The Refrigerator Monologues: A Review

“Bad things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to okay people. Bad things happen to everyone.”

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrated by Annie WuEveryone is dead in Deadtown. Sometimes there are second chances. Do-overs, if you know the right people. But sometimes, at the end of the day, you’re dead and you stay that way.

Paige Embry knows that. Knows she’s more famous now for being dead than she ever was for being alive, for being herself, or even for being Kid Mercury’s girlfriend. It’s just one of those things.

She isn’t the only one.

In fact, there are a lot of them down in Deadtown: The women the heroes had to lose so they could grow. The ones who named them, the ones who helped them understand their new powers, the ones who broke them out, their rivals, their lovers, their teammates.

In Deadtown they call themselves the Hell Hath Club. They’re mostly very beautiful, very well-read, and very angry. They meet every day at the Lethe Café.

There isn’t a lot to do when you’re dead, but everyone in Deadtown loves a good story and at the Hell Hath Club everyone is welcome. All you have to do is pull up a seat, grab your cup of nothing, and listen in The Refrigerator Monologues (2017) by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrated by Annie Wu.

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Paige’s narration connects short stories following members of the Hell Hath Club as they share their version of origin stories–the stories of how they died and wound up in Deadtown. Wu’s illustrations break up the stories in The Refrigerator Monologues lending an even stronger comic book sensibility to the book.

Each story has Valente’s snappy, mesmerizing prose as the Hell Hath Club’s strange and melancholy stories unfold. Like the club members themselves, The Refrigerator Monologues is angry and unflinching–a searing collection tied together with feminist rage and both an abiding love for and deep frustration with popular superhero and comic book tropes.

Possible Pairings: The Supervillain and Me by Danielle Banas, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Renegades by Marissa Meyer, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti

Skyhunter: A Review

Skyhunter by Marie LuThe country of Mara is fighting a losing war against the Karensa Federation and its superior technology harnessed from the Early Ones–a fallen civilization readers will readily recognize in our present one.

Mara was supposed to be a safe haven for Talin and her mother. Instead refugees are kept outside the city walls and Talin’s status as an elite Striker can’t make some see her as anything more than a “Basean rat” who Marans look down on for little more than her skin color and the shape of her eyes.

As a Striker on the warfront Talin fights Ghosts–humans who have been horrifically re-engineered by the Federation to become monsters intent only on killing. When Talin saves a mysterious prisoner of war she may have also found the key to beating the Federation–but first she has to decide if the prisoner is a potential weapon or an ally in Skyhunter (2020) by Marie Lu.

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This post-apocalyptic, sci-fi adventure is a visceral exploration of the emotional and physical costs of war. Poison gas scarred Talin’s vocal chords leaving her unable to speak as much from the trauma as the injury; she instead communicates with the sign language used by Strikers.

Talin’s narration is caustic as questions of allegiance and loyalty move the plot forward with Talin and her friends struggling to save a country that offered Talin refuge while withholding common decency–a dichotomy she again has to struggle with while deciding if the enemy prisoner she has rescued is someone to be saved or something to be exploited.

At the cliffhanger end of Skyhunter Mara’s fate is far from secure leaving readers to wait for answers in the conclusion to this duology. Suspense and high-action fights make this plot-driven story both fast-paced and brutal.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

The Nemesis: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*The Nemesis is the final book in Kincaid’s Diabolic trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. Start at the beginning with The Diabolic*

The Nemesis by S. J. KincaidNemesis has lived as a Diabolic bound to the young elite Sidonia. She has forged alliances and friendships as often as she has watched them crumble. She has been an empress and traveled across the space and time to earn her personhood.

But at her core Nemesis wonders if she is still merely a Diabolic–a creature whose love is possessive, ferocious, and all-consuming; a creature crafted for violence.

Three years ago Tyrus shocked the galaxy when he killed Nemesis and set himself on a path of destruction and debauchery poised to bring the entire empire to its knees.

Very few people know that Nemesis survived her would-be assassination and all of them want to use her. Blinded by rage at her own betrayal, Nemesis is determined to exact revenge against those who have wronged her.

