have been the perfect trip. None of them expected it to include a body count in The Perfect Escape (2022) by Leah Konen.

Find it on Bookshop.

Konen’s latest thriller is a wild ride through secrets and lies set in upstate New York. All main characters are cued as white.

As the story alternates between first person narrations, it’s clear that all of the characters are keeping their secrets close. Konen slowly teases out Sam, Margaret, and Diana’s backstories as this pressure cooker of a story builds to a twist-filled conclusion and doubts begin to rise between the close-but-new friends.

The Perfect Escape is the kind of book that you’ll enjoy the most with no expectations and minimal information. Konen continues to hone her craft with this smart and suspenseful story where she strikes the perfect balance between dropping clues and foreshadowing future events while also leaving space for truly surprising reveals.

Descriptive prose and well-realized backstories for both Sam and Margaret add substance to this stylish thriller.

Possible Pairings: The Weekend Away by Sarah Alderson, We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, The Guest List by Lucy Foley, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

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

The Girls I’ve Been: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“What didn’t kill me made me a victim. I made me stronger.”

The Girls I've Been by Tess SharpeIt was only supposed to be twenty minutes. Twenty awkward minutes. But then it would be over. They’d meet in the bank parking lot, go in, make the deposit of the money from the fundraiser, and twenty awkward minutes later it would be over. Nora O’Malley (not her real name, by the way) has survived a lot worse than spending twenty minutes with her new girlfriend Iris and her ex-boyfriend (always best friend) Wes.

Except Nora also wants to smooth out last night’s “makeout-interruptus” when Wes found out about Nora and Iris by walking in on them. So she gets donuts. With bacon. And sprinkles. Because everyone loves donuts. Then she has to get coffee. So then she’s late and Wes and Iris are both waiting on her and there are two people ahead of them in line at the bank. Which usually wouldn’t be a problem except the two people ahead of them are also robbing the bank. And they decide to keep everyone hostage.

Nora’s survived a lot worse than some amateur hour bank robbery and she’s had plenty of therapy to unpack all of it. But she’s never had to survive anything with two of the three people she cares about more than anything, not to mention a lot of other innocent bystanders.

As the daughter of a con-artist, Nora has been a lot of girls. She’s seen a lot of things. She’s done worse. But she made it out. She’s a different girl now. A smarter, stronger one.

Now, Nora is going to need every one of those girls she used to be to thwart this robbery, keep Wes and Iris and everyone else safe, and maybe also make it out alive herself in The Girls I’ve Been (2021) by Tess Sharpe.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Girls I’ve Been is a fast-paced, standalone novel; the audiobook is read by the author. All major characters are presumed white. Nora’s bisexuality and Iris’s endometriosis add intersectionality to the cast and serve as key elements of the plot.

The Girls I’ve Been is a tense thriller narrated by Nora. Time stamped chapters during the robbery and a running list of assets Nora has to work with in the bank underscore the urgency of the situation and maintain momentum as the hostage situation escalates. Nora’s narration is pragmatic and laser focused as she works to keep the other hostages safe and tries to communicate with her older half-sister Lee (also not her real name) who is working with law enforcement on the outside. These chapters are interspersed with flashbacks of the other girls Nora has been under her manipulative mother’s grooming and training highlighting the skills (and trauma) Nora has picked up along the way that will factor in during the bank robbery. Memories of her friendships with Wes and Iris add tenderness to the story although all three have scars (some literal, some psychological) from parental abuse.

Despite the tense situation, The Girls I’ve Been is a really fun, fast-paced story. Sharpe includes all of the best elements of a good heist or con story while also offering a well-drawn look at the steep cost of being immersed in that life–a cost Nora is still paying. Although the sense of menace and danger for Nora and the other hostages is palpable, the novel never becomes graphic or viscerally violent always focusing on the characters’ survival rather than their trauma.

The Girls I’ve Been is a completely immersive, suspenseful novel that centers a bisexual protagonist and queer themes. The story is also refreshingly free of a love triangle or romantic tensions as Nora, Iris, and Wes all work to rebuild the trust between them and strengthen their friendship–while surviving a bank robbery.

