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, Texas. Ever since her 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: The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, 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

Bruja Born: A Review

*Bruja Born is the second book in Córdova’s Brooklyn Brujas trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Labyrinth Lost.*

cover art for Bruja Born by Zoraida CórdovaLula Mortiz has always been the healer, the beautiful one. That was before her younger sister Alex accidentally trapped Lula and all of her family in the underworld of Los Lagos, before maloscuros attacked Lula leaving her with scars across her cheek.

Sisterly bonds and everything Lula thought she knew about magic are tested as she struggles to move on the way the rest of her family has. When Lula is involved in a fatal bus crash she’s determined bring back her boyfriend, Maks, who has been the one stable thing in her life. But every bruja knows it’s impossible to beat Death–even with powerful magic on your side in Bruja Born (2018) by Zoraida Córdova.

Bruja Born is the second book in Córdova’s Brooklyn Brujas trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Labyrinth Lost.

This fantasy sequel picks up shortly after the events of Labyrinth Lost where readers meet the Mortiz family as Alex first tries to magic away her powers and then has to rescue her family from Los Lagos with her best friend (and now girlfriend) Rishi. This time around the story is narrated by Lula as she tries to cope with the aftermath of Los Lagos including the attack that has left her face scarred and the sudden return of her long-missing father.

Córdova blows the world of the Brooklyn Brujas series wide open as readers learn more about the Mortiz family and the Deos. Brooklyn Bruja also introduces the Knights of Lavant and the leaders of the Thorne Hill Alliance who manage all magical beings within the city. (The Thorne Hill Alliance made their first appearance in the author’s debut series The Vicious Deep.)

Excessive zombies and hunts for answers bring Lula and her sisters across Brooklyn in this plot-driven novel. Lula’s introspective narration shifts neatly to high action as the zombie outbreak heats up and Lula works to restore the balance between life and death.

A cliffhanger of an epilogue and questions surrounding youngest sister Rose and the family’s sometimes ally Nova will leave fans eager for the next volume. Bruja Born is a fast-paced story sure to appeal to fans of the first novel in particular and urban fantasy in general.

Possible Pairings: Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Nocturna by Maya Motayne, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Charmed (TV series)

*A more condensed version of this review was published in the May 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a Starred Review*

Beautiful Decay: A Review

Beautiful Decay by Sylvia LewisWhen Ellie Miller touches things–people, furniture, paper–they begin to rot. Her bare hands can leave trails of mold of spawn infectious bacteria. She doesn’t know why she has this condition or how to control it. All she knows is that she is dangerous and, as far as everyone is concerned, has an “immune disorder.” Right.

Compared to her anti-septic house and terrified parents, school could almost be considered a relief. At least it could if Ellie wasn’t simultaneously bullied and ostracized. Luckily, the Internet can keep Ellie’s secrets so she is able to have online friends like Mackenzie who loves her unconditionally. Although Mackenzie also doesn’t know the details of Ellie’s condition. No one does.

Except a new guy shows up at school and he does seem to know about Ellie. Instead of being afraid or dismissive, Nate acts like he wants to know her. Nate seems to recognize what she can do and maybe even know what how to control it, that is if Ellie can even stand to talk to him in Beautiful Decay (2013) by Sylvia Lewis.

Beautiful Decay is an interesting take on the world of necromancers and their rarer counterparts viviomancers.* There is definitely a lot more to both Nate and Ellie than raising the dead or hanging out with zombies.

A slow start only serves to underscore just how much action there is in the latter parts of the story as Ellie learns more about herself and begins to connect more with Nate and Mackenzie. Although the pacing is off–the story could easily have started fifty pages in and added somewhat more closure at the end–the plot is solid and fairly entertaining.

That said, descriptions of the decomposition left in Ellie’s wake is disgusting. Beautifully written but also very gross. While it was a turn off for me at times, it will likely be very appealing to readers who might otherwise shy away from a book that hints at romance (or has a female narrator). References to the Harry Potter fandom, recent Marvel movies and Tumblr might also draw readers in. These elements also have the potential to date the novel fairly quickly.