In her hunt for vengeance, Nemesis may also find her humanity but only if she’s willing to truly look at everything that has transpired to bring her to this point in The Nemesis (2020) by S. J. Kincaid.

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The Nemesis is the final book in Kincaid’s Diabolic trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. Start at the beginning with The Diabolic and The Empress.

It’s always hard to review the end of a series without revealing too much. Kincaid does an excellent job of tying things together while continuing to expand the world both as Nemesis travels through the system and as she learns more about the history of the empire.

The Nemesis covers a surprisingly long span of time given the book’s fast pacing as Nemesis works with friends and unlikely allies to try and save the empire from itself as Tyrus continues to debase both himself and the ruling elite.

The Nemesis is everything I wanted for this series conclusion. Touching on politics, social norms, and public perception versus reality, this book is truly a book of our times. The Nemesis is the perfect conclusion to a favorite series. A must read for anyone looking for a splashy space opera that will leave them picking their jaw up off the floor.

Possible Pairings: Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, Proxy by Alex London, Legend by Marie Lu, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M.O’Brien, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Impostors by Scott Westerfeld, And I Darken by Kiersten White, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

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

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.

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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*

Scythe: A Review

Scythe by Neal ShustermanIn a post-death world, everything should be perfect. And maybe it is. There is no hunger, no disease, no poverty. Even aging is optional.

Sure, some things are boring–maybe even stagnant–but when you can literally go splat to shake things up without any consequences, does that matter?

Even a perfect world is still only so big. The population still needs to be controlled.

That’s where the scythes come in.

As the only agency who operates outside of the control of the Thunderhead–the AI that helped make this utopia a reality–scythes are tasked with culling the population. Each scythe has full freedom to choose their own methods, their own victims, and their apprentices.

Neither Rowan nor Citra expect to attract a scythe’s attention before turning their first corner. They are even more surprised when, instead of being gleaned, they are told that Scythe Faraday has chosen both of them to be his apprentices.

The problem: Only one of them will become a scythe at the end of the year. In fact, only one of them may survive in Scythe (2016) by Neal Shusterman.

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Do you ever read a book and just not get it? That was me with this one.

I’ve read Scythe twice and, honestly, I still don’t understand a lot of the appeal. The story alternates between third person narration following key players–primarily Rowan and Citra–as the story unfolds. Excerpts from scythes’ journals add another layer exposing some of this world’s inner-workings as well as its steady decay.

Shusterman has created a compelling and fully realized distant future world with a sprawling story exploring corruption, stagnation, and what living in a utopia really means. Unfortunately most of the characters fail to live up to this setting often feeling one dimensional and flat. One could argue that is the natural result of living in a world free of conflict and challenge, but that caveat doesn’t make them any more interesting to read about.

The final act of Scythe picks up a lot with increased tension, better pacing, and numerous twists even if the characters, in a lot of ways, fail to make truly key changes. I’m still not sure if I’ll knuckle through the rest of the trilogy. Recommended for readers who prefer  dystopias in utopian clothing and plot driven novels with a heavy dose of philosophical posturing.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

All the Birds in the Sky: A Review

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane AndersPatricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead were friends once, a long time ago.

That was before Patricia found out from the Parliament of Birds that she was a witch. Before her education on spells, magic, and how to avoid Aggrandizement began at Eltisley Maze.

It was before Laurence found the blueprints for his first two second time machine and started building an artificial intelligence. Before he found his people and his place with other mad scientists so desperate to save the world that they don’t think too hard about how they’re changing it.

They were friends when they were children. Before Patricia saved Laurence’s life and vanished.

Now they’re grown up, living in San Francisco although they travel in different orbits. After years of circling each other something has brought Patricia and Laurence back together. But neither of them can tell if their reunion is meant to fix all of the things that have started going wrong in the world or break them beyond repair in All the Birds in the Sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders.

