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

Emergency Contact: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Loving someone was traumatizing. You never knew what would happen to them out there in the world. Everything precious was also vulnerable.”

cover art for Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. ChoiPenny Lee is a college freshman at the University of Texas in Austin. She’s eager to get away from the drama that always seems to surround her mom who is, sadly, super hot and super clueless about the attention she attracts from sketchy guys. High school was fine but Penny knows that college is going to be her real chance to shine as she starts taking English classes and pursues her longtime dream to become a published author.

Sam Becker dropped out of college when he couldn’t afford it. He’s twenty-one and manages a coffee shop where he is in charge of all the baking and has a room upstairs. He’s taking an online course to get back on track with his goal of becoming a documentary filmmaker and dreading the arrival of his “niece” Jude who is about to start her freshman year of college. Sam’s still trying to piece his life together post-breakup but he’s getting there. At least until his Instagram famous ex (aka Liar) drops a bombshell.

When Sam has a panic attack in the middle of the street it’s Penny–Jude’s new roommate–who finds him and talks him down. She’s the one who wants him to text her when he gets home and, maybe most importantly, she’s the one that suggests they could be each other’s emergency contact.

As they start texting all the time, Penny and Sam realize they might have more in common than they thought. Their friendship helps both of them step outside of their comfort zones. But neither of them is sure if they’ll ever be ready to take the biggest leap by bringing their virtual relationship offline and into the real world in Emergency Contact (2018) by Mary H. K. Choi.

Emergency Contact is Choi’s debut novel. It has received two starred reviews as well as a glowing write up in the New York Times. The story alternates between chapters written in close third person following Penny and Sam along with the expected sections of text messages and emails.

As the title suggests, the entirety of the book revolves around support systems. How do you build a support system from scratch? What happens when the people you thought you could rely on let you down? And perhaps even more troubling: What happens when the person you never thought you could count on becomes a lifeline?

Penny and Sam are authentic, flawed protagonists. I’ve started calling them lovable train wrecks when I talk about this book. They don’t have all the answers. They may not have any of the answers (a realization that is almost as enlightening for Penny in terms of her relationship with her mother as, you know, actual enlightenment). But they both persevere, strive, and ultimately learn how to go after what they want–things they only accomplish thanks to confidence gained through their friendship.

I say friendship because while a lot of this story plays out against the backdrop of whether or not Penny and Sam will get together, the real meat of this novel are the friendships that both Penny and Sam build (with each other and with other people) as they try to survive this crazy thing called life. You can cut the romantic tension in this story with a knife, but first Choi carefully builds up Penny and Sam’s friendship. Both of them have to grow a lot and learn to care about themselves before they can start to care about someone else—character arcs which Choi expertly portrays throughout the novel.

Before meeting Sam, Penny is used to having a running internal dialog of all the things she wants to say–especially to people who try to belittle her or think their microaggressions and other racist remarks about Penny’s Korean heritage aren’t a big deal. Thanks to the freedom of being away from home for the first time and also having someone who genuinely supports her, Penny is finally able to speak up. She can tell her roommate Jude’s best friend that her racist remarks aren’t okay. She can admit what her French tutor did–what she never even told her Mom. And she can also learn how to move past those things instead of stewing in self-doubt and regret.

Sam, meanwhile, has been stagnating for quite some time. His life is a disaster and he’s used to it–especially when his ex-girlfriend announces that she is pregnant triggering Sam’s first panic attack. With Penny’s support and the knowledge that she cares, Sam realizes the first step in making better life choices isn’t waiting for things to change. Instead, it’s time for Sam to accept that his parents are incapable of being there for him—and haven’t been for some time. It’s time to take action to change things by pursuing his passions and standing up to his ex-girlfriend instead of letting her steamroll him yet again.

Emergency Contact is authentic and sardonic as it follows these two unlikely friends who fear connection almost as much as they crave it. This tension is the driving force for both the characters and the plot. Choi expertly uses close third person perspective and language to amplify that tension and to explore its limits as Penny and Sam try to figure out how to relate to each other even while, internally, they feel hopelessly inadequate by comparison.

(During one of their first “in real life” encounters Penny bemoans her casual outfit and generally messy appearance while being completely fascinated–and attracted–by Sam’s glasses. Sam, meanwhile, is completely self-conscious about his glasses and trying to avoid openly ogling Penny. A push and pull that repeats throughout the novel and perfectly captures the dynamic between these two characters.)