Possible Pairings: A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Tell Me My Name by Amy Reed, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

Luck of the Titanic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.

Valora Luck almost misses her chance to be one of those passengers when her entry is blocked thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricts the admission of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Valora is used to obstacles, though, and isn’t about to let a silly policy stop her from getting on board and seeing her twin brother Jamie for the first time in years.

Jamie is traveling on the Titanic as a seaman on his way to Cuba with the rest of his crew but Val has bigger plans for both of them. Reunited for the first time since their father’s death, this is the perfect opportunity for the twins to revive their acrobatics act–an act that Val knows will be good enough to attract the attention of the Albert Ankeny Stewart. One look at their performance and Mr. Stewart will have to recruit them for the Ringling Circus. Then Val and Jamie can finally get back to being family again instead of near strangers.

Val’s plan is perfect. Until disaster strikes and, as the Titanic begins its last night as an ocean liner, Val and her brother will have to worry about surviving the present before they can plan for the future in Luck of the Titanic (2021) by Stacey Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Luck of the Titanic is narrated by Val as she struggles to board the luxury liner and secure passage into America for herself and her brother. The story is inspired by the real Chinese passengers on the TitanicYou can read more about Lee’s real-life inspiration to write this story in an essay she wrote for Oprah Daily.

Lee once again delivers a masterful work of historical fiction. Luck of the Titanic is carefully researched with front matter that includes a cast of characters and diagrams of the famous ship. The balances portraying the very real racism and intolerance Val and her fellow Chinese passengers would have encountered on the ship (or in attempting to travel to the United States) while also highlighting small joys as Val reconnects with her brother, befriends his crewmates, and as all of them discover the magic of this larger-than-life ship before it strikes an iceberg and begins to sink.

Val is an accomplished acrobat which adds a fun dimension to the story. Because of the novel’s setting, this aspect of Val’s life can never be the main point of the story but it still adds so much to her character as readers see her talent and joy in her work–and the contrast in how Jamie feel’s about the same performance skills.

Readers familiar with the history of the Titanic will recognize many key points including the iconic state rooms and grand stairway while the story also shows more of third class (steerage) where Jamie and his crew are located. The novel does include an attempted sexual assault which moves the plot forward (necessitating the separation of Val and some of her friends as the iceberg hits) but also feels excessive in a story that already has plenty of tension and strife for the characters.

Lee also includes nods to common theories about contributing factors to the disaster including the lack of binoculars for crew working in the crow’s nest, the pressure on Captain Smith to drive at speed, and of course the lifeboats (of which there were too few) being launched without reaching full capacity. Other details (the lack of proper warnings from the Marconi operators, the confusion as Titanic tried to signal for help from nearby ships) are left off-page in favor of a focus on the characters. While Lee shows more behind-the-scenes areas of the ship, this novel is largely populated by fictional characters whenever possible leaving notable survivors like Molly Brown and crew member Violet Jessop out of the narrative entirely.

Luck of the Titanic is both gripping and melancholy as the novel builds to its inevitable conclusion. This story of survival and family is completely engrossing while also asking readers to consider whose stories are deemed worth telling in history–and how we can work to widen that scope. Recommended for fans of adventure and historical fiction novels.

Possible Pairings: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

All the Broken People: A Review

Lucy King is ready to start over in Woodstock, New York. She has her dog, she has cash, she has her suitcase with her mother’s vintage silk scarf and her father’s hammer. She has plans for a quiet life where her past will never come back to haunt her.

All the Broken People by Leah KonenEnter Vera and John, Lucy’s painfully stylish neighbors who quickly take Lucy under their wing. After being isolated for so long Lucy craves their attention and friendship enough that she knows she’d do almost anything to keep it.

When the couple asks for Lucy’s help to get a fresh start of their own, Lucy knows she has to help. But what starts as a bit of fraud with minimal consequences and an accidental death becomes something else when someone turns up dead.

