Traitor: A Review

“We’ve all got our own little wars.”

Traitor by Amanda McCrinaIn 1944 Poland WWII may be nearing its end, but the troubles are just beginning for some of the country’s long suffering residents. In the wake of Lwów’s liberation from Germany, the city–like the rest of Poland–is torn between loyalists to either Poland or Ukraine as their years long power struggle continues and threatens to tear the country apart.

Seventeen-year-old Tolya Korolenko is half-Ukrainian, half-Polish and wanted by neither side. Hungry and alone, he has become a sniper in the Soviet Red Army to try to survive. It’s a good plan until he shoots his unit’s political officer in a dark alley. Tolya knows what happens to traitors. He knows what to expect.

What surprises him is his unlikely rescue by Ukrainian freedom fighters. In Poland everyone is fighting their own little wars and soon Tolya finds himself dragged into Solovey’s. Helping the man who rescued him probably won’t save Tolya’s life. But it might buy him some time.

In a city where self-preservation and loyalty can’t always mean the same thing, Tolya and Solovey are both rocked by betrayals that will change everything in Traitor (2020) by Amanda McCrina.

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The story follows two storylines: Tolya’s as it unfolds in 1944 and Aleksey’s years earlier in 1941. How you feel about the story may depend on how quickly you begin piecing together the connections between these two timelines.

Contrasting the beginning and end of World War II, Traitor explores the things that remain the same as characters are driven to desperate choices both for survival and revenge. Tense prose and cliffhanging chapter endings make this novel a fast read although alternating parts between Tolya and Aleksey often cuts much the tension and–given the fact that Aleksey’s story is essentially a flashback–lends a certain inevitability to what should be suspenseful plot points.

Traitor effectively uses restricted perspective in both narratives to limit what the characters and readers know leading to reveals that sometimes expected and sometimes not. Unfortunately, it also keeps both of the novel’s main characters at a remove from readers making it hard to feel entirely invested in either narrative.

Traitor is a well-researched and suspenseful look at a rarely examined piece of history. Readers who enjoy their history with a large dose of suspense and an unflinching look at the violence of war will find the most to appreciate here.

Possible Pairings: Tamar by Mal Peet, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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

The Angel of the Crows: A Review

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine AddisonAfter suffering an egregious injury on the front in Afghanistan, Dr. J. H. Doyle is forced to return to England in 1888 and none too happy about it. With a bad leg, a foul temper, and a war pension that doesn’t quite go far enough in London, Doyle is unsure what to do upon returning until a friend makes a surprising suggestion.

Everyone knows about the angels–after all Nameless can be found in front of every place of worship or bakery, any habitation large enough hopes to have an angel claim it as their dominion, and–like Doyle–everyone knows the damage that can be wrought by angels who have Fallen.

Then there is Crow the self-described Angel of London. Claiming the entire city as his dominion, Crow works as a consultant with the police and for select clients. His focus is singular, his crow-like wings are massive and prone to toppling furniture when Crow is excited, and he is in need of a flatmate.

Moving into 221B Baker Street, both Crow and Doyle have secrets they would prefer to keep. But they also have work to do as Doyle is drawn into Crow’s investigations of murder scenes with strange words on walls, locked room mysteries, and even the case of the Whitechapel Murderer who has been butchering prostitutes with increasing frequency in The Angel of the Crows (2020) by Katherine Addison.

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The Angel of the Crows started life as Sherlock wingfic (fan fiction which imagines one character with wings) and, in many ways, that is still the story readers have in the finished book.

While Crow and Doyle live in a distinct and well-realized fantasy world filled with elements of steampunk and magic, between their original adventures (notably their hunt for Jack the Ripper) Addison also retells some of the most familiar cases from Sherlock Holmes’ long canon. Readers familiar with “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of the Four,” “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and “The Adventure of Speckled Band” will immediately recognize the stories being retold here.

Addison stays very close to her source material while imbuing each story with the magical elements intrinsic to her version of London. A story element with a double edge as it makes the book both immediately familiar and, in certain cases, nearly too predictable.

The Angel of the Crows is strongest when Crow and Doyle are in their element and exploring new territory–albeit often with fun references to the class mysteries that inspired this novel. Addison also raises interesting questions about gender identity and agency throughout the story from both Doyle and Crow’s experiences. While some of this gave me pause in that it felt very much like a plot device, the execution over the course of the novel as a whole was handled well and raises more questions and avenues of discussion than concerns.

The Angels of the Crows is an incredibly thorough and original retelling. Whether or not they are a fan of Holmes and Watson, readers can only hope to see more of Crow and Doyle.

Possible Pairings: Soulless by Gail Carriger, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley, The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lillith St. Crow

*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*

When We Vanished: A Review

When We Vanished by Alanna PetersonAndi Lin and her mother are doing everything they can to keep anyone from finding out that her father’s new job is actually participating in a clinical trial at the food corporation Nutrexo.

After Andi hears executives whispering about a dangerous research study at a company party, she worries it might be the same study her dad is involved with–especially since she hasn’t heard from him in over a week. When Andi asks her neighbor Cyrus Mirzapour to help, they wind up in over their heads when a nonviolent protest ends with a bombing and both of them being held captive alongside Cyrus’s older brother, Naveed and younger sister, Roya.

Trapped and desperate to discover the truth and save themselves, Andi and Cyrus find themselves at the center of a conspiracy with consequences that are hard to imagine–and closer to home than either of them realize in When We Vanished (2020) by Alanna Peterson.

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When We Vanished is Peterson’s debut novel and the start of her Call of the Crow quartet. The book is published by Peterson’s newly created publishing company Rootcity Press which, as their website states, “operates on a not-for-profit model, and donates a portion of all proceeds to grassroots-based organizations focused on racial justice and food equity”

As such, this eco-thriller works to raise awareness about the dangers of fast/processed foods and genetically modified foods some of which can be seen on the book’s companion site Nutrexo Truth.