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Anders’ ambitious blend of sci-fi and fantasy starts when Patricia and Laurence are children, following them through middle school into adulthood. The breakneck pacing contrasts sharply with the way Patricia and Laurence’s carefully drawn characters develop and grow over the years.

All the Birds in the Sky is an exercise in contrasts as Laurence and Patricia find themselves on opposite sides of a struggle to save a rapidly declining plane. This shift is particularly evident in the protagonists’ dramatically different worldviews and all of the ways it becomes clear that there may not be any good choices left for either of them.

Snappy prose, witty dialog, and intricate world building will immediately draw readers into this action-filled plot story. Recommended for readers who like their speculative fiction as timely as it is snarky.

Possible Pairings: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

The Light at the Bottom of the World: A Review

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London ShahThousands of feet underwater, humanity tries to find a way forward on a planet that changed forever sixty-five years ago when the water levels started to rise and never stopped. Strange as it may be, it’s the only world Leyla McQueen has ever known.

When her father is accused of the worst possible crime and arrested with no chance to defend himself, Leyla knows she has to get him out. Even if her best chance to do that is trying to win the ultra competitive, ultra dangerous London Submersible Marathon.

When the race doesn’t go to plan, Leyla realizes her father’s arrest is tied to much bigger secrets in London. With no other options and no help in sight, Leyla has to leave the only home she has ever known and confront dangerous truths to save her father before it’s too late in The Light at the Bottom of the World (2019) by London Shah.

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The Light at the Bottom of the World is Shah’s debut novel and the start of her Light the Abyss duology.

Leyla is a great narrator who has obvious affection for her small corner of this underwater world while acknowledging the devastation that led humanity to it. Despite a strong premise and evocative setting, the stakes of Leyla’s mission never translates to an actual sense of urgency even as she is caught in a race against time to save her father before she is detained by the authorities herself.

The story and its slang remains very grounded in modern cultural references and terminology even though the story is set decades in the future. The varied cast of secondary characters are unfortunately under-utilized for a lot of this plot-driven novel.

The Light at the Bottom of the World is a classic dystopian featuring a kickass Muslim girl, lots of submarines, lots of water, and lots of action. Recommended for readers seeking any or all of the above in their science fiction.

Possible Pairings: The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron, The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau, A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen, Matched by Ally Condie, Crown of Oblivion by Julie Eshbaugh, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Warcross by Marie Lu, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, The Program by Suzanne Young

Soon I Will Be Invincible: A Review

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin GrossmanDoctor Impossible wasn’t always an evil genius, diabolical scientist, and supervillain extraordinaire. He just doesn’t talk about it because it’s really only the heroes who spend time worrying about their origin stories. Doctor Impossible would rather focus on taking over the world. As soon as he breaks out of prison. Again.

Over his long and villainous career Doctor Impossible has tried to take over the world in all of the usual ways with nuclear, thermonuclear, and nanotechnological doomsday devices. He’s tried mind control. He’s traveled backwards and forward in time. He’s used a robot army, insect army, dinosaur army. Even a fungus army, fish and rodents too.

All failures. Even the alien invasion was a failure.

But that’s okay. Because this time Doctor Impossible has a new plan. One that will work.

Fatale doesn’t remember much about her life before she become a cyborg. She’s been told she was on vacation in Brazil. Then she wasn’t. And now she’s Fatale: part skin, part chrome–a technological marvel meant to be the next generation of warfare until the NSA left her out in the cold.

It’s not easy making it as a superhero cyborg on your own, so Fatale is thrilled when she’s invited to join the Champions even if it is to replace their slain robot. The Champions used to be a rock solid team but now cracks are starting to show between the heroes–cracks that might be just the break Doctor Impossible needs in Soon I Will Be Invincible (2007) by Austin Grossman.

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Soon I Will Be Invincible is a charming pastiche of classic superhero plots with chapters alternating between Doctor Impossible and Fatale. (If you read audiobooks, try the audio which as two actors and is a lot of fun.)