Receiving more attention than she wanted, Lucy finds herself at the center of the investigation not just as a witness but a likely suspect. After coming so far to start again, Lucy will have to figure out who she can trust–and who’s really to blame–if she wants to keep the new beginning she fought so hard to create in All the Broken People (2020) by Leah Konen.

Find it on Bookshop.

All the Broken People is Konen’s adult debut. You might recognize her name from her previous YA titles.

All the Broken People is an eerie story where every tension is amplified by Lucy’s isolated, first person narration. After escaping a relationship marked by gaslighting and abuse, Lucy no longer trusts anyone. Not even herself. As her carefully constructed life in Woodstock begins to collapse, she’s forced to confront the events that led her here and what she has to do to get out again.

All the Broken People is the kind of book where the less you know when you start, the better. Konen expertly demonstrates her range as an author with this thriller debut filled with menace and ground-pulled-out-from-under-you twists.

Possible Pairings: Only Truth by Julie Cameron, The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Verona Comics: A Review

Verona Comics by Jennifer DuganJubilee is an elite cellist. She has incredible talent and, according to her instructors, no emotion as she gets lost in the technical details of playing. With her biggest audition yet coming up for a summer conservatory program, Jubilee has a simple task: take a break. Which is how Jubilee finds herself selling comics with her mom and step-mom at their indie booth at a comic convention and, later, cosplaying as a peacock superhero at the con’s annual prom event.

Ridley doesn’t know who he is yet. All he really knows is that he’s a chronic disappointment to his parents and a barely tolerated presence in his own family. Which is why, despite his out-of-control anxiety, Ridley finds himself at comic con and representing his father’s company, The Geekery, while dressed as Office Batman at prom.

Neither Jubilee nor Ridley are looking for anything long-term, but their connection is immediately obvious. Unfortunately it’s also immediately inconvenient due to their parents’ intense dislike of each other and their rivalry.

With Jubilee’s audition approaching, Ridley’s anxiety spiraling out of control, and circumstances conspiring against them, Jubilee and Ridley will have to figure out if love can conquer all or if some romances are destined for tragedy in Verona Comics (2020) by Jennifer Dugan.

Find it on Bookshop.

Don’t let the cover of this one fool you, Dugan’s latest standalone novel tackles some heavy stuff wrapped in a light romance. Which is, perhaps, to be expected with a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Lesbrary has a really thoughtful review talking about all the ways that this does in fact nod back to Romeo and Juliet and it makes a lot of sense for exactly why this story is so heavy.

The story alternates between Jubilee and Ridley’s first person narration. In addition to preparing for her audition, Jubilee also has her best friend Jayla–an accomplished Black cosplayer with her eye on FIT for college, and her mom and step-mom to keep her grounded. Jubilee has always been attracted to people of different genders but isn’t sure if that makes her bisexual or something else. And she isn’t sure if any of that “counts” when she’s only ever dated her ex-boyfriend and, now, Ridley.

Ridley, on the other hand, has no support system. He feels isolated and like even more of a failure to his parents after his failed suicide attempt and the betrayal of his last boyfriend. Worst of all, his sister Gray (the only relative Ridley likes) is across the country most of the time. In a desperate bid to stay near Gray and the family home, Ridley tells his father he has a way to get close to The Geekery’s biggest rival. Which, of course, leads to Ridley being in the very bad position of potentially spying on his new girlfriend’s family.

As much as that is to deal with, Ridley is also struggling with crippling social anxiety and chronic stress from his father’s abusive behaviors and his mother’s neglect. Ridley’s unhappiness and his anxiety are palpable in every chapter. Readers should also be warned that there is suicide ideation as well. Later, when Jubilee and Ridley’s relationship seems to have reached a breaking point, both teens also have to confront the fact they might be dealing with co-dependence issues.

While no one dies in Verona Comics, don’t expect a traditional happy ending here either as both Jubilee and Ridley take time to regroup in the wake of a relationship that often brought out the worst in them. Dugan is a great writer and brings all of the fun (and less fun) elements of the comics world to life in this inventive take on Shakespeare’s classic play.

