Grown: A Review

“Because if I keep denying the memory, it’ll make it untrue.”

Grown by Tiffany D. JacksonEnchanted Jones thought she had everything figured out. She isn’t what anyone would call happy at her new school, but she makes it work. She has swim team and she has her best friend Gabriella. With Gab’s help Enchanted auditions for BET’s version of American Idol. It doesn’t go well.

But it does bring her face to face with legendary R&B artist Korey Fields who is even hotter in person and could be Enchanted’s own ticket to stardom. It starts with secret texts and flirting. Then there are singing lessons and an invitation to go on tour.

It ends with Enchanted beaten bloody and Korey Fields dead.

Enchanted wishes she could forget the events leading up to Korey’s death. But she can’t do that any more than she can remember what happened that night.

Did Enchanted plunge the knife into Korey’s chest? Was she the only one who wanted him dead? With more questions than answers Enchanted will have to piece together the pieces before Korey’s livid fans–or the police–do it for her with Enchanted as the culprit in Grown (2020) by Tiffany D. Jackson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Jackson’s latest standalone is a tense mystery as Enchanted navigates her sudden infamy while still trying to process the abuse she suffered at Korey’s hands. (Please note the content warnings in this book for: mentions of sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction to opioids.) The case in the book is heavily influenced by the sexual abuse allegations leveraged against R. Kelly over the past two decades as covered in the documentary Surviving R. Kelly.

Grown is a crushing read. It’s easy to see the red flags in retrospect with the shifting timeline that starts with Enchanted discovering Korey’s dead body. It’s much harder for Enchanted to see them as she is drawn in to Korey’s orbit and desperate to be seen as a young woman instead of the little girl her family still sees.

Grown offers a scathing commentary on how quickly the media is willing to blame young Black girls like Enchanted saying they are grown and know what they are doing while excusing predatory behavior from influential Black men like Korey. While this story is by no means an easy read, Jackson’s writing is on point as this taut and suspenseful story builds to one surprising twist after another.

I do also want to talk about how mental illness is explored in the book. This is a spoiler so click read more to my thoughts or back away to avoid them:

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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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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*

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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*

Sadie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Sadie by Courtney SummersThe only thing that has ever really mattered to Sadie is her little sister, Mattie. Sadie pins all of her hopes and dreams onto Mattie. She gives her the care and affection their mother can’t usually manage. Mattie is better and more and she deserves everything Sadie never thinks to want for herself.

But then Mattie is murdered.

The trail is cold and the police don’t care. After all, she’s just another dead girl.

But Sadie knows who did it. And she knows she is the only one who can make them pay–even if it means losing herself in the process.

Weeks later West McCray hears about Sadie while he’s recording a radio segment on small, forgotten towns in America. The police might not care, most of the town might not care, but West finds that he does. What starts as a podcast soon becomes a much larger project as West delves into Sadie’s past and tries to follow her trail before it’s too late in Sadie (2018) by Courtney Summers.

Find it on Bookshop.

Summers’ latest standalone alternates between Sadie’s first person narration and West’s podcast segments as he follows her trail.

Sadie is a brutal story about the disasters left in the aftermath of loss and poverty. Despite the violence surrounding Mattie’s murder and Sadie’s own revenge quest, the prose never sensationalizes it. Through West, Summers makes a deliberate choice to never make Mattie into a plot point and never to appeal to the lowest common denominator by glamorizing violence.

Sadie is a calculating and singular narrator. Her shrewd narration contrasts sharply with dialog as she navigates the world with a severe stutter (a speech impediment that could have been fixed when Sadie was a child if her mother had bothered to pursue treatment). That contrast in particular highlights the way that Sadie explores poverty and privilege–particularly as West begins to unpack his own privilege in being able to initially dismiss Sadie’s disappearance as too common and not interesting enough for a podcast.

Nothing here is neat or simple–including Sadie herself. While the ending leaves readers with a lot of questions it also places the decision of how her story will unfold, back in her own hands–a freedom that was impossible to imagine at the beginning of the novel. Sadie is an incisive story about agency and feminism as well as an utterly engrossing thriller. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

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, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, 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, The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

The Wicked Deep: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Wicked Deep by Shea EarnshawTwo hundred years ago in the town of Sparrow three sisters were drowned as witches. Every year since then the Swan sisters have returned to Sparrow, claiming the bodies of unwitting local girls and using them to wreak their vengeance on the town by drowning boys foolish enough to fall under their sway.

Every Swan Season is the same, ending only when each sister has claimed a new victim.