Beautiful Decay is a thoughtful, often clever novel that hints at more to come about Ellie, Mackenzie and Nate.

*According to this book anyway. I have no idea if viviomancers are a real thing. Although it would be cool if they turned up in other books.

Possible Pairings: The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Alchemy by Margaret Mahy, The Beautiful Between by Alyssa B. Sheinmel, Pivot Point by Kasie West

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher*

Team Human: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees BrennanMel Duan is nothing if not a realist. She appreciates that vampires are a part of her town’s heritage. She understands that living with vampires nearby is a  fact of life in New Whitby. She even admits that some people do actually choose, for reasons beyond all comprehension, to willingly become vampires and give up everything (like chocolate!) for the tedium of, well, forever. When forced to, Mel can even grudgingly accept that her best friend Cathy is fascinated by vampires.

None of that means that Mel has to actually like vampires.

It certainly doesn’t mean she has to watch quietly when a vampire tromps into her school and catches Cathy’s attention. It most definitely does not mean that Mel is going to let her best friend date a vampire (named Francis of all things) when it could prove lethal on so many levels.

The only problem is Mel seems to be the only one solidly avoiding Team Vampire. Worse, Mel has a lot more to worry about than just keeping Cathy and Francis apart. Mel is used to having a lot on her plate as a high-achieving, athletic senior trying to figure out her life, but even she is going to have a hard time thwarting this romance, investigating a disappearance, working with a curt vampire cop, and trying to understand a most unusual boy in Team Human (2012) by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan.

Team Human is the first book Larbalestier and Rees Brennan have co-written. It features one consistent narrative voice.

Given the title of the story, it’s no surprise that Mel is not a vampire fan. At. All. Mel is funny, and maybe a bit snarky, but as she expounds the many, many faults with vampires* she is often just mean–a hard quality to sell in any heroine but especially in a first-person narrator.

Mel’s personality flaws, such as they are, are only magnified by the structure of Team Human. The book follows a logical progression with action, banter, jokes, and of course vampires. At the same time, there is not a lot of plot. While Mel is often shocked during the story, readers will be harder to surprise with plot elements that are sometimes more transparent than mysterious.

But for most readers all of that will be irrelevant.

Team Human was written in secret by the authors after they began wondering what it would be like if their best friend was dating a vampire. Team Human was written as the antidote to every book where the heroine runs blindly into the arms of a bloodsucking fiend and not one friend stops her to ask if she has lost her mind. In other words Team Human was written for fun. To celebrate good friends. Though she might sometimes be misguided, Mel is always good to her friends–even when it might not seem that way to them (or her).

Team Human is very funny. Readers of Larbalestier or Rees Brennan’s solo books would expect nothing less. The story gracefully walks the fine line between gravity and levity with smoothly written jokes and touching moments.

While Mel’s view of vampires is narrow at the beginning of the story, her outlook expands along with the plot and the world of the book. Team Human is a fresh take on the old vampire conventions sure to appeal to anyone who prefers their vampires with a complement of sarcasm and comedy instead of bats and shadows. A must-read for anyone who is pro-vampire, Team Human will have just as much appeal to anyone who is anti-vampire.

*Such as being cold, not funny, unable to eat chocolate.

Possible Pairings: Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Drink, Slay, Love by Sarah Beth Durst, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters, Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, Zombies Vs. Unicorns by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier (eds.)

This is Not a Test: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

This is Not a Test by Courtney SummersIn an ideal world Sloane Price would have been dead long before the world ended. Lily would not have taken her sleeping pills with her when she left Sloane behind. Then Sloane could have spun out into oblivion long before the dead started walking.

But nothing about this world is ideal. Not anymore.

Instead of being able to fade away, Sloane is caught up with six other students who have sought refuge inside the local high school. Locked inside with shelter and supplies, Sloane can’t leave without putting others at risk. She can’t die when everyone around her is working so hard to live.

The world is over. There is nothing left. Still, with everything crumbling around her, Sloane might finally learn that some things are worth holding onto in This is Not a Test (2012) by Courtney Summers.