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jennifer Bennett, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp, When We Collided by Emery Lord, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, XOXO by Axie Oh, Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

The Kingdom of Back: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Speak for the ones who will come after you, looking to you for guidance. Stay true, daughter. One day you will see it all go up in flames.”

The Kingdom of Back by Marie LuThis is a story you already know. But listen carefully, because within it is one you have never heard before:

Nannerl Mozart has one wish that she guards close, no matter how hopeless it might be; she wants to be remembered forever.

A talented musician and performer, Nannerl entrances audiences with her playing which is masterful for one so young. But the older Nannerl becomes, the less brilliant her prowess. Especially compared to her younger brother Wolfgang who has already begun to overshadow Nannerl’s achievements with his own musicality and compositions.

Watching her younger brother, it is increasingly clear that it will be Wolfgang who receives the bulk of their strict father’s praise. It will be Wolfgang living the life Nannerl desperately wants. No amount of talent is enough to allow a young girl in eighteenth-century Austria to compose her own music. Not publicly.

Working in secret by day Nannerl begins creating her own compositions beside her brother. At night she waits for a mysterious visitor from a kingdom that should be little more than a bedtime story she shares with Wolfgang. The stranger has untold powers, and he knows Nannerl’s secret wish. But wishes have a price and the cost of securing her legacy might be greater than Nannerl can bear in The Kingdom of Back (2020) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Kingdom of a Back is a standalone novel that blends evocative historical fiction with fantasy elements. As Lu explains in her author’s note, this book was inspired by the real Mozart siblings as well as the eponymous imaginary world they created together as children.

In a departure from her earlier novels, Lu stays close to historical events centering the story in Austria and the Mozart family’s tour through Europe while fantasy elements set in the Kingdom of Back take a secondary role.

Nannerl’s first person narration is introspective and thoughtful as she tries to balance her fierce affection for her brother with her growing frustrations that, merely because of her gender, she will never be able to claim the same praise and recognition that is lavished on Wolfgang. Although jealousy is certainly a factor in Nannerl’s choices throughout the novel, The Kingdom of Back is grounded firmly in the love and friendship between the siblings.

The Kingdom of Back is a meditative story about ambition and achievement, as well as the chasm that can develop between the two. While real life events lend a melancholy tone to this story, it also makes the novel all the more powerful as a rallying cry and a hopeful reminder that there is always room to strive for more. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Heartless by Marissa Meyer, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente, And I Darken by Kiersten White

Frankly in Love: A Review

Frank is a second generation Korean American. He is a senior in high school and what he calls a Limbo. Like the other Korean American kids in his community, Frank finds himself caught between his parents’ expectations and his own wants as an American teen in Southern California.

Frank is all too aware of what his parents want him to do–especially when it comes to dating (spoiler: any girl he brings home had better be Korean). The only problem is that expectations are the last thing on Frank’s mind when he falls for Brit Means who is beautiful, popular, and white.

When Frank realizes his fellow Limbo, Joy Song, is facing the same problem it seems like they have found an obvious solution: pretend to date each other. Fake dating gives Frank and Joy freedom to do what they want without disappointing their parents. But as their fake relationship brings them closer together, Frank wonders if he’s ever understood love at all in Frankly in Love (2019) by David Yoon.

Find it on Bookshop.

Frankly in Love is Yoon’s debut novel. (Yes, before you ask, he and Nicola Yoon are married!)

Frank’s first person narration toes the line between humor and sardonic wit as he shares insights into the push and pull between his life at home with his Korean immigrant parents and his identity outside of their home and community.

While the fake relationship and related chaos add a lot of levity to this story, Frank’s journey throughout the novel is heavier as he tries to figure out who he wants to be (not to mention who he wants to be with) and struggles with how best to interrogate his parents’ racism and prejudices.

Frankly in Love is a contemporary romance with zero toxic masculinity and a character asking hard questions about choosing your path and who you love while choosing your battles. Recommended for readers looking for a romance with humor that still skews toward literary.

Possible Pairings: The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, Boys Don’t Knit by T. S. Easton, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Roses, In the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Four Dead Queens: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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