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, 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

Two Can Keep a Secret: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Welcome to life in a small town. You’re only as good as the best thing your family’s done. Or the worst.”

cover art for Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManusWelcome to Echo Ridge, population 4,935. Echo Ridge looks like small town America at its finest. But looks can be deceiving.

Ellery knows about all about the secrets hidden in Echo Ridge because her family is at the heart of them. Her aunt went missing from the town when she was Ellery’s age–sixteen. Five years ago their family was in the news again when a homecoming queen was murdered, her body found at the local Murderland amusement park.

Malcolm wishes he could forget Echo Ridge’s darker side and the role his brother played in the murder five years ago as prime suspect. Declan was never arrested but a small town’s memory is long and he was never cleared either. Even when Malcolm’s mother remarries it isn’t enough to change what the town thinks of his family. Not really.

When Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are sent to live with their grandmother while their mother is in rehab it hardly feels like a fresh start. Instead, Echo Ridge seems to be choked by past tragedies it can’t forget. When another girl–another homecoming queen–goes missing both Ellery and Malcolm will have to explore Echo Ridge’s darkest secrets to uncover the truth and the killer in Two Can Keep a Secret (2019) by Karen M. McManus.

McManus’s latest standalone mystery is a tense exploration of a town with a dark past. The novel alternates between Ellery and Malcolm’s first person narration. This novel capitalizes on the strengths of McManus’s debut novel One of Us is Lying (multiple narrators, tense pacing, conversational and readable prose) without the problematic resolution.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a refreshingly realistic mystery where, although Ellery identifies as a true crime buff and would-be amateur sleuth, she still gets things wrong and still needs help from actual investigators to crack the case.

The contrast between Ellery with her connection to one of the town’s victims and Malcolm with his connection to one of the town’s suspects is striking. Their chemistry and nearly immediate rapport is countered by these preconceived identities that should place them on opposite sides. Instead their friendship is made of stronger stuff with rock solid loyalty and hints of romance that add much-needed levity to an otherwise dark story.

The story’s secondary cast including Ellery’s twin bother Ezra and Declan’s best friend Mia are also welcome additions who flesh out the cast in this short but evocative story.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a taut mystery filled with unexpected turns and surprises that will keep readers guessing right until the last line. Recommended for amateur detectives, mystery lovers, and true crime enthusiasts alike.

Possible Pairings: Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, This is Our Story by Ashley Elston, The Body in the Woods by April Henry, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Amateurs by Sarah Shepard

The Leaf Reader: A Review

“I did feel like I was pretending, at least at the start. I admit that. But whenever you start on something, it always feels a little like pretending, right? If you let that stop you, you might never try anything new.”

cover art for The Leaf Reader by Emily ArsenaultMarnie is halfway through high school and she’s accepted that she’ll never be popular. And if that’s true, better to give the people what they want and be really eccentric, right?

In the past year Marnie has gotten a reputation for reading tea leaves to tell the fortunes of classmates. Marnie knows it’s just for fun. She assumes her classmates do too.

But then Matt Cottrell comes to Marnie for a reading that seems to reveal more about the disappearance of Matt’s best friend Andrea last year. Marnie has never thought she could really read the future in tea leaves. But as she and Matt start looking into Andrea’s disappearance together, Marnie starts to wonder if she was wrong. It seems like the tea leaves are trying to tell her the Matt is dangerous. And if that’s true, Marnie’s growing attraction could be deadly in The Leaf Reader (2017) by Emily Arsenault.

The Leaf Reader is Arsenault’s first novel written for a young adult audience.

I went into this one with almost no expectations after receiving it very randomly from a neighbor. Marnie’s introspective narration and her fascination with reader tea leaves immediately drew me in. The story includes some basic information on interpreting leaves and their symbols which adds a fun dimension to the story.

Arsenault’s plotting and story are executed well and come to life with vivid descriptions of Marnie’s surroundings. The descriptions of characters are sometimes less vibrant and less charitable in a way that seems to suggest Marnie, or perhaps the author herself, held little fondness for some of the characters.

Marnie is a frank narrator who is immediately honest about her own status as an outsider in her small town. She is less willing to accept that she might not be the only one with secrets–something that becomes increasingly obvious to readers as the tense plot finally reaches a breaking point in the final act.

The Leaf Reader is a unique spin on some familiar mystery tropes. A great choice for fans of suspense.

Possible Pairings: The Opposite of Here by Tara Altebrando, The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams

Like Never and Always: A Review

cover art for Like Never and Always by Ann AguirreLiv, Morgan, Clay, and Nathan are all driving home from a party in Clay’s convertible. Best friends dating brothers? It’s fun. And this ride is the perfect end to another perfect summer night.

Until a crash changes their lives forever.

Liv wakes up in the hospital, hazy from the drugs and her injuries. She doesn’t think too hard about it when people keep calling her Morgan–it has to be some kind of mix up. A mistake. Everyone keeps telling her Liv died in the car crash and she dreads having to correct them–especially Morgan’s father.

But when the bandages are finally removed, Liv doesn’t see herself in the mirror. Instead Morgan’s face stares back at her.