Penny can see what others can’t including long buried secrets about the sisters and the Swan Season. But she knows that secret can only go so far against a curse. She is used to watching the Swan Season unfold with wary detachment, certain that this one will be  like all the others ending with death, suspicion, and grief.

Except this year there is a new outsider in town—a boy named Bo who refuses to believe the Swan sisters can pose any real danger to anyone, especially him. A boy that Penny is determined to protect. As the Swan Season unfolds Penny and Bo will work together to unravel the truth of the curse and the sisters. But as the Swan Season nears its end Penny realizes that the only way to save Bo might be by sacrificing herself in The Wicked Deep (2018) by Shea Earnshaw.

The Wicked Deep is Earnshaw’s debut novel.

The Wicked Deep is a tense bit of fantasy woven through with suspense as the novel builds toward the disastrous conclusion of the Swan Season. Penny’s first person narration is frank and often cynical with lyrical prose as she slowly searches for a way to break the curse and save Bo.

This story is filled with twists and surprises about both Penny and Bo. Unfortunately the story also flags in the second act as Penny and Bo repeatedly discuss what ending the curse might entail and how far they are willing to go if it means freeing the island from the sisters’ menace forever.

The Wicked Deep is an atmospheric story filled with witches, secrets, and a scorching romance with far-reaching consequences. Recommended for readers looking for a spooky book to read curled up by a fire and fans of Practical Magic especially.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

Genuine Fraud: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You stay away long enough, there doesn’t seem like much to go back for.”

Jule is strong.She is athletic. She is resilient.

Imogen is charming. She is wealthy. She is enchanting.

Together Jule and Imogen could be the perfect pair. Or maybe that was never the plan. Whatever Imogen might think, Jule knows that they need each other.

But Jule has everything under control because she is smart. Jule is the one who will save the day, not some great white hetero action hero. Jule knows that she is the center of her story and she’ll do anything to stay there in Genuine Fraud (2017) by E. Lockhart.

This inventive standalone thriller starts at the end. Jule is in Mexico. She’s on the run. And nothing turned out the way she had planned. From there the story unspools toward the beginning and the unlikely twist of fate that set Jule on this path and her collision course with Imogen.

Even knowing how it all ends, this homage to classic thrillers and Victorian novels packs in more than its share of twists and shocking reveals. Like Jule herself Genuine Fraud is shrewd, calculating, and electric.

Possible Pairings: Like Never and Always by Ann Aguirre, A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Bad Girls with Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

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

The Thief: A (Reread) Review

Gen can steal anything. As he is quick to tell  anyone who will listen. Or he could before he was arrested after successfully stealing Sounis’ royal seal (and unsuccessfully boasting about it).

Gen doesn’t know long he’s been in prison. Time is hard to measure based on circuits around his small cell. Certainly long enough to lose much of his strength and for sores from his shackles to begin to fester.

The achingly monotonous routine is broken when the king’s scholar, the magus, recruits Gen for a hunt of sorts. The magus knows the location of an ancient and valuable treasure that could change the balance of power between Sounis and Eddis in Sounis’ favor. The magus thinks Gen is the perfect tool to steal the object away. But like any good thief, Gen has secrets and plans of his own in The Thief (1996) by Megan Whalen Turner.

Find it on Bookshop.

It’s hard to talk about this series without talking about myself. Eugenides and these books have been part of my life for more than a decade now; they’re in my blood and they are part of why I see the world the way I do and who I am in ways that are not always easy to explain.

In 2000 my mother did freelance data entry for HarperCollins where she could bring home free books (for me) including a lot of the books that I now think of as formative to who I have become. One of those books was The Queen of Attolia. I read it on its own and years later when I started working in my local library, I discovered The Thief and realized that I had read the second book in a series.

The Thief received a Newbery Honor in 1997 and, along with the rest of Turner’s Queen’s Thief novels, has garnered a faithful following and classic status among fantasy readers. Turner creates a world inspired by visits to Greece as well as the culture and pantheon of gods found in Ancient Greece. Using these bones Turner then develops the world further with a unique language and naming conventions, geography, and technology over a wide span of history (including clocks, pens, and maps) leading to parallels to the technologically advanced ancient Byzantines.

The Thief introduces readers to Eugenides, a thief, in this first-person narration where Gen is ostensibly relating exactly what happened after his arrest in Sounis. It is only as the story progresses that it becomes obvious that Gen is keeping secrets not just from the magus but from readers as well.