This is Not a Test is Summers’ fourth novel. It is also her first foray into what I’m going to call “less realistic” fiction as compared to her other works. I hesitate to call this fantasy, dystopian or science fiction. Despite the ravening zombie hoards it just doesn’t fit into those genres with a story so firmly grounded on Sloane’s personal journey and so little explanation for her bleak new world. At the same time, again because of the zombies, it is equally impossible to fit this book into realistic or contemporary fiction.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed with This is Not a Test as a zombie story at all. While the opening sequence is eerie and engaging, the actual zombie aspect of the book was thin on plot and explanation serving as a bleak backdrop and little else. Like many zombie stories, this novel stops short of examining what survival after the end of the world really looks like.

While some sequences were very cinematic and shockingly atmospheric, very little happens inThis is Not a Test. Summers chooses instead to focus on characters, some of whom are interesting and some of whom are simply not.* It was also frustrating to watch so many of the characters fall into the typical zombie story tropes–seen in countless other films and books–when there was so much potential to take the story in a totally new direction.**

Upon finishing This is Not a Test I was left wondering what I had really gone through with these characters.*** As a reader I seemed to be in the same place I was at the beginning by the time I finished. This is Not a Test is an interesting riff on some familiar post-apocalyptic themes. Sadly, it does not add anything new to the conversation.

*Sloane spends most of the novel dreaming about finally killing herself. Having a heroine who doesn’t want to be present in her own story is a hard sell as far as sympathetic characters go.

**SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER: I’m still not sure if it was an intentional nod to the movie trope but I was underwhelmed when Sloane and her love interest wound up being the characters to make it to the end of the novel.SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

 ***SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER: After the end of the novel, when Sloane seems to finally be understanding that life might be worth living while staring at a zombie through a car window, readers see a picture of a broken pane of glass covered with what I assume is blood. So we follow these characters through hell. Sloane is finally starting to care. Then they get eaten? Why take more than three hundred pages to get to that point? SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

Possible Pairings: Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel, Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King, Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, More Than This by Patrick Ness, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott

Author Interview: Lia Habel on Dearly, Departed

Lia Habel is the debut author of one of my favorite 2011 debuts. Dearly, Departed is a zombie steampunk romance with lots of action and adventure. It’s a lot of fun and has a really clever spin on quote a few things. Lia Habel is on the blog today to answer some questions about her exciting debut.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Lia Habel (LH): I really stumbled into publishing. I still feel like I have no right to be in it, at all – like I have no skill, very little talent, and a sort of “buh?” look on my face 80% of the time. (In fact, I think I come across as a little standoffish at events, but it’s only because I’m actually terrified!) I wrote the first draft of Dearly, Departed for fun, to amuse my friends and distract myself from a dark time in my life, and I can’t believe it’s gotten me this far.

Even as a child, I loved to write to entertain myself, and I was always skilled when it came to academic writing – English was my best subject, and the written word was always my area of strength. But for some reason, I never thought of translating my skill into publishing or writing. My inherent shyness might have something to do with it.

But, long story short – after writing Dearly, Departed as a joke (and I wrote the first draft in about 45 days, give or take), I was encouraged to see how far I could take it. I ended up with an agent a short time later, and a publishing deal a year after that.

MP: What was the inspiration for Dearly, Departed?

LH: I tend to think in terms of positive and negative inspiration for Dearly, Departed. On the positive side of things, I wanted to create a story that was more than a romance, a story that featured interesting teen characters, strong female characters, and a lot of action. On the negative side, I think I was actively rebelling against some of the trends that I’d seen as a reader – the brooding hero who’s so hot that the heroine is within his thrall within two pages of meeting him, the dull heroine who serves as an avatar for the reader, etc. And yet, most of all, I was just having fun. I threw in everything but the kitchen sink for that precise reason – I was writing for fun, no one was judging me, and I had no idea the whole thing would be published.

Furthermore, I just love monsters. Love ’em. I can’t imagine writing a story that doesn’t involve monsters of some sort – and I’m actually working on a few now. But I’m glad I started with the zombies, and was able to effectively convey my own feelings about that particular type of monster to readers.