Trapped in a body that isn’t hers, Liv tries to make sense of Morgan’s life. It always seemed perfect from the outside but now Liv starts to realize that she didn’t know her best friend as well as she thought.

As Liv starts to make sense of Morgan’s life, she unearths dangerous secrets about a decade-old murder and a dangerous love affair–all while pursuing a love that feels like a betrayal in Like Never and Always (2018) by Ann Aguirre.

Like Never and Always is a standalone thriller with a supernatural twist.

Liv’s unique position as an outsider in her own (that is, Morgan’s) life, ratchets up the suspense as both readers and Liv herself are left in the dark about all of Morgan’s secrets. The pacing is tight with Liv constantly questioning her current situation and trying to make sense of it.

While most of the story focuses on Liv’s investigation into Morgan’s past, she also struggles with being caught between two boys. Nathan isn’t the boy she thought he was when they were dating–especially now that he’s consumed by grief. Clay, meanwhile, is so much more. Liv finally starts to understand what drew Morgan to Clay to begin with. But how can Liv move forward with either of them the way she is now?

Like Never and Always is a serviceable thriller with genuine moments of suspense despite some predictable reveals. The unique body swapping spin adds another dimension to the story but fails to be fully explored as Liv increasingly embraces her new circumstances without question. Recommended for readers looking for a new take on stolen identities.

Possible Pairings: The Possible by Tara Altebrando, Don’t You Trust Me by Patrice Kindl, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Dare You to Lie by Amber Lynn Natusch, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, In Her Skin by Kim Savage, As I Wake by Elizabeth Scott, Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

*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.

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*

Down Among the Sticks and Bones: A Review

“Every choice feeds every choice that comes after, whether we want those choices or no.”

cover art for Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireIdentical twins Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way back home and were immediately sent off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children before they could bring disorder to their parents’ tidy life.

This is the story of what happened before they came back.

Jacqueline and Jillian were a matched set–identical. Perfect for their parents to split up and mold after themselves. Jacqueline wore pretty dresses and was polite and quite–her mother’s perfect daughter. Jillian was smart and loud, a tomboy through and through–not quite the son her father wanted but close.

They were five when they learned that grown ups can’t be trusted and sisters can’t always be close. They were twelve when they walked down an impossible staircase and found a world filled with death and horror where, for the first time, they can choose who they might want to be in Down Among the Sticks and Bones (2017) by Seanan McGuire.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway. This novella is a prequel to the series starter.

It is an interesting exercise in patience to read the followup to an exciting novella only to realize it is a prequel and will offer no hints of what comes after for the characters you’ve already met and started to care about. Despite desperately wanting to see what happens next at the school, Down Among the Sticks and Bones is an excellent addition to the series.

McGuire continues to develop this series with strong world building and thoughtful character development. Because of the prequel nature this story can be read out of order although that will dilute some of the impact of the character development across the series.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones plays with preconceived notions about heroes and villains in a world where, in the absence of a true hero, the lesser villain may unwittingly take on the position. The story is also a scathing commentary on absent and controlling parents. The usually powerful bond between sisters seen in fantasy novels is subverted here as Jack and Jill realize they are only able to come into their own when they are apart.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is another excellent addition to this strange little series of novellas. Perfect for readers of both fantasy and horror. Fans of the series can only hope future installments will offer as much insight into other characters’ stories.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Bad Girls With Perfect Faces: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I didn’t know then what I know now: Be careful when your feelings are too strong, when you love someone too much. A heart too full is like a bomb. One day it will explode.”

cover art for Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn WeingartenSasha always looks out for her best friend Xavier. She’s the one who helped him put the pieces back together after his girlfriend Ivy cheated. She’s the one who dyes his hair. She’s the one who watches documentaries about the ocean and sea life with him.

Sasha is the one who would be perfect for Xavier. She loves him and she would never hurt him the way Ivy did. She’d never lie to him. And she’s just about ready to tell him all of that when Ivy shows up again.

Xavier and Ivy are a toxic combination–something that Xavier fails to remember when they get back together. All Sasha wants to do is protect him and prove once and for all that Ivy is a liar and a cheat.

So she poses as a guy online to attract Ivy.

What starts as a simple scheme to prove Ivy will cheat on Xavier again escalates quickly until the lies and the secrets start to spiral out of control. As Sasha’s plan to pretend to be someone else starts to go terribly wrong, she begins to worry about who she’s becoming in Bad Girls With Perfect Faces (2017) by Lynn Weingarten.

Bad Girls With Perfect Faces is a fascinating thriller that imagines what might happen when a seemingly minor case of catfishing goes horribly wrong. The novel is written in alternating chapters with the majority of the story falling to Sasha’s world-weary narration as she relates the events that blew her world apart. Text messages and other conversations between Sasha’s fake profile guy and Ivy are also interspersed throughout.

I can’t tell you much more about this story without giving something important away except that this is a perfect read-a-like for fans of Gone Girl. Bad Girls With Perfect Faces is a tense, sexy, thriller that promises to take readers on a wild ride from its ominous start to a twisted finish.

Possible Pairings: Like Never and Always by Ann Aguirre, Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier, Fragments of the Lost by Megan Miranda, This is Not a Love Letter by Kim Purcell

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*