Emergency Contact is a sparkling debut about taking chances and dreaming big. A timely story with a singular voice sure to win over even the most cynical among us, Emergency Contact is an exemplar of what a great contemporary novel can look like.

Possible Pairings: The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Analee in Real Life by Janelle Milanes, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

The Nowhere Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Nowhere Girls by Amy ReedGrace, Rosina, and Erin are used to being outsiders—nobodies. But as they get to know each other they realize they aren’t alone.

Grace is the new girl in town. The quiet daughter of a newly-minted radical liberal pastor who is so focused on building up her new church that she doesn’t have much time for Grace.

Rosina is a queer latina punk rocker. But she doesn’t have a band. And she isn’t out. Because most of her time is spent working in her family’s restaurant, taking care of her cousins, and avoiding her conservative Mexican immigrant relatives.

Erin knows everything there is to know about marine biology and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both things help her add routine to her life–something Erin needs to cope with her autism. But even routine can’t help Erin forget what happened before or answer the question of whether or not she’s an android.

Grace is outraged by the lack of sympathy and subsequent fallout for Lucy Moynihan–a local girl who accused three popular guys at school of gang rape only to be run out of town. Soon, Grace draws Rosina and Erin into her efforts to get justice for Lucy and for so many other girls.

It starts with just the three of them but soon they are everywhere because they are everygirl. They are The Nowhere Girls (2017) by Amy Reed.

There’s a lot to love in Reed’s latest standalone novel. This ambitious story is a scathing indictment of misogyny and rape culture as well as an empowering introduction to feminism for teen readers. Written in close third person the novel alternates viewpoints between Grace, Rosina, and Erin for most of the novel. The Nowhere Girls also showcases brief chapters (entitled “Us”) following other girls in town as they navigate first-time sex, negotiate physical intimacy with romantic partners, gender identity, and more.

Reed makes a lot of headway toward erasing the separation and exclusion of the primarily white feminism of the 1960s (and 1990s) with these “us” chapters as well as situating Rosina at the center of the start of the Nowhere Girls movement. This step is a really important one, and something I was glad to see. However a coworker pointed out that despite these inroads, a lot of The Nowhere Girls remains focused on white feminism with many of the brown girls in the story only being seen as saying this isn’t feminism meant to include them. That’s a problem and one I wish had more of a conclusion by the end of the novel.

It also points to one of the main problems with The Nowhere Girls which is that there isn’t always a payoff for much of the novel’s potential. The “us” chapters introduce a transgender character who wonders if she would be welcome in the Nowhere Girls with open arms. Unfortunately there is no answer to that in the text anymore than there is for the girls of color besides Rosina. Another girl contends with being labeled a slut by her peers and most of the town but her arc is cut abruptly short and leaves her, sadly and predictably, in mean girl territory instead of reaching for something bigger. I’d like to think these girls all have outcomes where they are able to embrace their own agency and feminism. But because The Nowhere Girls takes on so much there isn’t time to spell everything out on the page.

Then there’s Erin. I’m very happy to see more neuro-atypical characters getting major page time but there are questions as to whether a neurotypical author can (or should) delve into that interiority for a character. I don’t have an answer to that. What I can say is that Erin begins the novel by describing herself as having Asperger’s Syndrome–a term that is no longer used as a standard diagnosis–and generally not accepting her autism in a healthy way. There is growth with this and by the end of the novel Erin is referring to herself as autistic rather than an “Aspy” but it’s not given quite enough time to have a satisfying conclusion.

The Nowhere Girls is an ambitious, gritty novel that pulls no punches as it addresses complicated issues of rape culture and misogyny as well as solidarity and feminism. The Nowhere Girls is a novel full of potential and a powerful conversation starter. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, All the Rage by Courtney Summers

All the Wind in the World: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for All the Wind in the World by Samantha MabrySarah Jacqueline Crow and James Holt are used to long, hot days working the maguey fields of the Southwest. The work is brutal but they have a plan. Keep their heads down, do the work, save enough money to head back east where everything isn’t so dry and they can start a ranch of their own. They do one other thing to make sure they can survive and stay together: they keep their love a secret at all costs. It’s safer, they’ve learned, to pose as cousins instead.

Forced to run again after an accident, Sarah Jac and James follow the trains to the Real Marvelous–a ranch known for its steady work and possible curse. The work is the same and their plan should stay the same too. But as strange things begin to happen on the ranch Sarah Jac realizes that their old tricks won’t be enough to keep them safe–they may not even be enough to keep Sarah Jac and James together in All the Wind in the World (2017) by Samantha Mabry.