MP: Dearly, Departed is the first book in a series.  Do you have a set arc for Nora and Bram’s story or know how many books will be in the series?

LH: I don’t know how many will be in the series – I’d like at least five or six. I don’t have an idea of the overall story arc – I prefer to wander when I create – but I do have a rough idea of where I want everyone to end up. It’s just a matter of getting them there!

MP: Dearly, Departed is narrated by five different characters all with their own parts of the larger story. How did you keep track of the different story threads and tie them all together? How did you decide which characters rated a narrator role?

LH: Instinctively. I hate to answer the question that way, but that’s how it worked! I knew I wanted to shift perspective, because I find staying in one character’s head extremely boring (and yet, I’m doing just that with a few side projects now, so go figure). Furthermore, the decision was based heavily on location usage, because I had all these different places to go and I needed “representatives” from each. So we got Nora/Bram at base, Pam in the city, Victor in the desert and a touch of Wolfe because I wanted to convey the experience of the “bad” guy.

That tradition is continuing into book two, where we have six narrators – Bram/Nora again, Pam again, Vespertine and Michael, and a new zombie girl.

MP: I’ve been describing this book as a “steampunk zombie romance” to people who want a quick summary. But steampunk is a many-splendored thing with lots of different varieties. How do you define steampunk? What does it mean to you?

LH: Exactly – I’ve often felt like I shouldn’t call myself steampunk, because I’m not “pure” steampunk. Then I started hanging out with more steampunks in real life, and realized I’d been thinking quite foolishly. Steampunk’s an incredibly diverse concept, and many people spin it their own way. And everyone else is okay with that!

To me, steampunk is any interesting intersection of Victorian aesthetics, mores, or history with technology. This is a pretty broad and workable definition, I think – it encompasses the steampunky aspects of actual Victorian history, reimagined-past narratives, Victorian-future narratives…there’s room for everybody.

MP: This book is set in 2195 in a world where the USA and most northern countries are uninhabitable and society has migrated south, in addition to adopting Victorian mores and ideals. How did you approach writing a story about such unique future? Did you start with a specific scene or place? Was a lot of research involved?

LH: It came to me on the fly. I decided that in order to get to where I needed to be, I needed complete social upheaval, on a global scale – so I basically decided to throw every disaster I’d ever read about at the planet, and figure out things from there. If any research was involved in the creation of the basic global situation, it was simply reading newspapers and watching bad History Channel documentaries!

I did a lot more research when it came to scientific aspects of the world – technology, prions, etc. Then I used a combination of actual scientific articles, science websites, emailing pathologists (which was awesome), and quizzing knowledgeable friends.

Yet, there are still holes in my knowledge – and some amusing ones, really. For instance, in book one I vaguely noted that Allister’s nature preserve was in “northern Nicaragua.” I literally pulled that out of thin air. In doing some mapping for book two, I found this empty area in northern Nicaragua that I couldn’t Google Map my way through. “What is this dead zone getting in the way of my chase scene?” I fumed.

It was a nature preserve. Right where I said it’d be. I swear I did not know that when I wrote book one.

MP: You mention your love of zombies and zombie movies in the acknowledgements of Dearly, Departed as well as on your website. Do you have a favorite zombie movie? Did any film play a role in shaping your vision of the zombies in your novel?

LH: Oh gosh, I have far too many. Fido, Zombieland, Day of the Dead, Dance of the Dead (the MOH episode)…I could go on. I love any zombie film where the zombies are treated either compassionately or as people of emotion and interest, not just enemies to be blown apart. I don’t think any particular film made it into the book in a large way, but there are tons of references sprinkled throughout – again, I started out writing the book for fun, and I think a lot of both tongue-in-cheek and overt references made it through editing. For instance, many street names are taken from pivotal zombie figures – George Street, Halperin Street. This trend is continuing in book two, and the other day I realized that in theory, these films did exist at one point in my universe, so if any copies have existed, maybe someone will come up with a wild conspiracy theory…

MP: Since your novel features zombies I am obligated to ask your opinion on the key debate of our time: Zombies vs. Unicorns. Thoughts?