As Gen, the magus, and his retinue begin their journey Turner’s skills as a writer shine. Evocative descriptions bring the land of Sounis (and later pieces of Attolia and Eddis) to life. Gen’s razor sharp observations and cutting language paint his companions in stark detail while also chronicling his journey with a perfect mix of humor and annoyance.

Eugenides is an ingenious and clever  thief, of course, but also unbelievably sympathetic and unique. His fierce intelligence, skills of deception, and keen grasp of the powers of language and presentation are all key aspects of his personality. They are also, because he guards his secrets so closely, things readers only begin to understand about Eugenides as The Thief nears its conclusion and it becomes obvious that Gen is always at least five steps ahead of everyone and always holding all of the cards.

The Thief presents a memorable cast of brilliant characters who will later populate the rest of Turner’s novels including royalty, spies, soldiers, and even gods. This story also lays groundwork for one of the most carefully plotted and intricate series I have ever read. Even seventeen years after I first read The Thief, even after re-reading it twice more, this novel manages to surprise and impress me with new details to discover and old memories to cherish.

If you enjoy The Thief, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings and Thick as Thieves.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Don’t You Trust Me?: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Don't You Trust Me? by Patrice KindlMorgan has known for a long time that she is different–cold, even. She is very good at mimicking and reading people. But she doesn’t care about anyone except herself.

When her parents decide to send Morgan away to a school for troubled teens even though she is obviously not troubled and knows exactly what she’s doing, Morgan knows it’s time to move on before her plans to attend a top-tier college, become a lawyer, and make lots of money are completely ruined.

Morgan’s one weak point has always been impulsiveness. When Morgan sees a sad sack girl sobbing hysterically at the airport over being separated from her boyfriend, Morgan doesn’t think twice before offering to switch places.

Suddenly Morgan is living across the country under an assumed name with her very well off “aunt” and “uncle.” And her overly trusting “cousin” Brooke. Morgan knows she has found a good thing here–something that can help her achieve that grand future she has planned. The only question is whether or not Morgan can keep such a complex con going indefinitely in Don’t You Trust Me? (2016) by Patrice Kindl.

While Morgan never calls herself a psychopath or sociopath during the course of the novel, it’s safe to say that she has Antisocial Personality Disorder and the related lack of empathy at the very least.

Kindl packs a lot into this slim novel where Morgan learns very quickly how to use her unique skills to get ahead. Morgan is a classic unreliable narrator as she leads her new “family,” friends, and readers on a wild ride through her months living a double life in an affluent Albany suburb.

Morgan’s first person narration is as humorous as it is heartless as she explains exactly how she changes identities and begins conning local charities and rich neighbors in her constant quest for money and security.

Unsurprisingly, not everything comes easily to Morgan as lies begin stacking up and secrets threaten to come out in Don’t You Trust Me? Short chapters and Morgan’s blunt narration make this book ideal for readers looking for a fast-paced story. Thriller fans looking for something a little different and readers who enjoy dark humor will also find a lot to recommend here.

Possible Pairings: Like Never and Always by Ann Aguirre, The Graces by Laure Eve, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Thieving Weasels by Billy Taylor, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

The Graces: A Review

The Graces by Laure EveEveryone says that the Graces are witches.

Thalia might dress the part with her spangly skirts and scarves, and Fenrin might bewitch all the girls in town with his good looks and charm. But Summer, the youngest Grace, is the only one willing to admit that she is exactly what everyone in town whispers.

Everyone wants to get close to the Graces. Everyone knows how much it must hurt to lose their interest. Because everyone, inevitably, loses the Graces’ interest.

River is new in town and desperate to attach herself to the Graces. She’s in love with Fenrin, like everyone, even though it’s a cliche. She hopes that seeing into their strange world might understand some of what’s been happening to her. But first River has to become one of the Graces. And she’s will to do whatever it takes to get their attention in The Graces (2016) by Laure Eve.

The Graces is Eve’s first novel and the start of a series.

Eve builds tension early with a narrator who remains nameless for the first part of the novel. Readers know that River arrived in town under a cloud, forced to move for reasons she will not divulge. River sees herself as different and other–just like the Graces themselves–and her narration is suitably calculating and cold.

While The Graces is atmospheric, the beginning remains slow with River carefully circling the Grace siblings as she tries to break into their orbit. The push and pull between what is true and what is not works well with the interplay between magic and reality throughout the novel.

Recommended for readers looking for a trippy book with twists reminiscent of Liar and readers who enjoy an unsympathetic main character–whether to root for them or to watch them fail.

Possible Pairings: The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Wink, Poppy, Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2016*