All the Wind in the World is Mabry’s sophomore novel. It was also selected as a longlist title for the 2017 National Book Award.

All the Wind in the World is intensely character driven with a tight focus on Sarah Jac and James as they struggle to stay true to each other while keeping their relationship a secret. Sarah Jac’s first person narration makes it immediately obvious that something isn’t right at the Real Marvelous but, like readers, Sarah kept guessing as to what menace is befalling the ranch and its workers for much of the story. Mabry’s writing is tense and sexy as the story builds to its shocking conclusion.

This is the kind of novel that is immediately gripping in the moment–a true page turner despite the methodical pacing and relatively straightforward plot. However upon further inspection holes do start to show in the world building. While the dry, near dessert landscape of the Southwest is evocative and beautifully described the characters offer little explanation for how things got to this point. The payoff for the curse of the Real Marvelous (or the lack thereof) remains equally vague and open-ended.

Any shortcomings in the world or the plot are more than balanced out by the lush prose and singular characters. Sarah Jac and James are not easy characters. They are both flawed and grasping as they struggle to get past their day-to-day existence and strive for something more. How far should either of them be willing to go to get there? That’s a hard question to answer both for them and the reader.

All the Wind in the World is a striking, tightly wound novel. Readers will immediately be swept up in Sarah Jac and James’ story of longing, love, and darker impulses. A must-read for fans of magic realism. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

Moxie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Vivian Carter is sick of the toxic sexism and systemic misogyny at her high in East Rockport, Texas. She’s sick of girls being targeted by the administration’s sexist dress code. She’s sick of the harassment from the football team boys and their cronies who get away with everything. But she isn’t sure what she can do about it when even the thought of making waves is terrifying.

That changes when Viv finds her mom’s box of mementos from her misspent youth. In the 90’s Viv’s mom was part of the Riot Grrrl movement known for their music, their feminist manifesto, and the zines they used to share ideas and find each other. Suddenly Vivian has a plan to help her speak out and Moxie, her own zine, is born.

Viv doesn’t know what to expect when she distributes the first issue of Moxie in secret to her classmates. In the pages of her zine she calls out sexist jokes, harassment, and unfair dress codes and asks girls at the school to join her in protests that quickly gain momentum and help the Moxie movement take on a life of its own. As the stakes rise for what the zine and the Moxie girls are fighting for, Vivian has to decide how far she’s willing to go for what she believes in Moxie (2017) by Jen Mathieu.

Vivian’s no nonsense narration brings East Rockport to life–complete with its small town charm and stifling atmosphere. Mathieu does a great job of showing Viv’s love of her home and family alongside her frustration with the town’s dated, sexist culture as well as her desire to do more and be more than she might ever manage if she stays.

Moxie shows a grassroots movement at its finest as the Moxie girls’ ranks swell and girls in East Rockport learn that they can (and should) speak up for themselves. Frank and nuanced discussions of feminism showcase a variety of perspectives from self-proclaimed feminists like Viv’s new friend Lucy to those more reluctant to label themselves (like Vivian’s best friend Claudia). Mathieu works to make sure Moxie is an inclusive movement with many girls taking the lead while acknowledging the school’s previous stratification along racial and social lines.

The growing sense of community among the Moxie girls and the feel good girl power vibes are balanced with the push and pull between Viv and a sympathetic (but not always understanding) boy. Their romance subplot adds a touch of sweetness to this edgy story while reminding readers that being a feminist doesn’t have to preclude love.

This powerful book proves that the pen can be mightier than the sword and that girls are always stronger when they’re united. Moxie is a must read for everyone but especially young women who have had to apologize on behalf of boys, girls whose ideas only gain validity when a boy shares them, and anyone who’s had the moment of realization that some people will never understand what it’s like to walk down a dark street alone.

In the first issue of Moxie, Vivian asks readers to draw hearts and stars on their hands so likeminded students can find each other at school. After you read and love Moxie (and I’m sure you will) don’t forget to add stars and hearts to your own hands. And always remember: Moxie Girls Fight Back!

Possible Pairings: Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

Be sure to check out my interview with Jennifer about this book too!

