The Kingdom: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Kingdom by Jess RothenbergThe Kingdom™ is more than a theme park. Filled with rides, augmented reality shows, and much more, The Kingdom™ is a completely immersive experience where visitors dreams come true.

Ana is one of seven fantasists. Like the formerly extinct species that roam The Kingdom™’s parks, Ana is genetically engineered–partly biological and part machine. She and the other fantasists reign over the park as imagined princesses greeting visitors, performing, and helping park visitors’ dreams come true.

Fantasists can understand and identify emotions. But they aren’t supposed to experience them. Except Ana is fairly certain she feels something when she befriends Owen Chen, one of the park’s employees.

Ana isn’t the only thing malfunctioning in the park. Engineered animals keep dying, her sisters are scared. Then there are the nightmares. When Ana is accused of murdering Owen, she knows she is innocent. But it’s all too easy for the public to believe the worst.

After spending her whole life catering to the whims of others, Ana will have to learn to speak for herself if she wants to survive in The Kingdom (2019) by Jess Rothenberg.

The Kingdom is a sleek blend of mystery and sci-fi elements in a dystopian world where resources are limited and escapism is worth any price. Ana’s story unfolds in a non-linear narrative including Ana’s first person narration, trial transcripts, and interviews.

While the non-linear narrative lends an element of suspense to this story, it never builds tension instead making for slow pacing and the sense that Ana is deliberately withholding information.

Questions of sentience, humanity, and mercy are interrogated throughout the narrative as Ana and her sisters are dehumanized and subjugated as part of their lives as Fantasists. Gory scenes with animal deaths further emphasize the theme park’s grim inner workings.

The Kingdom is a stark story set in an eerily plausible world. Recommended for readers who like their speculative fiction, and their heroines, to have a little grit.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton, The Similars by Rebecca Hanover, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Devils Unto Dust: A Review

“Life doesn’t care how hard you’re trying, doesn’t care how much you’ve already lost, it will still break in and crush you and leave you bruised and bloody. And still expect you to keep going, because what else can you do?”

Devils Unto Dust by Emma BerquistTen years ago, the sickness started spreading across West Texas. It had a name back then. Now, it doesn’t need one; it’s everywhere. No one survives the infection. It’s only a matter of time before the infected become shakes, mindless creatures intent on attacking the living and nothing else.

Daisy “Willie” Wilcox is used to scraping by in Glory. Ever since their mother died, it’s been Willie making sure food gets on the table and taking care of her younger brother, Micah, and the twins. It’s never been easy, and Willie knows it’s unlikely to get easier, but she keeps going.

When her good-for-nothing drunk father disappears with four hundred dollars, it’s Willie who is expected to repay the debt. Seeing no other options, she hires the Garrett brothers to help her cross the desert and track her father down. They’re young for hunters, inexperienced, but that also means they still have something to prove. It means they don’t worry too hard about proof that she can pay her entire way.

The desert is an unforgiving place. With no towns, no shelter, and shakes everywhere even the smallest misstep can leave you dead–or worse. Chasing her father’s trail Willie learns how far she is willing to go for her family and who she can trust. But she’ll need even more than that to survive in Devils Unto Dust (2018) by Emma Berquist.

Devils Unto Dust is Berquist’s debut novel. (Be sure to also check out the audiobook as read by Devon Sorvari who brings Willie’s narration to life.)

Willie is razor sharp and, when she has to be, incredibly calculating. Determined to save herself and her family at any cost, she pushes herself well past her limits with consequences that will change her life–and her world–forever.

Berquist contrasts a bleak landscape and Willie’s stark narration with a suspenseful plot and high action. Willie’s life is very small in Glory–a reality that she resents even as she resigns herself to it. Like the desert unfolding at the start of her journey, Willie’s world also starts to expand as she realizes there might be more to life than just surviving in a world ravaged by the zombie-like shakes.

Devils Unto Dust blends a dystopian world and a western sensibility to great effect. The novel’s gritty setting and violent shake attacks are countered by a surprising sweetness as Willie allows herself to begin to trust both in a future for herself and in new allies. Devils Unto Dust is a searing story about choices, survival, and learning who you are. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics, Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, The Demon Trapper’s Daughter by Jana Oliver, This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers, Generation Dead by Dan Waters

Never-Contented Things: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Never-Contented Things by Sarah PorterKsenia is cold where foster brother Josh is warm; sharp where he is soft. She is almost eighteen and their foster parents are simultaneously planning for Ksenia’s transition to a group home while preparing to adopt sixteen-year-old Josh. Ksenia is a bit of an oddity in their painfully conventional town with her androgynous looks and thrift store style without any of Josh’s charisma to smooth things over.

While Ksenia is resigned to their separation, Josh is desperate to hang on to Ksenia at any cost–even if it means making an impossible bargain with otherworldy creatures they encounter at a party. Entrapped in another world with Josh, Ksenia is determined to protect him despite his betrayal. Josh sees it as a refuge where no one can question his romantic love and infatuation for his foster sister while Ksenia knows it is a prison with no possible escape.

Josh and especially Ksenia are people no one would look for except for their best friend, Lexi, a girl whose life couldn’t be more different and who, if she can find them, might have the key to breaking the spell in Never-Contented Things (2019) by Sarah Porter.

Porter blends horror and urban fantasy in her latest standalone novel of faerie.

Evocative, phantasmagorical prose carries across multiple viewpoints as Ksenia works to save herself and the people she loves in this book filled with messy characters doing the best they can.

Never-Contented Things features gorgeous sentence level writing and vibrant horror which elevate this character driven story about resilience, identity, and learning to save yourself. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

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

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, The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg

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, Sadie by Courtney Summers

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*