LH: Hmm. I’m immediately reminded of the fact that my one zombie girl died a virgin, so I’m wondering how that interaction would go down. In truth, I think she’d squee and want to make the unicorn her pet, not eat it. The unicorn might have other ideas. (And with all the mythology and religious weight behind the idea of dying a virgin, who’s to say that a zombie virgin doesn’t ping a unicorn’s radar as, like, Das Uber Virgin? Why would the unicorn fight that?)

…I can’t believe I’m considering these concepts.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

LH: I’m working on the sequel now, Dearly, Beloved, and a few other unsolicited books. They involve monsters, that’s all I’m saying!

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

LH: Seriously – write what you love. Don’t stress over the industry, marketing, writing to trend, all the things I see everyone fretting about on their blogs every day in my feed – just write what you want to see, and don’t worry about everything else. At some point these concerns will become paramount, but before that you need to create – in fact, that’s your main job. I always cringe when I hear some important agent or editor saying things like, “Oh, nobody wants dystopian anymore, that’s SO over.” I can’t help but imagine an aspiring writer somewhere sighing and shelving their dystopian manuscript, convinced that it won’t sell – and that book was the most brilliant dystopian work since Brave New World.

Thanks again to Lia Habel for a great interview! You can also read my review of Dearly, Departed here on the blog and visit Lia’s website for more info about her and her other books.

Dearly, Departed: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Dearly, Departed by Lia HabelThe year is 2195. After being ravaged by war and harsh climate changes, humanity seems to have found some level of equilibrium in New Victoria. Desperate for a Golden Age to look back on at its founding, an ideal to strive for, New Victoria looked backward to the seemingly idealistic ways of Victorian society. And it is ideal, truly.

At least it is for most people. Nora Dearly should be happy with her position of mild importance in New Victorian society as daughter of prominent military doctor Victor Dearly. But she is more interested in politics and military history than she is in negotiating high society or being a proper lady. It all seems so pointless with her father dead and her finances in ruins thanks to an irresponsible aunt.

With so many problems, Nora gives the stranger with blind eyes outside her home little thought. That would prove to be a mistake.

Captain Bram Griswold never wanted to frighten Nora. He certainly didn’t want to kidnap her. He just wanted to ensure her safety. Unfortunately it is difficult to appear non-threatening when you are a corpse. Like the rest of Company Z, Bram is still in control of his faculties even if he is infected with the Lazarus virus. He can walk, he can talk, he can reason. He is even relatively intact compared to some of his friends.

One day, as it always does, the virus will win. Bram will lose control and instead of working with the humans, he will want nothing more than to eat them.

Until that day, Bram will do what he has to do. He will keep Nora Dearly safe. He will fight the deranged zombies that are beyond help. He will ignore the feelings he is starting to develop for Nora because no good can ever come from that.  As he keeps telling himself over and over.

But then Nora starts to trust him. And everything Bram thought he knew about the Lazarus virus and New Victoria is thrown into doubt. With the whole world changing maybe a human girl and zombie boy really can be together–for a little while at least in Dearly, Departed (2011) by Lia Habel.

Dearly, Departed is Habel’s first novel. It is also the first book in the uniquely named “Gone with the Respiration” series.

Steampunk has been gaining lots of steam recently as a relatively new addition to the wide and wonderful world of Young Adult books. Like many other successful steampunk books, Habel puts her own singular spin on a newly imagined Victorian society with not only a post-apocalyptic world of the future but also a zombie apocalypse. Oh and a completely impossible, incredibly star-crossed romance.

Basically, the appeal of this book can be captured in three words: Zombie Steampunk Romance.

As those words suggest, Dearly, Departed has a lot going on but it all works. Habel blends inter-connected story lines while managing to create a coherent, layered story with multiple unique narrators in a sleek, exciting story full of action and pathos.

Dearly, Departed stands out as a clever, funny spin on both zombie and steampunk conventions with a top-notch heroine and a zombie hero with a heart of gold.

Possible Pairings: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Soulless Gail Carriger, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters, Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

You can also read my exclusive interview with Lia Habel!

Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Dearly, Departed