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Vivian is tired of the toxic sexism and systemic misogyny at her Texas high school but she also isn't sure what she can do about. That changes when she finds her mom's old Riot Grrrl zines. Suddenly Vivian has a way to speak out and her own zine, Moxie, is born. ✏️ In the pages of Moxie Vivian calls out sexist jokes, harassment, and unfair dress codes and asks girls at the school to join her in protests. As the zine gains momentum the Moxie movement takes on a life of its own. No one knows who started Moxie and as the stakes rise for what the zine and the Moxie girls are fighting for Vivian has to decide how far she's willing to go for what she believes in. ✏️ This powerful book proves that the pen can be mightier than the sword and that girls are always stronger when they're united. A must read for everyone but especially young women who have had to apologize on behalf of boys, girls whose ideas only gain validity when a boy shares them, and anyone who's has the moment of realization that some people will never understand what it's like to walk down a dark street alone. ✏️ In the first issue of Moxie, Vivian asks readers to draw hearts and stars on their hands so likeminded students can find each other at school. You can watch for Moxie on shelves this September but if you want to find your people and your voice, you can add stars and hearts to your hands right now. And always remember: Moxie Girls Fight Back! ✏️ #bookstagram #goodreads #instabook #instareads #bibliophile #books #reading #currentlyreading #amreading #bookworm #bookish #bookgram #booktography #bookblogging #bookblogger #bookphotography #books #bookstagramit #yalit #yastandsfor #moxiegirlsfightback #jennifermathieu #uppercasebox #owlcrate #feminism

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

Spinning: A Graphic Novel Review

What happens when the thing you’re supposed to love becomes something you hate? What happens when you spend most of your life working toward something only to realize you no longer want it?

For ten years skating was Tillie’s entire world as she spent hours practicing with her synchronized skate team and for her individual figure skating certifications and competitions. Life on the rink was meant to be a break from the real world with bullies, school, and the pressures of her family.

When Tillie’s family moves to Texas all of that starts to change. At her new school Tillie feeds her growing interest in art and starts a fledgling relationship with her first girlfriend. As her world gets bigger Tillie struggles with how to reconcile to herself and her family and friends that it’s time for her to move on in Spinning (2017) by Tillie Walden.

In guise of a book about competitive figure skating, Walden offers a subtle graphic novel memoir about growing up and speaking out. During the sometimes turbulent end to her time as a skater Walden also discovers how to stand up for herself and how to come out to her friends and family. While not everything works out for Tillie and many paths are still uncharted, Spinning is an ultimately hopeful story of new choices and new beginnings.

Walden’s artwork, colored with a purple hue as seen on the cover, is full of motion and pathos as she makes excellent use of the comic panel structure to move the story forward while highlighting smaller moments in the narrative.

Spinning is an excellent graphic novel sure to endear itself to any readers who have ever struggled not just to find their next path but also how to explain that choice to others.

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

It Wasn’t Always Like This: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

It Wasn't Always Like This by Joy PrebleThanks to a mysterious tea, Emma O’Neill and her family stopped aging. Charlie Ryan and his parents suffered the same fate. By 1916, Emma has been seventeen for two whole years.

When an organization called the Church of Light notices, both families are targeted. Emma and Charlie survive the massacre but they aren’t sure they can ever really be safe. Separated during their escape, they are still bound together by their love for each other even as circumstances conspire to keep them from finding each other.

Over the last hundred years Emma’s gotten good at hiding and at noticing patterns. It takes someone with her uniquely long perspective to realize a decades long series of murders have something in common: every victim bears a striking resemblance to Emma.

The murders are coming closer together now–closer than they have in a very long time. Which can only mean Emma’s enemies are getting closer too. As Emma hunts the murderer she begins to hope, for the first time in a long while, that solving this case might also help her find Charlie again in It Wasn’t Always Like This (2016) by Joy Preble.

It Wasn’t Always Like This has been likened to Tuck Everlasting meets Veronica Mars. It turns out that this comparison is wonderfully accurate.

Preble uses sparse prose for Emma’s no-nonsense narration. Third person narratives from other characters are interspersed throughout for necessary exposition.

It Wasn’t Always Like This offers a fascinating perspective with its immortal teenager heroine. Emma is as jaded as the best hard-boiled detectives and possibly even more world-weary. But she is also still seventeen. She is still rash and impetuous. Sometimes she’s still dangerously optimistic in spite of everything she has seen. Throughout the novel Emma keeps wondering if she can ever really learn from her mistakes and grow when it is physically impossible for her to grow up or mature.

A high stakes mystery and lots of action make this a page-turner even while the characters hearken to a more thoughtful tome. It Wasn’t Always Like This is a refreshingly original mystery with a little something for everyone. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit, Enchanted Ivy by Sarah Beth Durst, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, Dreamology by Lucy Keating, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, The Devil and Winnie Flynn by Micol Ostow and David Ostow, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Veronica Mars (TV show)