Doctor Impossible is a classic supervillain so don’t go into this one expecting a lot of depth and morally grey areas. He is definitely a villain and he definitely doesn’t feel bad about it at all. Sure, he’s learned some things from his rivalry with CoreFire over the years and his failed attempts at world domination. But mostly that was about what didn’t work.

Fatale, in contrast, feels like she’s been thrown into the deep end here and is worried her previous experience working solo has done little to prepare her to join the Champions–especially alongside Doctor Impossible’s old ally Lily. If Fatale feels a little superficial compared to Doctor Impossible’s big personality, blame it on the strict moral code.

Hints of clever world building and a surprise reveal about Lily’s origin story at the end save this one from being too predictable. Soon I Will Be Invincible is entertaining if sometimes expected superhero fare. Recommended for comics fans looking to branch out into prose and, of course, anyone who can’t help but root for the villain.

Possible Pairings: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Proxy by Alex London, Watchmen by Alan Moore, The Superhero Handbook by Michael Powell, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Vicious by Victoria Schwab, The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

A Beginning At the End: A Review

A Beginning at the End by Mike ChenA global pandemic has changed the societal landscape and devastated the population. In the wake of the End of the World, while many people are waiting for life to return to normal, four people are trying to move forward as best they can.

Moira, a former pop star, used the initial outbreak as a chance to break away from her controlling father and start a new life. Six years later, Moira is living as normal a life as anyone can now. At least until her father begins a public campaign to try and find her.

While everyone else hides inside or behind surgical masks offering flimsy protection, Krista throws herself into the world planning events for people unwilling to risk the physical interactions themselves. But not many people are planning parties with the threat of a new outbreak looming and Krista is one cancelled event away from losing everything.

Rob survived. His wife didn’t. All Rob wants is to bring up his daughter, Sunny, as best he can. The only problem is new government regulations threaten to take Sunny away to place her in a more stable family environment.

In a world waiting to return to a normal that might never come Moira, Krista, Rob, and Sunny will need each other more than anything if they want to survive in A Beginning At the End (2020) by Mike Chen.

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Chen’s sophomore novel explores themes of connection and survival against a post-apocalyptic San Francisco setting with chapters alternating between Moira, Krista, and Rob’s perspectives.

Evocative descriptions and thorough world building make this story of a global pandemic eerily timely although a slow start fails to build the momentum needed for later plot points and twists.

A Beginning at the End is a character driven, post-apocalyptic novel that offers hope for the current situation we are in with the Covid-19 global pandemic. In short come for the post-apocalyptic landscape, stay for the feels.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton; The Salt Line by Sally Goddard-Jones; In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen; The Fireman by Joe Hill; The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin; Severance by Ling Ma; Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel; The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

Don’t Go Without Me: A Graphic Novel Review

Don't Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O'ConnellDon’t Go Without Me (2020) by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell is a triptych collection of three comic stories.

In “Don’t Go Without Me” there is a rumor that when you stand in a certain place at a certain time, you can be transported to a different realm–one that exists next to ours in secret. When two lovers cross over, they find themselves separated and forced to barter stories in exchange for clues that might bring them back to each other. But when every trade costs something, how much do either of them have to lose?

“What Is Left” starts when a ship crashes. The ship runs on memories, but when the engine malfunctions the lone surviving engineer finds herself awash in memories of someone else’s life.

For years in “Con Temor, Con Ternura” (With Fear, With Tenderness), a small ocean-side town has watched the sleeping giant at the edge of their town. While they wait for the predicted date when the giant is supposed to wake, the town decides to greet their future head on with a party. But they soon learn that preparing for an expected outcome is not the same as meeting it.

Don’t Go Without Me is an excellent collection of speculative fiction graphic novels exploring human relationships stretched outside of typical norms. Unique restricted color palettes differentiate between each story here and allow Valero-O’Connell’s distinct style to shine in each panel.

Intricate backgrounds and lush artwork offset characters dealing, in each story, with themes of isolation and connection as best they can. Although Don’t Go Without Me can be grim, it is also beautiful and meditative. Valero-O’Connell continues to demonstrate that she is an artist and author to watch.