Unfortunately in sharing these timely messages Peterson’s novel highlights graphic scenes of animal cruelty with “EcoCows” kept in unsanitary and inhumane conditions at Nutrexo and scenes of torture when Naveed is sprayed with a noxious pesticide as part of the villain’s continued experiments leaving him with lasting nerve damage.

While these scenes viscerally showcase the dangers of modifying foods, particularly the increased spread of antibiotic resistant infections, the violence that will stay with readers far longer than the message.

When We Vanished is an unflinching eco-thriller best suited to readers comfortable with gore and grit.

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

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, Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, This is Our Story by Ashley Elston, The Body in the Woods by April Henry, Havenfall by Sara Holland, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Amateurs by Sarah Shepard, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Sadie by Courtney Summers

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.

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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*

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*

Fragments of the Lost: A Review

Jessa so doesn’t want to clear out her ex-boyfriend Caleb’s room after he dies. It’s hard enough to grieve and dodge questions about how she’s managing. But when his mother asks, she can’t say no. Jessa knows this is her penance—her punishment for being part of the puzzle of Caleb’s last day.

She can’t explain why Caleb was at her track meet that day anymore than anyone else can. She only knows what came after. His drive along the bridge as it flooded, the car crash, the body that was never found.

As Jessa sorts through Caleb’s possessions and begins the tedious, painful work of packing everything away she starts to remember details from the start of their relationship when things were still fresh and there was so much to learn. These pieces of his life also bring back painful memories of the end of their relationship and the distances that eventually grew between them.

As Jessa delves deeper into Caleb’s life she realizes his room might hold secrets to that strange last day and his death. She also realizes she might not be the only one looking in Fragments of the Lost (2017) by Megan Miranda.

Miranda delivers an eerie and atmospheric mystery in this latest standalone. Narrated by Jessa the novel moves through time with chapters marking Jessa’s present weekend project clearing out Caleb’s room and the past with chapters named for items Jessa discovers that bring up memories of her year-long relationship with Caleb. This premise is used to good effect to demonstrate Jessa’s (often self-imposed) isolation in her grief and her desperation to understand what really happened on the day Caleb died.

A taut narrative told over a short span of time amps up the tension as Jessa slowly begins to realize that something is incredibly wrong. While the big twist might be easily predicted by habitual mystery readers, Jessa’s arc throughout the novel is strong enough to still make for a compelling read. Recommended for readers looking for a chilling page turner and fans of mysteries or thrillers.

Possible Pairings: I Was Here by Gayle Forman, Forget Me by K. A. Harrington, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The After Girls by Leah Konen, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

One of Us is Lying: A Review

Here’s what we know:

Bronwyn always follows the rules. She’s heading to Yale next year and she would never risk that or disappointing her immigrant father.

Cooper is an all-star baseball player. His pitching abilities are sure to lead the Bayview team to victory and pave Cooper’s way to the majors–just like his father wants. But Cooper wants other things that he’s afraid to talk about out loud.

Addy is homecoming princess and not much else. She isn’t ambitious or independent but she isn’t sure why she has to be when she already has the perfect life with her boyfriend.

Nate really belongs in detention. He’s always doing something wrong and has been for years. What do you expect from a guy who’s already on probation for drug dealing.

Simon is the outcast of Bayview but he’s also one of the most powerful students there thanks to the gossip app he created that dishes all of Bayview High’s worst secrets.

All of them were caught using cell phones during school hours. All of them claim they were framed. On Monday afternoon the five of them walk into detention at Bayview High. Only four of them walk out alive. Every one else has a motive for killing Simon. But no one has any proof. Yet. As the investigation heats up Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper all have to decide how far they’ll go to keep their secrets in One of Us is Lying (2017) by Karen M. McManus.

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One of Us is Lying is McManus’ debut novel. This standalone thriller was partially inspired by the 1980s movie The Breakfast Club. The novel is written in alternating first person chapters between Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper as they try to make sense of what happened to Simon.

Despite the numerous narrators each character manages to sound distinct and stand out in their own sections. Anyone who is familiar with teen movies or YA novels will recognize some of the plot points (such as staight-laced Bronwyn pursuing a relationship with the resident bad boy) but they manage to feel fresh and interesting within this story. McManus keeps a tight rein on the plot as the story’s twists which are revealed at a satisfying pace throughout the novel. Unlikely friendships, surprising romances, and quite a few surprises make One of Us is Lying a winning mystery for even the most jaded fans of the genre.

While I was a big fan of most of this novel, there are two things I need to talk about. Avert your eyes if you want to avoid spoilers.

——START SPOILERS——

Every character in the book has a big secret. We eventually learn that Cooper’s secret isn’t steroid use as everyone suspects. Instead, Cooper is gay. And he is outed during the course of the investigation. Cooper being outed by reporters during the investigation is rightly treated as egregious behavior but it also felt tiresome and a little sad to still have it be a plot device. Maybe it’s realistic but I wish we were beyond that point already.

Then there’s the big reveal about Simon’s killer. It turns out that Simon was depressed from constantly trying and failing to be one of the popular kids. Refusing to discuss other courses of action Simon kills himself and use his suicide to frame a classmate for his death.

While the suicide-as-murder-frame-up is a familiar trope in mystery novels, it’s a troubling one in a young adult novel. It’s problematic to still have mental illness be treated as a plot device and especially to not have it be addressed in any way beyond being part of Simon’s brilliant plan.f

——END SPOILERS——

Possible Pairings: Take Me With You by Tara Altebrando, The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, All Your Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff